The trouble with fighting for human freedom is that one spends most of one’s time defending scoundrels. For it is against scoundrels that oppressive laws are first aimed, and oppression must be stopped at the beginning if it is to be stopped at all.
H. L. Mencken (1880 - 1956)
More and more often, I find myself having to defend my political opponents, or having to argue against those whom I presumably agree with. The above quote pertains freedom of expression, which is very dear to my heart, and I can empathise very much with it. But freedom of expression is not what I want to write about. Rather, I want to write about the funny thing we humans do when interacting with other people. Instead of giving them a full load of our personal opinions, we censor ourselves and mute our convictions in the interest of co-existing. We call this politeness.
Overall, this self-censorship is a Good Thing™. When interacting with individuals from vastly different cultures, backgrounds or convictions, there are bound to be disagreements or clashes. There is a time and a place for those disagreements, but often times co-existence takes priority, so both parties agree to inhibit their dislike of one another’s peculiarities, and to practise tolerance.
To stimulate this co-existence and tolerance, someone (presumably) invented the Code of Conduct (CoC). Under a code of conduct, we agree to abide by a common set of rules for our mutual advantage and enjoyment. In effect, these rules enforce the self-censorship most people were already exercising anyway.
But what if the Code of Conduct itself does not self-censor?
Geek Feminism & FreeBSD
Recently, FreeBSD adopted a new code of conduct. With very good reason, this attracted more than a little bit of controversy. This article is not very interested in the controversy, though. Rather, I want to establish why this code of conduct is not liked very well.
In delving into this, we are off to a rough start. The FreeBSD CoC is derived from a code that contains the following text:
The Geek Feminism community prioritizes marginalized people’s safety over privileged people’s comfort. The Geek Feminism Anti-Abuse Team will not act on complaints regarding:
‘Reverse’ -isms, including ‘reverse racism,’ ‘reverse sexism,’ and ‘cisphobia’ (because these things don’t exist)
Reasonable communication of boundaries, such as “leave me alone,” “go away,” or “I’m not discussing this with you.”
Refusal to explain or debate social justice concepts
Communicating in a ‘tone’ you don’t find congenial
Criticizing racist, sexist, cissexist, or otherwise oppressive behavior or assumptions
I sincerely hope that I do not need to waste many keystrokes to state how awful this piece of text is. It is actively discriminatory, denies the hardships that some people may face, and censors criticism. It is extremely opinionated in its tone.
Fortunately, the FreeBSD people had the sense to remove this section. Unfortunately, they did not have the sense to find a different code of conduct to adapt and adopt. Thus they ended up with the following list:
Harassment includes but is not limited to:
Comments that reinforce systemic oppression related to gender, gender identity and expression, sexual orientation, disability, mental illness, neurodiversity, physical appearance, body size, age, race, or religion.*
Unwelcome comments regarding a person’s lifestyle choices and practices, including those related to food, health, parenting, drugs, and employment.*
Deliberate use of “dead” or rejected names.*
Gratuitous or off-topic sexual images or behaviour in spaces where they’re not appropriate.*
Physical contact and simulated physical contact (e.g., textual descriptions like “*hug*” or “*backrub*”) without consent or after a request to stop.*
Threats of violence.
Incitement of violence towards any individual, including encouraging a person to commit suicide or to engage in self-harm.
Stalking or following.
Harassing photography or recording, including logging online activity for harassment purposes.
Sustained disruption of discussion.
Unwelcome sexual attention.*
Pattern of inappropriate social contact, such as requesting/assuming inappropriate levels of intimacy with others.*
Continued one-on-one communication after requests to cease.
Deliberate “outing” of any private aspect of a person’s identity without their consent except as necessary to protect vulnerable people from intentional abuse.*
Publication of non-harassing private communication without consent.
Publication of non-harassing private communication with consent but in a way that intentionally misrepresents the communication (e.g., removes context that changes the meaning).
Knowingly making harmful false claims about a person.
Source: FreeBSD Code of Conduct, asterisks mine.
If you are like me, you are unlikely to ever do any of the above things (barring the absurd line about virtual hugs, but I’m going to ignore that for the purpose of this article). Then surely there is no problem, right? Clearly the above things are despicable and rightfully banned from the FreeBSD project.
