Balancing discussion

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.

  • kNo’

    Pierre Desproges, French humorist: “you can laugh about everything. But not with everyone.”

  • Eduardo O Padoan

    My thougths exactly.

  • Matthew Garrett

    No, the critical point is not to drive away useful members of the community. We can say that people shouldn’t be offended – but they are. We can say that people shouldn’t feel excessively constrained – but they will do. The point isn’t balance, it’s setting a threshold where we get the maximum number of useful contributions from the community. And, from that point of view, the fact that people view something as being offensive is a critical issue. Even if you think they’re wrong to think that, allowing this sort of behaviour will drive them away. You can talk about the need for balance as much as you want, and in an entirely sane and rational world where people are perfect, I’d agree. But we don’t live in that world, and as a result we have to be aware of what people’s reactions are going to be.

  • jono

    Matthew – sure, but I believe that striking a solid balance keeps a happy medium for keeping contributors happy. I think its about matching expectations – people need to expect that some discussion will offend them, but also expect that certain types of discussion are unacceptable. I believe we need to draw a line in the sand, but I think that line needs to be clear in that we say that we don’t tolerate clearly abusive behavior, but we are not over-sensitive in discussions.

  • Stefan Schwarzburg

    Hi Jono, I think you have forgotten to mention something important here: While the position you expressed here (“don’t be to extreme”) is true in general, you should be aware of the different possible targets of jokes etc. If the targets would have been male CS students or IT professionals, then you were absolutely right. They are about 98% of the ubuntu community and can defend themselves because of sheer number. They are also not a common target for stupid jokes in our society in general. But if the target would have been a group of people that are underrepresented (2% ?), that are a common target for stupid jokes and that we would like to keep in our community, then people who are not in this group need to point to the code of conduct to “defend” this group. (Even if they don’t need to be defended. I don’t say that they can not defend themselves, but the others are the ones who should act!) If women are 50% of our community, then you can always say “don’t be to extreme”. As long as they are not, we should provide a friendly environment and be more strict with the code of conduct then we would be in general.

  • Alex Hudson

    I’m not sure I agree with the scale :) Sure, there is talk which would offend anyone, but I’m not sure the flip-side is “PC talk”.

    So, I’m not sure there is a balance to be struck. It seems pretty simple to me: you try to post things which are not offensive, and if somehow you do manage to offend someone, you try to make amends. That surely should be the norm.

    Of course what qualifies as “not offensive” is entirely contextual, but I don’t think people generally try to post things to offend people (as opposed to posting something offensive, in the knowledge that it won’t be understood in that manner: e.g., South Park is offensive, but [usually] doesn’t offend its viewers). At least, I hope people don’t try to post things which they think will offend people.

    So it seems to me to come down to dealing with unintentionally offending people. That seems to be something which the Code of Conduct doesn’t address, explicitly anyway. But it seems the whole incident could have be calmed by the poster saying, “I’m sorry you were offended by what I wrote” – without any ifs and buts about whether or not in their opinion the material was offensive.

  • Meneer R

    Well, I’ve tried to read the ‘heated discussion’ on the mailinglist and all I could think of “what a civilized group op people”.

    This is not a joke, I visit lots of blogs, discussion forums, etc. For example: Slashdot, Digg, etc. Personally, I don’t get offended very easily and don’t have to need to be in a community where I respect everyone. But the Ubuntu community really is one of the most friendly and polite corners of the internet.

    My advice on the matter: – posting the joke is ok – stating that it might be offending is also ok.

    Those who claim people should just ‘chill out’ need to ‘chill out’ themselves as well. The most perfect scenario:

    • person X makes an slightly inappropiate joke
    • person Y explains that offended him/her
    • person X says ‘sorry, that was not my intention’
    • person Y is happy
    • person X is happy

    Another advice: If you want to make a joke about certain groups of people. Make it about your own group of people. Here’s one I found on the Daily WTF, that I really like (because its an accurate description of me):

    “Arguing with a programmer is like wrestling with a pig in the mud. After a few hours, you realize the pig likes it.”

    I do hope this does not offend anyone. It didn’t offend me, and I consider myself a programmer (and an obnoxious debate-crazy blog-crasher)

  • Bob Hunter

    Jono please don’t take offense but…

    You should be hung by the ankles and tortured with Barry Manilo music until you agree to STOP using tiny little fonts. Your content is interesting but I don’t want to go blind from trying to read it.

  • Jonas

    Meneer, I am a programmer and that programmer joke descripes me perfectly as well, and I certainly didn’t find it offensive, I found it ROTFL funny :-)

  • Matthew Garrett

    “people need to expect that some discussion will offend them”

    Why? In the real world, we don’t generally ask that employees put up with things that offend them – if there’s any sort of persistent pattern to it, it’ll generally end up with an employment tribunal of some description. Yes, it’s possible to inadvertently offend people, but the appropriate response to is apologise and (this bit is important) not do it again. Telling people that they shouldn’t have been offended in the first place, or that they should just cope doesn’t actually improve things.

