Lennart Poettering and the cause of civility

Off the Beat: Bruce Byfield's Blog

Oct 07, 2014 GMT
Bruce Byfield

Just what free software needed: another discussion of civility in the community in which half-truth counters half-truth, and nothing gets resolved.

I'm referring, of course, to the reactions to Lennart Poettering's recent rant, in which he characterizes free software as an abusive community, thanks largely to the example of Linus Torvalds. Poettering is far from the first to describe the hostility that can exist in free software, and the first reactions came within hours of the posting, soon snowballing into an avalanche of criticism, most of it so careless with nuance that any sort of balanced observation is impossible

Probably, I haven't a hope of adding my own comments without offending someone. But here goes:

To start with, Poettering is perfectly right -- an abusive element does exist within free software. The abusive element may not be as universal as he asserts, but, if not, it makes up in volume what it lacks in numbers. Women especially tend to be targets of this abuse, as well as any man who defends feminist perspectives, as I can personally testify. The abuse ranges from sexual innuendo to threats of assault and death, none of which has any place in civilized discussion.

In fact, coming from Canada, a country famed for politeness, I personally question the need for plain rudeness, either. I doubt there's a slippery slope from rudeness to death threats -- but I do believe that politeness is a productive default.

However, at the same time, the complaints coming from Poettering amount to a new definition of chutzpah. Poettering, you may remember, is fond of sweeping critiques of huge bases of code, and of releasing half-finished replacements like PulseAudio, systemd, and Avahi that are radical departures from what they replace. He is a person as much known for expecting other people to tidy up after him as for his innovations. For many people, this high-handed behavior makes Poettering an example of the same abusive behavior that he denounces -- and his critique more than slightly problematic.

On the one hand, nobody deserves death threats and abuse, so saying that Poettering is getting what he deserves would be wrong. On the other hand, adults should be expected to take responsibility for the consequences of their actions. Unlike Anita Sarkeesian, the feminist media critic, Poettering has not been just going about his business as he was abused. Instead, he is more like Adria Richards, who became a target for abuse after narcissistically responding to a private conversation and posting unauthorized photos. Neither Poettering nor Richards deserved the abuse they got, but, at the same time, their own behavior makes them unlikely to attract much sympathy, either, except among those whose minds are made up for other reasons.

As for Poettering's claim that abuse is encouraged by Linus Torvalds' example, it should find a ready response, because the idea is already circulating. Sarah Sharpe may have failed to make Torvalds' manner an issue among kernel developers, but the idea lingers, especially among those who have nothing whatsoever to do with kernel development or are promoting codes of conduct.

Yet to conflate Torvalds' form of expression with the often anonymous abuse that sometimes circulates is to reveal a tone-deaf literal-mindedness. Torvalds' colorful language may seem "idiotic" to Poettering, but it obviously originates in passion for doing things well, and impatience with sloppiness of code-writing or thought. Unlike the aimless abuse that Poettering equates it with, Torvalds' self-expression stands for something worth cultivating. Nor is its deliberate exaggeration proof of anger so much as a semi-humorous technique for minimizing anger.  Torvalds' real anger is always much more to the point.

Torvalds' self-expression may not be easy to endure if you are not expecting it -- as I have personally found out once or twice for myself -- but there is no meanness in its meanness. As evidence of this statement, I point to the fact that he has no objection to anyone replying to him in kind.  But common sense alone should be enough for anyone to infer that if Torvalds really was as obnoxious as some people allege, he could not possibly have built kernel development into the success project it obviously is. He seems to have a skill at collaboration that at least to some extent counter-balances his manner.

All of which makes dragging Torvalds into the discussion a distraction from the main issue.

The abusive element in free software needs to be dealt with, and sooner rather than later. When people are full of enthusiasm and dedication, complete civility is probably too much to ask for, but eliminating the non-productive negativity that thrives on anonymity should be possible. However, Poettering is an unsatisfactory martyr to the cause, and Torvalds' brusqueness is more of an easy target than any part of the problem.

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