Tuesday, January 26, 2016

On Contributor Codes of Conduct and Social Justice

The PostgreSQL, Ruby, and PHP communities have all been considering codes of conduct for contributors. The LedgerSMB community already uses the Ubuntu Code of Conduct.  Because this addresses many projects, I am syndicating this further than where there are current issues.  This is not a technical post and it covers a wide range of very divisive issues for a very diverse audience.  I can only hope that the nuance I am trying to communicate comes across.

Brief History

A proximal cause seems to be an event referred to as "Opalgate" where an Italian individual who claimed to be a part of the Opal project made some unrelated tweets in an exchange about the politics of education and the question of how gender should be presented, and some people got offended and demanded his resignation (at least that is my reading of the Twitter exchange but I have been outside the US long enough to lose the context in which it would likely be read by an American in the US).  The details are linked below, but the core questions involve how much major contributors to projects need to keep from saying anything at all about divisive issues seems to be a recurring topic.  Moreover it is a legitimate one.

Like some of my blog posts, this goes into touchy territory.  I am discussing things which require a great deal of nuance.  Chances are, regardless of where you sit on some of these issues, you will be offended by things I say, but there are worse things than to be offended (one of them is never to be challenged by different viewpoints).

I write here as someone who has lived in a number of very different cultures and who can see perspectives on many of these issues which are not present in American political discourse  For this reason, I think it is important for me to share the concerns I see because otherwise open source software maintainers often don't have a perspective outside of Western countries, or even outside the US.

Of course as open source software maintainers we want everyone to feel safe and valued as members of the community.  But cultural tensions and ways of life do crop up and taking a position on these as a community will always do more harm than good.

Background Reading regarding Opalgate and the question of so-called "social justice warriors" in open source

It may seem strange to put a list of links for background reading near the start of an article, but I want to make sure that such material is available up front.  People can read about Opalgate here and the ongoing debate between various parties about it.  It's important background reading but somewhat peripheral to the overall problems involved.  It may or may not be the best example of the difficulties in running cross-cultural projects but it does highlight the difficulties that come in addressing diverse community bases, those which may have deep philosophical disagreements about things which people take very personally.

In the interest of full disclosure, I too worry that there is too much eagerness to liberate children from concepts of gender and too little thought about how this can and will be abused, and what the life costs for the children actually will be.  I believe that we must be human and humane to all but I am concerned that the US is going down a path that strikes me as anything but that in the long run.  That doesn't mean that the concerns of the trans community in the US should be ignored, but that doesn't mean they should be paramount either.  As communities we need to come together to solve problems not fight culture wars.

Twitter is not a medium which is conducive to thoughtful exchange so I also have to cut some slack.  Probably not the wisest medium to discuss controversial topics.  But people around the world have deep differences in views on major controversies.  My wife, for example, is far more opposed to abortion than I am, and having come to a deeper understanding of her culture, I don't disagree that in her cultural context, it is more harmful.  But that brings me to another problem, that many issues are contextual and we cannot see how others really are impacted by such changes, particularly when forced from the outside.

But my view doesn't matter everywhere.  It matters in my family, my discussions with people I know, and so forth.  But most of the world is not my responsibility nor should it be.  These are not entirely easy issues and there should be room for disagreement.

Is Open Source Political?

Caroline Ada Ehmke's basic argument is that open source is inherently political, that it seeks a positive change in the world, and therefore it should ally itself with others sharing the same drive to make the world a better place.  I think this viewpoint is misguided but because it is only half-wrong.

Aristotle noted that all human relationships are necessarily political.  The three he chose as primary in Politics is illustrative:  master and slave (we could update to boss and worker); husband and wife; and king and subject.  To Aristotle, the human being alone is incomplete.  We are our relationships and our politics follows from them.  While there has been an effort to separate the personal and the political in modern times, Feminist historians have kept this tradition alive and well.  A notion of the political grounded in humans as social animals is fundamentally more conducive to justice than cold, mechanical, highly engineered social machinery.  Moreover Aristotle notes that all communities are built on some concept of the good, that humans only want things that seem good to them and therefore we can assume that all groups seek a better world, but we don't always know which ones deliver, and that is the problem. 

Open source begins not with an ideology but with a conviction.  Not everybody shares the same conviction.  Not everyone participates in open source for the same reason.    But everyone has a reason, some conviction that what they are doing is good.  There is enough commonality for us all to work together, but that commonality is not as strong as one may think.

In a previous post on this blog I argued for a very different understanding of software freedom than Richard Stallman supposes, for example.  While he holds a liberal enumerated liberties view, I hold a traditionalist work-ownership view.  Naturally that leads to different things we look for in an ideal license.

