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To troll or not to troll, that is the question of the moment

By Chris Davis | China Daily USA | Updated: 2017-03-01 12:10

The expression "trolling" is internet lingo for posting inflammatory or impertinent remarks designed to get people worked up or upset. It's the cyber equivalent of harassment and usually ad hominem, off-topic and written to sting.

As more than a few US politicians have discovered in recent weeks, trolling is spilling out of the web and into the arena of town meetings. Representatives home from Washington on break have been getting an earful of scorn from sign-waving rabble-rousers who may or may not be getting paid for their efforts.

News comes of a successful Chinese-American author who unsuspectingly walked into a buzz saw of trolling in, of all places, an elite high school in Dallas. And the internet has been well put to try to make things right.

Highland Park High School administrators have sent an apology to New York Times best-selling author Jamie Ford, who was visiting the school last week to keynote its literary festival.

He describes the incident in a blog post titled "The highs and lows of Highland Park School".

After visiting 100 schools, he writes, from the kind in inner-city New York that require see-through backpacks and metal detectors to tony baccalaureates, he finally "had a school visit go sideways."

The students listened as the author of Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet took the stage, they politely laughed at his jokes when he talked about his high school career. Then they clapped and cheered and as he tried to speak again, they began clapping again.

"For twenty minutes as I tried to wrap up my presentation, you clapped and cheered randomly," he writes, addressing the students on his Facebook page. "A thousand students, trolling me."

"I was as perplexed as your teachers and your principal - who was just off stage - stood impotent, while you mocked me, a guest to your magnificent school," he goes on.

Despite the 1,000-to-1 odds, he stubbornly pressed on. "I wasn't about to be run off the stage by a bunch of children who had decided I was just another mark to be bullied," he said.

Ford managed to end his talk on a bittersweet note, talking about the incarceration of 120,000 Japanese Americans and nationals [during World War II] and about how if Americans forget that piece of history, we are all diminished as a people.

"I got my point across and in that brief moment your impoliteness was forgiven and all was well. I thanked you for not clapping and cheering the Japanese Internment.

"Then you clapped and cheered the Japanese Internment. You couldn't resist. That showed me more about you than I wanted to know."

After the presentation, a handful of students sought him out to apologize. The school superintendent called to apologize. Positive comments, emails and messages poured in.

"Please don't judge all of Texas by Dallas," Monica Kilgore posted. "We know it's always been full of fifty dollar a day millionaires."

Jeffrey Willson wrote: "I can only hope that upon reflection those kids feel a deep sense of shame and recognize how monstrous crowds can become and that they are each to blame for pilling on or sitting silent."

A senior at the school, who had watched the presentation by remote feed from a classroom, wrote to explain to Ford that the students in the auditorium were 13-to-16-year-old freshmen and sophomores "who tend to make very stupid decisions, as you most likely did at that age. I find it very offensive that you have identified our entire school with the actions of these young students."

I remember reading about German-occupied Holland during World War II, one of the forms of passive resistance loyal Dutchmen would practice was similar. When assembled at mandatory rallies to listen to their Nazi-sympathizing mayors speak, they would cheer and roar and applaud thunderously every time he tried to open his mouth, drowning him out and not letting him get a word in edgewise.

And that's reminiscent of the great scene in the film Casablanca when Victor Lazlo tells the band at Rick's Caf to strike up the French national anthem to drown out the bellowing German soldiers' singing beer hall songs.

Those two examples of "trolling" were to push back against tyranny. In civil society, that kind of rancor should have no seat at the table.

Contact the writer at chrisdavis@chinadailyusa.com.


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