But then why don’t the above rules mention anything about making fun of someone’s speech patterns or language skills (or lack thereof)? Surely disallowing those things is extremely relevant in an international community with many non-native speakers of English. As a matter of fact, an even more glaring omission is that it makes no statement on culture, country of origin, or nationality at all.
Why does “misgendering”—an issue which affects a tiny fraction of the contributors—get a spot on that list, but not prejudice based on one’s skill in English, which affects a vast portion of contributors? Surely this can be included as well? But if we are going there, why not include even more? The Holocaust was a pretty bad thing that happened. Surely Holocaust denial should be somewhere on that list, too. Speaking of murder, perhaps we could also make it extra clear that it is not okay to boast about eating meat and other animal products in order to spite a vegan.
I jest, of course. Or rather, I do not jest at all. All of the things I mentioned are valid points, and it would be more than a little impolite to do any of the above things. Some are more severe than others, granted, but I would not expect to come across any of those things during a friendly encounter.
In practice, it is not possible to create an exhaustive list of all the things that are unacceptable/undesirable conduct. You would have to solve ethics, I suppose. But this does make one wonder: Why are the things that are on that list, on that list? Why were those things prioritised over other, equally valid things?
The answer is not very surprising. The code of conduct is biased. It wears its bias on its sleeve: Feminism. Now, whether you are a feminist or not matters little. What matters is that the code of conduct tells you to practise inhibition around others, but practises none of it itself. I have conservatively marked all feminism-related (and LGBT-related) items with an asterisk. I could have been greedy and marked more items, but this seemed sufficient to me. If you start counting, you will see that give-or-take half of the items have an obvious feminist slant.
Why is the bias a problem, though? If you sympathise with feminism or agree that the feminist-slanted items are unacceptable behaviour, this may be a legitimate question. At that point, you have to take a step back and “check your privilege”, to use some feminist lingo. Why does one bias or world view deserve precedence over that of others? It takes a certain kind of chauvinism to be so convinced of one’s own right that you codify your opinions such that others must behave in accordance with your world view.
The bias causes everyone who does not subscribe to this bias to feel othered, utterly destroying the entire point of having a code of conduct in the first place: To welcome people from vastly different backgrounds and convictions, and to get them to get along.
Thus we went from sensible self-censorship, inhibition and tolerance to simply ignoring all of that and making others submit to your world view.
A word on bigotry
Labeling people who have an unpopular view as somehow intrinsically bad or immoral, declaring such views as intolerable even to hold, is now a big part of our culture and is having an impact on our conversations and our politics.
I support same sex marriage, yet am deeply uncomfortable with the assumption that anyone with reservations must be a bigot and a homophobe. That is the level of the debate in Australia, and it is championed by so-called “progressives”, who display with glee the same intolerance they rightly accuse churches as historically holding.
But Carmen, you may say, why are you protecting bigots? Because they aren’t, is the simple answer. More often than not, they are political opponents or people from a different background, not hateful individuals. A big part of a good code of conduct is to assume good intentions.
I have my own reservations about a lot of topics, which is why I empathise with my political opponents being targeted by these codes of conduct. I am a convinced vegetarian, erring vegan. I would never instigate harassment against meat-eaters, but a CoC entry that specifically protects carnivores from having their choice of food criticised would draw my ire. Not because it inhibits my freedom to be mean against people, but because such an entry would imply to me that this community takes an active stance against my personal beliefs to such an extent that they feel it necessary to protect my political opponents from harassment. The neutrality that is vital to getting varied people to get along is gone.
More importantly, these biased rules are counter-productive. Specifically in the case of misgendering and dead-naming, including the rule is more harmful than it is helpful. The people with reservations against transgenderism see “misgendering” in the same list as “threats of violence”, and rightfully see that their personal beliefs are discredited, disdained and attacked. They are told to tolerate something they firmly disagree with by a code of conduct that is actively intolerant of them. These people view this code of conduct as a law that is unjustly biased against them, rather than a unifying document preaching tolerance.
And what happens when people dislike a law?
Lex iniusta non est lex.
An unjust law is not a law at all.
St. Augustine (354 - 430)
A good code of conduct
Ubuntu is about showing humanity to one another: the word itself captures the spirit of being human.
