Sanction of the Victim

Friday, September 04, 2009

I'll open this post with a cute and amazingly on-point email joke my Mom sent me this week:


You have just received the Amish Virus. Since we do not have electricity nor computers, you are on the honor system. Please delete all of your files.

Thank thee.
Now, on with the show...

This post is not about blog policy (which I keep mainly to myself), but it does start off from one of my policies, namely that I moderate comments in part to keep the discussion civil.

Happily, I find that I rarely actually have to consider rejecting a comment. On top of that, I have also noticed that even the rudest comments can often serve as examples of something I am talking about or as fodder for charity refutations, sometimes even doing half the work for me if the commenter is sufficiently sloppy or unglued.

Rarely does a comment (aside from spam) offer nothing of value to a discussion, but last night, I rejected two (by the same person), to yesterday's post, for that very reason. That said, the comments do accidentally offer grist for the mental mill.

The first I rejected because the commenter mocked another of my commenters. I include it here mainly for context.

Here is the first comment:
Your caricature of Catholicism is ludicrous -- I'd despise it too, if it was as you claim.

The finest, most intelligent gentlemen teachers I ever had were both Catholic priests -- one, a tecaher [sic] of philosophy, the other, a physicist.

"Tortured, prisoner souls" -- gzeesh, spare me the melodrama.

If one is religious, then praying before sex doesn't strike me as off the charts. Nor is it the Catholic Church per se publishing this prayer book, but a Catholic group.

And no, Gus, the Church does not view sex as obscene.
This comment is sort of a mashed-up version of a flame sandwich, in the sense that it actually does bring up some legitimate issues of general interest. One of these, the fact that there are decent people who profess religion, I have touched on before (probably in answer to the same person).

There are other such points. (One is this: Many apologists for evil philosophies evade the practical implications of those philosophies by appealing to the fact that those very philosophies do not explicitly state those implications.) But this post isn't about those points, for the same fundamental reason I refused to post the comment in the first place: The blog is my property and I use it as I see fit. Today, I do not care to address those issues. And yesterday, unfortunately, this person couldn't help but drop an insult in with his comment.

But wait! There's more! If you pay close attention to the above passage, you will see that our firecracker tosser is moving the goal posts behind that puff of smoke. And by "moving the goal posts," I am understating things. He is, in fact, trying to play a completely different game on a completely different field.

Consider the following: "If one is religious, then praying before sex doesn't strike me as off the charts." That is true, but it is also completely beside the point, which is that the whole premise of taking things on faith leads to objectively ridiculous practices. If I believed in ghosts, I might spend Friday evenings conducting seances, too. Seances, like praying before sex, are ridiculous.

The question is this: Why bring this obvious point up at all? The next comment will make that more clear.
Gotta love how you handle contrary ideas -- hey, just don't show them at all! Cool....

Let's talk about that "mindless" set -- oh yes, those people of faith. They can't think for themselves, unlike those brave Randroids who amazingly all think that Frank Lloyd Wright is the best -- the best! architecture of all time. And did I mention fiction? All Randroids must agree that Hugo's "Les Miserables" is the best fiction!! Amazing how many of you can't think beyond your puny box........but don't worry, somewhere out there some Cathoic is praying for your soul.

Gus, have the guts to engage a Catholic (an ex-atheist, ex-Ayn Rand fan)who wishes do disagree with your caricature of the faith.

What are you afraid of? If you can't do that, you're pathetic.
Massive offenses against truth and etiquette aside this person is trying to feel good about himself by placing me -- the proprietor of this blog -- in what he sees as an inescapable bind: Publish a direct insult or "admit" that it is true. (See also, "I dare you to publish this.")

The real problem is this: Even if I wanted to engage this person, I really can not. He admits to being a person "of faith," which is to say that he holds premises in the absence of evidence or proof. I could waste hours talking to this guy, and ultimately see him just shrug, pick up his Bible, thump on it, and say, "I have faith." (I actually watched a creationist do just this back in college once he was backed into a corner.) If I am "afraid" of anything here, it's wasting my time effectively talking to a wall -- one just sentient enough to be able to insult me. Obviously, that does not make me pathetic. (See also: "Faith and Force: Destroyers of the Modern World.")

But back to the game-changing. Notice what that last line is meant to do.

There is no way to come out ahead by adding this to a discussion thread: If I publish it and don't say anything about the insults, I'm helping him pretend that his conduct is acceptable. If I publish and do address the insults, it looks like I give a rat's behind about his opinion of me, which is clearly irrational and irrelevant. That, by the way, is on top of wasting time and mental energy. (On re-reading, I realize that, setting aside the rudeness, I probably could have gotten away with just pointing this out.)

Worse still, I would be allowing him to set the terms of the discussion on my blog. The conversation would have ceased being about the catastrophic consequences of allowing the arbitrary to infect one's thinking, and instead been about what a great idea it is to pray before sex, assuming you believe in God -- as if history doesn't already provide plenty of examples of what people have done on that premise, some of it well beyond the merely ridiculous.

And this brings me to one final point, which is that this bile is actually an excellent example of a point I made in a comment:
[T]hey have been trained all their lives NOT to trust their minds. They have had their confidence ruined.
What are most flames designed to do? Evoke a poorly-controlled expression of a negative emotional response. And what is an emotion? It is, as Ayn Rand once pointed out, "an automatic response, an automatic effect of man's value premises."

