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On the war between hacker culture and codes of conduct

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Did you know that a Code of Conduct war is underway in the world of open-source software development? I realize that this sounds ridiculous. Codes of Conduct boil down to: “a) don’t be an asshole, b) this is how we define ‘asshole’ around these parts”. Who could argue with that? And yet this has become eruptively controversial — and with good reason.

A quick rundown of the recent history can be found in Model View Culture’s “The New Normal: Codes Of Conduct In 2015 And Beyond.” (If you find MVC too left-wing, here’s Breitbart’s take, but the former has much more actual information.) Briefly, progressive activists are trying to persuade open-source communities to adopt Codes of Conduct such that:

They establish the ground rules for interactions between participants. They outline enforcement mechanisms for violations. They serve as a signaling mechanism, a way of broadcasting the intent of organizers or maintainers to create safe spaces for the full participation of members of the community regardless of race, religion, ethnicity, gender, sexual preference, or physical ability. But most importantly, they codify the aspirations and values of a particular community

A widely adopted CoC is the Contributor Covenant, whose preamble notes:

Meritocracy also naively assumes a level playing field … These factors and more make contributing to open source a daunting prospect for many people, especially women and other underrepresented people

So far so good! …But the (most) controversial thing about these codes is that their remit actually extends outside the communities in question.

That MVC piece refers to “the so-called Opalgate incident, in which transphobic tweets by an Opal maintainer on Twitter led to a heated discussion about the appropriateness of his continued representation of the project.” In true open-source style, this was raised as an issue on GithubTransphobic maintainer should be removed from project — and I think the response:

The personal views of a maintainer, as long as they are not influencing in a discriminatory way the contributions accepted in a project, should be off-limits for discussion IMHO

sums up the debate here. Should communities accept people who hold repugnant views, as long as they don’t express them within that community? Or should they be expelled, because it’s assumed that their views influence their community work in a negative way, or because their presence makes other people feel unsafe?

Personally, both answers make me feel deeply uneasy. Humans are messy, complex, and contradictory; human interactions are that squared; the results are so complex and context-sensitive that they often need to be judged on a case-by-case basis, rather than by any hard-and-fast rule. (See also: the insanity of “zero tolerance” rules. See also: Oberlin’s refusal to fire a professor who blames Israel for 9/11.)

Last year the wacko neoreactionary Mencius Moldbug, also known as Curtis Yarvin, was disinvited from the Strange Loop technical conference at which he was going to give a technical presentation that had nothing to do with his wacky neoreactionary views. As David Auerbach put it in Slate:

Since the content of Yarvin’s talk was not the problem but other beliefs the thinker held, then anyone who holds problematic beliefs is now up for removal […] When it comes to gatherings like Strange Loop and scholarly venues in general, we should draw the lines for acceptable speech as widely as is feasible, because people have a terrible habit of being wrong […] one strength of science is its ability to … foster productive discourse between people who would hate each other discussing any other subject.

Some–few–people are irredeemable assholes who, wherever they go, need to be met by the banhammer. You can certainly make a case that both Moldbug/Yarvin and the transphobic Opal maintainer fall into that group. But surely an ideal Code of Conduct would actually try to “foster productive discourse between people who would hate each other discussing any other subject,” at least to the extent possible, rather than be geared towards expelling from the conversation anyone who has expressed an unacceptable opinion in any forum anywhere.

I am reminded of Meredith Patterson’s classic piece “When Nerds Collide: My intersectionality will have weirdos or it will be bullshit.” I’ll give her the last words here:

Having a community they built wrested away from them at the first signs of success is by now a signaling characteristic of weirdohood. We wouldn’t keep mentioning it if it didn’t keep happening.

I’m not claiming that’s entirely rational, because fear isn’t rational, but it sure does explain the response to being told that our culture is broken and must be adapted to accommodate the very people who rallied it into being by shunning us from theirs.

We’ll start to feel less defensive when we get some indication — any indication — that our critics understand what parts of our culture we don’t want to lose and why we don’t want to lose them.