This is a long post, so to keep you reading and engaged, I am going to intersperse amusing kitten photos to keep this ball rolling. Hang in there, folks. 🙂

We have a slippery slope forming in some communities (fortunately, I am not referring to Ubuntu here) surrounding how to handle cases of community members verbally offending other community members. Some of these communities are trying to build policies around this in the same way we write software to solve problems; by trying to codify what is considered offensive and then form policy protections around this.

This is a mistake.

Most communities are too culturally diverse to enforce any kind of detailed policy that defines specific areas of concern that can be mapped en-mass to everyone. We all have different values, interests, senses of humor, and cultural norms that combine and make a single all-encompassing policy impractical. What offends one person may not offend somebody else, so if you blacklist particular topics of conversation or content, you may be inhibiting the very free and open communication that invigorates so many communities.

As an example, I am pretty easy going when it comes to jokes or criticism. I welcome all and any criticism (as I am sure some of you will seek to test in the comments 😉 ), and I have always believed you should be able to poke fun at yourself and be open to others poking fun at you too. Jokes about my pasty British skin, lack of hair, funny accent, my tendency to always wear flip-flops, my terrible taste in music, crappy cooking abilities, my inability as a man to see things my wife asks me to find in the fridge, my political opinions, and more are all open season. Reading back over the last (uncomfortably long) sentence, these topics of conversation cover race, gender, visual appearance, lifestyle choices, politics and more. I would never want to restrict the ability for people to talk to me in a loose, fun, and social manner, and poking fun at me is part of this. Likewise, I strongly abhor a document that tells me I can’t comment on these topics in a community environment or poke fun at others too.

Importantly, such jokes and comments are only acceptable if they are respectful. Someone can say the most critical or personal thing they like to me if it is delivered to me on a foundation of respect. A minor jibe or comment that is delivered in a disrespectful or passive aggressive manner is unacceptable. The topic is not what matters, it is the tone and social context that sets apart thoughtful satire and commentary from disrespectful and aggressive content.

Saying this, I understand that some people will be offended by such comments. Just because I don’t get offended doesn’t mean everyone else should share this view. This is why social context is so important; when I am hanging out with my friends and I know their boundaries, we can be loose and fiery with each other, but when I am in a more formal business setting or with people who I don’t know, it is better to be more conservative.

The nature of offense is fundamentally born from a mismatch of social expectations.

Typically what happens in cases of of someone getting offended is that Person A makes a comment to Person or Audience B that the latter considers to be offensive. This usually happens when Person A thought the comment would be OK, but Person or Audience B did not feel it was acceptable. In the majority of these cases Person A was not trying be malicious or disrespectful, it was merely a social expectations mismatch. If Person A was deliberately trying to be disrespectful then this is obviously unacceptable.

An important point here is that sometimes people get offended and that is OK. Social mismatches happen. Just because someone gets offended doesn’t mean they have the right to shut someone else down. The rights and views of Person A are just as important as the rights and views of Person or Audience B.

If we try to construct communities with policies and governance that restrict collaboration and communication to protect against “potential areas of offense”, then we gut our communities of the freedoms that help us thrive, and instead instill bland, mundane, and restrictive environments for fear of offending someone. Freedom comes with responsibility; all community members should be respectful and responsible in their conduct, but it is also irresponsible to presume that just because you are offended, the wider community needs to change.

A related problem here too, is that some folks conflate harassment and offense.

An off the cuff comment might offend someone, but that isn’t harassment. Harassment is a repetitive, personalized and targeted act: it is a repeated anti-social set of instances targeted towards a particular person. If someone yells at me on my blog about me doing a terrible job, I might be offended, but if they do this every day, targeting me personally…I would consider this to be harassment.

I am OK if someone offends me, but I am not OK if someone harasses me and I fully endorse any and all efforts to stamp out harassment. Our communities should be welcoming, diverse, and positive environments. We should never tolerate harassment, but we should also not confuse offense for harassment.

Thanks for reading such a long post, and I hope the kittens helped relieve the boredom. In a nutshell, sometimes it is OK to get offended; social mismatches happen. What is not OK is deliberately disrespectful conduct and harassment.

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