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August 15, 2013 8:36 AM Sympathy for the Trolls

By Keith Humphreys

I once spent some time in Florida during Major League Baseball’s spring training. It’s a time when many young players from the top of the minor leagues (“Triple A ball”) get a shot at breaking into the majors. In what had to be an exciting moment for them, they would get placed into the lineup alongside established pros for a few innings or maybe even a few games.

What I most remember about those games was the clutch of paunchy middle-aged and older guys who sat in the bleachers and shouted abuse when the tryouts would have a bad moment on the field (e.g., “You suck!”, “Go back to Tidewater!”, “You ain’t major league, kid!”). For those of you who are not baseball fans, it is worth noting that someone who is talented enough to play Triple A baseball and who gets even a failed tryout with a major league team has gone farther in the game than 99% of the myriad little leaguers who dream of a professional baseball career. This observation would certainly have applied to the gang of fat critics screaming at the young players from the stands, who might between them have been able to muster up a few stories of their glory days on the junior varsity team in seventh grade.

I thought of those guys when I watched celebrities reading mean tweets directed at them:

Our natural impulse is to feel sorry for people who are subjected to the torrent of abuse that new technology enables; the victims themselves may feel understandable hurt and rage. Many of them are not celebrities who can insulate themselves with handlers. They might just be a high school kid who plays on the basketball team or won a scholarship or organized a successful prom.

As they deal with their pain, it may be helpful for the victims to reflect upon the misery of the people who take the time to send them hateful tweets or eviscerate them on websites. Many people desperately wanted to someday become a pro athlete or beloved stand-up comedian or famous scientist or gorgeous movie star or respected television commentator or rock-and-roll legend or even just the kid who could organize a successful prom. But it didn’t work out for them. And every day of their lives, via the very technology that is their tool of attack, they see other people living the dream that fate denied them.

New technology allows such people a chance to lash out in ways they never could before, and it’s wrong of them to do that. But it’s also pretty pathetic. If they come after you, it probably means you are more successful and a lot happier than they are, and that should be vengeance enough for you if you need that. It’s emotionally and spiritually challenging, but if you are victimized in this way, try to feel some sympathy for your attackers, who are sitting in mom’s basement or wherever day after day, brooding over life’s disappointments and raging impotently on their keyboards at complete strangers. That’s truly a life to be pitied.

[Cross-posted at The Reality-based Community]

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Keith Humphreys is a professor of psychiatry and behavioral medicine at the Stanford University School of Medicine.

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