Meditations on Ostracism

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Gwyneth Llewelyn
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Meditations on Ostracism

Post by Gwyneth Llewelyn »

From the Wikipedia:
[quote:57uxy6ks]Ostracism (Greek ὀστρακισμός [i:57uxy6ks]ostrakismos[/i:57uxy6ks]) was a procedure under the Athenian democracy in which a prominent citizen could be expelled from the city-state of Athens for ten years. While some instances clearly expressed popular anger at the victim, ostracism was often used pre-emptively. It was used as a way of defusing major confrontations between rival politicians (by removing one of them from the scene), neutralizing someone thought to be a threat to the state, or exiling a potential tyrant. Crucially, ostracism had no relation to the processes of justice. There was no charge or defence, and the exile was not in fact a penalty; it was simply a command from the Athenian people that one of their number be gone for ten years.

The procedure is to be distinguished from the modern use of the term, which generally refers to informal modes of exclusion from a group through shunning. Derived as it is from the Greek world, still, the classic social anthropological example of ostracism is the precolonial Australian Aboriginal social expulsion of tribe members sometimes even resulting in actual physical death.[/quote:57uxy6ks]

In reading the above lines, and the scattered threads and posts I've managed to read in the past few weeks, I found it a bit disturbing that ostracism, very much in the sense of the ancient Athenians, has been put in practice in the CDS, and more than once. Please bear with me for a moment.

At this stage of our development — which is painfully slow compared to the explosive growth in SL overall — we are at a point where there is no pretense of "getting along well" with each other. 70+ citizens is not just a "group of friends" any more. Unsurprisingly for a group of such a size, opinions will necessarily differ. We make friends and enemies; we agree with some wholeheartedly, while we mistrust others to the core of our souls. This is part of human nature, and will remain that way, as time goes by and the CDS grows — and like every other organisation or community that grows, we have to deal with it, or fail trying.

In a [i:57uxy6ks]democratic[/i:57uxy6ks] society, however, we have an advantage. We don't need to hush and be silent, and try to ignore the others we don't like, no matter what our reasons for mistrust and hate are. Instead, we can voice our opinions freely. We can even go further: we can [i:57uxy6ks]vote[/i:57uxy6ks] on the ones we wish to keep and vote out the ones we don't want. True to our principles of democratic rotativity in power, this means that if we made a wrong decision at one point, we can correct it, by voting differently, on the next elections. It's not a perfect system. But it's one that, at least, allows us [i:57uxy6ks]not[/i:57uxy6ks] to be silent and hold a grudge — we have a vote, and through that vote, we are able to impose on the CDS the type and model of society we wish to continue to have inside the CDS.

Democracy in our case goes a step further; we respect the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. We protect minorities. Even the "minority of one" — that ultimate nagging problem that gnaws at all democracies' ankles — is, in a sense, "protected": at the very least, by guaranteeing the full exercise of free speech, and more than that, the right to be part of a community, by choice. "We" in all the above sentences are simply the "citizens of the CDS". As members of this democratic society, we all have the duty to observe all the rights granted to every single other citizen in the CDS — and, in turn, expect from them the same duty towards us. That's how it works.

No "right" can be abused in order to diminish or remove another right from another citizen. This is the ultimate principle embodied in the UDHR. Thus, ostracism, as defined by the Athenians — the right of the whole community to expel one of its own — is [i:57uxy6ks]not[/i:57uxy6ks] a right of the CDS citizenship. We have no power to "force" anyone to leave us. And, in reverse, since we don't have that right, we should also not work towards "pushing" someone to self-remove themselves from the CDS. Instead, we have a much powerful right — the right to vote them out (or in) of office. This is what we've got; this is what we're allowed to do, and no more.

Ostracism is not, as the Wikipedia teaches, a "judgement" or a "trial", but simply "the will of the people". Well, the Athenians were wise, but they had a different model of government than ours. In the CDS, the "will of the people" is expressed through voting on their representatives, and eventually publicly questioning their acts and demanding from their representatives full responsability for these. "The will of the people" in the CDS does not entitle "the people" to select which "group of friends" should stay, and which ones should go.

Reading the current threads, and not naming names, as well as looking backwards to similar situations, there seems to be a certain recurring element popping up here and there. A new citizen arrives at the CDS. They get encouraged by the current population to stay. They are intrigued on how our system works, and find, though the forums and in-world conversations, that, to an extent, this is a truly democratic system. Never perfect — democracies are never perfect — but far better than any other alternative. They decide to stay. Many of them are energetic, stubborn, full of ideas. They engage a few projects wholeheartedly, often working countless hours for making their projects grow. They attract friends; they spread the word; in these days, this even means: they gather the attention of the SL media. The CDS gets talked about; it becomes the focus of something new — a project that suddenly grows beyond its borders. It gets more and more support. In some cases, this even means that the energetic and charismatic leader might get some votes on an election; in others, that simply they are an inspiring force for a large group of citizens, working together, often spontaneously, and making the CDS an interesting place to be.

