The basic rules of debate seem simple enough: Attack the argument, not the speaker, and do so with facts and reasoning.
But there are no rules in an age of raging internet.
There is trolling with multiple, anonymous user names. There are message boards replete with playground taunts of “libtard” and “rethuglican.”
There are threats to rape or murder identified writers, and sometimes their children, based only on disagreement with what the writer says. Along the way are cries about “snowflakes,” over some perceived sensitivity. Or even for no reason at all.
Here is our front line of everyday terrorism: each other, and the sadism that too many of us enjoy foisting upon our neighbors.
Websites can cost pennies per day. Everyone can “blog” whatever stream of consciousness they’re spitting through at the moment, and with the right social media, that stream of consciousness can spew into a real-time pictorial — even if the stream spewing is all personal attack, without a fact to be found or considered.
There are no rules in anonymous cyberspace. But there are certainly guidelines that adults can follow that will strip from these misbehaving children what they seek and crave most — your attention.
The first guideline, of course, is the two basic rules of debate. Attack the argument, not the person, and do so with facts and reason. When the personal attack is lodged, it is a safe bet that the attacker has nothing except personal attacks to offer. That suggests the attacker’s words aren’t worth the time it takes to read them.
Another good guideline is much harder to follow, but good for your own mental health: Do not respond to trolling.
Called a “snowflake?” Who cares.
Told you’re an “idiot” or a “fraud?” That is rich, especially when coming from an anonymous someone without the confidence to stand by their own words.
Told you are an evil un-American with three other false assumptions made about you? Give enough detail to prove the poster wrong, if you must. But then let it go.
As the saying goes, you will never win an argument with a toddler. The toddler just wants the attention, not a reasoned discussion and compromise. The same is true for online posters who choose to act like undisciplined toddlers.
They do not call you names because they believe it, or because they even care who you are. Online toddlers try to terrorize for the same reason that real toddlers get contrary — they want attention, and they will have it by any means necessary.
This is not to say that actual threats of violence should not be addressed. But you are not going to argue your way to a solution with a stalking troll who has graphically threatened you with sexual assault and murder (like too many female online gamers still suffer).
Actual threats are actual crimes, and should be addressed to local police, or the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Neither might make the victim any safer from someone determined to do harm. But it can press a blustering boob to knock it off.
But rewarding trolls with attention is rewarding tantrums with hugs and kisses. If a troll lacks an audience, and a rise from the target, then the whole point of trolling goes unsatisfied.
That is the best way to combat this form of domestic terrorism, to not put fuel on the fire. And for the love of Pete, attack the argument instead of the speaker, and do so with a civil tongue.
The First Amendment might not demand it, but a functioning community does.
Jay Hurst is a federal attorney based from Durham, N.C. while living in Lexington. He concentrates on criminal sentencing, appeals, post-conviction matters and the Freedom of Information Act. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.