In Internet parlance, a troll is generally defined as "someone who comes into an established community such as an online discussion forum, and posts inflammatory, rude or offensive messages designed intentionally to annoy and antagonize the existing members or disrupt the flow of discussion.'
Their posts are often filled with taunts, inaccuracies, fallacies of logic, etc. designed to "bait" the other posters into responding. For some, a successful troll is that which generates a melee of followup postings. For others, object of the game is not truth or honesty in discussion, but to make their opponents look foolish. Trolls often consider their efforts successful when they can elicit emotional responses from posters, outwit them in "flame wars", or otherwise make them appear as if the troll has the upper hand.
During the infancy of Internet culture, it was more common to fall for the bait of a troll. Online users are generally wiser these days. If a troll doesn't change its schtick, eventually posters become wise to the troll and stop responding to it.
Many have likened Ann Coulter to an internet troll. She certainly brings out some of the more creative pejoratives I've read, even among those who should really know better. Unlike the Internet troll however, Coulter has the advantage of not having to address direct counterattacks to anything she writes. Instead, she gets invited to appear on Jay Leno and other talk shows.
"Exciting" is the operative word here. What used to be the realm of stuffy middle-aged folks like George Will and Phyllis Schlafly has been rebranded and given a sexy makeover. Perhaps that, in the year 2006, is what is needed to get people to take notice. ...As I noted in a previous essay, many Americans are so overwhelmed by demands on their time and attention that they tend to take their information in sound bites -- the more provocative and entertaining, the better chance of being noticed.
Coulter has been playing the game using a woman's intuition: it's currently fashionable to be right wing, outrageous, a shit-stirrer in the era of South Park, gangsta rap, gory video games, FOX News, Jackass, etc. And it's, like, so totally apropos in this era of tabloid-style "news" to adopt the tone of a know-it-all gossip columnist who knows how to use humor as a weapon. Her style "reads" like a snarky sorority girl at a loud cocktail party with the "like, I am SO SURRRE's" edited out.
Being outrageous is still IN. Looking like Barbie (the novelty factor) while being right-wing and outrageous is a double-plus IN. Being Controversial never hurt sales, either, whether you're right or wrong. People will want to know what all the fuss is about.
Her style is seemingly calculated to draw out the longest trolled-reaction possible, which will only garner Coulter more attention. Like an Escherean paradox, many of Coulter's statements seem calculated to pile irony on top of irony, virtually guaranteeing she'll get responses. Consider:
- An unmarried woman wearing a low-cut cocktail dress on the cover of a book entitled, "Godless".
- A woman who makes misogynistic statements, which results in her liberal critics, who supposedly are above that sort of thing, resorting to misogynistic invectives.
- Critics who complain that Coulter relies too much on ad hominem and other logical fallacies while lapsing into ad hominems and other logical fallacies themselves.
- Being guilty of what she accuses others of doing (while claiming the others are "hypocrites"). Examples:
- Accusing the 9/11 widows of "profiting off tragedy", while her post 9/11 books have become bestsellers.
- Accusing the "liberals" of using "sacred cows" to hide behind, while utilizing one of the oldest right-wing "sacred cow" tricks in the book: "God". What politico dares to step forward and challenge the idea of "God"?
- Calling for the death of American public figures whose political views she doesn't agree with, while accusing "liberals" of "treason".
- Accusing "evolutionists" of "concocting stories", then immediately concocting stories about what "they say".
Critics who attack her hyperbolic style miss the point. Coulter is a cartoonist who uses words instead of pictures. Just as an editorial cartoonist might depict the Far Right as a group of ignorant bumpkins with pitchforks, statements such as: "[all] liberals are guilty of X" -- while more than likely false if taken at face value -- will get people to thinking if there's a grain of truth behind the hyperbole.
Unfortunately, for both fans and foes alike, words have a tendency to be taken more seriously than cartoons. Cartoonists "say" outrageous things all the time in their work, yet few if any become media personalities. The comments on the 9/11 widows notwithstanding, a more important controversy surrounding her latest book has been her attack on evolution -- unsurprising, given the recent news surrounding the "Intelligent Design" controversy. In her chapters addressing that subject, Coulter -- neither a scientist nor all that interested in the sciences (apart from their relevance to political issues) -- decided to crib her arguments fro -- I mean -- consult with "Intelligent Design" proponent William Dembski.