It causes me to wonder about a person when he deliberately sets out to insult a total stranger in a one-to-one email communication. (Which is what the second "comment" really is.) I wonder whether this is: (1) a plea for attention from a total stranger who has no reason to care, (2) an admission on one's own part that one has nothing better to do than attack the values of another person, and (3) an admission that one lives in a personal hell. The last is a serious admission, but in any event the desired payoff is that the other person will respond in kind.

The only remaining question that needs answering is this: Why would I respond at all? (Or, in the present context, why would I post this as a comment, vice dissecting it in a post.) Because I cared on some level about the insult. The hope is that deep down, I feel this person is right, and that I, too, lack self-confidence and therefore exist second-handedly enough to feel on some level that if I don't do as he says, I really am a coward. This is a seedy attempt to get me to not just take an insult, but to help him dish it out.

It drives this person batty that I disagree with him. But, if he's right, why do I bother him? And if he's wrong, why is he wasting time on me? He admits that he won't check his own premises, but yet he feels a need to browbeat me into carelessly accepting them so he can "win" an argument with me.

My speculation about why some people try to provoke flame wars is that seeing other people throwing fits of impotent rage is a form of validation. Verbalized, it might be something like, "See! I'm not so bad. Everyone else is irrational, too." Whatever the reason, this is not a confident or productive activity.

Well, this led to some interesting speculation, but the purpose of philosophy is not to gaze at one's navel, or to argue pointlessly, or to have fights. It is to live one's own life, and I have some living to do.

And that -- not that I owe anyone an explanation -- is why I summarily rejected the above comments.

-- CAV


: Some minor edits and clarifications.
9-7-09: Deleted extra line after first paragraph.


RE said...

"My speculation about why some people try to provoke flame wars is that seeing other people throwing fits of impotent rage is a form of validation."

If I had to place a bet on it, I think this comes closest to nailing it. To wit: Nobody likes to drink alone.

Gus Van Horn said...


Burgess Laughlin said...

> "My speculation about why some people try to provoke flame wars is that seeing other people throwing fits of impotent rage is a form of validation."

I too have wondered about the nature of those who use insults (even when I agree with their "conclusions").

I think you are on the right track, which I see as being ultimately a metaphysical issue -- that is, an issue of the basic nature of reality.

For the chronic insulters, "reality" seems to consist of a tightly packed universe of emoting monads. You affirm your own existence -- and potency -- by making others emote. The biggest emoter wins.

Gus Van Horn said...


That's an interesting idea, as well as a thought-provoking post (which I have managed to remain ignorant of until just now.

Thanks for pointing them out.


C. August said...

Gus wrote:
I could waste hours talking to this guy, and ultimately see him just shrug, pick up his Bible, thump on it, and say, "I have faith." (I actually watched a creationist do just this back in college once he was backed into a corner.)

This made me chuckle because I had a somewhat similar -- though more dramatic -- experience in college. After a relatively long study session that turned into a discussion of religion, where the girl I was with got increasingly more frustrated and upset as it went on, she eventually popped up out of her chair (in the crowded dorm cafe) and said, "Well, MAY GOD JUST STRIKE YOU DOWN!"

In one of the few times in my life where I responded as I would have wanted to in retrospect, I leaned back and spread my arms in a beckoning manner to the Lord, and said "Alright, I'm waiting. Come and get me."

The girl rushed out of the cafe and never spoke to me again. That was fun.

Gus Van Horn said...

That's a good one!

Hell, it's better because it was only a few years after the fact that I fully realized that my creationist was actually using his Bible as a white flag....

Jennifer Snow said...

This sort of behavior is pathetically common on as a response to ANY kind of moderation action. Over the years I've made my "you've been moderated--plz modify behavior" messages more and more terse and impersonal in the hopes of stemming the tide of reactionary vituperation, but it hasn't worked. Responses generally fall into one of these categories:

1. He started it! (This is from people who were engaging in some form of flame war.)
2. How dare you delete my perfect and godlike wisdom! (This from people who posted a single insulting line.)
3. You have no right to censor me! (This from people whose first few posts are completely without merit.)

A response like this to moderation is almost always a sign that the poster is Not Long For The Forum.

Gus Van Horn said...

Somehow your post triggered a memory of mine...

About a decade ago, a bit before election time one year, I heard a knock on my door.

Houston, it turns out, has a Socialist Party, and individual was out evangelizing for it.

All he did was remind me of what a great thing private property is. That knowledge I gleefully put to use: With a smirk, I slammed the door shut in is face.

Now, someone like the guy whose silliness inspired this post will say something stupid like, "But you blew a chance to get your message out." Not so.

To paraphrase an uncommonly wise prayer: "God, grant me the serenity to discern the minds I cannot change, the courage to engage the minds I can, and the wisdom to know the difference."

In communicating rational ideas, there is serenity in knowing a lost cause.

LB said...

So I'm a lightweight commenter, but I have to tell you: that Amish virus has kept me laughing for minutes at a time over a few days.

Thank Thee.

Gus Van Horn said...

I just hope that the delay in thanks was due to uncontrollable laughter, rather than time spent at computer recovery!