[WikiEN-l] Official proposes boycotting Wikipedia for sacrilegious act

Andrew Gray andrew.gray at dunelm.org.uk
Tue Feb 19 01:02:14 UTC 2008

[This gets long, and is mostly about general principles, but I hope it
explains why I find some of the rhetoric in this thread to be
counterproductive at best...]

On 17/02/2008, Screamer <scream at datascreamer.com> wrote:

>> What "the law" says or doesn't say has very little direct relevance to
>> what people get directly offended by. This is not a game of nomic, as
>> has been explained many times over.
>  I want you to clarify your post for context.

Summary: This isn't a logic puzzle, it's not a code of law, it's not a
scientific test, is my basic point. (Nomic is a marvellously geeky
game which is basically the paragon of "rules used to win arguments",
apologies if the allusion went astray)


Explanation: People are offended. This is, on the whole, a pretty
solid fact. We can quibble about how many of them there are and how
deeply they are offended; we can - and should - try to get a handle on
the idea of how representative they are of a wider population; but to
say "oh, they're not offended *really*" is obviously just going to
pour oil on troubled, er, flames.

What is tempting to a certain type of logical mind - us geeks fall
into this trap very often, I know the temptation myself, and I strive
to avoid it - is to try and explain (or argue, or propose) that if the
offended person just looks at it from a different angle, it might not
be offensive to them any more. This tends to backfire.

Sometimes, usually in trivial cases of miscommunication, this can work
("Sorry, I have a cold, what I said was..."). Most of the time, it
just comes off as either callous ("I don't see what you're complaining
about") or as arrogant ("well, *I'm* not offended...").

The worst approach, though, is to say "you're *wrong* to be offended,
because..." This is not just indicating you don't particularly care
about their complaint; it's directly attacking the grounds on which
they made it, and when those grounds are partly emotive (as they
certainly are in this case - it's religion!) it's effectively the same
as saying "you're wrong to have that emotional reaction" or "you're
wrong to think that".

For a start, it's - dare I say it - logically inconsistent! Emotional
responses are not in themselves logical; you don't decide to be
offended by a picture or a statement because you have checked The Laws
By Which You Abide and have confirmed that it falls into class five
and is not covered by exceptions c or d; you are offended because you
are used to thinking in a way that finds that sort of thing offensive.
Were there strict rules to start with, you have internalised them; you
don't debate the matter with yourself, or consult a checklist, you
just react viscerally. Oh, you can explain *why* you're offended by
contextualising it with those rules, but that's not quite the same
thing - and it certainly isn't exact. You can't disprove emotion.

(Secondly, it's offensive in and of itself. Every been told your
opinion is flat-out wrong on a matter of personal feelings? It doesn't
tend to make you well-disposed to agreeing with the other person, no
matter how clever the rest of their argument is...)

We're not automatons; we're big squishy bags of meat. We are thinking
beings with emotions and free will and irrational preferences and
habits and beliefs, *all* of us, and forgetting that is, in general
terms, a very bad thing for interpersonal relations. Especially in
large, sprawling, depersonalised online communities, like this one.


With me so far? Right, let's look back at this thread. We have things
like (and I quote directly):

"The basis for the opposition is unfounded"
"It's also internally contradictory"
"...their protest is a complete disregard for the basic logic of their
own position"
"...being contradictory and illogical ... mis-interpreting the tenets
of their own faith for strictly polemic reasons."
"...protesting in a general way that the image is offensive, but
trying to back that up by citing a law which doesn't apply"

...then we are, very basically, saying "I have disproved the assertion
that they use to justify being offended, and so they shouldn't be
offended, and so we can ignore them".


Yeah. This is not a good way to be thinking. We can say they are wrong
to wish us to *do something* (which is a perfectly valid position to
hold though I can't say I entirely agree) but we certainly shouldn't
be getting into the dangerous waters of saying they shouldn't be
offended, because the fact remains that they *are* offended, it is an
honestly held belief stemming from their interpretation of their
religious principles, and it isn't going away...

...and, perhaps most pragmatically, you never win an argument with a
believer by trying to tell them they don't know their own religion but
you do.

(I really do hope I am preaching to the crowd here - I know I've had
this sort of discussion before, in general terms)

- Andrew Gray
  andrew.gray at dunelm.org.uk

More information about the WikiEN-l mailing list