Pure majority rule considered harmful

I’ve been discussing an issue on Perlmonks over the past couple days; specifically the potential for abuse of the anonymous posting feature. I’ve seen numerous threads go by discussing this, most of which have focused on restricting the anonymous user. Since the anonymous user’s current feature set seems to be a noli me tangere, I proposed an alternative solution similar to Twitter’s blocking feature. One of the site maintainers very cordially explained why my proposal was not going to be adopted, and in general I’d just let this drop – but I received another comment that I can’t just let pass without comment. To quote:

I’m saying “This isn’t a problem for the overwhelming majority, therefore it is not a problem.”

I’d like to take a second and talk about this particular argument against change, and why it is problematic. This is not about Perlmonks. This is not about any particular user. This is about a habit of thought that can be costly both on a job-related and personal level.

Software engineering is of necessity conservative. It’s impossible to do everything that everyone wants, therefore we have to find reasons to choose some things and not others. And as long as the reasons are honest and based on fact and good reasoning, then they are good reasons. They may not make everyone happy (impossible to do everything), but they do not make anyone feel as if their needs are not being carefully considered. But, because we’re all human, sometimes we take our emotional reactions to a proposal and try to justify those with a “reason” that “proves” our emotional reaction is right.

In this case, what is said here is something I’ve seen in many places, not just at Perlmonks: the assumption that unless the majority of the people concerned have a problem, there’s no good reason to change; the minority must put up with things as they are or leave. Secondarily, if there is no “perfect” solution (read: a solution that I like), then doing nothing is better than changing.

There is a difference between respectfully acknowledging that a problem exists, and taking the time to lay out why there are no good solutions within the existing framework, including the current proposal, as the maintainer did – and with which I’m satisfied – and saying “everyone else is happy with things as they are”, end of conversation.

The argument that the majority is perfectly happy with the status quo says several things by implication: the complainer should shut up and go along; the complainer is strange and different and there’s something wrong with them; they do not matter enough for us to address this.

Again, what I’m talking about is not about Perlmonks.

As software engineers, we tend to lean on our problem-solving skills, inventiveness, and intelligence. We use them every day, and they fix our problems and are valuable (they are why we get paid). This means we tend to take them not only to other projects, but into our personal lives. What I would want you to think about is whether you have accepted that stating “everyone else is happy with things as they are” is a part of your problem-solving toolkit. The idea that “the majority doesn’t have a problem with this” can morph into “I see myself as a member of the majority, so my opinions must be the majority’s opinions; since the majority being happy is sufficient to declare a problem solved, asserting my opinion is sufficient – the majority rule applies because I represent the majority”.

This shift can be poisonous to personal relationships, and embodies a potential for the destruction of other projects – it becomes all too easy to say the stakeholders are being “too picky” or “unrealistic”, or to assume that a romantic partner or friend should always think the same way you do because “most people like this” or “everybody wants this” or “nobody needs this” – when in actuality you like it or want it or don’t need it. The other person may like, need, or want it very much – and you’ve just said by implication that to you they’re “nobody” – that they don’t count. No matter how close a working or personal relationship is, this will sooner or later break it.

Making sure you’re acknowledging that what others feel, want, and need is as valid as what you feel, want, and need will go a long way toward dismantling these implicit assumptions that you are justified in telling them how they feel and what should matter to them.

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