Sex and Gor and open source

A few weeks ago, Dries Buytaert, founder of the popular open-source CMS Drupal, asked Larry Garfield, a prominent Drupal contributor and long-time member of the Drupal community, “to leave the Drupal project.” Why did he do this? He refuses to say. A huge furor has erupted in response — not least because the reason clearly has much to do with Garfield’s unconventional sex life.

More specifically, Garfield is into BDSM. Even more specifically, he’s a member of the Gor community, an outré subculture of an outré subculture, one built around a series of thirty-odd books by John Norman which are, basically, “John Carter of Mars” meets “Fifty Shades of Grey.” Essentially–as I understand it–a community who are interested in, and/or participate in, elaborate (consensual!) sexual subjugation fantasies, in which men are inherently superior to women. I know all this because of Garfield’s lengthy public response to his ouster, self-deprecatingly titled “TMI about me“:

Yes, I am one of those people … Despite the total lack of evidence that alternative lifestyle cultures offer any harm to anyone, there is still a great deal of prejudice and bigotry regarding it … someone, I do not know who, stumbled across my profile on a private, registration-required website for alternative-lifestyle people … that information made it to the Community Working Group (CWG), who concluded “there was no code of conduct violation present for [them] to take any action on” … in my first contact with Dries, he asked me “to step down from Drupal” … Drupal has been the cornerstone of my career for the past nearly 12 years … Dries wouldn’t budge on me leaving, including making it clear that it wasn’t an option, but an instruction … informing me that I’d been summarily dismissed from my position as track chair and as a speaker at DrupalCon, “per [my] conversation with Dries” … here I am, being bullied, harassed, and excluded because of my personal activities, which I don’t even publicize much less advocate for in tech circles.

Buytaert (who is also co-founder and CTO of Acquia, a Drupal platform which has raised ~$175 million over the years and has been struggling to IPO for a few years now) retorts:

when a highly-visible community member’s private views become public, controversial, and disruptive for the project, I must consider the impact … all people are created equally. [sic] I cannot in good faith support someone who actively promotes a philosophy that is contrary to this … any association with Larry’s belief system is inconsistent with our project’s goals … I recused myself from the Drupal Association’s decision [to dismiss Garfield from his conference role] … Many have rightfully stated that I haven’t made a clear case for the decision … I did not make the decision based on the information or beliefs conveyed in Larry’s blog post.

Sigh. This sad mess is something of a perfect storm of Code of Conduct conflicts. It is one which raises a number of interesting questions. It also raises several quite boring ones, so let’s get them out of the way:

  1. Does this matter? (Isn’t this just prurient clickbait?)
  2. Is it OK for an open-source community to ban/ostracize a member for being involved in BDSM, or other forms of unconventional but consensual adult sexual behavior?
  3. More generally, is it OK for an open-source community to ban/ostracize a member purely because their “belief system” — perhaps better described as a complicated fantasy milieu in which they happen to spend their personal time — was doxxed?

These questions are boring not because they are unimportant, but because the answers are so obvious: yes (no), hell no, and hell no.

I’ll unpack the first: open-source communities/projects are crucially important to many people’s careers and professional lives — cf “the cornerstone of my career” — so who they allow and deny membership to, and how their codes of conduct are constructed and followed, is highly consequential.

I really, really hope I don’t have to unpack the two hell nos. But in case I do, let me quote this excellent blog post from Nadia Eghbal:

In the past, Dries might’ve kicked Larry out because “BDSM is a threat to family values”. Today, leaders like Dries kick Larry out because “BDSM is a threat to gender equality”. Unfortunately, the end result is the same … Beliefs are not actions. We cannot persecute people for what they believe, no matter how much it disgusts us, and simultaneously maintain a free and open democracy … If diversity is our dogma, call me “spiritual, not religious”. I still pray for the same things as you, but I won’t be at the witch trials.

Which is brilliantly put and I hope settles the previous questions. However. The Garfield Situation also raises two questions which are far more complex and interesting:

  1. Under what circumstances, and via what kind of due process, is it OK for communities to publicly condemn people for secret reasons?
  2. Is it OK to ban/ostracize community members for (legal) behavior which occurs entirely outside the community?

Obviously sometimes organizational decisions have to be made based on information that must remain confidential, for legal or ethical reasons. But if you’re making such a decision, you really have to do so in the right way. What is the right way?

…Probably something close to the opposite of what Buytaert and the Drupal Association did. Even if their decision was correct, which currently seems at best suspect, their complete lack of process transparency, and Buytaert’s vaguely worded hinting-without-really-saying-anything statement, makes it very hard to have any faith in it.

Their accusations are so vague — nonexistent non-accusations, really — that Dries & co. could surely have told the community substantially more (indeed, anything) about Garfield’s problematic behavior, if any, without revealing sensitive information. For instance, they could have said they’d received reports of threats, harassment, or coercion by Garfield, if any such reports existed. They have said nothing of the sort.

(For what it’s worth, a well-informed source of mine reports: “It’s worth noting that a handful of women who worked with Larry did not report harassment or abuse from him in the workplace. We can’t know for sure if he committed offenses, but if there were allegations or even rumors of his mistreatment of women we would be having a very different conversation right now.”)

They could also have cited which elements of the Drupal Code of Conduct he violated, if any. They have not done so … but they’ve expelled him anyhow. Isn’t that Code of Conduct, and its associated Conflict Resolution Policy, supposed to be what dictates the rules of behavior and interaction in the community? Doesn’t overruling that written code with arbitrary decisions made for secret reasons reveal that in practice it is an irrelevance with no actual weight or importance?

I reached out to Buytaert in the hope of clarification; he did not respond.

It’s hard not to get the impression, from the little that we do know, and the manner in which it has been miscommunicated, that what’s actually deemed unacceptable here is that Garfield’s kink has spilled outside of his personal life — i.e. that his real sin is that he was doxxed. Which, as noted, is firmly in hell no territory.

It is of course entirely possible that this impression is incorrect, and that Buytaert and the Drupal Association have done the right thing. But they have offered no evidence, no arguments, and no reasons for their decision. It seems obvious to me that they have a moral obligation to their community to do so. You can’t ban people without at least sketching the outline of what it is they did wrong. Just trust us is not enough —

–especially since it also seems possible that the CTO and co-founder of a heavily funded pre-IPO company has participated in expelling a man from what has been his professional community for the last twelve years, ignoring that community’s own Code of Conduct and Conflict Resolution Policy, because it was decided he was guilty of, essentially, thoughtcrime; that no real accusations have been made, and no allegations of problematic behavior have been cited, because none such exist.

A third plausible scenario, based on the tea leaves of Buytaert’s phrase “actively promotes,” is that Garfield has been banned for expressing views outside the Drupal community which are deemed unacceptable inside. This is not a new issue in the open-source world: I wrote about it last year, in the context of Curtis Yarvin and “Opalgate”:

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.

…although in those cases, the views in question were clearly expressed publicly, not privately, and were not intended as part of any BDSM fantasy world. Does that apply here? Who knows? Certainly not the Drupal community.

It’s impossible to judge the Garfield situation, because all we are permitted to know is that it has been prejudged for us, by people who refuse to tell us anything about either their evidence or their decision process. It is, however, very easy to judge whether the people who have made and communicated this decision are, by the way they have done so, actually serving their community. And that answer is, once again, I’m sorry to say: hell no.