Ah yes, it’s that time of the month again. No, I’m not talking about some lunar phenomena or a woman’s menstrual cycle, but something that happens with almost the same regularity. Yup, there’s been another flame-war in the Hellenic community. *yawn* I know, hardly anything extraordinary, and probably not even worth commenting on. In fact, if you missed this one you can probably just wait a couple more weeks and there’ll be a whole new one for you to participate in. Although the subjects that set us off change periodically (though not with enough randomness to keep things interesting) they all pretty much follow the same pattern. Person A makes an unfounded or generalized comment. Person B calls them on it, demanding they clarify or provide apropriate sources. Person A gets defensive and attacks Person B. Persons C, D, and E jump in, attacking Person A for attacking B and not providing the proper sources; Persons F, G, and H rush to A’s defense; I and J make sarcastic comments at everyone’s expense; K pleads for sanity and an end to the constant bickering, and then all hell breaks loose until either the Moderators have to step in or someone leaves the list in a huff, crying alligator tears and saying they’re never coming back and going to practice as a solitary for the rest of their life. (Which usually lasts about two to three weeks until they come slinking back because they’re bored or masochistic.) Somewhere along the line someone will have called somebody else a Wiccan. Another person will try to invalidate the traditionalist stance by pointing to slaves, pederasty, and the role of women in antiquity. Whoever invokes Hitler or the Nazis first automatically loses. Old hat. We’ve all been there, done that before. Plenty of us have the battle-scars to show for it, too. In fact, it’s kind of a rite of passage. If you can stand your ground, take it as good as you give, and actually make the occasional intelligent comment instead of being driven off with your tail between your legs, you will have gained respect points from the old guard. Last long enough – about two years – and you will have become part of the old guard.
That’s life in the Hellenic polytheist community. We’re a hard-headed, stubborn, passionately bellicose lot. There are a number of reasons why we’re like this. Partly it has to do with who our cultural ancestors are. The Greeks loved to argue. In fact, they made an art-form out of it and wrote plenty of legal speeches never intended to be delivered in court. They just liked the flow of words, the formation of arguments, getting the blood boiling with righteous indignation. They’d argue in the agora or marketplace; they’d argue at the assembly; they’d argue at festivals; they’d argue over wine at dinner-parties. In fact, husbands probably argued with their wives while they were making love. And the Greeks would literally argue about anything and everything. In fact, one argument at the library of Alexandria became so heated that it broke out into fisticuffs in the street by the opposing parties. Do you know what caused this rumble among the scholars? A debate as to whether the Achaeans at Troy used a razor to shave their faces based on an obscure verb in Homer. I kid you not.
Another reason why we argue today is because, let’s face it, we’re all a bunch of nerds. Most of us are college educated or reading books that are intended for college-level courses. And whereas college kids are forced to read those excruciatingly dry texts, we do it for pleasure. (Recently a lot of us got together at Pantheacon, and one of the rare treats was when we all unpacked our libraries – yes, we traveled with our own libraries – and oohed and ahhed over each other’s rare texts.) We love to quote those books, too, chapter and verse, and then discuss them down to their tiniest details. We keep our fingers on the pulse of academia, and as soon as a theory has fallen out of favor with the Ivy Leaguers, we lambast anyone who is out of date and has the temerity to quote the discredited information – even if it was the norm just a few short years ago. Additionally, plenty of us are in the computer industry, or spend an inordinate amount of time online. (After all, considering the widespread geographical distribution of our community, the ‘net is pretty much the only place we’re likely to meet a co-religionist.) A lot of us are into science-fiction and fantasy, RPGs, fandoms, alternative sexualities, and assorted other geekly activities. Considering how contentious all of those groups are, and that many of us belong to several simultaneously – it’s a wonder we’re ever civil to each other. As nerds we are very committed to clear-thinking, articulate communication, factual accuracy, and proper terminology. Unless, of course, these things get in the way of us making a point.
Additionally, this is a religion for us. It involves deeply cherished beliefs, things that touch the remotest parts of our souls, that encompass how we view the world around us, how we should relate to our fellow men, the very nature of divinity itself. We are passionate in our convictions – and so are the people who hold convictions opposed to ours. Looking back at the history of man, nothing has caused more wars, oppression, and general suffering than religion and philosophy. Frankly, we should be pleased with ourselves that the worst thing that any of us has ever done to each other was call someone an uncharitable name when we could be lynching people and setting fire to their books. (There’s a greater probability that we’d lynch someone than actually burn a book, however.) Unlike many religions, ours is a highly diverse and individualistic faith. From the time that the first Greek-speaking peoples entered Hellas to the closing of the last temples by Theodosius and the philosophical schools by Justinian, you’ve got almost two thousand six hundred years of history. Each polis or city-state had its own laws, traditions, religious practices, and even dialects of Greek. That is a huge amount of material to consider, and each of us focuses on different areas, different time periods, different gods and customs when forming our own personal practice and views. That is bound to cause at least some conflict when discussing these very important issues.
