Freedom, compromise, and geek fights

I’ve seen a rash of complaints lately about some absolutist flame wars and trollfests in various parts of the free & open source software community, and it leaves me kind of sad when I see people whose work I respect jumping around and saying hurtful things to each other.

I understand, of course… us geeks tend to like absolutes. Absolutes are often very handy in an engineering context — this algorithm is more efficient with our data sets under these constraints; that algorithm is less efficient. This hard drive performs better for this server load; that one is worse. We unfortunately have a tendency to apply the same sort of arguments when we don’t have a clear-cut context… and there may be legitimately different answers for different people. Which programming language is best? (The one I’m most productive in!) Which mobile gadget is best? (The one that I would buy for my needs!) Which operating system is best? (The one I like to run my applications or tune to my preferences!) Which voting system is best? Which political system is best? Which religion is best?

We quickly fall into unwinnable circular arguments where the participants talk past each other. Not only are these unproductive; they can create very angry, adversarial communities that tend to drive away new members. Especially where participation is self-selected and involves both technical and ideological goals — like free software and Wikipedia communities — there’s a constant danger of ugly geekfights.

I’ll admit I’ve flamed my share of people who disagreed with me on the Internet — more so at 21 than at 31! — but I’ve always tried to keep myself in check by reminding myself of an incident in my youth…

When I was a young lad, I was raised in what is sometimes called a Post-Christian environment. As middle-class white Americans, we inherited some of the outside trappings of the old Christian civilization of medieval Europe, but we were never really religious. We celebrated Christmas and Easter,  assumed “Yahweh” when someone said “God” instead of asking “which god?”, and understood that the “Bible” is the default holy book, with one section where GOD HATES SHRIMP and another where JESUS LOVES YOU. But we only had a token prayer at dinner, and only went to churches as tourists or funeralgoers; the one time I got dragged to my grandparents’ regular Sunday services at a Lutheran church I found the whole thing incomprehensible. Bible stories sometimes got presented to me as cultural background, but no more so than other religious tales like the similarly-ancient Greco-Roman myths which nobody believes are literal truth.

As a 14-year-old or so, I assumed that this was the normal, natural way that everyone in our post-Englightenment science-based Western culture was raised. Someone who believed in any particular religion — so concluded my adolescent brain — must then be either ignorant or stupid. If they were ignorant, then surely explaining the true facts to them would make them give a quick facepalm and finally join the 18th century. If they didn’t get the explanation, then either my explanation wasn’t good enough (let’s try it again!) or they’re just stupid and it’s time to write them off entirely.

Eventually I started realizing that my assumptions didn’t actually hold. One day, a schoolyard discussion about science and philosophy (as only 9th-graders can philosophize… poorly!) resulted in a classmate declaring that “Darwin was a jerk!” for putting forth his theories on biological evolution. Yes, one of my honors-level classmates wasn’t just religious, he was a creationist. I knew he wasn’t an idiot — he was a bright kid who did great in math, science, literature, and history. I knew his parents weren’t idiots — they were smart, successful people. But this smart, successful family believed things I found to range from the odd to the silly to the downright insane.

I’ve never been convinced about religion — and definitely not creationism! — but that day I started to learn that believing things I find to be obviously wrong doesn’t make someone an unintelligent or malicious person, even if I can point to a heap of evidence that totally convinces me how wrong they are.

At best I could accuse him of being wrong and not having the same set of assumptions and values in his decision-making process that made the opposite conclusion so obvious to me. Given time, education, and a changing environment, he might change his mind, or he might not. But my arguments weren’t doing it, and weren’t going to do it, yet I couldn’t dismiss him entirely as an idiot.

I was instead going to have to just deal with someone being wrong.

This was probably the most important lesson I’ve ever learned. It’s hard, and I mean hard, to practice it, especially as a techie geek.

But it’s one of the foundations of our modern pluralistic democracies, and basically comes down to the social contract of “don’t oppress me, and I won’t oppress you”. My freedom to be an agnostic/atheist comes with the responsibility to tolerate Christians, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, etc… and even Creationists, to an extent. I’m willing to accept that compromise because they’re bound to it, too — it keeps “them” from ostracizing me as a heretic, burning me at the stake, stoning me to death, or just refusing to let me vote, own property, or run for public office just for being an agnostic/atheist, Christian, Jew, Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu, etc. We just have to work out a reasonable compromise — we teach the actual state of science in public-school science class, and it’s up to each religious group to explain to their children the specific ways, if any, that their religious worldview differs from centuries of evidence-based scientific research so that even the creationist kids still learn the cultural context of how our post-Enlightenment society works, even if they disagree with it.

