[My favorite troll in the world, drawn by James Marshall from the book Troll Country]

To be clear, this is on how to respond to trolling, not a master class on how to be a troll.

I’m getting trolled again. I’m literally interrupting writing another post–draft saved–to write this because I can’t get my mind to stop chewing on it. So here are some thoughts on trolling. Primarily I’m referring to when people we know do this, not strangers who appear to enjoy attacking others.

If you find that participating in social media negatively impacts your emotional, physical, or spiritual health, I’m going to recommend you make a change. I have also long held that we need to remain open to dialogue, especially with those with whom we disagree. I still believe this.

However, “dialogue” is none of the following: being heckled, gaslighted, or called names.

I do not have friends in real life who pop in or call me on the phone, criticize me or my beliefs in one sentence or less, and then take off again or hang up without saying more. Certainly I don’t have friends for whom that is our sole form of interaction.

At the risk of stating the obvious, I’m not looking for friends like that.

I have had acquaintances, most often (for some reason) at church, who seem bent on making rude, snide, or critical comments when they see me. I have chosen, in many cases, to keep engaging, extend grace, and return kindness for rudeness. Full disclosure, in a few cases, I’ve just tried really hard to avoid the person. But as I look back at these relationships, I’d say with most of them I have seen change in the person with whom I tried to turn the other cheek. Returning kindness for rudeness will not always change the other person, but it will always impact my heart. When I lay down my “right” to avenge myself and make myself vulnerable, which creates space for God to work…God works. Especially in me.

I believe in this kind of radical, Jesus-following love. People have impacted me most by loving me when I least deserved it. I’m profoundly grateful for those friends–and my wife!–who have shown God’s love to me when I knew bloody well I had something else coming. Grace catches us most powerfully when we recognize it as grace.

And that may take time. Just because we act like jerks doesn’t mean that we know we’re acting like jerks; we are endlessly creative at rationalizing and justifying our jerky behavior.

I try to follow these same principles for loving others on social media. I try to return kindness for rudeness. I try to remain silent or offer civil discussion in return for snark or attack, explicit or implicit. But I’ve realized that this doesn’t seem to have the same impact in virtual space. When someone can type a quick attack, hit “post,” and move right on, forgetting me half a second later, my returning gentleness has no influence. If I stay silent, they may not think of me or the interaction again, or they conclude they got the last word and therefore “won.” If I try to engage politely, often they double down their attack in response. At times I have tried to engage with direct messages, and I think this has the most hope of impact–we’re not having this impersonal, drive-by-and-fling-words-at-each-other spat.

My overarching goal in life is to embrace and extend God’s shalom. I’m learning to love God and love my neighbor as myself. “Learning” is the operative word here. I’m trying to help people believe that they are beloved and that God’s grace for us is greater than our brokenness and sin. I’m always three steps forward, two steps back in living this belief for myself. I’m trying to join in seeking justice and reconciliation.

I’m painfully aware that I live all this inconsistently. I talk about grace so much because I know how much I need grace merely to live through today– grace both from Jesus and from you.

I consider all of life a dialogue and a dialogue within relationship. In certain ways, social media promote this and are perfectly suited to my personality. But social media also may be disintegrating relationship and even community.

So that’s a concern.

Back to people drastically reducing or quitting social media altogether. I have many friends who have done this. I respect and support their decisions. I’ve seriously considered doing so myself. Trolling makes this decision very appealing. I’m still hoping to have a positive, shalom presence in the virtual world–which, let’s acknowledge, is part of our real world since it impacts real people directly.

I’m hopeful. Generally speaking. That doesn’t always come easily; sometimes I have to fight for it. I like the opportunity to reach and encourage people. I mean you. I like the opportunity to exhort and challenge people. I mean you again. Thank you for the opportunity. You’re choosing. Thanks for your choice. Thanks for the mutual encouragement and support. Thank you, those who disagree with me respectfully, who can model dialogue from different perspectives that doesn’t involve personal attack, rudeness, or belittling others.

Trolling, like racism and manipulation, is in the eye of the beholder. I’m certain some of the people trolling me would be shocked and indignant to hear that I consider their behavior “trolling.” So, because this is a dialogue (you know, like all of life!), and in case it helps some of you with your boundary setting, I want to give not a definition of trolling nor an exhaustive list of possible trolling behaviors, but trolling that people might not recognize as such. All of these are real life examples. If you call me a snowflake for making this list, well…hope I don’t have to explain.

If you comment on my posts and ideas exclusively to disagree and let me know I’m wrong, you are trolling.

If you make dismissive, one-sentence comments on more than one or two posts, you are trolling.

If you use one of my posts to go off on a tirade about all that you think is wrong with how “those” people believe and act (a loosely-veiled description of me), you are trolling.

If you express your opinion as absolute fact, repeatedly, as a means of correcting me, you are trolling.

If I call you on it and you explain to me how I don’t understand or know what I’m talking about, then you are trolling and gaslighting. Congratulations on the two-fer.

Now, because I’m a positive guy who believes in building up, here are some things I don’t consider trolling:

Disagreement, per se.

Occasionally or even regularly disagreeing with me, even when you do it briefly and a bit abruptly, in the context of lots of interactions with my thoughts, ideas, and hilarious humor (much leeway if you’ve laughed at my jokes. Ever.).

Disagreeing with me expressed as your opinion, preferably substantiated with why you hold that opinion. NOTE: I may disagree with your source(s) with which you substantiate your argument, but at least we’re trying! I appreciate the effort.

