Sunday, December 23, 2018

Review: Bullshit Jobs: A Theory, by David Graeber

New York: Simon & Schuster, 2018, pp. 368.

Back in 2013 David Graeber penned an article for Strike! Magazine regarding what seemed to him the explosion of pointless, economically irrational unemployment, which he colorfully termed "Bullshit Jobs."

In an extraordinarily rare case of an item with actual intellectual content going viral, it became something of an international sensation, leading to a broader research project and book-length treatment of the issue five years later. The book, like his earlier Debt, presents a large, intricate and conventional wisdom-smashing argument, but one that leaves the densely written and documented macrohistory to a minimum while in more sprightly fashion making a case rooted in anecdotal stories of present day individuals. In particular he relies on his collection of employees' self-reports about their work being "bullshit," defining the bullshit job as
a form of paid employment that is so completely pointless, unnecessary, or pernicious that even the employee cannot justify its existence even though, as part of the conditions of employment, the employee feels obliged to pretend that this is not the case (9-10).
In line with this emphasis on the subjective, Graeber is also more concerned for the "moral and spiritual damage" done by the situation; the reasons why this is happening; and what might be done about it.

As one might guess, bullshit jobs consist substantially of administrative and bureaucratic functions of questionable value, especially at the middle management level. What may be more surprising to adherents of the "conventional wisdom" is that these are every bit as present in the private sector as in the public (in case it needed to be done, Graeber once more debunks the rightist/libertarian stereotype of bureaucracy as unique to government). Also surprising to those of the conventional turn of mind is the extent to which this has been bound up with the growth of those sectors that cheerleaders for neoliberalism endlessly exalt, and which have tended to shape other sectors in their turn--namely finance and information technology, whose ways have penetrated such non-profit institutions as the university. Thus everywhere one looks one sees an abundance of "flunkies" (whose job is to make the boss "look important," as a receptionist often does); "goons" whose essential task is to enable their employers' exploitation of the public, and often exist only because their competitors have them (as is often the case with telemarketers, lobbyists, corporate lawyers, public relations specialists); "duct tapers" (whose job consists of patching over quite fixable problems the bosses are too lazy, incompetent or short term-minded to resolve properly, as is often the case in computer programming); "box tickers" (whose task is to "allow an organization to claim it is doing something it is in fact not doing," like going through the motions on due diligence); and "taskmasters" (who invent additional unnecessary work for all of the unfortunate underlings named above).

Graeber also notes the ways in which "real" jobs rather than the "bullshit" kind may be infiltrated by or even an outgrowth of bullshit. As an example Graeber presents members of the teaching profession, who perform an essential function, but find their time increasingly taken up by administrative tasks; or researchers and their institutions, which devote increasing amounts of time to chasing grants (ironically, squandering billions that could be used to fund a vast amount of research).1 Janitors likewise remain essential, but janitorial work may be classifiable as a bullshit task when the workplace they happen to clean serves only a bullshit purpose--such as a PR firm. Given polling data indicating that as many as 40 percent of employees feel their jobs fall into the category he describes; and the other jobs which increasingly consist of bullshit activities, or service such activities in some respect or other; Graeber estimates that 50 percent of all work done today qualifies as bullshit "in the broadest sense of the term."

Graeber contends that this situation where half the country and the developed world are giving their waking hours to bullshit jobs entails enormous "spiritual" violence. The reason is that even if human beings are not naturals for the routine of intense and continuous toil from nine-to-five (or longer) demanded by their employers, human beings do have a significant need for purposeful (and even altruistic) activity. The make-work, the parody of work, that is a bullshit job denies them that, indeed harms them by inflicting on them the opposite, the anguish of pointless activity, while subjecting them to many of the worst features of employment--like the loss of personal freedom to the will of a boss who is often arbitrary and abusive, and more generally the alienations of which Karl Marx and C. Wright Mills wrote. Where the job pays relatively well, there is guilt and shame at their remuneration being unearned; and where the job makes the world actually a worse place, guilt and shame at their contribution to having made it so. (Indeed, many of those whose testimonials Graeber recounts quit well-paying, prestigious "bullshit" jobs to take less remunerative but more meaningful work.)

