On The ‘Net: Letting ‘Em Have The Last Word

I began arguing on the Internet some twenty-seven years ago. I haven’t stopped yet. At first, it was all about the Usenet newsgroups; later it was mailing lists–private and public, online conferences, blog posts, blog comments spaces, IRC channels, Facebook and Twitter timelines. I read, I wrote, I flamed; I was read, I was flamed. I was infuriated, I was provoked; I infuriated, I provoked. No matter where you went in cyberspace, there you were, arguing with someone.

And these interlocutors, they drove you batty. You knew they were wrong; they knew you were. (You both cared what your audiences thought of you.) You wrote quasi-treatises, clear and limpid in their rhetorical and dialectical simplicity; they were free of argumentative fallacies; they were responded to with obfuscation and intellectual dishonesty. Your interlocutors’ arguments were so aggravatingly wrong that at times you suspected you could not unpeel the layers of provocation they laid on; you began to doubt whether you could do an adequate job of unmasking these imposters.  You thought your extensive catalog of this world’s intellectual sins and charlatans was complete; your experience with the folks you argued with online demonstrated that many more entries needed to be made in it.

These folks online, friends and strangers alike, they were not like the ones you met and talked to in person. When those folks spoke, their words were transient, evanescent; they came and went, vanishing, leaving only some traces, sometimes bitter, sometimes pleasant, soon to be overwritten by some new stimulus. These folks online, their words were written; they were committed to ‘memory’ of several kinds; they acquired a permanence; they became lasting accusations of the lack of all kinds of uprightness and rectitude; you were indicted of a multiplicity of sins. Sticks and stones could break your bones, and these words, by virtue of their durability, threatened to do as much.

And all in public, because 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 aren’t just arguing for yourself; you are arguing because you’ve ‘got a rep to protect.’ (With probability one, a rejoinder from a Facebook commenter that you will respond to with great alacrity and vigor is one that you disapprove of, but which has received a ‘Like’ from another reader. Here, the gauntlet has been thrown, the offender has already acquired some support of dubious moral quality, some irritating cheering from the peanut galleries. You must speak up for yourself and do double duty; not only must you show the original offender he was wrong but show his worthless sycophant that he backed the wrong horse in this particular race.)

Small wonder that famous ‘Duty Calls’ cartoon from xkcd is, er, famous:

Duty Calls

You laugh, because you know it’s true: you can’t let go, unanswered, some affront to your pride and your sensibilities. You cannot let an internet interlocutor have the last word. (A friend once told me–in the early days of the pre-WWW internet i.e., in the days of Usenet newsgroups–that he would not log on once he got home for fear of not being able to log off again all night. In those days, users dialed in to access newsgroups; when you stayed logged on, whether at 1200, 2400, or 9600 baud, you ran up your phone bills too, so there might have been some economic prudence that gave my friend’s resolution some much-needed heft.)

So there it stays, that unanswered comment on your blog, the idiotic comment on your Facebook page, that chirpy, offensive tweet, burning a hole in your cranium, threatening to keep you awake as the full horror of its being read by every single user of the internet slowly dawns on you. You draft your reply as you go about your day’s business, waiting for the moment when you will be able to pour out your furious rejoinder, your nail-in-the-coffin response that will seal the deal once and for all.

But it won’t. And you know it. Another cycle awaits.

Letting that ‘last word’ remain unanswered is key, of course. The expert internet user comes to size up, quickly enough, what kind of creature his interlocutor is. Most importantly, is he the kind who will let you have the last word? If not, step away from the keyboard. No one cares very much; there is a lot to be distracted by; something will come along, sooner rather than later, to divert the attention of us all. Let the evidence of your inability to come up with a witty rejoinder, a snappy response, an exposure of the operative fallacy, a devastating demolition job on a weak argument persist; let it remain as an example of how not to ‘win’ an internet argument.

Few listen to such good advice. I often don’t. Sometimes I will let the last comment on a Facebook thread or a Twitter thread bother me, insidiously burrowing its way around my anxieties and insecurities, before, finally provoked, I snap and respond. But I have some cause for optimism too; I have often found it easier to just terminate a conversation; I have grown wiser about the demands on my time and energy that these endlessly prolonged conversations can make. Simple economic prudence rules the roost; here may be found many zero-sum games, extracting costs that will have to be paid for somehow, elsewhere in my commitments.

So, I have walked away from fields of battle. I have let my partially composed and insufficiently pungent replies die on the vine; I have left my sword buried in the ground. I have let opposing generals come out on the battlefield and reassure themselves after they have surveyed it that they have seized the day and the moment and bested their opponents, who have slunk away under cover of the night. I am content to let them think me lacking in all manner of intellectual qualities.

I’m busy writing this post instead.

Kill All The Cartoonists; God Will Sort Them Out

You read or view a satirical piece or a cartoon in a newspaper or a magazine. It offends you; you are enraged; your deepest sensibilities–personal, religious–have been ravaged and injured. Unable to assuage your feelings by acknowledging the abstract free speech rights of those who have so insulted you, and still caught up in a maelstrom of rage, you fantasize about doing terrible injury to them.

For some folks, matters end right here. Revenge remains at the level of fantasy; resentment smolders but then fades away, to be replaced by some other pressing concern. Perhaps a dull smart remains, one that occasionally flares up if a similar offense is committed in the future.

