Civility without neutrality

The Neutral Point of View (NPOV) policy was much discussed at this month’s Wikimania 2006. There was, of course, my own presentation asking “Is Wikipedia neutral?,” but I am not alone in appreciating the importance and value of this notion. However, two other discussion during the conference made me think that perhaps neutrality is sometimes overvalued.

The first issue was whether neutrality should be a policy on all Wikis? Many think not, and my own response was that Ward Cunningham’s Wiki – the first – was not neutral: it advocated for a particular type of software development practice. Such “perspective making” (Boland and Tenkasi 1995) within a community is an important function.

The second issue is whether there is something we can learn from neutrality without having to actually be neutral? Indeed, there is: civility. During the conference I remarked to a colleague that neutrality and civility are often conflated because neutrality roughly necessitates civility. But that does not mean that absent the neutrality requirement, we must be rude. Kingwell (1995:247) makes an interesting argument that in a pluralistic society it is too much to ask that we have “genuine respect” for everyone. Civility only asks that we (initially) treat others as if they were worthy of respect and understanding. This notion, in the Wikipedia lexicon, is that of “good faith” an often connected but distinct and separable notion from the neutral point of view.

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