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[Summary: Where Thomas Joseph discusses an issue that changed the way he views the internet.]
This post by GR this morning really struck a chord with me. Not because I've found out that someone I knew passed away*, but it was certainly death related. The moment I'm going to refer to happened several years ago (back in 2003) when I was young(er), and dumb(er) than I currently am. It was back in the days when internet message boards (MBs) were all the rage, or at least they were all the rage for me. Discussions would often get downright nasty, and if you were intense enough about it, you'd throw down with complete strangers and say things that you wouldn't say to anyone's face -- even if they were your own worst enemy. I was that sort of jerk back in the late 90's early 00's, but it didn't last for much longer past that.
Back then I enjoyed debating. Actually, I didn't enjoy debating so much as I enjoyed winning debates. I think there is a distinct difference. If I could pummel my opponent into submission with a literary show of force, I considered it a huge success. I had my first taste of it my freshman year in college when I took an ethics class and debated the merits of deceptive practices in medicine. I won easily. It was an adrenaline rush, much like the rush I had when I would compete in XC and T&F during those same years. Back then, I hated to practice, but loved racing ... and most of all winning. My coach always had me anchor relays because he knew that if we were within 15 to 20 meters of the lead when I got the baton, the race was as good as won. Winning was the only thing I cared about, and I would be on a high for hours afterwards. I was addicted to the adrenaline. So it went with debating. In my mind, I was a debate stud. I was well-educated and well-versed in any number of issues which ranged from science, to religion, to sports. I debated on a number of sites, the local sports radio MBs, a variety of religious-issued MBs, what have you. This was not a Good Thing(TM). If pride always goes before the fall, I was bound to fall, and hard.
That fall happened in 2003.
Around that time I was on a religious website debating a charge of anti-semitism leveled against the Catholic Church. Part of that charge involved the use of a book entitled "Babylon Mystery Religion" penned by Ralph Woodrow. It relied heavily on another anti-Catholic book by Alexander Hislop entitled "The Two Babylons" which seemingly connects the Catholic Church with paganism. Both books are a piece of pooh. Neither one is worth the paper they are printed on. I thought that then, and I certainly think that now. The person I was arguing with however hung on every last word of those two books. One thing she failed to realize though is that Mr. Woodrow, after a long time of researching the subject further believed he made a grievous error in publishing that first book. So much so that he pulled the original off the shelves and replaced it with a book entitled "Babylon Connection?" in which he refutes his previous position. On his site he describes the newest book in the following way:
DESCRIPTION: THE BABYLON CONNECTION? shows that claims about Babylonian origins often lack connection, takes a closer look at the oft-quoted THE TWO BABYLONS by Alexander Hislop, and provides some much needed clarification on this subject. In a scholarly and understandable style, the book explains why Woodrow removed his Babylon Mystery Religion book from publication.
The person I was debating had no clue about the existance of this second book, nor did she know that the first book of Mr. Woodrow's had been pulled from the shelf. I reveled in the knowledge that I effectively cut her position out from underneath her. I gave it to her with both guns blazing on the MB, and for two days after this, she remained silent.
My egotistical self thought it was because I had stumped her and she was off licking her wounds. I was about as far from wrong as wrong can be. Rather than being stunned by my obvious brilliance, and ashamed to even show her face on the MB because I had housed her, she was off the board because her youngest daughter had been accidentally strangled in a set of mini-blinds.
So here we had a mother grieving the death of a child, a fate which is worse than death for any parent (no parent should have to outlive their own children), and I was at home relishing a "victory" over a matter which didn't mean jack squat. I feel ashamed to this day about it, even though I apologized about my internal thoughts (I hadn't started bragging yet on the board about how I couldn't be refuted) once I found out. I think that incident pretty much ended my days of internet debating, even though I do find a mean streak of "blast first, try to consider the POV of those you are blasting second" in my blog commentary that crops up now and again.
