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Wiki Wars

Wikipedia has long been bashed by its critics as a free-for-all where the trashiest visitor ruins the facilities for all. Britannica editor-in-chief Robert McHenry famously described it as a public restroom. Wikipedia’s process may be vulgar and its output occasionally putrid—kind of like The New York Times—but the online encyclopedia is producing the world’s least biased accounts of the world’s most polarizing conflict.

If the sign of a good negotiation is the arrival of a resolution where both parties remain dissatisfied, then time and again this anarchic online community successfully resolves the world’s most seemingly intractable debates. In this sense, Wikipedia is a geopolitical laboratory, offering lessons on how we might approach such problems in the real world.

Two peoples at war can learn to live in peace with the help of what historians have called a “bridging narrative,” a shared understanding of history that takes into account the grievances of both sides. After five regional wars, two intifadas, and endless skirmishes and political confrontations, if any two groups of people on Earth need such a narrative, it’s Israelis and Arabs. By creating an editing environment in which political partisans from the different sides are induced to hash out their disagreements, Wikipedia is showing how a bridging narrative might be created, and what it might look like.

Such collective storytelling is on display in the articles about the Sabra and Shatila massacre, the Deir Yassin massacre, the Khazars, and the Exodus of Jews from Arab lands. Each one of these articles has an associated discussion page where editors debate how to present points of disagreement in an unbiased fashion. These dialogues are protracted, repetitive, and often cantankerous, but they have yielded hard-earned compromises and excellent, dispassionate articles on each of these topics.

Take Wikipedia’s article on the Lavon affair, an Israeli political scandal surrounding a 1954 incident in which Israeli operatives detonated bombs in British and American buildings in Egypt. Information on the bombings conflicts and has been put to very different interpretations by both sides.

Early versions of the Lavon affair article represent a maximalist anti-Israel interpretation. The operation was an “Israeli terrorist campaign” intended to destroy Egypt’s relationship with Britain and America by framing Arabs. Soon, though, editors more sympathetic to Israel modified the article to reflect the view of pro-Israel editors. They thought Israel’s civilian leadership knew nothing about the bombing campaign, which was conducted by a rogue counterintelligence cell. Nearly half of the article came to focus on the increased persecution of Egyptian Jews by the Egyptian government.

The opposing editors hit an impasse, so they turned to Wikipedia’s editorial guidelines. In cases like this, the rules encourage a process called “writing for the enemy,” in which editors attempt to fairly describe the views of the opposing side. They don’t have to agree, but they have to characterize the other side’s views accurately.

At first glance, the Lavon affair article now looks like one big stinker. The introduction doesn’t tell you when the event took place; the article describes the political context of early-1950s Egypt before it tells you what the Lavon affair actually was; and, for a topic involving such cloak-and-dagger intrigue and historical mystery, the article is dull as dishwater. And yet you can see where more opinionated editors jostled for position, inserting their commentary only to have their words modified by other editors. The technologist Jaron Lanier has said that wading through this kind of Wikipedia prose is “like reading the Bible closely. There are faint traces of the voices of various anonymous authors and editors.”

This dissonance makes for frustrating reading, but for an event as contentious as the Lavon Affair, it might be the best way to tell the story. Heteroglossia (literally, “different tongues”) is a way of retelling history that gives voice to multiple perspectives. It is, according to Peter Burke, a professor of cultural history at the University of Cambridge, the most effective way to write the history of political conflicts.

Many historical works are produced by lone authors trying to emulate the voices of multiple others. It’s much better to tell the story of the Arab-Israeli conflict as Wikipedia does, by creating a space in which countless voices struggle to insinuate their own perspectives into a single document. The unnerving tensions, the nonlinearity and palimpsest-like quality of even Wikipedia’s bad articles on the Arab-Israeli conflict are a generally more balanced introduction than most accounts written by one person.

To the extent that Israelis and Arabs can find ways of telling their stories not as two parallel tales of perfidy and victimization, but rather as two groups that have for too long strived for full political rights at one another’s expense—to the extent that such a vision of their shared history is achieved, peace will surely be easier. Wikipedia may be helping us understand the processes by which such a history can be created. Given that promise, a bit of heteroglossic sloppiness is no big deal. If nature calls, don’t we all prefer a public bathroom, however messy, to none at all.

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