And, lastly, another contributing factor to our frequent ‘net battles is the fact that we are communicating with each other through the printed word. It’s very easy to read the wrong emotion into text. Most of the communication that we do is actually non-verbal. Tone, expression, gesture, stance, etc. can radically alter how our message is conveyed. Something said with a wry grin and a chuckle would likely not offend as much as the same sentence coming across e-mail. We often forget about that in the heat of the moment, when a dozen e-mails are coming across our inbox in the span of five minutes, and everything is immediate, intense, and seems far more important than it normally would. Often, I suspect people do not read e-mails in their entirety, but scan them to find the passage most liable to offend.
So, considering all of this, it’s easy to see why these sorts of flame-wars keep frequently popping up. Some of us simply take them in stride, seeing them as inevitable and hoping that each new manifestation will subside quickly so that we can get back to the important business at hand: fellowship, worship, and the building of a real community, both on and off the internet. Some even think it’s a good thing, showing our diversity, and allowing us to refine and come to a better understanding of our beliefs through exchanges and conflict. Others decry the situation, saying that no real community can be built amidst such a situation, that it’s all just ego-driven dick-waving and that a religion is not a pissing contest. When the people making this point are sincere and refrain from fanning the flames, I applaud their efforts at peace-keeping. Unfortunately, all too often the people who are so vociferously condemning the uncivil tone of discourse and waving the white flag are the same people who either started the flame-war in the first place, or fed it throughout. As soon as they see that their side is losing they’ll jump onto the pacifist train and condemn the other side as trouble-makers, malcontents, and enemies of peace, harmony, and understanding.
So, what’s the solution? Someone doesn’t write this long about a topic such as this unless they’ve got something to contribute.
It’s simple, really. If you want to stop the flame-wars, take a good, hard look in the mirror. A flame-war begins and ends with you, my friend. Yes, I know. Personal responsibility is never a pleasant pill to swallow, and it’s so much easier to blame everyone else. After all, you’re just responding to something they said, right? They set the tone, you’re just following their lead. Well, that’s the thing. Everyone thinks they’re in the right. No one wants to admit that they’re the one causing all the trouble. To their mind, they’re just expressing their views – and you’re the one twisting their words, antogonizing them, and generally being an asshole. And when you follow along, returning force for force, things have a way of escalating. It’s like how Herodotos describes the origin of the enmity between the Greeks and Persians. Some Phoenician sailors came to Greece to hawk their wares. They spotted some pretty Greek princesses, and once all their goods had sold, they fled off with the girls in tow. The Greeks eventually gave chase, abducted the Phoenician king’s daughters, and before you know it you’ve got the Trojan War and the Persian Wars and a whole hell of a lot of dead Greeks and barbarians. Retribution and retaliation always spiral out of control, because each side only sees itself as aggrieved and never the aggriever. Also, it’s pretty damn childish. That’s the behavior you’d expect out of a two year old – not an adult. It is only when one can begin to temper themselves, to use self-control and restraint – sophrosune in the Greek – to keep their anger in check, reply with civility, respect, and gentleness, that one shows the true maturity of an adult and a human. Yes, I admit, being an adult is not very much fun. It’s so much easier to let yourself get swept up in the moment, to give in to your baser, violent, animal instincts, to tear out the throat of the person you think has done you wrong, to show your strength and intelligence for all to see. But think about it. Which takes more strength, keeping yourself in check or smiting an enemy? Which shows more intelligence – making a witty, insulting comment, or finding a way to communicate your point in a manner that doesn’t offend? In the end, you may be completely in the right, but if you act like a total asshole, no one is going to listen to you. They’re just going to dismiss you and everything you say. So, if you truly want to overcome your enemy, overcome yourself first. Let them look like the raging fool, the out of control animal, the belligerent, ignorant creep. You do not have to lower yourself to their level. Never lose sight of who you are and aspire to be. The second you do that, they’ve already won, no matter how off-base their points are.
Of course, I’m not saying that it’s easy, by any means. Hell, if it was easy we’d all be doing it. And anyone who knows me knows that I sure as hell haven’t lived up to this standard plenty of times myself. But the thing is, it’s something you can keep working on, every day, in every exchange, a continually unfolding process. And you’re going to slip, you’re going to lose your temper – we all do, we’re human – but the key is, don’t stop trying. If this is something that’s important to you, it’s worth working at. And here are some guidelines that might help.
* When you feel yourself losing control, step away from the computer. Calm down and come back to it later. Nothing, absolutely nothing, has to be sent off just this second. Give yourself time and space to really think about what you’re going to say. Is it absolutely necessary? Are there any other ways to express it? Are you just repeating yourself? What effect is this going to have on the conversation? Is it just going to keep things going and piss off the other person – or does it represent an actual breakthrough, a new idea or way of looking at something? Write out everything that’s in your head, no matter how angry and insulting it is. Then delete it, and start all over again.
