Toward Civil Behavior

Tuesday 23 December 2014 by Bradley M. Kuhn

I thought recently of a quote from a Sopranos' Season 1 episode, A Hit is a Hit, wherein Tony Soprano's neighbor proclaims for laughs at a party, Sometimes I think the only thing separating American business from the Mob is [EXPLETIVE] whacking somebody.

The line stuck with me in the decade and a half since I heard it. When I saw the episode in 1999, my career was basically just beginning, as I was just finishing graduate school and had just begun working for the FSF. I've often wondered over these years how close that quote — offered glibly to explore a complex literary theme — matches reality.

Organized crime drama connects with audiences because such drama explores a primal human theme: given the human capacity for physical violence and notwithstanding the Enlightenment, how and why does physical violence find its way into otherwise civilized social systems? A year before my own birth, The Godfather explored the same theme famously with the line, It's not personal, Sonny. It's strictly business. I've actually heard a would-be community leader quote that line as a warped justification for his verbally abusive behavior.

Before I explain further, I should state my belief that physical violence always crosses a line that's as wide as the Grand Canyon. Film depictions consider the question of whether the line is blurry, but it's certainly not. However, what intrigues me is how often “businesspeople” and celebrities will literally walk right up to the edge of that Grand Canyon, and pace back and forth there for days — and even years.

In the politics of Free, Libre and Open Source Software (FLOSS), some people regularly engage in behavior right on that line: berating, verbal abuse, and intimidation. These behaviors are consistently tolerated, accepted, and sometimes lauded in FLOSS projects and organizations. I can report from direct experience: if you think what happens on public mailing lists is bad, what happens on the private phone calls and in-person meetings is even worse. The types of behavior that would-be leaders employ would surely shock you.

I regularly ponder whether I have a duty to disclose how much worse the back-room behavior is compared to the already abysmal public actions. The main reason I don't (until a few decades from now in my memoirs — drafting is already underway ;) is that I suspect people won't believe me. The smart abusive people know how to avoid leaving a record of their most abusive behavior perpetrated against their colleagues. I know of at least one person who will refuse to have a discussion via email or IRC and insist on in-person or telephone meetings specifically because the person outright plans to act abusively and doesn't want a record.

While it's certainly a relief that I cannot report a single incident of actual assault in the FLOSS community, I have seen behavior escalate from ill-advised and mean political strategies to downright menacing. For example, I often receive threats of public character assassination, and character assassination in the backchannel rumor mill remains ongoing. At a USENIX conference in the late 1990s, I saw Hans Reiser screaming and wagging his finger menacingly in the face of another Linux developer. During many FLOSS community scandals, women have received threats of physical violence. Nevertheless, many FLOSS “leaders” still consider psychological intimidation a completely reasonable course of action and employ it regularly.

How long are we going to tolerate this, and should we simply tolerate it, merely because it doesn't cross that huge chasm (on the other side of which lies physical violence)? How close are we willing to get? Is it really true that any words are fair game, and nothing you can say is off-limits? (In my experience, verbally abusive people often use that claim as an iron-clad excuse.) But, if we don't start asking these questions regularly, our community culture will continue to deteriorate.

I realize I'm just making a statement, and not proposing real action, which (I admit) is only marginally helpful. As Tor recently showed, though, making a statement is the first step. In other words, saying “No, this behavior is not acceptable” is undoubtedly the only way to begin. Our community has been way too slow in taking that one step, so we've now got a lot of catching up to get to the right place in a reasonable timeframe.

Posted on Tuesday 23 December 2014 at 08:55 by Bradley M. Kuhn.

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Both previously and presently, I have been employed by and/or done work for various organizations that also have views on Free, Libre, and Open Source Software. As should be blatantly obvious, this is my website, not theirs, so please do not assume views and opinions here belong to any such organization. Since I do co-own with my wife, it may not be so obvious that these aren't her views and opinions, either.

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