An Old Flame (No, Not That Kind)

Writing about the adversarial disputation styles present in academic philosophy reminded me of the time I lost my temper at someone who worked in the same department as me. (I don’t use the term ‘colleague’ advisedly. This dude was anything but.) Then, I was in the computer science department at Brooklyn College, and had for a long time been the subject of a series of personal attacks by a senior professor in the department. He made insulting remarks at department meetings about my research, my work on the curriculum committee, attacked me during my promotion interview, and of course, made many, many snide, offensive remarks over the departmental mailing list. (I was not alone in being his target; many other members of my department had been attacked by him as well.)

Finally, after he had yet another crude comment on the mailing list about my work, matters came to a head. I lost my temper and wrote back:

Ok, its been mildly diverting for a while. But I’ve tired of dealing with your sub-literate philistine self.

First, I don’t care what your middle name is. I made one up; you want me to be careful in how I address you? When all I am subjected to is more of the stinking piles of meshugna hodgepodge that is periodically deposited in my inbox?

Secondly, you bore me. You are excessively pompous, and your actions and pronouncements reek of a disturbing misanthropy. You are a legend in your own mind, and nowhere else. You pontificate excessively, lack basic reading skills and are constitutionally incapable of constructing an argument. You suffer under the delusion that your laughable savant-like talents actually have something to do with intelligence. You strut around, convinced that you make sense, while what you really should do is pay less attention to those voices in your head.

Thirdly, while I could take some time to construct a rebuttal of your useless ramblings, I’d rather spend some time insulting you in public. That’s what you like to do, so why don’t I just play along for a bit? But only as long as you don’t bore me excessively. When it gets to that point, I’ll have my SPAM filter mark your emails as SPAM and toss them in the trash where they belong. I like a little light amusement once in a while, and you occasionally provide it. Its cheap, low-brow entertainment. I think [senior professors] should be good for more than cheap entertainment but you have set your sights very low, so I should humor you for a bit before I go back to work. Its the least I can do for a ‘colleague’.

I used to flame self-deluded folks like you for fun back in the good ol’ Usenet days; if you want to join in and stick a bulls-eye on your forehead, be my guest. I miss the days of flaming Penn State undergrads who ran to post ramblings like yours five minutes after they had received their first BITNET accounts. But those guys could read at least, so flaming them was fun. With you, I’m not sure. Maybe you should go write a grant, schmooze with a grants program officer, or take a journal editor out for lunch. Or perhaps take a history lesson in computer science. One thing you do need is an education. In manners, first and foremost, but once you are done with that, I’ll send you a list of other subjects you need to catch up on. There’s a whole world out there. Try it sometime.

When you can construct a flame, get back to me, bring an asbestos suit, and I’ll get to work. But please, try to entertain me. If I am to be subjected to foolishness, I want to be entertained as well.  You’re a bit like Borat without the satire or irony. Or humor. Or entertainment value. In short, (stop me if you’ve heard this before), mostly, you just bore me.

Now, I command you: entertain me. Write an email that makes sense. Otherwise, run along. I’ve got serious research to do.

This might seem like fun. But it wasn’t. It was draining and dispiriting. I had been provoked, and I had fallen for it.

Won’t get fooled again.

7 comments on “An Old Flame (No, Not That Kind)

  1. I sympathize with the dispiriting part but I think the response was necessary. Unless stomped on – fools, tyrants, and cockroaches will take over the world – and someone has to do the stomping.

  2. patricksodonnell says:

    Along the lines of what Peter said (although I’m not fond of the ‘stomping’ metaphor, or referring to human beings as ‘cockroaches’ for that matter, and I think it should in any case be invoked as a last resort), I’ve been told a story about the brilliant pioneering Buddhist scholar, Edward Conze who, it seems, could be quite nasty in interpersonal settings. He was in one of his rather foul moods and browbeating someone in rather coarse language (he may have been drinking, I can’t recall) when a person I know (I’d rather not name names) decided it was time to give him a taste of his own medicine and intervened in the conversation assuming a persona quite close to Conze’s own, proceeding to put him in his place, as we say or fighting fire with fire (like one often does in fighting wildfires with the use of backfires). While those in attendance were dumbfounded if not awe-struck, it seems to have worked: Conze became rather tame and timid, if not apologetic in tone and demeanor (heretofore, it appears no one was daring enough to attempt such a thing, but sometimes what the Buddhists term ‘skillful means’ are justified as uniquely well-suited to a particular situation and person, means carefully crafted so as to be, all things considered or in the end, in the best interests of that person).

    • Samir Chopra says:


      This gentleman was incorrigible, unfortunately. Conze appears to have had some redeeming qualities; this guy, none. At some point, I will recollect the story of how I lost my temper – verbally – at a dept. meeting. That was even worse. But there was an interesting post-script to the story. More soon.

  3. patricksodonnell says:

    Samir, I can’t personally attest to the fact, but I think you’re right that indeed Conze “had some redeeming qualities.” Some day, between you and me, I’ll share some thoughts and feelings about the long-standing chair (unprecedented and rather exceptional at the college) of our department: it’s of the “life is stranger [or meaner] than fiction” variety.

  4. […] to return fire with fire. I have often been insulted and abused in online exchanges and have sometimes retaliated, but these, if they undergo repeat iterations, very quickly tire me out and leave me feeling worse […]

  5. […] when you argue on the Internet, you always have some kind of audience; perhaps a small one, like your departmental mailing list, or perhaps a colossal one, like a popular newsgroup or the comments space of a leading blog. You […]

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