* Learn to communicate clearly. Electronic communication is fraught with peril. As already said, it’s hard to read intent in such a cerebral form of expression. Also, understand that there is often a difference between what’s in your head and what comes out. In our head there are all of these companion concepts, associations, words, history, etc. We think completely, but communicate only partially. Since very few people are mind-readers, don’t presume anything and take extra care in how you communicate your ideas. And, let’s face it, not everyone is on the same experential or intellectual level. Some people can become very sensitive about this fact and react badly when they think you are intentionally talking over their head. Complicating this is the fact that not everyone you will communicate with has English as their first or primary language. Because they understand words and concepts differently, this can open the doors to all sorts of unpleasant misunderstandings. Try to make your points as clearly and concisely as possible. If people seem to be misunderstanding you, offer to restate your views in a better manner.
* Whenever possible, provide sources for what you are claiming, especially when it’s regarding a controversial subject. When asked for sources, don’t get offended. That doesn’t mean that people are trying to show you up or that they even doubt what you’re saying. They may simply be curious and want to see how you came to your understanding, or to learn about something they previously didn’t know. If there is no basis for your view beyond your own personal opinion or experience, clearly state that. That is a perfectly fine source in and of itself, and will often avert a lot of heated discussion.
* Learn how to disagree with people without making it personal. Don’t take pot-shots or bring up unrelated issues. Keep private matters out of public discource. Separate the idea and action from the indivdual themselves. No matter what this person believes, they are still a person just like you, and thus worthy of decency and respect. It’s okay if you don’t see eye to eye. Very few issues are so important that you should stop being friends with the person simply because you disagree with them. Alternately, no matter what an asshole this person may be, eventually they’re going to have something good to say. Don’t dismiss their ideas out of hand, simply because you don’t like them. Make sure that what you are disagreeing with is the idea itself, and not the person expressing it.
* Don’t take things so damn seriously! In the middle of an argument it can seem like everything’s on the line, like it’s a life or death issue. It’s not. Believe me, very few things in life are worth getting that upset over. Someone disagrees with you, someone makes a snotty comment, someone even says something not so nice to you – so what? Does their having said so make it true? Grow a thick skin and learn to let stuff roll off your back like water off a tortoise shell. I’m not saying that you should be a doormat and never stick up for yourself – just choose your battles wisely, and understand that not everything is as intense as you’re feeling it right this second. Find a way to laugh at things. If you can find the humor in a situation, you’ll be much better off. Plenty of volatile situations have been defused with laughter.
* Don’t be a drama-whore. If your disagreement with an individual or a group is so great that you no longer feel that you can associate with them, simply leave. Don’t make long-winded and accusatory good-bye speeches. Try to move on without having to attack the individuals in question, to recriminate or “blow the lid off their shit”, or to demand that everyone you know choose your side over theirs. This only perpetuates the unpleasantness and puts everyone in a difficult position. Trust that things will work out in the end, and that you don’t have to right every wrong. People are smart. They notice patterns. They can figure things out without us having to tell them or rub their faces in it. Of course, if it is a serious situation which might potentially harm others, you do have an obligation to speak up. But know clearly that you are addressing a serious problem and not just spreading rumours and making hateful comments about someone you don’t like. And don’t go running to Livejournal and make a million posts, both private and public, in order to keep the cycle of conflict going. Because inevitably, the other side will do it, too, and then you will have to respond to what they respond to, and then they’ll respond, and really, it just keeps going on and on and on, long after the initial confrontation has blown over, bringing in individuals who had no part in the initial fray. And, if things do get resolved you’ll be sitting there with egg all over your face, having to explain the nasty things you said and how you no longer believe them. Much better to let things blow over, make sure the bridges have really been burnt before saying anything. And don’t talk about people behind their back. Gossip and spreading nasty rumours about people may be cathartic in the moment – but just consider that the same thing might be being done about you behind your back. And really, we’re a small community. Can you be sure that the person you’re talking to won’t talk to someone else, and that that person in turn won’t talk to the indvidual you’re talking about? When it gets back to them, it opens up a whole new can of worms.
I could go on, but hopefully you get my point. Really, it all comes down to the words of the Roman slave and philosopher Epictetus, “What you would avoid suffering yourself, seek not to impose on others.” Sounds like pretty good advice to me. If you want the madness to stop (and there’s no reason to assume that everyone does) it must stop with you. Take the initiative – or in the parlance of the self-help movement, be proactive and be the first one to do what’s right. Not only will you be looked up to as an elder and leader in our community, a person of wisdom and self-control – but you will know, at the very least, that you are not contributing to an evil, even if others are.