My mom, the most patient person I've ever met (or ever will meet), was always reminding me that I could not know the internal workings of individuals. It's true that we often compare our inside to other peoples outside. We can feel sad and lonely, and feel jealousy when others around us appear to be happy and carefree. Of course, those people could easily be putting on a brave front, and be hurting worse than we could ever imagine, for any number of reasons. I try to take that into account when I deal with people on a daily basis, both in work and outside of it. It's easy to be overly critical, to apply a scorched earth policy to people who we feel may have wronged us. It feels good for a moment, I'll give it that much, but in the longterm, what good is to come of it? Could I try to ruin a career? Sure, I guess I could, and I might even be successful at it ... but what do I gain, other than knowing that I put someone (and their family if they have one) on the street? That isn't something to be proud of, to relish in, to put on a CV or resume, is it?
When I was about to defend my science in my final departmental seminar, my adviser gave me a simple but integral bit of advice. He told me that when I put up a slide, I should take a deep breath, think about what was on the slide for a couple of seconds, and only then start to speak. Did it slow my talk down a bit? Yeah, by about a total of a minute (30 slides * 2 seconds), but what was the end result? An excellent presentation and a well-defended dissertation. I've tried carrying that bit of advice into my actions as well ... call it "meta-cognition" if you will (thinking about what I'm thinking about). If I can calculate my responses, I can respond appropriately to a situation. If you've ever read Stephen Covey it's about being "proactive" rather than "reactive". It's also about being a sympathetic figure. I'd rather be the guy down the hall who is approachable with an issue, rather than the one who is talked about behind his back because he's such an ass. I surely hope I'm the former and not the latter ... even though I'm sure I've made mistakes which have trended me towards the latter at times.
Anywho ... what's the moral of this story? Other than debating on the internet is for idiots? Other than think before you act? Other than any of the common sense things we inherently know but often forget or wantonly ignore in the heat of the moment? Nah ... I think that about sums it up.
*This has never happened to me, but I have seen it happen to people I know. One such instance was when I was with my dad (a Vietnam vet) and we visited the Vietnam Memorial. Finding the names of people he served with, and who didn't make it home after he had left, really bothered him. It's another moment that is burned in my brain.
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Wow. That's a pretty deep story. I can't imagine what it must have been like to realize what had happened, but it does say something about your character that it bothered you to the point of changing your behavior.
Great post, TJ. I used to spend a lot of time battling trolls over at Fark.com. I got tired of it pretty quickly (although you can find me making fun of the n00bs over in the classifieds section every once in a while ). I agree with Nikki though, it says a lot about your character. There are a ton of trolls that could care less about how people react to what they say or whose feelings they hurt.
It seems like situations like this are the ones that push us to grow the most. It says a lot about you that you learned so much and actually changed for the better.
Great post! Think before you speak, that's some really good advice! Like the others I'm impressed that you realised your faults and changed yourself for the better. I'm even more impressed that you can share it so openly with other people, I'm reasonably good at mulling over my own faults in my head and trying to change my behaviour, but I'm terrible at outwardly admitting them.
I don't know whether it's the same in all professions, but it seems to me that I come across a lot of people who don't think about the consequences of what they say in academia. It somehow seems to have become acceptable to shoot others down and ridicule their work, without stopping and thinking about how that might make the person on the receiving end feel. I've had many cringeworthy moments at conferences and departmental talks where people have been given a serious dressing down. I think they could benefit from reading your post!
Fascinating post. The thing I'm left with - though - is you can't always know everybody's situation, even in real life. So when do you decide when to engage and when to lay off?
I'm also very impressed TJ...it takes a stand-up guy to admit he was wrong, and then do something about it.
JG - I'd argue that engaging in the debate wasn't the problem, as TJ pointed, so much as relishing in winning the debate. IMO, there's nothing wrong with debating with someone, especially when you feel strongly about your point of view. But there are often two sides to every argument, and the person you're debating could be just as convinced as you are that they're right. No sense in trying to change the world or get everyone to see things your way. Also, I feel it's always a good idea to treat people online the same way you would IRL...I remember something coming up about this a few months ago in the blogosphere. ;)
Very gripping story and I'm sorry as well for the one who helped you learn the lesson. I like the reminder that our mothers often have the best advice: comparing your inside to another's outside. I'll be repeating this some day.
Would you say the lesson of trying to see beyond what's on the outside applies to politicians? In my local elections I see a lot of politicians whom I can categorize by allegience to a side. In simple terms, I can see those from the chamber of commerce association and those from the environmental or community activists association. I was very politicized on one side about 4 years ago and as a result I have created barriers between me and some of the politicians who won. Now in hindsight, what I regret, is the lack of objectivity this gives me in evaluating an incumbant. E.g., did incumbant X genuinely scorn organizations that I'm associated with, and therefore is unsuitable for reelection, or did I help create that situation?