But some folks resolve to teach their offenders a lesson. Perhaps by causing them material damage, perhaps by doing them injury.  And then, after being initially fueled by an inchoate rage, they act deliberately and cold-bloodedly to bring about these effects.

The gap between these two sensibilities can seem, varying upon your particular sympathies and inclinations, either very large or very small. Perhaps the former demographic can turn into the latter if injury and insult are repeated, or if social, economic, and personal circumstances change; perhaps the latter are so pathologically unsound in the intellectual and ethical dimensions that such mergers need not be feared.

I do not doubt that if a dedicated cartoonist or poison-pen wielder were to get to work, they could produce a cartoon or an essay that would eviscerate all I hold near and dear, for after all, at the fringes of humor lurk its darker precincts: humiliation and ridicule. Perhaps they could draw cruel, offensive, grotesque, hurtful, caricatures of my long-dead parents, perhaps of my beloved wife and daughter, perhaps they could write a long stand-up routine that took accurate aim at my many, many shortcomings and vulnerabilities and evoked howls of laughter from strangers who were not invested in my being protective of my sensibilities.

I wonder how I would react. I could, and would, rage and rage, and dream and fantasize about punching the crap out of the offenders, but I suspect ultimately, I would back down and slink away to smolder, hoping time and new experiences would assuage this shame. Perhaps, because I write myself, I would compose a long screed in response–trying 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 than when I started.

I wonder what, if anything, would make me seek out a violent solution to my crisis, a violent release to my angst. Perhaps if I was a psychopath or sociopath–poorly understood terms, I know–that found some dispassionate pleasure in the act of killing. Or perhaps, more plausibly,  perhaps if I could be persuaded that it would bring about a larger, more dramatic, desired change–political or economic–elsewhere; perhaps if I could be persuaded that such an action would set wheels rolling that would bring me closer to some destination much more important than a relief station for anger. Perhaps then, I might consider such an option a little more seriously. Perhaps then, I might not rest content with mere figurative retaliation.

Political Schooling Via The Usenet Newsgroup

As my post yesterday should have indicated, we are educated by a variety of modalities. A powerfully formative one for me was my exposure to Usenet newsgroups.

I discovered newsgroups in 1988, shortly after I began work as a research assistant with the Computerized Conferencing and Communications Center at the New Jersey Institute of Technology. I ‘worked’ long hours in our laboratory; email and newsgroups occupied much of that time (in between writing code, debugging code, and stepping out for coffee and cigarette breaks). I had arrived in the US from India in 1987,  a bachelor’s degree in hand; I considered myself well-read, but this inflated estimation of my edification was soon to be revised.

In the late eighties and the early nineties, Usenet newsgroups were largely populated by those with some form of university affiliation: faculty, students, staff, post-doctoral fellows. (Commercial affiliations were not unknown, but these were outnumbered by academic ones; the .edu address was most commonly visible.)  That demographic, unsurprisingly, voluble and prolific in its writing. (It is to the credit of the hacker community that so many of its members wrote often, and well, on newsgroups.)

The following hierarchy of newsgroups captures their eclectic and comprehensive nature:

  • comp.* — Discussion of computer-related topics
  • news.* — Discussion of Usenet itself
  • sci.* — Discussion of scientific subjects
  • rec.* — Discussion of recreational activities (e.g. games and hobbies)
  • soc.* — Socialising and discussion of social issues.
  • talk. * — Discussion of contentious issues such as religion and politics.
  • misc.* — Miscellaneous discussion—anything which does not fit in the other hierarchies.

I read a few of the .sci, .soc, .talk, and .rec groups on a daily basis. These were the time-sucks of their day; you could spend hours and hours, reading, responding, and engaging in flame wars. They were how you filled lunch and coffee breaks; they could make you stay up late at night, and log in frequently to see if new articles had shown up, to see if anyone had responded to your post.

It was here, in Usenet newsgroups, that I read many, many well-written, articulate, clearly argued and defended, points of view that I had never read before: free speech absolutism, the legalization of drugs, Palestinian self-determination, women’s reproductive rights, privacy rights, gay and lesbian rights, free software versus proprietary software, feminism, interpretations of the American constitution.  And many more. (I also spent a great deal of time reading and discussing cricket in the cricket newsgroup and the Grateful Dead in rec.music.gdead; ) When world-shaking events like the fall of Berlin Wall or Tiananmen  Square occurred on the world stage, they provoked corresponding discussions in the relevant groups. I read furious debates; refutations and counter-refutations; angry tirades; racist and xenophobic rants; calm, reasoned, erudite quasi-dissertations.

I had often entertained conventional views on or all some of these topics before I encountered newsgroups; very few of them survived their encounter with newsgroup discussions.  I read a great deal of revisionist history; I was offered many perspectives on world historical events that I had glibly thought I had understood  well. I had been complacent; I was no longer so. The sense of instability in my beliefs was alarming, but it was also exhilarating. I learned that seemingly air-tight arguments and refutations often contained fatal fallacies and weaknesses that could be exposed by close reading and careful attention to their logical and rhetorical form.

Some discussions were tedious, and many were repetitive, and later in the mid-nineties as the Internet bloomed and blossomed, I found the newsgroups less useful. I stopped reading them soon thereafter. But I never forgot those early readings–which produced in me a kind of ‘shock of the new.’

Many, many thanks are due to all those unnamed teachers of mine.