Hope for Trolls

By Jessica Johnson

September 26, 2019 5 min read

Trolling on social media, unfortunately, has become a sinister American pastime. It is by far the worst liability of the otherwise great technology that connects, informs and often inspires us. Concealing themselves behind menacing avatars and usernames, trolls wreak havoc on the lives of their targets with vexing words that incite fear and misery. Such was the traumatic experience of Taylor Dumpson while she was a student at American University.

In 2017, Dumpson made history as the first black female student body president to be elected at AU. What should have been a time of celebration with her peers soon turned into an unforeseen nightmare. Neo-Nazi trolls purposefully singled out Dumpson for bigoted harassment. Their racist cyberbullying tactics were combined with some old-school hatred, hanging nooses around bananas.

In an interview with CNN, Dumpson shared that the Anti-Defamation League warned her she had become a national target of hate. She took a screenshot of their email and sent it to her parents because she was too distressed to talk about the threats she was receiving.

There is, however, a ray of hope in Dumpson's story. After graduating from AU and moving on to law school, she won a lawsuit against her attackers, another historic first: Online harassment was deemed just as detrimental as physical intimidation in terms of violating a person's civil rights.

The most important victory for Dumpson, though, was that one of her trolls met her in person to apologize. She did not share his name in her interview, but imagine the magnitude of their encounter. Here was a young white male who had been heavily influenced by racist ideology. He softened his heart and began to think seriously about how his vile words impacted the life of someone he'd been told to hate.

In addition to online trolls, another downside of our present-day culture is we often think people can't change. I'd say we probably put white supremacists at the top of this list. Sometimes, we lose faith that even teenagers have enough time to alter the course of their lives.

Dumpson's attacker showed maturity in accepting responsibility for his actions, and hopefully, his eyes have been opened to see the world from a different perspective. This young man should read "Consumed by Hate, Redeemed by Love," the recently released memoir of former Klansman Thomas A. Tarrants. Two generations separate Dumpson's attacker and Tarrants, but Tarrants' story provides a cautionary tale of how racial hatred almost cost him his life.

In the beginning of his book, Tarrants recalls planning to bomb the house of a Jewish leader in Meridian, Mississippi, in 1968. Tarrants was barely out of high school and hadn't joined the Klan yet, but he had already been brainwashed by their extremism. He attempted his attack the following year but was confronted by police and almost shot dead. This brush with death did not serve as a wake-up call. Tarrants attempted to escape from the Mississippi State Penitentiary at Parchman Farm, where he was slapped with a 30-year sentence. After narrowing evading death again, Tarrants spent three years soul-searching for truth. He began to study the Bible, which led him to him renounce his racist militancy and have "a life-changing encounter with Jesus Christ." Tarrants refers to his younger self as a "hate-filled terrorist." He has been in ministry now for over 30 years and diligently works for social change through spreading the Gospel. Tarrants' story can definitely help young men like Dumpson's attacker acknowledge the error of their ways and avoid a life of dangerous radicalism.

I was encouraged to read that Dumpson also believes her former troll can transform his thinking. Although he was just one of hundreds to come forward and face her, one still greatly matters. This can significantly impact their generation in the ongoing struggle for better race relations.

Dr. Jessica A. Johnson is a lecturer in the English department at Ohio State University's Lima campus. Email her at [email protected] Follow her on Twitter: @JjSmojc. To find out more about Jessica Johnson and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.

Photo credit: StockSnap at Pixabay

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