We want a productive, happy and agile community that can welcome new ideas in a complex field, improve every process every year, and foster collaboration between groups with very different needs, interests and skills.
We gain strength from diversity, and actively seek participation from those who enhance it. This code of conduct exists to ensure that diverse groups collaborate to mutual advantage and enjoyment. We will challenge prejudice that could jeopardise the participation of any person in the project.
We invite and encourage everybody to express their opinions on relevant topics. All participants should at all times feel at ease to do so without fearing any form of attack, reprisal or harassment. We ask everybody to be respectful and considerate towards each other, especially when attempting to provide constructive criticism.
To foster tolerance, respect and hospitality in our community, we agree not to engage in discriminatory, disparaging or offensive speech or actions, including as to (but not limited to) gender, sexuality, race, nationality, religion or profession. We are a community of many different nationalities and backgrounds, and we cherish our strength in diversity.
Source: FSFE Code of Conduct. Disclaimer: I co-authored this code of conduct.
A good code of conduct invites, welcomes and protects everybody. It does not take any active ideological stance and fosters a neutral environment in which people of vastly different backgrounds and convictions are able to collaborate.
A good code of conduct assumes good faith and good intentions. It recognises that it is difficult for some people to get along, and that it is inevitable that some people will clash because of different understandings of appropriate behaviour. Here in the Netherlands it is common to kiss people thrice on the cheek as a greeting. Someone from another culture may not appreciate being kissed on the cheek at all. But instead of banning this perfectly normal custom or assuming bad intentions of cheek-kissers, the onus is on both parties to practise mindfulness and tolerance.
A good code of conduct is agreeable. You want everyone reading the code of conduct to feel better for having read it, and to want to follow it. The only disagreeable thing in that entire document is the obligation of all participants to be respectful and tolerant of one another. Some people are not respectful and tolerant, and you probably do not want these people, anyway. Everyone else is welcome, and it is important that all those readers of the code of conduct feel that this document sufficiently welcomes and protects them.
FreeBSD’s code of conduct fails on all these fronts. It is a codified opinion document that assumes bad faith and elevates the concerns of one political ideology over the concerns of all others. It reads almost like a law book, and I cannot imagine how anybody can feel better after having read it, having to suffer through a miserable list of descriptions of poor behaviour. As a matter of fact, FreeBSD’s CoC counter-intuitively makes me feel less safe. Reading through it, it feels like the moderators have to make an active effort to keep out perpetrators of literal criminal acts. That is not very reassuring.
But if those things are not explicitly forbidden, how can you be sure that the community will take a stance against them if they happen? The short answer is that you can’t, not with complete certainty. This is only fair, however, because nobody gets this explicit certainty. We all depend on our collective commitment to tolerance, rather than a biased list of explicitly forbidden things. This list is always biased, because a list that addresses everybody’s concerns would be infinitely long and contain multiple contradictions.
I can say with certainty, however, that all of the things that FreeBSD’s code of conduct forbids are forbidden in the Ubuntu and FSFE communities, too. Well, except virtual hugs, perhaps. I’ll take some of those.
TL:DR: Cats and dogs
In an ideal community, cats and dogs can get along. A good code of conduct facilitates that. Because dogs are sociable animals, they take the initiative to draft a code of conduct for all to get along. Among other things, it contains:
Unacceptable behaviour includes:
Sleeping on other people’s keyboards.
Purring too loudly.
It is little surprise that the cats are upset upon reading this. They know that doing these things is not good conduct, but they feel that the language unjustly targets them and favours dogs.
The cats are smarter than the dogs, though. Instead of proposing their grievances to also be included in the code of conduct (sniffing butts, barking loudly, licking faces), they create a new code of conduct that does not go into any specifics:
The Animal Software Foundation and the global Animal community welcome and encourage participation by everyone. Our community is based on mutual respect, tolerance, and encouragement, and we are working to help each other live up to these principles. We want our community to be more diverse: whoever you are, and whatever your background, we welcome you.
Source: Python Diversity Statement, slightly altered.
Under this new code of conduct, neither sniffing butts nor sleeping on other people’s keyboards are permitted (or at least, not without their consent), even though they are not specifically mentioned. This means that neither cats nor dogs have their ire drawn by the code of conduct.
And they lived happily ever after.