The Living Room and The Dojo

How we treat other people in public spaces needs work. Too often, people will thoughtlessly behave in a manner that causes others in a community to feel unsafe or unwelcome. This isn't necessarily a character flaw in the individual, but a failure to understand what is appropriate and inappropriate in a given space. We need a better model for understanding these interactions and making appropriate choices in the moment.

The Living Room

In your living room, alone or surrounded by your favorite friends and family, you probably feel pretty comfortable saying whatever you like. You can declare your political, religious, or musical preferences freely, and nobody will silence you. It's your living room, after all.

In your living room, you feel safe. You invite other people with whom you feel safe into your living room, and you talk amongst them in relaxed, intimate conversation.

In your living room, you aren't expecting to be reprimanded for saying something controversial, contentious, or divisive. You feel free to speak your mind, and you do so.

The Dojo

The Japanese word dojo (Kanji 道場) literally translates as a "place of the way." The term refers to space where meditation, martial arts, or other physical training are practiced.

In a dojo, you are respectful. You are attentive when someone else is speaking. You are thoughtful and deliberate; disciplined. You honor the place, the people around you, and the topic that brought you all together.

In a dojo, you feel safe. You trust that everyone there shares a common purpose: to practice, to share, and to learn together. Nobody is trying to hurt anybody else. If someone causes you pain, you let them know so that they can correct their technique for next time. If you hurt someone, they tell you and you correct your technique so it doesn't happen again. You quickly learn to interact in a way that is safe for everyone and mutually beneficial.

In a dojo, when you make a mistake you will be told. Whether it is the instructor, a nearby senior student, your partner, or another attentive observer, someone will point out what you did wrong, and offer guidance for how to do it better in the future. We all make mistakes during practice, and we improve by learning from those mistakes.

Community and Public Discourse

Jessica Otey introduced me to the living room as a metaphor for understanding speech in a conversation around community moderation. The idea that there are things that are okay to say in the privacy of your living room, but are not okay to say in a public setting immediately made sense, and my mind set to work searching: if the living room describes what a community is not, what describes what the community is? What's the converse community conversation convention? It's a dojo.

When you are part of a community, whether that is a local meetup, a neighborhood, or a national conference, you are not in your living room. You are in a dojo. You should treat others with the same respect, the same kindness and consideration, that you would give to your fellow students in the dojo. In doing so, you help to create an environment that benefits the entire community.


Just last month, David McRaney described in his YANSS podcast episode 133, How politics became our identity, the way norms have shifted around discussing politics at the dinner table:

Dinner parties used to be where you avoided politics. Now talking about politics at dinner parties is the norm.

Years ago, we avoided politics because we assumed the people at our table had diverse political identities, and we didn’t want to introduce a topic that might lead to an argument. Today, we assume our guests share a single identity, after all, why else would we have invited them?

Something has changed in the United States, and for many of us, it’s only at Thanksgiving dinner, a gathering where we don’t get to sort ourselves by political tribe, that we must face people who see the world differently than ourselves.

Similarly, a community like beCamp – an event I am honored to enjoy with the technology professionals of Charlottesville, VA every year – is not a place where I can assume that everyone shares my political views, just like those dinner parties of yesteryear that David talks about. Instead of behaving as if I'm in my living room, I, and all of the other attendees, should behave as if we are in a dojo, respectful of each other, open to ideas, and learning from our shared interest in technology.

Like martial arts, words can hurt if you use them improperly. We should tell each other when it hurts, and change how we do it. We don't want to hurt our fellow students, after all.

The Arena

Buddhism has the concept of near enemies, which I discovered in a blog post by Pamela Fox. Buddhist practicioners learn to cultivate a set of virtures and are warned about the dangers of the near enemies, things that are so close to those virtues that you could mistake them for virtues. The near enemies are dangerously different.

The dojo, the place of the way, where we value respect and practice and learning, has a near enemy: the arena. In the arena, we are not practicing; We are competing. We are not sharing; We are carefully guarding our secrets, planning and plotting against our opponent. We are not in the arena to learn. The arena is for tournaments. We are in the arena to win.

Winning is not the goal in the dojo, or in the community. Winning implies losing, and the purpose of the community is for everyone to benefit, not for some to benefit while others lose, or suffer, or feel unwelcome.

The Way

Our role as community organizers (or leaders in any organization) is to create dojos; places of the ways that we are trying to cultivate. As members of a community, we must honor the ways and care for the places.