i dream of being possible

on the 'don't do bad things' maxim

Or the related “don’t be an asshole” maxim.

While this is inspired by the recent ALA Code of Conduct kerfluffle, it isn’t actually about it. But I’m more interested in this position:1

If “don’t be a jerk” were enough of a rule, we wouldn’t need rules, and, again, the data shows that we do. source

I saw this (I think) once or twice in the comments of the now infamous post. But I’ve also seen it mentioned elsewhere. On reading it tonight, I was suddenly reminded about both my earlier post on evil, capitalism, and tech and Google’s infamous ‘Don’t be evil’ tenet. One of the sources I cited mentions that:

through its motto Google has effectively redefined evil as a matter of unserviceability in general, and unserviceability among corporatized information services in particular. source

So, when we look at calls against things like clear enumeration of protected classes of people, often with the notion that having one ‘clear,’ ‘simple’ rule of ‘don’t be an asshole’ is enough.

One of the things that is troubling about this position is how much the advocates really seem to not understand (or just aren’t listening) is that codes of conduct – or even discussions on privilege and oppression – aren’t actually even about individual behaviours.

Well, they are and they aren’t. Obviously part of the goal of a code of conduct is to discourage certain kinds of behaviour. Of course, many of these behaviours are already impermissible according to the law (stalking, for example, is illegal in many places – albeit hard to prove and prosecute). And obviously part of the goal is to encourage people to really examine how their actions and behaviours might impact people in unexpected ways.

But. More than anything, hate speech laws, anti-discrimination laws, and codes of conduct exist to deal with structural and institutional problems. They are necessary not because there are a bunch of amoral or evil people doing awful things all of the time, but because we currently live in a very unequal society. And laws/practices/codes like this fundamentally recognize this.

And it is unbelievably important that they do. Because the only to even begin dealing with institutional inequity and oppression is by, well, understanding that not only does it exist, but that changes have to be made on an institutional level in order for any real, substantive change to happen where it is needed the most.

Something like the ALA’s Code of Conduct signals that the ALA itself is taking steps to address the ways that it has been (and currently is) supporting and perpetuating institutional oppression – because it is an institution.

This is also a necessary change when we’ve come to a place where Google has been able to re-define ‘evil’ in such a way that one can be an altruistic capitalist. Or at least perceived this way.

What does it mean to ‘not be an asshole’ when, even despite you best efforts, the social/political/economic institutions we have in place don’t really allow for many moral choices? And that even if you try really hard, your personal decisions have zero impact on how institutions operate?

  1. Just want to make it clear that the author of the post does not hold the position, just explicating it.