Thursday, August 21, 2014

Trolls and Wrights

This weekend I was dismayed at trolls. First, let’s talk about wrights.

Consider a satisfied wheelwright. His apprenticeship behind him, he now makes wagon wheels on his own. Good wheels. To the making of a wheel go many variables. I guess he needs to choose wood, cut openings to proper tolerances, steam and shape wood, fit and glue and then maybe heat and bend a steel hoop and put it on just right. About his trade I can only guess, what I know is he is respected in his community.

Consider a playwright. Who can forget Rod Serling’s award-winning teleplay Requiem for a Heavyweight? This was years before he questioned society with episodes of The Twilight Zone. Some folks wish he had not written so much, that instead Serling had slowed down, taking time out to study and develop his art. As another writer, Chaucer, lamented, life is so short, and the learning of the craft so long.

We all know how in Hollywood many crafts take so long: Actors are usually auditioned to play characters younger than they are, to give them the most years possible to work on their craft. There are film schools, stunt schools and careful OJT: on the job training. Despite this, many people think there is one exception: …script writing. They opine that’s “something anyone can do.” Not so.

That’s why, on the web, posted years ago, there is a bitter rap piece by an old white guy, set to Green Eggs and Ham, called I Will Not Read Your F—ing Script. It must be a common bitterness, because this weekend I clicked on an essay with the same title, except the author used cartoon typing to represent the F-adjective. This journeyman wrote about how he had agreed to look at a script by a young in-law; took it home to read; spent two sleepless nights trying to give useful editorial advice for a piece that was just… not… good enough. The only result was that he was slagged, slimed, and disparaged by the in-law. Although not to his face.

What surprised me was what happened after he posted his essay, with its uncompromising title, to share his “lesson learned.” On the web some commenters tried to be supportive, saying things like “you would never ask a physician for advice at a party.”  But other commenters? “These dark woods be full of trolls.” Internet Trolls used insults I just won’t repeat. Perhaps they thought printing out for posterity such words as I would never say in front of my sweet girlfriend were justified: “All the better to show my hatred.” Despite the poor playwright’s sleepless nights they said he was “arrogant;” they said “someone had helped him once.” Not quite the truth.

Put it this way: One night at my university Toastmasters club meeting, before the meeting started, I asked my Toastmaster physician friend a medical question. His name was Henry. Trained in China, Henry was my age, on my wavelength: Once, when we played rock, paper, scissors, we both kept coming up with the same thing! … As for my medical question, before I asked, I made a point of saying I had already seen a walk-in clinic doctor for real. Since I was asking about my foot, Henry had me walk, observed my gait, and said my doctor was correct. A young undergraduate saw me walking and I hastened to say that I had already seen a doctor, that, “As Henry knows, I would never ask a medical question socially, here or at a party.”

She was politely surprised. “Why not?”

Henry answered, “Well, for one thing, because you don’t have time to obtain a full patient history.”

I would tell those impolite, hate-filled trolls that yes, “someone” helped out that skilled scriptwriter back when he was starting out, and that same “someone,” as surely as God made little green apples, had insisted on time to do a patient history, probably in the setting of a writer’s support group, classroom, or a Saturday workshop at a library.

I am not a journeyman playwright, but I can imagine wearing the shoes of one: Rather than having a stranger thrust his script at me, I would want a relationship first. Then I could read the script wearing my sensei, hat, literally “one who has gone before.” I would want to know how serious was my patient. Has he studied or joined a group? How professional were his ethics? What was his history, his paper trail of past scripts? Is he a tenderfoot with no “boundaries” between the page and himself? I once saw a man shivering with fright before his turn for feedback came around. If I were advising, then I would want to know my student. Unfortunately, you need a relationship to discern a guy’s boundaries because even if strangers don’t mean to lie when they say they can “take it,” they are too green to “know thyself.”

I am not a karate sensei, but I can imagine having bare feet in a dojo: If I see my student practicing kicks then I may say, “kick higher” or “kick harder”—but not both: Our relationship, through weeks of class, is what allows me to give the most appropriate feedback, rather than give too much.

Consider what adult Internet trolls were like back when they were still teens: teen bullies. One theory is bullies are “spellbound,” roused to fury by anyone who would break the spell. By this theory, a bully would ignore a timid conformist to go bully a semi-confident nerd, a nerd independent enough not to buy into the bully’s spell of believing in teen conformity. Sounds true. In my younger days, I can remember having to know my own strength, so as not to hurt folks who were far less mature. I liked them; I wasn’t about to break their spell.

Consider the trolls of this specific instance. How to explain their furious reaction? I can’t walk in their shoes—I don’t even want to be able to—but it seems to me these trolls might be echoing desperate youths of the 1960’s.

