The USENET (or abUSENET as I like to call it) — also known as newsgroups — is a crime scene first created during the early days of the InterNet, one that I happily leave to its perpetrators. It is divided into various interest categories whose content is marginally controlled by its users. Some of the first spam appeared there and the first trolls. What I remember most, however, was how it attracted mean people — which included myself in my rages and manic obsessions — and demagogues of every opinion, political inclination, and persuasion. It was not a place to have a serious, insightful conversation about anything — much like the comments sections of some blogs and news sites.
When I was at my worst; I could not let go much as I have had problems with Internet arguments elsewhere. Like most abUSENETters, I had my home groups where I persisted in long battles with adversaries, repeating the same arguments over and over again in response to their repetitions. I wanted them to change their views, but I should have seen that nothing of the sort was happening. They kept making the same points and I kept repeating mine. This went on for weeks, months, years. I gained a reputation in these groups as an aggressor which was probably due to the mixed states that controlled my mind at the time. I must admit that the people I targeted were pretty ignorant of their subjects compared to me, such as the computer tech who had read Carlos Castenada and regarded him as a good model for participant observation by anthropologists even though he did no such field work and had made Don Juan and faked the Yaqui philosopher’s “teachings”. Or the fellow from a small state college who insisted that the brain trust he studied under was better than that at any more prominent and distinguished university. I was merciless in my repeated crushings of these oafs. What puzzled me was that they would not concede their wrongs and go away.
I did have my allies, but some years ago I got a taste of what it was like to be on the other side of the argument. Not only did they twist my words, but they left harassing comments on my blog and denied they had done so. I had them nailed by their ISP addresses. They flamed me on their own blogs as if I was no better than the people we’d once united against. A rift developed between us that never has healed. I doubt that my symptoms of bipolar disorder (which came later) ever incited any feelings of compassion in them — if they had bothered to keep track of me. If anything, they probably dismissed me like so many others dismissed me — as a psycho whose views were suspect.
The abUSENET and I had parted ways a long time before my diagnosis, however. A few sojourns in a few newsgroups taught me a lot about the possibilities of human deviousness such as the agitators who set up a bot to spew a long diatribe against Armenians every time the words Turkey, Armenia or Greece appeared in a post. While their repetitious volume was immense, they were nothing like the academics and pseudo-intellectuals who populated a certain alt.folklore group. Their idea of studying folklore wasn’t to appreciate it as it was but to debunk it and characterize those who bore it as stupid and ridiculous. This conflicted with a notion that I held — and still hold — that folklore represents a people’s ingenuity. Sometimes it produces error, but at other times it is spot on. While pointing out its falsehoods is part of the analysis, one needs to also consider other aspects such as motive, structure, and elegance. The mean skeptics (there are nice ones) didn’t like my objection, but this is only part of what got me in trouble with them and derided for “preaching” a “One True Way to Folklore”.
Part of me wants to play hero when I see someone being bullied by others. It is often said that bullying stops when someone stands up on the behalf of the victim. This may happen outside of the hard disks, routers, and lines that make up the InterNet, but within that precinct another rule applies: the bullies — especially if they are running in a pack — turn their tender mercies to the guy who speaks up. I saw them jumping on the case of a young woman who wanted guidance on her homework and spoke in her defense. Suddenly I was the villain of the piece — the lone “agressor”, the only one who could be criticized. The pressure grew on me — I missed jokes, became defensive about my knowledge and skills, and started making grammatical errors. This delighted them. They mocked my use of the Oxford comma and emoticons, devoted whole responses to my spelling mistakes, and laughed when I couldn’t see what a buffoon I was becoming. When I set up a killfile to weed out my tormentors, they sent copies of their attacks in emails. One statement that I made suggesting a different way to evaluate anti-gay beliefs and get at the deep roots of their prejudices was taken out of context. I was labeled as homophobic.
The facts about my attitude towards gays and lesbians are these: I was tormented as a teen for having tried homosexual sex once. Even my mother got into the act when some kids she was helping treat in a medical clinic called me a fag. So I know what it is like to be on the receiving end of such abuse. In college, I became more aware of the plight of gays and lesbians and realized that it wasn’t a choice but an imperative. Why, I asked myself, should they be persecuted for this? After college, I had a few gay roommates who I liked and trusted because they respected my sexuality. I respected them. When I was preparing to wed my wife (in 1988), I became aware of the drive for same sex marriage. Its supporters readily convinced me. Marriage was a good thing, a chance to pick a trustworthy relative. I had also seen some of my gay friends exploited by sociopathic lovers. Women who married had the recourse of filing for divorce and receiving alimony. Why couldn’t gays and lesbians enjoy the same benefits and protections?
The absurdity of the homophobia claims — based as they were on simple hatred and — perhaps deliberate– misunderstanding of what I had said, didn’t keep it from hurting. Nothing I could say would lead the propagators to correct their own erroneous views.
Finally, I announced my withdrawal from the group and other folklore mailing lists having been told by the owners of these lists that I had to be silent as a condition because I was such a lightning rod. I received a few emails telling me not to give up; but, I have learned something about such “supporters”: they happily encourage you behind the scenes, but make no public stances on your behalf. You find yourself alone, a victim of mean people.
Some years later, I posted something to a newsgroup. An email appeared in my inbox. “~It~ is back,” it said. The writer had accidentally sent his message to me instead of his friends. I wrote back, telling him about his mistake and about how cruel it was to dehumanize anyone in this way. He replied with a simple “Let’s drop this”. I smoldered with rage, but did not reply because I knew he would not read it. I realized my cause was so hopeless that not even St. Jude could fix it even if I visited a church in his name every day for a hundred years.
Ugly things were happening to me. First, depression-driven confusion distorted my writing. Second, there was the constant vigilance that I adopted — and that was worsened by the paranoia that ebbed and flowed with my mood swings. I was sure that everyone was out to get me on the Net and couldn’t let go of the idea because of my illness. I dreaded going anywhere on the Net lest they show up and reopen the old wounds. Finally, I realized that due to my being terrorized, I was becoming one cruel bastard just like my persecutors. It was this realization that clinched my decision to leave.
For a long time, I wrote nothing. I went to chat rooms and game servers, read a few books, and idled. Remember that I was an undiagnosed and untreated bipolar sufferer; so you can imagine the intensity of the feelings that whipped me every day. The same scenarios kept playing out wherever I went and I kept meeting jerks from the InterNet who remembered the worst of me and the lies about me that others had promulgated so gleefully. Then in 2002, I discovered blogging. I had a new place to write where I could control the discussion; and I have been at it ever since.
My bipolar and anxiety issues continued to plague me until I was hospitalized and given my correct diagnosis. My wife received a well-earned reprieve from the nights when I would wake her up to show her the latest humiliation. The desire to fight dissipated. I didn’t run away from potential arguments. I just lost interest in them.
I will never convince any of these people of their error. I spent months trying to do so and it only worsened my condition. The academics, who came to newsgroups so they could drop the pretenses of niceness and mock the common people, would never make a place for me at their table. The fool who called me “It” will always see himself as justified. Eventually I found better places to be on the net and made better friends. I learned the judicious use of block and ignore on Twitter and selected my Facebook friends with care. Most people know the truth about my views on gays and lesbians. But I still detest persecutors of all stripes, particularly those who are more addicted to false facts. I just don’t waste my time fighting them.