I would guess we’ve all heard the old sayings that “A little knowledge is a dangerous thing” and that “There’s none so blind as him who will not see”. Both are true and, and, together, they always cause me to wonder what you would get if you combined them with a wide-reaching, anonymous (if you wish), public bulletin board?
The answer, of course, is simple: Trolls.
Back in 1968, when Andy Warhol said “In the future, everyone will be world-famous for 15 minutes” as part of the program for an exhibition of his work in Sweden, he probably had no inkling that the Internet would ever exist. In those days, fame was something that usually required some actual act or occurrence to acquire and, because except for the vanity press and “ham” radio, no other source of self-dispensed celebrity existed, most people had to rely on somebody else to make them famous.
It could certainly happen: What they did; what they said; or what befell them could be noticed and brought to the public’s attention by the media or by some interested soul, but doing it themselves, other than to a circle of friends or through a letter to some medium or entity with a public voice was at best unlikely.
When the Internet came along – especially that aspect of it known as “the social media” – all of a sudden every damfool on earth had, if he owned or could access a computer, the means to make his 15 minutes happen. And he didn’t even have to have any particular accomplishment to kvell about; all he needed was an opinion.
That his opinion was worth something was a foregone conclusion. “Man-in-the-street” interviews – a popular radio (and, later, television) feature, at least since the bombing of Pearl Harbor in 1941, had trained generations of Americans to believe that their opinion mattered – Why else would the guy with the microphone be asking for it? Most importantly, they had been taught that not only did it matter, but that it had national consequence, whether or not they actually had any clue at all of what they were talking about: “Hey, I’m an American, aren’t I? This is a democracy, isn’t it? What I think about something matters just as much as what anybody else does!”
Can it be any wonder that people accustomed to commenting on world affairs that they know nothing about or on the guilt or innocence of someone whose trial they didn’t attend (and know of only from media sound-bites) should imagine themselves universal authorities, whose opinion might outweigh even those of actual experts?
Now, consider such a person who may actually HAVE (or imagines he has) some modicum of knowledge or experience, or even just a moral or “common sense” position on the issue at hand. All his life, he’s been dreaming of his own personal fulfillment of Warhol’s prophesy and wondering when HIS fifteen minutes is going to start; when suddenly he comes across something on the internet that he can opine on – and someone might even LISTEN! Wow! Start them clocks a-tickin’!
There seem to be three distinct kinds of people out there who can be characterized as ”trolls”: First are the “fame seekers”, who, using their own name (“How can you be famous otherwise?), just HAVE to let the world know how wise or smart or knowledgeable or concerned-for-truth-and- justice they are, whether they actually are, or not. Then there are the “Zorros”, who, masked (and possibly caped and often potty-mouthed or politically-, racially, or gender-bigoted), strike their blows to attack whatever position they disapprove of, whether or not their disapproval has any basis. These people remind me (Sorry; once again, I expose my lack of youth) of the remark – rumored to have been aimed by Estes Kefauver at Adlai Stevenson during the run-up to the Presidential election of 1956 – that an “intellectual” is “…a person who will take a position on any issue with his feet planted firmly in midair.”, although, with trolls, I’m not sure how “firmly”. Finally, there are the “Defenders of the Faith” who, like all of the good followers of Ptolemy who declared Copernicus a fool and a heretic, will fight to the death to support what they learned in school, never even considering the possibility that some later truth could have supplanted (or even augmented) it. These, above all others, are the guys I think most likely to be found brandishing torches, buggy whips and pitchforks, and yelling “VOODOO” as they deny the thoughts, efforts, or writings of their fellow audiophiles.
One other class of deniers of practically anything at all is the people who either honestly disagree or admit they might not understand what it is that they are challenging, but are open to be swayed or educated. To them, and to all the others, I append this wonderful old saying (which, probably, many of us remember, and I hope I am setting forth in the proper order):
He who knows not and knows that he knows not is a child; teach him.
He who knows and knows not that he knows is asleep; wake him.
He who knows not and knows not that he knows not is a fool; shun him.
He who knows and knows that he knows is wise; follow him.
Finding out which you are and acting on it somehow seems better than just fifteen minutes of fame, but I wish both to all of you.