Review: Jono Bacon's "Dealing with Disrespect"

Off the Beat: Bruce Byfield's Blog

May 09, 2014 GMT
Bruce Byfield

Few people can match Jono Bacon's experience as a community leader in free software. Not only has he been Ubuntu community manager for nearly eight years, but in The Art of Community, he literally wrote the book on community, and has talked extensively about issues like burnout at conferences. Given this background, his latest book, Dealing with Disrespect, comes with high expectations. Nor does it disappoint, except in Bacon's tendency to see problems in terms of individuals rather than systems.

The strength of Bacon's writing has always been that he is approaches his topics in terms of problems to solve -- problems, presumably, that he has encountered in his work. This approach makes his comments, even when flawed or incomplete, both extremely practical and personal, especially since he is analytical enough to use his own behavior as an example of how not to. It also creates a narrative voice that is personal and relaxed, if sometimes too verbose.

Dealing with Disrespect is no exception among Bacon's work. It comes at a time when many observers wonder whether rudeness is increasing in free software, yet its first words are "Most people are good people"-- and, by the time you finish the book, you may suspect that Bacon is at least tempted to replace "most" with "all." Either way, given the general concern about rudeness, it is an unusually optimistic statement, especially considering the times it must have been tested in Bacon's daily work.

According to Bacon, the problem is not so much that people are disrespectful as that most people need to learn how to deal with disrespect. They do not understand that criticism is not always the same as disrespect, or that respect does not necessarily require agreement, and that much can depend on tone. Often, too, they fail to take into account differences in age, gender, or culture, or the degree to which burnout and feelings of being under-valued can lead to disrespect.

Such limitations, he suggests, can affect leaders more than most. Because of their position, leaders seem more accessible than most and can therefore become targets for disrespect. They also have a responsibility to try to defuse disrespect and keep it from disrupting their communities.

Bacon's solution -- strange to say in the current atmosphere -- is tolerance. He opposes the idea of blocking comments, claiming that he has never done so himself. Instead, he urges readers not to jump to conclusions and to be sure they understand the situation, looking for evidence "in an almost legally provable perspective."

Most of all, however, he urges a development of empathy, of making a real effort to understand the disrespectful -- although, early in the book, he does acknowledge that developing a thick skin helps, especially if you  are well-known. The dedicated "haters" he mentions early in the book are almost forgotten in the end, with Bacon suggesting that what is needed is for everybody to improve their communication skills.

A lack of the systemic
Bacon acknowledges that disrespect is a communal problem. Yet Dealing with Disrespect's greatest flaw is that his solutions come down to educating individuals. Disrespect, in his view, simply seems to happen despite everyone's better nature, and both the giver and the receiver need mainly a change of perspective to solve the problems.

In many daily situations, this perspective is no doubt accurate. Yet what Dealing with Disrespect does not consider is the possibility of systemic problems -- disrespect that is part of the culture, that exists because it is part of the way that things have always been done.

This seems an important omission, because a systemic problem can be beyond the power of individual attitudes to change. Usually, group action is needed instead.

In addition, it is systemic disrespect that is part of the problem in some cases. Free software feminists see systemic biases as problems that women face in joining projects and communities. In response, some have resorted in recent years to public shaming -- a part of a community turning against those who are are disrespectful, and ostracizing them.

Because recent developments like these are among the latest issues that might be roughly categorized as "disrespect." Bacon's book is weaker for not dealing with them. Bacon avoids making excuses for disrespect such as that their instigator may have Asperger's Syndrome and not understand social norms, but in general, he writes as a classical liberal, seeing the focus of problems and solutions alike as the individual, rather than the social structure.

Perhaps a better name for the book would have been Coping with Disrespect. There is no shortage of solid advice in Dealing with Disrespect, but without more of a systemic perspective, the book ends up sounding incomplete, and sometimes even naive. I would be curious, too, to learn his thoughts about how to deal with systemic disrespect. I know that Bacon is trying to keep the book short, but with any luck he will add the missing perspective in later editions, and round out the discussion more.

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