17 May 2007

Flame Wars

There is a common peril in writing and commenting online. From time to time, one can find oneself locked in a brutal flame war with no way out. I found myself in one of these over the past couple of days and only now realize the errors of my ways. I've been pretty lucky and only gotten in a few in my long time online - news and a little irc before the web, so it's relatively long by web standards. A good chunk of the reason is that I generally don't tread into too many minefields. I also don't generally comment without knowing what I'm saying. Those aren't guarantees, of course.

So, for anyone else who's found themselves dragged under (and for Future-Coyote, so he doesn't forget these lessons), here are some simple rules to avoid or get out of a flame war.

  1. Really, stick with topics you know. Most of my off-site commentary is on television, so I'm pretty well covered there.
  2. Avoid obvious minefields. I very rarely comment on political sites because politics is just far too polarizing. I know that must be shocking, because my political leanings are clear and I myself am polarizing, but I don't have the energy to battle elsewhere.
  3. Know your audience. If your "debate" partner falls back on a few old tricks - ad hominem, straw men, dishonest framing, etc. - she isn't worth the effort. No amount of reason or logic is going to work, because she doesn't want to hear it. In a real debate, you could go Socratic and force her into the corners of her ill-constructed logic labyrinth, but online that's not an option.
  4. Know your audience, redux. In my most recent flame war (from which I just extricated myself) my opponent seemed moderately articulate, but prone to many spelling and grammatical errors. Now, y'all know I'm no prescriptivist, but even I have my limits. I was even being painfully nice about it. I never mentioned any errors, quoted my foe directly without indicating his errors (I'd have been sick with all that [sic]), and tried to ignore it. Then, he quoted me. And misspelled a word when he typed it. It wasn't a hard word. Really, was cut and paste so hard? My point here is, there's got to be a certain base level of intelligence, education, and language fluency in your opponent as signals that he is worthy of your time.
  5. Be clear. Use short sentences. Avoid lengthy appositives. Don't leave out subordinate clauses because you believe they should be obvious. Spell out your arguments.
  6. When it becomes clear that logic won't work...get OUT!!! Seriously, don't stay in the debate. Don't have the last word, don't correct another mistaken understanding, don't even tell him to run a spell-check on the words he's quoting from you. Let him "win". The only victory in a case like this is to stop burning time and energy on it.
I'm happy to say that (this post excluded), I was able to follow rule #6. I also followed #1 and #5. Unfortunately, I misjudged the level of virulence I'd encounter on the topic, and neglected to take into account this person's shoddy logic and crappy language skills. I should have avoided jumping into the fray as I did, but I foolishly thought one or two of the people he'd previously been mangling with his idiocy would come along for the ride. Hey, there are two new rules I can get out of this!
  1. Don't try to be a hero. It's good to jump into the fray to defend people with whom you agree (or who are just plain correct), but don't try to fight their battles solo. If they don't stay around, get out as well.
  2. Know your surroundings. This is really a corollary to #7. Don't try to fight alone, and don't try to fight if your comrades fail tests #3 and #4. Be sure of the battle, and be sure of your backup.
Now my little corner of the web is very quiet, so these rules aren't very important here. But elsewhere...keep them in mind and save your sanity.