OPINION | BRENDA LOOPER: Role of the troll

Brenda Looper

It's hard sometimes to understand the people who are perpetually ticked off by ... well, let's be honest ... anything that doesn't fit their worldview and/or might make someone else happy.

When your entire personality is built around attacking other people, you shouldn't be surprised when others attack back or completely ignore you because they don't want to deal with your vitriol.

I mean, if you look at something innocuous and you feel compelled to cause trouble because you're maybe a little bored, perhaps the problem is you, not someone or something else.

Probably every columnist has trolls/persistent critics. Sometimes those critics just fire off endless emails. Sometimes they're the ones who spend the bulk of their time squatting in newspaper comments sections, presumably because they have nothing better to do and think that the privilege of abusing writers is part of the purchase price of their subscription.

I'll be clear here, as I have been many times before to no avail: An Internet troll is, according to Merriam-Webster and countless other sources, someone who aims to antagonize others online by deliberately posting inflammatory, irrelevant, or offensive comments or other disruptive content. That may be someone cutting and pasting articles from elsewhere in the comments on something that is at best only tangentially related, or someone who just alights on the boards to intentionally misinterpret what someone has written and/or redefine terms to suit their argument because they want to get the best of the "progs" or the "Rethuglicans." It's not to advance discussion; it's to stop it by pointing a laser pointer at the wall.

Joel Stein wrote in "How trolls are ruining the Internet: Why we're losing the Internet to the culture of hate," published in August 2016 in Time magazine: "Trolls are turning social media and comment boards into a giant locker room in a teen movie, with towel-snapping racial epithets and misogyny."

I dunno; "Porky's" might have been more refined.

My colleague Gwen Faulkenberry, who has had similar issues with trolls, had some wise words in her column Sunday about someone redefining terms to loop in legitimate criticism under the banner of "name-calling," which she said is "somewhat problematic in that it means different things to different people. I take it literally. My parents taught me never to call people names. They were public school teachers, and 'no name-calling' is a basic school rule since for teachers' kids, school and home are the places you live, physically and intellectually; it all runs together."

That was the same way I was raised. Calling someone a name, disparaging them rather than their argument, meant you didn't really have an argument (still does, by the way). None of us are perfect, though.

"Humans mess up even when we try to live according to our ideals," Gwen wrote. "But to us, disagreement with an idea, even disparagement of it, is not name-calling. Labeling teachers 'indoctrinators' and 'groomers' is name-calling. Putting people into a 'basket of deplorables' is name-calling. So is saying a candidate is a 'baby-killer,' 'demon-rat,' 'pawn of Satan,' or 'libtard.'...

"What is not name-calling, at least by my definition, is to say with much sadness that MAGA Republicans have fallen down a rabbit hole, and we may never get them back. It is likewise not name-calling to say that the national Democratic Party leans too far left for most Arkansans."

It shouldn't need to be said that calling out bad behavior, regardless of party, is not name-calling; what is name-calling, according to Merriam-Webster, is "the use of offensive names especially to win an argument or to induce rejection or condemnation (as of a person or project) without objective consideration of the facts." Calling someone a pedophile or groomer simply because you don't agree with them is name-calling; it's also a redefinition of the terms, but that's another column.

As Gwen wrote Sunday, "I do not believe name-calling makes Arkansas or anywhere else a kinder, gentler place, but if we hope ever to forge a kinder, gentler state, we must recognize abnormal conduct and designate it as such. We cannot lump in extremist behavior with reasonable differences of opinion."

I couldn't say it any better than that.

Doug Szenher of Little Rock thankfully is not one of the chronically unhappy people of whom I speak. When I ran a guest column of his last week, I included in the tagline at the end that he was director of public affairs when he retired from the Arkansas Department of Environmental Quality.

Not quite. I had grabbed that job title off the Internet, but it was a description that he said made him "sound a lot more puffed-up and important" than he really was at the agency, where he started as an information officer in 1977. His job title and description changed many times over the years, but he's pretty sure "director" was not among them.

He didn't want a formal correction, but I thought it important to clarify the matter. And thank you, Doug, for your kindness in bringing it to my attention.

Assistant Editor Brenda Looper is editor of the Voices page. Email her at blooper@adgnewsroom.com. Read her blog at blooper0223.wordpress.com.