Troll Feeders Anonymous

Hello, my name is Adam, and I feed trolls.

I try to ignore them. I try to just walk away. But. Just. You know? You know.

My sponsor, another Adam, who I believe you’ve all met, says that I need to use my time more wisely. Read a book. Spend quality time with my loved ones. Talk to people who will give me the benefit of the doubt and will genuinely try to have a conversation.

For a long time I’ll be good. And when it looks like something’s going to escalate, I’ll just choose to be the bigger guy, and say something nice, or apologetic, or just politely exit the conversation.

But then, just as I begin to think of myself as a perfect sage of patience, some comment thread on some libertarian blog post will start to get nasty and I just can’t help myself. I start out mildly sarcastic and then I move on to catty, and finally it just comes to insults, and I’m back to square one. I end up fatigued and annoyed and gained nothing.

I admit I am powerless, and give myself up to the elder gods of phpBB to set me free of this burden.

With whom shall we speak?

Even in a world with food and shelter as abundant as our own, time is still limited. We cannot get more of it, and each minute once gone is gone forever. Even if SENS or Calico delivers on biological immortality, we face the challenge of using the minute or hour before us at this moment as effectively as we can. The present is a resource that spoils.

This is related to a question that came to me today, which how to decide whom to engage in conversation. If I am speaking to Aaron, I cannot also speak to Bob (not and give them both my full attention). If I am debating sports at the local watering hole that’s time I’m not lobbying my fellow voters to pass a legislative reform.

I don’t mean to be overly clinical about this. Life is too chaotic to engineer a perfect use of each minute, and there’s also benefits both to yourself and others in engaging in conversation for the simple pleasures of discussing a common hobby or just spitballing ideas about this or that. But there are also heuristics we can use.

One such heuristic I believe in is “Engage with honest interlocutors.” I don’t mind disagreeing with people, or talking to someone who is ignorant about a topic entirely. I enjoy both learning from people who disagree or teaching to people who don’t know. All I ask is they put the same effort and honesty into the conversation that I do.

The other side of this heuristic, which is really just a version of the “forgiving tit-for-tat” strategy, is to engage people who disagree, try to find the disagreement, but abandon the conversation once it’s obvious they are not engaged in honest debate or interested in really appreciating what you have to offer. Speaking to them is a not a good use of my time.

My co-blogger Adam Gurri takes a slightly different view on this. He points to the benefits to himself that come from engaging in conversation even with, to be crude, assholes. Patience and temperance are virtues, and trying to talk to an asshole gives you the opportunity to practice both of them. It’s a virtuous exercise to engage them, if I understand Mr. Gurri’s view here, and thus the time is not wasted.

I still think that’s a sub-optimal use of time though, and here’s why – teaching and learning with honest interlocutors is also an exercise in patience and temperance. Imagine teaching a child, well, anything. They’re going to screw up a lot and yelling at them “Why can’t you figure out 2+2=4!?!?!” isn’t going to help anything. It would actually be quite harmful. And while adults you meet socially aren’t children, the same basic rule applies. I’ve never taught anyone a lick of economics by yelling at them or losing my patience, no matter how much bad economics or half-baked theories of ethics they have to unlearn.

Point is, the world is not lacking for chances to practice patience and temperance. I’d rather pick the ones that pay dividends to others and not just myself.

Full Disclosure: I have, on occasion, and as recently as this Saturday, poked the occasional jerk just for the pleasure of seeing them react. I can’t pretend I’ve above that. But that’s just for fun, not an invitations to my friends to get involved and actually engage with the jerk in question.