In my time writing and commenting on discussion boards and weblogs, I’ve run across a disturbing word: troll. Commentors are cautioned not to feed the troll, and anyone who expresses an opinion different from the majority’s risks being given that label. The term has two possible origins:
1. In Norse mythology, “troll” is a word used as a synonym for the Jötunn, the giants who are the equals and rivals of the Æsir and the Vanir. Readers of The Hobbit know of them as the monsters that confront Bilbo and the dwarfs before being tricked into staying out past dawn and turning into stone. Trolls also show up in the Harry Potter series. Then there’s the troll who lives under the bridge and eats travellers who try to cross.
2. The French verb, troller, means “to quest.” It’s used in English to refer to dragging bait through the water in hopes of catching fish.
The second of those is probably the origin of the term in Internet usage, since the offending commentor was someone who threw out silly or unrelated remarks in hopes of derailing the discussion, but it’s come to have both meanings, as seen by the idea of avoiding feeding said creature.
What disturbs me is the notion that a discussion must only be conducted by people who already agree on the main points. I’ve seen far too many cases of dissenters being called trolls for merely offering a contrary view. Our kind of society depends on a lively debate and a respect for the right of everyone to hold individual opinions. Yes, there are obvious cases of someone whose sole interest is to disrupt the conversation, but too often, moderators or participants label opposition as disruption.
This kind of attack is akin to the ad hominem fallacy. It’s directed at the person, while ignoring the points being presented. It’s also a sign of a small mind that is unable to address outside thoughts. I’ve said before that we get the society that we deserve. We shape that society by our participation in the marketplace of ideas. It should also be remembered that some of the Jötunn–Skaði, for example–live with the gods and are their friends. Odin himself consults Mímir, the giant guardian of the Well of Highest Wisdom. We dismiss trolls lightly at our peril.