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.


This is another limitation of our subjectivity. I find that too much self-consciousness, self-thought reinforces a distorted, subjective view of reality. The solution is true involvement with the external world, through attempted REAL intimacy with the people and world around us. I do think impersonal means of communication like writing and reading function to distance, which could reinforce this same subjectivity.

chris sivori 2005-07-19T11:09:41-07:00

Chris, we see a lot of this sort of thing in the Indian online world - at social networks, at blogs and forums. Its probably got a lot to do with how we are coping with this relatively new medium. I come from a society that’s so hierarchical in nature, that has very strong rules and sets of do’s and don’ts, that has power balances rooted in tradition, that has little concept or value for personal space, and that doesnot always encourage team play. The online world is toppling and threatening many of our traditional structures, giving open voice and power to many who hitherto had none. It’s a world that is not hierarchical, one that encourages an even-playing field for free speech and debate no matter what gender or age or race or religion you belong to, it does not have many pre-ordained rules and prescriptions, it is one where we need to learn to respect personal space, and where team play can be so rewarding. Maybe we’re in a state of Anomie as we transition - we’re all learning … the way i deal with it is to simply ignore obvious ‘flamers’, and not engage in a debate. When you don’t engage someone, they may knock harder for a while, but soon, they will go away. Maybe the system self-corrects too?

Dina Mehta 2005-07-21T00:53:53-07:00

(I found you via Sharon Boggon’s http://www.inaminuteago.com/mindtracks/ blog)…I like Spinoza’s theory, and would just simplify it: where there is heat, there is personal projection of some kind of unfinished business. Sometimes it is worth deciphering, sometimes not. I loved what Dina Mehta said about the online world “encourages an even-playing field for free speech”. It has got to be a force for increased understanding among all people, flammage along the way or not.

Allison Aller 2005-07-24T07:21:31-07:00

Hey, Chris, your post reminded me of the concept of “egocasting” which I blogged about earlier this year. “egocasting: the act of using your ability to personalize and filter intermediated experience to make your world match who you already are” As our technology continues to get better at helping us filter the world to fit our preferences, does our ability to understand and tolerate difference atrophy? Are there ways to teach and encourage appreciation of difference through design of technology? Or expand online messages to increase comprehension? I agree with the comment above that this part of the nature of our subjective experience. We all face the challenge of understanding each other regardless of the communication medium.

Owen Davis 2005-07-27T14:16:57-07:00

URL: I suspect I may find a reference to Cialdini’s book, “Influence: the Psychology of Persuasion” someplace on this blog, but I haven’t yet, so I am going to throw it out there as good reading on the psychology of all this (“an innocent association with either bad things or good things will influence how people feel about us”). Pete

Pete 2005-08-10T12:43:46-07:00

Christopher, I got to your blog from an endorsement on your LinkedIn profile. Thank you for sharing this wonderful piece from Mick LaSalle. I blogged about it too on my business networking blog. I also noticed that in your list of Social Networks on the sidebar, you haven’t mentioned openBC - http://www.openbc.com , which is one of my two favorites for online networking [ the other being LinkedIn ]. Best Regards, Naina Redhu

Naina Redhu 2005-11-30T23:07:18-07:00

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