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If you spend much time in the online virtual universe, you’ll undoubtedly run into a few trolls.
Before the web existed, the idea of a troll came from Old Norse mythology—trolls were supernatural beings that lived under bridges or in caves, and didn’t much like human beings. Here’s a dictionary definition:
tröll: n. fiend, demon, werewolf, an ugly, anti-social, quarrelsome and slow-witted nature-being who lives in mountains, rocks or caves away from people, and who should be respected and avoided.
In the Old Norse myths, trolls lived away from humans because they didn’t much like people and they couldn’t stand the sound of church bells—they rejected the civilizing effects of spirituality, preferring to maintain their distance from anything related to the Creator. Some legends say that trolls delighted in destroying churches under construction and even hurled boulders at completed ones.
But online, the word troll has taken on a little different meaning. Wikipedia defines a troll as:
… a person who sows discord on the internet by starting quarrels or upsetting people, by posting inflammatory, extraneous, or off-topic messages in an online community (such as a newsgroup, forum, chat room, or blog) with the intent of provoking readers into an emotional response or of otherwise disrupting normal, on-topic discussion, often for the troll’s amusement.
If you’ve spent any time in just about any web-based community, you’ve probably encountered online trolls. Some of those communities even post signs that say “Do Not Feed the Trolls,” in hopes of avoiding the polarizing and sometimes paralyzing negativity they can spread.
Some experts attribute this online trend to the anonymity of the web, where anyone can insult or provoke others relatively incognito, or even with an assumed or masked identity. That kind of impersonal attack, psychologists say, doesn’t happen as much in the real, face-to-face world of normal human interaction—but happens constantly in the online space. People there seem to feel immune from the generally-accepted societal rules that govern our civil and human relations. Instead, online trolls revert to the law of the jungle, where anyone is fair game for humiliation, harsh criticism and even slander and character assassination.
This brings up two issues: first, is the thin veneer of our outward civilization really that thin? And second, what’s the best way to respond to troll-like behavior on the web, or anywhere else, for that matter?
Apparently, the answer to the first question is yes. If someone acts superficially nice to you in public, in school or in the workplace, and then they engage in ugly, insulting trolling behavior online, then it’s clear that their surface-level kindness only goes so far—and doesn’t extend to those they don’t yet know. On the other hand, we all tend to try to maintain civil relationships with the people we interact with every day in the real world, since the alternative isn’t very tolerable for very long. So why wouldn’t we give the same kindness and consideration to those we don’t know or personally come in contact with? Apparently, the real answer here involves extending our love and kindness for others much deeper than just the thin, surface-level tolerance we often display. The Baha’i teachings say:
O ye beloved of the Lord! In this sacred Dispensation, conflict and contention are in no wise permitted. Every aggressor deprives himself of God’s grace. It is incumbent upon everyone to show the utmost love, rectitude of conduct, straightforwardness and sincere kindliness unto all the peoples and kindreds of the world, be they friends or strangers. So intense must be the spirit of love and loving-kindness, that the stranger may find himself a friend, the enemy a true brother, no difference whatsoever existing between them. – Abdu’l-Baha, The Will and Testament, p. 13.
The Baha’i teachings also have some suggestions for responding to trolls, or to anyone who insults, flames, slanders or verbally persecutes others. Abdu’l-Baha counseled the Baha’is to become impervious to criticism—and even to welcome it:
You must become impervious to criticism, unconscious of attack and abuse, nay, rather welcoming persecution, hostility and bitterness as the means of testing and increasing your supreme faith in God; even as His Holiness Christ instructed His disciples “Bless them that curse you; pray for them that despitefully use you.” Be therefore as spiritual adamant against these darts, arrows and swords of infliction. We will help each other to bear them. First by love and increased zeal in the Heavenly Cause. For by exercise the spirit grows stronger, more capable of withstanding, just as the muscle of the outer body increases its fibre through continual action …
The Blessed Beauty Baha’u’llah won the hearts of his jailers and tormentors. No one could withstand Him. The intense flame of His love melted the hardest stone of hearts. The more chains of iron they put upon His body, the more He imprisoned them in chains of love. They looked upon Him in wonder; they became His followers. – Abdu’l-Baha, Star of the West, Volume 3, p. 104.
This, of course, isn’t easy. Christ asked his followers to turn the other cheek, and the Buddha asked his to “Conquer anger with love, evil with good, meanness with generosity, and lies with truth.”
This is the counsel of all great Faiths.