Troll Havens: The Worse Angels of our Nature

Many teachers know what the general public does not know: that at some schools the kind of abusive, assaultive and violent language used by internet trolls is faced by those teachers daily in real time in their real lives. Of course, they get the online treatment too, but I was put graphically in mind of the live problem by reading an article passed to me from an Australian magazine. Language and insults I had never even heard in my teens are now part of ordinary daily student-teacher “discourse” at school. And the assault is often accompanied by battery. Comments that should be actionable at law are routinely made by students—and by their parents! And the offenders are not shown the door after this kind of abuse.

A friend reports the same kind of problem in many U.S. schools.  A professional acquaintance, the principal of an urban school in the U.S., reports being assaulted, having her car keyed, and having to deal with “hundreds of fights a year.” The principal is regularly savaged verbally by parents, though they have not yet beaten her up. This is a middle school.

The principal also reports that she wants to fire teachers who don’t do their job, but I would like to know what a teacher’s job is in a place where he or she is called a “fucking pedophile” or a “cocksucker” or a “motherfucker” with impunity by his or her students. These are live trolls, not “virtual,” and they are in your face. (By the way: the student who called his teacher a “cocksucker” was the son of a couple of highly placed diplomatic personnel. The apple seems to have fallen far from the tree.)

According to one study, the job of a teacher in such conditions is to survive without a collapse in health, usually by becoming radically detached from work; for it turns out that teachers, according to this study, are dead last among “callings” in quality of their working environment and in relations with their “supervisors.” Of course it is possible that teachers in such circumstances are “ineffective,” but it is time to consider the possibility that the entire ecology of some schools and districts is poisonous to education, and that this failure may be the fault of more than, or other than, the teachers.

The old saw is that a teacher must be an educator, a therapist, a social worker, a confessor, a counselor, an arbitrator, and a peacemaker.  Now, someone is suggesting that social work at schools should be done by an actual social worker. The problem with this revelation of good sense is that with the budgets most school districts have, there won’t be enough money for more than a token program—like bringing Off! to a locust plague.

But there may be more. These postings have argued again and again that one of the requisites of effective education is that the school should be a functional community, or part of one. In a dysfunctional community, or in the absence of a community, what a social worker does may simply not be enough. Nor will branded simulacra of community be enough.

Talk of trolls, actual or virtual, suggests a viciousness that community values work against: you don’t call someone you respect or care for a “cocksucker.” In a true community, as my political philosophy professor used to say, you don’t beat your mother for beer money. You don’t slug, knife, libel, slander or curse your teacher, or you children’s teacher.

But the plague I am talking about is not a Biblical one of locusts or frogs or blood. It is a social one, or perhaps political. It is found in places with ineffective or absent political and social institutions. Steven Pinker in his book The Better Angels of Our Nature locates it in places that lack institutions and rational principles of life that are effective against violence. In its worst form, it was called by Thomas Hobbes “the war of all against all.” It is the (un)natural habitat of the troll.

Leave a Reply