Imagine you are mean, don’t have a lot of empathy, and enjoy making people mad. You go on the internet and post the most provocative takes you can find. The goal is to generate attention, reactions, and controversy. When people react with horror, this feeds you. “Maybe Trump should be grabbing more women by the pussy,” you tweet on one account, and “I’m not sure we shouldn’t be discussing white extermination” on the other.
And people say, “why are you being so edgy?” or “You seem to be getting off on making people upset” or “you are just looking for the most controversial opinion because it generates the most attention”
Now, imagine you live in a society where pedophilia is the norm, and children are forced to engage in sex acts on adults. You think real hard about this, conclude it’s really bad, and then run around going “Hey we’re literally traumatizing children, this is horrible for our culture, maybe we should stop?”
Or, maybe you live in a society where slavery is the norm, considered to be a moral benefit for the slaves. You enjoy running provocative thought experiments designed to poke at the edges of people’s moral intuitions. “Imagine we discover a fully industrialized civilization in Africa, with a train network and full cities. Would you support the exportation and enslavement of those Africans?”
And people say, “why are you being so edgy?” or “You seem to be getting off on making people upset” or “you are just looking for the most controversial question because it generates the most attention”
From people inside the society, opinions generated by making people mad and questions generated by genuinely trying to point out inconsistent moral intuitions look… pretty similar, because the effect of poking at moral intuitions makes people mad.
Probably the most common criticism I get is that I am troll-edgy. I’m often characterized as the first example – I enjoy sitting around and thinking about what will make people the most mad, and then I go post it and revel in the retweets.
And this… kind of got to me after a while, because I do like getting retweets, and I do think about what makes people the most mad. Am I… troll-edgy? Am I just getting off on making people upset? I felt sensitive around it because I was confused about my own motivations, and everybody was telling me that my motivations were bad. Was I bad?
While I don’t claim that troll-edgy and thoughtful-edgy are fully non-overlapping categories, there’s still really distinct differences – the former optimizes for a reaction, while the latter optimizes for a deeper point, with reaction as a side effect. While troll-edgy is disconnected from a sense of a moral frame, thoughtful-edgy is directly connected.
A lot of the strategies to do thoughtful-edgy are very similar to being troll-edgy. Thinking what makes people mad? as a prompt is a perfect troll move, but also as a way to find the edges of moral intuitions. Focusing disproportionately on high-risk questions – things most likely to split audiences or generate discussion – is what trolls do, but also what you do if your thinking frequently questions social norms.
Unfortunately there’s strong incentive for people who prefer maintaining the current social norms or moral intuitions to mischaracterize moral questions as troll-edgy. If you critique slavery in a pro-slavery environment, people might call you troll-edgy in order to dismiss your intentions as malicious, and the conclusion you’re pointing to as stupid, so they can run around continuing to support slavery as good. They’d prefer to see you as being driven by reactions alone, as disconnected from a deeper point, so that they themselves don’t have to engage with your deeper point. It’s an evasion technique, and a move that seeks to neutralize you as a threat to their worldview.
Separately from all of this, there’s a spirit of exploratory playfulness I think the troll-edgy accusers miss. In my ideal world, my friends and I would sit around figuring out what sorts of thoughts we don’t want to think, because to me this is inherently interesting and fun. I absolutely relish the rare occasion when someone asks me a question that triggers unexpected disgust in me. It doesn’t always have to be about making a deeper moral point – it’s an act of creativity to find and put together different parts of our mind in ways that want to push away, sorta like one might mess around with magnets that don’t want to touch, or figure out a tune of music that makes your stomach feel ticklish. It’s just straight-up cool.
And I understand that other people don’t have this same urge, and this is fine – but what’s not fine is when they recategorize delight here as arising out of maliciousness. I am not bad, I am not a cackling asshole who wants to watch the internet world burn; I’m childlike in this, and I actively enjoy my own discomfort and want to share that enjoyment with others.
I might have a typical-mind tendency to assume everyone else is equally delighted, but I try to be aware of discomfort and not push the edges of people who seem uncomfortable in a way they don’t want to be. I also want to promote this as advice – regardless of the moral intuitions you push, and regardless of how much you value play, be careful not to allow righteousness or a display of your own ‘bravery’ or whatever to blind you to your care for others. Have empathy for those you engage with! Be carefully attuned to the effects you’re having on others. You don’t have to fully censor yourself – as an extreme example, you could argue that we should make pro-slavery people feel uncomfortable – but if you decide that your self expression is worth causing discomfort, at least be in contact with the results of your decision.