- To infer an unknown from something that is known; conjecture.
-- The Random House College Dictionary
Mick LaSalle, an acerbic movie reviewer for the San Francisco Chronicle, writes a regular column "Ask Mick LaSalle" in the Sunday paper, where he sometimes allows others to vent their displeasure at his movie reviews. In this week's column he says something that I find very accurate to my experience with the online medium:
As for why people get hostile when they hear a differing opinion, I go back to Spinoza's definition of love and hatred. He says that people love that which they think reinforces their survival and hate that which they think threatens their survival. I believe -- this is just my humble theory, now -- that when people hear an opinion that counters theirs, their minds extrapolate from that one opinion to imagine a whole philosophical system. And then they imagine how they would fare in a world run according to that imagined system. So they go from disagreeing to feeling threatened in a matter of seconds, and they lash out. Often they write letters that begin, "You are obviously," and that's where they identify, not you, but the phantom they feel threatened by.
Over the years, I've been "obviously" liberal, conservative, gay, straight, humorless, frivolous, angry and deeply jealous of Tom Hanks. When I was 30, I remember getting accused of being a 45-year-old former hippie who drove a BMW, wore a Rolex and had done acid in the '60s. I'm not sure if I wrote back, but if I did, I would have said, "Wrong. Wrong. Wrong. Wrong. Wrong." But, of course, that kind of letter is your key to acquiring distance. It lets you know that the person's real quarrel is with some middle-aged former hippie -- probably known as Dad -- and that you're just the vehicle for that day's projection.
I think that Mick LaSalle is exactly right -- I've seen this type of hostility based on extrapolation regularly in online mediums: in emails, newsgroups, wikis, blogs, etc. I've been guilty of it a few times myself, though usually for me the result is that I don't respond at all -- "Oh, he is just a flaming liberal", "She's an arch-conservative" or "He is a just a technophobe." I can then feel comfortable in ignoring the rest of his or her point of view rather then trying to understand it.
I doubt if explaining this theory to someone who writes a hostile message is useful -- they will take it as yet another attack, which will likely contribute to another cycle of flamage. But I do find Mick's theory useful as another way to read and understand hostile messages, and respond more appropriately.
Understanding this lets me add another widget to my social software toolbox: when a group process results in a hostile message, try to determine if the author is actually reacting to what you said or if their hostility is based on extrapolating to "obvious" generalities. This may not allow you to directly address the hostility, but it may help you better understand it and thus not contribute to the cycle of flames.