So far, this is the bright side. If we stayed just on this side, we'd be an unstoppable force in the whole of the SL grid, and, who knows, even beyond. After all, RL institutions often look upon the CDS as an "interesting experiment". Linden Lab uses the CDS as an example of virtual democracy on their presentations. TV stations film and interview citizens of the CDS. Journalism classes in universities use the CDS as an object of study. Even some RL governments have heard about us and are planning to use us as a case study of electronic or virtual democracy. It's not much yet — we're just a dot on the 8000-sim-grid, a tiny sand of grain among 6 millions residents — but it's so much more than so many of us have ever thought it would be possible.

What happens next? Here and there, the roots of doubt gnaw at someone's conscience. What if the person leading the project is not what they seem to be? What if they have a personal agenda that doesn't fit into the "overall mindset" of the "mainstream" CDS? What if they are using the CDS as a platform for self-promotion, a trampoline to the limelight, a way to fulfill their other projects — not really caring about the CDS as it stands, but only using it as a "stepping stone" for something completely different and utterly unrelated?

The seeds of doubt grow and spread. They become paranoia. This feeds, in turn, with the mistrust of others. As said at the very beginning, we've grown far beyond "a group of friends", and this mostly means that we don't all "get along together". There will always be faults we see in others; in some cases, they will be beyond our ability to tolerate them. When that happens, and combined with fear, mistrust, and suspicion of "having a personal agenda" (which is not coincident with the "mainstream opinion"), the end result is ostracism: a large majority of CDS citizens turning against one (or a small group) of its own citizens, and forcing, first by gentle nudging, then by successive attacks, which get more personal in tone, to push them away and out of the CDS.

I personally dislike that approach, specially when it is employed in a position of power — namely, legislative aspects that try to subvert and change the rules to "surgically remove" a certain person, group, or mentality out of the CDS. In a free society, in my opinion, measures to control "rightful thinking" are really out of bounds. We were often accused in the past as being a society of "groupthinkers". I've often claimed exactly the opposite — we welcome change, we welcome a diversity of opinions, and we reply to the challenges of conflict of opinions through three ways: public debate; compromise; and if all else fails, the vote.

Democratic societies do not attempt to solve "all problems affecting Humankind". When debating publicly, opinions clash, and tempers rise — words are said that should have probably be have left unsaid, and sometimes they can be reverted only through legal means. But at least the free exchange of opinions and ideas will relieve tension by opening up our hearts, so to speak, and allow anyone to publicly contest an opinion. Compromise is the next step. We agree to disagree; we find common goals and objectives. We cede one point each, to earn two points together. At the end, we won't be happy with the results (on a personal level, we'd have preferred it to go "our way"), but at least we won't be globally displeased (at least everybody had to lose a bit). And, if all else fails, we vote. It's clear then that the majority will have their way — but we're at least ethically bound to respect the minority's wishes. At the end of the day, that minority might, on the next elections, get a substancial share of the voters and become a new majority, and revert a past decision.

So "problems" and "issues" are solved with those three mechanisms — not in the "hugging" way of "groupthink" where "everybody is happy, happy, joy, joy" all the time together, and who is not happy, should step aside and let the rest continue to be happy. That's a different model — one that might, indeed, also work with good results — but it happens [i:57uxy6ks]not[/i:57uxy6ks] to be ours, and it was never intended to become one like that.

Remember that there are no "truly neutral" people — either in the CDS or anywhere else. We all have personal agendas, or, at least, personal opinions. A "neutral" body is more often the one that congregates the largest number of conflicting opinions — thus the RA, which currently has four parties, all with very different opinions on how the CDS should forge the road ahead. It's a "neutral" body in this sense — although a majority will always rule, it'll be a majority out of conflicting views. Individuals, however, have their opinions. Always. And in a democratic society, they're entitled to present them publicly.

Even old Gwyn as the eternal Dean is not neutral :). I'm affiliated with a party that best represents the views I have about the way a democratic society should be run; I comment upon things that I consider important; I protect sometimes the 'wrong' persons (as seen by a majority) just because I strongly feel they have the same right as others do to express their opinions — even if it's quite obvious to everybody else that I shouldn't be dealing with them at all (sometimes even to myself!). I also have my personal agenda; I'd like the CDS to become a true role model for democratic participation in virtual worlds, in Second Life overall, or on any other metaverse that might be around the corner. I want [i:57uxy6ks]our[/i:57uxy6ks] model to be a case study for when all those professors from Yale and Harvard and Oxford and the Sorbonne come to study us. I want RL governments to come and study with us as well, learn what can be done, see what is hard to implement. I want Linden Lab to look at us and ask us how we managed to survive for over 2 1/2 years when all other groups failed, disappeared, and were dismantled. Believe me, I'm very un-neutral in all those areas; I'm also as stubborn as any other CDS citizen, and, worse than that, I'm [i:57uxy6ks]proud[/i:57uxy6ks] of what the CDS citizens have accomplished so far.

