Politeness as a tool for malice

Politeness in a civilized society exists to make interactions among people as smooth as possible. However, more than a few groups of people have taken up the notion of politeness as a gaslighting mask for projecting their malicious feelings (notably feelings of offense) onto others.

Conflict handling

The most well-known recommendation to handle conflicts is to communicate with more explicit civility. Here is an example of what this means in practice.

Where civility falls short

Explicitly added civility in communication reportedly has the effect of minimizing the chances of conflict. This is called managing the problem of conflicts. When the problem does not exist in the first place, however, there is nothing to manage. Eliminating the possibility of conflicts, wherever possible, is patently superior to merely letting them happen in a controlled fashion.

Moreover civility can be used to hide the feeling of ill will or misbehaviour; for instance:

I think it’s worth adding that civility can be a shield for people who are expert at playing political games, and I think there are certain people in the community who are just that… and do that. I won’t elaborate here, but suffice it to say that I have definitely had exchanges with prominent members of the community where I got the distinct feeling that that person was really just sandbagging while being very polite and making every effort to appear impartial.


The leadership style in Elm is extremely aggressive and authoritarian.

By that I do not mean impolite or rude. It is almost always very civil. But still ultimately aggressive and controlling. — Luke Plant

When push comes to shove, civility–no matter the level of dose applied–does virtually nothing to prevent the feeling of offense:

… once enough people are piling on to complain or tell you what’s wrong with what you did, you’re going to feel attacked - even if every single comment is worded politely and respectfully.

Which means that the palliative remedy of civility, while even exacerbating the problem at times, is not the exemplary solution that many people claim it to be.


John de Goes

I originally learned of this pattern when coming across the whole Typelevel incident against the programmer John de Goes. In summary: Typelevel accused John of being rude because of his comments on Github, and yet the people (including myself) who looked over those comments found no problematic behaviour.

Typelevel has, essentially, kicked John using politeness as a tool.


Another incident of similar theme was reported by a former employee of the company NoRedInk wrote this comment:

If only I could have read this years ago, before I had the misfortune of working at NoRedInk. The team shows a bewildering mix of cargo-cult inclusiveness coupled with inability to consider that anyone could be different from them in any way that matters. I’ve never before or since met a group where a mentor would advise someone to “show more curiosity” by asking fewer questions!

[I was] fired halfway through the period for “engaging in conflict” which I can only speculate referred to a bizarre conversation on company Slack about whether or not it made sense to add a cache.