OK, OK, you're maybe thinking, funny, funny, ha-ha-ha, Paul doesn't
know when to stop flaming. But, wait a minute. I'll admit that
the piece above didn't really appear in the IMT (had you fooled for
a minute though, eh? No? Oh.) It was indeed written to let off
steam after a bout of flaming which I thought better of continuing.
I make no claim for its objectivity or fairness, nor would I have
posted it on its own. But, if you peer beneath the jet of burning
petroleum, and listen hard past the crackle or burning flesh, there
are some valid points there.
Delusionist syndrome is the name given to certain behaviours commonly
seen on, though not limited to, weblogs, mailing lists and other
forums intended for civilised public discourse.
The central symptom is this: since the Delusionist of whatever
stripe does not argue, but merely asserts, after their intervention
it becomes impossible to conduct a reasoned discussion. The basic
tenets -- for example: "freedom is guns" (often coupled, bizarrely,
with the seemingly-irrelevant "RMS is a commie" (Note 2); "world-wide
Jewish conspiracy"; "if the earth was round, the Australians would
fall off" -- are simply repeated, over and over. This resembles the
classic conditioned response, in being pre-rational and evoked by
In particular, the conditioned response seems to be triggered by the
occurrence of certain "key words", printed or spoken. For a gun-nut,
these might be "freedom", "gun control", "gun-nut" (Note 1) itself,
or "RMS" (a surprising one at first, but see Note 2). Similarly,
the neo-Nazi responds to "Israel" or "Holocaust", the flat-earther to
"round-the-world cruise" or "Copernicus".
It matters not at all in what context the keywords occur. For our
fanatic, as for the public bar bore, all conversations are one
conversation. Like Uncle Toby, they are stuck on their hobby-horse,
and they can't get off.
Once launched on his (Note 3) spiel, the Delusionist will continue
until the cows come home, reusing his limited stock of "arguments"
over and over.
Certain basic documents are consistently referred to, but the content
of such a document will rarely bear any relation to what is said.
For example, a gun-nut will have no qualms in praising the American
Declaration of Independence in one sentence, and in the next asserting
that "there are no natural rights".
Is there a cure? Sadly, no; no treatment has been discovered to date.
Happily, the condition is not contagious, and the only danger posed
to the general public by these distressing cases is one of boredom.
This risk can, however, be minimised by the simple technique of
ignoring them. They will mostly likely then go away, if only to find
someone else to pester.
gun-nut /g^n-n^t/ n. person with a
differently-aspected attitude to projectile weaponry.
The link between gun-nuts and anti-free-software fanatics is one that
needs closer examination. In this respect, ESR (Note 4), though often
labelled as one, is far from being a typical gun-nut. The typical
gun-nut is a "private property über alles" man, although not such
a consistent one that he refuses to use services paid for from the
public purse. Anyone who challenges any aspect of sacrosanct "private
property" is a "commie". Hence, the GPL is not just a software
license, but part of an International Communist Conspiracy. Since no
one can deny that the rights of private property in the US are indeed
heavily-regulated and restricted by Federal and State governments --
the IRS is particularly hated by gun-nuts -- the gun-nut alleges,
as indeed he must if he is not to lapse into absurdity, that the USA
is de facto ruled by communists. The blame for this sorry state of
affairs is commonly laid on a secret world government, a New World
Order if you will, usually, though not always, alleged to be in the
pay of "the Jews". It is interested to note here how two different
forms of the syndrome tend to converge. Not enough work has been
done to determine whether such convergence also occurs between other
forms of the disease, for example flat-earthers, hollow-earthers,
Gods-from-Outer-Spacers, etc; this would make a good PhD thesis
For reasons not yet determined, Delusionist Syndrome occurs almost
exclusively in males, although some rare female cases have been
documented (see the sad case of Ayn Rand).
It should be noted in passing that there is no evidence that ESR
suffers from Delusionist Syndrome, though he does occasionally Let
His Mouth Run Away With Him.
It is a fact that there are certain keywords which are almost
guaranteed to elicit a quasi-Pavlovian response on a weblog or on
Usenet or on a mailing list. To take an extreme example, there are
certain newsgroups where an incautious reference to the Holocaust can
get the innocent poster inundated in a flood of neo-Nazi propaganda,
which is then answered by not-always-temperate, and sometimes not
even factual, "denial-denials". On and on it will go, claim and
counter-claim, any shred of reasonable discourse being torn away as the
fight becomes increasingly vigorous and irrational. And there's the
real point: forget, for a moment, the rights and wrongs of the matter:
*neither* side comes out of such virtual fist fights looking well.
