The unrespecting gentleman

I feel it is in its place to comment on the Open Respect initiative by Jono Bacon, because I believe that Jono has all the right intentions - but there are some concepts in this which are problematic.
The essence of Open Respect is to encourage an exchange of ideas and opinions in, to quote, a respectful manner.

First, Jono’s statement:

  • Respect is not judging people based upon their genetic or social attributes, but instead the quality and content of their discourse.
  • Respect is not just civility in communication, but also respecting other people for making their own choices, even if you disagree with them.
  • Respect is sharing opinions so a mutual understanding of principles is understood, but then giving others the freedom to pursue their own paths without fear of persecution by those who have made different decisions or have different definitions of freedom and openness.
  • Respect is engaging in honest, open and polite debate with the goal of enriching each others perspectives, not for the purpose of proving each wrong.
  • Respect is understanding that others often pour their heart and souls into their work, and being sensitive of this emotional connection to their work, particularly in times of critique


Now, the issue he is addressing here and in a previous blog post is as old as debate itself, but is perhaps - probably - aggravated by the internet troll mentality, the online literary equivalent of road rage; some issues simply inflame people. Many reasons for this, and I could discuss that as well and get flamed to a crisp.
Part of what makes this particular initiative problematic is that respect is actually ambiguous, as is made clear in the responses to his blogpost. An example of this is a comment by Fab, known by listeners of the Linux Outlaws podcast; Fab comments that in his view, respect is something you earn. And I dare say that when Jono uses the term, he talks about respectful behavior in the sense of politeness. What he does not address is the fact that people who do not have a civil tone in a debate, online or personally, simply do not respect the person they talk to. As in, they feel a personal disrespect for the person they are debating with.

Frankly, I hear a lot of voices on the net - people I simply do not have any respect for. People I think are wrong in their interpretations, naïve in their views and repulsive in their morals. But what is that to me? It is, of course, the dilemma of a gentleman that one of the most uncivilized things to do is telling people they are impolite.

When there is a debate, criticizing people has nothing to do with respect, and I find it clutters things to bring that up. I write this piece to say that Jono is going about this the wrong way - partly because I believe such an initiative is futile, whatever the intentions, partly because I find his choice of title unfortunate - but at the same time, I have a personal respect for Jono for the work with Lugradio and for doing his Severed Fifth project to draw some conclusions about the strength of Creative Commons and the community around his music. And so, a critique would be the decent thing to do, because that is part of the debate.

It is, of course, a question of basic decency. It is a question of addressing a debate in a civilized fashion. I would want to do so to people I hold in great esteem, and I would want to do so with people in whom I find little to respect. In the end, it is a question of respect - for yourself. And one would do well to consider when a debate is actually needed; often enough, these debates can look like the unstoppable heading towards the immovable with no sort of agreement on the horizon except, in the very best of cases, agreeing to disagree.

And why do I find the futile? Consider a sign beside a trashcan saying “Please put trash in the trashcan”. My old workplace was always cluttered with such signs until I tore them all down. Those who will be civilized about it will be civilized about it - is a sign going to make any difference to the others? I feel that Jono has made a digital signpost trying to ask people not to be unpleasant. The results are predictable.

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