May 10, 2009
Clicking with a flamer
By Lee Siew Hua
Hotheads who hurl insults at you and me online may have a heart. Yes, some flamers become friends, believe it or not.
Once, I had a fleeting encounter with a socialist professor. He had popped into Washington to join the anti-globalisation activism.
He was part of the rainbow spectrum of protestors ranging from students who felt sorry for turtles to gritty Boeing machinists in their 50s.
Based in Washington at that time, I was covering the unruly spring meetings of the World Bank and International Monetary Fund.
Police in riot gear closed many streets, creating a 50-block perimeter around the two sister institutions.
A few days later, the professor read my news reports online and shot me an e-mail. Was I a Straits Times journalist or a police spokesman, he taunted.
My first reaction? Cover him with flames! Convinced that I could out-flame anyone since I work with words, I gleefully began to devise an insult in my head.
Then I stopped. I didn't want to be an easily offended person. A wise friend once said that even if 95 per cent of a person's criticism isn't true, we can choose to learn from the 5-per-cent bit that seems reasonable, instead of going ballistic.
Of course, I dismissed that as a matryr's mindset at first.
But you know what? When I replied rationally to my flamer, the dynamics upturned radically.
I'd simply started by noting that he felt strongly enough to write to me. I added a couple of quick points and signed off.
When he responded, he seemed intrigued. He even apologised.
It turned out that he was a thoughtful Croatian-American who taught Japanese at a Californian college.
As we corresponded over a couple of years, he flipped open a window into the universe of the left through e-mail saturated with ideas, players and links to journals.
One day, he flew into Washington for a conference. Over lunch, I found a greater overlap of interests than I'd first imagined.
He had visited Singapore and loved Asia. He described Japanese war poetry that was so lyrical that its propagandistic intent slipped like silk into the mind. 'Scary,' he said.
We compared our American road trips. He told me how he had hitch-hiked as a young man, and had burped the babies of women truck-drivers.
We have since lost touch, but he left an indelible sense of possibility.
He's a reminder that hostility can lift, when we try. When that happens, friends show up in the unlikeliest places.
Another flamer turned good friend was a young Washingtonian law student who spoke Mandarin better than me.
Having lived in Taiwan and studied cross-strait issues, he felt that The Straits Times was too pro-China.
When he attacked me, I decided to try being thick-skinned one more time. I replied serenely and the same thing happened. He was surprised into friendship.
He too proved to be a fount of knowledge, sending me insights and discussing issues, this time in a most engaging style. He even took the trouble to translate short news reports.
Before long, he joined my circle of friends for fun outings. Even when he relocated to Taiwan and later Singapore - and I remained in the United States - we kept in touch.
My third flamer-turned-friend was a young Singaporean living in California. The Ivy League graduate reflexively disliked anything Singaporean.
Unlike the other two, who were Americans, her e-mails wavered between edgy and buddy-buddy.
Still, she would send great articles, and appeared to delight in kinship with other Singaporean women in America.
Sadly, my happy experiences with flamers in America have no parallels in Singapore.
I've tried to engage a couple of flamers here, hoping to start a sincere discussion. But their putdowns turned puerile in a flash.
I'd hoped for something a little better from us. But I know the rules of engagement are puny for now in the new space for online citizens.
I also know from studies on flaming that our sense of self is exaggerated online. Egocentrism is at play, with some finding it difficult to detach themselves from their own perspective.
There's no authority figure online either to keep our dark side in check.
And the temptation to inflict damage anonymously can confer a distorted sense of power.
There is a lot of 'disinhibition'.
But, there is a whole other side too. Readers do respond warmly and brilliantly in e-mails to my colleagues and myself.
At their best, our readers enlarge the marketplace of ideas. They light up the discourse, instead of degrading it.
And that kind of uplifting contribution is fully possible for any of us - with nothing more than a few keystrokes and the right spirit.