Something has been bothering me a little recently, and I have been trying to think about the best way of solving it. This is a problem that is not specific to Ubuntu or my world, but one that I believe affects many, many projects. I am not sure that there is a crisp solution to this problem, and some of you won’t even see it as a problem in the first place, but let me explain…
I am getting a little tired of the bickering in Open Source. Don’t get me wrong, I love full, frank and colorful discourse and debate, and I believe that innovation thrives on the exchange of ideas and different perspectives. Unfortunately, it seems that respectful debate and discussion has been increasingly replaced with rudeness, abrupt perspectives that are ill-researched, and the kind of behavior that people may exhibit online but would never exhibit if the same conversation happened in real life. To be clear: this is not about people who disagree with me or the projects I am associated with, there are many people who offer disagreements and alternative perspectives politely, constructively and are willing to engage in a discussion — this concern instead reflects those who are more interested in angry rhetoric rather that constructive, informed debate.
What worries me is that I believe that this angry rhetoric is harmful to our community. Let me provide an example of where debate works well. Scott Kitterman in the Kubuntu community has often expressed concerns about aspects of the Ubuntu community, but Scott has always expressed his concerns with (a) politeness (b) respect, and his debate has always been well-research and informed and he has always been willing to listen to other viewpoints. Another great example is Emmett Hickory; a contributor who has exhibited all these same attributes as Scott. While we don’t always see eye to eye, I think Scott and Emmett are tremendously valuable participants in our community; they bring valuable perspectives, are not afraid to push back, but always place respect and accuracy at the center of their discourse, and they always have the best interests of the project at heart. Of course, there are many other similar examples of great debate elsewhere.
What worries me instead are the folks who engage in angry discourse that is often based on mis-information, or worse, an immediate assumption that there is malice or ill-will driving the person they disagree with. When did we become so argumentative and mis-trusting? One of the things that attracted me to Open Source when I got involved was the addictive feeling of being surrounded by a community of people with the best intentions in the world. I would meet people who would open their homes up to strangers for Linux User Group meetings, those who would contribute to projects because they like the idea of their work helping others, and within this ecosystem there was an assumption that the organizations who thrive in it have good intentions too. No-one ever questioned Red Hat’s ambitions, or Caldera’s, or Mandrake’s, no-one batted an eye-lid at VA, the humble Linux Emporium, or Loki games.
Today it seems our community is more suspicious than it was, and while there have always been folks on the fringes who assume mal-intent first and engage in rowdy arguments, it worries me that we are seeing more folks like this. What worries me is that this behavior (a) makes the Open Source community look like a group of petulant teenagers, and (b) more worryingly, discourages others from joining our community to help us bring freedom to others because frankly, they don’t want to wake up to a fight every day online.
I feel like there must be a solution to this problem. This is not a problem of people having different viewpoints, and I am sure some folks in the comments will provide some sweet irony and accuse me of trying to deafen those who disagree with me, but those of you who know me know that I love to have a good debate, and I am never afraid to shake hands and say “let’s just agree to disagree” or calmly not participate.
Over the last two or three weeks I have been kicking around the idea of putting together some kind of statement, inspired by the Ubuntu Code Of Conduct, that many of us could put our names behind. In fact, I registered
openrespect.org and started putting together a draft. I shared this idea with Stefano Zacchiroli the current Debian Project Leader and Jared K. Smith the current Fedora Project Leader, two guys who I have unending levels of respect in their viewpoints. They thought it was a pretty good idea to have a statement, and were happy to participate.
A few nights ago I started writing something up, and it made me think hard about how multi-faceted this challenge is. This is not just about inspiring our community to engage in informed, polite, and respectful debate, but I also believe that it is also about accepting our differences and moving on. As an example, Scott Kitterman has communicated some of his disagreements to certain policies with me, but when he knows that I am abreast of his viewpoint, and I have sufficiently communicated my viewpoint to him, we agree to disagree and move on without repeatedly nipping at each other about the topic. I believe this is a core attribute of respect: my friend Dave has some pretty out-there views on politics, but I don’t poke him every day about them – we know where we stand, and we move on.
There were many of these small considerations as I worked on the text, and I felt less and less comfortable about writing it. So, I thought what might be better is to share what I have so far, and if others feel it might be worth pursuing a statement such as this, I might keep working on it, and maybe
openrespect.org could be useful.
This is it so far:
All over the world there are many people who are united in creating software, content, and culture that is freely available for others to share, enjoy and enrich their lives. Together we believe that freedom is good. We believe it helps people do good things, make better choices, and lead safer and more secure lives. Together we are a community united by this belief.
Our community is vast. It spreads beyond our streets and towns, traverses countries and borders, and is wider than our groups and projects. Many of us speak different languages, make different choices, and engage in this software, content, and culture in different ways, but what unites us is the same core belief that freedom, openness and choice is good for people. Our methods and opinions may differ, and our definitions of what constitutes freedom and openness may vary, but this united belief in freedom and openness remains the same.
Irrespective of these methods, opinions, definitions, and differences, respect should always be at the foundation of how we engage. When we place respect at the center of our interactions, we enrich our lives, discover new ways of thinking, and expand our horizons with new ideas and experiences. When we remove this respect, our conversations suffer, which in turn makes our community suffer, and this ultimately risks our ability to bring our message of freedom and openness to others.
Respect is not just civility in communication, but also respecting other people for making their own choices, even if you disagree with them.
Respect is sharing opinions so a mutual understanding of principles is understood, but then giving others the freedom to pursue their own paths without fear of persecution by those who have made different decisions or have different definitions of freedom and openness.
Respect is engaging in open and polite debate with the goal of enriching each others perspectives, not for the purpose of proving each wrong.
We are all on the same side, we just sometimes draw the lines differently. Respect is understanding these differences but moving together as community, united by the core goal of freedom and openness.
The caveat is that this was about 15mins of work, so I appreciate it is not perfect.
I believe that the Open Source and Free Software community is the greatest community in the world, and it is populated by the greatest people in the world. Over the years I have seen incredible levels of generosity shared in our community, and a real feeling of family and looking after each other. Some of the people I would most vehemently disagree with, I consider some of my greatest friends, and many others are the same. I believe this openness to ideas and sharing perspectives is valuable, but I do think we need to confront some of the disrespectful discourse that is happening.
Any ideas on how we can do this?