User:ThatPeskyCommoner/Essay on civility

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Civility for Wiki-Grown-ups and above[edit]

If you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs, and blaming it on you …

If—, Rudyard Kipling

Imagine yourself in an emergency: there's been an accident, people are dying around you, but you've somehow come through unscathed - and you have the medical training to be able to help these people! You have to take control of the incident to avoid loss of life, and you can't save everyone alone. You have to delegate, often roping-in people who haven't a clue and doing some extremely rapid on-the-job training for them. It's not only important to keep your cool here, it's absolutely vital that you do so. If you can't keep your wits about you, people die.

Could you save people in that situation? Could you delegate to, and work with, nervous and worried people who may not completely know what they're doing, but want to do something? If you're intelligent and self-disciplined enough to be able to function under circumstances like that, then yes, you're qualified to keep your cool in an online environment when someone does something you don't like.

This skill, this ability to stay controlled in the face of chaos, can be learned. It can be self-taught. And it can be taught to others. Setting the best possible example that you can helps others to retain their cool as well. Self-control is almost as contagious as rampant incivility.

A free-for-all helps nobody

Intransigent editors who just don't seem to be able to understand the importance of quality content or any other commonly-encountered problem are a genuine problem; the thing is, however, that resorting to incivility doesn't actually improve their levels of understanding in any way. Yes, it's tempting to think that if you just yell loud enough, they'll get the hint. And sometimes even if you know that won't work, you want to yell anyway, because for heaven's sake, they're being frustrating, and surely they must know they're doing it!

Let me give some background of my real life, where I encountered this issue pretty regularly: I was full time carer for a frail elderly parent with rapidly progressing dementia. Sometimes I got seriously frustrated. Sometimes - just sometimes - I lost it (I know perfectly well that "which part of 'Stand up' did you not understand?" when my parent was doing their utmost to throw themselves on the floor isn't going to make them cooperate, but the words just come out anyway). In situations where there is a "real and present danger", some snark is understandable. (Note, though, that "real and present danger" includes "significant risk to life or limb" but does not include "a significant risk that the integrity of an article may be compromised".) "Justifiable self-defence" is a defence for when someone is coming at you with a knife - and even then, it's strictly limited! It's not a defence for when someone is coming at you with some idiocy or stubbornness or incivility. The only constructive way to deal with "losing it", really (in the absence of a real and present danger), is to walk away for a while.

Walking away is the best coping mechanism not only when you're caring for a dementia patient (and is actively recommended by dementia-care societies), but also when you're, say, trying to improve a crappy Wikipedia article or deal with a really frustrating editor. An individual editor is not - cannot be - solely responsible for the content of any one article. You can't, and you don't need to, shoulder that burden alone, because when you're crushed under a burden that you think only you are trying to carry, it can be hard on both morale and temper. Let someone else take over with the explanations while you get your cool back. Work on a different article, if you can't hold in the desire to tell someone how stupid they are. And, no matter how much baiting and total-failure-to-understand you encounter, you can choose to become "the editor who can't be baited". You are never, ever, ever going to encounter an un-blockable editor who can be as intransigently and infuriatingly stubborn as a previously-extremely-intelligent person with rapidly progressing dementia. Trust me on this.


Incivility is catching!

When you're caring for a dementia patient, you're not just dealing with a temporarily problematic newbie (or experienced editor) who remains capable of learning. It's a 12-hour shift, every day (and the other 12 hours on emergency back-up call), with the same problems getting worse every day, and further problems being added every day, without any possibility of improvement. And yet you can - I promise, you can! - still keep your cool under virtually all circumstances, and walk temporarily away when it really gets to you. Even after a year without a single day off.

Remember this is an encyclopedia. It's only an encyclopedia. I'm not saying quality isn't important - of course I'm not! But we have to maintain perspective - it helps us maintain civility. Nothing that happens here that isn't extreme vandalism on (for example) a BLP (and pretty much instantly revertible and subsequently blockable) is ever going to have the same potential danger as a frail person attempting to hurl themselves on the floor in a fit of pique whilst standing close to the top of the staircase. Nothing.

In my strange and varied background I've been involved in rehabilitating individuals of several species of animals with some behaviour problems. You have to be flexible, depending on your animal. A truly vicious cat you can be directly confrontational and dominant with, to good effect. Same goes for a dog. But attempting the same technique with half a ton of horse is unwise. And adopting an aggressive and confrontational approach with an eight-foot boa constrictor with "behavioural issues" is suicidally insane, unless you are armed with a carving knife, a perfect aim, and lighting-fast reflexes. That is a totally avoidable "kill or die" situation, and has nothing to do with rehabilitation.

Experienced editors, with a track record of producing quality content, should always be the very best example that we have of unflappable civility. Otherwise we encourage the next generation of Wikipedians to be uncivil. Experienced and intelligent editors are role-models, and newbies with any degree of ambition will strive to fit in with the behavior that is modeled to them. It's what humans do - try to become part of the group by taking on the group's characteristics. (Imagine a new editor seeing someone being rude and thinking, "This is how grown-ups behave, this is how I have to behave in order to be considered a Wiki-Grown-up. All the really experienced and intelligent editors are uncivil. If I want to look like a really experienced and intelligent editor, I have to be uncivil, too.")

A time is coming when we will each have to choose between doing what is right, and doing what is easy.

Dumbledore, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. (Rowling, J.K.)

Don't ever use someone else's incivility as an excuse for being uncivil; that's an eye-for-an-eye and tooth-for-a-tooth situation where everyone ends up blind and toothless. Don't ever fall for the temptation of being dragged down to a lower standard by someone who's not as good as you. Instead, see if you can give people a hand up to improve their own standards. Or walk away.

Make the choice to do what is right.