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I’d like to quickly examine a much-shared story from social media today, in an effort to understand where we might be going wrong in online dialogue. It revolves around the need to seem knowledgeable; around the supposed ‘strength’ shown in being certain; and around a lack of humility and general politeness when in dialogue with others.

The reason to examine this particular story? Nearly everyone involved in it appears to be wrong at some point, and yet are certain they are right.

Here’s the original tweet (NSFW language) that started it, from Max Landis, son of movie director John Landis and costume designer Deborah Landis, sharing an image of a Facebook thread about a question on Jeopardy referencing Indiana Jones:

Jeopardy question on Indiana Jones

As seen above, a commenter (possibly named ‘Stanley’?) on the Facebook post stated that the Jeopardy answer was wrong. He was rejoined by Deborah Landis – the actual costume designer for Raiders of the Lost Ark, and supplier of the question to Jeopardy. ‘Stanley’ responded, unwilling to cede ground on the matter. Landis responded in kind, saying “I was there…you have got to be kidding”.

Max Landis, tweeting the image, was incredulous: “HOLY F**KING SH*T dude online tries to mainsplain the costumes of Indiana Jones to my mom…the costume designer of Indiana Jones.” It has since been retweeted by plenty of people (17,000 at time of writing this, including the likes of Adam Savage) with the same reaction, laughing at this poor fool mansplaining to an actual expert, and has now hit news websites (e.g. see Bleeding Cool). And then, on the other side of the coin, came the people enraged by the term ‘mansplaining’ itself. For example: “Mansplaining isn’t real that is feminist white knight bullsh*t I’ve had more women speak to me like they know everything than I have had men”.

So many people sure of their position, and putting down the other party they are disagreeing with. Here’s the thing though: it appears nearly every step of the sequence features people being wrong, who – with a little less certainty and a bit more friendliness – could have learned something out of the exchange.

Stanley: “The Jeopardy question is wrong. The movie was The Greatest Show on Earth.”

Stanley is incorrect in saying the question was wrong. Charlton Heston’s costume in Secret of the Incas certainly seems to have helped inspire the costume of Indiana Jones (not least, from visual appearance, but more importantly Deborah Landis’s own first-hand testimony). He may be right that The Greatest Show on Earth, another Charlton Heston movie, also helped to inspire the look (see below) – but that doesn’t make the Jeopardy question wrong.

Deborah Landis: “No. The question was exactly right because I provided it. Raiders of the Lost Ark is almost frame for frame Secret of the Incas. Heston later wore the same gear in Greatest Show. But his adventurer/treasure seeker Harry Steel cane [sic] first.”

The question certainly is right. But then saying Raiders is “almost frame for frame” Secret of the Incas is a monumental stretch (you can watch the movie in full on YouTube). And then, “Heston later wore the same gear in Greatest Show…his adventurer/treasure seeker Harry Steele came first” appears to be outright incorrect – Greatest Show was released in 1952, Incas in 1954 (unless perhaps Incas was shot before Greatest Show, but released two years after?).

Stanley, undeterred by this, corrects Landis’ apparently incorrect chronology, and reiterates his point saying “Spielberg acknowledges he was inspired by Greatest Show in numerous interviews”. Landis ridicules his source of ‘interviews’, noting that she has the ultimate original source: she watched Incas with Spielberg as part of the planning for Raiders of the Lost Ark.

Stanley is right that Spielberg cites Greatest Show as his inspiration to become a film-maker. But he’s wrong to extrapolate from that to say the Jeopardy question was incorrect on the basis of this. Landis – as a person intimately involved in the making of the film – obviously knows first-hand that the Jeopardy question is correct. But that doesn’t make Stanley’s suggestion that Greatest Show was a costume inspiration incorrect either.

In fact, while wrong on other aspects, both Stanley and Deborah Landis are probably correct about the inspiration. How do we know? Deborah Landis herself has said so in previous interviews – that in fact, the costume of Indiana Jones was based on an ‘archetype’ from the 1940s/1950s, and that both movies contributed to the costume design:

Landis: [Spielberg and I] both knew that Indiana Jones’s character was based on an archetype, and we immediately knew what the costume was meant to be. In the early planning stages for Raiders of the Lost Ark, we screened some movies: China, with Alan Ladd, wearing a brown fedora and leather jacket. Then, Lost Treasure of the Incas, released in 1952, with Charlton Heston wearing exactly the same costume. And then into The Greatest Show on Earth, with Charlton Heston, again, wearing a leather jacket and a brown fedora.

So we knew what the costume had to be. All that was left was for me to create it.

In another interview Landis notes that she watched Greatest Show, “in which Charlton Heston wears a brown leather jacket and a brown fedora, pretty much the costume of Indiana Jones”, and that the archetype also extended to “Saturday morning adventure serials, where a lot of these guys, because it was just post-war, were wearing flight jackets and brown fedoras”.

So, in reality, Stanley had some good information to share; Landis – as someone directly involved – definitely had good information to share. But both also had things wrong, and could have been more open and responsive in their comments. Stanley, in originally posting that the answer was wrong, may have done so because he wanted to show his knowledge about the movie, or Spielberg, but in doing so came across as arrogant, overlooking the fact that the question could still be right (ie. multiple sources of inspiration). Landis’s correction was warranted, given her involvement – and you can imagine her frustration at someone else trying to school her on Indiana Jones’s costume design – but she could have done so by simply acknowledging Stanley’s information was correct, but that his statement about the Jeopardy question being wrong was not, as there were multiple inspirations. Stanley’s reply to that should have been a mea culpa, though perhaps with a polite correction of the chronology. Instead the conversation is at loggerheads.

Then Max Landis’s tweet about the incident inflamed things more by marking Stanley as a ‘mansplainer’. I’m not sure that’s what was happening here (in cases like this, perhaps ‘geeksplain’ might be more correct terminology, though I may be lacking more context on this incident), but the tweet was a clarion call for Twitter users to jump on board having a laugh at Stanley’s expense (without realising that he was, in some cases, making some valid points). And then, for every reaction, there is an equal and obnoxious reaction, such as reply tweets like “mansplaining is not a thing, you psychopath“.

And so it goes on: one side versus the other: I’m right, you’re wrong; you’re this, you’re that. All from an initial exchange in which both parties had valid points – and some cool interesting facts to share about a pop culture favourite – but were also wrong about certain things. While it makes for good copy once it has all blown up into an ‘event’, perhaps there’d be a whole lot less outrage and anger if somebody along the way simply conceded a point, or qualified their answer with an “I think” or “Possibly”?

Across the almost 20 years of running a popular website, I’ve watched the level of dialogue on the web transform from “here’s some information I have to share, what cool stuff do you have to share?” to “My dogma is superior to your dogma”. I think we could all do with a bit of self-monitoring; portraying less certainty in our worldview; more humility in the face of others’ input; and a general friendliness and openness to dialogue and learning from each other (even when disagreeing). As Robert Anton Wilson once put it:

The more often you suspect you may be thinking or acting like a Cosmic Schmuck, the less of a Cosmic Schmuck you will become, year by year, and if you never suspect you might think or act like a Cosmic Schmuck, you will remain a Cosmic Schmuck for life.” – Robert Anton Wilson.

Maybe, if we work on it, we can save the ‘net and make it a place where we all learn something? At least, that’s what I’m thinking. What’s your opinion?