The absurdity, and tragedy, of the situation appear all the greater for the contrast with and ramifications for those doing productive, non-bullshit jobs, whose conditions deteriorate and whose compensation declines (turning them into "shit" jobs, making a genuine contribution but unpleasant to do). Graeber explains this partly in terms of know-nothing, corporatized administrators subjecting those workers to speed-ups, pay cuts and the like (there being actual productivity to squeeze further here); in part because right-wing populists stoke public hostility to such groups as teachers, nurses, and even auto workers. Indeed, Graeber goes so far as to contend that an envy of those who are genuinely productive is part of the political game being played. ("You get to do something meaningful with your life, and you expect a middle class standard of living too? How dare you!")

How could this perverse situation have been permitted to come about in a system that may not be respectful of workers, but at least prides itself on efficiency? For Graeber an important part of the story is that, rather than mass technological unemployment being a fear for the future, it is something that has already happened to us, leaving us with a "real" unemployment rate of 50 to 60 percent. However, what happened was that the gap was "stopp[ed] . . . by adding dummy jobs that are effectively made up." Indeed, Graeber argues (as he did in his essay "Flying Cars and the Declining Rate of Profit") that post-1960s neoliberalism is not a project for maximizing economic efficiency and growth as it claims to be (objects it has signally failed to deliver), but for preserving the existing order--capitalist property and labor relations (an object at which it has been rather more successful).

An Orwellian notion, Graeber admits that this sounds like "conspiracy theory," but regards it as an emergent phenomenon, resulting from the failings of the system, and of our misconceptions about what work is and what it ought to be. As he notes, the tendency to large numbers of flunkies and duct tapers and box tickers and taskmasters ordering them all about has been a result of the way financialization (and IT) led to a more ruthless, more conflictual, more alienating workplace overseen by managers increasingly divorced from and ignorant of the actual productive task, and in greater need of surveilling their work force. (Indeed, it was this unfamiliarity of managers with actual work that led to the blooming of the "consulting" industry.)

However, Graeber devotes more of his attention to the deeply distorted perceptions of work we carry around in our heads. The most basic would seem the identification of work with the "production" of material goods--when, he argues, most work has not been about production, but rather "caring" for people (child-rearing, housework, education, medical services, etc.) and things (maintenance and repair), which has been overlooked. (As the above list demonstrates, caring work has largely been women's work, and so less valued--and indeed, Graeber credits leftist feminists with developing the concept.)

Hardly less important is the tendency, already emergent in Medieval North European culture, and reinforced by the "Puritan" ethos (and capitalism, of course), to equate work with "alienated," mind-and-body destroying labor done for something other than the work's intrinsic value to the doer, under the supervision of others, all day, every day, and indeed, with the misery normally attendant in the situation.2 All other activity is "idleness." Work is deemed virtuous, idleness sinful, so that being miserable in one's work marks them as "deserving," and someone who is not working, and made miserable by their work, is "undeserving" even of the means to live.

Consequently, as production became more automated, caring work was not acknowledged as an alternative locus for labor; and there was a timidity about or hostility to changes in the social system that would reduce workloads (a shorter work week) or detach income from work, productive, caring or otherwise (through income floors, for example). Public well-being was instead identified with the maintenance of high levels of employment, particularly "full-time" employment, to the extent that this could be invoked as an excuse for wasteful or destructive social policies, Graeber citing the way in which the preservation of millions of jobs directly connected with the private health care bureaucracy has been given as a justification for not shifting to a more efficient alternative--not least by President Barack Obama himself.3 (Indeed, social safety nets themselves drove the growth of bullshit employment, through a massive bureaucracy devoted substantially to making the lives of qualified applicants seeking benefits more difficult through means testing and refusals.)

