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Robert priceEverybody’s a critic, they say.

But that’s not true.

Some people are critics, in the true sense of the word, and contribute positively by determining the meaning and value of social and cultural artefacts. Critics shape culture, teach audiences and direct attention.

Critics aren’t trolls. They create and elevate discussion and, by elevating discussion, enlighten audiences and raise tastes. Such work takes time and intelligence.

That’s why trolls, however they might like to style themselves as smart, savvy, courageous critics, will never be critics and never make any lasting or useful contribution.

Trolling requires a person to suspend thought. To hate any thought that isn’t their own. Like guard dogs, they patrol the perimeters of thought and bite anybody who oversteps the boundaries.

It’s in the realm of social criticism that trolls can do the most damage. A troll could throw excrement around inside a book review and hardly anybody would notice. But in the wider world, they dirty everybody.

Consider what happened in the aftermath of the Humboldt tragedy.

On April 6, a bus carrying the Broncos collided with a truck, killing 16 people and injuring the rest of Humboldt’s junior hockey team.

The nation mourned the loss of so many people who died doing what so many Canadians do – travelling to a hockey game.

Two days after the accident, freelance writer Nora Loreto wrote on Twitter: “I’m trying to not get cynical about what is a totally devastating tragedy but the maleness, the youthfulness and the whiteness of the victims are, of course, playing a significant role.”

Most people read this tweet as trolling. Trolls responded by hurling hate and abuse at Loreto.

We could take Loreto’s insinuation seriously and ask: Do young white men attract more sympathy than other groups? Or to use the current language of left-wing social critique, was the reaction to the Humboldt tragedy an expression of patriarchal white supremacy? Which isn’t to ask if the grieving public is composed of Nazis, as the language suggests, but does Canada have a bias towards white people and white men in particular?

This is a question that left-wing social critics ask all the time these days. With her tweet, Loreto was simply dealing a cliché. Hers was a thoughtless, formulaic response to a tragedy. It was trolling pretending to raise a serious question when, in fact, it was more like belching out loud at a funeral. The tweet was rude, insensitive, self-indulgent.

We can say the same about Randa Jarrar, a professor at Fresno State University who, upon learning that former United States first lady Barbara Bush had died, tweeted that Bush was “an amazing racist.” Jarrar let the world know that she was “happy the witch is dead,” blamed Bush for raising “a war criminal” in her son former president George W. Bush, and looks forward to seeing the Bush family “fall to their demise the way 1.5 million Iraqis have.” In closing, Jarrar let her readers know she can’t be fired because she has tenure.

On twitter, partisans applauded Jarrar for her candour. And it’s true – productive social criticism isn’t without candour. But effluent like the kind Jarrar spilled isn’t candour, it’s a toxin.

The critical project is built on compassion as much as candour. True social critics care to build something. The goal is not to smash and destroy, bully and troll. The goal is to illuminate and enlighten.

Social criticism is too important to leave to the trolls, whether they have tenure or not.

Troy Media columnist Robert Price is an assistant professor at the University of Toronto Mississauga.

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