But online -- particularly in a world that thrives on anonymity -- people are not in proximity with one another, it may in some ways be harder to make the thinking leap, to bring the object of your trolling into your mind. The trolled are not people; they are usernames. They do not feel or experience pain; it may be hard to imagine them reading your words or seeing the picture you posted at all.
A recent essay in The Guardian seems to support this theory. In the story, Irish writer Leo Traynor manages to identify a troll who has been horribly, brutally harassing him and his wife for years. The troll called him a "dirty fucking Jewish scumbag" and mailed him a Tupperware full of ashes with the note, "Say hello to your relatives from Auschwitz."
With the help of an "IT genius" friend, Traynor tracks down the hacker: It's the son of another friend. Traynor calls the friend and they decide to set up a meeting with the son and both of his parents. As they sit down to chat over tea, Traynor tells them all about harassment, showing them pictures of the ashes and screenshots of the offending tweets.
"I told them of how I'd become so paranoid that I genuinely didn't know who to trust anymore," Traynor writes. "I told them of nights when I'd walked the rooms, jumping at shadows and crying over the sleeping forms of my family for fear that they would suffer because of me. Then it happened ... The Troll burst into tears. His dad gently restraining him from leaving the table."
What Traynor did was to force his troll to *think* about his actions, not just perform them because of the norms of a subculture.
What happened when Adrian Chen confronted Brutsch looks quite different: Brutsch didn't so much cry as offer one mild, unilluminating cliche after the other. His response to people who were offended by that photo? "People take things way too seriously around here." In defending his actions: "I got the freedom to talk about my personal life, my personal feelings... I'm sure there's more than one person in this building who's a pervert," he told Chen.
This utter void of introspection on the part of the troll made me think of an essay by Hannah Arendt, "Thinking and Moral Considerations," which she wrote for W.H. Auden in 1971. In it, she considers what she had witnessed years earlier, as Eichmann stood trial in Jerusalem. "The only specific characteristic one could detect in his past as well as in his behavior during the trial and the preceding police examination was something entirely negative: It was not stupidity but a curious, quite authentic inability to think," she wrote.*
Eichmann, like Brutsch, spoke in a series of linked phrases that explained little. "He knew that what he had once considered his duty was now called a crime, and he accepted this new code of judgment as though it were nothing but another language rule. To his rather limited supply of stock phrases he had added a few new ones, and he was utterly helpless only when he was confronted with a situation to which none of them would apply, as in the most grotesque instance when he had to make a speech under the gallows and was forced to rely on cliches used in funeral oratory which were inapplicable in his case because he was not the survivor." She continued, "Cliches, stock phrases, adherence to conventional, standardized codes of expression and conduct have the socially recognized function of protecting us against reality, that is, against the claim on our thinking attention which all events and facts arouse by virtue of their existence."