The other day I wrote about a malicious “hacker” that uses his technical knowledge just to get a rise out of people. These aspects of human behavior intrigue me, so I decided to write a blog post about it on my programming blog. Most of those who read the post simply agreed, but a fair amount of them expressed that they felt I had thrown more fuel on the fire and I should have left the guy alone.
They aren’t completely wrong, but there is a problem with this reasoning in the context it was being used. It’s a bit like recycling; if everyone started recycling tomorrow then the world would be a much better place the day after, but therein lies the problem…..everyone, or at least the majority of people, must participate or it doesn’t change much. The same applies to internet trolls. The only way ignoring them would be successful is if the majority of people ignored them, and that simply isn’t going to happen anytime soon.
I’m an atheist, obviously. Most of the time engaging with religious people on the problems caused by religion is a bad idea. It’s not usually appropriate and it puts them on the defense, which compels them to hold their position even stronger out of pure pride rather than engage in a professional discussion. However, I use my own blog to discuss those issues; here it is both appropriate as well as has the benefit of educating a lot of potential onlookers. Many, if not most of the people who come here, do so to argue and disagree with me. I think a hard and fast rule that I should never engage with those people is narrow-minded and naive, despite the fact that many of them just want attention.
What many people forget about are the lurkers. People see an argument between two people on the internet and their first thought is what a waste of time it is. There is a time and place to discuss ANYTHING, and I do mean anything. Nothing is exempt from criticism, and just because the one specific person I used as an example is being “fed” as it were, doesn’t bother me. Sure, maybe the guy in my post really did get the attention he wanted, but he was and still is being used himself as a controversial catalyst for traffic to my own site. He’s being used as a springboard to discuss the behavior he and others like him exhibit, and what mindsets may lead to such behavior. One troll is being used as an educational tool for the readers who aren’t tools themselves. Seems like a fair trade to me.
I think telling others that a topic is completely off limits because someone might feel some illegitimate pride is just fear mongering. It creates a nice tidy little vacuum for those people to continue trolling in with no social repercussions whatsoever. You definitely have to consider every controversial discussion on a case by case basis and pick your battles, but there is surely a time and place to discuss even the underbelly of the internet.
The reason I bring up internet trolls is because I see a huge parallel between the way we treat internet trolls and the way some would have us treat religion. I get really tired of hearing the complacent objections whenever someone tries to speak up about an issue, no matter how small. There’s a line on that slippery slope somewhere. Somewhere between ignoring a forum troll so they shut up quicker, and letting someone burn a witch because they wanted the attention and engaging them will give it to them. I don’t know that we’ll ever come to a black and white conclusion on that, but it’s not reasonable to travel to either end of that slope. Things are almost never that black and white.