One of the most common practices on the Internet, ranking somewhere between sharing cat videos and griping about minutiae on Facebook, is to dismiss people who share repellent, shocking, or just plain controversial opinions as “trolls.” People have somehow convinced themselves that sincere opinions and attention-seeking behavior are mutually exclusive. (See a discussion of this from Slate’s Farhad Manjoo, who is reasonably sick of the term being applied to people who aren’t even trying to be offensive, even if their opinions are controversial.) Indeed, the online assumption that attention-seekers are disingenuous by nature has grown to the point where people actually will self-identify as trolls to avoid having to own the bigoted, nasty things they’ve said.
But I would like to offer an alternative theory: There is no such thing as this Platonic ideal of a “troll.” The number of people who are saying things they don’t actually believe just to get attention is so small as to be statistically insignificant. It is perfectly possible, and in fact true in most cases, that the person we feel is trolling both wants attention and believes the controversial thing she is saying.
To illustrate this point, I bring to you the case of an offline troll named Dean Saxton, a self-appointed minister and a student at the University of Arizona. Dean, who preaches in the traditional soapbox style on campus, recently offered a sermon on how women deserve to be raped as punishment for not following his exacting standards regarding proper dress and behavior for ladies. “If you dress like a whore, act like a whore, you’re probably going to get raped,” he explained, carrying a sign that says “You deserve rape.”
I’d argue Dean’s case demonstrates that you can simultaneously believe odious things and get off on the negative attention you receive by voicing said beliefs (especially if, by your own tweeted admission, you don’t have a lot of other outlets for getting off). As BuzzFeed reports, Dean also tweeted this favorite shirt of his, and appears to be grossly racist. (I’m sure the Jesus he claims to speak for would absolutely adore that about him.) What I don’t see is any evidence that he is anything other than sincere.
I’d like to offer a revised theory of trolling: Mean-spirited people who run around saying bigoted things in an obvious bid for attention aren’t just doing it for the lulz. They really mean those horrible things. A lot of trolls are aggrieved white men who, angry that their unearned privileges are under attack, are going to lash out at the people they see taking them away. They may not be able to restore themselves to the former glory of the Mad Men era, but making people feel bad will serve as their revenge.