Civility and Truth

Doug Morris, recommended Shapin's (1994) A Social History of Truth which I found very interesting in light of my interest with politeness. Shapin makes an ethno-historical argument that "knowledge is a collective good" of moralistic interdependence. Earlier, the free action and virtue of a gentleman garnered trust as there were no external pressures which could cause him to "shift" his views. (Though critics might argue that the gentleman's privileged status certainly biased his perspective.) In modernity, it is now the institutions which have moral authority to make truth claims. Interestingly, in the Wikipedia community, where I argue notions of good faith and civility are key, they do not rely upon the premodern performance of civility to represent social standing and consequently the ability to legitimate knowledge. Rather, truth emerges from civil discourse between people who may be strangers. Furthermore, Wikipedia is controversial from the modern perspective because it does not rely upon the "system trust" of institutions. Instead, it is civility itself that now generates truth, rather than being a proxy for social standing or institutional affiliation. (My argument is a little too strong, because Wikipedia does derive legitimacy for its claims from its sources, which are part of the modern institutional system trust.)

Ported/Archived Responses

Joseph Reagle on 2006-08-21

I don't disagree, rather my argument was strong (and I didn't put scare quotes around "truth") in order to draw the distinction with Shapin: civility is not the proxy of truth of old, but part of the process of today.

mako on 2006-08-21

While attractive, I think your argument is more than little too strong. Civility plays a very important role in Wikipedia in the generation of truth but it is neither the source of nor a path to truth. Perfectly civily produced and NPOV statements get slapped with "{{fact}}".

{{fact}} and {{npov}} mean different things and must be solved through appeal to different authorities or practices. Articles may become neutral through the practice of civility but they become true through, as you point out, references to knowledge produced in a modern instituational system. Even basic decisions like notability are entirely shaped by these external system and their engagement with the topic.

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