The trolls we despise are our own creation

To kill off the poisonous notions of celebrity, we have to stop giving it our attention and act civilly to each other.

It’s easy to mock Paris Hilton.

She is the scarecrow that embodies everything we use to keep our morals flapping above the fields of indignity. With celebrity culture, the glitz of Hollywood has lit up long dormant beasts in each of us: because they’re on the big screen, they’re deserving of our vitriol, of our scorn. But we no longer direct rotten fruit at them, but rotten terms: Too fat, too skinny, cheater, liar, weirdo, skank, whore, drug addict, stupid, bimbo, loser, airhead, meaningless. Terms most of us left in the schoolyard, replacing them with conduct catered to civility and, indeed, common decency, are somehow allowed rebirth and fruition to be used at these idols of our indulgences, these effigies to narcissism.

Yet, those of us who casually and so easily mock the failings of young women we do not know, or largely harmless men with admittedly weird religions, are also quick to shake our fists and heads at rude online comments and bizarre blog threads; we are outraged at the targeting of people for making the mistake of, for example, reviewing technology or being a woman and having an open comment thread on the internet.

When we turn off the screen, a black monitor greets us with a darkened face and we have an answer. Do we even realise the casualness with which we dismiss celebrities as idiots, bimbos, wash-ups, has-beens, irrelevant? This ignorance on our part of targeting people who are, in fact, complete strangers – just more famous ones than online writers – is itself part of the problem. We’ve casually allowed for this environment of trolling, of harassment, because so many of us do it. We’ve built a culture of mockery, a religion of ridicule, where we drink the spirits of vitriol down parched throats, raw from directed anger. And we wonder where these ‘new’ beasts come from.

We created them. We’ve produced an environment where people like Charlotte Dawson attempt suicide because strangers on Twitter had direct access to someone they’d otherwise never be able to reach. Technology may be bringing us together, but no one ought to assume this is always a good thing. Celebrities and people on television have always been the target of casual hatred, of comments that dismiss them as persons with actual emotions, instead of entities flickering on a screen, or smiling from a glossy magazine; all that’s changed is Twitter and blogs and forums have allowed us to air talk that would’ve quickly evaporated at dinners and barbeques into a permanent format: often in ways allowing us to aim our hate directly at the celebrity in question, as with Dawson.

We like to think we’re better than celebrities: these entities with no emotions, these scarecrows of our own design, with the expensive smiles and poor judgements. They’re not real like our friends, our lovers, our families, we think, they exist in some other world beyond our mere mortal grasp. While this is true to some extent, it’s no reason to treat them with casual hatred and quick dismissals: if we really are better than them, surely that means we should demonstrate it, in not allowing even casual hatred to be a property we have. It’s easy to create scarecrows from the threads the screen provides, from the weird behaviour picked apart by gossip columnists, by the tiny increase in bulges etched into eternity by paparazzi; it’s much harder to fight against this machine that manufactures celebrities out of ordinary people, fed by screaming passion of voyeuristic indulgence.

In a global society increasingly growing weary of gods, we’ve become lax to a religion that creates them all the time, demanding the sacrifice of our decency.

There are multiple ways to make places like the internet and society in general a space in which adult discussion can occur. There are ways to combat the influence pundits, who sprout fallacies and untruths, have on political discourse in the most powerful countries in the world. One way is to grow a stable foundation of our own discourse. It’s to reclaim civility in a consistent way. It’s to say we’re better than this, we’re better than the hype machine, we’re better than the trolls.

There will always be strange people doing harmless things, always be celebrities who say nonsense like Paris Hilton and her homophobic ideas; but our passion and our anger are better served elsewhere than on strangers – no matter how big-named they are.

Celebrity does not imply talent. Celebrity is only made by attention. We should start killing the notion of "celebrity", replacing it with actual talent, actual ability. But to do that requires us to stop giving attention, to stop hurting our own humanity as moral beings: we’ve got to act civil – ie read and engage charitably, begin with some measure of respect, until such time as interlocutors do not reciprocate or demonstrate deserving of it, and so on. 

If we can’t even maintain a modicum of respect for a rather harmless young woman like Paris Hilton, is it any wonder we fail in facilitating proper dialogue on important matters with our opponents?

Paris Hilton: a celebrity we created. Photograph: Getty Images
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What’s the secret of the world’s best-paid sports manager? Ask the Chicago Cubs

Theo Epstein is a star because he values the person as much as the player.

