Landslide (אשרי אדם מפחד תמיד Happy is the man who always fears)

On October 2, 2016, in Syndicated, by Association for Software Testing

(No Hebrew this time, and for once, I don’t feel a need to explain why)

It just so happen that I was a bit late on my reading list, and so I heard about what is now referred as “The slide” (or “the slide incident”). And my first encounter with it was through Maaret’s blog (here). I started by reading the slide’s content – not knowing a thing about the context in which it was presented, what was said alongside it, or what Maaret had to say about it. My first feeling was that I am just seeing someone sneak a nasty punch to the face (something a bit like this). And, as we all know – emotions are an oracle that should be considered. So, with that preliminary uncomfortable feeling I set out to read what is this all about. By the end of the post, I felt an urge to express my disagreement with what I saw in the slide, since I interpreted it as injustice, and staying silent when faced with injustice is almost as worse as taking part in it.
Still, I took my time – I could not find proper words for it. There was no need to “go out and help” Maaret, since she can stand her ground better than I can stand mine, and seemed to handle it pretty well, so there was no urgency, and I wondered if perhaps I should let this one pass along. Maybe I am missing some details? Surely I should hear what James has to say about it first, because I don’t suspect his goal was to throw such an insult.
Today I progressed a bit more in my reading list, and got to some of the reactions – James’s postKate Falanga’s post (which, according to her, might be removed in the future), and probably Patrick Prill’s post as well.
I won’t pretend that I have now a better understanding of what actually happened, but my gut-feeling was not eased. The fact that two people I deeply appreciate, and have learned a lot from materials they have created or talks I had with (I have spoken with Maaret at the last European test conference, and while I haven’t met James face-to face, I emailed him once when I had a question – which lead to an interesting discussion I learned a lot from) are at odds with each other is quite discomforting, since transforming a professional discussion to a personal argument makes me question the maturity of the profession (or rather, the communities I take part in) and it’s ability to contain constructive disagreements.
As it so happens, tomorrow is the Jewish new-year, and ten days after comes Yom-Kippur, the day of judgement (literally, “Day of atonement”). These days are known as “the ten days of repentance”, where everyone asks for their sins to be forgiven. In the Judaic tradition, there are four steps to penance: recognizing a sin, abandoning it, deciding not to repeat it, and confessing.
Personally, I’m not a fan of confessions in most cases, but I really like the first three steps.
From what I have understood of James’s post, the summary is something along the lines of “I am sorry that Maaret’s feeling were hurt, and this wasn’t my intention, but I think what I did was perfectly legitimate and would act similarly in the future” (do check me up on this, it is possible that I have misunderstood the post, or missed something critical).
So, I want to focus on why I think having such a slide is not proper.
First of all, there is the actual result – regardless of intent or other possible ways to interpret the slide, many people (myself included, and that’s one of the main reasons I’m writing) have understood it as an attack on Maaret. If there’s a mismatch between the expected reality and the actual reality, it does not matter how solid was the reasoning, since it was clearly wrong. It’s ok to make mistakes, but it is important to recognize them in retrospect and act upon such recognition.
Second – There’s a world of difference between quoting someone and interpreting them – it can be acceptable to honestly quote from someone and say “I don’t agree with that”. It’s less fine to build a straw-man around an interpretation of what the speaker understood – because it’s likely to be inaccurate. A good way to mitigate this would be to approach the person thus quoted and ask them to review your ideas and make sure that the interpretation is close enough to the intent.
Third – when standing on the podium, the speaker is quite powerful (just as I am here, in my blog): the slides and narration are setting the tone, and the speaker is now the source of authority. putting publicly questioning someone who is, currently, in a less authoritative position, is a violent act. Sometimes, such violent acts are in place (for instance, I believe this post is such an act).

Fourth – A speaker should assess the way his story will be understood. The specific format in which the slide was built is inviting an interpretation of accusation. For instance, if I would “reverse” the slide, it might look something like this:
How I differ from James?

  • I value collaboration. I don’t waste time on futile quarrels. I want to collaborate while remaining true to my standards. 
  • I think dialogue is critical to learning and to the maintenance of a respectable craft. 
  • I don’t believe experts should limit their contribution only to the narrow field in which they specialize.
Now, the naïve way of understanding these three bullets is that I claim that James is anti-collaboration, does not believe in dialogue as a learning method, and is needlessly limiting his scope. Sure, I can say that anyone who have seen the slide I was referring to will know that I actually mean that I put a strong value on collaboration, and that I see “niceness” as a strong collaborative tool, while James puts a stronger stress on staying true to his core values. I don’t imagine he has anything against collaboration, he just places it in a lower priority (which, unlike opposing it, is quite reasonable) – But the slide I present does not reflect that context, and does not reflect the complexity of my idea. In fact, I cannot present such a slide without reminding the audience what I actually mean (or, to put it to the extreme, I will say something such as “don’t take this slide as is, what I actually meant is…”), and I don’t think a slide that should always be followed by a cautionary explanation is a good slide to have (unless someone wants to insult people).
And lastly, why don’t I want to see such slides in the future:
In a short comedy piece quite familiar in Israel the comedian defines dialogue as “two persons talking to themselves” (Luckily, the piece is framed as “English lesson in an Arab classroom”, so most of the text is in English with a fake Arab accent, and everything but the first 20 seconds is accessible to anyone who understands English. You might enjoy it). In the professional community I want to be a part of, people listen to each other, and learn from each other (or learn by listening to counter-arguments and defending one’s stance). When people are offended, we digress to the state where people are talking to themselves instead of talking with each other. So yes – it is vital to keep integrity and sometimes to say things that are difficult to hear (and to say), but this is exactly where politeness, respect for others and kindness can facilitate the flow of information, and help opening people to ideas and opinions instead of shutting them out. I want to hear people who disagree, I have gained a lot from listening to both James and Maaret, and to see a wall growing between them (or, as James stated in his blog “I will no longer be conferring with her, until and unless those differences are resolved”) makes me a bit sad. 

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