activism, social justice

Trolling is a Privilege

Trolling is a privilege.

Recently, I was debating on a friend’s Facebook page about the minimum wage. The argument came about become someone claimed that fast food workers striking for $15 an hour was inappropriate as long as EMTs made that much. Of course, everyone with half a brain replied, “Then pay everyone better”. I began to point out that, in fact, if wages had tracked productivity since the 1970s, even fast food workers likely would be making $15.

The issue turned, as it often does, to discussing gender and race. After all, given that women on average make seventy-six cents on the dollar compared to men (an issue we’ll return to) and that people of color have seen their income gaps vis-à-vis whites increase since the recession, the minimum wage issue is one that is directly relevant to the lives of a lot of women and people of color.

As it turned that direction, one participant in the discussion, who had up until that point basically said “Yes, the system is completely unfair, but stop whining about it” asked, “Where is my white privilege?”

This is after this participant’s brother had pointed out that he had lived with their parents. I pointed out that that is an option that not everyone has, but that even fewer people of color are likely to have the option of taking in their children and supporting them than whites on average.

He said, effectively, “I was having fun trolling, but now it got serious”.

That is when it got serious?

When his family got involved?

This is why I say trolling is a privilege.

Anyone who discusses gender, race and inequality online, of course, gets trolls: People who say something to the effect of, “How can a woman be earning seventy-six cents on the dollar in the kitchen?!” or what not.

Of course, a lot of this trolling is just racist and sexist intimidation. It’s people lashing out, hoping that they can just be nasty enough to get the people saying things they don’t like to go away.

But then, routinely, they’ll start getting mad, and dropping the pretense that they’re trolling, when you call them out directly. They start to get stung when you bring them, or their family, into it.

And I’ve noticed that most of this trolling is done by white males.

Men have the privilege of pretending that the seventy-six cent wage gap between men and women is an intellectual game. They’re not the ones who see their paychecks stay low, who work hard in a profession that matters and yet don’t make as much money as their male counterparts.

They have the privilege of pretending that anyone complaining about that wage gap is just some feminist who’s stirring up trouble for no good reason.

I was in high school debate, specifically policy debate. I didn’t do that well in it. I won some trophies, did well in some tournaments, but I never had it in me to argue that nuclear war would be a good thing because it would shock the world.

I never felt that it was acceptable to give false witness to my real beliefs.

I never felt that it was acceptable to treat war and death like it was a game.

In high school debate, it is wholly common for someone to propose that maybe we should give victims of sexual trauma rape counseling and for someone else to argue, with feigned sincerity, that doing so will risk nuclear war. After all, what’s worse than nuclear war? The idea that maybe we shouldn’t live on a planet where people wake up screaming with nightmares every night, that maybe we should try to do something about our neighbors against all fear and against all odds, is a risky argument. Better to claim that, for some convoluted reason, rape counseling would prevent nuclear war and indeed would be the only thing to do so!

Online debates routinely fall to this level, or way, way below it. Sure, people have different opinions, and these are tough issues where people can get angry. But it is that idea that it’s somehow in the zip code of appropriate behavior to show up to a debate about rape or a debate about inequality and just have a little fun that is especially repellent.

The people who “troll” about sexual assault statistics and rape culture, or gender gaps, or wage inequality… They are treating poverty, starvation, and the systematic denial of people’s dreams as a game.

Sometimes, we who fight for social justice are to blame. We use words like “opportunity”.

An “opportunity” to go to T.G.I. Friday’s and try the new Slammin’ Salmon special is not the same as an “opportunity” to be paid a fair wage, or to be able to work hard to earn employment at one’s dream job without having to prove that one is, against all contrary appearances being a woman, competent at her job.

“Opportunities” are dreams.

When we talk about the “glass ceiling”, we are talking about millions of female attorneys, activists, politicians, Professors and other professionals who have every reason to believe that they will never be able to achieve the highest ranks in their profession, or will have to work five times as hard as anyone else to.

When we talk about how welfare programs are being cut or limited (like the ongoing attempts to require yet more intrusive drug testing on top of the other demeaning and dehumanizing aspects of trying to get welfare), we are talking about single mothers who are dreaming of being able to feed their children three square meals a day and may not be able to achieve that dream.

The privilege to treat poverty, discrimination, or sexual assault like it’s some intellectual game is one that some of us have.

