Colgate's E-Mail Wars Could Teach NATO A Thing Or Two

9 October 1998

By Stentor Danielson

The recent developments in Yugoslavia, namely the North Atlantic Treaty Organization's (NATO) contemplation of the use of violence if Yugoslavia does not leave the rebellious province of Kosovo alone, remind me of the thoroughly pointless e-mail war that the Class of '02 was forced to be spectator to this past week. Both situations are (or were, since the participants thankfully seem to have lost interest in sending each others e-mail messages) fueled by similar misconceptions.

The first misconception is that the cause of a problem can be used to fix the problem. The situation in Yugoslavia arose because the Yugoslavian government decided that, because it was bigger and stronger than Kosovo, it could beat up on it for trying to assert its independence. In response, the West seems to be suggesting that it will, if necessary, beat up on Yugoslavia to get its way as NATO has far more military power at its disposal than Yugoslavia. I highly doubt that organizations such as NATO were established to create a "might-makes-right" world scheme. But, that is what will happen if we resort to force to settle disputes.

To take a lesson from the e-mail war, I have done some calculating. It seems to me that there were ten or so individuals mistakenly added to the Class of '02 mailing list who were offended -- rather than confused or amused -- at receiving one extraneous message. This amounts to a needless misery total of ten clicks of the "delete" button. However, these ten folks decided that they could fix the problem of extra e-mails by sending out a message to all parties involved. Even if we consider that the real members of the Class of '02 wisely took the extraneous e-mail in stride, that still leaves ten times ten, or 100 e-mails to parties who cannot tolerate excess e-mail, for a needless misery total of 100 clicks of the "delete" button.

I see no reason why e-mails are any different than bullets. Think about it -- each bullet shot does not just take the life of a human being. It also sends the message that the shooter thinks violence can be used as a means to peace. I'm sure many people out there are ready to jump to the defense of the idea that we can cause a little suffering to prevent a lot of suffering. That's a nice ideal, but the people hearing the message may not be as enlightened to accept it.

The e-mail war illustrates this principle, too. The first responses were polite: "I'm not a first-year, please take me off the list" messages. The existence of these messages, though, encouraged people who were not so discriminate about their use of e-mail. I've seen messages where the ratio of the f-word to other words was nearly 1:1. This was not a case of some e-mail to prevent more e-mail, it was a case of e-mail used to gratify someone's desire to voice his rather crudely articulated annoyance at the flawed distribution list and make others suffer along with him.

So, what answer to the conflict in Yugoslavia can there be? Diplomacy seems ineffective, or at least unsatisfyingly drawn out, as the decision to threaten force was made reluctantly. Returning to the e-mail war, we find that it has ended. Why? It seems apparent that the aggressors decided that their actions were not producing the desired effects and were, in fact, prolonging a bad situation. So, they made concessions - waiving their right to put their opinions in everyone else's mailbox. Intervention by an outside agency championing "the" solution and imposing it upon the participants may have ended the war itself sooner. But such a fix would have certainly led to secondary problems spawned of dissatisfaction with an artificially imposed end, and resentment for being treated like babies who cannot solve their own problems.

So, what NATO ought to do in Yugoslavia is simply nothing. As long as the situation is prevented from boiling over and involving additional parties, Yugoslavia and Kosovo will work out their conflict. As the only participants, they will have the power to continue or end the situation. They will undoubtedly be happier with the solution they devise than with anything they are ordered to conform to by an outside agency. Perhaps if Bill Clinton and other world leaders were on the Class of '02 mailing list, they might understand.

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