Breitbart columnist Milo Yiannopoulos is perhaps the most famous troll in the world right now, in large part because he was banned from Twitter last month and because the head of Breitbart News is now the CEO of Donald Trump’s presidential campaign. This, of course, makes it all the more disappointing that Yiannopoulos repeatedly flaked on me when I tried to interview him for this article. (He did, however, participate in a video shoot for Salon and Out magazine featuring my colleague Amanda Marcotte, which produced memorable results you can watch below.)
If we’d had a chance to talk, I would have told Yiannopoulos that I believe 2016 has proved to be the Year of the Troll and asked him how he views his role in this unique moment of American and world history. Indeed, assuming that the term “troll” is defined as someone who deliberately uses inflammatory and offensive language to create controversy (which will be the working definition used for this article), I’d even go so far as to say that trolls are healthy for politics in general and the political left in particular, albeit unintentionally so and often at a real cost to innocent people.
First, though, a primer on the type of political troll we’ve encountered this election season. Although there have been trolls for as long as the Internet itself has existed, 2016 has been something of a heyday for a very specific use of trolling to make political statements. “Trolling has become a byword for everything the left disagrees with, particularly if it’s boisterous, mischievous and provocative,” Yiannopoulos explained in a column titled “Trolls Will Save the World” in August.
“Even straightforward political disagreement, not intended to provoke,” he wrote, “is sometimes described as ‘trolling’ by leftists who can’t tell the difference between someone who doesn’t believe as they do and an ‘abuser’ or ‘harasser.’ A real troll, of course, does aim to provoke. They do aim to cause mild rage. They aim to prank, to goad, to wind people up. Their opinions are designed to be outrageous.”
If this sounds like an apt description of Donald Trump’s presidential campaign, that isn’t a coincidence. Like Trump, online trolls seem to generate attention and support less by having a coherent ideology than by repeatedly flouting the taboos of polite political discourse. In early-21st century America, that quite often means being brazenly racist or sexist, whether that entails embracing white supremacist ideology or simply working in concert with the unashamed bigots.
For Trump’s presidential campaign, this has mainly taken the form of comments that have been widely regarded as offensive to Mexicans, Muslims and women. For online trolls, it has involved everything from harassing women who work in the video-game industry to targeting the actresses who starred in “Ghostbusters” with explicitly racist and sexist language. Either way, the collectively anti-feminist, anti-PC and anti-antiracist ideals that bind these trolls together (in practice if not in overt philosophy) have been branded with the term “alt-right,” which is relatively useful as far as nomenclature goes.
Make no mistake about it: Alt-right trolling is a highly toxic trend. As of 2014, nearly three-quarters of internet users had either witnessed or directly experienced online harassment, with women being the most likely to experience it in its most severe forms. I’ve personally been subjected to quite a bit of anti-Semitic trolling whenever I write articles critical of Trump for his alt-right sensibilities.
While many of us who are targeted by these trolls are able to laugh them off or simply ignore them, others find it more difficult to do so. Indeed, when the trolling stops being simply mean and evolves into outright harassment, the targets shouldn’t have to learn to simply let it go.
At the same time, these alt-right trolls perform two valuable services for the left.
First, they force us to examine our own weaknesses when it comes to respecting the basic rights and freedoms of those who disagree with us. Yiannopoulos demonstrated this when he embarked on a speaking tour of college campuses last year, one that led to frequent incidents when he was shouted down, de-platformed and even physically bullied by progressive students who opposed his views.
Because some campus leftists support suppressing opinions they personally dislike, the actions of these protesters perfectly illustrate the point any professional provocateur wants to make: Their enemies’ lack of respect for dissenting opinions is precisely the reason why they need to be exposed to them. Not only can this serve to shake progressives out of the intellectual complacency that comes from hearing only amenable views; it also presents us with an important test regarding our willingness to behave honorably toward those whose opinions offend us. Whenever we try to silence them, we fail that test; whenever we respond by encouraging debate and reasoned argument, we rise to the challenge.
Just as important, trolls reinforce why we have established certain boundaries in the first place. Take the reports that Trump’s anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant rhetoric has caused an increase of bigoted bullying among children. While this doesn’t mean that Trump should be censored, it illustrates why the claims that he’s simply “telling it like it is” ring so hollow.
Adults may be able to delude themselves into thinking that accusing Mexico of sending rapists into this country or supporting an outright ban on Muslim immigration aren’t inherently hateful actions. Children see right through that baloney and reflect in a more pure form the prejudices being promoted all around them. While Trump, Yiannopoulos and individuals like them may denounce criticisms of their language as “politically correct,” it’s impossible to touch the raw nerves of racism and sexism without eventually causing real-world harm. It is valuable to have people out there who remind us of that.
Trust me, I’m not writing any of this out of affection or respect for Yiannopoulos. His flakiness about being interviewed — both our scheduled phone calls were arranged days in advance and then cancelled by his representative less than an hour before they were supposed to happen — was at best unprofessional and at worst deliberately insulting. That said, even as the left justifiably opposes the right-wing values he espouses, we ought to acknowledge that the act of trolling for which he has become notorious is not without its social function. In an ideal world there would be no prejudice and bullying at all. Barring that, we’re better off having provocateurs who regularly challenge us to live up to our principles.