As a result, despite his aversion to the demand that social critics serve up policy solutions as the price of opening their mouths (which he observes is a way of distorting or suppressing dissent), Graeber argues for a Universal Basic Income as a solution to the problem, on several grounds. Such an income, he contends, would affirm the right of human beings to live, and aid our moving past our flawed conceptions of its connection with a perverse understanding of work by delinking income from labor. It would also eliminate the problem of means-testing and the associated welfare state bureaucracy. (The problem of how those made redundant by the change are to get on is, of course, resolved by their getting such an Income too.) It would eliminate, too, the incentive of people to do bullshit jobs (which would be a quick way of forcing employers to do without positions that are often unnecessary and wasteful for even their own firms), and more generally enable employees to walk away from a raw deal, likely improving the pay and conditions of work for all. This would be all the more significant, as he expects that the great majority of people will still be working in one way or another, at tasks that may well prove more beneficial not just to themselves but to society and the world as a whole (precisely because so much of the work being done was bullshit, and much potential creativity and ingenuity wasted in the process). Graeber also contends that this could contribute to resolving other major problems, citing that experiments with such income policies in the past (he cites India as an example) also reduced social distinctions, prejudices and ills to which the "rat race" and all the rest contribute so much; while pointing out that perhaps the single best thing we could do for the environment is to scale back our wasteful working.

In discussing what Graeber has to say it seems only fair to admit that I have long been convinced of the truth of what many will regard as his most radical claims--the immense wastefulness of contemporary capitalism, that technological employment has already happened (after picking up Jeremy Rifkin's The End of Work back when it was still current). Perhaps because of that I had reservations about just how much he stuck to his emphasis on subjective perceptions, to the exclusion of other examinations of the issue proffered by heterodox economists under the heading of "waste" for over a century (generally, in more objective, materialist ways), matters like built-in obsolescence, or marketing efforts like advertising and "product differentiation." In fact it seemed to me that doing so could have strengthened his argument considerably, and perhaps, helped him avoid what seemed to me certain exaggerations that came from his reliance on a narrower basis for approaching the issue than he might have used--like going too far in downplaying productive labor in his (justified) correction of the tendency to overlook caring labor, or his trying too hard to explain the widespread hostility to particular occupational groups in terms of this theory when others have at least as much to offer. (While he seems to me entirely right to say that the public begrudges artists a living because they seem to be avoiding their share of the common misery, it is also the case that artists are not generally respected as "useful" people; while Galbraith's concept of "convenient social virtue" seems to me to account for much of the disrespect constantly shown members of the teaching and nursing professions.4)

Still, these are comparatives quibbles with a case that is as compelling as it is unconventional. Materialist, hard data-and-statistics grubber that I am, I consistently found his argumentation regarding not just the existence of the problem, but its discoverability through his particular approach, persuasive, with the same going for his treatment of its causes and implications. At the same my interest in those other approaches was, on the whole, not a matter of skepticism but of my finding his argument so compelling that I could not but think of the possibilities for a synthesis of Graeber's argument with that longstanding tradition of writing on economic waste. (What, for instance, would it take to produce a pie chart that shows the share of bullshit in Gross World Product? How about time series' of GDP and GWP presenting figures adjusted and unadjusted for the bullshit component side by side?) It strikes me, too, that if Graeber is less concerned with the macroeconomics of the solutions he recommends than he might have been, that his case for a guaranteed minimum income is one of the more robust I have seen in recent years. Indeed, in a market full of books which are really just extensions of banal magazine articles (especially when we look at those produced by major commercial publishers for a general audience), this book, like Graeber's earlier Debt, is a diamond in the rough.

1. See Richard Harris' Rigor Mortis (reviewed here) for an in-depth discussion of this in the medical sector.
2. Graeber cites Alfred Marshall's definition of labor in Principles of Economics as work done "with a view to some good other than the pleasure derived from the work."
3. I was dismayed to see James K. Galbraith make a similar case in his otherwise excellent The Predator State.
4. As he put it in Economics and the Public Purpose, this "ascribes merit to any pattern of behaviour, however uncomfortable or unnatural for the individual involved, that serves the comfort or well-being of, or is otherwise advantageous for, the more powerful members of the community. The moral commendation of the community for convenient and therefore, virtuous behaviour then serves as a substitute for pecuniary compensation. Inconvenient behaviour becomes, deviant behaviour and is subject to the righteous disapproval or sanction of the community." It seems noteworthy that Graeber has over the years cited the works of the elder Galbraith a number of times, but also that while four of Galbraith's mid-century classics are listed in his bibliography, including American Capitalism, The Affluent Society and The New Industrial State, Economics and the Public Purpose (the work that capped that line of research) is not.

