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Re: In defense of flame wars

From: Anne Pemberton <apembert@erols.com>
Date: Wed, 22 Aug 2001 17:50:42 -0400
Message-Id: <>
To: "Charles F. Munat" <chas@munat.com>, "WAI Guidelines WG" <w3c-wai-gl@w3.org>

         A well-written post that put a smile on my face ....


PS: divil makes me add this quote from your note:

>3. Flame wars more likely to occur:
>     a. When the medium is textual, because so many clues to meaning and
>intent are absent.

         Well said. That's why we need illustrations ... <grin>

At 02:02 PM 8/22/01 -0700, Charles F. Munat wrote:
>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

Anne Pemberton

Received on Wednesday, 22 August 2001 17:55:08 UTC

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