  • Alan

    In situations like these it is very important that the developers do not tolerate inappropriate behaviour as to tolerate it is is to accept it – those who are silent are in agreement, new contributors cannot be expected to magically understand anything else. It must be made clear to new contributors that the developers not only find certain behaviour unacceptable but are willing to stand up and say so clearly and unambiguously, or if the incident is smaller that it needs to be acknowledged as inappropriate and avoided in future. Debian is a great technical project but the great developers do themselves no favours by staying silent when rude people claim to represent them and alienate potential users and contributors, so much so that it is actually a differentiating factor for Ubuntu so it would be a shame for Ubuntu to begin to suffer similar problems. The existence of the Ubuntu Code of Conduct makes it much easier to point out that behaviour is not only below the minimun expected but also fails to live up the high standards and welcoming new contributors the community would hope to achieve. Very often offensive remarks are way offtopic anyway, and that can provide a much easier way to discourage inappropriate behaviour.

    Then of course there is the more ruthless approach, ask yourself who make the community a nicer more attractive place to be and get work done. (I think developers have learned the answer is not always the best programmer, which may work in the short run but in the long run they might turn off a larger audience of useful developers, translators, documentation writers and a generally larger community you want to keep interested in your work.)

    @Matthew Garrett I agree, we need to get past the bare minimum of civilised behaviour. The old “prepare to be offended” attitude has clearly alienated many potential contributors, most obviously women but certainly many others too.

    Best of luck, keep the community spirit going.

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  • David Gerard

    It’s fairly clear from the discussion that followed that the list moderator considers the Ubuntu Code of Conduct basically a decoration. His response was a startling exercise in deliberately avoiding the point.

    The correct response to the original post would have been “This post violates the Code of Conduct. The poster in question is now on moderation.”

    Is the CoC taken seriously in Ubuntu? This example suggests not.

  • towsonu2003

    Diversity of what? Of sexists and women? Do you really want or need to have sexist members offending female members? I think you misunderstood what diversity is. Diversity is not about having racists, sexists etc within the community… It’s about having more women, more blacks, more LGBT, more ethnic / racial minority groups etc in your community. The common characteristics of these groups: oppressed…

    Not only that, I think you need to re-read the Ubuntu Code of Conduct and try to understand the part about “Be Respectful”…

    This is not about the right-wing hypocrisy Americans call “political correctness”. This is about knowing the theoretical, practical, and political implications of what comes out of one’s mouth…

    You might want to research the social/hegemonic functions of humor… Have a look at these:

    Collinson, David L. (1988). Engineering Humour: Masculinity, Joking and Conflict in Shop-floor Relations. Organisation Studies, 9(2).

    Decapua, Andrea, and Diana Boxer (1999) Bragging, Boasting and Bravado: Male banter in a brokerage house. Women and Language, Spring, 22(1).

    Kehily, Mary Jane and Nayak, Anak. (1997). ‘Lads and Laughter’: Humour and the Production of Heterosexual Hierarchies. Gender and Education, 9(1), pp. 69-87.

    Lyman, Peter. (1987). The Fraternal Bond as a Joking Relationship: A case study of sexist jokes in male group bonding. In Kimmel, Michael. (ed.). Changing Men: New Directions in Research on Men and Masculinity. New York: Sage, pp. 148-163.

    Murphy, Peter F. (2001). Studs, Tools, and the Family Jewels: Metaphors Men Live By. Madison, Wis.: University of Wisconsin Press. Includes: Insidious humor and the construction of masculinity.

    [source: wmst-l]

    Not everyone has the same educational background and critical thinking skills. What we need is to educate our own members about the implications of what comes out of their mouths, if they cannot understand it themselves…

    I personally do not need a balance of sexist comments and comments against them in mailing lists etc. I’d rather prefer no sexist comments at all. Would you like a balance of, say, racist or heterosexist (homophobic) comments and the reaction against them by those who naturally get offended? You are the PR end of Ubuntu, I hope you wouldn’t want that…

  • smurf

    Jono: To put it bluntly: You’re wrong.

    If you really want to know why, assuming all these comments haven’t clued you in, read the ubuntu-women mailing list archives.

    Anything else I could say has already been stated.

  • mc44

    While hating myself for jumping on the bandwagon, I think you are wrong as well.

    It is not about being “too PC” it is about realising that having restraint in certain areas even though what you might be saying is meant in an entirely unabusive way is not unreasonable.

    Diversity means people have different attitudes and beliefs, it does not mean these people should be ready to be offended because of this. We can have people of all religious denominations and views along with hard line atheists and no one need be offended if everyone can restrain themselves from making jokes about religion.

