Thinking About Trolls with Foucault

I was reading through Foucault’s Madness and Civilization this morning when I ran into this passage from the second-to-last section, “The Birth of the Asylum”:

Madness is childhood. Everything at the Retreat [a specific asylum Foucault is analyzing] is organized so that the insane are transformed into minors. They are regarded “as children who have an overabundance of strength and make dangerous use of it. They must be given immediate punishment and rewards; whatever is remote has no effect on them. A new system of education must be applied, a new direction given to their ideas; they must first be subjugated, then encouraged, then applied to work, and this work made agreeable by attractive means.” [Foucault is citing De La Rive here] [p. 252]

Foucault is clearly outlining a process that European and American systems of domination move along very comfortably–outline a population, assert that it isn’t fit to govern itself, insert governance, domination, and violence to both erase and make that population hypervisible. Infantalization is one of the most efficient methods of achieving this. Children have to learn how to become adults; culture has to happen to them so that they can make their way into the labyrinth that is existence. By positioning any minority population as literally minor gives the dominant modes of thought all of the justification that they need to politically and culturally re-educate, absorb, and cordone that minority.

I made a lateral connection while I was reading, however, to the ways that internet cultures often position the troll. While these processes are clearly unrelated, the rhetoric is eerily similar. Your bog-standard internet troll is stereotyped as a fedora-wearing, acne-covered, obese, basement dwelling manchild. Much of the arguments around trolls and their behavior comes from this arguably charitable position, and I say “charitable” here because the key assumption in a number of arguments about trolls is that they could somehow come around if only we put in the time and effort to pull them around to our side. The well-loved (I know I love it) “But I’m a Nice Guy” video makes this connection very clear–trolling has nothing to do with being a bad person, but fear. The argument that springs from this is that if we could fix that fear (through positive socialization, through more exposure of women on the internet, through better comment moderation), we would be making leaps and strides toward less awful trolls on the internet.

At the same time, I have my own fear that this can’t possibly be true. The various stereotypes I mentioned above have little correlation to the mass number of trolls and straight-up harassers on the internet. There is no way to identify the troll in the world; the stereotypes exist to give us the fiction that there is a visible population who have somehow gone “wrong” (there’s nothing wrong with being any of the things I mentioned, after all), and if we educate them, if we take their seemingly infinite ability to spit bile (an “overabundance of strength” if I’ve ever seen it), then we can channel it into a life that isn’t about making fake Twitter accounts and threatening people.

My fear is that that fiction actually carries meaning. My fear is that the stereotypes have gained such purchase that it is difficult for us to culturally think about the fact that the worst trolls in the world can be someone you know quite well who doesn’t possess a single marker of the troll stereotype.

I recognize that I’m lining up a progressive movement in the present with an incredibly oppressive and violent system of the past, but that’s sort of Foucault’s point–these asylums were developed under the auspices of a public good, something that would allow the community to “fix” its problem population by educating that population about the proper rules of conduct for the social.

Maybe trolls aren’t “broken” and maybe they aren’t merely “products of the culture.” Maybe they’re not outliers. Every time an awful moment of harassment happens, I count the seconds before the defense equivalent to they know not what they do to pop up to absolve someone. Maybe trolls who spend their day harassing other people are just shitty, awful people, and maybe we should spend more time making people safe and less time trying to “fix” and defend assholes.

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