There's a Storm Brewing

Conduct Unbecoming

Article from Issue 193/2016
Author(s):

Should the FSF be thinking about a code of conduct?

This month past there's been a bit of a spat between the lead developer of the Libreboot project and the Free Software Foundation (FSF). The cause of the disagreement is pretty unambiguously serious: The alleged bullying of a transgender member of staff by a person or persons unnamed in the employ of the Free Software Foundation. The argument itself, at least in the way it has played out on Reddit, blog posts, and mailing lists, is a pretty shabby he-said-she-said spat that should never have seen the light of day.

The lead developer has announced that Libreboot will continue, just no longer under the GNU aegis, in protest of the offense; in response, the FSF has decreed that Libreboot is still a part of GNU. As a lead developer, you can check your project out any time you want, but you can never leave, because GNU is life.

This led me to wonder: Does the FSF have a code of conduct? I know that the Apache project does, and Django, and Gnome, and tons of conferences do too. But the closest thing the FSF has to a written set of guidelines for its employees to follow to ensure good behavior is a section on the wiki lecturing people on why they're wrong to use the phrase Open Source instead of Free Software. A code of conduct is pretty useless if you're one man against the world, trying to fight against the evils of proprietary software in the face of huge odds. It's pretty useless if there are just a few of you, all fighting the good fight together. If your team grows, it's tempting to imagine that you're all on the same side and there will never be any conflict that you can't resolve with a cup of tea and an open discussion. But that's the wrong approach.

Codes of conduct aren't just a form of bureaucracy, they exist to protect the organization and the people who comprise that organization. A written code of conduct gives a framework for disagreements, which stops things from getting personal. People aren't perfect, and they need this sort of structure to keep a cross word, when they're tired and irritable, from escalating into something more serious.

Here's why I think the FSF doesn't have a code of conduct: It would be a reminder that it isn't perfect. Institutions with a moral crusade at their heart often have difficulty compromising, and a code of conduct is all about establishing a framework for compromise. Codes of conduct are about pragmatism, not morality, so they just don't fit the holier-than-thou ethos. If you believe that you're on the side of the angels, you're in the right, and that's the end of the discussion. This attitude, quite rightly, doesn't work in the real world. One day the FSF will join us in the real world instead of polishing its halo, and we'll all be much better off.

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