"Are the Arts Just For the Rich?"

Watching Patrick Stewart in William Shatner's documentary The Captains' Close-Up talk about his childhood, I was surprised by his working-class Yorkshire upbringing. And afterward I couldn't help thinking that where the current generation of British actors is concerned, none seem to have a background remotely like that. Look them up, and you are far more likely to find they are a graduate of Eton, an alumnus of the Dragon School.

Naturally it was with interest that I read a series of pieces in The Guardian on the phenomenon--some dealing with actors specifically, others the arts more generally. The pieces were far from as incisive as they could have been--not least, in their use of the term "middle class." A famously fuzzy term, it can be used to deliberately cloud the issue, frankly to downplay the extent to which a person from an extremely privileged background actually comes from an extremely privileged background, and often is, not least by The Guardian when discussing artists. Consider the extract from its typically puff piece profile of Killing Eve creator Phoebe Waller-Bridge:
Waller-Bridge grew up in an upper-middle-class family with baronets on both sides. Her father co-founded Tradepoint, the first fully electronic stock market . . . and her mother works for the Ironmongers' Company in the City.
On what planet is someone with "baronets on both sides" of the family, someone whose father cofounded a company with its own Wikipedia page (Tradepoint, later SWX Europe), merely "upper middle-class?"1"

Even in a culture so mendaciously pretending that "we're all middle class now," this is too, too much.

All the same, if the term is used in a way so loose as to be obfuscating (at best), the pieces offer a robust round-up of a sizable body of anecdotal evidence (Helen Mirren, Judi Dench and other luminaries observing their chances would have been very different today), and a growing body of solid statistical study, that confirms what David Graeber (writing of America rather than Britain, though there is no reason to think all this is less applicable to it) remarked when looking at the social, class realities of intellectual and creative life that "if your aim is to pursue any sort of value [but money]--whether that be truth . . . beauty . . . justice . . . charity, and so forth . . . [and] be paid a living wage for it"--those "jobs where one can live well, and still feel one is serving some higher purpose"--only those with "a certain degree of family wealth, social networks, and cultural capital" have much of a shot, while for the rest "there's simply no way in" (253).

In spite of which they are typically told by the "successful," and sometimes simply "everyone," that their failures are entirely their own fault, that they simply were not "good enough."

Which bullshit--the philosopher Harry Frankfurt's term certainly seems applicable here--is the conventional wisdom in an era that has never had much patience with the claims of artists to support or even sympathy.

The attitude shows up the illusion that the contemporary world is a meritocracy, makes a mockery of its slogans about opportunity, and not only diminishes the lives of those cut off from such careers solely for having made the mistake of not being born rich and well-connected, but the arts themselves, and through them, society as a whole.

Bullshit Jobs and the New Hollywood

What one might call the "myth" of the "New Hollywood" of the 1960s and 1970s is that the artists' hubris led to the alienation of key partners and allies and sponsors, personal antagonisms and artistic and commercial flops that destroyed their careers; that the limited appetite for artistically daring and politically radical content had been exhausted, as risque content became mainstreamed and as the politics of the country moved right, eliminating both inspiration and audience; and the rush to imitate the success of Steven Spielberg's Jaws and George Lucas' Star Wars.

However, reading the relevant history I found myself struck by the changing business conditions above all. The New Hollywood happened in a period of sharp changes in media and entertainment (above all, the rise of TV), but also an interregenum between business models--the studio system was dying, but the hyper-financialized multinational multimedia corporation with its mission of barraging global audiences with "high concept" content had not yet established itself. The real, significant but still very limited margin of freedom that the New Hollywood artists enjoyed in between was inconceivable except in that interregenum, and came to an end with its close.

