Recycling Online Vitriol Into Conversation Fuel

How not to let the trolls get to you

Online civility is a chimera.

While many people treat their online presence as an extension of their meatspace one and behave accordingly, trolls do exist. And they can be vicious in their attempts to discredit you in one fell swoop of the keyboard.

The perils of being a visible, outspoken woman on the internet are many, especially when you choose not to hide behind a pseudonym.

As a journalist, my byline is my bond and has been since 2004.

When I set out to try and save my own life by writing about losing the last five years of it to major depressive disorder, radical honesty was the only way to go.

Full disclosure isn’t a decision I took lightly. In fact, I started out using a pen name then realized the distance between my online and offline identities meant that I was forever holding back. And there cannot be any effective mental health advocacy if you’re not prepared to document everything. This includes issues seldom discussed in public, such is the impact of depression on finances, career, or relationships.

This is how I recently found myself unpacking my sex life on the internet. Suffice to say it’s as dead as the proverbial dodo but for the timid ministrations of fingers that are quite out of practice yet keen on giving me a hand.

Orgasm is a boon and a blessing to an insomniac like me, and if I don’t make it happen, no one else will.

Alas, some hardcore “manly men” didn’t take kindly to my claiming ownership of my own body. When I wrote about how my marriage has suffered from a protracted absence of mutual lust, I was told that I might enjoy sex once I got going. And that providing sex to my husband was my wifely duty, never mind that he yet has to express any interest in it.

This kind of feedback can throw you for a loop when you have extensive experience of sexual abuse — spousal and otherwise — as I do.

There’s a very good reason I am a feminist: Too many men have treated me like a sexual smorgasbord over the years and bypassed consent in the name of their own pleasure.

Feminism to me is just another word for equality, and there’s no feminism without intersectionality. My fight is for equal rights for all humans. In short, no human should ever be subordinate to another or discriminated against for being who they are.

If my tolerance and all-encompassing view of our shared humanity offends you then so be it. We live in an era when failure to call out abuse means getting a step closer to becoming numb and thus enabling all kinds of extremism. Alas, this assessment is as valid for the US as it is for France, both of which I’m a citizen of. North America and the European Union have many problems in common, but our laws are quite different.

In the US, you can get away with online bullying under the guise of free speech. Although slander and libel have legal standing, good luck defending yourself when you’re just a regular Jane like me. Instead, you shrug it off and keep going. Unless you’re a human with mental health issues, in which case you’re never not at risk of self-destructing.

The latter means my work is a constant balancing act between digging deeper in the name of advocacy and protecting myself. Because I refuse to live in fear, it’s advocacy or nothing.

Fear — be it fear of taboos, stigma, or men — means granting control to some nebulous outside force.

This is how depression took over and colonized my brain in the first place.

So when harassment happens, I deal with the fallout, take stock, and recalibrate my approach. In practice, this means overcoming the urge to give up and give in to the voice of depression. The illness corrodes the ego until there isn’t much left. As a result, any malevolence quickly becomes confirmation of your unworthiness.

For five years, “You’ll never write again” was the mantra playing on a loop in my head. These days, hearing it is my cue to drop whatever I’m doing, stick myself in front of the laptop, and hunker down until I’ve processed the distress in print.

Because if I wobble so much I lose my writing voice again, I’m done for.

This isn’t my first rodeo.

Some of my newspaper work abroad earned me threats of being beaten up in a dark alley as well as some strong words urging me to go back to where I had come from. These days, whenever I rail against Trump, I’m told much the same even though I am a US citizen and thus at home in America.

While I abhor clickbait and don’t court controversy, reactions mean my work has touched a nerve. Even hateful feedback helps me identify what still needs doing and sometimes gives me clues about how to do it.

Which isn’t to say one should entertain commenters who lack basic civility.

The decision to engage is one you should feel comfortable with but you don’t owe anyone your attention, much less someone who isn’t able to put their point across in a respectful manner.

I’m a huge fan of debate and strong personalities as long as my interlocutor is able to argue while remaining civil. This, it turns out, is a skill not everyone has. A troll, by definition, does not. And yet I will engage and use my right to reply to defend my work from spurious claims that take it out of context. Context is where haters often fail, because not every internet typist does their due diligence, which is to say research and fact checking.

When someone piggybacks on my work with words that aren’t worth the screen space they take up, of course I call them out on it.

And no, being someone with a mental illness and a sexual abuse history doesn’t make me a victim but a survivor, one determined to help others. And since this is the material I have, this is the material I use. Doing so has gone a long way toward alleviating the paralyzing shame inherent to my condition and circumstances.

Much like taboos and stigma, trolls only thrive in the shadows and rule by fear, seeking power over those they terrorize.

But when they don’t even have the courage of their opinions and hide behind avatars and pseudonyms, why should we even pay heed to anything they say?

I’m a French-American writer and journalist living out of a suitcase in transit between North America and Europe. To continue the conversation, follow the bird. For email and everything else, deets in bio.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store