Strangling the Willfully Ignorant

“Tilting at windmills hurts you more than the windmills.” — Lazarus Long, Time Enough for Love

The willfully ignorant really piss me off. You know, the sort of people who have a great number of opinions about a great number of things, none of which are based on actual fact. Not only that, they are strident in their ignorance, refusing to take the time to find those facts, even said facts are sitting directly in front of their faces.

And no, this isn’t a rant about communists.

It’s about people who charge off at windmills of their own imagining, hell bent on remedying a wrong that never occurred, when just a few moments worth of effort would have shown them the folly of their assault.

A prime example is Nuketown’s Hoaxes section. It’s dedicated to debunking hoaxes, and currently features over such write-ups. It’s nowhere near as thorough as, but it has educated quite a few people in its time. Nuketown’s even been used as a source in several newspaper articles and the debunkings are linked to from a variety of sources.

The fact that lots of people recognize the Hoaxes section for what it is — an anti-hysteria, anti-scam resource — hasn’t stopped the willfully ignorant from showing up at my virtual door with torches in hand.

In several cases, I’ve received outraged e-mails from people who think that I’m the one who tortured all of those virtual cats over at Bonsai Kitten. I can only assume that they surfed to the debunking page, but didn’t actually take the time to read it, and decided to unload on me instead. Bizarre.

And then there was the even more bizarre case of a guy who accused me of actually writing and propagating hoaxes — specifically one in which people got free tickets from British Airways. He was furious at me, accusing me of messing with people, wasting bandwidth and generally being an asshole. This despite the fact that the debunking clearly includes the word “hoax” in the headline, and it appeared several times in the debunking itself. It took me several e-mails to finally get him to understand that I wasn’t promoting the hoax — I was debunking it. When all was said and done, I still don’t think he believed me.

Then there are those instances where people seem so eager to be morally outraged they don’t stop to think about the context of the thing they are outraged about. Here’s an example: a few years ago I got an e-mail which proclaimed I was a bad, bad, bad person who was promoting pornography on the Web. The letter didn’t specify the page where this great affront had occurred (I’ve noticed that many surfers assume that webmasters have the magical ability to instantly know what they’re talking about) and, naturally, was typed in all caps.

An e-mail or two later I finally got to the bottom of it. There used to be a Webzine called Titan, and I’d linked to it from an old Zine Scene post. Titan, like so many zines, eventually died, and its url ( was gobbled up by someone else, in this case, a pornographer who set the domain to auto-forward to a Web site about big-breasted women.

Now mind you, the actual Titan link on my site specifically referred to a webzine, and all of the other links on that page were either to news stories on Nuketown or other Zine Scene entries. Quickly browsing through the site would have revealed no other porn links.

But this person was too outraged to take the time to think — refused to think actually — and instead of reasoning that something funky had happened with the Titan site, he decided to get out his trusty lance and go charging at yet another windmill. I later learned that he was a net newbie who’d been online for less than six months. That might explain it, but I suspect he’d have reacted the same if he’d been browsing through a magazine in Borders and found a Playboy stuck inside.

And then there’s my editorial “Save Children! Ban Video Games!” which no less than two people have written angry letters to me about. No, they aren’t upset that I’m arguing against video game bans (the point of the editorial in question) — they’re upset with me for being in favor it! Again, I can only assume they read the headline and decided to send off an e-mail without actually reading the rest of the story (the headline itself is meant to be sarcastic — and the very first paragraph explicitly states my position on video game bans).

So how do I deal with the Willfully Ignorant? As much as I’d love to strangle them, I don’t. Instead I take the time to figure out what they’re ranting out (which is often difficult — the Willfully Ignorant are rarely able of writing complete sentences describing the source of their wrath) and then explain to them what the deal really is. And then I throw in a little note urging them to avoid running off half-cocked, be it online or off.

Most of the time I don’t get a response, but occasionally I do get a sheepish e-mail back apologizing for the ill-conceived e-mail. To me, that shows that there’s hope for the Willfully Ignorant, that perhaps this condition can be treated and — with time — eliminated.

And if not, there’s plenty of other windmills out there for them to crash into.

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