"When we place respect at the center of our interactions, we enrich our lives, discover new ways of thinking, and expand our horizons with new ideas and experiences. When we remove this respect, our conversations suffer, which in turn makes our community suffer, and this ultimately risks our ability to bring our message of freedom and openness to others."
Words to live by, no doubt.
Jono asked if I'd be interested in becoming an "OpenRespect Advocate", which means my name would appear on the website in support of the text and I would generally go and tell others about it to spread the meme and support for it. Not entirely unlike what I just did here, I suppose. However, I declined to sign on as an advocate of OpenRespect. Horrors!
Wait .. what? Didn't I just use the phrase "words to live by" right before "I declined"? *confused look*
Simply put, here's how I feel about it: the statement is great for people within a given community (any given community), but I do not believe it to be applicable between communities as written. With something like respect, if you set up a set of non-applicable aspirations, it will only cause more problems than it solves.
It's perhaps quite counter-intuitive that promoting respect could result in anything but good things, but it comes down to what community is, how respect works within that context and the assertion that everyone who is "creating software, content, and culture that is freely available for others to share, enjoy and enrich their lives" is part of a single community. Are we?
Community can be described from the individual's point of view as a combination of membership, influence, integration, fulfillment of need and shared emotional connection. This is not my formulation: it's what the social scientists have told us. There's a nice article about the sense of community on Wikipedia, if you're interested.
This means that despite the fact that I am most certainly involved in creating artifacts of Free culture and that I personally identify as being part of a few communities that have Free culture as a central concept, I am still unable to state that I am a member, have influence in or am influenced by, am integrated into or share an emotional connection with the vast majority of Free culture communities out there. Why is that?
Community is a deeply valuable thing. It's valuable because it is based on a richness of investment that takes the form of trading of goods between people that are both tangible and intangible. The key word there is investment, aka "value". Like most resources in my life, I only have so much to invest and therefore I can only truly be part of so many communities. I can slap my name on as many Free culture products as I wish, but I'll still only truly be a part of a small number of communities.
Hold on, though! At the same time, I do deeply sympathize with other Free culture communities and (nearly) universally empathize with their efforts and goals. This is because there are commonalities between these communities. Jono hints at this when he says, "Together we believe that freedom is good. We believe it helps people do good things, make better choices, and lead safer and more secure lives." It is tempting to try and paper over boundaries between communities by emphasizing such commonalities. This does not, however, change the reality that there are many different communities. Empathizing with commonalities is not nearly the same thing as community.
Why does that matter? Here are some reasons I can offer:
- Respect is communicated and earned in culturally specific ways
- Assumed respect fails where earned respect holds up
- Respect does not actually equate to better treatment
- Respect operates under different assumptions within a community versus between communities
Let's drill down a bit into each of those assertions.
Respect is Cultural
I've traveled through a fairly significant number of cultures, and lived for periods of time in a few different ones. One thing I learned in doing so is that people are more alike than different. I also learned that culture changes how we communicate just about everything, including respect. It also influences how we gain respect and display the things that we do or have that earn us that respect.
One of my favorite personal stories about this involves sitting a table discussing business issues with a German fellow and some North Americans. Both started demonstrating their respect for each other in conversation, but in short order the German had been too blunt for the Americans in sharing his viewpoint on the topic at hand and a dispute arose because of it. My German friend was actually acting out of his sense of respect for the others at the table: he felt they deserved only his true feelings on it, and he delivered them openly without any emotionality behind it, just the facts. My American friends were shocked by this as "obviously" he couldn't muster the basic courtesies anyone who had a shred of respect and dignity would! They told him so, though as only (at least in my experience) a good American can. ;) This was deeply shocking to my German friend at the table. Who was not showing respect to whom? Both thought the other party wasn't. Truth is, both were trying to, but culture got in the way.
I've also traveled around the Free software ecosystem quite a bit and to a lesser extent the larger Free culture world. I've come in contact with various communities within those spheres and have found that the cultures in those communities are just as varied, and entrenched, as the geographical ones. Some are soft and put listening first and foremost; some relish creative flair above all else; some respect hard criticism; some demand rigor while others look for nuance; some come together and have a big fight before embracing each other again (often "in their own way") over issues that other communities will sit back and become introspective over instead. There is huge variance, and this has led me to realize that there is huge variance in what respect means between these communities. You earn it differently, you display it differently, you act based on your respect differently depending on the community.
So asking for respect between people of random communities doesn't work very well unless you first step back and define what is meant by that respect. Jono's definitions include the highly cultural subjective terms "quality and content of discourse", "civility", "sharing", "persecution", "honest", "polite", "sensitive" .. all highly concepts whose definitions are highly cultural.