So please… before you go flaming people for being traitors to the cause, or not getting it, or whatever… consider whether what you’re saying is actually going to add anything useful to the conversation, or if you’re just piling more noise on a never-ending geekfight. If we can avoid killing our neighbors over fundamental religious differences, we really ought to be able to live with someone else occasionally saying something nice about a product line you dislike.

6 thoughts on “Freedom, compromise, and geek fights”

  1. I have a personal policy: if any belief is held by a large number of people, then 1) I will not attribute it to stupidity, and 2) I will not attribute it to ignorance unless I am *personally* and *clearly* more knowledgeable on the subject matter than basically everyone who believes it. Belief that Godel’s theorem means all mathematical logic might be inconsistent: ignorant. Belief that nuclear power plants are scary and a bad idea: I don’t believe that, but I’m not going to say I’m more informed than Greenpeace on the issue, so I won’t say it’s just due to ignorance.

    It’s interesting to argue about things like this, though, if your goal is to learn about the issue and the other person’s opinion rather than to actually convince anyone. There’s nothing that can test your beliefs’ reasonableness as well as presenting them to someone intelligent who completely disagrees. Even if the other person isn’t particularly smart or reasonable, just being forced to explicitly formulate responses to obvious questions can really make you think about your beliefs.

    (Unfortunately it’s extremely exhausting, and time-consuming too. I tend to burn out after a few posts back and forth, which is why I rarely do this anymore. I used to do it a lot as a teenager.)

    One thing I’ll strongly disagree with, though, is the idea that this insight is related to tolerance. I’ll grant that the only reason I believe that slavery, honor killing, clitoridectomy, sati, etc. are evil is because I was raised to believe that, and I can give no reason that would persuade someone who was brought up otherwise. But that doesn’t mean I have to tolerate or support tolerance of those practices, or any other practices I feel are wrong (for religious or any other reasons). You can acknowledge that morality is subjective without becoming amoral.

    Of course, the government might not be willing or able to regulate some things I think should be regulated, because of popular opinion or the Constitution or judicial fiat. But that doesn’t mean I shouldn’t support those regulations in principle, or support non-regulatory methods of enforcement such as social pressure. If you really believe that something is wrong and harmful, it’s only reasonable to try to stop it as best you can.

  2. Big +1 to your first couple paragraphs Aryeh, but I have to disagree with that last bit, mainly because I think we have a different idea of what tolerance means here.

    To me, there’s a *HUGE* difference between tolerance of other peoples’ different beliefs and behaviors by themselves or with consenting, informed members of their society (whether it’s physically near or far from me, or whether there’s a physical location at all), and refusing to judge or act upon person-against-person violence… if anything I think they’re complete opposites!

    The fundamental of what I think of tolerance is not being amoral at all, but rather in choosing to *not* harass, harm, assault, or murder other people. Cultural relativism is an analytical tool, not an excuse to ignore violence! (Most of us ignore most of the violence in the world for the much simpler reason that there’s too much of it going on to take it all on at once; it’s much easier to concentrate on our own lives.)

    Slavery is only maintained with violence and the thread of violence; honor killings and sati are murders committed against women based on their behavior (or even based on things that they didn’t “do” themselves, like getting raped or outliving a spouse). Clitoridectomy is physical violence committed against girls in order to maintain control over women. I can’t think of any way to shoehorn these things into a framework of tolerance…

    There are still clash points of course; we can see them in areas such as law enforcement and the military (how much violence is acceptable in the name of fighting violence, and how can we best organize it to minimize abuse?), corporal punishment and the death penalty, and anywhere else where life-or-death decisions might get made. From our comfortable 21st-century Western perch it’s easy for us to say honor killings and sati are evil because our society has spent centuries consciously thinking about these issues and moving the line of what’s accepted by the public… but in most of the US the government *does* put people to death for various crimes, and a lot of people in our society think that’s just fine*.

    But even today’s US death penalty & abortion debates are VERY far removed from hanging poor people for stealing livestock, shooting men for having sex with each other, or setting women on fire for being rape victims.

    * (The same people sometimes take the stance that voluntarily mother-initiated termination of a human embryo without a nervous system is a crime against humanity, while others consider it an acceptable trade-off. This is a lot fuzzier in today’s Western society than things like honor killings because — after centuries of debate — our society has more or less accepted that women are in fact human beings who have “rights” like “staying alive”, “owning property”, and “having a voice in public government”… but even with women actively participating in politics, sexism isn’t exactly a fully-solved issue in the west! Incompletely-developed fetuses are an interesting case for legitimate disagreement; because they’re not able to speak for themselves it’s a much harder question to settle objectively, and we’re left with cultural disagreements on where it’s ok to place the trade-off line between the rights and responsibilities of the mother and the future child. But the fact that there’s a trade-off to be made seems pretty well understood, even if folks disagree WILDLY on where to put it.)

