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Ovid (2709)

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Stuff with the Perl Foundation. A couple of patches in the Perl core. A few CPAN modules. That about sums it up.

Journal of Ovid (2709)

Thursday August 07, 2008
10:46 AM

On Civility

[ #37122 ]

This is a follow-up on my previous Why I Often Hate Techies post.

Update: as a side note, I've revised my opinion of the guy who posted his complaints about the open source community. He really approached the situation the wrong way.

One of my first "real" jobs involved me standing in front of a grill, gloriously flipping burgers. It didn't pay well and I dreamed of the day I would net $500 a month (this was back in 1986). One day I was frustrated and said "damn". Heads swivelled. Everyone stared at me. It's not that they were shocked by the language. They were shocked at my use of the language. I didn't use profanity, blasphemy (despite already being an atheist), or any strong language at all. Oh, I still had a temper, but I was actually able to express myself without resorting to language like that. That's the first anecdote to keep in mind. Now for the second.

Fast-forward a decade. A friend's girlfriend was complaining about how she received a citation for not having having paid the fare on the MAX (Portland's tram). She said "I cussed and yelled at the officer and he still gave me the ticket." I asked her if someone cussing and yelling at her would make her change her mind about something and she grudgingly admitted that it wouldn't. The problem was that the crowd she hung out with was a rather bitter and angry crowd and using language like that was quite common.

Now for the mental exercise which ties all of this together: if the people you hang out with on a regular basis are petty thieves, crack addicts, and so forth, are you running your local bank? Probably not. But why?

The "why" is simple. It's the same reason the prisons are sometimes referred to as "crime finishing schools". If you're exposed to something often enough, you get used to it. After a while, you internalize it. You can get to the point where you see wildly abnormal behavior as socially acceptable. Fred Phelp's followers see nothing wrong with the "God Hates Fags" signs, despite Jesus' quite explicit message of "love thy neighbor". They feel it's acceptable to picket the funerals of US soldiers killed overseas. Some Muslims (a minority, thank goodness), feel it's perfectly acceptable to riot over cartoons mocking their faith (I've read several cartoons published in Iranian papers mocking the Jewish faith, despite Ahmadinejad's insistence that a few cartoons in Danish papers are bigotry). Heck, there are a lot of less extreme examples I could write, but I'm sure I'd touch off a few people insisting that they're perfectly correct in their views/behavior; they might even be right.

Which all brings us back to the techie issue. I used to be very polite. I was known for it. Yet a year and some change as a car salesman probably marked my downfall. I eventually quit, citing that I didn't like what sort of person I was becoming. And now I'm a programmer and unlike car sales, I love what I do, but I struggle against much of the culture.

Here's a thought experiment. Imagine a difficult guy in a crowd. He pushes smaller guys aside. He makes lewd remarks to women. He tells people to "shut up" if they dare to contradict him. If I saw someone behaving like that (and I have), I might lose my temper and yell "you're a f***ing a**hole" (and I have). Naturally, this only makes the situation worse, but there's something curious there. It's easy to be obnoxious. It's even encouraged. Yet how would one rephrase "you're a f***ing a**hole" without being profane or rude? I struggle with that, particularly if my temper's aroused and I'm trying to say something quickly. Several times I've caught myself using profanity and realizing I would have trouble expressing myself otherwise (try this the next few times you cuss).

Of course, we can simply tell ourselves that the guy deserves it, but this just sets us up for the typical tit-for-tat cycles we find ourselves in. Just because someone else is being rude doesn't give me the right to be rude. That's entirely the wrong way of looking at the problem. Here's the right way of looking at the problem: if enough of us decide to set an example and be unilaterally polite, we can change the culture. The culture has changed many times before, we simply have to be decent enough to change it to civility.

It's a pernicious problem. I often see people defending ad hominem attacks because no profanity was used (that still doesn't make it polite) or because "it's true" (that still doesn't make it polite). Well, here's a little tip: truth isn't always a defence. We can easily take exception to all sorts of things but it's awfully hard to get mad about common courtesy. When did we lose this? Schwern mentions "punching range" as a factor. I'll go further and state that our willingness to be polite tends to be inversely proportional to our distance. And that's both physical and social distance.