Any effort to identify what you appreciate, agree with, or affirm, to balance the points with which you disagree. If you and I are on opposite ends of the political spectrum, and you can find nothing in any of my views or posts to affirm (which is not infrequently biblical Scripture by itself or pictures of baseball players or nature), then you should be posting your views for yourself, not correcting mine, because that’s not ever going to be dialogue. But I try to be generous-hearted and I give points for even minimal effort.

I have a handful of people who like–or feel compelled–to disagree with me frequently, but they take pains to present their views as their own, communicate respectfully and even with a smidge of humility, and look for other things about which we can agree. Are they a pain in my heinie? Yes, at times they certainly are. But this is not trolling, it is dialogue, and remember, I’m the beholder here. I particularly appreciate when people are conscientious to differentiate between disagreement and accusation. “I” statements come in great handy for this.

I suspect some people feel obligated to correct me because I’m doing my Jesus-following wrong. In their opinion, of course, but that position is not regarded as “opinion”…of course. On the flip side, I’ve also had numerous people–including some of you–ask how I can put up with the: patronizing, disrespect, talking down, demeaning, scorn, arrogance…let’s see, did I forget anything? I’m pretty sure those are all direct quotes.

I’m very flawed in my judgment but I’m learning to set healthier boundaries. There are some people I have decided I need to block. I felt sad about each one, even as I felt relief. When I started trying to have a voice on social media, I decided to interact with anyone who asked and who I thought I could benefit. It took a while for me to accept I could continue to pray for a person but not continue to accept their abuse. I’m going to say this a third time because it’s that important: the beholder gets to decide when “dialogue” has crossed into “abuse.” And the beholder–okay, let’s say “I”–might be wrong, or overreact, or be oversensitive. That’s life. We’re agents of grace, not perfection.

I do not believe we should cut everyone out of our lives whom we find draining or challenging or difficult to love. That perspective of “only allow people in your life who build you up, make you laugh, and give you chocolate” is very appealing…but it’s not the Gospel. Jesus calls us to love difficult people who require much grace from us. Somehow we learn to do this while also learning to maintain our health and sanity.

Choosing when to cut off contact with someone abusive is a topic that needs a blog post–or book–of its own. But I will say this, as general counsel: cut off contact with someone who is abusing you. Allowing someone to hurt you knowingly does not help them change, be healed, or know God’s love.

Therefore, we live in this tension. We do suffer for others. We do bear others’ burdens. We do forgive, repeatedly, and we do continue to extend grace.

We do not choose to be abused. We don’t continue opening ourselves to hurt–and yes, I’m including trolling here–when the other person cannot or will not see the problem. Further, if the “relationship” with someone is limited to interaction on social media–especially if there is no shared history of relationship in person–then even I, in my hope-filled-or-clouded mindset, am learning to recognize when I am having no visible positive impact on them but they are having a measurably negative impact on me.

You have to decide what you can handle. For me, going by what I “should” be able to bear and absorb often gets me into serious trouble. Mike in his twenties felt responsible to fix everyone and equated abusive treatment with the suffering Jesus calls us to endure. I think that gives me credibility to tell you this: if you need to stop someone from trolling you, it doesn’t matter if you “should” be able to handle it. Two of the people I have blocked would absolutely reject–and argue cogently and indefatigably*–that they have done nothing wrong and I have misunderstood, misinterpreted, or been oversensitive. But you know what? My interacting with them on a daily basis was costing my family. I remember specific moments when I was so frustrated over a debate with them that I spoke unkindly to my children.

“Wait, Mike, isn’t that your problem?”

This is what I’m trying to tell you: it had become my problem, in my family, and I had to fix it. Am I too sensitive? Do I lack healthier boundaries? Do I take things too personally and need to distance myself better? What if I’m the one who’s wrong? Even if it’s all of the above, God has grace that I couldn’t take what they were dishing out and when it became clear to me that this was true and they would not change their approach, I had to set a more absolute boundary.

In the end, I decided that I am doing some people some good. Loving my children well must remain the priority. I’m okay with having shortcomings. I do live with my own limitations, including dealing with depression. I want to encourage and love people. If spending my emotional energy getting entangled in arguments prohibits or sabotages these, those argument have to–had to–go.

I offer this to you. I know there are dangers of “cancel culture” and of simply cutting off anyone who disagrees with us. That, too, is a tension in this discussion. Again, you have to discern for yourself in which direction you might err. Are you more likely to cut others off too quickly or let negative treatment go on too long?

One final thought: I might be someone else’s troll. We want to imagine that trolling is all or nothing, that horrible, abusive people come home, get on their devices, and continue their venomous behavior. There are some like that. But I might be the person irritating or harassing someone else. Like racism, trolling is not just an absolute either-or. As with racists, certain people have given themselves over to it, but most of us can also fall into the category sometimes. And someone else treating me negatively can make me more likely to mistreat someone else.

Knowing that I might inadvertently** troll others helps me to approach this with humility. I can set healthy boundaries when necessary and still remember that there might be a plank in my own eye. I can decide someone is harmful for me and remember that my need for distance isn’t some absolute measure that they are bad.

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There’s grace in remembering this, too.

*About time I got to use that word!

**Because of course we give ourselves the benefit of the doubt. I would never intentionally troll someone else…would I?

4 thoughts on “Trolling

  1. Betty Sue

    I’m struggling right now with interaction on Facebook with two friends with whom I can spar in person and still walk away friends, but the interaction on Facebook does feel harsher. Trying to keep it within the bounds of friendship – sure would hate to lose either friend over this.

    • I think it’s easier for interactions to get harsh when they’re not in person, because we don’t have all the reminders of how much we care about each other. It’s just the words, without even any tone to help us interpret them, and we don’t have to look our friends in the eye when we say things.
      I hope you don’t lose those friendships, Betty Sue.

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