Down To Business: Why Are Higher Standards Of Conduct So Threatening To People?
When Tim O'Reilly calls for civility in the form of a voluntary blogging code of conduct, you'd think, judging from the backlash, that he'd proposed martial law, hit squads, and tribunals.
Our society's capacity to rationalize and defend bad behavior is infinitely scalable. Radio host Don Imus lobs racially tinged insults at the players on a women's college basketball team, and then the apologists tell us what a charitable guy Imus really is and, regardless, how these kinds of cheap shots are just par for the discourse anyway. Hewlett-Packard's board is found to have spied on certain directors and journalists, accessing their phone records and sifting through their garbage, and after a flurry of public acrimony and investigation, the affair is swept under the rug. IT executives who command multimillion-dollar budgets accept gifts, lavish dinners, and other swag from prospective and current vendors, and such dealings are dismissed as standard business entertainment. ("Grow up," one reader chided us after we wrote a story last year on questionable practices at Morgan Stanley.)
On the Web, forum and blog posts are the cyberequivalent of road rage--laced with profanity, insults, and intimidation. But when an industry figure--Web 2.0 maven Tim O'Reilly--calls for civility in the form of a voluntary blogging code of conduct, you'd think, judging from the backlash, that he'd proposed martial law, hit squads, and tribunals. One blogger blasted the idea as "the new Gestapo." Most cried censorship.
A blog on the proposed code by my colleague Alice LaPlante drew this response (among many): "Women did not get equal rights from politely talking to men--they got equal rights because they stood up for themselves and forcefully demanded them. Blacks did not get equal rights from politely talking to whites--they got equal rights because they stood up for themselves and forcefully demanded them. Were the Internet around in either of those times, you can bet the powers that be would have done everything to silence those arguments as well." By that reasoning, I'm surprised the writer didn't also quote Voltaire thusly: "I may not agree with what you say, but I'll defend to the death your right to say it in the filthiest, most degrading, most juvenile, least productive way possible."
Sorry, but basic civility isn't an affront to the legacies of Susan B. Anthony and Martin Luther King Jr. Cleaning up the incessant "f" bombs and mindless, thoughtless name-calling and threats that pollute the blogosphere (and electronic discourse more generally) "silences" no one's point of view. In fact, adhering to basic standards of comportment elevates one's point of view.
And no one is forcing bloggers to do anything here. Is it so antithetical to our democratic ideals to suggest that we act with dignity? Many sites already post their own codes of conduct; what's wrong with an industry thought leader rallying others around some guiding principles?
The "Civility Enforced" badge O'Reilly proposes for blog sites that abide by his code, while a tad hokey, isn't tantamount to acceding to an SEC audit. He's simply encouraging bloggers to act like grown-ups and blog sites to hold their participants to a higher standard of dialogue. We need to hold everyone to those standards, whether the interaction is in e-mail, on intranets, on conference calls, or in face-to-face meetings.
Why does all this matter? If you need a commercial reason, consider that e-mail and other electronic communications are discovered in 90% of all corporate litigation. Companies are now monitoring those communications, sometimes in real time, for activity that would suggest fraud, harassment, regulatory malfeasance, leakage of trade secrets, and other transgressions.
But put the commercial reasons aside. Acting decently matters because decency matters. Two weeks ago, we told the story of Jim Gray, the renowned Microsoft researcher and Turing Award winner lost at sea. While Gray was one of the great technology intellects of our time, people remember him more for his decency and modesty, for his insistence on doing what's right. Few remember the smart asses (er, alecks), no matter how smart they think they are.
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