Civility: The “C” word Wikipedia needs

October 1, 2014

If you follow my tweets, you’ll know that September was a “fuck” filled month on Wikipedia. Scared off the word “cunt” for the time being, the angry guys — and yes, they’re mostly guys who use this kind of language — are falling back on an old favorite. These guys believe “civility” is impossible to define and therefore impossible to enforce on Wikipedia, even though there is a WP civility policy.

Of course, civility may be difficult to define, but there are certain behaviors that are easily identified as uncivil. Businesses do it all the time. It’s about creating a harassment-free work environment. In the United Kingdom, employers are responsible for preventing workplace harassment, which is against the law under the Equality Act of 2010. The United States has similar laws on harassment. And what do businesses do to ensure compliance with these laws? They create, teach, and enforce specific standards of behavior. And that’s what Wikipedia needs to do, specifically regarding the way language is used in its editing environment.

Everything that is good and bad in Wikipedia is in writing. Every agreement and disagreement is in writing. Every gesture of encouragement and act of resistance is written. And behind every article in Wikipedia are one or more “talk pages” full of argument. And not argument in the sense of a civil exchange of views for the purpose of exploring a subject or deciding an issue, but argument as the angry expression of differing opinions, often devolving into name-calling melees.

I’m still trying to wrap my brain around it, but a book I’m reading is helping a little. The Argument Culture, by sociolinguist Deborah Tannen. The book begins:

This is not another book about civility. ‘Civility’ suggests a superficial, pinky-in-the-air veneer of politeness spread thin over human relations like a layer of marmalade over toast.

(This is what I think a lot of the guys on Wikipedia think of when I use the word “civility.”)

This book is about a pervasive warlike atmosphere that makes us approach public dialogue, and just about anything we need to accomplish, as if it were a fight. It is a tendency in Western culture in general, and in the United States in particular, that has a long history and a deep, thick, and far-ranging root system. It has served us well in many ways but in recent years has become so exaggerated that it is getting in the way of solving our problems.

Tannen uses the word “agonism” to mean the automatic warlike stance that we often adopt to accomplish goals. And two chapters in her book jump out at me as a woman who has been editing on Wikipedia for over a year now: Chapter 6: “Boys Will Be Boys: Gender and Opposition”; and Chapter 9: “The Roots of Debate in Education and the Hope of Dialogue.” These chapters go a long way toward helping me to understand the editing culture on Wikipedia in light of two facts: the first is that 85% to 90% of English-language Wikipedia editors are male; the second is that Western schools and universities are deeply agonistic, which is tied to their Western, all-male tradition and character.

These are a big part of the civility problem in the Wikipedia workplace. Taking the time to type out “Don’t act like a cunt” or “Fuck you” — and to click the “Save” button — are clear acts of agonism. It is, in a word, uncivil.

Update: July 31, 2016 — List format.