Community and the Things Trolls Kill

If you aren’t overly concerned about relationships, there is a good chance you could be a troll.

The word ‘troll’ is used on the Internet to describe a person “who posts a deliberately provocative message with the intention of causing maximum disruption and argument.” If you’ve never seen a troll in action, find a provocative topic on a popular blog or news site and work your way down to the comments section. In and among the people seeking to engage in genuine conversation are the trolls who poke, prod, and bully others, quickly stifling the possibility of any real dialogue.

In the religious world, trolls come in all shapes, sizes, and theological perspectives. Researchers at the University of Manitoba released a study late in 2013 showing that internet trolls bear strong correlations to sadists, or as Slate puts it, they really are horrible people.” These are the people who are quick to judge and carefree in their naming of heretics worthy of the flames of hell.

Such trolls have no real interest in conversation. The principles normal people might bring to interaction, like logic and a basic respect for another person’s opinion, are a sign of weakness to trolls. You are unlikely to find a troll apologizing as they don’t care about the feelings of others. When someone engages them on some theological issue, imagining that they are having a conversation, they will work to frustrate and provoke as trolls feed off of negative energy.

Trolls aren’t into ‘relationships.’

"It's a trap!" via Flickr user Stéfan
It’s a trap!” via Flickr user Stéfan

When a troll’s opinion isn’t accepted; a small sociopathic twist can quickly convert them from aggressor into victim. If you are a compassionate person, it is easy to suddenly feel as if you have done something wrong as the rules of the conversation suddenly change. But as Admiral Ackbar is prone to say, “It’s a trap!” Don’t fall for it.

Discerning a troll from someone who simply disagrees can be a difficult task. In the religious world, people’s tendency to conflate personal belief with spiritual truth complicates matters even more. On a secular blog, you might expect to encounter a person with strong opinions – some being trolls and some simply being passionate people. But on a religious blog, those opinions quickly become God’s opinions as simplistic arguments are shoved into God’s mouth, chapter and verse.

Part of the challenge in identifying trolls is that we’ve all been one, or at least exhibited troll-like behavior, at some point. There are times when our personal frustration with something causes us to ignore our better angels. We forget that getting ugly leaves little room for God’s transformation of the other. The difference between trolls and the rest of us is that they ate their better angels for breakfast.

Robust conversations can get a little heated even amongst well-intentioned people. When discerning whether you are dealing with a troll, you might consider a preferential option for those you disagree with. The stronger our opinions are about something, the easier it is for us to disregard the other and write them off as unreasonable. But if a person doesn’t respond positively to a private, polite, request to tone down their behavior, that’s a good sign that you’re dealing with a troll.

If you discern that you are dealing with an actual troll, your best option is to take away their privilege to participate in the conversations you hope to nurture. Good dialogue, even when it gets a little heated, can help us to appreciate the viewpoints of others and see the world differently. Trolls are a barrier to the development of such conversations. Setting clear guidelines, and enforcing them in a nonpartisan way, does for a conversation what weeding and watering do for a garden.

Lots of people have simply given up on conversations online. It is understandable. No one needs the frustration trolls bring, particularly when it’s optional.

But the sad fact is that we encounter trolls off-line as well. Some of these same trolls attend our churches and they wreak havoc, particularly in those communities that like to avoid conflict. In such places, trolls can bully other members, and even the pastor, with their opinions and preferences. Lacking the anonymity of the Internet, they may be less aggressive in person, but church trolls still lack real concern for the health of the community and the relationships that embody the Spirit within them.

Fortunately for us, trolls are only capable of using the forums that we give them. And even better, we believe in a God who values relationship with us, wrong-headed as we can be, to the point of the cross.

The Gospel requires us to approach the task of discerning trolls with great seriousness and even a preferential option for those who truly seek to offer an alternative take. But our Kin(g)dom work also demands that we create space, in a variety of arenas, for real conversation.

And that, dear friends, requires that we weed, instead of feed, the trolls among us.

Questions to Consider

  • Have you encountered an internet/church troll? How long did it take you to realize that they weren’t really interested in conversation?
  • Have you ever been a troll? What have you done to recover the importance of relationships as you discuss difficult topics?
  • What are you doing to protect the online, or offline, communities you are responsible for from the negative impact of trolls?
  • What can we do to ensure that our public witness isn’t one of a troll-like God?

Credits:Gamorrean Vs. Ewok” by Flickr user Stéfan. An earlier version of this post appeared on the PNW News Blog.

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