Worlds & Time

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

10 Best Flamewar Subjects

As a long time member of Fark, I was recently considering the queue and thinking to myself "There hasn't been a good existence of God flamewar for a while." This got me to thinking, what are my favorite flamewar topics and why? Just for fun, I decided to compile a list of them, and that list grew into this list of the ten best flamewar subjects.

As is the case with most people's "10 best" lists, "best" is probably better defined as "my favorite," but since no one else bothers with that distinction, why should I? Further, I have a preference on all of these issues except for one, and I can't promise to be neutral at all times.

Also, thanks so much to xkcd's Randall Monroe for the totally appropriate comic to use.

Update: Duh. I knew I'd forgotten something. I've added it, reduced Apple vs. PC to runner up, and reorganized an issue that I think was misplaced in the order.

10. Star Trek vs. Star Wars.

A contentious battle rages between fans of Star Trek and Star Wars as to which universe could beat up the other universe. As a geek it should be obvious that they aren't easily comparable, but that doesn't stop them. Oddly, since the fan base overlaps to a wide degree, you'd think that most fans would be able to find some common ground and sit around and watch the shows that they love on an alternating basis.

Hardly. Just like sports fans, geeks have a massive set of numbers, statistics, off hand comments and other trivia with which they can wage month long vicious battles that set friend against friend. Their contests are merciless.

Unlike some of the later examples of flamewar subjects, Star Wars vs. Star Trek flamewars tend only to happen when there are deliberately provoked. Many Star Wars of Star Trek threads continue without issue and only deteriorate when deliberate comparisons are drawn with the opposing franchise.

Considering the viciousness, it's worth pointing out that the two intellectual properties were developed with wildly different intentions and themes. Star Wars is more closely related to an epic fantasy than the optimist futurism of Star Trek. Star Trek endeavors for a realistic future feel and offering commentary on real social situations and technology while Star Wars is meant to be entertaining and flashy and impressive.

That means that most Star Wars ships will win in a fight. As long as you ignore the Borg.

9. Circumcision.

If you've never been involved in a circumcision flamewar, consider yourself lucky. They are surprisingly heated ordeals in which cut men and "nice, all-American" girls argue for circumcision ("I just like the way that it looks" and "they're normal") against uncut men and "sluts" who argue against it ("It feels better" and "It's more fun"). It doesn't help matters that both sides also have well-intentioned authoritative supporters: nurses are often against the procedure and AIDS researchers are for it.

Many nurses apparently often argue that not only is it cruel and painful to the child but that it's a risky cosmetic procedure done without the informed consent of the patient. On the other hand studies in Africa have indicated that there is a reduction in the chance of HIV transmission for men that are having unprotected sex if they are circumcised.

There are second level arguments on both sides. Proponents will argue that it's a fairly safe and approved cosmetic procedure that normalizes the appearance of the penis. Those against it point out that condoms are many times more effective at preventing HIV transmission than circumcision.

Usually when circumcision threads show up they seem harmless at first. After all, compared to abortion most people wouldn't consider circumcision a big deal. However due to it's popularity in America, and the fact that men feel attached to what happens to their penises, a lot of people have developed strong feelings for or against the procedure. A few words about one person's uncut penis as opposed to what another person did to their kids and those strong feelings can erupt in a heated manner.

8. The War in Iraq (and Terrorism).

Although they have produced a lot of rhetoric and name calling, the war flamewars are surprisingly tame when it comes to a fundamental level. After all, most people seem to agree on the basics: winning, supporting the troops, and defeating the terrorists are good things while losing and getting attacked on American soil are bad. If you agree on so much, there's really only the minutia to fight over before the argument moves on to something else.

Basically, what these flamewars tend to do is drastically distort people's actual positions to produce controversy, or devolve into personal competency arguments involving politicians (which results in a Dem vs. Rep flamewar, see #2). This means that while the words thrown back and forth are heated, they don't seem to score as many hits as more vitriolic flamewars.

While the best war flamewars will be partisan, you can also get minor flamewars wherever someone suggests a specific strategy.

The major exceptions to the war flamewar as outlined above are those that erupt between those people that want to examine why the terrorists hate us, and those that think that ascribing human reasoning to terrorists is somehow material help to those terrorists. I've never understood why a minority of people believe that talking about the history of the Mideast is somehow problematic. These people can make war flamewars especially vitroilic but have been mostly shouted down recently, lowering the subject of the war one or two notches down this list.

