Community power and public shaming

Off the Beat: Bruce Byfield's Blog

Apr 14, 2014 GMT
Bruce Byfield

Twice in the last month, popular opinion has questioned a high-level hiring in commercial free software. Given the egalitarian nature of free software, the only surprise is that such questioning took so long to appear. However, whether this development is healthy or not is another matter altogether.

I am referring, of course, to Brendan Eich's removal as Mozilla CEO due to his support for an anti-gay marriage proposition a few years ago, and to the protests over the appointment of Condoleezza Rice to the DropBox board of directors.

My own social and political views, I should rush to explain, are about as far from Eich's or Rice's as they could possibly be. Nor are these instances in which a powerless individual is being victimized.

True, Eich's weak defense and the lack of support he received from his board of directors makes me wonder if his views were an excuse to reconsider what seems to have been a compromise hiring decision in the first place. Yet, even so, both Eich's and Rice's positions leave them far from powerless. In theory, Eich might have weathered the controversy and Rice still might do so.

 
 By contrast, those who called out Eich and Rice raise points with which I can only agree. Granted, Eich publicly expressed his willingness to abide by Mozilla's code and conduct, but whether a person of his opinions is fit to lead Mozilla's culture of diversity seems doubtful. Similarly, given that Dropbox's business depends on the trust of users, what was the company thinking when adding to the board someone with Rice's record on privacy and security? The decisions to appoint both Eich and Rice are dubious.

 
 Nor do I have any problem with free software supporters insisting on a voice in who will lead them. Those who come from traditional business backgrounds might find this insistence strange, but free software's past history of volunteerism, its flawed notions of meritocracy, and its deliberate positioning of community projects as an alternative to commercial high tech make it very natural.

 
 In fact, Eich and Rice are not the first would-be leaders whose assumptions have been questioned. Around the turn of the millennium, when Debian founder Ian Murdock became involved in free software again, he lost much of his  prestige when he advocated a traditional business perspective to Debian developers. Bruce Perens suffered a similar decline because he was perceived as erratic, and Eric Raymond because of his advocacy of extreme right wing views.

 
 The point being: those involved in free software have always reserved the right to withdraw support for leaders who did not reflect common values. So why does the treatment of Eich and Rice leave such a bad taste in my mouth compared to the withdrawal of support from past leaders?

 
Bullying by another name
 
For me, the answer is not about what was expressed, but how it was done. Very likely, leaders should be held to a higher standard than the causes or the community they represent. By their position, they come to represent their communities, and flaws in them can taint their community.

However, in both Eich's and Rice's cases, the community has gone far beyond expressing concerns. Collectively, it has insisted on being the judge and on having its consensus sentence carried out. In Eich's case, nothing he could say could make a difference once the verdict was passed - and never mind that, in the years since his support of an anti-gay marriage proposition, no gay or lesbian appears to have complained about how Eich treated them. From the responses to Rice's appointment, she is probably in the same position.

In other words, these are examples of what used to be called mob justice, and today is called public shaming. In everyday terms, they are amount to bullying, plain and simple.

These days, public shaming has an alarming number of advocates. When the law or other established institutions are slow to respond to an obvious wrong, this advocacy is understandable, but if you claim humanistic values, it is as impossible to accept as the wrong-doing of those with authority that provokes it.

For one thing, such bullying robs those involved of most of the qualities that represent people at their best. They stop thinking as individuals and instead start scrambling to show that they are orthodox in their opinions -- which generally means condemning someone as enthusiastically as every other right-thinking person. It causes a personality change as disturbing as drunkenness in a neurotic.

For another, public shaming, destroys lives. Someone who is the victim of public shaming many never be able to work in their field again. To those doing the shaming, this might seem to be only what the target deserves, but the trouble with public shaming is the same as the trouble with capital punishment: mistakes might be made that can never be unmade.

Admittedly, that does not seem to be the case in Eich's or Rice's case, but that is a matter of accident, not of planning. The possibility of a mistake always exists, largely because a self-righteous mob does not stop for nuanced or balanced judgment.

However, the worst thing about such examples of public shaming is that they reveal those involved to be no less prone to abuse of power than the conventional authorities are. One of the main reasons that social activists like free software advocates attract our attention is that they promise an alternative -- a better, more humane way of doing things.

Yet when the community realizes its power and acts, what is the result? An abuse of authority as unjust as anything that traditional authority could manage, and the abandonment of the moral high ground.

In both Eich's and Rice's cases, it would have been easy to express concern without public shaming. The concerns could have been raised without making demands, and Eich and Rice could be encouraged to defend themselves. Or perhaps a period of probation could be suggested. The result might be the same, but the power of the community might have been exercised with a fairness of which we could be proud.

Instead, what we find is that some of our colleagues are no more fit to exercise power than the people they oppose. What could have been one of free software's finer hours -- a discovery of a previously unrealized strength -- has been sullied by an abuse of power that is as ugly as it is alarming, and leaves everyone vulnerable to whoever happens to be in control at the moment.

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