A fair few times in the last month, both Legal Eagle and I have been accused of ‘concern trolling’. LE has copped it more than me, but since my post on ‘local food’, I’ve been written off as a ‘libertarian concern troll’.
I’d always had a vague notion that it concerned hiding one’s real political views on an issue under a patina of faux concern. People who did it, apparently, would register on websites devoted to a particular cause and then set about sowing dissension. Here’s the version on offer at ‘Wise Geek’:
Artful concern trolling involves developing a believable persona as a supporter of a cause who has legitimate concerns. In an example of concern trolling, a group of people might be having a political discussion on a website about a candidate they support. The concern troll would log on and say “I’m concerned that this candidate might not be strong enough to beat the opposition,” or “I’m worried that the candidate’s history in the legislature might be a problem in the election.”
Once a concern troll has sowed dissent or discord, often he or she can sit back and let the other commenters do the rest of the work. When a concern troll has done the job correctly, the discussion will split, factions will emerge, and support for the cause will have eroded. Concern trolling can also be highly distracting, as people band together to oppose the concern troll, rather than discussing serious issues, including valid concerns which should be addressed.
Depending on the context, a concern troll may use a sockpuppet, a false account which conceals his or her real identity. In some particularly infamous cases, members of political campaigns have trolled the opposition using sockpuppet accounts with the goal of undermining grassroots support. When these cases are exposed, it can be quite embarrassing, as trolling is generally viewed as an underhanded and often questionable tactic.
Many people think that the best thing to do with Internet trolls is to ignore them. By refusing to give them anything to feed on, users can continue their discussion and stay focused on the issues they want to talk about. However, it can be tricky to distinguish a concern troll from a devil’s advocate or someone who genuinely supports the cause, but does have worries. Tip-offs that someone is a concern troll include a recent registration date, for sites that require registration to post, along with minimal personal details in a user account. Concern trolling also tends to come from people with no commenting or posting history, so if a brand-new user shows up and starts raising doubts, it may be a concern troll.
The caveats in the last paragraph were what set me off. You see, I suspect that (absent the recent registration and proper posting history) much of what is labelled as ‘concern trolling’ is legitimate commentary. It’s just that people on the receiving end of that commentary don’t want to deal with it. Regular commenter Nick Ferrett made this comment on LE’s climate change thread:
One term which I’d never heard until some spankers at LP started raining shit down on LE was “concern troll”. I gather it refers to someone who falsely asserts concern for a class of people as a justification for an argument. Is that right?
If so, why does the mere fact that the concern is false mean that the argument is wrong? The proposition that poverty-stricken people will be most affected by particular responses to climate change isn’t made more or less true by whether I (or anyone else) give a shit about their welfare. The point is either true or it is not.
It’s not as if the proposition can be dismissed out of hand. The market mechanism which (perplexingly to me) has been championed by the left is all about reducing consumption by making consumption more expensive. I don’t need to connect the rest of the dots do I?
I accept that there are competing considerations such as the prospect that regions largely populated by poor people are at the greatest risk of significant detriment through climate change, but that’s a valid competing argument. Simply dismissing an argument because you doubt that the person is genuine about their concern is hardly the response of a rational person.
There’s another aspect that Nick didn’t raise in his comment, and it’s this: absent a dodgy online history, accusing someone of being a concern troll involves an attempt to enter that person’s innermost thoughts, along with a claim (by various means, probably up to and including psychic powers) to know their motives.
I’m a lawyer. Motives I know a bit about. And if you claim to know someone else’s motives, then you must be some sort of psychological genius, or — alternatively — a judge about to sum up to the jury. The likelihood of you being any one of these is negligible or nil, so it may be wise to put the claim away.
In other words, (1) the concerns raised may be valid and (2) in the absence of an irregular posting history, an accusation of ‘concern trolling’ is simply a refusal to engage with what is often a superior argument based on imputed knowledge of the other party’s motives.
I’ll leave LE to put her own perspective based on her politics, and just make my point, which is this: libertarians were trying to do something about this offence against free markets long before socialism was even a twinkle in Uncle Karl’s eye. We also had a large part to play in getting rid of this institution as well. And unlike the various forms of egalitarianism tried at various times since, we haven’t been responsible for the deaths of millions, either.
Oh yeah, and our fight against the Corn Laws and much of our fight against slavery? That was based on a belief in free trade. David Ricardo was an MP at the time, a Quaker abolitionist and economist in the best laissez-faire liberal tradition. And when people wanted to line up free traders and abolitionists, they said stuff like this:
Between our Black West Indies and our White Ireland, between these two extremes of lazy refusal to work, and of famishing inability to find any work, what a world have we made of it, with our fierce Mammon-worships, and our benevolent philanderings, and idle godless nonsenses of one kind and another! Supply-and-demand, Leave-it-alone, Voluntary Principle, Time will mend it: — till British industrial existence seems fast becoming one huge poison-swamp of reeking pestilence physical and moral; a hideous living Golgotha of souls and bodies buried alive.
That’s from Thomas Carlyle, by the way, who hated abolitionists as he hated those who repealed the Corn Laws. He was an extreme localist, who rather fancied the Medieval — or at least serf-based — way of doing things.
When libertarians decry ‘local food’ and other forms of environmental protectionism on the basis that it will harm (or starve) the poor, we aren’t doing it to keep ourselves entertained. We’re doing it because we’ve been making the same arguments about food prices for several hundred years, and for the same reasons. And you know what? We haven’t been wrong, yet. Many of our opponents have been, however, repeatedly and murderously so.
Next time you throw out the phrase ‘concern troll’, it might be a good idea to do a little research. Oh yeah, and make sure that — genuine or not — your opponent is actually in the wrong. Because if he isn’t, then you just look really stupid.