It’s the privilege of blindness. It’s the ability to know no victims who were abducted while they were jogging and held captive by sadists, no single mothers struggling with drug problems because of an abusive ex that she’s managed to clear herself from. It’s the ability to be distant from specific kinds of suffering, and to therefore be able to somehow pretend that other people online must just be making a fuss about something, as if it were just some new social media trending topic like Kim and Kanye’s wedding.

This blindness, callousness and arrogance about the circumstances of other peoples’ lives extends beyond the troll.

See, I recently responded to an Internet satirist who wrote an article about how the twenty-four cent wage gap between women and men is mythical. After all, women work in different professions, and have different levels of experience, right? I replied with the point that routinely seems to fly over the heads of people defending inequalities like this: That whether we’re talking about the “mommy track”, or the amount of experience that women have in a given field, or the kind of jobs women choose, those factors aren’t independent of sexism either.

His defenders came out in droves. A lot trolled. But then there were those who tried to make arguments.

One person said that a woman who is being sexually harassed had a right to leave that company.

He couldn’t be bothered to say that sexual harassment is evil and that the people who sexually harass others, male or female, should stop. He couldn’t be bothered to say that management should fire those people.

This lack of empathy, of course, went along with an absolute lack of concern for the ultimate impact of his position. Because, see, if women have to keep leaving workforces because men keep treating them like pigs, then their resumes are going to keep having apparently unexplained gaps, and they will not be building their skills. So sexual harassment would indeed help explain why women struggle in the workforce.

But it’s not the minutiae of these arguments that matter.

It’s the fact that so many people decided to come to a debate like this, with real implications, and speak when they had no real experience in the issue.

They would offer ideas like, “Discrimination can’t happen in a free market”, not realizing that the ability to say that and not suffer the consequences if one happens to be wrong is itself a privilege. Maybe a true free market would be the best thing for women and minorities. But if, as all the evidence seems to indicate, it just wouldn’t be and would worsen inequalities instead of rectifying them, the people who commonly offer this argument usually won’t be the people who will suffer as a result.

And when real women would tell this collection of misogynists, men’s rights activists and angry people, “I had to leave my profession because I kept facing barriers to advancement and I had to make a realistic career choice” or “I keep being demeaned every day because people think that I’m not capable”, they couldn’t be bothered even apologizing for the fact that that had happened, or expressing any sympathy.

A valid response would be, “Look, I don’t know about your specific case, and I’m sorry that that happened to you, if it did (because I can’t trust you entirely since I don’t know you). But I’m not saying discrimination never happens, I’m saying that it’s not as widespread as is often claimed and isn’t the reason why women make less”. That would be a fine claim. I would of course disagree with the claim and argue that in fact sexism and discrimination do explain all of the wage gap between men and women, and in a just society there would not be such inequalities, but at least this would be acknowledging others’ experiences.

But, see, men can truly think they know better about women’s experiences than women do. They can keep thinking that against all the evidence, no matter how many studies are cited against them, no matter how carefully women explain otherwise. And they can think so to such a degree that, when a woman says something about her own experiences that they disagree with the broader implications of, they think it’s okay to treat the whole debate as a game, so irrational she must obviously be.

Trolling is a privilege.

Arguing is a privilege.

Debate is a privilege.

One of the most insightful things I’ve heard recently was from someone replying to a men’s rights advocate, who pointed out (to paraphrase), “If you feel like have to debate intellectually or try to ‘raise points’ against a woman who has been assaulted, for real, don’t. Shut up. Listen”.

All of us have to realize that these issues actually matter, for real human beings. They are not math exercises, or abstract political science debates out of a textbook. A person who comes along and says, “I can’t feed my family because I can’t get a job” should be treated with the respect that is appropriate for someone who has the courage to say something like that in public, admit that kind of weakness and express that kind of problem.

As a white male, I recognize that sometimes my duty is to listen and sometimes it is to speak. But it’s always to have empathy, always to treat these important issues like there’s gravitas.

We don’t have to be humorless when talking about real issues. We can insert some levity and humor. But it is not thin-skinned to demand that people who want to speak about these issues say something defensible. Demanding that a post about a new study regarding the glass ceiling not be filled with jokes about women in the kitchen is not to be joyless.

It’s to take as a maxim that people matter.


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