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09.05.19

Guest Post: Hostile Communities and Arrogant Developers

Posted in Free/Libre Software at 11:13 pm by Dr. Roy Schestowitz

Easter Eggs

Summary: “Don’t put all your eggs in one basket, whether regarding your software or your community.”

As a free speech advocate who once spent an entire decade establishing a single point about development that was hostile to a community, I’ve spent a long time thinking about what makes certain things so difficult to say or get acknowledged in a community — about how communities can delude themselves and use coordinated abuse to defend their positions.

For those who feel this is a familiar problem, my advice to you is: don’t put all your eggs in one basket, whether regarding your software or your community. If the people around your favourite software are toxic in some way, find a good way to create or seek an alternative.

Humility is a hard problem in computer science, and people will judge you based on their own notions of fairness. Fairness is a difficult concept for basically everyone. No matter how interested you are in finding truth, playing devil’s advocate or viewing things from multiple perspectives (without succumbing to false compromise) you’re ultimately going to choose between being agreeable and taking a lot of criticism.

“I like people that are outspoken, I like that Torvalds flipped off Nvidia and I like that Stallman doesn’t coddle corporations and excuse their corruption and poor behaviour towards the user.”If you are a critic, you will have every critique turned back on you. People say they are thick-skinned, but a lot of that is about appearances and what people tell themselves. Most people are more vulnerable than they admit.

One of the things that I try to promote as a free speech advocate is for people to be allowed to be their true selves — but not allowed to be untrue. This means for one thing, that we aren’t putting up a facade of being agreeable when we feel something is wrong. It also means people have faults, and no matter where you are in your journey as a person, that you screw up and other people screw up, and pretty much everybody has played the fool before.

Some of the most vulnerable people in the world like to project their need for perfection onto others. They don’t always hold themselves to similar standards; they either feel great amounts of shame, or none at all, and they maintain this by being unfair to everyone. This doesn’t actually bother everyone, because being consistently unfair has different effects on different people — some get pissed off, others walk away, some people treat it as a learning experience, and if you make it a goal in life to treat every experience as an opportunity to grow, you probably will grow. Sometimes.

I’m not here to paint myself as a saint. I like people that are outspoken, I like that Torvalds flipped off Nvidia and I like that Stallman doesn’t coddle corporations and excuse their corruption and poor behaviour towards the user. I think there are (at least) two kinds of assholes: those who are assholes for a good cause (Bill Hicks, George Carlin — when he is maintaining the kernel, Linus Torvalds — Spider Jerusalem) and people who are “really just assholes.”

The whole concept of becoming the niceness police is a very corporate thing, which in practice allows people like Torvalds to be hypocritically stifled by people who are just as rude, but who have worse intentions. I don’t support it, I don’t defend it, it is a recipe for hypocrisy.

“That’s part of the fairness — if we decide to treat anything we consider offensive as yet another scarlet letter, all we have done is made the world more corporate and authoritative.”Any concept of being better people has to acknowledge that many of the best people in the world are assholes sometimes. That’s part of the fairness — if we decide to treat anything we consider offensive as yet another scarlet letter, all we have done is made the world more corporate and authoritative.

Then again, if someone is being a jerk without a good reason (and who is to say? Should we make it about what the reason is, about context, or should we make it authoritative?) You still have the right to call them on it.

If you do, is the bully protected? Is the community really introspective enough to not favour their own over fairness? Will they turn against you for speaking up, and then neglect to address the bully you stood up to? Because this sort of injustice doesn’t becomes less common under a Code of Conduct. It often increases. This particular sort of injustice is the same problem with or without a CoC.

Consider the Bill of Rights. These are ideals and freedoms a lot of us want every person to have; it is not just a list of privileges for citizens, in fact they are drawn from a concept of natural rights. The Bill of Rights places natural rights firmly outside the reach of (legitimate) government. If you rip up the Constitution, the rights still exist — all that has changed is whether those rights are officially recognised by the government.

Do we extend that sort of baseline fairness to people outside our communities? Do we recognise the rights of other people we consider inalienable? I admit this question is mostly rhetorical, but all I’m really trying to say here is that I believe truth often transcends a local community take on it — there are always areas in which a community forgets the obvious about one matter or another.

Not being a jerk is a great goal for any person, never being considered a jerk is a goal that is probably unobtainable for most or all good people. I love Dave Chappelle and what he says about Kevin Hart, and either are surely considered jerks by many now — due to their politics or pasts. Are they wonderful comedians? I think so. Not all of us are offended, or need to be.

“Not being a jerk is a great goal for any person, never being considered a jerk is a goal that is probably unobtainable for most or all good people.”But there are efforts to destroy people based on holding them to an unrealistic standard. There is nothing that really makes Richard Stallman a horrible person, but there are plenty of arguments for treating him no differently than someone who is. To me, that’s a fine example of arrogance — of creating a different concept of fairness to take down a great person than one we would accept for ourselves in the same shoes.