Therefore within any given community, I think what Jono wrote is excellent material. Unfortunately, we are not one culturally homogenous community, we are many communities with a high degree of commonality. Unfortunately, it often turns out that communities with large amounts of similarity often end up polarizing around their differences much more so that people from communities with larger differences. Democrats and Republicans in the USA are the example de jour. It is glib to hope, due to the cultural underpinnings of respect, that urging people towards the abstract notion of respect is enough.
Assumed Respect is to Earned Respect as Glass is to Plexiglass
When I meet someone from the Free culture ecosystem, I assume a level of immediate respect about them. This is because I know we have similarities and commonalities due to our expressed interests in Free culture. So there is an immediate affordance of respect and understanding, something I certainly don't immediately feel to someone who is, for instance, openly lobbying for software patents. This respect, however, it speculative: I am speculating that there is reason to respect this person because of the commonalities, even though I don't know many specifics. Speculative respect is a cheap commodity, however, and like a glass window can be broken fairly easily. (Something I used to specialize in as a child. ;)
It is understandable why it is this way: there is no real foundation for the respect, and so if there is a hint that the assumption is wrong, the feeling of respect can quite quickly turn to feelings of betrayal. We rarely feel we have misidentified the other person, rather we tend to assume they misrepresented themselves. This often feels like being lied to, and that calls up feelings similar to those engendered by betrayal. I've witnessed people being treated absolutely horribly as result of this phenomenon.
If we remove the cultural underpinnings of respect and with it an earned foundation for that respect, we are left with only assumed respect.
Respect that is earned through culturally relevant means (e.g. specific actions, assets or behaviors) is much, much stronger. It can withstand misunderstandings and even actual instances of betrayal. It can give two aggrieved parties the opportunity to put aside other feelings and readdress their relationship, work through issues. As such, it is an amazingly powerful mechanism by which to modify our behavior to one another, much as Jono describes in his OpenRespect statement.
To think, however, that we can use assumed respect in the same manner is a false hope. The problem comes if and when it fails to prevent a problem due to its brittle nature. At that point, we then deal with the overly negative feelings that may never have existed if we didn't start with the required assumption of respect. It is therefore my experience that when bringing people together from different communities to encourage the creation of respect rather than ask for the assumption of it. Mutual respect is indeed always the goal, but without the fabric of common community and its culture to hold it together, one is served well to start a step back from there.
Respect is a modifier, but in which direction?
Respect (or lack thereof) moderates behavior, there is no doubt about that. How it does so is dependent on the relationship between the people involved, however. Put another way, the effects of respect on interactions is only predictable if given the context of the involved parties.
For instance, I may respect an opponent that I face off against in a game, but that may result in me playing harder and with a more ruthless strategy against them than I would against someone whose skills I respect less. In fact, in situations where there is competition at play, feelings of empathy are more of a powerful way to get equitable behavior out of people than respect is.
Let's be honest with ourselves here: there are many instances where Free culture communities compete with each other. The competition can be for monetary resources at the most crude level, but often they involve competition for minds, hearts, attention and "superior" results (which is another qualitative, culturally dependent term). As such, encouraging respect as the driver in such situations may not lead to more equitable behavior at all.
I have seen this time and time again in the Free software desktop world, where one project will use highly political means to attempt to "get one over" on another project. For some projects, this becomes the modus operandi for dealing with other projects (other in general or just for specific "outsider" projects). The lack of empathy between the communities coupled with a deep respect for the capabilities of those same communities has led to many unnecessary and, quite frankly, stupid struggles. I have a whole bag of fun GNOME and KDE stories that follow that plot line. We've gotten quite a bit better over the years, though sometimes old demons raise their heads, and those advances have come through a mix of empathy building exercises and appeals to self-interest by making the argument for "only together we can". Respect hasn't really been a positive factor, nor has it been lacking. There have been lots of polite, respectful conversations and agreements and lots of mutual admiration for various achievements in times when the results or actions ended up not being equitable.
What I'm trying to say is that respect is an important thing, but it's not enough on its own. It is often not even useful as a primary driver. Empathy, shared assumptions, protocols to build the interactions we seek among other tools are as or more important.
Respect, Inter- versus Intra-community
I immigrated on the day I turned 12 to a rather different community compared to the one I had lived in up until then. I went from part of the visible majority (fair skinned people) in a stable middle class environment (rural West coast Canada) to being a visible minority (white in a predominantly Polynesian and Asian community) in a community with many struggles (drugs, gangs, violence, visible racism, visible poverty). Both communities I lived in had their dark sides, and both had their amazing sides. I feel privileged to this day to have been able to a part of both of those communities.