Interestingly, it is one of the many smaller jobs David Graeber takes up in Bullshit Jobs, where his emphasis is on the aftermath of that closure, described as "a corporatization far more stifling than anything that had come before" (186). In the book's discussion the key element is the complication of the process of "development" which has seen vast numbers of executives having to successively sign off on a project while getting in their two cents--a case of too many cooks spoiling the broth, the more so because none of them know a thing about cooking, and are often just trying to justify their existences (because, by and large, they know nothing of film, and by any reasonable measure, epitomize "bullshit" in the sense Graeber writes of it).

As it happens, contemporary Hollywood comes up a second time in the book, namely its closed nature. As Graeber remarks,
Look at a list of the lead actors of a major motion picture nowadays and you are likely to find barely a single one that can't boast at least two generations of Hollywood actors, writers, producers, and directors in their family tree. The film industry has come to be dominated by an in-marrying caste (252).
The combination of the industry's high-concept, global-market imperative, with this production process that looks like a recipe for incoherence or worse, and the bizarre situation in which the film industry is dominated by a closed "aristocracy" (his term), do not seem at all irrelevant to the combination of artlessness, and extraordinary divorce from lived reality, of what passes for "cinema" in our time.

Sunday, December 16, 2018

Are They Trolling Me? A Test

I have already written a blog post about spotting trolls, but thought I'd present some of those thoughts again in a somewhat more systematized, handier fashion--in the form of a test to which people can reasonably put an interlocutor's statements. Admittedly based on limited personal experience I don't claim that it is scientific or pretend that it is foolproof, but I find the essentials handy, think others might find them handy too, and that feedback from others might help develop this into something better, so here it goes--a set of questions with differing weights.

1. Did they butt into a conversation already ongoing between other people? (10 points)

2. If they butted in, was it into the conversation of people who clearly had a very different attitude toward the subject matter? (For example, a #MAGA butting into a conversation between two #Resist in a thread started by another #Resist account's Retweeting an item from a progressive media outlet?) (10 points)

3. Are they just using this as an occasion to inflict talking points on people they seem well aware have no interest in hearing them (rather than engaging others in a manner indicative of genuine interest in their thoughts and opinions)? (20 points)

4. Are they demanding that other people provide lavish defenses for their opinions? (10 points)

5. Are they trying to press the other person into agreeing with them? For example, do they keep repeating their talking points in a manner suggestive of pressuring them, or asking the same questions over and over again after the object of their questioning has given them all the answer they have to offer? (20 points)

6. Do they use insults or make personal attacks? (30 points)

Bonus Question: Does their profile flaunt a troll's attitude? Trolls are often proud of their activity, such that I have seen some declare that they are trolls in their Twitter profile, while others, only slightly less subtle, boast in transgressive ways about their mean-spiritedness and sadism to shock, offend or intimidate, in their imagery as well as in their words. (This can include reference to or glorification of violent acts in their handles and profile pictures; it may also include the celebration of much maligned figures or evocations of their ideology as studied provocations.) (40 points-and just 40 points because even a troll might not be a troll all the time.)

Ask each of these questions in regard to the suspected troll, and add up the points warranted by each "Yes." Someone who scores a 30 is suspect as a troll, someone who scores a 40 is likely to be that, someone who scores a 50 or more probably that.

The first six questions allow for a score of 100, while adding in the bonus question permits a maximum score of 140.

As that suggests, trolls, by nature unsubtle, tend to give themselves away very early on in the game. I think it best to take the hint, and best that you also do the same. Do not fall for the lie that you are being a thin-skinned "snowflake" or intolerant of "free speech." Accusing people for being thin-skinned for simply not accepting abuse is what a bully does. ("What, can't take a joke? Don't you have any sense of humor? You're no fun.") And respect for freedom of speech does not mean that you are personally required to spend every waking moment of the rest of your life being an audience for people who disagree with you--and still less, people who are promoting ideas that are genuinely loathsome. (I'm making a value judgment here, and not apologizing for it.) Feel free to cut a troll off as soon as you have become convinced of their purpose. Mute, block and REPORT as seems appropriate to you.

