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On Distinguishing Trolls from Symposia within Virtual Reality
by Dr. Emanuel Paparella
2017-06-10 10:08:14
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“It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it”

On a monthly basis, readers of this particular on-line magazine of opinion are treated to a meeting of minds, so to speak, dubbed “The Ovi Symposium.” The composition of its collaborators and contributors  changes from time to time, but its original basic supporting principle is similar to that of an ancient Greek symposium: a group of truth seekers, otherwise known as philosophers or “lovers of wisdom,” gathering around a round table to discuss, in a friendly and civil mode, and within the realm of the intelligible, a previously agreed issue, imbued with humanistic and/or liberal arts values. That does not mean that all conflict is eliminated, but that the conditions are optimized for the pursuit of truth, wherever it might lead.

For the ancient Greeks the pursuit of truth was a godly enterprise, the non plus ultra of the noblest aspirations of human nature, in some way reflecting what the gods engaged in when they conversed with each other on Mount Olympus. It was, in short, the contemplative life of the mind or as Aristotle aptly put it “the dwelling in the realm of the blessed.”

It must be prefaced that it is such a stance on principles and values that distinguished this magazine from others who pretend to be magazines of opinions where all views are welcome but, if truth be told, they are mere blogs disinterested in the pursuit of the True, the Good and the Beautiful, more concerned with transactions of a purely utilitarian or political character, at times dealing with misinformation and fake news whose bottom line and judgmental criteria are the counting and measuring of the clicks and downloads each posted article receives. Sadly, those magazines leave much to be desired, and they most certainly fail to inspire its readers to virtue and ideals.

Of course in the era of the internet this symposium is a virtual one and takes place in cyberspace, communications being very fast, almost as fast as Hermes, the Greek god of messages and communication. What formerly, only fifty or so years ago, took months of laborious correspondence, can now be expedited within a few days. In an historically real  Greek symposium of two thousand years ago the meeting would last all night and wine would be passed around to stimulate a more spirited discussion. Many of Plato’s philosophical dialogue have the aurea of a symposium. The wine can be construed as a metaphor for the sweet light of reason and poetry, to put it in Arnoldian terms. In our virtual symposium in Ovi the conversation proceeds almost beyond time and space: it goes back to our masters, but it also goes forward beyond nationalistic borders to the future destination of the human journey. Perhaps even the gods are now a bit jealous of the awesome powers of the internet which permits such a journey to take place.


Hermes, god of messages

We can easily imagine how this concept of symposium as a cordial exchange of views and ideas, eventually gave rise to the important universal democratic concept of free speech; the idea that all men are entitled to express their opinion and/or ideas freely without censorship and intimidation; that it is better to discuss controversial ideas and eventually arrive at some kind of compromise, than violently fight over them. John Stuart Mill who first advanced this idea, did of course point out the limitation of this human right; it is not absolute and it stops where other people’s rights begin and at the edge of the advocacy of violence as a means to achieve one’s political goals. Nevertheless, the sad history of fanatical ideologies proves, alas, that more often than not the latter takes precedence on the former.

But there is another side to this coin, an ugly and negative downside so to speak. It is  called trolling. The term “troll” was invented almost together with the invention of the internet. Let us briefly explore it. Somebody referred to as a troll (originally an ugly, contrarian, arrogant and petulant creature in a cartoon series) is basically a person who sows discord on the Internet. The mythical troll of Mount Olympus is of course the goddess Discord who showed up at a gods’ party uninvited, threw the golden apple on the table (on which was written “to the most beautiful”) and ultimately by causing dissension among the goddesses who claimed the golden apple, provoked the war of Troy.

The way the troll satisfies his aberrant behavior is by posting inflammatory, off-topic inaccurate contrary to fact messages within an on line community (a magazine, a blog, a newsgroup, a chat room, or the whole wide world). The intent is pure and simple disruption, provocation, and harassment having little to do with the search for the truth of a particular issue. The ultimate devious aim is simply to provoke readers into an emotional response, or otherwise disrupting normal, on topic discussions and/or conversations. The troll finds this amusing emotionally satisfying but more often than not it is a sign of an unhinged psychotic cyberbullying personality. It is has gone as far as the defacing of Internet tribute sites which cause grief and emotional pain to families, and the posting of negative comments galore.

The favored internet media for the practice is “Tweet” which is short and can pack lies and insults in one or two sentences. It is the perfect medium for immature and juvenile personalities. We now have a president of the US who seems to be a master twitter. He is certain that he can dispose of the world’s affairs with a twitter or two…What makes it particularly attractive to those personalities is that often enough they are able to hide behind anonymity. Even when the trolling is not anonymous, trolling, especially when done via twitting, allows one to throw the stone without directly confronting one’s target. It is the way of the coward and the bully.


This deviant pathetic practice has caused tremendous perplexities to editors of on-line publications who at times have experience difficulties distinguishing a passionate bona fide comment on a particular issue being debated, from an offensive ad hominem insult. They wonder where exactly is the line between censorship and free speech, or between propaganda and the free exchange of ideas whether or not they appear outrageous to one side or the other. Should comments be instantaneous and therefore more spontaneous or should they be examined first to eliminate abuses?

 Indeed, it is not always easy to determine the proper answer, despite the comments’ guidelines posted by a magazine. The Roman saying “ad hominem” is a good criteria: if the argument tends to focus on personalities and personal skills and personal reputations and ego aggrandizement, rather than theoretical abstract ideas, and it degenerates to personal insults and vituperations, then chances are that the argument is an “ad hominem” one, an abuse of free speech, that is to say, a flawed argument because, too subjective and biased.

Readers of this magazine may well remember when a few years ago, I was accused by a magazine contributor (who no longer contributes to it) of being a pathetic troll defending the indefensible, i.e., the Catholic Church. The accusation came as a surprise to me who has dedicated a good portion of his life to the study of philosophy. I pointed out at the time that the reaction to my comments, at the very least, revealed a contrary bias against the Church which needed itself to be discussed, debated and commented upon; that itself might be  a prejudiced and biased trolling, pure and simple. But the appeal to reason and harmony was all to no avail. The editors of the magazine were compelled to shut down all comments for a while till the dust settled.

Eventually the comment section, so important to carry on any kind of dialogue with the readership and get a feel for its point of view, were reinstated with the proviso that they would not be instantaneous, to allow time for the editor in chief to eliminate abuses of free speech. Not a perfect solution; the danger to free speech of the editor in chief turning into a censor of sorts remains, but, it remains my view that it was overall a good compromise in the Aristotelian tradition of fairness, harmony and balance, at least for a magazine of opinion. For indeed, free speech is never absolutely free and it has its limitation, as even John Stuart Mills acknowledges in his essay on free speech.


I dare say that the disruptive experience of a temporary conflict between free speech and trolling, may in the long run be a salutary one for the improvement, maturing, and assessment of any magazine which is on a positive learning curve. I make such a general modest assessment some 13 years after the birth of Ovi and after 10 years of continuing contributions to it. My aspiration at this point is that the comments become ever more abundant and more thoughtful and dialogic, in the tradition of the Greek symposium; that is to say, not just in a psychological way of ventilating and getting it off one’s chest, but in the philosophical sense as a way of experiencing the Aristotelian “realm of the blessed.”


Check Dr Emanuel Paparella's EBOOKS
Aesthetic Theories of Great Western Philosophers
& Europe Beyond the Euro
You can download them for FREE HERE!

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