Why can't we all just get along?

Off the Beat: Bruce Byfield's Blog

Dec 30, 2009 GMT
Bruce Byfield

At the risk of sounding naive, I'm concerned about how members of the free and open source software (FOSS) community treat each other. No doubt in most parts of the community, people are getting things done while keeping civil. But, publicly, or when the big issues are raised, a sustained nastiness has crept into discussions over the last year or so. Mostly, I try to ignore the tone, but, if possible, I'd like to see it reversed.

Maybe that sentiment sounds like wishy-washy hypocrisy coming from someone who often writes about contentious issues. I know, too, no war is fiercer than a civil war, and that part of the reason for the nasty tone is probably the growing pains of a rapidly expanding community. Yet it seems to me that partisans on all sides are too often wasting their time in flame wars, while forgetting the common cause of building a free operating system.

One of the best ways to counter the feuding spirit I'm talking about is a code of conduct, of the sort used by Ubuntu (http://www.ubuntu.com/community/conduct) or the Fedora IRC helpers (https://fedoraproject.org/wiki/IRC_helpers_code_of_conduct). For all that people complain that such codes reduce freedom of speech or threaten their independent spirit, at the very least, spelling out expectations does no harm.

Yet the problem does not seem to be just about behavior, but also about how people process and structure information during discussion.

Given the general level of intelligence in the community, you might expect some sophistication in discussion, and often that is what you find. Too often, though, you find community discussion muddied by information processing that would earn a failing grade in a paper in first year university. And, generally, the worst offenders are those who are most passionate and active in the discussion. The result is that either discussion degenerates to the point where it can no longer be productive, or an inordinate amount of time is spent untangling the fallacies instead of addressing the issues.

In the hopes of helping to prove the level of discussion, here are my suggestions for how participants can improve their every day discourse:

Make sure that you understand what is said, and the context in which it is said

Before you respond to a comment, make sure that you have read it correctly. Don't use it as a springboard for bringing up your own pet topic that is only vaguely related. Check if a comment is meant sarcastically, and avoid distortion due to not noticing the qualifying remarks around it. If you can't report accurately what someone says, then your own comments will be inaccurate, too.

Assume good intentions until you have proof otherwise

Someone who holds a position with which you disagree is not necessarily evil, nor in the secret employ of Microsoft. Often, they are expressing a sincere belief. Of course, it may be a mistaken belief, but if you attack the person, you are not going to persuade them that they are mistaken.

Use diplomatic and helpful language

When I was a university instructor, I soon learned that simply marking a passage as wrong did not help students to improve their essays. By contrast, when I politely suggested that a passage didn't work for me, and went on to offer possible ways to improve, students might learn and come to me to hear more.

The same is true in discussion. "This stinks on ice" only angers or humiliates. "This is a good idea, but have you considered . . . " gets people thinking and discussing constructively.

Avoid common logical fallacies

Logical fallacies are effective ways of winning an argument in social terms, but they either stop or delay serious discussion. You can find out more about invalid arguments with a quick web search, but common ones include taking an argument to a logical extreme, claiming that a view is correct because of who holds it, over-simplifying, over-generalizing, and seeing only two sides to an issue.

Take the time to structure your viewpoint

In an email or on IRC, most of us are tempted to emphasize replying quickly over replying thoughtfully. However, taking the time to organize your thoughts often allows you to discover errors or additional arguments, and be more constructive.

Just as importantly, a structured argument is usually a concise one -- and a concise one is easier to understand and more respectful of other people's time.

Don't let the discussion become an end in itself

Anyone who has ever chaired a meeting knows the difficulty of balancing the need to avoid cutting off discussion against the need to avoid a rambling or stalemated discussion. When a discussion becomes repetitive, or participants are becoming angry with each other, these are signs that the discussion is probably becoming unproductive. Remember your goal, and watch for the moment when the discussion no longer seems to be helping to move everyone nearer to it. That's the time you should either end the discussion or renew it tomorrow.

A way to judge contributions

Probably there are other ways you can improve the information processing in a discussion, but these are among the most basic ones.

One particular advantage of adopting them is that, whenever someone fails to follow them, you can be reasonably certain that they are either sloppy thinkers or else caught up with the own agenda -- most likely, defending their own turf, establishing a reputation, or starting an argument to relieve other frustrations in their lives. If someone persists in ignoring them after being warned, you can feel reasonably justified in ignoring them or refusing to continue the discussion.

Conversely, someone who does follow them is likely to be someone who remembers the purpose of the discussion, and someone with whom you can work.

I don't imagine that following these suggestions is enough by itself to improve the level of discussion in FOSS. But they are a place to start, assuming that you want your discussions to be productive.


  • Comments are closed

    The hate mail is continuing, so I am closing the blog to comments.

    My apologies to anyone who might want to post legitimate comments, but I cannot spend all day deleting hate mail.
  • Hate mail on this site

    In the last couple of days, I've deleted a sub-thread that was irrelevant to this blog entry, and possibly libellous as well.