As I write, the Chicago Cubs, perennial underachievers, are three wins away from reaching baseball’s World Series for the first time since 1945. By the time you read this they may have crashed out. Besides, baseball – like cricket – is a language that asks a lot of its translators. So, in writing about the Cubs, I’ll skip the baseball bits. Fortunately, the lessons of the Cubs’ success (they were the outstanding team of 2016, even if they don’t win the World Series) transcend baseball.

To understand the future of sport – and perhaps employment – I recommend a pair of profiles of Theo Epstein, the president of baseball operations for the Cubs, one published in the New York Times and the other written by David Axelrod (Barack Obama’s strategist) for the New Yorker.

Epstein, 42, has just agreed a contract extension worth $50m over five years, making him the highest-paid non-player in professional sport. There is plenty in the profiles on his whizzy use of data analytics; his algorithmic tests that measure players’ co-ordination (essentially using neuroscience to measure talent); as well as the Cubs’ coaching programme dedicated to mental health and managing stress. Most timely and important of all is Epstein’s emphasis on character. He talks about “scouting the person more than the player”. He wants the right kind of people on the field.

“In the draft room [where the team decides which players to sign], we will always spend more than half the time talking about the person rather than the player,” he has said. “We ask our scouts to provide three detailed examples of how these young players faced adversity on the field and responded to it, and three examples of how they faced adversity off the field.”

Epstein is well known for empowering a “geek department” inside his baseball teams. Yet instead of perceiving a conflict between science and the human realm, he sees the two as part of the same big picture. He craves players with character who can benefit from the insights of science.

“Character” is a vexed subject inside sport. It sets off uncomfortable associations. Talking too much about character – building it, or even just valuing it – sounds dangerously close to endorsing an amateur ethos. Victorian public schools often celebrated sport explicitly in opposition to intelligence, even achievement. H H Almond, the headmaster of Loretto from 1862, got an A for candour (if nothing else) when he ranked his school’s priorities: “First – Character. Second – Physique. Third – Intelligence.”

The Victorian notion of games cast a long shadow over sport and society in the 20th century. The first phase of ultra-professionalism, in the office as well as on the sports field, was a reaction to Almond’s set of values. The concept of character was recast as a consolation prize, doled out to the class dunce or the twelfth man. Crucially, reformers and nostalgics alike bought in to the historical perception of a separation or conflict between character, intellectual life and sporting achievement.

The Cubs, however, know better. To adapt Almond’s clumsy saying: intelligence and physical skills derive, significantly though not entirely, from character. Character is now being understood not as the destination, but the foundation, even the process.

This is an overdue reassessment. In the loosest terms, I would identify three phases in the development of professional sport. Phase one optimised the body. Sadly, though we are still inching forward, the human body is now reaching the outer wall of virtuosity. All sports will tail off in speed of progress, in terms of pure physicality.

Phase two of modern sport turned to psychology. Realising how hard it is to gain an edge through physical conditioning, everyone suddenly started talking about the mind: the inner game of this, the mental game of that. However, reconfiguring the mental approach of elite athletes – already in their twenties and thirties, with deeply ingrained habits and highly evolved psychological software – is also exceptionally difficult. That is why many top athletes recoil from conventional “sports psychology”; the discipline is oversold and under-sceptical.

We are now entering phase three: the whole person. Sustained high achievement relies on something much deeper than a few sessions with a sports psychologist. So you need the right people in the room.

Coaches in future will be numerate and intellectually unthreatened by the scientific advances that illuminate sport. But the best coaches will never lose sight of a parallel truth: that although science can help us to understand what happens on the sports field, and sometimes how to do it better, it cannot conveniently convert athletes into inert particles, as though it were a ­physical science. Coaching can benefit from ­science but remains an art – one that revolves around understanding and helping people.

In most sports, players and coaches are really in the business of decision-making. The winning team, as Pep Guardiola says, makes more good decisions. Sport, in other words, advances when it trains people to make better decisions. There are now highly evolved analytical techniques for understanding how those decisions influence results. However, the athletes themselves are still people, imperfect and imperfectible. If you want machines, you get dummies.

This month, I was asked to found a new institute of advanced sports studies at the University of Buckingham. The mission is to create undergraduate and postgraduate courses that attend to the entire mindset – critical thinking, ethics and leadership, as well as data analytics and sports science: a kind of “PPE of sport”. After a misleading triple fissure – character, body, mind – sport is starting to put the pieces back together again. That’s why, this month, I’m rooting for Epstein’s Cubs.

Ed Smith is a journalist and author, most recently of Luck. He is a former professional cricketer and played for both Middlesex and England.

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood