Don’t feed the trolls

dont-feed-trollsCanelé are hard to bake. They involve beeswax, caramelisation, custard, and French voodoo. But when you get them right they are small golden ziggurats of deliciousness.

Unfortunately for you, you will never get them right because only one man in the world knows how to make a proper canelé. At least, that’s his version of reality, and he defends it on internet sites with a passion that borders on fanaticism.

I imagine him hunched in an armchair that is smeared with beeswax and other less savoury secretions, in the corner of a Paris hovel that he shares with his elderly mother, her cat, his intact virginity and all his regrets and frustrations. And all he does all day is trawl the internet searching for any mention of anyone daring to make a canelé without his permission.

The canelé troll would be funny and sad, like a tiny combative spider jealously guarding a rusty tin can in a garden where nobody goes; but he can’t be seen in quirky isolation. He is part of a foul culture that has spread like rabies through the internet, and which, this week, was foaming bloodily at the mouth.

Between angry tweets, angrier retweets and incandescent subtweets it emerged that “geek culture” – the self-deprecatingly named world of comic books, science fiction, fantasy, computer games and a certain wry misanthropy – was bitterly convulsing around its gender politics. Specifically, it seemed that feminists within the culture, both female and male, were calling it out on what seems to be an endemic and steadily worsening misogyny.

The viciousness of much of the sexist abuse that swirled across Twitter was eye-watering, but so were the less openly aggressive positions: the entitlement, the breezy dismissal of opposing views and the utter confidence of entrenched sexists that they are right. Many of the self-proclaimed geeks I have met are ardent atheist, but religions don’t require belief in God and in many of these misogynist tweets I get a strong smell of worshippers bowing down before the totems of masculinity and technology.

I also saw that, like true fanatics, many believe that they are endlessly under attack, and that their own attacks, relentless and bitter, are simply a form of self-defence. The enemy? Feminists! Ugly uppity back-chatty witches who refuse to wear bikinis made of armour and stripper heels like proper women! Or maybe the enemy is just an ingrown memory of Mom telling them that it’s time to switch off the computer and go to bed. Either way, they clearly see their aggression as a righteous defence of their cobbled-together beliefs. Being a thin-skinned man-child hiding behind a mask of arrogance or pseudo-intellect becomes admirable, even noble.

One could also borrow Henry Kissinger’s line about academic fights and suggest that geek culture’s misogynists are so vicious because the stakes are so low for them. If they woke up tomorrow to find that women were genuinely equal co-owners of the planet, nothing in their lives would change. They would still be allowed to feel persecuted; still have their collections of grievances; still have their games and their mythologies. So they know that they can sit back in their favourite armchair and threaten and insult and hurt without any real consequences, ever.

It is surely progress that this fight is happening. But there is a downside to headlines announcing geek culture’s misogyny problem; each time we see one we are subtly led away from the fact that every culture has a misogyny problem. Misogyny must be called out and stamped on, but it’s also too easy to stamp on just one outlet for it; to become high school jocks mocking the nerds to hide our own desperate failings. Because it’s not just them. It’s us. Sport has a major misogyny problem. So does the corporate world. So does government. And so does every street in every town in every country on the planet.

By talking about geeks as a separate group we are guilty of one of misogyny’s nastiest habits: inventing arbitrary differences between human beings and then believing them to be real. An Us and Them narrative also allows misogynists to avoid the hard work of turning inward.

Yes, it would help if angry, entitled men left their couches and tried to meet the humanity of the women they fear. But it would also help if they ventured into the scariest place of all – their own hearts and minds – and discovered themselves there, perhaps for the first time. Then perhaps they might see that feminism is there to help them as much as it is there to help women. But if they believe that feminism is their enemy then they are their own enemy. They have declared war on their own humanity and if they’re not careful they just might win.


First published in The Times and TimesLive



  1. I stumbled across your blog this morning and just want to keep reading, and reading, and reading! Your writing contains many perspectives – and perspective shifts – that I find myself grateful for, and much to think on. Your phrases are elegant, engaging, and powerful. I look forward to continuing to follow and grow from your writing 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

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