    We can have men, women, transgendered, bi, gay, sadistic hippophillic necrophiles in our community, and no one need ever be offended, if we can restrain ourselves from making jokes based on gender and sexuality stereotypes.

    Making jokes at specific peoples expense when you have a personal relationship with them is great, and a fantastic way to have a vibrant community. Making jokes at the expense of women, newbies, arabs, dead horse floggers and so forth is not acceptable and not a balance we must strive to achieve.

    You might think you have a great middle ground position, but all you really are looking for is expediency at the expense of people having to think before they post. You are after the wrong kind of diversity, and offensive to some is not an inevitable bi-product of diversity

    Diversity isn’t lost with over cautious tolerance for others, it is greatly enhanced by not driving diverse people from the community.

    Productive diversity isn’t people disagreeing over what is offensive, it is people using their varying viewpoints to argue rationally over community discussions.

  • pfctdayelise

    Perhaps all tech mailing lists should send out the HOWTO Encourage Women in Linux monthly.

    Not sure how losing sexist jokes is such a big loss to a technical mailing list anyway… oh no, your male privelege to say whatever you like about women in whatever forum has been noticed. how sad for you :(

  • Will

    You are wrong and you set a bad example with that podcast of yours. Sure you can say you have the right to do whatever you want but you are supposed to be a community advocate.

  • Anna

    Well, this potential contributor has been put off before even getting started! I’ve got my shiny new PC sat behind me ready to put together, and now I’ll finally have a box capable of running Xen, I had been planning to install Ubuntu (along with a few other things) and start playing seriously. But why bother. I could be doing all sorts of other fun stuff that might be rather more relevant to my day job (e.g. playing with Oracle) – so why would I want to get involved in a community that clearly thinks that having me there is going to “stifle and inhibit” free discussion. You know – just seeing the original joke on its own wouldn’t have put me off. But seeing Caroline slapped down for having the temerity to question it – that puts me off. Seeing this post – wow. Seeing things framed in that way really lets me know I’m not welcome! And it could so easily have been handled so much better – all it would have taken would be a friendly “old joke mate, come up with some fresher ones please”.

  • Sulamita Garcia

    “The term “political correctness” is used almost exclusively in a pejorative sense.[1] However, terms such as inclusive language and civility are often used to praise language that is seen by critics as “politically correct”. [2],[3]. Those who use the term in a critical fashion often express a concern about the dilution of freedom of speech, intolerance of language, and the avoidance of a discussion of social problems.”(Wikipedia)

    “You can argue that women shouldn’t be so sensitive (and I will disagree with you) but even then, regardless of should or should not, your comments and jokes are driving women away. If that’s not what you want, then don’t make sexist jokes. If you’re not sure if your joke is sexist, find something else to say.”(Howto Encourage Women)

    No wonder Erinn Clark comment sometime ago Ubuntu Women, Debian Women welcomes you”. /Me desapointed.

  • jono

    Hi all,

    Thanks for the comments. I have been busy over the weekend with the recording, so sorry for the delay on the replies

    I want to be clear in my views here. I am in no way defending offensive jokes, and I am not suggesting that people just ‘put up and shut up’. A community is a freeform entity in which anyone can be involved, and invariably this is going to involve people who will push the boundaries in different ways. Most good Open Source contributors know the line on mailing lists and never push it – they understand that sending offensive jokes is not a good thing and refrain from doing it. My point is that in a freeform community though, this is going to happen from time to time, and we should be conscious to assess the situation on a case by case basis – just saying that ‘anything that might offend anyone is unsuitable’ will create in my mind a difficult situation.

    When assessing offence, some issues are clearer than others – gender, racism, class, disability and religion are all fairly clear areas in which you can assess when someone is being discriminated against, but what if people take offence when someone insults emacs? What about when someone insults those with beards? What about jokes about local accents? If you look at the wide Open Source community, there are hundreds of comments and jokes at other people’s expense – my point is that the line is very difficult to draw in these scenarios.

    I have noticed also that Caroline is complaining about me on ubuntu-women, which I find disappointing. I sent her an email last week offering my support and encouraging a discussion to resolve the issues. I got no response from her and then saw a post on ubuntu-women complaining about me again. I have sent her a follow-up email, again encouraging a discussion. I hope she gets back to me this time – I am keen to discuss these issues with her and see how we can improve our community. :)

  • Matthew Garrett

    “What if…”

    There’s a pretty simple answer to this. If someone is genuinely offended by something you’ve said, then apologise. There’s no benefit to not doing so.

  • jono

    Matthew – and this is where it gets tough – define “genuinely offended”. None of us will disagree that sexism and racism is offensive, but what to what degree can people get genuinely offended? Are you suggested that whatever the circumstances, if someone gets offended, an apology should be made?

