Hari's Corner

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Reverse Elitism and the Linux Community

Filed under: Internet and Blogging by Hari
Posted on Wed, Jul 20, 2005 at 14:59 IST (last updated: Wed, Jul 16, 2008 @ 21:07 IST)

Ever wondered why Linux debates are so inflammatory and seemingly so personal every time there is one in progress? Most people attribute it to the fact that Linux users are so religious about their operating system. It is said that any criticism of Linux is intolerable and the blame usually lies on the more fanatical members of the Linux community for hating new ideas and new people who bring in ideas that are contradictory to the so-called "Linux spirit". Does this point of view give us the whole picture? Not quite, in my opinion. Linux flame wars are complex phenomena and not everything can be explained merely by the "Linux is religion" angle.

In fact, I attribute it to something totally different and something totally unrelated to Linux and in fact computers. It is simply explained in a couple of words reverse elitism which is a purely psycho-social phenomenon. But instead of using big words, let me try and explain with some concrete examples.

What is this reverse elitism? Everybody has heard of elitism, which basically means assuming superiority over one's opponent in a debate and projecting oneself as an exclusive person or part of an exclusive group. Traditionally *nix users have been projected as an elitist group who are unfriendly to new members to the club and use the words "RTFM" ever so often. In fact, the whole concept of elitism in the *nix community can be easily explained in a single four letter acronym: RTFM. Times have long since changed and it's no longer fashionable to be an elitist. The community has changed a lot and elitism has generally been cast aside in favour of inclusivism and friendliness. You can easily notice elitism when you see it and generally people who show elitist attitudes are quite quickly put in their place these days.

So much for elitism. What is reverse elitism then? Reverse elitism is a new trend I see these days on bulletin boards in general and in Linux boards in particular. Simply put, reverse elitism is a strategy that is quite effective in attacking opponents in debates without seemingly using an offensive technique. Reverse elitism is a technique by which you paint yourself as a victim or paint your opponent as being part of an exclusive group and therefore implying that his opinions are not reflective of general opinion. Reverse elitism is when you paint yourself as being a representative of the so-called "masses", of the ubiquitous man-in-the-street. Reverse elitism is when you wear a mask of humility and take the moral high ground and metaphorically tear your opponent to shreds for appearing to be arrogant and elitist in attitude. All these are characteristics of what I like to call "reverse elitism". When seemingly the victim becomes the aggressor and the opponent is the bully who is put into his place.

There is a small but highly vocal group of new Linux users who don the reverse elitist role and attack the Linux community for being an exclusive group not open to new ideas or new people. They are either genuinely frustrated individuals who want to vent their anger on the rest of the community or are merely trolls who want to get a rise out of provoking you. Either way, the effect is the same. Unfortunately reverse elitism is especially successful in Linux debates because of the historical and traditional elitism attributed to the *nix community. It is no wonder then that Linux debates become so heated, because people hate being branded as elitist and hate being clubbed together as a single group with a single, uniform mindset. No wonder that people take such posts so personally and become so vehement in defending Linux when in fact, they are defending themselves unconsciously. In fact, they find themselves going increasingly on the defensive and find that they not only have to defend Linux, but preserve their own non-elitist status as well. Thus the reverse elitist quite often wins without any real arguments or logic. On a side note, in political debates, reverse elitism can be seen in the way people often don the role of the "messiah" or the "representative" of the downtrodden, the victimized and the weak. In fact, reverse elitism exists almost everywhere in the sphere of human debate and discussion.

I think that there is only one way to combat reverse elitism. After all, it is a form of anti-social behaviour just as elitism is. The problem though is that it's often much more subtle than plain arrogance and elitism. It is difficult to detect and once you fall a victim to a reverse elitist, it is much more difficult to extricate yourself. One thing to do is to detect reverse elitism where you see it and learn to ignore it. It is hard to do so, but when a debate is becoming personal in nature without having any genuine flaming, you can bet that reverse elitism is behind it. Another is to read a post very carefully and find out which points hurt you most. If you find a personal attack where there is seemingly none, ninety percent of the time it is a reverse elitist attack. The best option is not to respond to reverse elitism. This is commonly and rather loosely translated as "do not feed the trolls". Unfortunately the second phrase does not quite explain why people feed trolls all the time. It is a losing cause because the more frustrated one gets, the more one is likely to lose control and then say or write something that could easily be interpreted as arrogance and thus elitism, playing right into the hands of an opponent.

Nobody likes to face personal attacks even when clothed in philosophy and seemingly not targetted. It is a fact that indirect attacks tend to sting worse than an open insult. While you can combat an opponent who faces you with the sword, you find it infinitely more difficult to combat somebody who avoids your blows and plunges a dagger in your back when you're not looking.

Reverse elitism is a form of anti-social behaviour pure and simple. Linux flame wars are not always about Linux but about people, their motives and their behaviour under stressful circumstances. Reverse elitist strategies in debates are simply designed to provoke negative emotions in human beings and to lure unsuspecting opponents into a trap and leave them metaphorically beaten and bruised without letting them know what hit them.

