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The subject of flaming always somehow brings to mind the time I threw Jello at Chris Florence in grade eight. By "flaming" I mean the vitriolic ad hominem posts that you find on even the most seemingly innocuous Usenet newsgroups, usually inspired by dislike of the flamee, disagreement with his stated views, or, of course, his having committed the cardinal sin of flaming you first (cf "flame war").
The event in question took place during lunch at the conservative private boys' school I was attending at the time, a communal meal served to students and teachers together. Chris and I didn't get along. He was always taking more than his fair share of dessert and I, of course, was a total loser. On this particular day he was standing behind me at lunch gibing me about a slip I had made in confusing Robert Palmer ("Simply Irresistible") with Robert Plant of Led Zepplin. Or was it maybe my inability to come to a stop while wearing skates without turning ever smaller circles until I fell down? In any case, at some point I picked up my bowl and casually tossed its translucent green contents over my shoulder and all over his blazer. He reacted instantly by socking me in the head, producing a knock which someone later told me was loud enough to suspend conversation over by the grade nines.
As I recall, the next one to react was Mr Moore, our harried English teacher and head of the table, who did his woozy best to express his dissatisfaction with my behavior. At this point I made a comment which in the intervening decade I've been unable to forget. In measured tones, I said: "If there hadn't been a second world war, the Depression would never have ended." This ponderous and undoubtedly false reflection may have somehow impressed Mr Moore, because the punishment assigned to me and Chris - to stay behind and clean up all the tables in the room after lunch - was lax by school standards, compared for example to the 30-page essay a bunch of us were once assigned by Mr Myers for not doing our grammar exercises one time too many. (Due, the following Tuesday; subject, the merits of the Progressive Conservative party.)
There was a lesson to be learned from the fact that, by the time we finished wiping those tables, me and Chris were chatting in an unprecedentedly friendly and respectful way. There was another to be drawn from the rapid decay of this truce over the next few days until we were back to bickering as usual. Visibly and exotically giving vent to my irritation, rather than sitting there impassively steaming as usual, had had a positive effect on our relationship. But the facts that kept us on bad terms remained: he couldn't be trusted to dish out dessert in anything like equitable portions; I was a hopeless dork.
It seems to me that nearly every nuance of flaming has its analogue in some detail of this episode. The initial spontaneous outburst, the even more violent response, the ineffectual bleating of the bystander, all of these are familiar to experienced readers of newsgroups. And as a means for resolving differences, flaming, like congealed dessert projection, must generally be judged a failure. Those whose differences are susceptible to resolution in a newsgroup setting will usually resolve them before more than a whiff of smoke enters the discussion.
But as an event, a public, creative act, a flame can and will be judged aesthetically like any other art. So as you compose your blistering assault, bear somewhere in the back of your mind that your target isn't really your main audience. Most of your readers will be uninvolved third parties looking for a moment's gossippy distraction, and the best you can hope for with them is to leave them with a vivid memory of your rage. Some flames leave you with the pleasant sensation that an elephant has idly stepped on a mosquito, while others seem to be not much more than the clumsy verbal equivalent of repeatedly giving the victim the finger. I thought throwing Jello was pretty good.
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