Saturday, August 2, 2008

Always Talk to the Mask

One of the casualties of running Chowhound has been the behind-scenes vantage point on some extraordinarily poor human behavior. As anyone who works retail will tell you, if you spend your days with the public, a tiny percentage of what you see will burn holes through your retinas. It's just a matter of statistics...the more people you interact with, the more chance you'll bump up against those distant ends of the bell curve inhabited by the Hannibal Lechters.

While your average waitress or postal clerk only sees hundreds of people per week, and has war stories aplenty to show for it, moderators of large online community see thousands or even millions. At that scale, one comes across not just the asshole-ish 1% and the repulsive .1%, but the horrific .01% and the unthinkable .001%. There's even been one single .0001% individual who chills my soul at the mere recollection. One of Chowhound's moderators is a doctor who's spent years treating indigent addicts in the South Bronx. After just a few weeks working with us, she declared that she'd been shocked to observe vastly more twisted and demented behavior in a given week of moderating Chowhound than she ever had at her day job. Helping to manage Chowhound amounts to what she describes as "a post-graduate course in aberrational psychology".

When it comes to really horrific people, I've found there are two types. The first is the Moustache Twirler. Moustache twirlers not only consciously acknowledge their bad behavior, but revel in it and generally own it. You know how in movies, villains always openly boast about what they've done? Well, surprise: it really happens that way (sometimes). On message boards, it's easy to spot this sort, as they choose nametags such as 'Torquemada' or 'Ballbuster'.

Obviously, moderators love moustache twirlers. For one thing, they make things easy, and, for another, they're more fun to pick off the video game screen than robot spammers bombarding penis enlargement ads.

The other type of horror is vastly scarier. These are the Psycho Pollyannas: people who retain immutably lofty self-images as they do base and underhanded things. Their high-minded self-image is impervious to the abundant reality of their own behavior. For a laser-precise send-up of this mind-set, have a look at my
all-time favorite Daily Show moment, a masterpiece of satire by Rob Corddry posing as a news analyst. Here's the money quote:
"There's no question that what took place in [Abu Ghraib] was horrible, but the Arab world has to realize that the U.S. shouldn't be judged on the actions of a...well, we shouldn't be judged on our actions. It's our principles that matter, our inspiring, abstract notions. Remember: just because torturing prisoners is something we did doesn't mean it's something we would do."

One Psycho Pollyanna became a popular and trusted participant on Chowhound. The moderators received a tip that this person had been "shilling" (posting fake raves for operations in which one has a hidden interest), and much detective work ferreted out an enormous amount of the most brazen subversion. She'd spent vast energy to quietly but persistently stir up interest in businesses in which she or close friends had financial ties. The odd thing is that this person truly loved Chowhound. She'd been a regular for years, had befriended many of our users, had even chipped in. She genuinely applauded our values. It happens often, yet never fails to amaze, when those who appreciate and personally benefit from the honesty of a resource like Chowhound systematically seek to subvert that honesty. It's sort of like slashing all the tires in a parking lot and then expecting a ride home.

When confronted, she took vast umbrage. She blazed with righteous indignation. Her disconnection was palpable. Even though we clearly knew - and she knew we knew - everything she had done, and we had indisputable evidence, nothing could breach her upstanding self-image. And it was that veneer - that mask - which spat upon our accusation. There was no attempt to deny what she'd done, because she'd been caught red-handed, but in a battle between reality and self-image, self-image was the easy winner. Just because torturing prisoners is something we did doesn't mean it's something we would do.

We foolishly tried to offer her a second chance, in spite of her long history of calculated subversion, inviting her to recant and swear never to repeat such activity. Of course, no such thing could possibly be forthcoming (live and learn!). So we banned her, and she spent the next year or two using all conceivable means to harm the site, generally, and me, personally. She huffily broadcast her allegations of persecution to all who'd listen...while repeatedly attempting to resume her covert guerilla publicity campaigns under a series of aliases. To this day, her "persecution" stands, for many who've bought her tale, as testament to the Chowhound staff's Nazi-like random cruelty.

We've seen a dozen or so cases much like this. And learned to handle them more carefully, though the fallout's always messy.

The real-world lesson I've learned from Psycho Pollyannas is that when you come across one (and you will, as they're out there in far greater plenitude than you'd imagine)*, you will get nowhere by addressing them as transgressors. They're unable to recognize themselves as such even with their noses pressed directly into their own moral effluvia - so they will genuinely perceive you as the villain. The thing to do is to address only the wholesome, self-righteous mask they present the world...and try to work from there. Because, having drunk their own Kool-Aid, the masks face inward as well as outward, and they quite truthfully can't see beyond the pose.

So...always talk to the mask!

* - in fact, don't we all show this same tendency in our day-to-day denial of our own dark sides, as well as in the building and maintenance of our mythic self-images? Everyone but moustache twirlers thinks of themselves as being "a basically good person" - a conclusion that remains remarkably impermeable to contrary evidence. The difference, of course, is that most of us have at least some capacity for confession, responsibility-taking, and shame. But even with the sane, one always does best by talking to the mask.

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