Monday, December 10, 2018

Donald Trump, Josiah Bounderby and the New York Times

Thinking of the New York Times' investigation of the Trump family's financial history I find myself recalling Sylvester Stallone's fawning characterization of Trump was Dickensian. Stallone has never impressed me as anything but a semi-literate pseudointellectual, and so I thought this simply a matter of a semi-literate pseudointellectual trying to show off by using "Big Words" and embarrassing himself in the process, as semi-literate pseudointellectuals tend to do. However, it is one of life's little ironies that sometimes even the semi-literate do, entirely by accident, hit on just the right word.

After all, one of Dickens' more memorable but unfortunately overlooked characters, in one of his more memorable but unfortunately overlooked books, is Josiah Bounderby of the classic Hard Times--a callous, bullying, egomaniacal rich man who never ceased to blow hard about how utterly self-made he was, how he owed nothing to anyone and least of all to any parents, but in the end was caught in the lie in very public and humiliating fashion. With this investigation made public, Donald Trump has fully traced the arc described by Bounderby.

Would that the Times had done this necessary work sooner.

Trump, Taxes and the Times: Putting it All in Context

Back in October the New York Times grabbed a great deal of attention with a report on the finances of Donald Trump and his family, focusing in particular on the extent to which he owed his fortune to inheritance and tax evasion on that inheritance--belying his image as a nearly "self-made man." According to the report, over five decades Trump received some $413 million in cash and other assets by way of 295 "revenue streams."

At the outset Trump received "three trust funds," salaries as an "employee," and shares in his father's properties (part of an apartment building at the age of seventeen), while paying for what can fairly be called his lavish lifestyle. Where Trump's business-building was concerned, his father also provided loans far vaster than Trump initially reported, on terms (interest free, without repayment schedules, and ultimately unrepaid) that rate their being really considered gifts; his subsequent assistance in particular business ventures, like his acting as Trump's "wingman" in "greenmailing" schemes; and his timely and not always legal bail-out maneuvers when as was frequently the case Trump ran into trouble (like a $3.5 million purchase of casino chips); so that the full value of his father's assistance would seem to exceed even the vast dollar figure of such cash as he provided initially.

Finally the elder Trump passed his personal fortune itself down to his children, using three sham corporations to funnel cash from father to children through various subterfuges (like the padded bills paid to the All County Building Supply and Maintenance firm), and the undervaluation of properties to minimize the taxes on them to a degree considered extreme. (Rated at $41 million in the mid-'90s, the properties were valued at over twenty times that a few years later.) Indeed, where Fred Trump wanted the empire kept within the family, Trump was eager to liquidate his share in it, and did so at a price hundreds of millions of dollars belows its market value, in what has been interpreted as a desperate bid to get himself out of trouble yet again.

At the end of its report the New York Times article acknowledges that Trump's "keeping the truth of his money . . . hidden or obscured" was for "decades, aided and abetted by less-than-aggressive journalism." Reading that the article's wording seemed euphemistic--and as is so often the case with euphemisms regarding the prominent and powerful, dishonest. That it would be more truthful to say that the lies Trump told, lies which he parlayed into that self-made man image that was itself another, powerful revenue stream (his books, his TV show, his "Trump University"), perhaps the closest thing to a revenue stream for which he could actually take credit, were aided and abetted by fawning, sycophantic coverage reflecting the ultra-conformist deference the media and society in general shows toward wealth and status.1

Reading about all this I recalled, too, one of Thomas Piketty's more striking observations in Capital in the Twenty-First Century--the likelihood that the statistics on inequality understated the problem because of the numerous tax dodges available to and exploited by the super-rich (such as tax havens), and the simple reality that the authorities compiling such statistics are less than aggressive about painting the most dire picture. Consequently, one can regard the report as interesting not merely as a snapshot of the fortunes of one prominent figure and his family, but also methods that are in more general use among the super-rich, individually and collectively; as well as the reality that the tax haven problem to which Piketty, Zucman and others have drawn so attention is only one dimension of the evasion of taxes by the wealthiest individual. One might see in this story the lie to something else--the myth of the "self-made man," a far rarer and more complicated story than a culture that seems as addicted as ever to Horatio Alger tales can possibly acknowledge.

1. In his book Seeing is Believing Peter Biskind quipped that self-made millionaires are as common in right-wing films as are the masses in left-wing films. We are bombarded endlessly by images of self-made millionaires, and now billionaires, but when was the last time you saw the masses in a Hollywood movie?