There is a Monty Python sketch which features an enthusiastic newly-wed
couple (straight from the church round the corner, if we're to believe
the sound effects) in an attempt to buy a bed in an English department
store. Unhappily for them, the only salesman authorised to help,
while otherwise "perfectly alright", is compelled to place a bucket
over his head at the mention of the word "mattress". The difficulties
in which this places our hapless hero and heroine can be imagined,
particularly as the word which they have been advised to use as a
safe synonym for "mattresses" -- "dog kennels" -- elicits from the
mattress salesman merely a puzzled request that they visit the pets
department on the second floor. It all ends in chaos, the mattress
salesmen with his head in a bucket, the other sales staff singing
"Jerusalem" in the fish tank -- this being, the couple are assured,
the only way of extracting their colleague from the bucket -- and
finally, when at last order is restored, another couple appear, utter
the dread word, and the whole cycle starts again. All very funny;
but it's not at all what we want from a real department store.
Now, I'll fight anyone who says a web-log can't be just as useful as a
department store. I remember being really knocked back by how useful
I found slashdot (which in my prejudiced way I had at first dismissed
as some sort of chat-board á la AOL), when I first began reading
posting (as an AC to begin with, then as, wait for it, you'll never
guess, "paul.dunne" -- back then I didn't know you could have embedded
spaces in your user name). It was a place where you could learn and
discuss, and maybe even pass on some of your own knowledge in return.
However, the keyword syndrome soon set in -- probably there from the
very start, but in recession perhaps. The major factor in slashdot's
decline? Perhaps not. But not negligible. Mention the GPL on
slashdot today, for example, and you will -- there's no maybe --
have a comment attached to yours denouncing RMS as a "commie" and
the GPL as, if not the work of the devil, then certainly the end an
honest programmer's livelihood. Whether this be true or no, the real
harm is that this rant will be emitted regardless of the actual topic
of discussion -- we might, for example, actually have been having a
perfectly-civilised editor war, vi vs emacs for example (everyone knows
vi is better, of course, but bear with me for the sake of the example).
A mere mention, in passing, that emacs is under the GPL whereas nvi
(let's say) has a BSD license, will be enough to unleash the deluge.
I've used slashdot as an example, not because the disease is limited
to there, but because it's the biggest and best-known of web-logs,
and because almost everyone reading this will have engaged in or
watched a keyword-generated flame-fest there at one time or another.
To bring matters closer to home, let's look at a recent outbreak of
keyword fever on kuro5hin. Yes, I'm talking about my ESR article.
What started out as an attempt to check the facts on ESR, and then
bring people's attention to his version of them, and his attempts to
attribute his own, ah, singular political views to the free software
world as a whole, took off on a rather unexpected tangent. Yes, I
started it, I am the Idiot Boy who dropped the keyword: "gun-nut".
it was a flippant remark made in passing, and God knows had little
enough to do with the subject under discussion; but boy did I start
By the next morning, the comment count had clocked up another 20
or 30, the majority nothing at all to do with the matter at hand,
but rather a classic bout of what I parodied in my "paper" above:
someone with a bee in their bonnet who won't let go. Though I poked
rather vicious fun in my "medical report", here let me say that I'm
every bit as much to blame. I should have watched my mouth in the
first place; after all, I'd seen what happened to /., where this sort
of thing is out of control; and, after inadvertently having dropped
the bait, I should above all else not have responded . It takes
two to make a flame-war -- well, the more the merrier, but no one will
flame themselves (although I do think some antagonists on /. have very
similar writing styles -- but nay, that way lies madness). If no-one
responds to the initial twitch, it must all die down very quickly.
What is to be done? We can't avoid keywords, they are important
(that's why they're called key -words). But, just as there are
sides to the starting of a flame war, so there are two sides to its
prevention. People with particularly-strong views might perhaps think
twice before posting: stop, and think: "does what I'm about to write
actually have a bearing on the subject; or am I just responding
to a keyword as Pavlov's dogs to his bell?" And those who see
such a response should likewise think twice before posting: stop,
and think, "do I want to continue the discussion, or do I just want
a flame-war?". Everyone has the choice, you see, because none of us
are just conditioned animals, after all.