Human Anti-Patterns: Tool as goal

I recently encountered an anti-pattern in the software world that is fundamentally a human behavior anti-pattern.  I haven’t come up with a cute name for it yet, but it boils down to confusing the goal of a particular activity with the tools used to achieve the goal.  In other words, the tools start to take a higher priority than the goal, and the goal suffers.

It’s easy to think of examples, in and out of the software world:

  • Consistency in programming style:  Consistency is something to strive for in your programming style, as consistency tends to make code better organized and more readable.  The fundamental goal is readable, well organized, efficient code.  Consistency is a tool used achieve that goal.  It’s actually a very good tool for that goal, to the point of being an indicator of how well the goal has been achieved.  But it can be overdone, and it must be remembered that the goal is clean, efficient, readable code, and that trumps consistency.
  • Unions:  I am loath to criticize unions, as unions are a very important tool for democratization and social change.  Fundamentally a union is nothing more than a tool that allows working people to negotiate on an equal footing with the power elites of capitalist societies.  This is inherently a good idea, and even a bad union is better than no union.  Unions suffer from an undeservedly bad reputation in America thanks to a massive propaganda campaign (the Wisconsin plan, I believe it’s called).    The anti union plan involves propaganda attacks on the unions at a deep cultural level over the last hundred years, and a systematic corruption and coopting of the Unions themselves.  This system of corruption only works when the unions (and typically this is union organizers, not the union members themselves) allow themselves to prioritize the Union over the union, i.e. the organization over the solidarity.
  • Flag burning, the patriot act, extraordinary rendition, overzealous patriotism, etc:  What is any of this besides valuing the symbol over what is being symbolized?  Patriotism, having pride in a flag, these concepts only have value when the nation being idealized has a value worthy of being idealized and spread.  What value does our flag have when we have to restrict our freedoms to prevent people from ‘desecrating’ it?
  • Virtually any concept in software engineering:  single responsibility, small functions & classes, design patterns…  Like consistency, the real value of these concepts is they provide conceptual tools which allow us to create cleaner, conciser, more flexible, understandable, robust, and maintainable code.   But every single one of these concepts can be pursued to the point where it produces worse code.
  • Zen.  Believe it or not, I’ve heard of a guy who zealously practices zen meditation, but every time he loses his cool about something (loses his zen), he gets so worked up over his failure that he becomes temperamental and intolerable for weeks.

So let us be careful to understand what the goals are, and what the means are.

Advocacy anti-patterns

A few years ago it became quite trendy to attempt to isolate succesful patterns in solving certain recurrent programming problems. Not long thereafter, it became clear that it was useful to identify identify harmful anti-patterns which frequently impede or halt the success of a project. Just as studying such anti-patterns can help the success of a software-engineering project, studying anti-patterns in human behaviour can help us be more successful in our attempts at social-engineering. Among the social issues for which I advocate I have noticed several such anti-patterns, which I will attempt to identify and describe.

The purpose of studying anti-patterns is self-analysis, not to provide a convenient vocabulary for attack within an advocacy group.  Indeed, in-fighting and splintering within an advocacy group is the mother of all advocacy anti-patterns.   I called it the “People’s front of Judea” pattern, and will write about it at a future date.

That said, a  comment at inspired me to write out the first few. The context is this: An editorial was posted discussing how illegal cannabis cultivation is destroying the ecology of our national parks. The article was specifically addressing the impact on Crystal Cave, but the problem is a general one. This is one of the negative consequences of cannabis prohibition, and will disappear once prohibition is repealed. A reader, ( primus) made a comment to the effect that “hey, we should try and get the Sierra club involved in this issue.”, a good point, and useful from an advocacy point of view, as it suggests an approach to bring more people into the cause.

Another reader (“James G”) replies:

I am more than sorry to inform you Primus that with the exception of our public lands,”thank God we do have those, for now” this world is not ours,”the common home of humanity,as it should be” but the” private property” of a small percentage of the human population who thouraghly believe they should be able do anything with their private property they see fit even if the rest of us is harmed.You must understand that these people are in favor of freedom and human wellbeing only to the extent that they can profit directly from such virtues.When freedom and the wellbeing of the 90 plus percent of humanity that does not belong to the ownership class threatens the power and or profits of the elite those virtues are cast aside in favor of totalitarian and facistic acts which insure that the masses never taste real freedom and wellbeing.

The facts are quite clear;the elite will first destroy humanity and the natural enviroment with their arsenals of nukes and biochemical weopons before they will loose or sucsede power to whom power rightfully belongs”,that is the people”.

Indeed this is not our world but the private property of the elite.This is why we now live in an age when a person can be incarcerated for the personal use of a plant ,”in the name of protecting the public wellbeing” while ultra wealthy manufactorers of the most deadly of weopons,”even nukes” walk scott free and enjoy the best life has to offer,all at our expence. It is really quite insane,but yet we still call it civilization !

Apathy of Despair

These three paragraphs can be summarised as “Dude, don’t even try and do anything because everything is so shitty you can’t possibly make it better.”. I like to call this “Apathy of despair.“.

Successful advocacy relies on people being engaged and working actively to a certain goal. People are motivated to work towards social change when they 1) see that there is a problem, and 2) have some hope that the situation can be improved. One often runs into people who start off claiming that there is no problem (apathy of denial). If one confronts these people with sufficient evidence to the contrary they move directly to despair (apathy through despair). What these two states have in common is a lack of action or effort. I get the impression the apathetic individual simply doesn’t want to take responsibility for their role society, and just wants to skate through without making an effort. Some accomplish this abdication of effort through naivite, and others through cynicism, but the result is basically the same.

The overwhelming journey

Laziness is not the only path to the apathy-of-despair. In James case, I believe he arrived there through a pattern of thinking that deserves its own anti-pattern, which I’ll call the “overwhelming journey”.  (I can’t think of a better name yet, but please feel free to make suggestions). The overwhelming journey occurs when an individual sees the problems involved, but can’t see the path to improvement.  They have forgotten that “the journey of a thousand miles begins with single step”.   They may be frustrated because they have forgotten that social change takes time, and is difficult.  Perhaps their frustrations with the problems they perceive leads them to an angry state of mind, and so they are unable to calmly and rationally analyse the problem and possible solutions.  The get wrapped in a ranting, raving, rabid froth.

Some additional gripes

James’ post suffers from some additional anti-patterns, which are difficult to point out in a kindly manner.  He rants and raves about the “elite”, “fascistic act” etc.  Basically he’s falling into the “grand conspiracy” AAP (which is a close corollary to the tinfoil hat AAP).   This kind of thing dilutes a movements credibility, and drives away potentially useful collaborators.

In the end, James post encourages prohibition-repeal advocates to give up and stop giving a shit, and drives people who are undecided on the issue away.