Sunday, August 24, 2008

Look in the Mirror

I'd guess that almost every single person who has participated in an unmoderated email list knows a thing or two about "flame wars". Somebody writes something that someone else objects to or labels disrespectful or declares is demeaning and, before you know it, a virtual donnybrook has broken out. These sorts of tempests happen on almost every email list I'm subscribed to.

What really amazes me the most is that people -- and I certainly include myself -- write things they would never, ever say to a person's face!! While email has ushered in a period in which diverse people from far away places can converse with kindred spirits in a meaningful way, it has also produced a kind of virtual anonymity that turns otherwise peaceful and uplifting individuals into email tyrants and bullies. It provides a perverse sort of freedom from accepted social constraints, so you can call someone a dirty rotten S.O.B. without much fear that you'll get punched in the nose or you'll run into them at the mall.

Two things I must remind myself of again and again are that 1) I need to spend more time looking in the mirror -- No, I'm not suggesting that I need to spend time fawning all over myself in a narcissistic way -- I need to treat others by the same standards that I expect others to treat me; and 2) how others behave genuinely does not affect how I behave.

We're all guilty of sin #1. If someone writes something that we object to, we immediately presume that we KNOW their true motivation and, quite often, no amount of apology or contrition is good enough for us. Yet, when the shoe is on the other foot and WE are the transgressor, many of us think that a simple, "I'm sorry you took my statement that way. I can promise you I didn't intend it in the way you perceived it" is sufficient to absolve us of all guilt. In other words, we grant ourselves a wide berth, while forcing our allies and comrades into the tiniest of shoe boxes.

Another way this manifests itself is in the way we choose to express ourselves. If another person chooses to employ vulgarities, profanity, rudeness or name-calling, we're quick to point it out and to demand immediate censure or punishment. However, when we're the person guilty of employing these same means, we're just as quick to submit that in THIS PARTICULAR INSTANCE it's completely justified because so-and-so started it or we've been so wounded to the core by their comments that we should be given a free pass.

Regardless of how any of us interprets another's actions or behaviors towards us as individuals or as a group, we are the captain of our own ship. We alone choose to meet anger with anger, disrespect with disrespect, or name-calling with name-calling. It doesn't have to be that way. Like the peace activists who turn swords into plowshares, we are free to respond to anger with love and vulgarity with civility.

In my experience, the best way to minimize flame wars is to take the time to look in the mirror before firing off another hasty email. It's not enough to proof your messages to ensure you're saying what you mean to say. We also need to step outside of our own frames of reference to see how others might view our prose and verbiage. While it's certainly true that we have no way of knowing for certain how each person who reads our message will receive or interpret it, we shouldn't use this as a ready rationale to excuse ourselves from this needed exercise in intentionally thoughtful communication.

What I often ask myself is -- though obviously, not often enough -- How would I interpret my message if it came from someone I disagree with? Would it anger or provoke me? In many cases, this tact has caused me to go back and rewrite what I just wrote.

Look in the mirror. Treat others as you would have them treat you.


  1. Part of the problem is that a small, but very influential, number of individuals will consciously act like "trolls" in groups. I was involved in a political party at one time and the leader was being villified by a very small number of people who used every slanderous, stupid rhetorical device you could think of dominate and control internal internet discussions for the party.

    The problem was that most ordinary members would take one look at this sort of thing and then simply quit. This meant that the head office was left with very unpleasant choices: censor the discussion, shut it down altogether, or, kick these individuals off it. (The last option was the right one, but the powers that be were too "wimpy" to do so.)

    The other option was to ask someone to show up and drive these people off the list, which I was asked to do. What a painful process it was. One that destroys your political career, too. People who don't like arguments don't make distinctions between people who are logical and reasonable, and those who are being slimy sophists. Instead, they end up doing the "a pox on both your houses" thing.

    One thing I did learn, however, is that internet bullies are just the same as any other type. They back off when someone shows up and defends themselves or the others. Who is to blame then? The bullies? Or the "enablers" who sit on the sidelines and refuse to "get involved"? In my own case I ended up having more sympathy for the trolls---because I came to the opinion that they were sad, isolated, and ultimately pathetic individuals.


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