The truism "don't feed the trolls" has become ingrained for anyone who writes on the internet and/or has the audacity to tweet anything that could rouse the slumbering beasts who seem to exist solely to harass and antagonize women in particular. This mantra means that you do not engage when someone tweets something at you that is, roughly speaking, equivalent to "fuck off, you fucking cunt, you are a moron who never should have been born."
And so I was intrigued to learn that Seattle-based writer Lindy West — current Guardian columnist and former writer for Jezebel, where she often came under attack by the site's commenters and on Twitter for, among other things, her stances on being fat and rape culture in comedy, but could also rank Hercules butts with the best of them — is of the opinion that trolls can, in fact, be engaged with, and that engaging does not equal "giving them what they want," because who the hell knows what they want, and why should we care?
What we should care about, she argues persuasively in her new essay collection, Shrill: Notes From a Loud Woman, is our own well-being: "From where I'm sitting, if I respond, I'm a sucker for taking the bait. If I don't respond, I'm a punching bag... So I talked back. I talked back because my mental health — not some troll's personal satisfaction — is my priority." The talking back, in this particular case, was to a troll who had created a Twitter account mocking her from the perspective of her dead father, and the interactions she has with this troll will likely change your view on trolls forever. (West also read a version of this story on This American Life.)
The 19 essays in Shrill (some of which have been published in slightly different form in The Guardian, Jezebel, and The Stranger) cover topics that will be familiar to West's readers, including fat-shaming, rape culture, falling in love, death, periods, and trolling — but in aggregate, they seem to sum up the gamut of what it means to be a woman in 2016, and especially a woman who writes on the internet. They left me alternating between thinking, YES TO ALL OF THIS, tearing up, and laughing hysterically.
I spoke to West, who is 34, by phone earlier this month about trolling, the dangers of rejecting public shaming, commenters, and more.
You talk about this in your book, but I'm curious where you see things right now regarding the responsibility of platforms when it comes to trolling.
Lindy West: A lot of the stuff that's going on internally at companies like Twitter and Facebook is so opaque. I don't know what they're working on. But it feels like we have at least gotten the attention of people who are in charge of the back end of those websites, and hopefully they'll figure something out. I do know that once people have figured out a way to exploit and abuse a system, it's really hard to retrofit that to make it safe for users without just tearing it to the ground and starting over. I'm more interested in changing the culture around trolling and making it clear that it's not a consequence-free hobby, which is why I respond to trolls so frequently and engage with them and make fun of them. I don't want it to be something that they can pour out into the world and not get anything back. It's really important to make it known that this behavior affects real people and real people aren't just going to sit and absorb it forever.
You're challenging the notion that you shouldn't feed the trolls, that you can actually engage with and respond to trolls. That to me feels like an almost revolutionary idea, especially for women who are taught to block and not engage.
LW: It's not a mandate. I would never tell people they're obligated to engage with these people. I pick and choose, and if I'm feeling up to it and I have a good burn. Or sometimes it's the opposite, I'll just ask questions like, "Are you OK? What is wrong with your life?" Sometimes that works on people, which is weird. Just blocking and ignoring never felt satisfying to me. It just felt so passive and it felt unfair that we were supposed to not talk about this thing that is just pervasive in our professional lives. And the justification was like, if you give them attention then they'll keep doing it. Well, they're not stopping anyway! They're going to hate me no matter what I do. So either I have this sort of unsatisfying, wet-blanket, powerless feeling, or I take control of the conversation. And I'm a professional writer. I'm better at writing than them. It's really easy to win an argument with an internet troll if you're good with language and you're smart. I started doing it and I don't know that it made a difference either way, but it was at least privileging my feelings over the troll's feelings. Why should I not do this because it might make some dude happy? I don't care if he's happy or not happy. I care about myself and my mental health. And something always sat wrong with me about hundreds of people screaming at me trying to make me go away, trying to drive me out of my job and silence me. Silence never felt like the right response to that.
Do you think things are getting better? Do you think we've regressed?
LW: It's tough because I'm tired of working on this. It's also gotten to the point where I'm very, very inured to it. It's very rare that something actually gets through to me, which makes it harder for me to engage with the same urgency as I used to. That sounds selfish and I don't mean it like that — I'm very, very concerned, especially about all of the women who might never even start writing because the climate is notoriously terrible. I'm really interested in the way that women have started to create their own spaces, like private Facebook groups where they can share information. They're building solidarity and communicating with each other. Or sites like The Establishment, where they're just not having comments — or where comments are really heavily moderated by women looking out for the safety of their readers and their writers. Just, like, build these spaces where we control how this works from the beginning, rather than trying to retroactively fix a cure. Which is what's going on at Twitter.
