Mary Beard's troll-taming is a lesson for us all

Some will say the professor is playing into the hands of sad twerps by responding to their abuse

Katy Guest
Saturday 30 August 2014 18:41
Mary Beard has helped her troll get a job - and a new start in life
Mary Beard has helped her troll get a job - and a new start in life

Further proof, if any were needed, that Mary Beard is a total genius. The Classics professor, prolific author and Fellow of Newnham College, Cambridge, proved last week that she is also an expert negotiator and acute psychological observer as well as having the patience of a saint – nay, a goddess. The good professor, it turns out, has tamed some trolls. She even went to lunch with one of them, and ended up writing him a character reference because she was worried that his well-publicised treatment of her may harm his prospects of getting a job. Not bad, for a friendship that started online when he tweeted her to say: "You filthy old slut. I bet your vagina is disgusting."

Troll One (let's not dignify him with a name, we don't all have the patience of goddesses) is not the only anonymous little online twit whom Professor Beard has rehabilitated, though. A man who posted a digitally altered image of her apologised after she engaged with him, and a man who called her "evil" now checks that she's okay every time someone else gives her a hard time on Twitter (sweet).

Professor Beard clearly does not take the popular approach that the best way to deal with trolls is to ignore them. She has more trolls than most, so perhaps she knows best, but unfortunately not everybody has her troll-whispering talents.

Back in March, when I wrote about children's books that are only "for girls" or "for boys", I stirred up a hornet's nest of commentators who were all really cross and completely anonymous. It's always tempting to try to reason with these people, and so a children's author and I attempted to engage with one of them. "Why are you so angry?" we asked him. "Because feminists want to neuter all men," he said. "Why do you think that?" we asked. He didn't reply, perhaps because his head had exploded.

The people who tweet and tell me that I shouldn't have opinions about books because they hate my hair, I ignore. Though if anyone can think of a sensible response to that particular criticism, please tell me what it is. There will be others who say that Mary Beard is playing into the hands of sad little twerps by responding to their attention-seeking online abuse. As we know from training dogs and children, we should reward good behaviour and ignore the bad. Certainly it seems that lunch with one of our most engaging communicators is a strange reward for someone with such an unhealthy obsession about her vagina.

Typically, Professor Beard has played down her own brilliance, and told The Independent last week, "Please don't overplay this. I am just a sensible middle-aged woman who does what sensible middle-aged women do: move on." If only there were more sensible middle-aged women to go around, Twitter, and the world, would be a better place.

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