I sound like a troll. You do too

Feeling good about the world? Are you happy, content and fulfilled? Don’t worry – we’ve got the cure. Simply descend into the comments section on literally anything online, and you’ll soon have all faith in humanity sucked out of you. Comment boards kill 99.9% of wellbeing iotas on first contact. Add comment facilities to your life today, and never worry about self-esteem, confidence or serenity again.

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You know how obnoxious the comments section of an article or YouTube video often gets? People tell each other they know bugger all about the subject matter; they tell the author he or she doesn’t understand what they are talking about; they apply negative labels to one another faster than The Flash breaking in a new pad of Post-It notes.

In other words, people are asses online.

But so am I.

Not on the comments section, and not on social media as such. But I realised the other day, when talking to a group of friends in a messenger app, that I sound like a troll. Not one of those racist, misogynist, homophobic trolls; just one of those ones who sounds nasty and superior all the time. Who is incapable of conveying a thought or making a point without condescending.

And so do all my friends.

It’s a closed group we use to communicate and we’re all very aware of each other’s biases, beliefs and political standings. In fact, we’re all strongly aligned on the same spectrums. And that knowledge, I believe, gives us the confidence to speak more harshly about topics than we would to strangers.

We know, for instance, that we can share studies that prove something we’ve always known and caption the link with something like ‘And today’s award for Saying the Blatantly Obvious goes to this moron…

Thinking back on it now, most people I’ve spoken to for long enough will have expressed an opinion with the same level of sharpness. The kind of opinion that gets thrust out there, covered in barbed wire. Sensitivity is as high up its list of priorities as it would have been for the person who invented the morning star.

And I realised then that the issue with the way we talk to each other online isn’t that we say bad things, but that we assume we’re talking to lots of other people who all agree with us.

Think how viciously we tear apart films, books, actors, bands, restaurants, jam, etc, that we don’t like when talking to people we know will, if not agree, certainly not be surprised by our vitriol. Yet were we to meet the people involved in those things in person, we’d likely moderate our views. We’d offer ‘constructive criticism’.

Well, I would, but then again I’m British. We’re so meek if John Wick had been a Brit in the film he wouldn’t have killed several dozen people to get revenge for the death of his dog* he’d have just written an angry letter. A letter that would have started: ‘I’m sorry to bother you, but by golly this just isn’t on’.

*(It sounds a stupid premise, but give it a go: they make it work)

I suppose, sat alone in our homes, we have only our point of view to go by when evaluating a comment we are about to post. I wonder how differently people would comment online if they had to read their response aloud to a group of strangers before posting.

I bet even just knowing they would have to read it out would make them change what they were writing. Even though the whole point of commenting online is that lots of people see your opinions.

There’s a study in there someone. That would be interesting to find out.

Do you think you sound like a troll online? Troll me in the comments section.

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Is it a problem that we all speak in absolutes?

There seems to be an awful lot of ‘vanilla’ conflict in the world. By that I mean people arguing (sometimes even coming to blows) over the most minor of occurrences, such as a difference of opinion, as opposed to people dying in horrible conditions and struggling to survive in war torn or disaster ravaged places.

I’ve just been reading some critics’ reviews of the sitcom Vicious, which premiered on ITV last night. It starred Sir Ian McKellen and Sir Derek Jacobi as an elderly gay couple, whose relationship has descended to the point of misery and bickering. Personally, I loved it. I thought it was very funny (although I found a few lines, such as McKellen’s opening ‘joke’ that were to comedy what a face punch is to a witty retort), and I enjoyed the fact that a show about a gay couple was given a primetime slot and so heavily promoted.

The critics from The Guardian and The Independent hated it. They were put off by what they were sure was canned laughter, thought the jokes were cheap and lacked intelligence, and that the two leads were very over the top. I can certainly agree that there was an element of theatre acting involved, with lots of wild gesticulation and projected voices, but I rather enjoyed that. The two characters were overly camp, but then again it’s a sitcom (for understated, the also excellent The Job Lot fitted the bill perfectly, and was shown directly after Vicious).

Anyway, the shows aren’t really important. It got me thinking about the way in which we voice our thoughts. The comments’ sections underneath both articles were full of people agreeing with the critic, but of course there were the inevitable arguments.

What was interesting about each of these disagreements was that they were started by someone stating their opinion as fact ‘Vicious wasn’t funny’, for example. Well, if the internet has taught us anything, it’s that everyone is entitled to their opinion, as long as their opinion is the same as yours.

We’re all very protective of our opinions, and of the things we like. What we like, love and hate are small examples of the person we are. They say something about us, and we’ve now skipped out a few logical steps on the bridge between someone having a different opinion to us and making a personal attack. If someone makes a comment that clashes with our own views, we must defend our honour, like medieval knights jousting to protect the honour of a woman who probably couldn’t care less about her honour what men thought her ‘honour’ actually was.

Could this be the case because most of us speak in absolutes? Comedies we don’t like ‘aren’t funny’, books we hated had ‘terrible plots’, your best friend’s gorilla is ‘the wrong colour’.

When you remove phrases such as ‘I think’, or ‘In my opinion’, you change the face value of the sentence. Your opinion is being stated as fact. And where people confuse opinion with fact, there are always going to be arguments and disagreements, because everyone has a different world view. It’s true of the world in general that some of the worst people in it are those who hate the fact that we are all individual.

So someone who comments on the review of Vicious and says ‘It was really funny’ is stating a fact, as are the people who said ‘It wasn’t funny in the slightest’. No wonder we argue about these things, because their syntax and lexicon suggests a fact. Clearly, you cannot categorise a sitcom as either ‘funny’ or ‘unfunny’ because there are bound to be some people who find it amusing. Humour is not a universal constant.

But do we need to preface everything with ‘I think’, or ‘In my opinion’? Would that not become overly tiring? Although, how much effort does it take to say ‘Thank you’, as an example. Still too much for some people, but for the polite amongst us, it’s automatic. Do we need to train ourselves up again to categorise our thoughts as mere opinions?

Or is the problem actually that we are losing the ability to read subtext? Once upon a time if someone made a comment such as ‘Vicious isn’t funny’, we all had the ability to deduce from the context that this was someone’s personal opinion. Now, however, we have a tendency not to bother. We take everything at face value, which is why people have to be warned that coffee is hot so they don’t burn themselves and then sue. People can’t be bothered to do that extra brain work.

Perhaps it’s not opinions we are fighting against, but simply the misinterpretation of statements as facts and not thoughts. If someone tells you a fact that you know is wrong, you will likely correct them. So when opinions become facts, they are going to be wrong for someone, who will then try and correct them. Then arguments ensue, and everyone marches off to get their death rays.

As a writer, it concerns me that the idea of subtext could be disappearing, that subtlety is being dropped in favour of blunt observation. A huge part of any art form is the things you don’t say, or don’t show.

If we keep on going at this rate, in another hundred years we’ll back be to just pointing at things we want, then hitting someone with a rock.

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