On Being Right

While we have always been a species prone to squabble and natter, never before have we been as adept. There’s no need to recount the means by which consumerism, media and politics have connived, deliberately and accidentally, to subvert rationalism in the public discourse. If you’re reading this, you already know.

What I do want to look at, though, is one facet of this debasement: The shooting of the messenger not merely because the news is unwelcome, but because of the tone of its delivery.

[Originally published in the Communications column for the Vanuatu Independent newspaper.]

There’s an interesting conversation happening today on one of the geek community sites I frequent. It all started because of some genuinely insightful commentary on Computer World’s website by Jeff Ello. Here’s what set everyone off:

While everyone would like to work for a nice person who is always right, IT pros will prefer a jerk who is always right over a nice person who is always wrong. Wrong creates unnecessary work, impossible situations and major failures. Wrong is evil, and it must be defeated. Capacity for technical reasoning trumps all other professional factors, period.

I wish I had read that in my twenties.

It took me years to realise that, often enough, insisting on absolute correctness is a great way to lose friends (or at least, to be ignored until someone needs help cramming for an exam). You can imagine, then, what a relief it was to discover that the world of IT consists by and large of people who grant respect based on technical competence.

Now, such an environment does have its costs. Try listening in sometimes on a conversation between geeks about which software is best for writing code, or weighing the relative merits of different operating systems. You’ll find yourself wondering if these creatures are from the same species as you.

This innate emphasis on correctness sometimes makes people feel that geeks are arrogant, even antisocial. As Ello puts it, “When things don’t add up, they are prone to express their opinions on the matter, and the level of response will be proportional to the absurdity of the event.

Especially in a society such as we have in Vanuatu, this can sometimes rub people the wrong way. You see, here more than anywhere, it’s difficult to separate the speaker from the speech, the style from the substance.

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