August 18, 2003

Ed Felten, law and policy debates, and being accused of lying

Edward Felten has an interesting post about a difference in thought processes between technologists and political people:

To a technologist, law and policy debates sometimes seem to be held in a kind of bizarro world, where words and concepts lose their ordinary meanings. Some technologists never get used to the bizarro rules, but some us of do catch on eventually.

One of the bizarro rules is that you should be happy when the other side accuses you of lying or acting in bad faith. In the normal world, such accusations will make you angry; but in bizarro world they indicate that the other side has lost confidence in its ability to win the argument on the merits. And so you learn to swallow your outrage and smile when people call you a scoundrel.

I've run into this phenomenon myself (except I'm not good at swallowing my outrage, so I suffer, and think I should get out of politics before I really get hurt), and I concur it exists.

What's going on is as follows: Law and policy, is, fundamentally, an undertaking where lying is expected. It's a tool, a strategic option. Not that everyone in those areas is dishonest. But being dishonest is simply considered, well, something like a lifestyle choice. One is expected to be somewhat tolerant, at least in public, of those who have a textual orientation different from one's own.

It's not that everyone in science is honest. But lying itself isn't a part of the workaday conduct (and the parts of the day where it is, are called, remember, "office politics").

In contrast, sometimes people in politics really don't understand why technologists are so upset. It's akin to the stories where the savage or alien race eats the bodies of defeated opponents, and they don't comprehend why this causes such a nasty reaction. Because to them, eating the body is a token of respect for a worthy fight, not a supreme indignity.

Hence to the savage and alien race of politicos, accusations of lying or acting in bad faith are supposed to be taken as making them sweat in the fight, not as hitting below the belt. It's very weird from the techie point of view.

I was going to tell my GetNetWise lawyer story here, but this piece is long enough already. Some other time.

By Seth Finkelstein | posted in activism , politics | on August 18, 2003 07:44 AM (Infothought permalink) | Followups
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I've been thinking quite a bit about the lack of civility in political discussions, and it seems to me we lack a model of what is acceptable and what crosses over the line. Which leads me to my Eddie Haskell Rule on Public Policy Discourse. In a nutshell, it states that you should never treat a political opponent any worse than Wally Cleaver treated Eddie Haskell. Wally was well aware that Eddie could be a two-faced, manipulative, overblown jerk, and didn't hestitate to tell him so at times. But Wally always treated Eddie as if he were worthy of respect. Seems like a good way to go.

Posted by: Tom McMahon at August 18, 2003 08:31 AM

I would say rather that different people have different models about what is acceptable and what crosses the line. After all, one such difference is what my, and Felten's, posts are about.

It's very easy, in the abstract, to say to always treat one's opponents with respect. But a big problem is that tends to lead to an outcome of kicking people when they are down. That is, when someone who is under wrongful attack in some way reacts strongly, they then get to deal with people telling them they shouldn't have reacted that way. So the net result is they suffer the wrongful attack and then "second-order" attack for reacting not-with-respect to the first one. This doesn't seem like a good thing to me.

Posted by: Seth Finkelstein at August 18, 2003 08:57 AM

Interesting commentary and discussion. I was struggling with a (somewhat?) similar issue in preparing an essay on a "politics and power" involving Seth and others.

At one point, I thought I had the key to what was inappropriate about what happened on a certain bigshot law professor's blog, and that it had to do with an interpersonal-relations stance that's in almost every philosophy. (The one about treating others as you'd hope to be treated.)

Then, thinking about it again, I realized that "others" has different meanings for Big Time People: that is, the only "others" who deserve to be treated as people are other Big Time People. As for Little People, it's not kicking them when they're's just shoving them out of the way at any necessary point. They aren't, after all, people who mean anything.

This is all deeply discouraging. And I found I couldn't put the essay together in a way that served any purpose. But then, I'll always be a Little People. (In the larger political spheres, at least.)

Posted by: Walt Crawford at August 18, 2003 12:21 PM