"Discussions would often get downright nasty, and if you were intense enough about it, you'd throw down with complete strangers and say things that you wouldn't say to anyone's face -- even if they were your own worst enemy."
I think this is a really interesting point as well. Since we interact with so many people we don't really know and have never met face to face these days, it's so easy to get carried away in our impassioned 'debates'. I recently commented on an article written by an undergrad in a university publication and really let rip with how I felt. It's not something i often do, but I felt really intensely about what she had written. I ended up writing another comment a couple of hours later to make it clear I wasn't personally attacking her, I felt pretty bad about it. It's also easy to be misunderstood and for things to really escalate into nastiness online - I've had some nasty dealings with a couple of people on Ebay before now.
Thanks for the kind words folks. I guess my folks raised me right, though I have been downright nasty on the internets a lot more than I'd like to admit.
In response to Jason's question, I'd say it's ok to engage when one feels moved to do so, and the question isn't so much "Should I engage?" than it is "What approach should I engage with?" The situation may not always be pleasant, but we can always do our best to make it constructive. When I first started working at my current job, in a field I had ZERO experience in, I was fortunate enough to have several people who were patient enough to put up with my n00b mistakes. While I could tell in some instances that they were clearly perturbed, they pointed me in the right direction constructively, let me get back up and brush myself off and learn from my errors. However there was one individual who clearly didn't like my hire, thought I was an idiot, and flat out told me so. Needless to say, I avoid them like the plague, and while there are some nice opportunities there research-wise, it's really not worth my own sanity to pursue them with this jerk. That they've done this with several new hires means this individual is pretty much isolated themselves and needs to constantly generate outside collaborations which involve a lot more paperwork and a lot more effort. It's their own problem though.
When I'm faced with hostility at meetings, or in reviews, it's easy to want to put them in their place. A deep breath and a reasoned response might not make matters better (it could make them worse I suppose) but keeps me IMO on solid footing, especially when other people are witness to the situation. Most people have been waylayed at a conference by someone you didn't expect, and while it's nice to call them on the carpet right then and there, it's a bridge you better accept can never be repaired. Speak plainly, speak fairly ... you might not win them over there, but if they reflect, you may earn their respect (they may not admit it, but you may see the results down the road). And lastly, there are the people who won't ever like you (and vice versa). C'est la vie. Avoid them as much as possible, and grin and bear it when you can't.
John G, I think it's terribly hard to always be objective, especially when it comes to matters touched by politics, because politics always seeks to involve issues closely held by at least a particular group of individuals, if not everybody. I don't think it ever hurts to try to sit back and revisit situations as fairly as possible, and even seek the help of close friends and their honest opinions. I've found that a friend, family member, spouse who won't blow smoke up your ass and will give their honest opinion, is one of the most valuable assets you can ever have. Use those resources as frequently as you can. :)
What are you talking about, DM? There is no example of a purposeful troll. I don't care how you try to euphemize the act, but FWDAOTI and trolling are one in the same. Neither is ever constructive or productive.
Damn this is good. I agree with the 1st comment. We don't know what's happening with others, and what their inner workings are ... and it is damn hard to think about that when we get so passionately involved in a discussion/argument. Great, great post.
Brian, I'd tend to agree with you. While a troll has a purpose (to be a royal pain in the rear-end of every sane person they come into contact with), they're hardly constructive. IMNSHO, trollish behavior goes a long way to negating any purposeful commentary that may be in the message itself (such as littering legitimate criticism with name calling and other juvenile phraseology).
This isn't to say that I don't think we should counter the inanity we see on the internet. Just the opposite. However, I think we need to draw a line between countering inanity, and finding ourselves in a endless spiral of back and forth with stupidity*. Usually the inane can be clarified with a post or two and then left alone. For example, how many times is it necessary to debunk the people who cling to the idea that the moon landings are a hoax? More than once and I think you tend to legitimize them.
*It is certainly an endless spiral because there is so much of it. While the intertubez has given us great access to knowledge, it has also for the first time in history, given stupidity a large voice. Usually stupidity would toil in relatively obscurity, but this is not so any longer.