Every government, every institution, every celebrity – virtually anyone with any sort of presence these days invites trolling. It’s not their fault, really. They are just happily going about their businesses, and the trolls will watch from the sidelines (or, the “streets” if they were in Ancient Greece, or the “comfort of their own basements” if they’re of the creepy man-child variety) to point out everything they think they are doing wrong. But first:
MODERN TERM OF ‘HATE’
I am a stickler for using words and names properly in any language, because for things to make sense, we need to first of all call them by their proper names. So, let’s call it for what it really is: trolling. I was intrigued by the variety of names I’ve come across to describe this activity in Asia. The one that I disagree the most with is the term “haters”. Why? Because they don’t hate you. On a normal day-to-day dealings, no one is that important to ever warrant the word “hate”. Therefore it’s the incorrect term to use to begin with. “Hate” is too strong a word to be used in this context. To put it in its proper context, I will say “I hate violence.” That would be true. To “hate” something, you will trigger a fight or flight response which will either make you come at it with guns blazing or avoid it at all costs.
“I hate carrots” is an incorrect usage, because you can still eat it and it’s not going to kill you. You just really don’t want to and will avoid it if you can. No fight or flight response there.”I don’t like carrots” is a more sufficient usage for what we are trying to say. “I hate my boss” is too strong unless you are prepared to either kill him or have zero contact with him, which you are not as you’re still dealing with him day after day and you still sought him out for answers and paychecks. So, hate breeds war, and dislike breeds unpleasantness.
Now, with that in mind:
ANCIENT GREEK PHILOSOPHY
The Ancient Greek philosophy has four major schools. We have the Platonist, the Aristotelian, the Stoic and the Epicurean. But, an “unofficial” fifth school started in the 4th century BC – the Cynics. This school goes largely unrecognized though, because unlike the others, they have no specific place for meetings. They practiced their philosophical creeds in the city streets.
“We are told that in every spot in Roman Alexandria one was bound to come upon a group of noisy and disrupting Cynics, ‘bawling out the usual street corner invocations to Virtue in a loud, harsh voice, and abusing everyone without exception,’ as Lucian describes them (The Passing of Peregrinus).”
Navia, Luis E. Classical Cynicism: A Critical Study. 1996.
Because of its “unofficial” status, few teachings were transmitted in written form of this school of philosophy and what we are only left with sayings in the form of anecdotes. A good proportion of the information that we have is due to sources that looked at the cynics in a rather antagonistic fashion, which makes further studies into reconstructions of its views difficult as we only have one predominant side to go by.
Antisthenes, an associate of Socrates, is counted the 1st Cynic, making Cynicism an offshoot of Socratic teaching. The latest practitioner of classical Cynicism was Sallustius (5th C.). In all honesty, though, although history records a fair number of prominent cynic figures, referring to it as a philosophical “school” is a bit of a stretch. Cynisim is known today not as a philosophical perspective but chiefly as an attitude, a mix of disillusion and pessimism towards any affair involving humans.
According to Finkleberg’s “Virtue and Circumstances: On the City-State Concept of Arete” (2002), the goal of Cynicism was to attain arete (Greek) or virtus (Roman), a quality we clumsily translate as “virtue”. It is the strength to overcome one’s thoughts, feelings, and the circumstances of one’s life. The reason I call it a “clumsy” translation is because there’s actually more to arete than our concept of “virtue”. Arete also involves a certain degree of self-sufficiency, which can only be achieved by a higher degree of freedom and frankness that politics would allow. Cynicism is really rooted in the quest to attain freedom in three forms: self-sufficiency, agency, and opinion. Classical Cynicism is credited with founding anarchism.
The Cynic owes its name to the Greek term kunikos, which means “dog-like.” The term itself is loaded, as it’s unclear if the term refers to the place where the founder of the school, Antisthenes, used to teach at first, or if it describes the typical attitude of a cynic philosopher. It may seem like a rather rude label to put on a group of people, but it fits to metaphorically describe the unappealing behaviors that distinguished cynics from any of their peers. Because arete (according to their interpretation) was their goal, Cynics disregarded social conventions and appearance. Things that would embarrass their contemporaries would not have bothered a cynic. To make it relevant in today’s context: Things that a ‘cynic’ would say on Twitter would embarrass their contemporaries as it would sound racist/sexist/dumb/sleazy, but it would not bother them.
As with anything, it’s all about the interpretation. It is with the cynics’ interpretation of freedom of agency and freedom of opinion that they made a name for themselves.
Cynics challenge basic social conventions in order to affirm their version of these two forms of freedom. Therefore, they would go eat in the marketplace, when such an action was forbidden; and Diogene of Sinope would not hide his opinions from Alexander the Great. According to stories, one day, while Diogene was sunning, Alexander invited Diogene to ask of anything of him, to which Diogene replied that Alexander was standing on the way of the sun. If you are familiar with Alexander the Great, feel free to let your imagination run wild on how that conversation played out.
‘TROLL’ IN SCANDINAVIAN FOLKLORE
A troll is a supernatural being in Scandinavian folklore. In Old Norse sources, beings described as trolls dwell in isolated rocks, mountains, or caves, live together in small family units, and are rarely helpful to human beings. Depending on the region from which accounts of trolls stem, their appearance varies greatly; trolls may be ugly and slow-witted, or look and behave exactly like human beings, with no particularly grotesque characteristic about them. Trolls are often associated with particular landmarks, and due to their isolation, they are often depicted as in “hiding” due to their sensitivity of people and sunlight.
In the Prose Edda book Skáldskaparmál, there is a scene describing an encounter between an unnamed troll woman and Bragi Boddason. According to the scene, late in the evening, Bragi was driving through “a certain forest” when a troll woman aggressively asked him who he was. She then describes herself as: “Troll kalla mik trungl sjǫtrungnis, auðsug jǫtuns, élsólar bǫl, vilsinn vǫlu, vǫrð nafjarðar, hvélsveg himins –hvat’s troll nema þat?” (A Troll is what I am called, moon dwellers of the earth, wealth sucker of the giant, destroyer of the sun, beloved follower of the seeress, guardian of the corpse-fiord, swallower of the wheel of heaven. What’s a troll if not that?)
Trolls evolve again through stories and paintings. What is interesting is that it develops more in paintings as big green ugly beings living in the darkness under a bridge, jumping out to scare people walking pass, being offensive, rude and obnoxious, but never harming them.
One of these days I’ll make a proper graph of this, but the similarities between the internet trolls and their ancestors are these:
- They all value their anonymity (cynics work in groups, trolls live under the bridge, we make fake social media accounts)
- They disregard social conventions and appearances
- They get joy out of being offensive, but nothing further
It is our modern arrogance that we like to think that we invented the latest craze, but we never did. Somewhere in history, it has been done, and done better. What we call “internet trolling” or, (sigh) if you prefer, “internet hating,” these days are in fact a combination of the Ancient Greek Cynicism and Old Scandinavian figure. We have managed to combine and mutate them into making things unpleasant for people through our computers, which, to our credit, is more comfortable than yelling at people on the streets or living under a bridge.