avoiding contention: don’t get trolled

MoonlightingFrom time to time, as we exchange comments with people online on topics related to the Bahá’í Faith and its principles, we may find that we encounter opposition. Sometimes, people will simply disagree, and that’s fine, of course—everyone’s got an opinion, and as long as we show tact, wisdom, forbearance and love for each other, there’s a good chance we can uncover a greater truth from these kinds of exchanges.

But sometimes, the opposition we encounter can be a little more serious. I’m not talking about honest disagreements, but rather, people straight-up attacking the Bahá’í Faith and everything that Bahá’ís believe in. This can include attacks on Bahá’u’lláh, His Covenant, and the other Central Figures of the Bahá’í Faith, such as the Báb, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá and Shoghi Effendi; the Universal House of Justice; the actions of individual Bahá’ís or particular Bahá’í institutions or communities; the relation between the Bahá’í Faith and other religions, such as Islam, Judaism, and Christianity; the Bahá’í stance on homosexuality and other highly politicized issues; and so on. Like I said, everyone has their own opinions, and that’s fine, as long as those opinions are well-founded. But when those opinions are based on misunderstandings, ignorance, or worse, when people start engaging in willful, reckless slander and calumny—misrepresenting what Bahá’ís believe and do, and accusing them of monstrosities that are patently false—that’s when there’s a problem.

As we know, Bahá’u’lláh calls upon us “to refute the arguments of those that have attacked the Faith of God”. We may also have also read the advice of the Universal House of Justice about the approach we should take towards correcting the misconceptions brought forth by those who attack the Cause:

“In correcting misrepresentations of the Faith made by those who are hostile to it, our obligation is to set forth Bahá’u’lláh’s teachings cogently and courteously, but firmly, supporting them with rational proofs. Once this has been done, the challenge rests with our hearers, whatever their interests or motivations, to consider our responses in this same spirit of courtesy and objectivity. …

In the same piece of advice, the Universal House of Justice draws our attention to something we must absolutely avoid, which is contention:

“For Bahá’ís to go further than this, by engaging in acrimonious debate, much less by reflecting on the character of others, would be to cross the line that separates legitimate defense of the Faith from contention.

As a follow-up to an earlier post about what Baha’is do when people attack the Faith, I thought I’d share the following quote, from a piece of guidance from the World Centre on the topic of avoiding contention when addressing misconceptions about the Bahá’í Faith.

In emphasizing the importance of harmony in human relationships, Bahá’u’lláh declares that “conflict and contention are categorically forbidden in His Book.” He further exhorts all people to “utter that which is meet and seemly,” to “refrain from slander, abuse and whatever causeth sadness in men,” and to recognize that the “religion of God is for love and unity” and not to be made the “cause of enmity or dissension.”

Clearly, any tendency toward argumentation or confrontation is to be eschewed by Bahá’ís while opportunities to clarify or defend the Faith’s basic precepts and goals should be carried out “in a restrained and unprovocative language.” In some cases, it may be appropriate to directly address topics raised by critics, but in other situations, it may be more constructive to simply present the authoritative Bahá’í perspective on a matter. Confusion or erroneous understandings surrounding Bahá’í belief can best be dispelled through a reasoned focus on issues, and the principles underlying issues, without reference to the motivations or identity of individuals raising the criticisms. Regardless of the approach taken, “in our presentations and relationships we should always try to build bridges so that our beautiful Teachings can be understood and accepted, and the power which they have to establish unity amongst men will be exemplified.” In the end, though, if critics are not receptive to clarifications or explanations offered, it is preferable to respectfully leave them to themselves.

On a practical level, to argue directly or indirectly with those critical of the Faith can be counterproductive. Disputatious interactions can provide opponents with platforms to disseminate their views and agendas, and repel the wider audience observing such interactions. In addition, as the House of Justice notes, “Under most circumstances, it would seem worse than futile for a Bahá’í to attempt to defend the institutions or members of the Faith from the kind of reckless slander that has become an all too common feature of the moral deterioration of contemporary society, and that tends to characterize much of the language of the Faith’s current critics.”

