Comment on content, not on the contributor

July 11, 2012

Wikipedia has long fascinated me as a complex adaptive system.  The key component is that no one will adjudicate a content issue, that is for editors to resolve; however the system as a whole is constrained by rules of editor behaviour.   These are well summarised in [[WP:AGF]] and [[WP:NPA]].  The first requires you to assume good faith, the other forbids personal attacks.   This means that you can argue about the content, but you can't call those editors who disagree with you names.  The mantra in Wikipedia, that is oft stated to new editors is: Comment on content, not on the contributor.

This builds on a long standing tradition in debates in which an ad hominem argument (attacking the person rather than what they are saying (is also frowned on).  The problem is that a lot of people confuse the two and dislike any form of vigorous debate, confusing an assertive position with an aggressive attack. The worst  manifestation is when such a protagonist responds with a personal attack and feels they are justified by criticism of content that they find negative.   We've had that extensively with the main protagonist on the latest KM standards debate who is chronically confused on the point.

Now I think there are two types of people (possibly more) who make this error:

  • Firstly we have people who really dislike conflict of any nature.  They want all ideas to have equal value,  all opinions respected etc. etc.
  • Secondly we have people who are really uncomfortable with their position.  They either can't defend it, don't have the intelligence to understand the challenge or intensely dislike a pet position being challenged, so they lash out.

Now I can respect the first, although I think its weak and leads ultimately to despair and stagnation.  Also if you think like that you should not be putting forward controversial ideas.   The second I have little time for, and I feel St Paul's injunction to suffer fools gladly only really applies to innocence, not to protracted obduracy.  

We need dissent and debate for ideas to move forward, but it mustn't be personal.  Well maybe in extremes after a lot of provocation. One thinks of Winston Churchill who in response to Nancy Astor's “Sir, if you were my husband, I would give you poison” with ” “Madam, If I were your husband I would take it.”  When I created Cognitive Edge's Ritual Dissent method I was drawing on studies of indigenous decision making in which consensus is not the objective, but coherence of outcome is.  You get coherence and convergence if you allow and encourage rigorous dissent, if you try and suppress it you may get compliance, but it comes at the cost of complacency.

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