Or, how to recognise trolls, snark, and bat crazy sociopaths on the Internet.
The motivation for this subject, trolls, snark and internet abuse, issues from an unsolicited insult on Twitter from someone calling herself ‘History Woman’, aka, Jill Stephenson. She claims to be an academic, yet the language she uses is gutter-male. “These fuckers from south of the border …” an example. Referring to the Referendum vote she said, “We have saved Scotland”. ‘We’ is a classic hallmark of the self-aggrandising spokesperson, an allusion to an in-house, all-knowing, clique. Her language is filled with street colloquialisms, “nutters”, “yeah”, “you don’t get it”, and the fashionable symbol of irony “erm.” Confronting her, I half-expected a sarcastic ‘he-llo?’, followed by ‘get real!’ Instead she accused me of hiding behind a pseudonym and that was that. (I choose to whom I offer my name.) Apparently she has form, attracting scorn for describing a female SNP MP as ‘a slut’. She refused to apologise. She has stated she’d like Holyrood Parliament shut down.
Trolling for beginners
Instant opinion can be a killer, especially when designed to defame. No academic I know with any integrity and common sense resorts to Twitter for learned discourse. Despite knowing academics whose tongue can scarify tar from a road, they would not endanger their reputation with the language of Stephenson, not in a public forum. Happily for Edinburgh University, she left their employment some time ago.
Twitter is useless for developing intellectual ideas. It’s good for relaying brief, instant messages. Twitter is full of banter, what we used to call ribaldry. Now and then you’ll see a good epigram, or advice on this or that, but mostly bad grammar.
Twitter is a magnet for trolls. A lot of trolls are narcissists. They are easy to spot. They never answer a direct question nor defer to erudition. When accused of making banal assertion they attack the other person’s intelligence, and if a good point is made, run it down with sarcasm and jeering. If a debater refuses to lower their standards and leaves the fray, the troll will accuse him or her of running away from the argument. A troll is always right even when wrong. A troll is aggressive, the equivalent of the car driver who turns homicidal if overtaken.
The opposite end of Billy Goat Troll is the sociopath. The internet has unlocked a fire door allowing in every sociopath with a jerrycan and a box of matches. Some are women. They’re ready to tell the world their personal situation is the result of everybody’s stupidity, not their inadequacy- and we must all pay! Sociologists tell us we’d be surprised at how many sociopaths are walking the streets.
They are identified by an inability to learn from experience, show no moral principle, a lack of remorse, a remoteness, pathologically egocentric, an inability to show empathy or praise, overall, poor social behaviour, simply put – a total bastard or bitch.
Trolls suffer from excruciating envy, battered pride, delusions of grandeur, holding ambition way beyond ability. Their self-perception is skewed and dented. They’re outsiders who want to displace insiders. The worst will do their best to dox your identity. (Doxing/Dox: a corruption of documents.) The verb means to search for, and publish on the Internet, facts about a particular individual, and to do it with malicious intent.
Snark and its meaning
Though trolls infest every social site, familiarity has lessened their impact. We have learned how to handle their abuse. You can block them from your site. But trolling has been overtaken by snark. Everybody loves being sarcastic and cynical.
Snark comes from Lewis Carroll’s poem, ‘The Hunting of the Snark‘, subtitled, ‘An Agony In Eight Fits.’ (Fits: Victorian for the Italian ‘canto’: in divisions.) In it, the Snark is removed from existence, vanquished. The snarker hopes to achieve the same end for their intended victim. But the hunt never ends. It is an obsession.
Serious snark differs from trolls in that the person using it aims to assassinate another person’s character or reputation, holding on like grim death to make innuendo and fabrication stick. The intention is to have the public think there is no smoke without fire. The reputation of the unblemished, whiter-than-white, terribly perfect Mary Poppins wouldn’t stand a chance against today’s snark designed to defame.
Mediocrity and conformity
Snark functions as an enforcer of mediocrity. It imposes conformity. The unwary, the inexperienced can be unnerved by the ferocity of attacks and knuckle-down. Indeed, there are recorded instances where a young person targeted has taken their life rather than be thought of as worthless and a laughing stock.
This isn’t tough cynicism we are talking about, or incisiveness. It’s fatuous sarcasm and flat out cruelty. It is sadism by internet. The malice behind snark is always palpable.
In the USA it’s an internet crime to denigrate by snark if the victim can prove their reputation is harmed. Constructive harassment is a felony.
Snark and satire
Satire is derived from the Latin satura lanx – a dish of fruits, a medley. Satire is critical of manners, vices, social conventions, and social types. Satire is the craft of practicing irony. When describing Donald Trump as a prophylactic in a toupee (my phrase) I suggest his opinions and demeanour are no way a businessman should behave.