  • Matthew Garrett

    Unless they’re clearly taking the piss, yes. Why not? Unless you actually believe that bearded people are the spawn of satan, that emacs users are the product of child abuse or that the yorkshire accent indicates a subnormal intellect, the apology costs you nothing – you’re merely clarifying what you actually believe.

    On the other hand, I think the strictness of this depends on what the aims of the community are. Ubuntu is supposed to be accessible to everyone, and so it makes sense to avoid offence to the greatest extent possible. Lugradio, on the other hand, doesn’t have this aim and so a policy like this wouldn’t make as much sense.

  • David Gerard

    By the way, attempting to intimidate by email the person you’re blaming for your problems is probably not the best thing for you to be doing in Canonical’s name. (And you may claim it’s your personal opinion, but considering your job title, it’s all in Canonical’s name.)

  • jono

    David – I utterly, utterly dispute the insinuation of me intimidating Caroline. How on earth can you claim this having never seen the email?

  • David Gerard

    She forwarded me a copy. And before you claim “it’s a private email”, I note that you’re a Canonical employee. So if you put your foot in it (e.g. this posting and your actions following it), you’re putting the company’s foot in it.

  • jono

    David – if you read that email and consider that intimidation with phrases such as “I am sorry to hear about the problems you have encountered.” and “I hope you return to the community, and if you have any further issues/concerns or just want to have a chat some time, let me know”. I fail to see what you mean.

    Or, maybe you mean the mail I sent today saying “Can we schedule a call to discuss these issues? I am keen to resolve the situation and gather your feedback to see how we can improve things.” and I give Caroline my phone number.

    I am wanting to speak to her to find out more and work to resolve these kinds of problems.

  • David Gerard

    It saddens me (but no longer surprises me) that you fail to understand why someone would spend their own money they can ill afford to call up a company PR manager to be company PR managed.

    I fear you may have to manage the PR using media you can be quoted from.

    You also appear to have a fundamental lack of grasp of the problem: you appear to think that if only Caroline would shut the hell up, the problem would all go away and the fuss would stop. This is not the case.

    I see also that other Canonical people have been emailing her, including veiled threats to charge her with CoC violation for getting upset at the first CoC violation. Well done. When you’re in a hole, keep digging.

  • towsonu2003

    [quote]… she did not respond to my private emails …[/quote]

    I think this is very inappropriate. She doesn’t have to respond to anything. She is the one who got offended, and for perfectly valid reasons. Not only that, I think your effort will be perceived as an effort to intimidate her (and I’m not sure if it is not).

    I think David Gerard is correct in his assertion that a hole is being digged deep in a way that it shouldn’t… I hope someone with power to change things for the good will realize this before it’s too late (assuming that it already isn’t too late).

  • Jane C

    Jono – you are wrong. The number of comments this is generating, might indicate that it was offensive, even if you think it was not. Yes it is escalating out of proportion and should be stopped, but be fair in the judgements, if people are to be removed from the planet over language, that is going to apply to all isn’t it? Did whoever asked her to leave from the planet speak for the community? Also saying “I got no response from her” while just a few sentences before you said “I have been busy over the weekend with the recording, so sorry for the delay on the replies” indicates one set of rules for you, but another for the recipient.

  • Carla Schroder

    I want to add my support to all the people fighting this problem. Because it is a problem, and the message from the Ubuntu Community Manager is “What’s all the fuss? That’s life, get used to it.” You know what would be a refreshing change of pace? Saying “Wow, I am so sorry that you are forced to deal with this garbage. I take this very seriously, and I will use my official powers to help in every way possible.”

    The comments to this posting are excellent. Far better than the post itself, and Jono’s followups, which sound like unwillingless to face the issues. Might I suggest a different person to deal with this sort of thing? How about a committee with actual women on it, and women and men who aren’t afraid to face this stuff head-on?

  • Ben Smith

    Sooo…whatever happened? has this been resolved? Has the Community Manager decided to take complaints seriously, or is he sticking to his policy of “ignore and deny” until they give up and go away?

    This is way sad- at least the general Ubuntu community has it right. Too bad the paid guy doesn’t.

  • meijusa

    I can’t believe the rhetoric devices Jono put up here to defend offensiveness have been accepted – the slippery slope fallacy that if we reject sexist offenses it will follow that we have to protect Emacs users and beard wearers (how absurd! This does not follow!) and the strawman of the latter being so vulnerable (beard wearers are not an oppressed minority and considered lesser people by much of society!)

  • Liz Henry

    What a good discussion – I hope the point is noted especially that it is not right to focus on the person who is offended and to try to persuade them that their perspective is wrong and if they shut up then there is no problem. Instead try listening and since you have a CoC then support it by enforcing it.