It is apparent that some opponents seek to draw Bahá’ís into exchanges with the intent of demonstrating that Bahá’ís are either naïve, dogmatic, or intolerant. In particular, adherence to the provisions of the Covenant of Bahá’u’lláh is sometimes cast in these terms, while for believers such adherence expresses faith in a power “which quickeneth and promoteth the development of all created things on earth.” Bahá’u’lláh affirms that it is indeed possible to both tread the path of religious faith and to be tolerant: “…observe tolerance and righteousness, which are two lights amidst the darkness of the world and two educators for the edification of mankind.”

TrollfaceIf you’ve spent a decent of time on the Internet, then “trolls” and “trolling” are part of your vocabulary. I’ve seen my share of trolls online, and in the case of trolls who attack the Bahá’í Faith, picking them out is pretty easy. Most of the time their arguments don’t make much sense, and even people who don’t know much about Bahá’í can tell that what they’re saying isn’t legit.

In some cases, ignoring trolls is enough. But sometimes it is necessary to speak up; for instance, when they respond to people who have a genuine interest in the Bahá’í Faith. I mean, imagine asking a question about a really neat new message from God that seems to be the answer to the ills of mankind, and in response, getting nothing but a bunch of nonsense telling you how Bahá’ís are The Devil 666™ and in league with every evil group under the sun. That’s why it is necessary for us to speak up and say hey, if you want a legit answer, here it is, feel free to investigate further. Of course, haters are gonna hate and trolls are gonna troll, so it’s inevitable that we’ll get flak for speaking up. That’s why we need to know how to establish the truth without feeding the trolls nor engaging in contention. And in my opinion, the guidance above is a great way to describe this balancing act.

It’s all about getting attention. Trolls thrive on attention, and they try to get it by provoking conflict, drawing people into arguments. That’s exactly why, when seeking to correct misinformation that’s shared about the Faith online, it’s important to practice moderation, detachment, wisdom and restraint. “For Bahá’ís to go further than this, by engaging in acrimonious debate, much less by reflecting on the character of others, would be to cross the line that separates legitimate defense of the Faith from contention.”

Photos: Moonlighting by dawolf-, and Trollface by Paul VanDerWerf.

the old blogging days

So, since we were talking about websites the other day, I thought I’d go back to that subject a little and ramble on about the Internet. Because, you know, nothing is more meta than getting on the Internet to read what people have to say about the Internet. So come, let us sit on the porch in our rocking chairs, and shoot the breeze about the good old days of Doberman Pizza and Bahá’í blogging.

One of my favourite taglines for doberman pizza is “rolled, dressed and cooking since 1994“. That was the year when I first uploaded my homepage to a local Internet Service Provider, complete with wild rainbow colours, insane graphics and even insaner content. One of my first web projects, Find The Beagles, is still online after all these years, and still sports the same look it did way back then. What’s Your Pokéname?, a frivolous name generator that I coded up while in university, has only changed a little since the early days, but miraculously, it still gets over a thousand hits per month.

The “blog” part of the site appeared in June 2000, powered by a handmade Perl script. It wasn’t much more than a makeshift Twitter feed filled with mundane updates like:

whoops, left at 01:57 on 19/12/00: I just erased netscape by mistake! How *^$@# cool am I?

you’re e, left at 14:49 on 26/01/01: this is me at shamdogg’s place doing SECRET SQUIRREL things. peace to you all.

thwomp, left at 09:38 on 19/03/01: do you realize that this website is almost completely purposeless? that’s a rather interesting concept!

But then, there were also some interesting bits of news back in the day, too:

the main event, left at 07:23 on 22/05/01: In case you haven’t heard, the terraces of the Bahá’í World Centre in Haifa, Israel are being officially opened today. They’re broadcasting it live on the web, in realplayer format. it’s going on today and tomorrow. Check it out!