What we're served up with is a snide rehashing of old arguments that have been debunked within the more esoteric circle of the creationism/evolution debate. Her arguments are currently being assailed by evolutionary biologists on both left and < a href="http://www.caidweb.org/blog/">right sides of the political spectrum:
Of course, "liberals" and the theory of evolution are not mutually inclusive. Belief in a higher power and the theory of evolution are not mutually exclusive. There are conservative believers of evolution, conservative atheists, church-going, God-fearing liberals, and there are those who believe in God as well as evolution. ...No matter to a polemicist whose aim is to divide. In a two-party system, it's easy to fall into the trap of the false dichotomy.
Even if Coulter knows it's all B.S., so what?* She's found a profitable niche for the persona she has created. She most certainly knows that what sticks in the mind of John Q. Sixpack isn't going to be boring facts and figures that require a university degree in a specialty field to understand.
What's going to make John Q. Sixpack contribute to Coulter's bank account is the entertainment value of her commentary coupled with some very simple, but tried-and-true, emotion-based themes:
The Other Side is Wrong, Dangerous, and To Be Feared
The Other Side is Bad For Your Children
It's Fun To Annoy and Discredit The Other Side
Those who "get the joke" have suggested that Coulter should simply be ignored. I disagree. Successful mediocrats like her are well-versed on how to use the tools of manipulating mass opinion with inflammatory rhetoric. Coulter's career as an attorney primed her ability to use provocative language in order to draw out a desired response. Therefore, her arguments and rhetoric should be viewed by opponents as a challenge to hone and master their own skills at verbal fencing. Opponents should learn to bolster their own arguments and credibility, while learning how to stay cool and argue with the upper hand.
Like the troll who enters the forum and is met with the challenge to prove the claims they make, opponents should learn how to counter and deflect the tricks of the pundits. ...And if they can't, then perhaps they should reconsider their positions.
In other words, don't focus on Coulter the person. Perhaps we shouldn't even be focusing on the arguments she makes per se. Instead, learn more about the art of propaganda and media techniques. For example, Coulter dishes out truckloads of negativity. Should we really be fighting negativity with more negativity? Is Coulter attempting to draw out more negativity from opponents to make her critics sound tiresome as well? Is there any truth to certain statements she makes? ...and if so, learn to keep oneself in check.
For what it's worth, I have no problem with the criticism of "liberals". Left unchecked, there's a tendency for either side of the political spectrum to fall into kneejerk patterns of thinking; of laziness, excess and corruption with too much power. She says what others are often afraid to say in public, but aren't afraid to say in private. Taunting political sides in order to draw out that side's hypocrisies has merit. It's the deliberate pandering of misinformation that she should be called on.
What the USA needs right now is its own version of Anne Robinson -- a cool, no-nonsense personality who's entertaining, isn't afraid to be an intellectual and whose only interest is to cut the B.S. What the science and education community needs is a spokesperson to fill the void that Carl Sagan left behind -- a charismatic and respectable personality who isn't connected to punditry, making it less easy to be dismissed by critics.
With the country entangled in a quagmire war, Bush's approval rating at an all-time low, gasoline prices at an all-time high (not that it has anything to do with Bush, but what are little details like that to John Q. Sixpack?) right-wingers are predictably returning to emotional issues like gay marriage and religion in order to cloak themselves in an air of moral righteousness. Predicability precludes boredom and the eventual seeking of fresh ideas. Will the American public eventually tire of the long procession of negativity and scapegoating tactics and look for a new voice who actually offers something more positive and constructive to say?
Perhaps she should simply be allowed to run her course until her formulaic refrain wears out its welcome -- just like any other fashion trend. Coulter's side is falling out of favor. Eventually, the old formulas -- which sounded fresh and acerbic ten years ago -- will become predictable and tiresome, just as folk music and protest marches -- ideas that were fresh and outrageous 40 years ago -- have become trite and cliche for the Left. Will the strident bully taunts of the Right eventually grow stale as well?
Let's see how long she lasts in the spotlight this time...
*Note Coulter's body language in the Jeremy Paxman clip. Her eyes wander all over the place like she's attempting to memorize lines -- not someone who is genuinely passionate about the subject they're talking about.