Recently the subject of mailing list discussion and offensiveness has erupted in the community. This has been triggered by a joke being sent to a list and the fallout that ensued after it. I am not going to comment on the specifics of that incident, but instead look at what I consider a critical issue here – the balance between political correctness and abusive discussion.

The Ubuntu community is a tremendously open, freeform community with a rich and diverse range of people, discussions and opinions. This diversity is our strength – we harness it to express our opinions, validate them and challenge them. To encourage frank and open discussion, we always need our discussion to be exactly that – frank and open. Two enemies to frank and open discussion are extreme political correctness and abusive discussion and are at entire opposite ends of the discussion spectrum.

On the far right side we have clearly offensive, abusive discussion. This kind of content would offend anyone, whether you fall into the specifically abused demographic or not. Such chatter is not only against the Code Of Conduct but against anyone’s better judgement and is clearly unacceptable – its just not good. On the far left side we have political correctness, and its own battalion of fears that are involved. In this scenario people are afraid to say anything as it could offend someone. The problem with being too-PC is that discussion can be stifled and inhibited. So, on the left we have too careful and on the right we have too bad.

I believe we need balance here. Not only should we be conscious to not post derogatory or discriminatory content, but we should also understand and expect that some things will be offensive in different degrees, and this is part of and parcel of any community, be it on a mailing list, on a bus or in a pub. We cannot eradicate the world of the words we find uncomfortable or offensive, but we should also not accept words that are intended to abuse and discriminate.

Much of this is about context. There are always going to be some things you would say in front of some people and not others, and there is a time and a place for pretty much everything. Public discussion areas such as mailing lists have their own etiquette and norms, and it is common to be more restrained and polite as you are pushing your words out to a wider audience. I think this is fair and reasoned, and we should always remember that we are speaking in a public forum, with a diverse audience, and ensure that our words are suitable for that audience and context.

It concerns me that some of the opinions cited about these issues have fallen into one of the left or right camps – either “those words were horrific and terrible” or “get a sense of humour and chill out”. Neither is right here. We need balance and understanding to defend against abuse but to protect diversity.

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