The GNOME community has recently started a
on the adoption of a code of conduct for community members.
While a number of people clearly think that such a code makes sense, others
are just as clearly uncomfortable with the idea. The free software
community is traditionally an open and unregulated group. Its members are
concerned with quality of contributions and inclusiveness; there is
relatively little interest in conduct rules, and an active dislike for
self-appointed enforcers and attempts to exclude potential contributors.
So the number of projects with written behavioral codes is relatively
Such codes do exist, however, whether or not they are written down.
Anybody who doubts this fact may want to ponder on the likely fate of a
developer who attempts to contribute plagiarized code. But other standards
clearly exist as well. Consider, for example, this case: a Debian
developer was not only asked
to leave DebConf last month, but was removed from the project
altogether. A weblog
entry from a nearby participant reads:
The difference in values between Ted and the rest of our project
was just too immense. When I was walking out of the room at around
7 in the morning next day my final sentence was "Ted, even if you
spend rest of the Debconf apologizing and making friends, I do not
see a future for you in this project." and the most important was
that Ted and John seemed to agree with me on that
Only two months earlier, Debian went through a
protracted debate on whether another developer should be forcibly
expelled from the project. In both cases, the issue was not one of
plagiarism or other crime; instead, these people are being pushed out for
being jerks - for somebody's value of "jerk." Their behavior is said to be
so unpleasant, and so
off-putting for other members of the project, that their presence is no
This is the sort of behavior that the proposed GNOME code of conduct seeks
to regulate as well. This proposal contains items like "be respectful and
considerate" and "don't be racist." Its supporters are trying to maintain
a GNOME community which is pleasant to work in, and which does not drive
potential contributors away.
They have a point: it has been noted, for
example, that female participation in free software projects is often close
to zero. That is, as some have observed, below the usual percentage of women in the
general population; but it is also well below the percentage of women found
working in technical fields. There is a whole population of potential
contributors out there who have chosen not to be a part of the free
software community. One very possible reason for their absence is the sort
of behavior encountered on mailing lists, at conferences, and in other
places where the community gathers. Perhaps, if standards of behavior were
higher, more people would choose to participate.
(Then again, the problem could be elsewhere: Richard Stallman chimed in with a claim that the use of the
term "open source" may be the real reason why women chose not to participate.
This particular line of reasoning has not attracted a large following,
Alan Cox points out that the issue is a
I'd be wary of pursuing just the "women in GNOME" issue, because
many of the same things put off far more than just women. Running
around shouting "pants off" is not, for example, very compatible
with the Japanese cultural expectations.
One can, without great difficulty, make an argument that, as the free
software community "grows up" and tries to expand beyond its "western white
male geek" stereotype, it should look harder at how its members behave. If
one contributor is sufficiently unpleasant to repel the participation of
numerous others, then perhaps the community truly is better off without that
person. So maybe the community truly does need to be prepared to expel
people who are too difficult to be around. Codes of conduct might just make
But consider an episode from just over three years ago, when a prominent
developer (let's call him "X" for the moment) was stripped of his
commit privileges and kicked out of an important project. One of the
people involved in this action justified
it with these words:
What X has done is among the most low-class, unprofessional,
and tactless things I have ever experienced in my professional
career.... Bottom line, in my opinion, is that what X did
is unacceptable on its face and he deserves to be held accountable
for it. So he's out.
This looks like a clear application of a code of conduct; somebody behaves
badly, and is booted from the project. Nothing to complain about. Except
that X, in this case, was Keith Packard, who was busily trying to
reform the XFree86 project. That project's decision to exclude Keith
turned out to be fatal; XFree86 still exists - it even put out a release
in May - but nobody cares anymore.
This episode highlights the dangers of behavioral codes. They can be used
as a way of silencing people who have something inconvenient to say, but
sometimes those people need to be heard. Codes of conduct can evolve into
a sort of stifling "political correctness" where people become afraid to
express their thoughts. The creation of such an environment will suck the
life out of a project more quickly than any number of unpleasant people.
The community as a whole may well want to think about how people interact,
and how that interaction can be made more pleasant and more globally
inclusive. Behavior which is rude, sexist, racist, or worse runs counter
to our values (one hopes), and it makes us weaker. So discussions of how
we wish to treat each other and how we can avoid pushing away people who
could make our community richer are worth having. But we must work toward
that goal without silencing our more outspoken members; sometimes they are
saying something we should hear, even if it makes us uncomfortable.
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