Killing An Internet Troll With Kindness Isn't Always Worth The Risk

Sarah Silverman chose to show compassion to an online bully, but the rest of us should proceed with caution.

02/26/2018 16:38 EST | Updated 02/26/2018 16:38 EST

Sarah Silverman shocked the internet recently when she responded with tremendous compassion to an internet troll. This person had something horrible to say to her, and instead of blowing off the person or schooling them in the polite use of social media, she reached out with concern.

She told her online offender that she was worried about them; that their hurtful words came across more as a cry for help than as an insult. And it turns out that in this case, she was right.

Her bully let down their guard and showed Ms. Silverman their wounds. In the end, Ms. Silverman even helped set up this person with a therapist so that they could deal with their issues rather than continuing to take out their unhappiness on others.

This scenario fills me with many emotions. I'm impressed to see someone behaving with such sensitivity and kindness on social media; especially in the face of hurtful behaviour from another. I'm also amazed that the bully was able to let in Ms. Silverman's kindness and respond to her so favourably.

I'm pleased that Ms. Silverman has demonstrated to everyone online a model of compassion and caring; however, I'm concerned that she might have set a risky precedent for how the rest of us deal with online bullies, one that could be setting us up for further attacks.

Bullying, whether online or in-person, can be an attempt by someone who feels weak, disenfranchised and overwhelmed to feel more powerful, dominant and in control. The bully puts down the other person in order to pull themselves up.

The bully may be an angry, unhappy person who preys on those who seem, at least on the surface, to be weaker or more insecure than them. They do this because the weak person could remind the bully of their own embarrassing inadequacies and the bully feels threatened by these individuals.

Many of these bullies, without realizing it, are behaving this way as a cry for help.

The bully attacks the "weaker" person because they feel the need to "punish" this person for making the bully feel so uncomfortable. Some bullies, though, may be sociopaths who take pleasure in hurting others and who use the internet as their access portal to as many potential victims as they can find.

The bully attacks people who they see as "weak," but they also attack celebrities. They do this mainly out of jealousy. The bully feels bad about where they are in their own life, and they want to bring down those individuals whom they perceive as "doing better" than them or "having more" than they do.

Many of these bullies, without realizing it, are behaving this way as a cry for help. They're putting themselves into the public domain as trolls and haters because they're emotionally wounded and they need to express their pain (as vitriol). Perhaps they have a secret, unconscious wish of being rescued.

And this is where Sarah Silverman comes in. She's out there in the public eye, tweeting and posting on social media. Bullies resent people like her and they attack these individuals online, as did the person who insulted Ms. Silverman the other day.

Mario Anzuoni / Reuters
Actress Sarah Silverman.

Typically, I see two different ways that people deal with online bullies: either they just block them and forget about them or they choose to engage in an argument with them. I've always recommended the former, as there's never any value in arguing with a bully.

Ms. Silverman did something very different when she chose a third option: to be compassionate toward the bully. She saw this person's attack on her as a cry for help and she reached out with kindness and concern.

Ms. Silverman demonstrated an unusual and inspiring degree of sensitivity, considering that this person had insulted her in public. I commend Ms. Silverman for her choice, especially because it resulted in a win-win scenario, but I wonder if this outcome is merely a happy accident.

I do believe that many online bullies are doing what they're doing as an unconscious cry for help. However, many of these individuals could be so out of touch with their emotional pain and so focused on their anger, jealousy or hatred that they'd be immune to the type of compassionate response offered up by people such as Ms. Silverman.

Sadly, I believe that very few bullies would be amenable to Ms. Silverman's type of approach. I wish that this wasn't the case, but from what I know of human nature, it's far more likely that a kind, supportive approach to an online bully would be met with increased hostility rather than with appreciation and conciliation.

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As much as I value Ms. Silverman's good heart, I would encourage other people to be cautious in their dealings with online bullies. If targeted by someone like this, I'd still recommend that the most prudent course of action would be to not engage; even block this individual.

Yes, many of our online bullies might be attacking us as a cry for help, but how many of them would respond to our kind outreach by choosing to put down their poisoned pens and enter into a meaningful and respectful dialogue? Far too few, I fear.

And how many of us would be willing to risk a further attack from someone who's already shown that they're capable of inflicting great harm? Ms. Silverman's approach worked well in this one scenario, but who'd be willing to give an online attacker another potential opportunity to insult us and drag our reputation through the mud?

Who'd be open to the risk that the bully would use our kindness against us? After all, these are total strangers and we have no idea what to expect from them. So, while I applaud Ms. Silverman for taking that chance, I would recommend that when dealing with online bullies — whether or not their behaviour is a cry for help — the rest of us ought to proceed with great caution.

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