This week, I was mildly harassed by white supremacist trolls on my Twitter account, who attacked my looks (following a tweet of my profile picture with a “clever” gif of someone gouging out his eyes), my supposed lack of intellect (“brainless”), and the fact I write this column with zero qualifications to speak on “good men” (ya got me there; eh). I usually ignore trolls, because I don’t consider them worth my time, but something about this time, I’ll admit, hurt and embarrassed me.
Way to swing low, trolls. Predictably, the guys who trolled don’t even show their real faces, preferring to hide with cowardice behind a computer screen, slinging insults at me that aren’t even applicable.
It’s interesting this comes up, because I’ve recently read a book about bullying, watched documentaries about teens who were bullied to the point they were driven to suicide, and listened with interest to a radio interview with a director who talked extensively about how he was trolled on Twitter. Funny enough, the trolls threw punches hard and fast at him, then disappeared, moving on to the next target. Obviously, trolls delight in causing harm, being vicious in what amounts to empty posturing.
The dynamic of bullying is an interesting one. After I vented to friends about the trolling, a couple of them recommended this episode of This American Life, which made me think about the bullying from another perspective. In the segment, author Lindy West recounts her dialogue with a troll who impersonated her dead father. They talk over the phone on the air as he relates how his “passionless life” drove him to send hateful, hurtful messages and tweets to Lindy and others on the Internet.
It makes sense most trolls might gain a sense of power from bullying others, which, when I think about it, is really just sad. How powerless do you have to feel to deliberately seek out people to harm?
In reading Lindy West’s “Shrill,” where she talks a lot about being trolled after criticizing stand-up comedy for rape jokes, I began to see a pattern. People who hadn’t been personally affected by the topics at hand said she was overreacting, while people who had been silenced by these jokes reached out to her to thank her for speaking up. It’s no surprise those who said, “It’s just a joke,” were part of privileged groups who had the luxury of ignoring the suffering of others.
At its core, I think bullying is about power. It’s about people believing they can feel more powerful and secure by taking someone else’s power. This would suggest that personal power is a commodity, or that it can be bought or stolen. I’ve learned to see power in a different way.
Physicist Claude Poncelet wrote a wonderful essay about the purpose of power. He states that power is not an end in itself, but a means to an end. We need to be powerful, not to simply wield our strength to intimidate those “beneath” us, but to take action in the world to create the life of our greatest dreams.
It’s my belief that we are all born with inherent worth, which we quickly cease to see. We are told to give up, to suppress, to give away our power practically from infancy. The society we live in is structured with a built-in hierarchy. Certain voices matter more and have more clout than others, and those “other” voices are told constantly to stay silent, or else. People troll and bully, in part, to uphold this hierarchy.
However, in doing so, they set in motion a vicious cycle that gets us nowhere.
Our inherent strengths are built in, and all there for a purpose. When people focus on taking power from others, they neglect their own inherent gifts. This is a distraction that ultimately leaves everyone damaged. I’ve had to learn all this the hard way, by continually uncovering my own personal strength and reclaiming my unique voice. This column is actually part of that path to remembering who I was before I was told who I should be.
So, typically, when I see trolls out and about, I assume they haven’t cultivated—or maybe haven’t even acknowledged— their own gifts. True to our social structure, they have been taught to look outside themselves somewhere for a sense of power, and are obliging. In doing so, they are so distracted by looking everywhere else for fulfillment that they ignore the internal gifts they were born with. When acknowledged and embraced, these gifts can guide people in the direction of feeling purposeful and useful, which in turn, can lead to a life full of passion and security.
I won’t pretend I’ve reached that point myself, but I will say I’m not living as “passionless” a life as I did before. It takes time to walk toward fulfillment.
As I’ve become more and more comfortable walking that path, I’ve let go of a lot that used to bother me. I’m no longer full of jealousy for people I think are better or happier than I am, but instead am more able to see their path as distinctly different from mine. I’ve been able to start seeing myself reflected in other people, even people I don’t like. I acknowledge their own humanity through making peace with mine, so it’s no surprise that Lindy West sees those trolls as people.
She’s right. They are. I wish them well. I hope someday, we will all be a little closer to embracing our full humanity, to find our own sense of power and inner peace, because when we do, I believe we will also be able to see the humanity of others. And isn’t that what social change initiatives are all about?
I won’t stop writing. It’s one of my gifts. I sincerely hope all the trolls out there uncover theirs.