Some of you have probably noticed that I say rude things from time to time. When I do, I tend to pull back for a while. I don't like the fact that the "truth trumps civility" culture is so rampant, particularly when "truth" is a feral beast, often biting those who think they have it safely on a leash.

I'm still of two minds about a lot of my political writings as they tend to fall into the "uncivil" category, but in today's day and age, if you don't have a good rant, no one cares. People are celebrated for their ability to be vicious and cutting. Yet though I want to tone down my writings, I'm aghast at the lies which have pitched my country headlong into war. I'm horrified that many of the root causes of terrorism are often blatantly obvious, but everyone wants to "beat" the "enemy", not understand humans we disagree with. And hey, what's a few dead Arabs among friends? When people are dying, I'm going to lose my temper and I don't think that's part of me that's going to change, but this, I think, is justifiable anger and uncivility. I'm not going to hover over a cup of tea and say "sorry old chap, but I suspect cold war tactics may not be the best approach against non-state actors." If it ain't a sound bite, no one cares (the above "cold war" statement is quite correct, but requires a lot of background explanation that most don't care about. They just want us to win.)

So that's all I really had to say. I'm not who I once was and I want to get back there, but I find it difficult to do so in a culture which encourages and even embraces rudeness. I confess I doubt my ability to find that person again, but at least I can keep this in mind.

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  • I wasn't defending either side in that exchange you originally referenced. I thought they both acted badly.

    The blog author did many "piss off people on IRC" things, mostly by not getting to the point in a simple manner. The other folks on IRC were just straight up jerks, no doubt.

    I try to be polite on IRC. If someone is irritating me, I try to simply stop dealing with them, as opposed to abusing them. I'm not sure I always succeed.

    On the note of not liking the person you were become, one reason I stopped ha

    • While I don't want to single anyone out in the reply to that thread, I'll just say that your reply is what made me go back and reassess my opinion of that post. Thank you.

      Also, the guy has other interesting posts on that site. Well worth reading, if experience with foreign cultures piques your interests.

  • I think the important issue here is that what is perceived as 'rude' depends a lot on the society you are in. What 'firefly' failed to realise is that, by the standards of technical forums, he started out by being fairly rude: he wasn't personally insulting anyone, of course, but he was asking for help and completely failing to provide any useful information about what was going wrong; instead he was whining about how hard his life was. Thus, he was wasting the time of a whole lot of volunteers, which is co

  • Re. 'punching distance', any implied threat of physical violence is likely to make me less polite, not more. My motivation for being polite is not 'avoid getting punched', it's more like 'avoid upsetting people', so I tend to be much more careful online, where I can't see what effect my words are having.

    If there are large numbers of people in the world whose primary reason for being civil is to avoid getting punched, it's hardly surprising so many of them are arseholes online. Perhaps those of us who do k

    • Neither Schwern nor myself were encouraging punching. The idea was really that many people only seem to keep themselves in check when faced with the possibility of direct confrontation. I think "punching" was just used to spice up the discussion. Sorry if that came across wrong.

    • Well, punching distance also happens to be a distance short enough for you to look each other in the face to determine each other's state of mind way before any physical violence is involved.

      I still think it's a sign of lack of empathy when people behave really badly on IRC or mailing lists. Add to that a gang mentality where people think this is the normal way of interacting, and you have a pretty nasty environment.

  • You wreck your own point when you stated you can't discuss politics politely. If you want to convince somebody (me, for example) that you aren't just a raving Bush-hater, you have to act in a civil manner.

    Now, I can't say that I'm any better in fact, since my own political rants tend to be just as angry, they're just a different set of positions. But I still say that the most convincing argument is the one delivered with passion, but still delivered politely and without coming across as anger or hatred (i.e

    • I posit that anger is not useful even for that. You want your judgement to be particularly level and unclouded when something matters enough to you to spur you into action.

    • You wreck your own point when you stated you can't discuss politics politely.

      I no longer judge people for not being polite about politics. Politics is all about who is going to take the next turn depriving other people of liberty, property, and sometimes life. It is completely understandable why people would be uncivil about that. In fact, it's ridiculous to expect them to be civil, and it's part of the religious faith in government as being the right idea. It's part of the way this mental virus propagates itself: by presenting the idea as being something that people should not

      J. David works really hard, has a passion for writing good software, and knows many of the world's best Perl programmers