7. Gay Marriage.

The general agreement among the largest number of people is that the government shouldn't be involved in marriage, just in granting civil unions. Since civil unions aren't "marriages" then religious people don't care if the government gives them to homosexuals and homosexuals and their allies don't feel like they're getting the short end of the stick.

The problem is that the government is deeply involved in "marriage." It exists in the tax code, in state constitutions, in inheritance law and all other sorts of crazy legal facets. It's really hard to change. Additionally, there's a minority on both sides that really want the word "marriage" to continue to be administered by the government because they think that the changes will suddenly render their relationships loveless. Or something.

Thus, the gay marriage flamewar is born. Even though there seems to be a fairly reasonable middle ground, the people on the fringe keep everyone else from getting close to some sort of agreement on the issue.

Often there's a religious undertone to gay marriage flamewars, which provides a little extra fuel for the fire, and allows for all sorts of "Leviticus 18:22" one liners to commonly appear. Sometimes someone will claim that if gay marriage is legalized their personal church will be forced to perform the services (although this idea is patently ridiculous).

Interestingly, although gay marriage can result in some very large flamewars, they typically only erupt around major announcements, like a judges ruling or a major statewide vote. There's a certain "gay marriage" critical mass required before the sparks really start to fly but once it's reached things heat up quickly.

6. Gun Control vs. Gun Ownership

I don't think there's another issue on this list, with the possible exception of the first place finisher, in which the opposing sides spend so much time ranting about things that their opponents are not saying. Each side constructs elaborate straw men that have nothing to do with their actual position on the issues that matter, and then foam at the mouth about them.

It doesn't help that the Second Amendment is out of date. Militias? Nobody today is in a militia, so what does that amendment even mean? But most gun control advocates are not advocating taking people's guns away from them (notice the key word "most") and most gun owners are in fact law abiding citizens that arm themselves for personal, family, and social protection.

Thus, you have the people that are pro-gun control and the people that are gun owners.

Never the twain shall meet in polite discourse.

You'd think that since this amendment was part of the original bill of rights, it would have become a quiet academic concern. Instead, a mention of gun control or a particularly violent killing (usually in Texas) can spawn a horrific flamewar about this subject.

5. Free vs. Regulated markets.

A laissez-faire system will result in untold wealth for everyone, says the free market enthusiast. Except that corruption, croynism and class stratification will occur, so economic systems have to be closely controlled, retorts the market regulator.

Although addicting, emotional, and interesting, this central battle of economics has never been resolved. There really has been no workable anarchist economic system feasible to give the Objectivists their try, and attempts at incredibly restrictive economic conditions have mostly failed.

A capitalistic mix seems to work well, but no two people seem to agree on exactly where the line should be drawn. The economic conservatives today suggest that the current economic problems are the result of over regulation of industry, and the economic liberals see it as the opposite. Since economics is more closely related to palmistry than a statistically rigorous science, no one knows who is correct.

It doesn't help that the issue is closely related to the existence of social programs. The libertarians find it unfair that they have to support those that have failed and the bleeding hearts find it unacceptable that we would allow people to starve or freeze due to market conditions.

Thus, the major divide in economics continues to provoke flamewars.

4. The Existence of God.

Considering that this question attacks the very fundamental nature of the reality in which people live, it isn't surprising to me that people feel so strongly about the subject that they're willing to lay out everything they can to either rally support or attack the other side.

Another sticky issue is that neither side can actually prove it's case, resulting in long frustration for both sides, who often end up lost in tiny bits of minutia or at a dead end when a believer says "Because I have faith" or an unbeliever says "Prove it."

Although there are specific instances in which the flamewar is based on a particular provocation (like a Richard Dawkins letter to the Times), this is a flamewar subject that doesn't necessarily have to be provoked. A casual mention of God, or an offhand comment by an atheist can sometimes create a flamewar where there was only a peripheral connection before.

Another problem with this kind of flamewar is that it only very rarely strays from certain fixed tropes or one liners. Keep a watch out for the "Problem of Evil," Ockham's Razor, various incarnations of Pascal's Wager, and the Flying Spaghetti Monster.