I am old enough to remember the coming of electric guitars—which killed the booming folk music scene—and the British Invasion. People at the time, a dawning of non-hierarchy, wanted desperately to believe that all it took was long hair and volume and spirit. And maybe man-hours of practice, but not any studying of the masters, not any knowing, say, what the “key of e-minor” meant. (Incidentally, I learned how to determine keys in my college “music and drama” class—I haven’t used the knowledge since.) There was a feeling that “rock ’n roll” stars, as part of their public image, should uphold a “spell” that rock excellence comes easy, without any self-discipline. Don’t tell my sensei that. It would be decades until the CBC could run Randy Bachman’s weekly Vinyl Tap, with a 21st century audience being comfortable with Randy’s deep knowledge from studying the experts so much.

Perhaps, then, the trolls are roused to fury because the script wright broke their spell that anyone can write an Oscar-worthy script on the first attempt.

Consider trolls in general. My favorite web essayist, Paul Graham, in his essay on trolls, wrote they are ignorant: “A troll never sees a troll in the mirror.” During a recent radio interview a young CBC broadcaster—too young to remember JFK being shot—came at ignorant trolls from another angle: He suggests trolls act on impulse, without meaning their hatred to be on a permanent record. I am not impressed: For us non-trolls, everyday life is ample training in civilized impulse control.

The broadcaster was Jian Ghomeshi. He interviewed a humane man, Alain de Botton,
whom I knew of. De Botton likes people, and meets them “where they are at.” The CBC interview was about his “philosopher’s news” on the web. De Botton will attract web readers with common web stuff, non-journalistic stuff, such as photos of a celebrity going for a walk, and then tie these sexy photos to serious news. He doesn’t want to “blame the victim” for how so many people are so not interested in hard news. I think that’s a realistic, loving sentiment.

I am reminded of the 1930’s when idealists in the free world thought they could stop fascism from spreading, preventing a second world war, if only they could stop the fascist usurper from winning in Spain. Orwell noted, at the time, the working class was sending far less money to the republicans for their fight against Franco than they were spending on the football betting pools. Perhaps then, many people are more interested in their leisure pursuits, the world cup and their civilian lives than in hard news for citizens.

As for news today, well, everybody knows that Canada’s prime minister is out-leading Obama on the issue of Ukraine. It seems, according to de Botton, that Canadians are interested in Ukraine simply because Canada has a big Ukrainian population. In the UK, he says, serious newspapers are putting placing Ukraine on the front page—and it’s just “dead space.” Nobody is reading it, nobody is talking about it. Now, if only a celebrity with pretty legs would get involved…

At time I heard the interview I couldn’t take notes, as I was in my car. What made me sit up straight behind the wheel—actually, I always sit straight, with my hands at the prim 10 and 2 position—was hearing why de Botton, on his web news, allowed no comments. When asked, de Botton replied something like he wanted to love his neighbors, and to feel good about people. The trouble with trolls is they would destroy that loving feeling among his readers. So the comments had to go.

I can relate. With my professional ethics, as a writer and storyteller, for easy chairs or the communal campfire, I am keenly aware of the sweep of history, and the need to be supportive of a healthy, functional society. Health, as the terror exporting nations show us, is not the default.—An Arab who enables terror never sees a victim-mode person in the mirror.

Reciting his poems in the agora, Homer would have despised trolls. Homer could show the pointless, gory, bloody horror of war to his society of proud citizen-warriors, only because he never tried to destroy his society. Despite what he said, he was trying to build, and his listeners knew it.

Call me an idealist of the sixties, for I believe in a loving world. Unlike an Arab in the novel Martian Timeslip I won’t spend all day at my factory workstation thinking of hatred for trolls, or anyone. I would not speak truth to the darkly power of the trolls; I would rather ignore them.

And I rejoice in a world that has produced Homer, an everyday world of wrights, sensei’s and the pursuit of excellence.

Sean Crawford

~I exposed the moral difference between the film Troy and Homer’s Iliad during a piece I felt moved to write, Troy, the Iliad and Music, archived January 2014.
~ Incidentally, a young couple in my toastmasters club, master’s degree students from Sri Lanka (Ceylon) observed Henry and I playing rock paper scissors and said—they didn’t know what we were playing!

~I found the point of de Botton’s interview: His new book is called The News: A Users Manual.

~The source for being “spellbound” is Patricia Evans in Teen Torment subtitled Overcoming Verbal Abuse at Home and at School. I mention her spellbound theory in my essay Abusers, New Drivers and Me, archived April 2011

~ A Canadian writer volunteered with the republicans in Spain, like Elton John’s disillusioned Daniel. Like Orwell, he got out before Franco could persecute him. WWII started. Then the veteran was denied a chance to serve in the Canadian army because, they said, he was a “premature anti-fascist.” So he joined the navy. That was Hugh Garner, who went on to write about the corvettes in Storm Below. (1949) By the way, luckily for Franco, Hitler was a bigot and wouldn’t let Spain join the Axis.

~As for my resolve to switch to writing fiction: My second favorite web essayist Stevey, with two web sites, writes his pieces in one three hour sitting. To leave time for writing fiction I tried to do a three hour piece today, but in the end I settled for one day of writing, on and off, on a work day. …Let’s not say everyone can write a Pulitzer-worthy essay the first time they try.

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