A warped currency today governs popular culture. Instead of creativity, talent and boldness, those who succeed are often those who can best demonstrate outrage, grievance and victimhood.
Even conservatives are buying into it. Witness, in the days since Breitbart executive chairman Stephen K. Bannon was announced as Donald Trump’s campaign manager, how establishment stooges have bought into the worst smear-tactics of the left. As with the left, nothing is evaluated on its quality, or whether it’s factually accurate, thought-provoking or even amusing: only whether it can be deemed sexist, racist or homophobic.
Campuses are where the illness takes its most severe form. Students running for safe spaces at the slightest hint of a challenge to their coddled worldview. Faculties and administrations desperately trying to sabotage visits from conservative speakers (often me!) to avoid the inevitable complaints from tearful lefty students.
In this maelstrom of grievance, there is one group boldly swimming against the tide: trolls.
Trolling has become a byword for everything the left disagrees with, particularly if it’s boisterous, mischievous and provocative. Even straightforward political disagreement, not intended to provoke, 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. And in a society of grievance, monitored by a media governed by outrage, they are enjoying something of a heyday.
Trolls are experts at finding soft targets. In the first half of the 2010s, they correctly identified feminists as the most easily-offended group of people on the planet. Feminists also identified them as an excellent target for spurious allegations of “online harassment,” and thus a means of attracting sympathy.
For years, trolls and feminists enjoyed a kind of symbiotic relationship – the former triggering the latter, who would then collect Patreon donations and hand-wringing newspaper columns from sympathetic liberals.
A small minority of the smarter, more opportunistic feminists probably knew what was going on, even as they used it to their advantage. Of course, the 4chan kids making rape jokes and patriarchy stories weren’t really misogynists. Unlike the more extreme parts of the manosphere, their tone clearly wasn’t serious enough for that. Others, of course, took the trolls seriously. This is the essence of trolling: keeping everyone else guessing as to whether you’re really serious.
Therein lies the key to beating them, as well. Ben Garrison, probably the most trolled man in internet history, will no doubt tell you that his life improved immeasurably when he stopped trying to fight the trolls (who had by then convinced multiple media outlets that he was a mass-murdering Neo Nazi street warrior) and instead learned to laugh at himself. Trolls lose interest when their targets stop taking themselves so seriously.
More recently, it’s been the right that’s fallen foul of the trolls. With grey-haired establishment types already enraged by the rise of Donald Trump, trolls spied an opportunity to bait an entirely new constituency of easily-offended blowhards. Like the feminists, only a small minority realised they were being trolled.
Establishment centrists of the left and right responded beautifully to the bait, publishing long National Review-style analyses of the supposed anti-semitic symbolism of Pepe the Frog and Asuka from the anime Neon Genesis Evangelion. For the web’s wind-up merchants, the 2016 election cycle has been a high point in culture, restoring interest in politics to the millennial generation
However, I believe there’s one environment where trolls have yet to fully penetrate, and where they could make all the difference: the university campus.
This is the epicenter of the feelings-focused, danger-phobic, coddling culture described by Jonathan Haidt and Greg Lukianoff in their viral Atlantic essay. This is where the disease starts, adopts its most virulent form, and then spreads itself out, diluted, to the rest of society. This is the place where the doctrine of political correctness is freshest, and also where its adherents are at their most fragile. This, more than anywhere else, is where we need to see frog memes.
So trolls, my message to you today is: once the election is over, get off your laptops and head down to your local campus. Some of you are probably students already, skiving off your assignments by browsing 4chan. Use your creativity — don’t trigger people a million miles away. Trigger people right where you are, and find other people who want to do the same.
Think tanks and commentators wonder how the coddling culture on campus can possibly be reversed. You can show them the answer. In a world where journalists lie to and about you all day every day to be politically correct, and in which telling the truth is a revolutionary act, it’s only trolls who, thanks to their thick skins and their contempt for social norms, are able to drop bombs.