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Archive for June 3rd, 2009

The other evening, we received a call from someone we knew fifteen years ago. We hadn’t heard from him for several years, and, while we had nothing particular against him, we were content to drift out of touch. But there he was, a disembodied voice bringing up names that these days we hardly thought of from one year to the next, and urging that we should get back in touch with people with whom we no longer had anything in common. The experience was sad and guilt-provoking in equal measure. At the same time, I resented it, because our caller believed he still had the right to make demands on us.

All in all, it was a perfect example of what American fantasist Harlan Ellison once called taking a tour through his life. He meant, as you can probably figure out, somebody leaping to conclusions about how he thought or felt, then acting upon them rather than responding to what he actually said or did.

I don’t have one-fortieth of the name recognition that Ellison had in his heyday, but as a writer who publishes mostly online, I have people taking tours through my life all the time. They miss the sarcasm, take a phrase out of context, or misread, and then they take me to task for what they imagine I said or believe.

For example, once when I did a brief commentary in which I suggested that a woman-only distribution of GNU/Linux might be worth trying. Among other things, I wrote, “I’m not a great believer in the idea that women are less aggressive than or interact differently from men. Yet even I have to admit that most of the regulars on free software mailing lists for women are politer and more supportive than the average poster on general lists.” Then one of the commenters inferred that I must be single and a loner who knew nothing about women, because they obviously were different from men. He apparently stopped reading with the first sentence of the passage, and was willing to blast me on the basis of his incomplete understanding. Never mind that another five seconds’ reading might have prevented his mistake and public embarrassment.

As an ex-university teacher who tried to encourage careful and sympathetic reading among students, my first impulse is to correct such statements as politely as I can. However, experience has taught me that the effort is usually a waste of time. Nobody likes being proved wrong at the best of times, but, when they are also proved incompetent, most people become defensive and angry. I save everybody’s time and keep my blood pressure lower if I don’t respond, or, at the very most, stop the email exchange after my second message.

That probably leaves the commenter thinking that they’ve won, but I can live with that. I don’t know them, after all.

But some tourists through my life are not simply on a self-conducted tour, but trying to sell other people tickets as well. There’s only two or three of them, but they spend a surprising amount of time on their blogs and web sites attacking me for what I did or didn’t do, or for what they imagine I said.

Why they attack me in particular, I have no idea. Maybe it’s because I write online and seem accessible.

What disturbs me about these tour guides is not that they disagree with me. They have every right to do so. Occasionally, they even point out actual mistakes (although they frequently confuse the concepts of “mistake” and “different opinion”). It is not even their relentless anger (explicable to me only as too much caffeine and too little sleep), their refusal to follow even the basics of civilized discussion, or the question of why they don’t write about someone important.

Rather, what disturbs me is the cognitive dissonance that sets in when I read their comments about me or my articles. Possibly, they get carried away by their own rhetoric, but the image they present of me or my articles is so far from any possible perspective that I can’t even call it a distortion. I suspect they are projecting an image drawn from their own imagination or systematic misreadings and over-simplifications. A Microsoft shill or dupe? A writer who is one with Dan Lyons and Laura Didio? Considering that an even larger group of readers identify me as completely biased to the free software school of thought, these accusations would be laughable if only they were not so humorless and ill-natured.

Emotionally, what they say about me has no resonance whatsoever. It simply strikes me as bizaare.

When I first started receiving these attacks, I used to respond to them, thinking that I couldn’t let such outrageous comments stand unchallenged. But doing so, I quickly found, is an even bigger waste of time than responding to those on the self-guided tours. The tour-guides never give in.

For these reasons, I rarely read the tour-guides. The occasional pingback to my blog or a note from a friend tells me that they are still out there, but I mostly catch only snippets of their latest rants. I tell myself that to be known as someone attacked by such people is a mark of honor, and, considering their other targets in the free software community (many of whom I’ve met and liked, although not always agreed with), I should consider their attacks a sign of distinction, no matter how undeserved.

But increasingly, just as with the former friend who called, when I happen across the tour-guides, what echoes inside my head is Ellison’s reply to the similar people in his own life:

“I don’t know you, and you don’t know me.”

And I, for one, am very content to keep things that way.

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