And the diversity in viewpoint does not stop there.  Some come to open source because they believe that open source is a better way of writing software.  Some because they believe that open source software delivers benefits in use.  But regardless of our disagreement we share the understanding that open source software brings community and individual benefits.

In two ways then is open source software political:
  1. Communities require governance and this is inherently political, and
  2. To the extent there is a goal to transform the software industry to one of open source that is political.
The first as we will see is a major problem.  Open source communities are diverse in a way few Americans can fully comprehend (we like to think everyone is like us and there is one right way, the American Way whether that is in industry -- the right -- or formulations of rights -- the left).  Thus most discussions end up being Western-normative (and in particular American-normative) and disregard perspectives from places like India, Malaysia, Indonesia, and so forth.

However it is worth coming back to the point that what brings us together is an economic vision.  Yes, that is intrinsically and highly political, but it also has consequences for other causes and therefore it is worth being skeptical of alliances with groups in other directions.  What would an open source-based economy look like? What would the businesses look like? Will they be the corporations of today or the perpetual family businesses and trades of yesteryear?  And if the latter, what is the implication for the family?  Many of these questions (just like questions of same-sex marriage) depend in large part on the current social institutions in a culture -- the implications of an industrial, corporate, weak family society adopting something like same-sex marriage are very different than in an agrarian or family-business, strong family society.  My view is that these will likely have different answers in different places.

Thus when an open source community takes a position on, for example, gay rights in the name of providing a welcoming community, they make the community openly hostile to a very large portion of the world and I think that is not what we want.  Moreover such a decision is usually a product of white, Western privilege and effectively marginalize those in so-called developing countries who want to see their countries economically develop in a very different direction than the US has.  Worse, this is not an unintended side effect but the whole point.

A brief detour into the argument over white privilege

A discussion of so-called white privilege is needed I think for three groups reading this:
  • Non-Americans who will have trouble understanding the idea as it applies to American society (like all social ideas, it does not apply to all societies or even where it does apply, it may not in the same way).
  • White Americans who seem to have trouble understanding what people of color in the US mean when they use the term.
  • Activists who want to use the idea as a political weapon to enforce a sort of orthodoxy

I mentioned Western-Normative above.  It is worth pointing out that this forms a part of a larger set of structures that define what is normal or central in a culture, and what is abnormal, marginalized (or perhaps liminal).  It is further worth noting that the perception as to these models is more acute to those who are not treated as the paragons of normality.  In the US, the paragon of normality is the white, straight male.  But unspoken here is that it is the white, straight, urban, wealthy American male (or maybe European, they are white too).  Everyone else (women, people of color, Africans, Asians, etc) should strive to be like these paragons of success (I, myself, having lived most of my life now either outside the US or in the rural parts, am most certainly not included in this paragon of normality model, but nevertheless it took years of marriage to someone from a different culture and race to begin to be able to partially see a different perspective).

Now, it doesn't follow that white straight males live up to this image (which is one reason why white privilege theory has proven controversial among the arguably privileged) even where there is wealth, one is brought up in nice neighborhood in the city, etc.  But that isn't really the point.  The point is that society holds these things to be *normal* and everything else to be only normal to the extent it is like this model.  It would be better and more accurate to call this a model of normality rather than privilege and to state at the outset that we cannot really walk a mile in the shoes of people from across many social borders (culture included).

White privilege is real, as is male privilege (in some areas, particularly employment), urban privilege, American privilege, Western privilege, even female privilege (in some areas, particularly family law).

Issues exist in a sticky web of culture, and no culture is perfect

These issues of privilege aren't necessarily wrong in context:  it seems unlikely that the workplace can be made less male-normative without men sharing equally in the duties and rights of childrearing, but enforcing that cuts against the goal by some feminists of liberating women from men (and also exists in tension with things like same-sex marriage and gender-nonessentialism).  Insisting that men get the same amount of parental leave as women cuts one direction, but insisting that single women get free IVF cuts the other (both of these are either the case in Sweden or efforts are being made to make them the case).  In other words, addressing male privilege requires a transformation of the economic and family order together, in such a way that having children becomes an economic investment rather than an economic burden.  But then that has implications for the idea of gay rights as we understand the concept in the West because if having and raising children becomes normative then one is providing a sort of parental privilege, and gender equality becomes based on heteronormativity.

But the ultimate white privilege is to deny it is a factor when one uses one's own perception that other cultures are homophobic or transphobic to justify one's own racist paternalism.  No need to understand why.  We are white.  We know what is right.  We just need to educate them so they can join the ranks of the elite culturally white enlightened liberals as well.  Most of the world, however, disagrees, and as maintainers of open source projects we have to somehow keep the peace. (Note I use the term liberal as it is used in the history of ideas --  in the West it is no less prevalent on the mainstream right than on the mainstream left, though the application may be different.)