In some circles, my behaviour would be considered close to "patriotism", if it were related to a real country and not a virtual one. Being proud of your "nation" — virtual or not! — clouds your mind, reorders priorities, and assigns importance very differently to many things. It also makes you come closer to the dangerous pitfall of thinking that "everything that can be done for the greater glory of the CDS, should be done" — even if that means getting rid of differently-minded citizens against their own free will.

Well. This is worth thinking about, for the simple reason that I've seen, in the past year or so, a growing number of "CDS patriots". They, just like me, have a very strong feeling that the CDS is more than a "group of citizens" put together to do creative things and share the cost of a sim (our original pretext). They, as well as I, tend to think that in some cases we need to push ahead by remembering our past, and make sure that "our collective vision" is not tainted or corrupted by new ideas.

However, I fear that this is a dangerous line of thinking. The intention might be good — the survival of the CDS for many, many years — but the ethics of a truly democratic society get corrupted and tainted in the process. We don't have the right — morally, ethically, or even constitutionally — to say "this opinion counts, this doesn't" — all are equally valid. There is a difference between a qualified opinion (the one expressed by an expert regarding their area of expertise) and simply a personal opinion, of course, but in our democratic society, personal opinions have the same value, no matter who has expressed them. Instead of ostracism — separating what "the mainstream CDS citizen thinks it's best" from "the dissenting opinions from the borderline citizens" — we should endeavour to apply the three rules of democratic participation to all decisions: first, the public debate. When that fails, attempt to compromise. If no compromise is to be met, vote on it.

With many of the recent decisions, we have failed at the public debate (it spiralled out into name-calling and refuting irrelevant details instead of addressing the global issues). We might also have failed at a compromise: what are "reasonable requests" by one side is called "blackmail" by the other. And even the vote — a decision taken by our representatives at the RA — might have left a sour taste in the mouth. When a democracy fails on all three, we should seriously think carefully about what it [i:57uxy6ks]means[/i:57uxy6ks].

For me, it means a turning point. It means that we will attract less and less people with radical new ideas, thoughts, and energy to implement new projects, as well as attract a whole new horde of citizens with very different backgrounds and expectations. Instead, we'll focus on attracting likely-minded people — if they don't think like us, they'll be ostracised next — and look towards our belly buttons, instead of looking at the ocean of diversity beyond out tiny "pocket universe". Diversity, different opinions, should not make us "fear" them (or the people who express them). Also, no public official should "fear" the vote of the citizens. I'm not particularly adept of the "wisdom of the crowds", but I'm pretty convinced that people that can truly engage a community, through their effort, personal charisma, and acts (more than words) will always get some votes when it comes to the vote — and that's not "bad". In my mind, we should attract exactly that kind of people, not "fear" them. It's the ones with more provoking thoughts and new concepts and ideas that will push the CDS further and further — and also challenge the existing citizens to demand more from themselves, be more creative, and engage the community even more than before to keep up to expectations. In fact, in our past, it has been quite often the harbringers of change that have done more for the community, and, indirectly, by their energy and courage to challenge the status quo, incite the remaining, older citizens to give even more of themselves.

I'd like to ask you — all of you — no matter what your personal feelings are about this or that person, or group of persons, what you [i:57uxy6ks]really[/i:57uxy6ks] wish to have in the CDS of the future: if it should only be "groupthink" of a selected group of individuals with their closed mindset, all happy in their ways, but shunning anything "new" that comes from the outside; or if we should embrace a far wider range of ideas on opinions, some of those contradicting our own past experience, but nevertheless challenging and provocative — giving us food for thought, and, even if they take us through a bumpy ride, what a delightful view we'll have from the trip!

In that regard, I have long ago made my own, personal, biased, and definitely not neutral decision. Tackling contrary views and dissenting opinions, answering to challenges launched by new ideas and opinions, surpassing obstacles and meeting compromises, no matter how hard they are, is the stuff of dreams — in a democratic society. Again, it doesn't mean that we're all happy about it. It doesn't mean it'll be totally fair to everybody. It doesn't mean that it'll be perfect. But it certainly means that it's happier and fairer than any other alternative, and it will be realistically met.

And it will be all-including, not "just for a few".

"I'm not building a game. I'm building a new country."
  -- Philip "Linden" Rosedale, interview to Wired, 2004-05-08

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Post by Sleazy_Writer »

Thank you for this, some healthy food for thought. But I think I disagree with a [i:3l0syym0]lot[/i:3l0syym0] of it (when applied to current situation and people).

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Post by Dnate Mars »

There is a lot to thing about in what you write, as always. There are some very valid points that you do make and we do need to be careful in how we treat each other. Thank you for this post.

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