The late comedian Lenny Bruce is regarded as the originator of snark, but snark as satire that eviscerates. Our own Frankie Boyle has taken it to lengths Bruce would never have dreamed of, razor sharp one-liners. Bruce’s style was more description and narration. It got him harassed by his targets and arrested by the police. Charlie Brooker, a social commentator and script writer, has made a career in snark. When the Greeks and Trojans met on the battlefield they got stuck into each other with verbal insults and abuse. It could last for days until they got bored or goaded to the point of fury and battle.
I like political satire, the kind hell bent on knocking lumps out of vainglorious politicians of little brain and massive ego. Stephen Colbert is one of the best, an American satirist, now with his own late night television show. He was invited to make a speech at a Whitehouse dinner when Bush Junior was president.
“Reality is a well known liberal bias … I stand by this man. I stand by this man because he stands on things. Things like aircraft carriers, and rubble, and recently flooded city squares. And that sends a strong message, that no matter what happens to America, she will always rebound – with the most powerful staged photo opportunities in the world.”
Snark as epigram
Savage insult designed to expose contradictions is a good thing, hence there is a degree of snark that is justified. It crosses a fine line into wit.
Mid-twentieth century acerbic novelists such as Evelyn Waugh made their name with a kind of Oxbridge snark, and always following fashion when safe to do so. Private Eye magazine follows that tradition.
The BBC’s version of snark
When the BBC caved into the political pressure and scrapped its pioneering political punch show That Was The Week That Was, (TWTWTW – TW3), a cornucopia of satirical sketches on political issues of the day, we lost a chunk of the democratic spirit. A late night Saturday show, it attracted millions of viewers, and a lot of outrage from Colonel Blimps. It made the reputation of its cast, namely front man David Frost.
Television’s version of Private Eye, the guest show Have I Got News For You, (HIGNFY) is a weak substitute. It has less satire than meets the ear. Magazine and show share the same public school editor, Ian Hyslop, hence the whiff of a ruling class mentality. If you don’t listen carefully you will miss the right-wing disdain on which the show thrives.
The show is after laughs more than insight. It exploits ethnic stereotypes, reinterprets press photographs, roast guests, and indulges in surreal animal humour mainly coined by the affable Paul Merton. However, it has said some truly ignorant and stupid things about Scotland’s political ambitions and history by relying on ethnic jokes about Scots.
Snark as cattle prod
Snark is used to prick radical chic. The people it’s aiming at are the elite. JK Rowling is one, playwright Harold Pinter another. Born in Hackney, his plays and film scripts made him a well-heeled socialist, rising from humble origins to a distinguished literary career and a Nobel Prize. Private Eye called him a ‘champagne socialist’. That’s snark.
Snark is endemic. Most of it on Twitter is low grade stuff. The game played is ‘throw some mud, see what sticks’. By its very nature, snark is philistine. It will not defer to the artistically or intellectually ambitious for it is always on the lookout for pomposity. It loathes money and success.
“It is an extreme rudeness to tax any man in public with an untruth”, said Queen Elizabeth’s squeeze and tobacco merchant, Sir Walter Raleigh. “But all that’s rude should not be met with death.” He had a point. Nobody should die over slander, then again, they should not have their career or good name blighted.
On the literary side, our newspapers indulge in snark every day, rumour, gossip, slyly constructed articles implying one thing when there is no such evidence to justify it.
Kings of snark
On a loftier plain, Gore Vidal was a master of high snark. He could be savagely honest. “When a friend succeeds, something in me dies”, he once said, ruefully. Having gotten into a verbal and then physical fight with Norman Mailer, a far less able essayist, Mailer, a writer known for his excessive drinking habits and misogyny, slugged Vidal one on the jaw. As Vidal arose off the floor he said, “Words fail you, again, Norman.”
This Vidal anecdote reminds me… conjecture is not a fact, opinion is not a fact, but the worst snarker thinks they are. Snark can range from a false knowingness expressed by a nonentity, to memorable wit penned by a great writer. George Orwell’s essay on English mores and patriotism, ‘My Country Right or Left’ is pure elevated snark.
And finally, anonymity
Personally speaking, I’d rather we use our real names on the Internet; stand by our opinion and be prepared to defend it. On the other hand, if I lived under an authoritarian regime, one that suppressed dissent, I’d be relieved not to use my real name lest the knock in the night came to my door. (In my case it did.) Scotland is a colony. If you use your own name to challenge authority – be prepared to get smeared.
Opponents of truth are using the internet to spread doubt and fear, and assassinate. Snark without limit presented as personal opinion is corrosive. It narrows the debate and diverts us from the important core issues.
Summary: what of ‘History Woman’?
As for the motivation for this hypothesis, ‘History Woman’, she’s definitely a hellishly dogged conformist. She’s bitter and that’s unhealthy. Worse, she debases the democratic process, intent on stopping it in its tracks.
If she continues along that route she knows she’s cutting a path to her own extinction.
Then again, by expressing my opinion of her you might determine I’m guilty of snark.