Cessen's Ramblings

2018 - 09 - 18

Politics and Open Source Communities

Bryan Lunduke posted a video earlier this year entitled "Divisive Politics are destroying Open Source". I only just now came across it, and it sparked both thoughts and feelings for me. My thoughts are not, I think, terribly complex, but I would nevertheless like to take a moment to write them out. In particular, as an avid Rust programmer, I'd like to give my perspective on the Rust community, since Bryan briefly touched on that.

Bryan's video, if I can summarize it in a nutshell, covers several cases in the open source world where he feels that leftist politics are seeping into communities and actually making them less inclusive. As far as I can tell, Bryan himself seems left-leaning (though I could be wrong), so that's really interesting to me.

(Also, for context while reading the rest of this post: if I were to label my own socio-political views, I would certainly label myself left. Quite far left, actually, I think. Though I try not to take on labels, at least not in a prescriptive way. In any case, I'm not right-wing, voted for Hillary (though would have preferred Lessig), all of that.)

One of the things Bryan's video got me thinking about is what "inclusive" ought to mean with respect to things like open source communities. Much like the word "art", people will disagree on the specifics of what qualifies as "inclusive". Also like the word "art", I do not intend to claim any ownership over what definition should be assigned to it. Nevertheless, I think there is a positive value behind that word that most people can get behind.

Almost everyone has had experiences where they felt excluded, and typically such experiences aren't positive. And I think most human beings with empathy can agree that creating circumstances where people feel excluded and rejected is generally a bad thing. Sometimes that "badness" is a price we pay for some other more important outcome. For an obvious and unnecessarily silly example, I don't want some uncoordinated Joe Shmoe waltzing about the operating room while surgery is being done on me, no matter how excluded he may otherwise feel. But that exclusion is nevertheless a price. It is something we would like to minimize where possible.

I think this very core human experience—of being excluded, of being rejected—is often overlooked in the way people talk about diversity. A lot of people go on and on about how diversity of backgrounds brings diversity of ideas, how it improves productivity, it improves outcomes, etc. But I think all of these things just aren't the real issue (excepting for in politics or similar where representation is important). The real issue is that being excluded sucks. Being told you can't join the club sucks. Being told that you aren't allowed to participate sucks. Being told that people don't want you sucks. And in some cases, being excluded can actually prevent (or at least make much more difficult) exploring something in your life that you want to explore, or from taking your life in a direction that you want to take it, or from connecting with other human beings. These are the things that actually matter about being inclusive.

And I think there's actually a better word than "inclusive" to describe that value: welcoming. I want communities that I'm a part of to be welcoming. There is a warmth to that word that "inclusive" lacks. It brings to mind images of open arms, of encouragement, of supportiveness. It says, come on in, no matter who you are, and sit down by the fireplace and have a nice cup of hot chocolate with us. We want you here. That is what I want in a community (among many other positive traits).

So how does Bryan's video tie into all this? Well, where I find myself agreeing with Bryan is that I think there are plenty of people on the political left that are really shitty at being welcoming, especially when it comes to people that don't share their politics. Of course, this is not an exclusive trait of the political left. But I feel like the language we use on the left about inclusivity and diversity sometimes serves to obscure whether or not we're really being welcoming.

So far this has all been really abstract, so let's bring in a concrete example from Bryan's video. One of the people he talked about is Ashley Williams. I won't go into the whole debacle, but Ashley is (if I recall correctly) currently the team lead of Rust's Community Team. And she posted things like this on Twitter:

never underestimate the wrath of a mildly inconvenienced white dude (and yes it is all dudes complaining)

I want to take a moment to state in no uncertain terms that I don't think Ashley is a bad person. Honestly, I suspect she's probably a great person. And if you look at her more general involvement in things, you'll see that she's really cool! People vent, and sometimes people vent online. And also, sarcasm/hyperbole often doesn't translate well online. I've had plenty of my own mis-steps.

Anyway... it is nevertheless pretty clear that her tweet is not welcoming. In fact, I'd say it's quite the opposite! If a woman overheard some guys complaining about women (even sarcastically and with hyperbole), I'm pretty sure that woman wouldn't feel very welcome. In fact, I'm quite certain articles have been written on that topic. But also, if I overheard some guys complaining about women in a way analogous to Ashley's tweet above, I would feel unwelcome, even though I am not a woman. And that's because it creates an unwelcoming environment.

Whether we care about white men in particular feeling welcome is something we could discuss (and I would argue that, yes, we should care, because we should care about people, but that's a digression for another time). But regardless, I really don't think we get to pick-and-choose what demographics of people we're welcoming towards. Most empathetic human beings dislike seeing other people being shat on (past traumas or brainwashing notwithstanding), and it creates an uneasiness about whether that kind of behavior is acceptable in general. It's like when you're on a date with someone and they're super nice to you, but they're an asshole to the waitstaff.

Now, where I disagree with Bryan's video is in how dire he makes things out to be. My take on these sorts of situations is generally something like, "Yeah, people can be shitty on the left as well—sometimes really shitty." I don't think the world is going to end. Looking at the Rust community, I think overall it does a pretty good job of being welcoming, including towards white men. Is it perfect? Nope. And I do think there's a tendency on the far left to be unaware (sometimes aggressively, seemingly willfully so) of their empathy blindspots. But nevertheless, the Rust community gets a lot of things right.

My biggest concern is failing to be welcoming to people with different political views. Maybe that sounds strange to some people (especially those that vilify the right, "Good riddance!"). But I don't think that should sound strange. I've seen some politically left jargon used in posts from the core Rust team about community management etc. The Code of Conduct also uses some jargon and framing from the left (e.g. "We don’t tolerate behavior that excludes people in socially marginalized groups," instead of just, "We don’t tolerate behavior that excludes people."). And although that's not explicitly unwelcoming, if you put on the other side's shoes for just a moment it's not hard to see how that gives a feeling that Rust is a politically left community in general. And maybe it is. But I don't think it has to be.

And this comes back to why I think inclusivity is actually important. Excluding people hurts. Excluding people is bad. At best, it's a price we pay for some other gain. So what is the gain in this case?

If we want to maintain a welcoming community, then everyone in the community needs to be welcoming. That sounds like a tautology, but what I'm getting at is I do see the value in pushing people out who are not themselves willing to be welcoming—or at least willing to not get in the way of the rest of the community being welcoming. The first bullet of Rust's Code of Conduct has it totally right:

We are committed to providing a friendly, safe and welcoming environment for all, regardless of level of experience, gender identity and expression, sexual orientation, disability, personal appearance, body size, race, ethnicity, age, religion, nationality, or other similar characteristic.

But I would like to add "political views" to that list, even if only implicitly. If part of someone's political views is literally "black people suck", that obviously won't fly. But neither would it fly if someone's religious beliefs included "gay people should be stoned," even though religion is already on the list. So I guess what I'm saying is, in my mind we should aim for this:

We are committed to providing a friendly, safe and welcoming environment for everyone who is willing to uphold this same commitment, regardless of any other trait they may or may not have.

This is surprisingly subtle, though, because I think there are plenty of people on the far left who think what they're already doing is equivalent. As far as I can tell, they believe that the socio-political views of the left are the only views compatible with being welcoming as above. But they aren't. And neither are they sufficient, as Ashley's tweet above demonstrates. There is something deeper and more human about being genuinely and warmly welcoming to everyone. And it isn't about socio-political views (except those that literally conflict).

This whole post is really rambling, and it's not at all clear that I've even communicated my point very well. But I wanted to put this out there because... dunno, really. Come to think of it, I don't think anyone actually reads my blog.