I have observed (try as I might to ignore it) a phenomenon, even in this very NG, dubbed by some the "net sociopath." For quirky reasons of my own, I call it the "Methodically Jabbering Vandal," or "MJV" for short. In some cases, it is able to virtually monopolize the discussion of a given NG with its flame-baiting. Now flame wars are good fun and all (like paintballing without all the cleanup afterwards), but it's only good sense to know what you're doing and why. Some posters sound as if they expect to catch an MJV in an error and have it admit it, apologize, or alter its position. This, I suspect, is highly unrealistic.
Let us take a *hypothetical* MJV. Perhaps it had an unhappy childhood: bright, even brilliant, but lacking a sense of purpose. Also lacking in the social skills that would permit a PhD to secure a permanent teaching position, and landing in a cubicle instead. A lonely, unhappy individual like this would be easy prey for certain cults, who might build up that missing self-esteem by infusing their new recruit with a mission. Unfortunately, the mission sometimes consists of raising large amounts of money for the leadership of the cult. These things have a way of collapsing under their own weight, perhaps helped along by a dose of reality in the form of journalistic and/or police investigations.
Cast adrift again, the MJV desperately seeks what it has just lost: a goal. By now it has learned that the goal must not be someone else's dream of power and glory, but its own. So instead of attaching itself to an existing cause, it determines to create one. Then all the credit for progress, real or imagined, will belong to the MJV. So the MJV picks an activity. In a bizarre manifestation of self-loathing, it may even be an activity it enjoys, like, say, bicycling. Combination of that activity with another of its few pleasures, say, wildlife observation, however, now becomes Anathema. What once was sweet is now bitter and dark. Biking off- road is EVIL!
Having already determined that mountain bikers are the devil incarnate, the MJV stages a pre-emptive strike. Remember that in its own mind, the MJV is waging a holy war, and is not bound by netiquette, the cyber-equivalent of the Geneva Convention. These are scum that deserve no quarter, while the MJV speaks for the voiceless-- the whipsnakes and nematodes that lack ISPs.
Let the flame wars begin! The newsgroup becomes the cyber-battleground- much more convenient than a real one, as its remoteness and ephemerality facilitate denial. The the whole of the MJV's energy is channelled into the crusade. It can assure itself that those distant windmills really are giants, and that they are shaking in their boots, confronted by its obviously, unassailably superior intellectual and moral position. The predictable response to an MJV, from at least a sizeable portion of its target population, is astonished, indignant, even outraged. The ensuing exchange only confirms the MJV's original assessement, a classic example of the "self-fulfilling prophecy."
From this point on, there can be no retreat. Rather, the war merely escalates. Behavior that to a disinterested outside observer might be construed as rude, dubious, negligent or fraudulent are legitimate weapons in the campaign against the infidel. Time and again, the thin veneer of civility is rent by antagonists on both sides, always serving to confirm each in its estimation of the other. Cries for tolerance, objectivity and temperance are met with flames, until even the pacifists are goaded into the fray. Paradoxical behavior becomes commonplace, such as a hundred people shouting in unison, "Ignore it and it will go away!"
When a fire is big enough, a couple of things can happen: either it quickly exhaust its oxygen, or somebody calls the fire department. In other words, either a truce is called and all parties agree to disagree (rarely observed); or an agency is formed to moderate the discussion. Like the fire department, the moderator(s) are not against fire per se, only against its appearance in an inappropriate context (blast furnaces versus bedrooms). The nature of newsgroup structure is such that what is off-topic in Group A is the heart and soul of Group B, and that if members of Group A democratically choose to enforce a scope of discussion, a poster should respect that and go where it belongs. There will concern among the NG members that this constitutes "censorship." It does not. No one is being denied a forum for their views, only directed to the appropriate one(s). The cry of "Censorship!" is generally raised first and loudest by the MJV, and is aimed at knee-jerk liberals who will not go beyond the label to an examination of the facts. Done wisely, moderation results in improved communications. The challenge is to do it wisely; evidence suggests that it can.
Offers that an MJV may, if it chooses, post messages that are on-topic are both correct and laudable, but probably futile. So be it; that is the decision of the MJV, based on its own internal agenda, which is by now an uncontrollable compulsion, denying or attacking anything that remotely smells of hererodoxy. The MJV's mental state, I expect, becomes increasingly stressed and fragile. Should it lose the battle, however, it will likely retreat, lick its wounds, and reappear in another location, acting as if nothing had happened, or even proclaiming a moral victory.
None of this is original or clever. Don't look for a bibliography at the end, either. If it sounds like common sense, try it. Given that an MJV's motivations and compulsions are obvious, even to one lacking a PhD in psychology, why facilitate the flame wars unless there's a little bit of the MJV in you, too? I know there's a little of it in me, and you are coming to the end of it. Vote for moderation, and watch for opportunities to fine-tune it in place.
It is possible that the MJV may make a lasting contribution after all- to the language. Some pathological conditions are named not after their discoverer, but after their most famous victim. Just as laymen refer to "Lou Gehrig's Disease" because "Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis" is such a mouthful, we may in future call an "MJV" what a trained sociologist would knowingly document as a "newsgroup sociopath manifesting delusional whatever." It's a comfort.