Jul 8

Anyone who's been on the Internet for any length of time knows all about the dreaded flame war: that peculiar form of conflict where people get unreasonably irritated at other people, either via E-mail or (more often) a public message board, start firing off increasingly insulting messages like they're going out of style, and eventually get so out of control they either drag the entire virtual community down with them in flames or get banished from the forum with extreme prejudice.  I've been lucky enough to stay out of these kinds of things for the most part (Smokey Bear was a big childhood influence, I guess), and it had been a while since I'd seen one.  But I just got through watching another regional conflict nearly spiral out of control, and boy, did it bring back memories of the good old days.

The specifics aren't really important, and besides, it'd be kind of hard to change the names to protect the innocent.  To sum up: person A (we'll call him/her Innocent Bystander, or IB for short) asks an innocuous question about an unknown entity (UE for short).  Persons B, C, and D (we'll call them The Opinionated, or TO) all weigh in with their opinions that UE probably isn't a good option for IB.  Suddenly Person E (a rage-filled individual–RFI, of course) suggests, pretty defensively, that TO don't know everything and shouldn't be attacking UE.  Both TO and IB assure RFI (aren't acronyms fun?) that they're not attacking UE but simply calling a spade a spade.  RFI demands that UE be allowed to respond to being called a spade.  TO, IB and everyone else (EE) says this is a bad idea.  RFI calls most of TO a bunch of ****** and demands they have the guts to speak to UE.  TO tells RFI to grow up.  RFI calls TO…

Well, you get the idea.  In the end the second finishing option was chosen, and off RFI went into the sunset, to EE's relief.  But the whole business left me thinking about the motivation of the flame war.  I was getting pretty philosophical about it, in fact, until the basic question hit me:

Why the hell do I care?

In fact, why the hell does anyone care?  What's at stake here?  Sure there are the occasional discussions about politics, ethics, or baseball (about roughly equivalent value, I'd say 😉 ) that have big time consequences.  But in the vast majority of cases the discussion topics are only slightly more important than the arguments people have about them.  I get it, I get it: humans like to argue.  We enjoy competition–even conflict.  We like to win.  But no one actually wins here, because the fundamental tenet of the Flame War Code is that you never, ever acknowledge someone to be right about anything.  Really.  Take a look at one of these flame wars and see what happens around page five of the fifteen page thread: even entirely impossible propositions ("if you weren't such a ********* you might understand a little ******* logic, you ******* ****") get treated like arguments that need to be rebutted ("I do understand ******* logic, you ****** *****; if you weren't such a ***********, I'd…")  At this point no one even remembers what the hell the argument was about in the first place.  It's gotten real personal.

So the question remains: why?  What makes it personal?  And I think a quick look in the mirror tells us the answer:

Because they're laughing at me.

That's really what it comes down to.  Our irrational fear that someone somewhere thinks less of us, or at least the virtual version of us.  Or maybe it's not all that irrational after all.  E-mail and instant messaging has made the use of the :) ubiquitous, and has helped cover a multitude of sins–or at least insults–by making everything right before it not such a big deal.  It's the universal sign for "just joking."  And we go along with it, but not always willingly–because there's a part of us that wonders if the joke was being made because the other person believes it's true, deep down.  What made him/her think of that to begin with, we wonder.  And once you've started down that road, friends, it's awfully hard to get off before you reach Destination Paranoia.  Suddenly anything anyone says about you online is coming from a position of truth, and how many other people are going to believe what that person says, and…

And all of a sudden there is a bogeyman coming to get you.

Given this kind of setup, it's no wonder people respond the way they do in a flame war.  The goal isn't to beat the other person's arguments, let alone have a rational and productive exchange of ideas: the goal is to annihilate the other person, to obliterate him/her, to destroy her utterly before he/she does the same to you.  And when you're in a war of annihilation, there is no strategic victory.  Kill 'em all, and let God (virtually speaking) sort it out.  Now this isn't to say that the flame war doesn't have its place.  It can be amusing to watch, and the best ones are legendary entertainment.  But that entertainment comes at a price, because anytime we laugh at one or the other person for his/her ridiculous overreactions, we're confirming the fears that made a normally sane and rational person behave like a two year old in the first place.  And when we then find ourselves getting drawn into a heated argument, what's our reaction likely to be?  

They're all going to laugh at me!   

All of this is not to say that we can't get into a high-stakes discussion online.  It's simply to suggest that we think carefully about our motivations, and other people's.  Maybe there isn't any physical harm from a flame war, but there sure as hell are emotional scars, even if they're coming from a silly argument…and that means we've got to tread a bit more carefully through the online forums and comment sections of the world, even if we can't see the person writing angry messages to (at?) us.  The next time someone calls you a *******, you might want to consider responding with something like this:

You may be right.

It's true, non-committal, and non-escalating.  It might not save the world, but it'll go a long way to stopping one more conflict that we can do without.