In both, respect was expected and in evidence everywhere one cared to look. But I learned something from being dropped into another community like that: I could not demonstrate my honest respect for others in my new community the way existing members of the community could to each other, and I couldn't use the mechanisms of respect from my old community verbatim in my new one. I was not yet part of their community, so trying to behave as if I were by adopting their affectations immediately was perceived as not being genuine; indeed, it would be mere mimicry. Those who attempted this were treated poorly. At the same time, my cultural respect cues were just plain confusing from their cultural perspective, to the point that I (seriously!) almost got beat up a few times simply for asking a polite Canadian "Pardon me?" when I didn't understand what someone else had said.
This was my first brush with respect as a foreigner in a community. My strategy became to present myself using my "natural" respect mechanisms from Canada, while making it clear that this was what I was doing. This lives on in my habit of often introducing myself as "Aaron, from Canada" when I meet people abroad. It allows me to communicate in a genuine way, while letting the others know that while it will come across as quite honest it may also seem a bit odd to them due to cultural differences. If nothing else, it saved my teenage hide more than once and has gotten me into a few fun parties while traveling abroad. ;)
In my adult years, I've had the privilege of discussing these issues with people who do this professionally, people who work as international ambassadors, cultural specialists with the U.N. Their insights are far more fascinating, profound and deep than my "down home" offering above, but resonate with me because I often hear similarities to my own experience: you have to come from a genuine place, but you also have to know it's going to get lost in translation to some extent and prepare for that.
So it is that building and effectively demonstrating respect between communities is a very different experience with a very different language and mechanism behind it than building respect between members of an existing community. Given that Free culture does not have one monolithic community, we need to acknowledge that and prepare ourselves for it. Oversimplifications will fail us and lead to disappointments that lead to fissures that are very hard to mend.
(I could also go on about our lack of skilled ambassadors and the scary job some of us do when we pretend to do that kind of work between F/OSS projects ... but I won't do so here. :)
This begs the question: should we strive to become one big community, then, with one big set of cultural standards? This turns out to be a useless question to ask because it is not be possible to achieve such a monoculture.
Whether or not a single culture would be useful, it is not attainable if we are large and successful. Community evolves due to interaction over time, and that evolution causes drift in culture and values that are not "wrong" relative to each other but which are (usually) merely different ways of interacting with the same issues. We would have to all start working together on near-daily basis to counteract that, and that's simply impossible due to the basic logistics that come with the scales we deal with. Success begets scale, and scale begets cultural drift: there are too many people working on too many very different kinds of projects in too many different interest areas to build a single community. This also happens to be amplified by the decentralized mechanisms that drive Free culture at its core.
We can certainly celebrate our commonalities, but we will probably never have a single common culture or community. We can form agreements and draft papers together (which OpenRespect could be a good start to, in my humble opinion, if it is evolved further), but that doesn't engage the spirit of individuals (which is what community does). Instead, it relies on the intellect of groups. This is not to cheapen it in the least, just to put it into a realistic frame.
So what about OpenRespect?
Community agreement and coherence isn't a simple topic, and global agreement even less so. They are, however, both very important ones. I applaud Jono for tackling it so directly, and I have to give him some mad respect ;) for that. I do think that to be a useful tool, versus one that will set up false situations and lay land mines despite good intentions, it needs to be evolved considerably.
If what was there was simply refined to talk about "within a given community", it would probably work as-is, but I don't think that's what Jono is after. I get the impression that he wants to see us "all just get along" and that is something I think we could really use. To accomplish that, OpenRespect would need to take in the realities of interaction between disparate communities.
OpenRespect talks about sharing and debate, but listening with openness, without judgment and engaging in forms of communication other than debate (which is conflict centric) are at best hiding between the cracks.
There is a mention of honesty in debate, but the undermining effect of half-truths, convenient positioning and other tactics that undermine community relations outside of debate are not covered at all, despite being a key to building as well as demonstrating respect.
Today many communities, including both KDE and Ubuntu, have codes of conduct that are culturally relevant and which emphasizes mechanisms of respect as part of their core tenets. In fact, they tend to be documentary of the existing cultural norms and expectations rather than prescriptive. For OpenRespect to add to that conversation and bring real additional value, it needs to be similarly documentary rather than perscriptive and what it should describe, at least in my opinion, is what it takes to bridge between communities.
OpenRespect could even house both: a template for community codes of conduct that have a strong basis in mutual respect as well as a realistic framework for a commitment that disparate communities can buy into to good effect. Those are not the same documents, however, even if they are complimentary. They are also documents that are probably best drafted not on our own, but with the aid of people who live and breath community bridging as their profession and passion who can bring profound understandings that we can only poke at in the dark with sticks.
I'd be proud to advocate such an achievement.
With much love,
including to Jono and his effort thus far with OpenRespect,
coupled with and tempered by a deep care for this topic,