On effective compassionate criticism over ridicule

Continuing the discussion from On the fundamental tensions around money and its place in society:

I share this view, this inclination to want harmful behavior to be socially unacceptable and embarrassing — whatever discourages the behavior… and I recognize the argument from many angles, including Kwame Anthony Appiah’s focus on honor (in his telling, the ends of dueling, slavery, and foot-binding and so on all came when they become dishonorable targets of ridicule instead of seen as honorable).

But more recently, I was struck by the deeper compassionate example of Fred Rogers validating the inner-strength of an aggressive young boy:

“…I just knew that whenever you see a little boy carrying something like that, it means that he wants to show people that he’s strong on the outside. I just wanted to let him know that he was strong on the inside, too. And so that’s what I told him. I said, ‘Do you know that you’re strong on the inside, too?’ Maybe it was something he needed to hear.”

This is such a flip of the ridicule-the-braggart approach. Instead of going from “you’re driving a big SUV” (or to make more Snowdrift-relevant: “you’re hoarding money” or “you’re being restrictive around your code or art etc in order to gain profit and power over others and refuse to share ideas”) and then wanting to ridicule, belittle, mock that behavior, the Fred Rogers model is to see the strength and concerns and fears and honor them in a sense. If people do these behaviors out of fear (of inadequacy, of not being accepted or successful, or whatever), are we going to get them to stop the harmful behavior by make them feel worse and more scared or by showing them acceptance (in terms of deep-down humanity) and reassure them that they are okay?

I suppose it varies by different situations. Some people aren’t compensating for something, they are just being careless or are doing something to amplify their standing because it really is true that the harmful activity gets them honor and rewards. We certainly need consciousness-raising and to change norms about what activities are acceptable and which are honored rather than shamed. Yet for cases where it’s a matter of someone compensating for something, helping them feel better and accepted is probably the best approach. We certainly see a lot of disaffected people today who might channel their feelings in counterproductive ways, and if they are just shamed, they are liable to get more dangerous and harmful.

To bring this back to Snowdrift specifically, we should consider reframing any negative, critical judgments about proprietary software or other club goods and see if it can be as or more effective to focus on how great it can be to have public goods effectively supported.

Yeah, you’re right ; positivity is probably both morally superior and more efficient (thinking about reactance here).

And maybe SUV owners just need a hug.

I think it would also be useful to try to create some form of social gratification when someone donates to SnowDrift. I’m thinking images for social networks, like banners and profile pictures.

The idea here is mostly to aim for some form of contagion, starting with tightly-knit FOSS-enthusiast communities, such as the ones we can find on Mastodon.

1 Appreciation

Yes indeed, and there’s always been a tension between doing outreach when things are rough versus trying to get everything in place nicely first — yet lacking support and resources to do so well.

FWIW, my concern about healthy engagement has been an overriding factor through the entire project. That said, I have learned a lot and continue to do so. I have certainly had my share of critical, negativity toward the things I see as problems. Overall though, I have been focusing on healthy communication front-and-center. What that looked like in practice is that when we had a summer intern helping with Haskell development way back in 2014, I ended up directing him toward improving some things in our internal communication tools — stuff related to my ideas about restorative-justice and honor and codes-of-conduct. Similar to the Fred Rogers reference, I was focused on cutting off negative drama as soon as possible without the blunt tools of just blocking people or threatening with blocks. I wanted every problem post to be able to get flagged with specific feedback and temporarily hidden while the poster would be prompted to edit and practice better communication. We ended up getting an initial version of that in place instead of finishing a working crowdmatching implementation.

I have since significantly developed my understanding of what I see as optimal communication and codes-of-conduct and more. I actually want to overhaul our CoC to take it to the next level (that’s a whole other big topic I won’t get into here). I’m happy to say that we did several things in a good direction in how we set up Discourse, and while I have complaints about it, it’s so much better than trying to make our own in-house communication stuff. I never wanted to do any wheel reinventing, we just were not satisfied with any of the tools originally. Back in 2014, nobody even had multiple reactions as a common thing online. I had this idea of having individual posts be taggable and each tag could be up-voted and down-voted. At that time, when I talked about it, people mostly didn’t even know what I meant or why it mattered. Finally, something like this is more common now, though it uses emoji instead of text tags.

My emphasis on these topics from the beginning has certainly had both positive and negative effects for the project. It set out the sort of community and values we would have even from a time when it was rare for projects to have codes of conduct (and still, almost none have restorative-style ones, most codes-of-conduct are either weak “be nice” statements or hardline “these are the things we’ll ban you for” lists, to be a bit unfairly simplistic in a generalization). All this focus has taken limited time and energy away from the core focus on funding coordination, yet I still think it’s essential that we have a good way of working together along with getting everyone to coordinate in the first place.

1 Appreciation

I am still unsatisfied with the tools at hands.

To me, codes of conduct and moderation are unfair, because the founders of a project get all the power to decide and everyone has to abide by their rules. And some discussions might be closed because a moderator thinks there is too much negativity, although both participants would like to get to a conclusion.

Scuttlebutt seems to be the only solution for everyone to manage people the way they want, but to this date, I’m not aware of a client that is appropriate to create communities around a topic in the structured way a software like Discourse does.

Aether is another alternative : it behaves kind of like Reddit, and the moderators are elected, but it lacks the possibility to add images and videos.

I think there might be a way to use Discourse in a way to let discussions come to a conclusion (which means not closing them), without a thread popping on the homepage. Something like putting the thread in a special “discussions gone too heated” category, which posts would not display under the “Latest” part of the homepage, so as not to annoy people who are not interested in the discussion.

That’s not the case if a project is cooperatively governed. Rules get updated, and the community can make that happen.

The ideal systems aren’t limited to closing or full-public. Even here at Discourse, a topic can be moved to private messages, moved to a different topic but still public, moved to a restricted category (where only users with certain trust-level can see it), and other options could be added in principle.

So yes, despite imperfections of all sorts, Discourse already is capable of a lot. The challenge is mostly around the social norms, people understanding the value of using these tools well, not seeing all moderation as threatening impositions of power.

This topic, compassion, constructive criticism, effective honorable restorative conduct approaches… this has been a top focus of mine since starting Snowdrift.coop and before. I am finally now synthesizing a massive updated framework for it all based on the best resources I found, and I’m not fording it into being part of Snowdrift but making it a separate thing. I hope to have a first draft enough for people to engage and contribute within some months from now.