LW: Totally. Obviously some interesting things have come out of comment sections, but is it a net gain? If we look at, in aggregate, all of the comments that have ever been left on every article on every website... I can't imagine that it was really worth it.
LW: I think he is smart and I like him and he's a talented writer and thinker, but I have a lot of problems with his book, So You've Been Publicly Shamed, and especially the way that book is used as a tool. It's a big problem to conflate people who are shamed who are on the less powerful side of the power dynamic and powerful people being shamed for contributing to oppression. To put both of these things in the same book as though they're the same, and critique them with such a broad brush is really troubling to me and gives a lot of ammunition to people who would like marginalized people to stop complaining. Sometimes I think these pile-ons are really intense and people get carried away. But taken in aggregate, I don't think it's the end of the world if someone gets fired for saying something racist. I don't. And I say that knowing I could fuck up and be on the receiving end of one of those things, and I move through my career very conscious of that possibility. But it's also not as much of a trap as they make it out to be. If you make one of these huge fuck-ups, and people start screaming at you, and you say, "Oh my god, I am so sorry and I'm making this donation to this organization that does this work and I am so sorry," then people go away. Because it's not actually a game. It's actually people's lives and people trying to advocate for themselves. What we're talking about are marginalized people advocating for themselves for the first time, people who finally have a platform where they can actually be heard.
It reminds me of the rhetoric right now around bullying — this idea that anyone can be bullied.
LW: It's the same conversation we're having about political correctness and coddled co-eds. To me it's all the same, and it's the same people trying to obfuscate the same issues. Trying to pretend that black students not wanting the school that they pay for an education to pay a racist to come speak there is the same as the faculty shutting down an anti-racist protest. They're like, "It's a slippery slope — if you stop letting racists make speeches for money on your campus then free speech is destroyed," and it's not. It's of course not. And it's the same kind of overblown hysteria, for lack of a better word, that I see in this conversation around public shaming and Twitter mobs, and I think that the people who are disseminating those ideas, some of them are sincere and some of them are deeply disingenuous.
What have you gotten the most positive responses to in your writing?
LW: Definitely the most personal thing is hearing from young, fat women. I've heard some women say, "I was suicidal until I found your writing and I just never heard these ideas articulated before — that I'm not garbage and that I deserve to exist." That's the most intense email I've gotten for sure. There's just such powerful, pervasive messaging that fat people are worthless.
In your book, you write about the ways in which Gawker Media — which owns Jezebel, and where I was an editor — seemed to privilege commenters over writers.
LW: It undermines one of the fundamental jobs of an editor, which is to support your writers and to protect your writers. If you're saying that this is a two-way conversation, then how can the writers feel like they have faith in you as an editor and that you're going to have their back? It ruins that relationship a little bit.
In August 2014, Jezebel published a post called "We Have A Rape Gif Problem And Gawker Media Won't Do Anything About It."
LW: It wasn't the first time we'd complained about it; we'd been complaining about it for months. But that was right when I was leaving — I wasn't involved in writing the post. Sometimes stuff happened in the office that I just wasn't privy to because I was so far away. But I also wasn't a very good Gawker Media employee. I didn't go in the comments as much as I was supposed to. We were supposed to go engage with at least one person on each post and I just never did it. I was like, you know what, I'm not gonna do this and let's see what happens. Are you gonna fire me for not talking to these horrible people who hate me?
It feels like you're part of this bigger conversation about how it's not up to women to lean in, it's about the system changing.
LW: A couple years ago I moderated a panel on gender diversity in advertising, and these creative directors were talking about how they just got so many applications from men, and what are they gonna do if a man's application is better? Should they hire a less qualified woman? They went on and on — like what could women do to make their applications better and find other women to hire. One of the panelists got so frustrated. She was like, why is it women's responsibility to fix the system that victimizes women? Why should that responsibility be on us? I've been thinking about this lately in terms of trolling. Why should fixing internet trolling be women's responsibility? Like, hey, men, why don't you fucking fix it? You're the people screaming at me all day. Come get your people and fix it.
The way you end your book — calling on people to build a better world — is inspiring. What should people take from that? How should they go forth and try to start changing things?
LW: The question is so big — how do you fix everything? I don't know, but I think starting to set really concrete boundaries and not entertaining the notion that we have to debate certain things over and over after we've tried justifying them to people who don't want to hear it a million times. That's one of the things that feels the most important in my job, when I have the chance to say, "Nope, not doing this again. I understand that you don't understand, and I don't care. You're just wrong."
This interview has been condensed and edited.