Sunday, December 9, 2018

What Makes a Troll a Troll?

We all know that the Internet, and especially social media, are inundated with trolls--pathetic, repugnant, dark triad-afflicted losers (narcissistic, Machiavellian, psychopathic) whose idea of a good time is ruining them for everyone else.

Many will acknowledge that it is a bad idea to respond to a troll. They are uninterested in anything you have to say, only in distracting you from what you were doing, knocking the conversation off track, making you waste your time and effort dealing with them, and causing whatever harm they can. This may be so much the case that they will say things they don't mean simply to satisfy their desire to disrupt and to hurt--but much of the time, maybe, probably, most of the time they believe them, if not always wholeheartedly.

But how does one tell the difference between trolling and an opinion they simply do not like?

I find that trolls tend to butt into ongoing conversations among other people--usually, people of quite a different sensibility than themselves. (To choose an admittedly non-neutral example, one might find, for example, a few people who might all be considered left-of-center responding to an item to which such persons might be expected to be more attentive than their counterparts on the right when a right-winger suddenly turns up.)

I also find that when they do butt in they do one of three things:

1. Fling insult and abuse. (All they can do is call the participants in the conversation stupid--which often betrays that this is exactly what they are.)

2. Rub their opinions in the faces of people they expect to be repulsed by those opinions, rather than try to actually discuss anything. It is a little harder to be sure of this than, for example, insult. Still, there are giveaways. Such opinions are typically canned, often by someone else (they don't actually do much thinking for themselves, or they'd have better things to do than this), and commonly irrelevant to the conversation into which they have entered. (I recall a thread where people discussed the President's reply to the Thanksgiving Day question "What are you thankful for?"--and only that--and someone felt the need to inject the claim that "Socialism killed 100 million people.") When others react, they commonly display satisfaction, perhaps repeating the action.

In cases I have had the impression that they are like exhibitionists, deriving satisfaction from others' disgusted reactions. In others, they seem to delight in lobbing a grenade into a crowd of bystanders. In still others, it seems they are more purposeful--intent on diverting a discussion, for example. (I recall the comments thread of a news story about the Netherlands' police training eagles to catch drones, and seeing it from the start diverted into an attack on solar energy, with the hundreds of comments that followed caught up in the ensuing flame war. Alas, renewable energy and sane climate policies are very common troll targets.)

3. In the rare case that they are able to actually interact with others regarding the subject, they behave in very unreasonable, bullying fashion. They do not ask for an explanation of another person's opinion, they demand that they defend it, and raise the bar for such defense very high--asking for the equivalent of a doctoral dissertation, complete with footnotes, as the price of their having opened their mouth. Even after the person has given such explanation as they have to offer, the questioner refuse to accept that the other person has said their piece and keeps coming at them, as if intent on making them recant, on converting them to their cause. (I have, unfortunately, found myself having such talks with proponents of atomic energy who want me to "admit" that renewable energy can never be the foundation of our energy base.)

Can normally decent people find themselves acting in ways similar to this? It's not impossible. Annoyance, a foul mood, and they slip into some bad behavior. But I think one can go too far with the "Everyone can be a troll" line, and certainly anyone who has doubts about a particular interlocutor can, on Twitter at least, just look at their account, see the way the suspected troll has chosen to present themselves to the online world, see the things they choose to post and share.

Some I have seen proudly and not at all ironically write the word "Troll" in their bio. And I find it best to take them at their word.

When I run into someone fitting someone fitting the profile described here, I don't mute the conversation, I block them. Permanently.

Yesterday, one of my comments proved to be pure troll-bait, alas, inciting dozens of attacks from people who responded in exactly these ways. I have blocked each and every one, and at the time of this writing, find myself continuing to block them--setting a one-day record, which is, I suppose, why I buckled down and wrote up this post.

I strongly urge everyone else to similarly block those who conduct themselves in such a manner. Trolls, especially as defined here, may have the right to speak, but you have no obligation to listen to them, let alone answer them. They have no right to take your time and attention, let alone inflict harm upon your mental well-being.

Do not let them do it.

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