On Saturday Jean-Michel Dumay, who has written for Le Monde (Paris) for more than twenty years, mused about the significance of an editing war over the word humanité on Wikipédia, the French version of Wikipedia.  --  His article is translated below....


[Translated from Le Monde (Paris)]

Chronique époque

By Jean-Michel Dumay

Le Monde (Paris)
December 16, 2006


Recently, some beginning philosophy students at Paris-I were working on the following subject:  "Does the plurality of cultures prevent us from conceiving of humanity as one?"  Reflexes not being altogether what they might have been in the past, it was neither in Larousse, nor in Robert, nor in Littré, that one of them began to look for a definition of the word humanité, but rather on the web. More precisely, on Wikipedia.

Wikipedia is an amazing instrument. The site is said to be among the Top 12 most consulted on the web. Its name is as much borrowed from the Hawaiian 'wiki wiki,' meaning 'rapid, informal,' as from the root '-pedia,' which goes back to 'educate' in ancient Greek. Wikipedia is a free encyclopedia project, a sort of knowledge cooperative, permitting internet users to write and modify the site's articles: 5 million to date, written in 250 languages, 400,000 of them in French.

Our student thus typed humanité, thinking he would find some primary truth to build on. To his great disappointment, he came away disconcerted: the article on the free encyclopedia was locked down. And for good reason. Since November 11, it has been the object of a "war": more specifically, an "editing war," which means that the article cannot be modified, pending arrival at a consensus. On Wikipedia, for a month now, then, humanité has been at war. There, too, one is tempted to say. Conflict really is a constant for the human race.

Wikipedians, who have developed an entire Wikilanguage, call an "editing war" a controversy among editors who express a profound disagreement on a subject. Since the encyclopedic edifice tends to a "neutral point of view" and rejects any system of expert validation, criticisms of its reliability, precision, or partiality in its content sometimes rage on the so-called "discussion" pages. There have been, we learn, "deplorable editing wars" over the naming of the page endive (preferred to chicon), over the page devoted to Wallonie ['Wallonia'] (as opposed to région wallonne ['Walloon region']), over the nationality of Kafka, and over the loi Fillon [the 2003 law reforming France's retirement system].

As for humanité, it was Alceste and Idéalités, hidden behind their pseudonyms, who had at it for several days. Alceste wanted to merge the article with Homo sapiens.  Idéalités found that approach too biological, insisting on giving humanity its due in terms of philosophy and the ideal.  Called to the rescue on the night of November 10-11, a mediator intervened to maintain order in this nocturnal brawl.  He "protected" (temporarily locked down) the article, asking the belligerents insulting each other to respect Wikipetiquette -- the rules Wikipedians live by.

In addition to issues about the reach of this participative knowledge, this is indeed the interesting point about Wikihumanity, which brings together so many differences, countries, cultures, and points of view:  this corpus of procedures to try to manage conflicts, this will to treat all points of view with respect in a spirit of nonviolence.  In this sort of pedagogy of peace, there is something that ressembles humanity itself, and which, at bottom, would no doubt please Idéalités without displeasing the misanthropic Alceste, who to date have still not achieved reconciliation.

In an article in the December number of the review Études, Anne Guibert-Lassalle, an author-illustrator, justifiably expresses regret that in France books for those under 12 describe only very partially the complexity of wars, the careful examination of whose causes might lead to a form of early education for peace.  She notes how true it is that often it is our conviction that we possess the truth that unleashes violence.  Thus it would seem that the plurality of convictions, if not expressed in a spirit of tolerance, surely prevents humanity from being experienced as one, even prior to being conceived as such.

Translated by Mark K. Jensen
Associate Professor of French
Department of Languages and Literatures
Pacific Lutheran University
Tacoma, WA 98447-0003
Phone: 253-535-7219
Home page: http://www.plu.edu/~jensenmk/
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