Since many of these issues necessarily exist in tension with eachother, there is no such thing as a perfect culture.  It isn't even clear the West does better than Southeast Asia on the whole (in fact I would say the SE Asia does better than the West on the whole).  But all culture is an effort at these tradeoffs, and it is not the job of open source communities to push Western changes on the rest of the world.

What is Social Justice?  Two Theories and a Problem

If open source is inherently political then social justice must in some way matter to open source.  Naturally we must understand what social justice is and how it applies.  Certainly a sense of being treated fairly by the community is essential for contributors from all walks of life.  The cult of meritocracy is an effort at social justice within the community.  As some argue it is not entirely without problems (see below) but as a technical community it is a start.

Western concepts of justice today tend to stress individuality, responsibility, and autonomy.  The idea is that justice is something that exists between individuals, and maybe between individuals and the state.  And while contemporary Western social justice theorists on the left try to relate the parts to the whole of society, it isn't clear that there is room for any parts other than the isolated individual and the state in their theories.  If one starts with the view that humans are born free but everywhere in chains (Rousseau), then the job of the state is to liberate people from eachother, and that leaves no room for any other parts.

The individualist view of justice, when seen as primary, breaks down in a number of important ways.  The most important is that it provides no real way of understanding parts and how they can be related to the whole.  Thus, the state becomes both stronger and isolates people more from eachother, and predictability becomes more important than human judgement.  Separatism cannot be tolerated, and assimilationism becomes the rallying cry when it comes to how the central model of normality should deal with those outside.  In other words the only way that this approach can deal with those on the margins is to destroy their culture and assimilate the individuals remaining.  Resistance must be made futile (Opalgate can be seen as such an effort).  For this reason, this view of justice is incompatible with real cultural pluralism.   This is not a question of the political spectrum in the US or Europe.  It is a fundamental cultural assumption in the much of the West.  Interestingly, the insistence that the personal is political means that intellectual feminism already exists in tension with this cold, mechanical view of justice.

Another view of justice can be found in Thomas Aquinas's view that in addition to justice between individuals, there is a need to recognize that just as individuals are parts in relation to the whole, so are other organs within society.  In other words, justice is a function of power, and justice is in part about just  design and proper distribution of power and responsibility.  In this regard, Aquinas built on the thought experiments of Plato's Republic and the Politics of Aristotle.  In this regard, key questions of social justice include the structure of an open source community and the relationship between the parts of the community (how users and developers interact and share power and responsibility), the relationship between open source projects and so forth.

In the end though, there was a reason why Socrates eventually rejected every formulation of justice he pondered.  Justice itself is complex and to formulate it removes a critical component of it, namely human judgement when weighing harms which are not directly comparable.  I think it is therefore quite necessary for people to remain humble about the topic and to realize that nobody sees all the pieces, and that we as humans learn more from disagreement than from agreement.  Therefore every one of us is ignorant to some extent on the nature of justice and so disagreements are healthy.

Open Source Projects and So-Called Social Justice Warriors

Coraline Ehmke, in her post on ticket on Opalgate asked:

Is this what the other maintainers want to be reflected in the project? Will any transgender developers feel comfortable contributing?"

This is  good question but another question needs to be asked as well.  Given that a lot of people live in societies with very different family and social structures, should people feel comfortable using software if the maintainers of the project have come out as openly hostile to the traditional family structures in a culture?  Does not a community that is welcoming of all need to avoid the impulse to delegitimize social institutions in other cultures, ones where one necessarily lacks an understanding into how it plays into questions of economic support and power?  If open source is already political do we want to ally ourselves with groups that could alienate important portions of our user base by insisting that they change their way of life?

It is important that we maintain a community that is welcoming to all, but that means we have to work with people we disagree with.  A mere difference of opinion should never be sufficient to trigger a problem with the code of conduct and expressing an opinion outside community resources should never be sufficient to consider the community unduly unwelcoming.  A key component of the community is whether people can work together with people when they disagree, and forcing agreement or even silencing opposition is the opposite of social justice when it comes to a large-reaching global project.

Should open source communities eject social justice warriors as ESR suggests?  Not if they are willing to work comfortably with people despite disagreements on hot button issues.  Should we welcome them?  If they are willing to work with people comfortably despite disagreements on hot button issues.  Should we require civility?  Yes.  Should we as communities take stances on hot button issues internationally?  Absolutely not.  What about as individuals?  Don't we have a civic duty to engage in our own communities as we feel best?  And if both those are true, must we not be tolerant of a wide range of differences in opinion, even those we find deeply and horribly wrong?

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