In 2014 I had a troll who wouldn’t leave me alone. He wrote hundreds of words about me without having ever met me. This troll painted a distorted picture of who I was, while hiding behind the safe anonymity of a non-descript picture and made-up name. He responded to my writing with outrage, and people responded to his tweets about me with outrage.
While he stoked the fires of social-media bedlam, I decided to unpack the shit situation I was placed in. I wanted to know who this anonymous man was, why he seemed to hate black people, and why he thought he could tell my story.
Perhaps it was naïve of me, but I wanted to know why he was so angry, and intent on engaging in a politics of anger. When he wrote about me without knowing me, he invited my curiosity and I then desperately wanted to know more about him.
Behind his provocative language and his anger, there was a man who seemed to live in rural South Africa. He was married, and he had a family. Could that article I saw about a farm attack have been about his family?
Beneath the shit and the vitriol, there was an angry man with angry politics. The troll’s target (me, in this case) wasn’t important. The behaviour was merely a distraction, perhaps even for him, and I didn’t realise it at the time. The outrage, the endless online madness and fighting, and the angry politics meant nothing — it merely served to distract us from the unspoken issues.
I have no sympathy for problematic outrage or trolling. Nor do I take comfort in knowing that people might behave badly because of the issues they aren’t dealing with. It isn’t an excuse but perhaps it provides insight into the way we are engaging in the Age of 140 Characters.
It’s becoming more common for us to engage in a politics of anger online. We see something that makes us angry, and we respond in kind. We are outraged, and we keep refreshing twitter, waiting for a notification. Mindlessly we wait for our phones to light up, maybe others will share in our outrage? We might even have to fight with some ignorant fool to prove our point. We will type up staccato responses, and so it goes on.
Tomorrow we might be on the other end of this cycle, and then we’ll swim against the tide. It’s ceaseless, and often senseless.
Debate is inherently good, but where engagement (and activism) is nothing more than vitriol, we are left with no good reason to continue in our deliberation and activism. More importantly, the shit that seeps into our everyday interactions does a good job of covering up the real issues, the real things that trigger our anger and upset. It also does a good job of getting a lot of us talking, and very few of us looking deeper into ourselves — reflecting meaningfully, not moralistically or angrily.
When students at the University of Cape Town threw faeces over the statue of Cecil John Rhodes, there was outrage. My life online became an endless re-telling of what did and didn’t happen last week in the Cape Town sun. Everybody had a say, and so many people responded in a kind of moralistic outrage.
I’ll be honest, I’m not too keen on anyone throwing human waste anywhere. At first I was disgusted. But I wasn’t there, and neither were any of you.
Beneath much of the horrible discourse — peppered with white privilege, black nationalism, and at least a good helping of misunderstanding and ignorance — is a real issue. The trolls can heap up as much vitriol as they want, and we can sip as much of our outrage tea as we’d like — the statue remains.
Beneath the shit is a real issue.
It doesn’t matter whether you think the method of protest was problematic, the issues remain. A failure to engage meaningfully, using our time and our energy, creates a useful distraction. Instead of writing short, snippy comments online, we should think and exercise more than outrage. Maybe we can then begin to deal with what remains underneath the human waste and vitriol.
When my troll couldn’t handle his own issues he practised a convenient politics of anger to distract from the real issues, and so many of us are doing it with this Rhodes statue story too. Examining our motivations and internal values can be painful, but it’s the first step towards truly owning who we are, and perhaps engaging in a way that isn’t merely built on prejudice and hatred.