Wikipedia:Two wrongs don't make a right
This is an essay on conduct policy.
It contains the advice or opinions of one or more Wikipedia contributors. This page is not an encyclopedia article, nor is it one of Wikipedia's policies or guidelines, as it has not been thoroughly vetted by the community. Some essays represent widespread norms; others only represent minority viewpoints.
|This page in a nutshell: Arguing that your accuser has done something wrong does not get you off the hook.|
The proverb "two wrongs don't make a right" highlights the illogic of claiming innocence because of someone else's bad behavior. Such excuses are a form of whataboutism and a discrediting tactic. Left unchallenged they can lead to a morass of alternative facts in which the basic principles of right and wrong are obscured – this is often the intended result.
We would all like to believe that it's an obvious lesson we learned during childhood, and that we are unlikely to be fooled by it as adults. Nonetheless, Wikipedia editors will sometimes resort to it as a tactic to evade accountability in dispute resolution, by deflecting attention away from their own conduct to the conduct of their accusers. Whenever such a tactic is used, it's important to recognize it for what it is, and nip it in the bud.
If you find yourself accused of having done something wrong on Wikipedia, the best way to defend yourself is to explain, calmly and factually, what you actually did and why it was not a violation – or to acknowledge a mistake and commit to not doing it again. Likewise, if you are coming to another editor's defense, focus on whatever the accusation was. This is the best way to resolve the dispute promptly and fairly.
The wrong way to respond to such situations is to disregard the accusation, and focus instead on things that the accuser has done. Ask yourself whether you are in fact arguing that two wrongs do make a right, and if the answer is "yes", rethink your approach before you hit "save". It can be very tempting in the heat of a dispute to point the finger at someone else, but it's important to resist the temptation. Even if the accuser is at fault in some way, the first order of business when defending yourself or someone else is to address the accusation; you can subsequently fault the accuser, but you will have more credibility if you have first demonstrated your own innocence.
Unfortunately, it is all too common at venues like WP:ANI and WP:AE for accused editors and their defenders to engage in this form of deflection. This practice generates walls of text, but rarely sheds light on what really happened. It often leads to results that no one is happy with.
It's important for editors and administrators to be alert to such tactics, and to act quickly to get the discussion back on track. Ask yourself whether the supposed "defense" genuinely demonstrates that the accusation was untrue, or whether it skirts the original accusation by, instead, making new accusations. If the latter, don't get sucked into the distraction. In particular, don't get sidetracked by trying to detail a rebuttal to the off-topic accusations, because that will in turn lead to a rebuttal of your rebuttal, and the cycle will continue back and forth until the actual matter at hand has been forgotten. Often, the best response is to state what the original issue was, and to suggest that any new accusations should, instead, be opened in a new thread. (Editors making frivolous two-wrongs arguments often lose interest when asked to think through accusations that will have to stand on their own.) If those new accusations do prove to have merit, a new discussion that focuses on them will assure that they get the proper result.
The boomerang test
On the other hand, there is a longstanding recognition in the Wikipedia community that there is such a thing as a boomerang in disputes about conduct. When someone raises a complaint about a problem for which they are the one at fault, they should expect the complaint to boomerang against them. So what's the difference between a justified boomerang and a baseless claim that two wrongs make a right?
The first part of the test for this is to ask whether or not the accusations in the original filing of the complaint have merit. If Editor 1 claims that Editor 2 did something wrong, ask whether the information at hand indicates that Editor 2 did, in fact, do something wrong. If the answer is no, then look at Editor 1's role. If it looks like neither of them really did anything wrong, then the complaint should probably be closed with no action. But if it looks like Editor 1 is really at fault, then it's probably time for a boomerang.
But what should happen when the answer is yes, Editor 2 does seem to have done something wrong? In any dispute, the conduct of all involved editors comes under examination, so Editor 1's conduct is still subject to review – making a complaint is never a shield against scrutiny of oneself. But if Editor 2 has done something wrong, then that fact stands on its own, and wrongdoing by the filing party does not shield the accused from scrutiny, either. Uninvolved editors and administrators should ask themselves whether or not the case has been made against Editor 2. If the case has been made, then Editor 2 should be treated accordingly.
The second part of the test is to ask whether or not the counter-accusations are straightforward. If Editor 2 and their defenders make accusations back at Editor 1, are those accusations straightforward and narrowly focused on conduct that occurred simultaneously with what Editor 2 did? Did Editor 1 bait Editor 2 into uncharacteristic conduct? If so, then it may make sense to deal with both parties at the same time, and a boomerang may be involved in part. But if the counter-accusations are complex and extend back to an earlier period of time, or if they are, on their face, only distantly related to the problem at hand, then it's time for some skepticism, and it may be best to insist that the counter-accusations be examined on their own in a separate complaint.
True boomerangs tend to be simple. It's obvious that the original accusation was made with unclean hands. But when there is a serious and substantive accusation, it is important to insist on focusing on that accusation. If it gets too complicated, don't fall prey to a wall of text. Instead, ask for a separate complaint for separate accusations. Two wrongs never make a right.