What's the alternative to "snarling"? (was: New-comers)

Keith Moore <moore@network-heretics.com> Sun, 18 April 2021 01:46 UTC

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From: Keith Moore <moore@network-heretics.com>
Subject: What's the alternative to "snarling"? (was: New-comers)
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On 4/16/21 11:03 PM, John C Klensin wrote:

> But Randy's other point is, IMO, important too.  Suppose we
> could adopt a rule that forbade snarling at people until after
> they had participated in the IETF for a few years and magically
> changed the culture so that everyone observed it, at the same
> time declaring open season on people with longer participation
> records or at least a couple of RFCs behind them.  Whether
> because of what Randy describes as having a shred of empathy or
> because of the sense that they are likely to be treated
> obnoxiously and aggressively about the time they were ready to
> make significant contributions, people would still go away after
> watching others be mistreated, abused, or dismissed.
>
> It really is time we clean up our acts.

While I do think that we could possibly "clean up our acts" somewhat, I 
suspect that we will always need some way of pushing back on Bad Ideas 
and maybe even pushing back on participants who persistently promote Bad 
Ideas.   And that, to a newcomer, such pushing back will be seen as 
"snarling" or perhaps even worse, no matter how politely the pushing 
back is done.

We can't have an open discussion, one in which anyone is free to speak, 
without having Bad Ideas contributed.   Nor can we have an open 
discussion without the possibility of genuine conflict between 
legitimate interests (leaving aside the question of what is 
"legitimate"), and also the possibility of misunderstanding.  So there 
will always be a need for some form of pushback either against bad ideas 
or as part of the path toward consensus and/or compromise.

I suspect that such pushback will always be considered rude by 
newcomers, people who lack the context to understand the nature of the 
conflict, no matter what form it takes:  Whether it's a terse "-1" 
message, or a longer polite phrase like "I do not believe that this idea 
is viable", or if Bad Ideas and their contributors are widely ignored 
(but others may still reply thus amplifying the Bad Idea), or if we 
continue to let people express such pushback in their own words.

Any of us who has been around for very long has seen tremendous amounts 
of expensive time [*] has been wasted trying to deal with Bad Ideas - 
ideas that have repeatedly been considered and rejected in the past, 
ideas that are hopelessly naive or uninformed by reality, ideas for 
which the hazards are obvious to experienced participants but perhaps 
not to every participant.

([*] Especially time in f2f meetings which can easily represent hundreds 
of thousands of dollars in meeting and travel expense on the part of 
participants or their sponsors, and also wasting the time of extremely 
talented and knowledgeable people who were hoping to get useful work done.)

***

And sometimes, it should be admitted, the "Bad Ideas" aren't inherently 
Bad, but are being rejected for other reasons.   Maybe an idea sounds 
too much like an idea that has been rejected as Bad, and the difference 
is too subtle for people to notice.   Maybe the community is simply not 
ready to consider the idea.   Maybe some people do not like the person 
proposing the idea, and wishes to discourage that person.  Or maybe 
those people are so prejudiced against that person that they can't let 
themselves evaluate the idea on its merits.  Maybe the idea has 
potential, but threatens the interests of too many influential 
participants.   Or maybe an idea which was formerly rejected as Bad has 
been improved, but people once got so tired of discussing it that 
they're not willing to invest the effort (and fight the cognitive 
dissonance) required to fairly consider it again.

Conditions do change over time, and ideas once considered unworkable may 
become more acceptable and/or feasible as a result.   I remember when 
the general belief was that the web was too large to be effectively 
indexed by a search engine because CPUs and link speeds were too slow. 
I remember when it was considered infeasible to deploy a new transport 
protocol because of all of the different platforms that would have to 
change - there are fewer widely-used platforms now.   I remember when 
the idea of provider-independent IPv6 addresses for non-providers was 
heresy.

And sometimes an idea is inherently Bad, and no amount of persistence or 
effort will fix it.

But I also realize that sometimes the pushback against an idea is really 
not that important.   Sometimes it might be displaced discomfort about 
something else.   Sometimes we argue over trivial ideas and expressions 
that aren't likely to have any significant effect.   Maybe if we only 
had rude-seeming arguments about the ideas that seem to be really 
important, the overall perceived level of rudeness would go down.   But 
there will still be some ideas that are important enough that candor is 
more important than playing nice.

***

Every open discussion forum needs a way to push back on Bad Ideas.   And 
every discussion forum (that wishes to be technically honest) needs a 
way to reconsider formerly rejected ideas.   How we do each of these is 
hugely important.   Either we waste immense amounts of time endlessly 
discussing Bad Ideas, or we find a way to push back on them.   And 
either we find a way to reconsider formerly rejected ideas, or we paint 
ourselves into corners of technical irrelevance.

Perhaps we can define a better way of giving pushback than snarling.   
But I'm pretty sure that we could also do worse than letting people 
express their dislike for ideas in their own words.    I'd be especially 
wary of defining some standard "polite" way of rejecting Bad Ideas that 
doesn't let people express themselves.   We need some flexibility in how 
we give pushback, so that some people can open up doors at least a 
little bit, even if other people want to slam them shut.

Maybe it would help to have some concrete suggestions for non-snarling 
ways of pushing back on Bad Ideas.   As in "if you can't find better 
language to use, try one of these boilerplate alternatives".

Keith

p.s. I've definitely been the target of "snarling" and worse, including 
overt personal attacks. Unpleasant though it was, I tried to just accept 
it as a sign that the community wasn't ready to consider the idea at 
that time.  I do think we can and should treat one another better than 
that.  But even if we choose better ways of pushing back, I'm not sure 
how obvious the difference will be to newcomers, who may still think 
we're being rude.