Passionate Sanctimony Part 1 - The Art of Bullying

Tearing people down to prove a point does not help strengthen a community’s foundation or create a more inclusive workplace. It only serves to further divide a community that has proven itself to be singularly awful at talking amongst ourselves.

I’ve been sitting on this series of articles for months. Writing, rewriting and polishing my arguments in an attempt to be as clear as possible. There are two distinct problems with the topic I've chosen to address: 1) It's a critical topic, but one that will not fit nicely into a short format and 2) It's virtually guaranteed to result in ironical histrionics. I fully expect that some people will stop reading and start fuming before they've even read three paragraphs and I also expect much to be taken well out of context. For those of you interested in improving the industry, please read carefully, consider your thoughts, and feel free to share your insights.

Paul Boag’s latest article entitled “Dealing with the dickheads” talks about the same issue from the perspective that unwarranted criticism prevents people from contributing to the community. I'm going to take Mr. Boag's spot-on commentary a number of steps further and argue that what he referred to as "troll-ish" behavior is actually tearing the community apart and that the root cause has as much to do with poor leadership as it does with the personal insecurities of the aggrieved. 

When Geeks Become Bullies

Bullying is something with which I am very familiar. I was teased without mercy throughout my childhood all the way through high school (partially because I was the smallest kid in every grade, but also because I was very quiet.) I was the kid who got picked last, shut in lockers, pushed into walls and hung by his belt in the locker room (I was always light enough to pick up.) I’m relatively certain that I served as a test dummy for the jocks in their efforts to perfect wedgie application techniques. I was the kid who all the girls liked to pet and snicker at, cooing, “He’s sooooooo cute.” And because I liked to draw and paint, I was called a “faggot”.

I know, first-hand, that bullies will always gravitate toward those individuals they believe are vulnerable. Because bullies are insecure cowards themselves, they’ll never take on the popular kids or the powerful kids.

So it comes as a massive disappointment to see the same atrocious behavior exhibited by adult professionals who can probably relate to my childhood experience.

I am continually astounded by the invective that gets hurled at anyone who is summarily accused of anything in our industry. How is name-calling and character assassination an appropriate response to “discomfort”? How is it justifiable? How is it not every bit as callous and harmful as the act for which someone has been accused? In my opinion, it’s a million times worse because behaving like a sanctimonious asshole is a conscious decision. Make no mistake, this behavior is bullying.

There’s no question that passions run deep in the web world. Whether you are a designer or developer, we work in a business that elicits near-sociopathic opinions ... on every conceivable topic. Someone, somewhere is bitching about something. Sexism, conference-inspired-alcoholism, inclusiveness, elitism, professionalism, cursing, responsive design, designers who code, programmers who design, getting paid, code commenting, PSD organization, SPEC, hourly versus project-based fees, button design, and on and on and on and on and on and on. If an outsider were to judge by social media commentary alone, he or she would almost certainly conclude that we are collectively one of the unhappiest, whiniest, least tolerant, nasty, and holier-than-thou groups of adult children on the planet.

People say offensive things all the time. Some purposely do it to get a rise out of their audience. Some people use it as a marketing ploy. Most people don’t even realize they are saying something offensive.

The problem is NOT that people say offensive things. The problem is that nearly everyone makes excuses for why one offense is “permissible” and another is “reprehensible”.

Time and again, I’ve watched the Twitter mob and the comment trolls bludgeon the life out of someone they feel slighted them from afar - blasting another person with whom they disagree with repugnant invective and hateful remarks they would never have the courage to say to another human being in person - all the while rationalizing their behavior with trite nonsense about “applying peer pressure” whilst acting as judge, jury, and executioner.

And when apologies are offered, the accused are bashed again for not apologizing the “right way”.

There is a massive difference between unintentionally causing an offense and deliberately and with malice attempting to discredit or otherwise hurt someone’s reputation. But "discomfort" or "hurt feelings" or "inclusiveness" should never devolve into the curious, and clearly hypocritical, belief that "naming and shaming" someone with whom you disagree in a public forum is acceptable behavior.

I’m going to assume that people paid enough attention during their formative studies to be able to draw multiple contexts from history and literature to understand why “naming and shaming” never leads to a Valhalla of “inclusiveness”. Quite the opposite.

By the way, the legal term for "naming and shaming" someone who has been convicted of an “offense” merely in the court of public opinion is "slander".

I abhor individuals who threaten or judge others based on their ethnicity, race, gender, religious beliefs or sexual preference. Conversely, I have exactly zero respect for anyone who willfully tears down or insults another person in their selfish zeal to prove a point or justify a personal conviction.

The following comment typifies the completely misguided belief that everyone has the right to make an example out of anyone with whom they disagree. And more perversely still that such a response is not only appropriate, but professional.

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Attempting to establish new expectations for professional behavior and discourse through intimidation and fear is the antithesis of community and the antithesis of “professionalism”. The ultimate irony is that words like "inclusiveness" are consistently used to justify anger while the accompanying invective is used to exclude anyone who doesn’t fall in line.

The saddest part of all this is that repellent behavior obviously doesn't ingratiate the respect of the very people libeled as “insensitive”. In the end, these methods will ultimately undermine and marginalize any cause no matter how just it may be.

You become exactly what you claim to loath.