How To Win A Flamewar

If you’ve been online long enough to have found this article you’ve probably seen, or even participated in, a flamewar. Seen from the outside, you know you’re looking at two people exactly like this guy:

What do you want me to do?  LEAVE?  Then they'll keep being wrong!
Duty Calls

You don’t normally see flamewars in real life except in special-interest forums: politics, academia,[1] sports,cosmology.

Then there are those special people, the polyflamers who will argue on any topic. No, not lawyers. Geeks.

Something in the geek psyche makes them — okay, us — prone to obsess over pedantic distinctions that ordinary people just don’t care about. If you think about flaming in geek terms, though, you see a way out.

Compiled language

When writing code, a programmer usually writes instructions that are in (somewhat) human-readable form. These instructions are then “compiled” into commands that a computer can interpret and execute. If the output from the computer is wrong, either the commands the programmer entered were wrong, or the compiler didn’t work correctly.

Experienced programmers quickly learn that it’s very unlikely they’ve found a new compiler bug. If there’s a problem, it’s almost always the code they wrote. Sometimes, though, there really is a bug in the compiler. Compilers can get fixed, but not quickly, and not often. The changes have to be small enough that they don’t introduce new problems. And they will potentially break any code that was designed to work around the bugs. Which is exactly what programmers do: They work around the bugs.

Debugging politics

Now think about a political campaign as a computer program. The campaign staff is writing instructions (commercials) that they hope will cause the public to exhibit specific behavior. But the target platform is the brain of each individual voter. Each one has its own rules, so every compiler works differently. But here’s the important part: You can’t fix the compiler. No matter how broken you think someone’s thinking is you can’t change the basic rules.

What you can do is figure out what rules they’re using. Which means stereotyping people. pigeonholing them based on a few characteristics you’re sure of, and assuming that a whole bunch of other things are probably also true. The sad fact about humanity — sad if you’re a fan of individuality, that is — is that this tends to work pretty well.

These are not the earmarks you were looking for

So now that you know each brain is wired differently, and you don’t have much chance to “fix” it, what are you supposed to do about it? Stop using arguments that work on you, and start using ones that work on them. Whoever “them” happens to be at the moment.

[1] Combine two and you get the observation that academic politics are so vicious precisely because the stakes are so small. Attributed to Woodrow Wilson after his time as president of Princeton University.