Initial Attempt at a Typology of Flaming

Last week I voluntarily subjected myself to a flaming war at New Music Box, which maintains a policy of allowing anyone to post anything they want, anonymously if so desired. I had been libeled as a writer, and rather than sit idly by and take it, I was in a mood to fight back. After a couple of weeks of exhausting college work, I had a free day with nothing else to do, and – as they say – it was just the wrong day to piss me off. But the activity was so repetitive that I learned a lot about flaming – the practice of posting incendiary e-mails in an attempt to discredit, insult, and anger someone – and I learned to anticipate and counter the verbal venom-spewings of malevolent morons in a way I hadn’t before. So I kept a record of flaming strategies, which I detail here in hopes that writers everywhere will learn to defuse these hangers-on who have nothing else to do besides heap bile on people they envy:

1. The most common strategy, of course, is to a) ignore a poster’s or author’s main point and latch onto some little peripheral factual statement that can be credibly contradicted; b) flatly contradict it with some evidence or other; and then c) smugly act as though the truth value of the entire post is therefore rendered suspect and demolished because a small imperfection was found. About all you can usually do in this instance is ignore the person, because the only alternative is to waste your energy trying to back up factual points that had little relevance to your main argument, and in the process you’re bound to make other peripheral factual points that are vulnerable to challenge, embarking on a process of infinite regress. That’s why this is the most common strategy.

2. If a vulnerable factual statement can’t be found, then one can draw a plausible inference from a statement in the post, spin out a set of ramifications from it, and act as though all those ramifications had been stated in the original. The example I got of this was a textbook classic. I had written,

…in 1973,… Vincent Persichetti’s A Lincoln Address, also based on words of the Great Emancipator [Lincoln], was to be premiered as part of Richard Nixon’s inauguration. Lincoln, however, had denounced “the mighty scourge of war,” which threatened to look like a reflection on Nixon’s pet venture, the Vietnam War…. The performance did not take place.

The six words “Nixon’s pet venture, the Vietnam War,” “argued” a flamer, meant I exonerated LBJ and Kennedy; therefore was biased toward Democrats; therefore was making misstatements and hadn’t been fact-checked; therefore I was making up facts, and not a word I said could be trusted. This strategy is rather easy to call someone on, luckily, because you ask, “Where did I say that? Please quote the sentence that stated that” – and they typically don’t reply. As indeed this flamer didn’t when I pointed out that the fact I had “made up” was that Nixon supported the Vietnam War.

3. Bring up something irrelevant from the author’s or other poster’s past that might potentially embarrass or discredit him. This is especially effective if the past item referred to is an off-screen document the other posters don’t have access to, so that you control the information, and if you describe it in ominous terms, others will imagine that it’s worse, of course, than it will turn out to be. If, in response, you can get access to that information and publish it yourself, at no matter what length, at least you can take back control of the information flow.

4. When all else fails, lie. As one flamer frankly wrote to me when I challenged him to quote the statement he was accusing me of having made: “I can’t. But that’s irrelevant.”

Of course the best defense is not to enter into these conversations at all. But libel is possible on the internet, and sometimes a gang of posters will agree to get together to take you down, and you start to look guilty if there’s not some defense of you in the posts. It’s just like politics. Al Gore never claimed to have invented the internet, but a horde of pundits started claiming he had claimed that, and through an excess of repetition it became virtual truth. Repetition can turn blatant falsehood into accepted fact, and those of us who write for a living need protection. When we were writing for newspapers, our armchair critics were required to write a decently credible letter to get into print (still the case at Arts Journal, I’m happy to note). But in some areas of the internet, any idiot can shoot off a spontaneous lie about us, and any mob of his idiot friends (or even he himself under several anonymous identities) can repeat the lie until it starts to pass for common currency. It’s a problem internet publications will have to learn how to deal with, and I’ve now started refusing to write for any internet publication that can’t protect its writers from libel. Free speech is a wonderful thing, but if those who exercise it have to fear the retribution of a libelous mob, then free speech won’t remain free for long.

(For further information, I ran across an entertaining and slightly helpful Guide to Flaming. One of its observations: why do flamers who play “Gotcha!” on spelling errors so often misspell words themselves?)