But even if we are terrible at figuring out who deserves it, I also think we have a right to stand up to bullies, and argue with people who are being unreasonable. Being “nice” to everyone is a fine solution, if you really believe it is the answer to everything — if you’re capable of really being nice to everyone.

“There is nothing that really makes Richard Stallman a horrible person, but there are plenty of arguments for treating him no differently than someone who is.”I think more people are capable of being jerks to those who deserve it, and there’s a lot of room to talk about the times we turn that on the wrong people, or for the wrong reasons. But I don’t believe that it’s never justified. I think if we make a rule that you can never argue, never protest, never be “rude”, and that doing so somehow ruins something — that’s just nonsense. It is a convenience for exactly the sort of person who needs to abuse the sort of authoritarian regime it inevitably creates.

A better rule would be to try to understand why people are being jerks — if they have a reason to be that way, if they are being misunderstood, if there is context — if there is no interest, then just ignore it. This is a good idea, but some people will be certain to exploit our best nature.

When I wrote a book on how the Free software movement could become twice as effective, I included a chapter on narcissism — I think there is more of it out there than people realise or understand. It isn’t just an inflated sense of self. It isn’t just ambition. Narcissism is a fundamental unfairness, and if lots more people understood it better, I think communities would be able to deal with it more effectively.

So if I talk about “hostile communities” or “arrogant developers,” I’m not just saying that there are jerks there. There are “jerks” everywhere. Some of them are even valuable to us.

The context of such labels, if applied fairly, is that a fundamental unfairness, a persistent injustice infects a project — due to its community, its project leaders, or both. It’s not just about what people are doing, but what reasons they have, and what they are trying to defend with their abuse.

“I don’t like Torvalds because of the way he smeared the Free software community selfishly and unfairly, while stealing so much credit from them during the course of his career.”And if you’re one of those people who really are nice to everybody — great, you make the world a better place. Most people aren’t as good as you, but you deserve credit for setting a good example. Cheers.

I don’t like Torvalds because of the way he smeared the Free software community selfishly and unfairly, while stealing so much credit from them during the course of his career. To me, that is fundamentally unjust. What I would like for him to do instead is to turn his ability to forcefully defend the kernel on such matters exclusively, and not have it spill over onto how he treats reasonable critics.

But since that will never happen, I will simply retain my opinion of him. I’m not going to stop using his kernel, because I don’t think he’s a monster. I just think he’s a dick. If a better kernel came along, sure, that’s great.

I’m not saying there is no threshold where I wouldn’t boycott a piece of software over someone’s attitude, I’m just saying that for me personally, the importance and quality of Torvald’s kernel outweighs his smearing of the entire Free software community. It leaves me using his software and disliking him as a person, and commenting on his unfairness. If he wrote a text editor, and it wasn’t the very best text editor in the history of the world, I might not use it just because he’s a jerk.

But I also believe that he is a better person than the one who will take his place, that he shows great integrity when defending the quality and goals of the kernel (quality and goals I strongly agree are worthwhile) and that it’s just too bad that integrity doesn’t extend to his treatment of Free software, or of corporations.

Facebook is disease, hating Microsoft is a disease. How can you be so inconsistent? But as someone who gets some things very right, and other things very wrong, he’s a very useful example. We are never going to get an apology from Linus. What we will get, is a worse replacement.

When I start mentioning toxic communities, I’m talking about endemics — something that can only be solved via personal integrity from a threshold of more than one individual working together for a higher purpose. I don’t think you can force toxicity out of a community — they can only repair themselves from within, or they can be abandoned if there is a viable alternative.

If instead, we just try to purge all the jerks from every corner — what do we get? A world with no Carlins, no Chappelles, no Stallmans, and we get a worse person than Torvalds instead of Torvalds.

“Hostile communities also have a certain level of unfairness towards outsiders; they claim one principle, but that principle doesn’t hold up once you go outside the innermost community.”I don’t recommend being that superficial. The only way for humanity to reach perfection is if it takes forever, or takes shortcuts to damn itself. We are so attached to the latter these days — I would rather it take forever. But I would still like for communities to at least try to maintain a good overall direction. There are too many places right now, that we don’t even have that.

Maybe you don’t know what I’m talking about, and that’s alright. One thing I’ve noticed from years of talking about the politics of communities, is that most people are constantly told (and to some degree, believe) that there is no problem. Others think it is irrelevant unless there is a proven solution. Others thing it is irrelevant even if there is a proven solution.

When it comes to a community or government that stifles people, the people who believe there is stifling are always the minority — often a small one.

There are lots of people who love to play a victim too, and there is no simple way to ever be sure who is whom. But where there is stifling, the people to notice and say something are often the first to experience the full brunt of it. If you ask around — “Are people being stifled? What about this guy? What about her? How about these people over here?” You are typically going to have to be an investigative reporter to find the stifling going on. If it were obvious, more people wouldn’t support it.

You have to care really deeply about a community to change this, and you also have to be respected in the community enough to stand up to it and not become another victim.

