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Ever wondered why Linux debates are so inflammatory and seemingly so personal every time there is one in progress? Most people attribute it to the fact that Linux users are so religious about their operating system. It is said that any criticism of Linux is intolerable and the blame usually lies on the more fanatical members of the Linux community for hating new ideas and new people who bring in ideas that are contradictory to the so-called "Linux spirit". Does this point of view give us the whole picture? Not quite, in my opinion. Linux flame wars are complex phenomena and not everything can be explained merely by the "Linux is religion" angle.
In fact, I attribute it to something totally different and something totally unrelated to Linux and in fact computers. It is simply explained in a couple of words reverse elitism which is a purely psycho-social phenomenon. But instead of using big words, let me try and explain with some concrete examples.
What is this reverse elitism? Everybody has heard of elitism, which basically means assuming superiority over one's opponent in a debate and projecting oneself as an exclusive person or part of an exclusive group. Traditionally *nix users have been projected as an elitist group who are unfriendly to new members to the club and use the words "RTFM" ever so often. In fact, the whole concept of elitism in the *nix community can be easily explained in a single four letter acronym: RTFM. Times have long since changed and it's no longer fashionable to be an elitist. The community has changed a lot and elitism has generally been cast aside in favour of inclusivism and friendliness. You can easily notice elitism when you see it and generally people who show elitist attitudes are quite quickly put in their place these days.
So much for elitism. What is reverse elitism then? Reverse elitism is a new trend I see these days on bulletin boards in general and in Linux boards in particular. Simply put, reverse elitism is a strategy that is quite effective in attacking opponents in debates without seemingly using an offensive technique. Reverse elitism is a technique by which you paint yourself as a victim or paint your opponent as being part of an exclusive group and therefore implying that his opinions are not reflective of general opinion. Reverse elitism is when you paint yourself as being a representative of the so-called "masses", of the ubiquitous man-in-the-street. Reverse elitism is when you wear a mask of humility and take the moral high ground and metaphorically tear your opponent to shreds for appearing to be arrogant and elitist in attitude. All these are characteristics of what I like to call "reverse elitism". When seemingly the victim becomes the aggressor and the opponent is the bully who is put into his place.
There is a small but highly vocal group of new Linux users who don the reverse elitist role and attack the Linux community for being an exclusive group not open to new ideas or new people. They are either genuinely frustrated individuals who want to vent their anger on the rest of the community or are merely trolls who want to get a rise out of provoking you. Either way, the effect is the same. Unfortunately reverse elitism is especially successful in Linux debates because of the historical and traditional elitism attributed to the *nix community. It is no wonder then that Linux debates become so heated, because people hate being branded as elitist and hate being clubbed together as a single group with a single, uniform mindset. No wonder that people take such posts so personally and become so vehement in defending Linux when in fact, they are defending themselves unconsciously. In fact, they find themselves going increasingly on the defensive and find that they not only have to defend Linux, but preserve their own non-elitist status as well. Thus the reverse elitist quite often wins without any real arguments or logic. On a side note, in political debates, reverse elitism can be seen in the way people often don the role of the "messiah" or the "representative" of the downtrodden, the victimized and the weak. In fact, reverse elitism exists almost everywhere in the sphere of human debate and discussion.
I think that there is only one way to combat reverse elitism. After all, it is a form of anti-social behaviour just as elitism is. The problem though is that it's often much more subtle than plain arrogance and elitism. It is difficult to detect and once you fall a victim to a reverse elitist, it is much more difficult to extricate yourself. One thing to do is to detect reverse elitism where you see it and learn to ignore it. It is hard to do so, but when a debate is becoming personal in nature without having any genuine flaming, you can bet that reverse elitism is behind it. Another is to read a post very carefully and find out which points hurt you most. If you find a personal attack where there is seemingly none, ninety percent of the time it is a reverse elitist attack. The best option is not to respond to reverse elitism. This is commonly and rather loosely translated as "do not feed the trolls". Unfortunately the second phrase does not quite explain why people feed trolls all the time. It is a losing cause because the more frustrated one gets, the more one is likely to lose control and then say or write something that could easily be interpreted as arrogance and thus elitism, playing right into the hands of an opponent.
Nobody likes to face personal attacks even when clothed in philosophy and seemingly not targetted. It is a fact that indirect attacks tend to sting worse than an open insult. While you can combat an opponent who faces you with the sword, you find it infinitely more difficult to combat somebody who avoids your blows and plunges a dagger in your back when you're not looking.
Reverse elitism is a form of anti-social behaviour pure and simple. Linux flame wars are not always about Linux but about people, their motives and their behaviour under stressful circumstances. Reverse elitist strategies in debates are simply designed to provoke negative emotions in human beings and to lure unsuspecting opponents into a trap and leave them metaphorically beaten and bruised without letting them know what hit them.
There is only one answer to reverse elitism. Learn to ignore it.
Posted on Wed, Jul 20, 2005 at 14:59 IST (last updated: Wed, Jul 16, 2008 @ 21:07 IST)