  3. Getting back to the original subject (going off the painkillers makes me as rambly as going on them did ;) … harassment is a form of social violence, deliberately interfering with someone else’s ability to participate freely in society — it ain’t murder but it still ain’t ok. Violence is the opposite of tolerance and thus to be discouraged in a pro-tolerance society.

  4. I knew you’d disagree with my last couple of paragraphs, which is why I prefixed them with “I’ll strongly disagree”. :) My point is that in your initial post, you conflated two different things: understanding other people’s ideas, and tolerating them. There’s value in understanding why people would do something like sati, and acknowledging that it’s not due to stupidity or ignorance, and acknowledging that you’d likely support it if your background were different, even if your factual knowledge were identical. But it’s a very big leap from that understanding to saying there’s reason to tolerate it. That’s a very different proposition.

    When it comes down to it, you’re not advocating very much tolerance of things you think are wrong. You’re advocating tolerance of things you think are somewhat objectionable, maybe (like promoting anti-scientific beliefs), but still don’t tolerate things you believe are very objectionable (like others actively punishing behaviors that you think are harmless or good).

    I pretty much agree with that, but my moral attitudes are very different. You’re a secular humanist, I guess, so you judge good and bad mostly by tangible physical harm. In your view, tangibly harming people for things that don’t tangibly harm anyone is clearly wrong. I’m religious, and to me, physical harm is less important than spiritual harm, and that affects what I tolerate accordingly.

    As far as not objecting to people’s “beliefs and behaviors by themselves or with consenting, informed members of their society”, how far does that go? For example, suppose you and I were to reach an agreement by which you would perform some service for me, and I’d pay you two dollars per hour in exchange. This is certainly an activity done only by informed, consenting adults, and doesn’t affect anyone else at all, but it’s illegal in most developed nations.

    Or even more extreme, suppose that the two of us have a dispute, and we agree amongst ourselves that we’ll resolve it by duel. Pistols at dawn, last man alive wins. Again, informed and consenting adults, doesn’t affect anyone else, but universally banned. The winner might get life in prison or death. If you like, you can assume we’re homeless people with no friends, family, or possessions, in this example or the previous one, to keep things clear.

    If you think those are both fine, then you’re consistent, I’ll give you that. I find a lot of liberals tend to invoke this kind of libertarian rhetoric on social issues but ignore it for economic issues, though, while conservatives do the reverse. I’m guessing that it’s more likely your real objection to banning sodomy (for instance) isn’t that the activity is between informed, consenting adults, but just that it’s innocuous from a secular humanist perspective, and the only reasons for banning it are religious. Could be wrong.

    Finally, of course, I don’t advocate harassment. Harassment is illegal, after all. But we make a lot of choices that affect others in our day-to-day lives. We choose what to buy, where to buy it from, who to help, who to talk to, what to talk about, what to do in our spare time. In the course of making these choices, we can try to promote what we think is right and benefit those who support it, while discouraging what we think is wrong and disadvantaging those who support it.

    We can buy from merchants and companies that we think do the right thing, and avoid those who do the wrong thing. Befriend good people, avoid bad people. Object when someone says or does objectionable things. All the little stuff that, when enough people do it, can make a difference. Everyone does this to some degree, and it’s not intrinsically right or wrong. It’s as moral or immoral as the goals it tries to attain.

  5. (Yeah, I realize the irony of pointlessly arguing with you about a blog post where you encourage people not to pointlessly argue so much. Oh well. You know me.)

  6. It’s taken in the spirit intended, Aryeh. :)

    [And I’ll happily acknowledge that plenty of my opinions and beliefs are _not_ well thought-out or fully consistent, though I try to at least keep in mind that there are things I don’t know or may just have so wildly little experience of that I’m sure I spout useless glurge at times!]

    From the libertarian secular humanist point of view ;) any of things things can get fuzzy when we end up balancing whether harm is direct or indirect, whether consent is really there, etc. A dueller’s death will likely harm their friends and family more than they realize; the guy taking the below-minimum-wage job may be being coerced into taking a bad deal which will harm him and his family worse than he thinks, etc.

    I’m definitely not going to claim to always have the right answer, but I feel like I’m on the right road if I can at least acknowledge that there’s a range of fuzziness, and kinda see what end of it I think I’m going to come down on. Sometimes it’s clearer, sometimes it’s not, and sometimes we’re definitely not going to agree!

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