3. Abortion.

Considering that it is based on a small range of medical procedures, abortion is one of the most contentious of all internet topics. It has spawned entire real world organizations with members numbering in the millions beyond the numerous websites and message boards that some of the previous topics have to back them up.

Basically, the arguments boil down to a question of whether you support murder or slavery, and neither side is willing to accept "no answer" as acceptable.

One of the most interesting things about abortion flamewars is that the implications of each side have real world application. In a world that has banned abortion, you would be either locking women up for the protection of their unborn children or punishing them for getting rid of unborn children. In the current system, hundreds of thousands of what could considered to be lives are being lost. This is an important ethical question that is worth major consideration.

This is basically the "single issue voter" issue, and every election thousands if not millions of dollars are spent over the slightest steps back and forth. There are even linguistic breaks that are used to differentiate the sides and cast each other in a negative light.

Also, even though you'd think that both sides would want to keep the number of abortions down, that isn't always the case. Thus, the abortion question is sometimes related to the question of abstinence and abstinence plus sex ed, which barely missed the cut-off for this list.

Personally, considering the consequences of a person's stance on the position, I do understand why this is one of the big questions facing Americans today.

2. Democrats vs. Republicans.

If there's anything that the two party system has taught me, it is that populations are easily polarized. One of the clearest examples of this is in the virulent hatred of the opposing political parties here in the U.S.

People can't just disagree with each other, they have to stand up to the evil which is the opposing political party.

There are a few exceptions to the rule, a few bipartisan elected officials that do their job well and are widely liked on "both sides of the aisle." However, once on the national stage, they pretty much no longer exist. No matter what they do, they'll be torn down by the opposing side, who doesn't want the other guys to get a political advantage over them.

One of the biggest problems with these flamewars is that there can be no rational discussion. The sides talk past each other and since people personally identify with their parties they are personally hurt when any criticism surfaces.

Then there is the further problem that there are actually (at least) two axises of political thought in the United States, social and economic. Thus, half the time when you are talking to someone of one political party, they will only disagree with you on one axis and not the other. Socially liberal Republicans are tarred with the "right wing anti-choice anti-gay marriage" label and fiscally conservative Democrats are called "left wing 'tax and spend.'" As you can imagine, this can creates bad feelings on both sides, even though by supporting one party or the other you are implicitly endorsing both their economic and social policies.

Political flamewars recently have also seen the rise of the "concern" troll, someone that pretends to be affiliated with a party only to offer backhanded compliments and misinformation. Unlike a normal troll, concern trolls are harder to detect and can gather a substantial backlash on the way to a flamewar. While usually these types of trolls would be used to mock the opposing side, in the political arena they can actually rise to national and political prominence.

It also helps that many people strongly identified with parties are also incredibly divisive. George W. Bush, Bill Clinton, Dick Cheney, Nancy Pelosi, Karl Rove, Ted Kennedy, and Rick Santorum are all easy ways to lead into a political flamewar. Sometimes an individual figure can kick off a Dem vs. Rep flamewar by themselves, such as the way that Sarah Palin recently has been able to do or George W. Bush managed for years by himself.

Sometimes the best Democrat vs. Republican flamewars merge with one of the previous flamewar subjects to create a super flamewar (although usually not "Star Trek vs. Star Wars"). After all, if you've got the above mentioned controversial figures to point to during a flamewar about economics, you can anger more people at once. And find a way to bring in abortion. And dis circumcision.

One of the only problems with political flamewars is that they're one of the few kinds of debates that can get over saturated and lose their focus. So much political stupidity can happen in a single day that people won't know which thread to post in. Sometimes instead of one daily political flamewar there will be a slew of smaller ones that don't get nearly as vicious and tend to peter out quickly.

1. Evolution and Creation.

Absolutely the top of the pile for utter raving insanity, the debate between evilutionists and creatards is the current major battlefield between science and religion and the only thing capable of overthrowing political parties as the best flamewar subject. Nothing seems to bother the deeply religious more than an insinuation that we might not be the result of God's plan and nothing seems to bother the scientific community more than the insinuation that their years of study and careful examination are wrong because an old book says so.

Thus, the best flamewars are born.

