Monday Musing: What Wikipedia Showed Me About My Family, Community, and Consensus

Like a large number of people, I read and enjoy wikipedia. For many subjects on which I need to quickly get a primer, it’s good enough, at least for my purposes. I also just read it to see the ways the articles on some topics expand (such as Buffy the Vampire Slayer), but mostly to see how some issues cease to be disputed over time and congeal (the entries on Noam Chomsky are a case in point), and to witness the institutionalization of what was initially envisioned to be an open and rather boundless form (in fact there’s a page on its policies and guidelines with a link to a page on how to propose policies). For someone coming out of political science, it’s intriguing.

To understand why, just look at wikipedia’s “Official Policy” page.

Our policies keep changing, and their interpretation as well. Hence it is common on Wikipedia for policy itself to be debated on talk pages, on Wikipedia: namespace pages, on the mailing lists, on Meta Wikimedia, and on IRC chat. Everyone is welcome to participate.

While we try to respect consensus, Wikipedia is not a democracy, and its governance can be inconsistent. Hence there is disagreement between those who believe rules should be explicitly stated and those who feel that written rules are inherently inadequate to cover every possible variation of problematic or disruptive behavior.

In either case, a user who acts against the spirit of our written policies may be reprimanded, even if no rule has technically been violated. Those who edit in good faith, show civility, seek consensus, and work towards the goal of creating a great encyclopedia should find a welcoming environment.

It’s own self-description points to the complicated process, the uncertainties, and tenuousness of forming rules to making desirable outcomes something other than completely random. Outside of the realm of formal theory, how institutions create outcomes, especially how they interact with environmental factors, cultural elements, psychology is, well, one of the grand sets of questions that constitute much of the social sciences. All the more complicating for wikipedia is that fifth key rule or “pillar” is that “wikipedia doesn’t have firm rules”.

Two of these rules or guidelines have worked to create an odd effect. The first is a “neutral point of view”, by which wikipedia (which reminds us that it is not a democracy) means a point of view “that at is neither sympathetic nor in opposition to its subject. Debates are described, represented, and characterized, but not engaged in.” The second is “consensus”. The policy page on “consensus” is short. It largely discusses what “consensus” is not.

“Consensus” is, of course, a tricky concept when flushed out. To take a small aspect, people in agreement need not have the same reasons or reasons of equal force. Some may agree that democracy is a good thing because anything else would require too much time and effort in selecting the smartest, most benevolent dictator, etc., and another may believe that democracy is a good thing because it represents a polity truly expressing a collective and autonomously formed judgment. Sometimes, it means not just agreeing on positions, but also on reasons and the steps between the two. In wikipedia’s case, it seems to consist of reducing debate to “x said”-“y said” pairs and an enervation of issues that are points of deep disagreement.

One interesting consequence has been that the discussion pages, free of the “neutral point of view” and “consensus” requirements, have become sites of contest, often for “cites of contest”. Perhaps more interestingly, they unintentionally demonstrate what can emerge in an open discussion without the neutrality and consensus constraints.

180pxnasrani_menorahjpgI was struck by this possibility a few weeks ago when I was looking up Syrian Orthodox Christians, trying to unearth some information on the relationship between two separate (sub?)denominations of the church. The reason is not particularly relevant and had more to do with curiosity about different parts of my family and the doctrinal and political divides among some of them. (We span Oriental Orthodox-reformed, Oriental Orthodox, and Eastern Catholic sects and it gets confusing who believes what.)

While looking up the various entries on the Syrian Orthodox Church and the Syro-Malabar Catholic Church, I came across a link to an entry on Knanayas. Knanayas are a set of families, an enthic (or is it sub-ethnic?) community within the various Syriac Nasrani sects in South India, and to which I also belong.

The entry itself was interesting, at least to me.

Knanaya Christians are descendants of 72 Judeo-Christian families who migrated from Edessa (or Urfa), the first city state that embraced Christianity, to the Malabar coast in AD 345, under the leadership of a prominent merchant prince Knai Thomman (in English, Thomas of Cana). They consisted of 400 people men, women and children, from various Syriac-Jewish clans…Before the arrival of the Knanaya people, the early Nasrani people in the Malabar coast included some local converts and largely converted Jewish people who had settled in Kerala during the Babylonian exile and after…The Hebrew term Knanaya or K’nanaim, also known as Kanai or Qnana’im, (for singular Kanna’im or Q’nai) means “Jealous ones for god”. The K’nanaim people are the biblical Jews referred to as Zealots (overly jealous and with zeal), who came from the southern province of Israel. They were deeply against the Roman rule of Israel and fought against the Romans for the soverignity of the Jews. During their struggle the K’nanaim people become followers of the Jewish sect led by ‘Yeshua Nasrani’ (Jesus the Nazarene).

Some of history I’d known; other parts such as being allegedly descendants of the Qnana’im, I did not. Searching through the pages on the topics, what struck me most was nothing on the entry pages, but rather a single comment on the discussion pages.180pxkottayam_valia_palli02 It read:

I object to the Bias of this page. We Knanaya are not all Christians, only the Nasrani among us are Christians. Can you please tone down the overtly Christian propaganda on this page and focus more on us as an ethnic group. Thankyou. [sic]

With that line, images of the my family’s community shifted. It also revealed something about the value of disagreement, and not forcing consensus.

Ram, who writes for 3QD, explored multiculturalism, cultural rights, and group conflict in his dissertation. He is fairly critical of the concept and much of the surrounding politics, as I am. Specifically, he doesn’t believe that there are any compelling reasons for using public policy and public effort to preserve a culture, even a minority culture under stress. For a host of reasons, some compelling, Ram believes that minority cultures can reasonably ask for assistance for adjustment, but cannot reasonably ask the rest to preserve their way of life. One which he offers, one with which I agree, is that a community is often (perhaps eternally) riddled with conflicts about the identity, practices and makeup of the community itself. These conflicts often reflect distributions of power and resistance, internal majorities and minorities, and movements for reform and reactions in defense of privilege. Any move by public power to maintain a community is to take a side, often on the side of the majority. (Now, the majority may be right, but it certainly isn’t the role of public power to decide.)

But the multicultural sentiment is not driven by a desire to side with established practices within a community at the expense of dissidents and minorities. Rather, it’s driven by a false idea that there’s more consensus that there is within the group. The image is furthered by the fact that official spokesmen, usually religious figures, are seen as the authoritative figures for all community issues and not merely over religious rites, and by the fact that minorities such as gays and lesbians are labeled as shaped or corrupted by the “outside”. Forced consensus in other areas, I suspect, suffers from similar problems.

When articles on wikipedia were disputed more frequently, the discussion pages were, if anything, more filled with debate. Disputes have not been displaced onto discussions pages; and if they’ve become more interesting, it is only relatively so. Since the 1970s, ever since political philosophy, political theory and the social sciences developed an interest in ideal speech situations, veils of ignorance, and deliberation, there’s been a fetish made of consensus. Certainly, talking to each other is generally better than beating up each other, but the idea of driving towards agreement may be doing a disservice to politics itself. It was for that reason I was quite pleased by the non-Christian Knanya charging everyone else with bias.

Happy Monday and Happy May Day.