Even Trolling Should Have Its Limits


‘Twilight’ Stars Rally Around Fans After Death At Comic-Con (mtv.com)

I haven’t read any of the Twilight books or seen any of the movies, and I don’t have any plans to. My tastes don’t tend to go towards young adult literature to start with — I only read Harry Potter this past spring — and I’ve never been much for vampire stories (except for Poppy Z. Brite’s early work). However, I’ve been directed to several entries on Reasoning With Vampires since its launch, and from the passages I’ve read there, and things I’ve heard about the series from friends and students, I get the feeling that I really wouldn’t care for it. That being said, I don’t think I’m qualified to make informed judgments on the series simply because I haven’t read the books or seen the movies yet.

In general, though, I understand the impulse some people have to dislike fans of a certain series or franchise, either because they don’t like the franchise or they think that the fans take their fandom too far. When I “came out” as a big fan and supporter of My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic earlier this year, I knew that some people would automatically lump me in with those kinds of fans. Particularly if a franchise gets big enough for its fandom to have its own name (trekkies/trekkers, bronies/pegasisters and so on), it’s going to attract some negative attention, and nearly every franchise has fans unhealthily devoted to it. Because those fans are the ones who best fit into the unfortunate governing principle of so much of our culture these days — they make for good TV — they’re the ones who end up, for those who are only marginally aware of the fandom’s existence, as an example of the typical fan of that show. Hence the misperceptions that every fan of Star Trek owns Spock ears and can speak fluent Klingon. all the Star Wars fans in the world have lightsaber duels in their basements, and so on.

Since her tragic death earlier this week at Comic-Con while crossing the street to go to a Twilight event, details of Gisela Gagliardi’s life are starting to come out as her fellow Twilight fans, and the cast of the final movie being promoted at Comic-Con, rally around her death to give each other support, as well they should in the face of a terrible tragedy like this. Some, however, are actually using Gagliardi’s tragic death as an occasion for celebration, taking to the Internet to post things like “Ha ha” and “One down” and similar things.  Not that stuff like this doesn’t happen with lots of tragedies, but this time it seems much harsher and much more widespread, simply because Gagliardi was a Twilight fan.

When I recently discussed George Carlin’s rejoinder to the idea that rape can never be funny (something that suddenly became relevant again this past week thanks to Daniel Tosh), I pointed out how I believe a concept can be made funny if it’s generalized and taken to absurd extremes, like Carlin giving the hypothetical example of Elmer Fudd raping Porky Pig. Similarly, the concept of killing an entire group of people based on a defining characteristic they share can conceivably be funny; there’s certainly a wealth of comedy that’s been made out of the idea of killing all the lawyers, dating all the way back to Shakespeare’s Henry VI. Even the Holocaust has given rise to a great deal of self-deprecating humour among some Jewish peoples. In the case of Gagliardi’s death, though, there is nothing general or absurd about it; her death is all too specific, and all too tragic. Making light of  that, especially mere hours after her death, is nothing short of sick.

As I said, though, this is nothing new. This kind of thing has been going on for a very long time on the Internet, as the cruel and the callous take advantage of the facelessness and relative anonymity of the Internet to say things that they would never dare say in front of actual people. Modern technology already has a tendency to lessen our face-to-face time with other people, and as so many in our culture continue to laud competition and denigrate compassion, it’s no surprise that this kind of behaviour is becoming more and more prevalent. With Gagliardi’s death being a national news story, though, the amount of out-and-out celebration of her death far outstrips any similar tragedy I’ve ever seen.

These reactions are in line with a larger internet phenomenon known as trolling, where people post harassing things online for the sole purpose of garnering strong negative emotional responses from others. I see this all the time on the Detroit Red Wings’ Facebook presence, where several Red Wings haters comment on every post with anti-Red Wings messages. Even if we set aside the issue of whether or not trolling itself is (or can be) ethical, there should be limits to what is considered acceptable material for trolling. That line between acceptable and unacceptable would probably be a very fuzzy one, but there’s little doubt that making fun of, or celebrating, the death of someone, especially someone who just died within the last day, is deep in “unacceptable” territory.

Many trolls (if not most) do what they do as a cry for attention, so there is a lot to be said for simply ignoring them no matter how cruel their actions are. Reacting to every incident of Internet trolling would be a task that could probably keep even a task force of thousands occupied around the clock. In a case like this, though, when the thoughtlessness is so crass and so widespread, and it’s attached to a national news story, it’s hard not to take an opportunity like this to deplore the thoughtlessness and heartlessness that leads to the kind of sick messages that have been posted online in the wake of Gisela Gagliardi’s death, in the strongest language possible, and in as loud of a voice as possible.

When we see this kind of reaction, we need to remember our common humanity, the knowledge that it could be our mother, or our spouse, or our son, or our best friend who’s the next one to suffer a tragic, sudden death, and that even if we think we’d laugh about the death or blow it off, that doesn’t mean that others should (or even can) do the same.  To be sure, many people have died in the time it’s taken me to write this blog and for you to read it, and some might try to argue that Gagliardi’s death doesn’t deserve any more notice than any of those other deaths, but that doesn’t make Gagliardi’s death any less tragic. We need to come together, not as fans of Twilight, or haters of Twilight, or fans or haters of any other franchise, but simply as human beings, to express our sympathy for those who knew Gisela Gagliardi and are devastated by her passing.

I’m too much of a First Amendment advocate to even think that there should be laws against the kind of speech that trolls are using in the wake of Gagliardi’s death. That doesn’t mean that we, as conscientious, open-hearted people, can’t use this occasion to exercise our own First Amendment rights to condemn the kind of callousness embodied in these trolling messages, and commit ourselves to work harder to convince people to turn from such negativity and heartlessness, and to act and speak in thoughtful, responsible ways.

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