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,Â 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.