Eventually, I signed up with Blogger and set up a proper blog page. Soon enough, Bahá’í blogs started appearing here, there, and everywhere: Povo de Bahá, Sliding Thoughts (now A Calm Storm), Life of Leif, Warble, Baha’i Thought, Baha’i Views, Anxiously Concerned, Correlating, and Barnabas Quotidianus, to name a few of my favourites—not to mention Martin’s Quest, Vafa.tk, and Arash City. And then, of course, there was Bahá’í Blog, which looked very different from its current incarnation, but was still pretty darn cool. (I mean, they were regular readers of Doberman Pizza, so of course they were cool.)

Around 2007, things had started to get pretty well organized in the Bahá’í blogosphere, as we called it. I had my own 15 seconds of fame when my blog and I were featured in an article for the Canadian Bahá’í News Service. But soon enough, newfangled Web 2.0 websites started appearing, like Facebook, Twitter, and the like, and blogs started losing a lot of the prominence they once had. For me, I also got pretty busy around this time, and I hopped over to Vietnam, where my life got turned upside-down. As a result, Doberman Pizza took some extended down time, and for a while I wasn’t even sure if it would ever get going again.

That’s why things like this Bahá’í Blogging Challenge are really a stroke of genius. First of all, you have the challenge—go ahead, post something new every day, I dare you. A call like that has to be answered, and the requirement to post each day gets the creative juices flowing out of necessity. Second, you have the added benefit of support from all of the other poor souls who are also toiling through the challenge. In fact, some of the old-school bloggers I mentioned above, such as Sholeh at A Calm Storm and James at Warble are participating, too—check out what they’ve been writing, and get wowed by how far back their archived posts go. All in all, it encourages us to rise above the lethargy imposed upon us by our busy lives and just create—spin our words into something beautiful, just like we did in the old days.

Hmm, speaking of the old days, maybe I should go hang out at Shamdogg’s place. ben to tings. you’re e.

websites = life

The life of a web developer is basically just websites. Unless, you know, you like to go outside or something. But going outside’s beside the point of this post. This post is all about websites. Pretty little websites, all in a row. Big ones, small ones, wikis, social networks, coffee pot webcams, and more.

So, yeah, I spend a lot of my time on websites. Some of them you’ve probably heard of, and some you probably haven’t. Take, for instance, Wikipedia. You haven’t heard of that one, right? It’s a homework help free content farm online encyclopedia that has lots of cool stuff on it about small villages in England and bizarrely named dog breeds and stuff. I’ve been editing Wikipedia since about 2006, and, oddly enough, I feel like it’s actually helped me improve my writing skills. I’ve worked on a bunch of articles about Vietnam, and a few Bahá’í-related articles too.

Speaking of Bahá’í-related Wikipedia articles, Bahaikipedia is a thing too. It was created around the same time as I started writing on Wikipedia; I even blogged about it way back when I first started contributing there. It’s quietly but steadily grown over the years, to the point where there are now over 4,000 articles. Take a look through it when you get the chance, and if wikis are your thing (or even if they’re not), why not create an account and start contributing yourself?

Speaking of places where you should create an account and contribute, did you know that there’s a Baha’i Reddit group (aka “subreddit”)? It’s an interesting place to have conversations on all kinds of topics related to the Bahá’í Faith, and it’s pretty legit—well, at least legit enough to be featured on Bahá’í Blog, in an article marking its 9th anniversary. There are also related subreddits about Bahá’í history, photography, web/software projects, newsquotes, so there’s something for everyone. Over the past month there’ve been some pretty good threads on a variety of topics, including Light to the World, the new documentary on the life of Bahá’u’lláh; how one goes about becoming a Bahá’í; backbiting; the purpose of life; favourite recipes for 19-day Feasts; and more. Conversations can get challenging sometimes because it’s a forum that’s open to everyone, but the group is (ahem) pretty well moderated and, as a result, the cream tends to rise to the top.

Speaking of Reddit and having conversations, some Reddit users got together and created a Baha’i chat server on a platform ironically called “Discord”, which is popular with gamers and offers text, audio and video chat. It’s a fairly new server, but there are usually a few people online to chat with, for those who’d like the chance to talk to Bahá’ís and their friends in real time. They’ve created a new front page for the server with the amazing domain name bahai.fyi (don’t you just wish you had registered that one).

