It's Gonna Be OK

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Article from Issue 217/2018
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I've written a lot of these columns through the years (169, actually – one for every month since August 2004), and in all that time, I don't think I've ever written on the same topic twice in a row. But now I can feel some unfinished business. Last month I discussed the new Linux kernel Code of Conduct, venturing to suggest that it was perhaps overdue and indeed a welcome thing.

Dear Reader,

I've written a lot of these columns through the years (169, actually – one for every month since August 2004), and in all that time, I don't think I've ever written on the same topic twice in a row. But now I can feel some unfinished business. Last month I discussed the new Linux kernel Code of Conduct, venturing to suggest that it was perhaps overdue and indeed a welcome thing.

Since then, I've been a little amazed at the negative reaction the Code of Conduct has received. (See the Kernel News on Page 11 for more on recent discussions surrounding the Code of Conduct.) I can understand that any big change is cause for caution, but this change seems to have caused some genuine trepidation about abandoning the harsh and highly personal tone that passes among kernel maintainers and developers. Many of these commentaries are written in a way that appears to be coming to the defense of Linus, who is often associated with this kind of harsh talk, but in fact, Linus approved the Code of Conduct and appears to support the need for the change.

It is interesting how much this topic falls down into our existing political fault lines. Fault lines are a safe thing, because you can always find others on your side if you just invoke a favorite fault-line motif. But seriously, is it really so hard to tell the difference between politeness and political correctness?

The argument seems to be that defining a code of conduct will create a lot of moral red tape that will tangle up the best minds of the kernel community for no particular benefit. The implication is that there is something coldly analytical and direct about using coarse language – that cursing and personal insults are a result of uncompromising intellectual honesty, and any attempt to steer away from these behaviors is a descent into fluffy emotional equivocation.

Actually, the truth is quite opposite. Anger is not really all that analytical and is really just another emotion – and a rather messy emotion that has the unfortunate effect of stirring up lots of other unproductive emotions in other people. There is nothing particularly intelligent or lofty about losing your temper – it usually just gets in the way. Even less productive is the practice of pretending to be angry by writing in an angry manner in order to wield fear and shame as motivational tools.

Which one of the following behaviors that are prohibited by the Code of Conduct would truly be a loss for the community to give up:

  • The use of sexualized language or imagery and unwelcome sexual attention or advances
  • Trolling, insulting/derogatory comments, and personal or political attacks
  • Public or private harassment
  • Publishing others' private information, such as a physical or electronic address, without explicit permission
  • Other conduct which could reasonably be considered inappropriate in a professional setting

I actually think things will go very well without superiors resorting to any of these behaviors when talking to their subordinates.

Consider the case of an editor who receives an article for review that is a really annoying mess. Which of the following responses would be most effective?

1. This sucks.

2. This is stupid.

3. You are stupid for sending me this.

4. Fix this piece of crap.

5. This article does not meet the needs of our publication because it does not have an introduction, it makes several incorrect assumptions, it hasn't been spell checked, and it isn't written to the level of technical detail that our readers expect.

Notice that the last example does not compromise quality or integrity – in fact, it advances the quality – and it delivers much more useful information. The first examples don't really say much about the article and are, instead, focused on celebrating the editor's emotional state, with the clear but strangely vague impression that an unstated feature of the article gave rise to that emotional state.

The last example is the most informative, but it also requires an investment of time and energy on the part of the editor to articulate what is wrong with the article. The editor might not have time to take this extra step, or perhaps the editor has concluded that the article is beyond repair and isn't worth the investment of additional energy. In that case, the editor could just say:

This article is rejected.

which is every bit as easy to write as examples 1-4 (above), and just as demanding, but it doesn't impose an irrelevant power relationship on a business discussion by celebrating the transcendent specialness of the editor's disapproval.

Thanks to Linus for stepping up to the challenge of achieving more effective communication on the kernel list. The Code of Conduct is going to be OK, everyone. It is all going to work out fine.

Joe Casad, Editor in Chief

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