Originially published at “A Tonne Of Feathers”, 8th August 2012
I’d heard this expression a few times on the internet, and I didn’t really know what it meant. At first I thought it was some online equivalent of some irritating person trying to put you off speaking by humming in monotone in such a way that you can only just hear it, because that would be really annoying and distracting. I’m definitely against that.
But that didn’t seem right in context. Very often it would be unreasonable person A making a point, and reasonable person B saying something reasonable, and A saying “you’re tone trolling,” and as a casual reader one might say to oneself “it is interesting that you should be the one to make such an allegation, because trolling is unreasonable behaviour, and therefore one naturally tends to associate it with unreasonable people.”
(In referring to reasonable and unreasonable people I’m conscious of the risk of running into an ad hominem fallacy, but I think it’s fair, or at least convenient, to describe someone who happens to be behaving reasonably as “reasonable” and someone who happens to be behaving unreasonably as “unreasonable.”)
Of course the error is with B, because winning an argument with someone who’s being unreasonable is impossible by definition. The only way an argument can conclude to anyone’s satisfaction is if there’s tacit agreement by both sides to the use of reason, as I have patiently explained to my wife on a number of occasions without ever persuading her to her satisfaction.
Anyway, I wanted to make sense of “tone troll”, so I googled it. The number one hit (which I decline to link to because it crashed my browser) was unhelpful, but there was a better one from Urban Dictionary:
A tone troll is an internet troll that will effectively disrupt an internet discussion, because they feel that some of the participants are being too harsh, condescending, or use foul language. They often complain loudly and target specific subjects, even though they may actually agree with their subjects’s [sic] point of view.
Which is probably annoying, but in no way does it amount to trolling. It’s hard to imagine how it’s possible to do anything “loudly” in the medium of text, unless it means they use ALLCAPS, and if “targeting specific subjects” in the course of debate is trolling then we should all turn out computers off and go out and get some daylight and exercise. And it’s irrelevant whether trolls agree with you or not. Because they are trolls.
The skill of rhetoric, after all, does not merely consist of identifying logical points in support of an argument. It also includes phrasing them in the most effective way possible in order to persuade. If one chooses a particular manner of phrasing for one’s point of view, that manner is on the table as a legitimate topic of argument. If someone uses thuggish rhetoric, and I criticise them for being thuggish, I’m not being a troll, I’m reacting to thuggery by expressing my distaste for it.
To pick an example at random, it’s not trolling to criticise Muslims Against Crusades for picketing remembrance ceremonies and burning poppies without addressing the validity of the argument that the memorialisation of dead soldiers has been co-opted by Western governments to boost public support for further military campaigns.
That said, criticism of your opponents manner is not usually an effective way to win an argument, and it’s true that it can distract from more serious issues. Angry people very often have good reasons to be angry. But it’s distressingly common to see people use rhetoric which contradicts their stated positions. (Stop being so bigoted, you retard!) and it’s easy to see how angry people could fall into errors that clearer heads would easily avoid. (I’m not fucking angry!)
The generally accepted (I think) definition of a troll is summed up pretty well by Wikipedia, which doesn’t seem to have heard of the epithet “tone troll”:
In Internet slang, a troll is someone who posts inflammatory, extraneous, or off-topic messages in an online community, such as a forum, chat room, or blog, with the primary intent of provoking readers into an emotional response or of otherwise disrupting normal on-topic discussion.
(I don’t entirely agree with this definition, by the way. “Slang” denotes an informal or non-standard expression or one used by a restricted group, and surely everyone must know what a “troll” is by now.)
Urban Dictionary, meanwhile, indicates a specific blog where “tone trolls often emerge in the comments section” (link above). A quick check confirms that that’s certainly where allegations of “tone trolling” seem to emerge. (COMMENTERS: If you accuse someone of “tone trolling” and they deny it, why not go double or quits and accuse them of “derailing“?) And by a curious coincidence, many of the links that turn up in Google searches for “tone troll” and “tone trolling” are connected to the very same blog, which makes me wonder if it’s really a thing at all, or just a hoax, perpetrated by a small number of authors and commenters, that has somehow caught on.