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In defense of flame wars

From: Charles F. Munat <chas@munat.com>
Date: Wed, 22 Aug 2001 14:02:24 -0700
To: "WAI Guidelines WG" <w3c-wai-gl@w3.org>
Well, maybe defense is too strong a word.

There has been a lot of complaining on this list (judging from what I've
seen) about flames. In fact, there seems to be a lot of complaining about
flames on pretty much every list I've been on, except for a few very
technical ones.

We seem to have a knee-jerk reaction to flaming. It's wrong, wrong, wrong
(although totally justified when we do it ourselves -- after all, *we're*
not flaming, *we're* just defending ourselves). But is this really the case?

I've been thinking about this for a long time (years), and I've got a few
observations to share. I can't say that I'm convinced that all these are
true, but I think they're worth thinking about.

1. Flame wars are inevitable on all lists except lists of one. As soon as
you add a second person to a list, it is only a matter of time before a
flame war ensues.

2. That flame wars are destructive is a widely held opinion, but is it
supported by the facts? Are *all* flame wars destructive, or is it possible
that some might be constructive?

3. Flame wars more likely to occur:

    a. When the medium is textual, because so many clues to meaning and
intent are absent.

    b. When conversations do not take place in real time, because the delay
between salvos and the size of the salvos minimizes the corrective feedback
that would otherwise take place.

    c. When members of a group hold widely divergent opinions/beliefs.

    d. When members of a group hold passionate opinions/beliefs.

    e. When you have agent provocateurs in the group, or drive-by postings,
or trollers.

4. Some flame wars occur because of misunderstandings. Others occur because
one or more participants understood only too well what the other person was

5. Flame wars tend to be self-regulating. This isn't immediately apparent
(and indeed, some bickering can go on forever), but after a couple of posts,
most people realize that they are trying the patience of the list. Those who
fail to understand how far they can go before dropping it may seriously
damage their credibility with the list. Engaging in a flame war is very
dangerous. Most people end up doing more damage to themselves than to their
opponent. Fires that burn hottest burn out quickly and leave little residue.
Fires that smolder go on and on.

6. Flaming can be a very effective method for getting minority viewpoints
heard. The squeaky wheel gets the grease. Just as in the "real" world,
sometimes people have to yell to be heard.

7. Rules against *all* flaming favor politicians and passive aggressives.
These people are experts at sticking the knife in subtly. When the victim
yells out in pain, the politician/passive aggressive feigns innocence and
claims he/she is the victim and the true victim is the aggressor. Since you
rarely find a list without at least a few politicians and passive
aggressives, rules against all flames tend to force everyone into the
politician/passive aggressive mode for protection (unless you're one of the
Gandhi-like few who can rise above it all).

8. Rules against all flaming discriminate against those whose communication
skills are less developed. A brilliant writer can pillory an opponent
without seeming to. A less-skilled victim of such an assault knows that
he/she is being attacked, but can't muster the same subtlety in response.
Again, the victim can begin to seem the aggressor and a point can be reached
where those with strong communication skills rule the roost while those with
poorer skills give up and go away. Poor communication skills does not equal
bad or worthless ideas. The whole group loses when this happens.

9. Rules against all flaming may discriminate against people because of
cultural differences. I read recently that American astronauts on the space
station were having a difficult time adjusting to the Russian cosmonauts
because the Russians were so blunt. One of the Americans said something like
"Once you get used to it, it's no problem." It is also true that some people
are just naturally aggressive. That doesn't mean that they don't have
anything worthwhile to say. It might be necessary to gently reign them in
occasionally, but I wouldn't want to silence them (especially since I might
be included in this group myself).

Problems with flames:

1. "I don't want to read them!" Solution: Use your delete button. Frankly,
the question for me is whether the flame is constructive or destructive.
It's been my experience that good things can come out of flame wars
(especially considering #6 above). The trick is to identify those that are a
complete waste of time. It is my understanding that this list has had a lot
of completely useless, time-wasting flame wars. I can understand why some
members might be a bit exasperated. Still, there is a difference between a
spirited, aggressive debate and useless name-calling. The dividing line is
not usually all that clear however. Most flames include a little of both.

2. People's feelings get hurt. Solution: Don't let your feelings get
involved. That will simultaneously prevent you from being hurt and tend to
tone down your replies. Maintain your perspective! Look at the discussion as
a party. When one guest drinks a bit too much, the others simply humor him
and try to keep him from hurting himself. Most people write off any drunken
rantings as "just the booze talking." Similarly, when a debate gets a bit
out of hand, it's just the adrenalin talking. Later the participants will
probably calm down, and then feel a little sheepish at the things they said.

The best method I've found with these sorts of flame wars is NOT to shame
the participants. Why on earth would we want to do that? And frankly, the
sanctimoniousness of many "peacemakers" is enough to make me gag. You don't
berate someone in public. Isn't that the problem with flames? As soon as a
flame war erupts, in rush those who are often the worst flamers themselves.
Why? Because it's a freebie. They can paint themselves as saints while
embarrassing the "drunken" flamers. Ugh.

I recommend: ignore and redirect. First, don't comment on the flames! That
just makes them worse. And for Heaven's sake, don't try to assign blame. ALL
flame wars have two sides to them. If a person seems to be overly
aggressive, take a closer look and you'll probably find that they are
perceiving things a bit differently. I'll bet that pretty much 100% of
flamers feel that their own posts are fully justified. Who's to say that
they aren't?

