“Flaming” is one of those activities that can be fun to watch others do, or read about, like mixed martial arts fighting. But you wouldn’t necessarily want to do it yourself.
The recent presidential elections brought to new highs, or lows, the name calling, the lying, and the denigration of others’ motives that are the core of flaming. As a communications phenomenon, flaming is normally thought of as an online thing, and it is, but it doesn’t have to be. And it has existed for a long time.
Most people think of George Washington as being beyond reproach, despite his acquiescence at the time to the societal evil of slavery.
Yet fellow founding father Thomas Paine in an open letter denounced Washington as “treacherous in private friendship … and a hypocrite in public life.” With even more vitriol, Benjamin Franklin Bache, grandson of Benjamin Franklin, suggested in a newspaper article that Washington didn’t support the independence of the United States and had been bribed by the British.
Most people think of the U.S. Constitution as being beyond reproach, setting the foundation for our political way of life.
Yet it also aroused heated feelings in citizens who discussed it in the newspapers of the early United States before it was ratified. And they sometimes called one another names, such as “paltry scribbler” and “weak intellect.”
The Internet, along with smartphones, laptops, and other digital devices, makes flaming more common than in other forms of discourse. You’re separated from others by space and often by time as well. If you use a pseudonym or handle, you may think you’re invisible. In other settings, when expressing the same in-your-face abuse, you might get shunned, fired, or punched in the nose.
According to Godwin’s Law, named after American author Mike Godwin, the longer an Internet discussion continues, the greater the chances of one participant comparing another participant to Hitler. Sometimes the comparison is to Stalin or Satan.
On the other hand, there’s nothing wrong with debate. You’ll look much better, however, if you attack your adversary’s arguments or actions using rhetoric, perspective, facts, or evidence rather than gutter talk.
In his prescient book Communication and Argument: Elements of Applied Semantics, which is little known outside of Norway, the philosopher Arne Næss argues for adhering to guidelines to make public debate more fruitful. This book was published in 1966, well before the heyday of digital communications, but its suggestions are equally valid today, online or off:
Writers, as it’s sometimes said, have a way with words, and today as well as in the past they sometimes use them as weapons against fellow writers. Sometimes this is even funny.
Charles Baudelaire said of Voltaire: “I grow bored in France—and the main reason is that everybody here resembles Voltaire … the king of nincompoops, the prince of the superficial, the anti-artist.”
Raymond Chandler said of James M. Cain: “Everything he touches smells like a billygoat. He is every kind of writer I detest, a faux naif, a Proust in greasy overalls.”
Gertrude Stein said of Ezra Pound: “A village explainer. Excellent if you were a village, but if you were not, not.”
Mark Twain said of Jane Austen: “Every time I read Pride and Prejudice, I want to dig her up and hit her over the skull with her own shin-bone.”
H.G. Wells said of George Bernard Shaw: “An idiot child screaming in a hospital.”
D.H. Lawrence said of Herman Melville: “Nobody can be more clownish, more clumsy and sententiously in bad taste, than Herman Melville.”
Gore Vidal said of Truman Capote: “He’s a full-fledged housewife from Kansas with all the prejudices.”
Friedrich Nietzsche said of Dante: “A hyena who wrote poetry on tombs.”
Oscar Wilde said of Alexander Pope: “There are two ways of disliking poetry; one way is to dislike it, the other is to read Pope.”
Online, even though you may think you’re safe, you should still be careful. In this litigious society of ours, it’s not difficult for someone for sue you for defamation, potentially causing you to have to spend serious money defending yourself.
Reid Goldsborough is a syndicated columnist and author of the book Straight Talk About the Information Superhighway. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or reidgold.com.