There is only one answer to reverse elitism. Learn to ignore it.

9 comment(s)

  1. You hit the nail on the head this time Hari.Very well done indeed.-- scuzzman

    Comment by John Dorn III (visitor) on Sun, Jul 24, 2005 @ 17:53 IST #
  2. Scuzzman, thanks for dropping in with your feedback. Much appreciated! P.S. Your redesigned site looks cool. Good work!Regards.

    Comment by hari (blog owner) on Sun, Jul 24, 2005 @ 18:27 IST #
  3. I agree with much of what you say. I am glad to see someone taking social interests in the linux community.

    Comment by Matir (visitor) on Tue, Jul 26, 2005 @ 08:37 IST #
  4. Yes there may be reverse elitism going on, but the comments made by 'nix users about new users as exampled in the beginning of the following post, is precisely why some new users are getting frustrated......eg.This was posted on another forum but indicative of some linuxusers sentiments - hence repeated here:This was a Linux users response to someone who is trying to ask honest questions about the linux learning curve and whether or not linux is ready for the desktop.____________________________________________________________________________________"Linux isn't yet ready for the clueless user who wants it all to work by magic" - and frankly, I hope it stays that way"____________________________________________________________________________________What linux needs is users with less sarcasm and a better attitude toward prospective Windows converts and/or PC users in general. This is no way to spread linux. As a new user I accepted the blame for much of my problems with linux, but as I have gotten further into it, I have had my suspicions all along about the motives of some linux users and this confirms it. There is a part of the linux community that views linux as their own special "black magic", and the fewer people who understand it.....the better. It's like the fat kid with no friends who has the ball and threatens to leave if everyone doesn't play by his rules, or the Dungeons and Dragons freak who feels a sense of intellectual superiority over the "average joe". There is absolutely NOTHING wrong with taking a product and trying to make it more user friendly - whether that user is an expert or an "average joe". I'm sick and tired of hearing some linux users berating prospective converts by making thinly veiled disparaging remarks about someone's intelligence if they DON'T want to know how to configure everything in their OS. I wonder if the person who made this comment realizes that many actions in any human undertaking are composite actions...that is... several procedures that are integrated into one smooth, purposeful action. This person thinks that if you don't know how to add a flashdrive to your fstab/mtab, then you shouldn't be messing with linux.................OK, here's my suggestion to him....why don't you stop driving unless you really understand how and why the caster, camber, and toe-in ( and the attendant centripetal forces and vectors)affects how your car moves on down the road. Yes, each setting could be adjusted individually... AS YOU DRIVE.... but the engineers have rightfully determined that an integrated compromise of these settings .... built in at the factory... gives a smoother response under 98% of all situations to the act of steering a car. Maybe he feels that diabetics should stop taking their insulin until they learn about how it works on the molecular level. Why don't we stop all air travel until the average flyer is able to calculate the AOA limits of the 737 they are riding in?..............sorry dude, but the marketplace is going to take your highly specialized and eclectic OS and dumb it down and #######ize it for the masses. It's already being done by intelligent distro designers who realize that a point'n'click interface that integrates many common PC chores is a logical way to let the OS work transparently, and let the "clueless user" get on with stupid worthless tasks like running a business....invoicing clients, paying workers, or let the "clueless doctor" get on with running his practice, or the "clueless schooldistrict" get on with teaching our kids. If MS did one thing right, it was to at least make an effort to INCLUDE and NOT EXCLUDE the mass market PC user. If linux distros can create their own brand of common standards and inclusivity, then a great service will have been performed in giving the user a choice and breaking the stranglehold that that cheap huckster in Redmond WA has on the world.GO Linux!!

    Comment by trio (visitor) on Tue, Jul 26, 2005 @ 11:56 IST #

  5. Comment by hari (blog owner) on Tue, Jul 26, 2005 @ 12:11 IST #
  6. Unfortunately, reverse elitism is widespread in the "world community;" too many people have become proficient at hiding their intolerance by pointing out the supposed intolerance of another.Good work.

    Comment by Charred (visitor) on Thu, Jul 28, 2005 @ 06:07 IST #
  7. Thanks for dropping by with your feedback, Charred. You're right, this is a widespread phenomenon. Unfortunately it's not really possible to change that kind of attitude by argument or logic.

    Comment by hari (blog owner) on Thu, Jul 28, 2005 @ 07:43 IST #
  8. Two men approached me with a problem. I told them each that the solution was to be found within the pages of a manual. One man rushed to find the answer and went on to be successful in life. The other one cursed me and swore to defeat elitists such as I, and then went on to be a bum receiving welfare.

    Such has it ever been. Such shall it ever be. Everybody gets the help they deserve.

    Comment by Penguin_Pete (visitor) on Sun, Jun 8, 2008 @ 17:51 IST #
  9. Penguin Pete, I'm very happy to receive a comment to such an old article as this one.

    I've now mellowed down a lot and maybe today I wouldn't be as harsh as you have been, but yes, I agree with your philosophy that everybody gets the help they deserve.

    Comment by hari (blog owner) on Mon, Jun 9, 2008 @ 21:11 IST #

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