Considering that unlike presidential or party politics the vocal supporters of creationism are a minority in the U.S., it would be easy to assume that this flamewar doesn't get much play, but nothing seems to provoke a flamewar faster. After all, both sides believe that they have the "truth" and there doesn't seem to be a quicker way into the heated flames of online battle than that.

Interestingly, unlike the Existence of God flamewars mentioned above, the existence of actual evidence does nothing to reduce anger and force with which these arguments are put forth. In fact, I would argue that it increases it. While the question of the existence of God is something of a stalemate, the debate between creationism and evolution has become a question of "Who do you trust?"

Specifically, evolution and creation flamewars are the nexus of debate between fundamentalist Christianity and atheism, even more so than the Existence of God. While the middle of the road might argue about the existence of God, the extremists are the ones that argue creation and evolution. Added to that are the examples of Richard Dawkins and PZ Myers, biologists and atheists that characterize the evolution supporters that have become famous in their own right for their outspoken opinions on this particular topic. As a farker, there are a couple of notable creationists as well. No, I'm not talking about Michael Behe or Kent Hovind but Bevets, the oft summoned indicator of a true Fark evolution/creation flamewar.

Probably the most legendary troll on Fark, it's hard to think of another internet user that is as defined by a particular subject more than Bevets and his creationism. Possibly Scalzi and bacon, but I doubt it. Almost without a subject break in years, Bevets is the tireless apologist for creation, even going so far as to host his own website with common arguments so that he can throw up links to longer rants without needing to retype them. Granted, there are sites like TalkOrigins that refute him, but Bevets does his long and exhaustive work on his own, thus earning him recognizable card game adaptations on Fark.

These debates also led to one of my favorite eponymous law: Poe's Law, which basically states that it is nearly impossible to determine the difference between a parody and a true believer. Although born in the evolution/creation debates, I've found Poe's law useful in other arenas (particularly politics).

Creation/evolution flamewars can be started over the smallest provocation. A mention of a 40 million year old fossil will sometimes provoke one, as can articles on geology, epidemiology, genetics, Mideast history or even meteorology (see vapor canopies). Then there are the subjects that can suddenly morph into creation vs. evolution debates. For example, someone arguing about the existence of god/God might use evolution or creation of proof of one of the positions. The same with the inerrancy of the bible, or carbon dating, or even a discussion of different scientific theories. If you accidentally mention that the cute kitten in the photoshop contest evolved you might have a flamewar on your hands.

Of course this is in addition to the multiple creation museum articles, advances in evolutionary biology and school board "teach the controversy" or evolution banning threads that seem to appear on a weekly basis.

Considering the nearly one hundred and fifty years that these debates have been raging, not to mention the entire religions and governments that have weighed in, this is also a historically weighty flamewar. Mentions of Darwin (both as evidence for the science supporters and as a "Darwinist" insult from the religion supporters) and shepherds that have been dead for 2000 years (mostly as an insult to Biblical literalists) abound.

Finally, I'll end on a high note and point out that it's fairly easy to Godwin a creation/evolution flamewar. After all, the Nazis were evolutionists, no?

The runner up subjects were sex education in schools, various sports team rivalries, "activist judges" (i.e. rulings that we don't like), and breastfeeding. Yup. Breastfeeding. You'd be surprised.

The Honorable Mention is:

Apple vs. (Microsoft) PC.

Starting the list off is one of the most pointless debates that I can think of, yet one that manages to devolve into a name calling match most times it appears. Any time there's a comparison of some kind between Mac computers and PCs, there's always some people that feel the need to belittle people that don't own the same sort of computer that they use.

This is partly due to the Apple marketing campaign which goes to such great lengths to establish the duality of the products and promote their brand as the hip and cool alternative. This does overlook the fact that they are a niche family of products, and even if they could compete with the wider PC market, doing so would probably drag them down to encompass some of the same problems that PCs embody.

Additionally, then there's the Microsoft angle, in which people get to hate on Microsoft. Unfortunately, in this monopoly of hatred, there isn't another company that can take on a serious mantle of opposition to the mighty "M$" more than Apple, and so Apple receives the bulk of the attention. The real rivals to most Microsoft products are unknown to the bulk of Americans, and thus invisible during the flamewars between Apple fanboys and Microsoft drones.

Thanks to the long term "We're better than they are" campaign run by Apple, these flamewars have been surprisingly persistent.

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