“You have to care really deeply about a community to change this, and you also have to be respected in the community enough to stand up to it and not become another victim.”There are no easy answers, but that doesn’t mean these problems don’t exist. It is the very worst when the arrogance and hostility protects things that don’t deserve protection — things like corporate takeovers, slacking about security, and protecting the dishonest. Hostile communities also have a certain level of unfairness towards outsiders; they claim one principle, but that principle doesn’t hold up once you go outside the innermost community.

It is passe to refer to these hostile communities as cults, but not entirely without point to make the comparison. Sometimes, non-cults circle the wagons and become gradually more cult-like with time.

It’s important to point out that you can have a highly toxic community for an otherwise good project, even if the developer is a decent person. Ideally, the developer would fix this — unfortunately, that doesn’t always happen. Sometimes in the Free software world, the lead developer is the real problem. Sometimes it has nothing to do with them, and they are sort of a victim of their own supporters; it’s not that the supporters don’t appreciate the developer, its just that they are incapable of not being toxic. Realising they didn’t get into software to raise and babysit a community, the developer throws their hands up and lets the community be a mix of friendly people, narcissistic co-leaders, and their many victims.

“For Debian, it was systemd — for Puppy Linux, it will likely be the use of GitHub.”There is often some singular political truth being propped up by such a community — that the community is protecting a single lie (such as an exaggeration of the effectiveness of their effort or their ability to keep a core promise to users, once abandoned) and most of the abuse towards the unguarded centres around tripping over that one lie with a simple truth.

In other words, the narcissistic defense of a single false promise to users (I can think of several examples among several different communities) rather than admitting limitations is often at the core of these quiet feuds, disputes and endemic abuse.

Eventually these disputes become controversy, and later on they become a project’s downfall. For Debian, it was systemd — for Puppy Linux, it will likely be the use of GitHub. These are not even the worst examples, which I have neglected to mention at this time. There are also many lesser examples. Of course, it may not matter to you. If you have never experienced this sort of thing first hand, it may never matter to you.

If you have witnessed it in more than one community, you might feel obliged to comment on it. But it is seldom easy to do so, even for good people. To gain respect in a community often takes more than being a good person — if your contributions aren’t among the top concerns, you may find that silence amidst corruption is your only saving grace.

Is that a privilege you really even want?

License: Creative Commons CC0 1.0 (Public Domain)

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A Single Comment

  1. Canta said,

    September 6, 2019 at 12:58 pm

    Gravatar

    Dear guest poster.

    I’m a verbally violent asshole when I believe somebody is trying to do damage to something I consider good. I hate people that does that, and I don’t consider hate a bad thing in itself. I have a long record of aggresive discussions, in which I often happen to be the aggressor. That was years ago frankly, and today is hardly a thing: but I would do it again anyday if I feel like it, without question. I’m mostly in peace with that, as I’m always sincere. And that’s because of my epistemological principles, which I defend as my most basic ethos. Is not about being right, but about being true about oneself and about others.

    This is not exactly what you describe in your post as the way to go, but it’s a close thing.

    My problem with this “way of sincerity” is this: how about what others CAN and CAN NOT face? What happens when defending aggresivelly what one thinks ends up triggering anguish or fury on others, or even things like panic attacks? What happens with others when my arguments are, rightfully, the shadow of my agressiveness, and that becomes the norm when talking to me about certain issues? And what happens if I, being like that, just happen to be an important part of a community?

    “What happens” are not the proper words. We all know what happens. The true question is about the ethics in that.

    You say “A better rule would be to try to understand why people are being jerks”. And later, also say “And if you’re one of those people who really are nice to everybody — great, you make the world a better place. Most people aren’t as good as you”. And that’s precisely the problem I face with myself.

    Think about it: if you can tell “it would be better to try to understand X”, why don’t you just say “it would be better to try to be like that good people”? Both things demands a change, in ourselves and in others. Let’s just be all good people and that’s it!

    My problem is about what people CAN and CAN’T DO. Because, with the pass of the years and the discussions, I’ve discovered that not anyone can change in any way, nor adapt to anything. There are different degrees of cultural, emotional, and ideological complexities that makes talking to other people a real challenge, and that’s just when you don’t take a look at everybody’s particular psychological structure. When one takes that into consideration, is very difficult to say “this rule A is better than this rule B”, because we’re talking about our own narrow point of view. Which could be perfectly logical and understandable: but still personal, and not neccessarily a possible standard to live for everyone.

    Fragility is not a sin. And aggressivity should be choosen with that in mind.

    Every time we open our mouths, we’re so much agents of integration as much as agents of separation. We exclude people with our words. We generate dissent. We impose limits on the valid, the writable, the speakable, the desirable, and even the thinkable. We do that, whether we wanted it or not. Is for this reason that I believe in the CoCs, and don’t consider them “just a nuissance” or “just a trojan horse”, even when they’re both. At least they have the possibility of being somewhat democratic. A community CAN choose a CoC, and have some criteria on what kind of limits want to live with. And the community can also change those CoCs when the time is right.

    I do most of my stuff in small circles where we can talk the way we want, and say whatever we want. But that scales badly, and not just because of incincerity.

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