Skip to main content
Troll Others and Be Worse for it: A Lesson in Empathy

Photo by Slava on Unsplash

‘What Do You Want to Be When You Grow Up?’

‘A Creepy Little Troll!’

I don’t use social media much, even though authors trying to build a following are “supposed” to. There’s a climate crisis on social media almost as dangerous as the one we see wreaking havoc across the globe, through melting glaciers, stronger hurricanes, and longer fire seasons.

Aside from slogging through deliberate disinformation, we too often end up in arguments with actual friends. You know, the kind we’ve known in real life for years, not folks we’ve met in cyberspace.

If we fail to use our experiences to learn how to treat each other more humanely, that’s a choice we’ve made. And it’s nothing to boast about.

Studies suggest that people who spend too much time on social media, especially those who start their day with it, often feel more depressed or anxious or irritable. We’ve all heard the term “doomscrolling.”

So I spend less and less of my time online. But I do check in briefly a couple of times a day because I have friends I’m not able to keep up with any other way. Thankfully, I know a few folks who go out of their way to post only positive or useful information.

Recently, I read a post lamenting Biden’s refusal to forgive student loan debt. Not all of the debt, of course, or $50K of it, not even $10K. He’s “considering.” He’s “studying the issue.” He wants to make sure that if he does it, he does it “right.”

I typed a quick comment. “And so we wait and wait and wait and wait and…”

Then I moved on with my day, hopping onto my stationary bicycle to get in a little exercise while watching another episode of The Art of Crime on MHz, a fun show about mismatched detectives solving murders in Paris related to famous works of art.

Hours later, I checked back in on social media to do my second and final tour of the day.

And saw a response to my earlier comment. “Keep waiting. No one owes you anything.”

I hate to admit I was shocked.

You’d think by this point I’d be well aware of the vitriol out there. And this was relatively tame compared to other comments I’ve received. But my own comment hadn’t indicated I wanted my student loan forgiven. I’ve been paying down on it for over twenty years.

While I would be happy to have the last of it forgiven, my remaining debt is manageable. I was thinking about the millions of others still paying on $60K or $80K or $110K loans.

And I was also pointing out that all this “deliberation” was no more than a show. Any national leader who can’t make up their mind on an issue that’s been in the headlines for years is either not paying attention (hardly something to boast about) or stringing us along (not a great thing to boast about, either).

But this troll went out of her way to be mean.

When I first came out and started going to gay bars, other men would warn me about this bar or that one. “Lots of trolls over there.”

Scroll to Continue

Recommended Articles

Trolls, I learned, were old, lecherous gay men no one wanted to be with. They’d grope you without permission. Some of the nicer older men I met in those early years would make an effort not to be too aggressive. “I don’t want to be a troll,” they’d tell me.

I hoped I’d never become one myself.

These days, it looks like thousands and thousands of folks, men and women of all ages, mostly straight but sometimes gay, happily choosing to be the most disgusting trolls possible, trolls far more repulsive than any of the old, lecherous men I ever met.

Online trolls aspire to be the Fred Phelps of cyberspace. Their guiding motto isn’t “What would Jesus do?” but “What would Joe McCarthy do?” They want to cultivate hatred and anger like crops, boasting of their wins as if they’d presented the prize pumpkin at a county fair.

Compassion is their Kryptonite and they do whatever they can to destroy it.

We’ve all dealt with these folks. They’re inescapable, and giddily so. One of their key rhetorical strategies is to misframe the question. My support for forgiving student loan debt isn’t because I think the government or any other American “owes” it to me.

But leaders can recognize the many ways having an educated population not saddled with debt is good not only for them but for everyone else as well. If anything, we owe it to ourselves.

When I first began facing my affectional orientation, I started attending a “Coming Out” support group. One evening, I said something about feeling mystified that gay men, who understood firsthand how awful discrimination was, could in turn discriminate against women or Black people or anyone else.

“Ah,” one of the moderators said, “that’s because you have internalized homophobia.”


“You still think that as a gay person you have to be better than straight people. It’s like a woman wanting better grades to show she’s as smart as her male classmates. It’s like a Black person speaking better than white coworkers to show he’s as competent. But gay people are entitled to be just as imperfect as anyone else.”

Decades later, I still disagree with that concept.

Of course, I don’t think we need to prove ourselves to anyone. The moderator was right on that score. The reason we develop empathy is to make society better, and we can only develop that empathy by putting ourselves in someone else’s situation.

While I may never understand more than a fraction of what it is to face other forms of bias, I know enough to be able to extrapolate and act accordingly. I know enough to be open to learning more.

No one, not even the most privileged among us, can reach adulthood without having experienced some form of oppression or cruelty or injustice. If we fail to use those experiences to learn how to treat each other more humanely, that’s a choice we’ve made. And it’s nothing to boast about.

Do we owe anyone kindness or justice? Do we owe anyone healthcare or education or a habitable planet?

If we’re trolls, the answer is quite clearly no.

Johnny Townsend

I hope, though, we can aspire to something a little greater. That enough of us will finally understand the best way to lift ourselves is to lift everyone around us, too.

Johnny Townsend