Speaking of amazing domain names… uh… well, I have one. Right? (That’s all for now, but don’t worry, there’ll be more talk about nerdy Internet stuff later on. For now, just go click on some links and have a great time.)

goggling google goggles

I don’t often get excited about mobile apps (heck, I haven’t even downloaded Angry Birds yet) but as far as I’m concerned, this one is the best thing since sliced bread: Google Goggles, part of the official Google app. It’s a piece of image recognition software that uses pictures you take with your mobile camera to search the web. In a nutshell: search with images instead of words. It’s not perfect yet, but it does seem to be good at recognizing things like logos, landmarks, and so on. To give you an example, I was able to take a picture of Dogs Playing Poker and it knew what it was. On the other hand, I took a picture of a logo off a bottle of Brio Chinotto and it couldn’t tell it from a no-smoking sign.

But by far the most exciting feature of Google Goggles is that it will recognize text—block letters, not necessarily handwritten—and translate it. I tried it with some bilingual signs on an OC Transpo bus here in Ottawa and the translation turned out to be more or less correct. Here’s how it works:

google goggles

Take a picture of some sort of text. It should be fairly legible; I figure block letters are best. OCR isn’t the best at picking up messy letters. Goggles will find the text in your picture and tell you what it sees. In this case, it’s pretty close.

google goggles translation

Click through to the translation screen, and you’ll see Google Translate giving you roughly what the words say. It’ll automatically tell what language is displayed and translate it into English (or whatever else).

Now, at the moment, Goggles seems to only be able to recognize a small subset of languages, among them English, French, German, Italian, Portuguese, and Spanish. It definitely seems to work best at recognizing languages written in Latin characters. It was even able to recognize some Vietnamese text I found, although the sentence it spat back at me was mostly garbage. I tried it on a number of other alphabets that use non-latin scripts—Chinese characters, Russian, Lao, and Thai—and didn’t have any luck; it didn’t even recognize them as language. That would probably be my main request to the Goggles team—recognizing non-latin scripts, especially things like Chinese, Thai, Korean and Japanese. Definitely a promising app, though, with sweeping potentialities: imagine if you could understand any shop sign you came by on your trip to China, or Japan, or wherever, just by snapping a picture of it with your smartphone?

oh wow

conf2009 been a while hasn’t it? well apart from all the usual trouble I get up to in between blog posts, I finished up some work implementing the design of the official website of the Toronto and Vancouver Baha’i regional conferences—which, coincidentally, are coming up in just a few short weeks. (There should still be time to register if you haven’t yet.) After plenty of civilized discussion (lol) with friend and fellow webservant Martin (warning: link is hopelessly out of date), we ended up putting up a simple little WordPress installation to house the whole thing, and adapted an existing theme to use an already-developed and -approved visual design; the bulk of the work happened in about 24 hours after a few frantic phone calls. Maybe not the most rewarding thing I’ve done in the last while (the recent redesign of the Conference Board of Canada’s home page takes that cake), but I can assure that the adrenaline rush of meeting the challenge and ensuing success did in fact kick it high up onto the list. not that I make a policy of working on extremely short-notice web projects, but something else has been flung my way just tonight that I expect to be working on in the next week, before I head off with family for a (well-deserved?) Christmas vacation visiting my extended family in the Maritime provinces (Moncton and area, mostly). Sounds fun huh?

oh and look at me using all these parentheses!

baha’i explorer

bahaiexplorernow here’s a rather eye-popping addition to your Favourites bar: Baha’i Explorer is a Baha’i content aggregator—a clean, concise website that offers an overview of the latest Baha’i-related content to appear on the Internet, including listings from prominent Baha’i blogs, news headlines, Youtube videos, music, flash presentations and more. It’s an individual initiative, and is by all appearances 100% legit. Seriously, you need to bookmark it now, and maybe spread it on Digg and del.icio.us and Facebook and all those other sites. Do it. Go already!