Second, distract/redirect. The best way to stop a flame war is to suffocate
it in a sea of other posts. Find things in the argument that you can respond
to and respond! Keep the flamers busy answering questions and posts until
their anger dies down. And *instead of blaming/shaming them, find things in
their posts to praise*. Shaming people just makes them more belligerent
(I've conducted thorough testing on this). People flame because their
feelings are hurt, or they feel that they aren't being heard. So hear them,
don't hurt them.

The worst thing you can do is to post something like "Please take your
flames off list." Don't like it? Hit the delete button! People flame on list
because they feel that their reputations have been sullied publicly. Telling
them to take it off list is just like telling them to shut up and take it.
Worse, you've just further embarrassed them by reprimanding them in public.
If you must complain, at least do it off list! And then, DON'T. The only
person with the authority to tell people to take it off list is the
moderator, and even then he/she should do it privately, not publicly.

Posting generic "no flame wars" messages is a little better, but coming as
it always does right on the heels of a flame war makes it pretty clear who's
in trouble. Praise in public, reprimand in private. Telling people publicly
to "cut it out" may make them stop, but it may also cause them to nurse a
grudge for a long time. The fire is not out, it is just not evident, and it
will flare up again soon. A better idea is to find the problem and solve it,
putting the fire out for good.

3. Good flames can degenerate into bad flames if care is not exercised.
Solution: instead of making unenforceable rules against ALL flames, set
rules for HOW to flame.

In America, we have a saying: "No mothers!" This means that in heated
exchanges, there are some areas that are off-limits, the most obvious being
insulting another's mother. Saying something about your opponent's mother
turns a shouting match into a fist fight (or, nowadays, we simply "bust a
cap on yo' ass").

Why not write some simple rules for flaming that incorporate the knowledge
gained from communications research? We can start with "no mothers" and go
from there. One idea that pops into mind is the importance of stating
observations and opinions as such rather than as facts. Using myself as an
example, I recently wrote that someone had a bias. Wrong, wrong, wrong! What
I should have said is that *it appeared to me* that they had a bias. That
would have left them the opening to explain why appearances were wrong. Then
I compounded my error by saying that they couldn't be taken seriously any
more. What I should have said was that *I* was having trouble taking them
seriously. The net effect is that I've damaged my own credibility by making
such dumb statements.

(Note: Charles has written that we shouldn't impugn other people's motives.
Why the hell not? To impugn means to "oppose or challenge as false or
questionable." Suppose that someone joined this group with the intention of
subverting the guidelines. Should we refrain from questioning his motives?
What if one person in this group has it out for another member? Should we
refrain from questioning his motives? Seems to me that motives are
important. Having all our motives out in the open might help us to reach
compromise, and flushing out bad motives might benefit us as well. We should
*start* with the assumption that everyone has good motives, but if the
evidence to the contrary begins to pile up, should we just pretend that we
don't see it?

Worse, everyone on this list already has an opinion on the motives of
others. Person X is sure that Person Y doesn't give a hoot about the needs
of Group Z. These suspicions are the source of endless bickering. I'd rather
get this crap out in the open where we can address it.

Instead of having people misinterpret my motives, I'd rather be challenged
on them. It won't kill me to have someone say "When you say X and then say
Y, it makes me think that you might be biased against Z." In fact, it will
give me a chance to clarify my thoughts. And in the process, I might
discover that I DO have a bias against Z. It would be nice if such
challenges were phrased carefully to preserve my feelings, but I'd rather
hear them than not hear them just because a person has trouble

4. Flame wars can silence the timid. Solution: Support and encourage the
timid! Ask questions, show that you are interested in what they have to say.
If an aggressive lout says something unkind, send an off list email to the
victim saying "Don't pay any attention to him. I thought your comments were
excellent." Let people know that they have support.

Maybe I'm crazy, but it seems to me that all attempts to eliminate flaming
from mailing lists are futile. If we can redirect that energy instead, point
it in positive directions (perhaps using the ignore/redirect method I
propose), then we can move forward without crushing freedom of expression or
asking people to be superhuman.

Perhaps the best advice I have for would-be flamers (myself included) would
be this: Try to maintain perspective. Those on this list who are the most
successful in avoiding flame wars (Al, Charles, and a few others) also seem
to be the best at seeing the big picture. A lot of flame wars are caused by
loss of perspective: we get frantic about meaningless little details. Most
of the destructive flames I've sent were written when I was exhausted and my
perspective was impaired. Viewed after a good sleep and a meal, they look
pretty silly (I'd really like to have edit power over the archives). Most of
the constructive flames I've sent (also called polemics) have been written
and rewritten over the course of days.

As for agent provocateurs, drive-by posters, and trollers, I recommend that
we set up a slush fund and then use it to have them whacked. (Just
kidding... heh, heh.)

One last thought: All flamers (myself included) should bear in mind that
these damn lists are available forever in public, searchable archives. I
have already been bitten once by a not-very-well-thought-through email that
I posted to a list years ago. It was coming up at the top of the list at
Google for a while, and an opponent in a debate on another list used it
against me. How embarrassing. Remember that what you say here *will go down
in your permanent record*. (And please remind me occasionally before I ruin
my chances of ever being elected to public office... oops, too late.)

Chas. Munat
Received on Wednesday, 22 August 2001 17:00:13 GMT

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