    I neither know nor care who is right in the personal feud that seems to motivate the main instigator of this sub-thread. However, I do know that I will not turn this blog into a center for hate mail. I will continue to delete it, and, if it starts coming into too quickly, I will simply turn off comments.

    If those involved want to post a comment that is relative to the blog entry and free of libel, they are welcome to do so. They might start by pondering the suggestions in the entry.

    And if that raises cries of censorship, I can live with that. Given the billions of websites available, the idea that being blocked from one site amounts to censorship is too ridiculous an accusation for anyone to take seriously.
  • just retire, Byfield.

    You have given up even a pretense at actual journalism. You are a hack and an enemy of the facts and the truth.
  • censorship is the real problem here

    Your dirty little problem? A dirty little person whose documented misdeeds and attacks on RMS are fundamentally the same problem. And you sweep it under the rug and silence the facts which point out this person as the sole source of the poison which affects the community.

    You are now as much to blame, Bruce. When you censor the truth, you become the problem as well.
  • Anger

    Thanks for the article, Bruce.

    What continues to surprise me is the amount of anger I see in these discussions. A couple of people are obviously involved in long standing battles between each other.

    I think one of the ways we can solve this is to help to make sure people get some face time together every once in a while. I think community gatherings like ApacheCon and GUADEC help the whole community.

    When I read some of the lists, I wonder what would happen if we put the two people "yelling" the loudest in a real room in person. Would they yell at each other? Come to blows? Or if you bought them a beer and invited them to sit at the same table, would they realize they are both people with valid opinions (and a lot of anger)?
  • Why Aren't the Lists More Helpful?

    """Sadly, the many gentle, kindly helpers that made me welcome 8 years ago have largely given up replying on mailing lists. The lists are no longer the friendly, helpful places they once were."""

    Alas, one of the reasons the lists aren't as friendly and helpful is precisely because those who would have them be that way have abandoned them tot he rude and loutish majority. Never give up, never surrender - if you don't think a list is showinf hte right spirit then berate the people who are showing the wrong spirit about their lack of helpfulness.

    Open source, for some reason, appears to find it natural to perpetuate the "high priesthood" approach that was one of the worst things about computer technology when it was first introduced. That's why the percentage of minorities and women is so much lower in open source than it is even in the IT industry generally (which is already abysmally lower than it is in the general population). If you don't regard this as acceptable, do something about it!

    "First they shouted down the Windows programmers - and I did not speak out because I was not a Windows programmer. Then they shouted down the newbies - and I did not speak out, because I was not a newbie. Next they shouted down the C# programmers - and I did not speak out, because I was not a C# programmer. Then they shouted me down - and there was nobody left to speak out for me."
  • Why can't we all just get along?

    One particular kind of nastiness, seen too often, is the mockery of new users that ask naive but genuine questions. A case in point arose on the CentOS mailing list this week, when a new user was concerned to see in his directory listings, entries of '.', which he know he hadn't created. He wanted to know how they got there, and how he could remove them. Many people told him ways to remove them, before someone actually told him what they are, and why he shouldn't. Then, of course, the attacks were justified, as they always are, with the statement that you shouldn't install Linux unless you have read at least three major manuals and learned core facts.

    For some reason it seems to be considered acceptable to be rude and inconsiderate when on-line. Frankly, it strikes me as the worst kind of playground bullying. Sadly, the many gentle, kindly helpers that made me welcome 8 years ago have largely given up replying on mailing lists. The lists are no longer the friendly, helpful places they once were. Even worse, I know of a number of such people that will offer help off-list to newbies rather than become part of yet another useless and offensive thread.
  • Discussion vs. Polemics

    Your post reminded me of an interview with Michel Foucault that I read a few years ago in which he draws a distinction between 'discussion' and 'polemics' (you can find it here: http://foucault.info/foucault/interview.html). In his first answer, he argues that although he likes participating in discussions, he avoids polemics because one cannot learn anything from the latter. In discussions one tries to learn and grow, whereas in polemics one tries to win and destroy the enemy. The main difference between the two is the attitude of those who participate. Unfortunately, I think that many of the exchanges in the FOSS community (as in many other parts of the public arena) are in fact polemics, and there is little that can be done to fix that because they are the result of the fundamental way in which the discussion is approached. We are talking about qualitatively different processes, and therefore establishing a code of conduct as you propose cannot change them fundamentally, only modify their tone. It saddens me to be pessimistic and suggest that we stay away from these polemics but I do believe that, in the context of an open internet, that is the only healthy option in many cases. It is better to start a real and fruitful discussion somewhere else than engaging in the quixotic task of trying to turn a process which is in fact a dialectical war because this is what its participants want into a meaningful learning experience.
  • Self Moderated

    The Dunning-Kruger effect seems to be a large part of what you are describing with quality of discussion. Unfortunately the solution is to increase the skill on the part of those who don't know they are unskilled, to the point where they can see their past deficiencies.

    I say unfortunate because doing so takes a lot of work and requires enough people that are not incompetent to work with those that are incompetent but don't know it.

    That said, community guidelines are always good with large, diverse groups. If nothing else, as you point out, they can give a guide by which one can judge interactions to filter out those that don't seem to be truly contributing.
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