Last night was Donald Trump’s first State of the Union address, and when CBS put out an instant poll on approval of his performance, I made what I thought was a relatively innocuous (if snarky) comment about the long-term value of the poll, saying: “I’d love to meet the person who votes based on SOTU performance”.

Given that I’ve made far more acerbic comments without incident, I didn’t imagine the kind of response I’d get. It was fascinating to watch such clearly insecure people jump on such an unremarkable comment to make themselves feel better about their own intelligence. And for most of them, that’s all it was: it wasn’t about making me feel dumb so much as it was about wanting to feel smarter by contrast.

There was, however, a group that clearly could only get their jollies by trying to make me feel dumb – the ones that took to calling me “cupcake”. In total, three different people decided to call me “cupcake”; the kind of people who are so impotent that they can only feel powerful by hurting people.

It’s behaviour that’s just as prevalent on twitter as it is on the schoolyard, but whereas on the schoolyard it tends to be more powerful people punching down, on twitter it tends to be more pitiful people punching up. For that reason, it can’t be understood as “bullying” and it calls for a different response, namely: none. It’s no use to lord one’s credentials over them or to get into an argument about who’s smarter or more successful. There’s no need to trade insults and there’s no winning the argument. Giving any energy to that person can’t produce a net positive for you.

What it comes down to is whether we feel the need to insist on our superiority to trolls on the internet. And whether doing so is in fact merely an effort to convince ourselves of our superiority.

Being secure in our skills and abilities is easier said than done. As much as my first response to being called cupcake is a sarcastic “oh no, a guy on the internet thinks I’m dumb!”, it nags at you to want to prove them wrong, because the thought that they might be right is always deep down gnawing at us. Success becomes something we perform instead of something we achieve, which makes our success feel like a petena – a thread which, if pulled, will unravel us. But I’ve noticed that I never care less about trolls than when I’m facing a new challenge. Likely because validation from people who don’t actually know you can never feel as good as finding out we’re capable of more than even we knew.

If people want to know the real reason that I went to law school, I’ll tell them the embarrassing honest answer: I wanted to prove I was capable upfront so that I wouldn’t have to keep proving it for the rest of my life. But in trying to prove something to everyone else, I stumbled upon my proudest accomplishment: facing the limits of my intellect and character, and figuring out how to like myself in spite of them. No troll will ever match that experience, and it gives me comfort to know that no troll can ever take it away from me.

Posted in: Progress

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