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Excommunicating a heretic

Young & foolish?

In 1988 as a scrawny eleven-year old arrival alone at boarding school, perhaps the only Quaker in a thousand strong body; I wore a white poppy to the large Remembrance Day commemorations. I recall the interest and forceful objections of my peers and elders - some with armed service connections, and my impassioned pleas for a personal pacifism. No doubt there were some who were intellectual defenders of the doctrine of Just War: (love's response to a neighbour threatened), as I myself became later in life - but I suspect that the fun of picking on those who are noticeably different was the dominant motivation. I imagine a majority of those in the Free Software community have suffered similar or more traumatic experiences, associated with being noticeably and vocally different; of being outstanding in one area & yet weak in others: perhaps socially and/or athletically. Hopefully that lets us empathise with others who are oppressed. That's why in this debate I think the purest motives on both sides here are closest to this: What is love's response to a neighbour who is threatened? and then what is proportional?

Disclaimer: something must be done

Recently RMS returned to the FSF board with to my mind an indefensible lack of grace & engagement with his critics. This seems to unfortunately intersect with the absence of good, representative governance structures for eg. GPL users to affect license direction. People started on-line petitions in liu of voting to either remove the FSF board or to unconditionally support RMS. Spoiler alert - there is something to annoy everyone here. I don't believe either of these stated positions is helpful and one of them is actively dangerous. I expect RMS to demonstrate hard-core leadership by preparing for his inevitable political or physical death, and building good governance structures that can live on and continue his work. It is not a time to do nothing. KDE's, statement seemed constructive, Debian had a middle ground option, and even RedHat's position was not so extreme. I sincerely hope that the FSF can be improved and continue to reflect RMS' vision of Software Freedom.

Its not all awful

The open letter to remove the FSF board contains much that is deeply problematic, yet there are some sensible pieces, take this one:

While these ideas have been popularized in some form by Richard M. Stallman, he does not speak for us. We do not condone his actions and opinions. We do not acknowledge his leadership or the leadership of the Free Software Foundation as it stands today.

Notice the credit, and yet creating distance, notice the sensible tone, and the moderate approach. I would like to think that the several thousand people signing up to this, many of whom I like, some of whom I've really enjoyed working with are primarily saying only what this paragraph says. If so - good, I can understand that. Unfortunately alongside this reasonableness are some very profound problems that needlessly makes this one of the most divisive initiatives I've seen in free-software:

Attacking people's beliefs?

The rational here seems really damaging:

"He has shown himself to be misogynist, ableist, and transphobic, among other serious accusations of impropriety [impiety?]. These sorts of beliefs have no place in the free software, digital rights, and tech communities. ... There has been enough tolerance of RMS’s repugnant ideas ... we will not continue suffering his behaviour, ... or otherwise holding him and his hurtful and dangerous ideology as acceptable. ... We ask for contributors to free software projects to take a stand against bigotry and hate within their projects."

This focus on beliefs is unconscionable. Beliefs struggle to exist outside people's heads so I read this as: People who we can plausibly accuse of having misogynistic, ableist or transphobic beliefs have no place in the free software community. This might sound plural and welcoming, and I understand the desire to stick up for those who are marginalized, but it has a number of acute problems.

What is the new orthodoxy?

Which are the views that must be held (or not held) to have a place in free software? Unfortunately the new orthodoxy while having sixteen promoters is unbounded - we are not given a comprehensive creed. We do have some very precise examples on what is not acceptable though. Lets take trans-phobia. Apparently RMS while not on the autistic spectrum, does have a phobia. However - exactly what that phobia is is rather less than clear. Many (including I suspect RMS) are convinced that he is not transphobic. There seems to be a somewhat complex difference in the doctrine of how best to de-gender pronouns which causes the problem.

Interestingly the ableist issue when I skimmed the snippets seems to be rooted in a specific view on the ethics of abortion. As a young woman finds herself unexpectedly alone at a crossroads of life-changing consequence it is hard not to have deep compassion for her! Indeed, my wife has spent some years giving space and a listening ear, to help women think through their choices at this crisis point. Views vary widely here, but it seems that even among abortion activists the (perhaps comforting) view that there is zero moral dimension: that the act is no more significant than clipping your fingernails is a rather extreme one. Nevertheless if you hold it I expect it makes it much harder to critique selective abortion - whether for sex, disability or (as technology advances) more eugenic Gattaca-style scenarios. I read RMS' deeply disturbing advice on selecting for ability (which is sadly common) as flowing from this understanding. Should an affirmation of the wonderful, unique, created in the image of God value of all persons at some point in this process be mandatory for inclusion in our community? A tough one.

Apparently the signatories of this document also think that having mysogynistic beliefs is grounds for excommunication from the free software community. Who chose these three beliefs? where did they appear from? are there any more things we should not believe? Presumably traditional convictions around marriage are also grounds, cf. the Brendan Eich hysteria but; what else?

On excommunicating heretics

The paradox of intolerance is often aired to lazily avoid spending any thought justifying this sort of statement & action. One day I hope to have time to read The Open Society and its Enemies and its counterpoint. The vital need is to respect the dignity, protect the property, and cherish the lives of others - particularly those who have historically suffered. I can see how this is especially important to trans people, and I take no pleasure in seeing them offended. Having said that there are also many groups who have suffered historically in horrible ways. History is indeed littered with examples of well meaning intolerance going badly wrong. It is also clearly the case that some speech is unacceptable (but beliefs!?). The interesting question here is really where to draw the line. No doubt it feels good to stand up for a vulnerable marginalized community by excluding those with whom they disagree. I do wonder whether that is easier than trying to understand and accurately portray both sides - or "putting the work in to understand other human beings".

This is fun! lets find more heretics!

It seems to me there is a substantial convergence of views between RMS and this new orthodoxy - so it should be far easier to find those whose beliefs diverge significantly. Luckily very detailed descriptions exist of what very large groups of people believe around the world. Many have different ideas of how best to love those with whom they disagree. For example Male and Female he created them - towards a path of dialogue on the question of gender theory in education. (published 2019 under Pope Francis). That should be easy to caricature in order to exclude people from the Free Software community. I think it would also be easy to argue that a loyal Catholic faithfully upholding the Churches' teaching has beliefs that are more easy to caricature as mysogynist than RMS'. I really don't want to pick on Catholics (who just happen to be rather good at multi-lingual write-ups of their doctrines), so how about a random update from the Church of England. Of course - in each case adherents would reject such a caricature and these labels; no doubt they would also have powerful convictions on when life begins. But perhaps that's all a bit Euro-centric - so how about Wikipedia on Islam, or we can spend all day cycling through major belief systems each representing hundreds of millions of people, and collectively billions. Almost all of these will have some element that will conflict with or upset the opinions of someone else. Most of these belief systems are mutually contradictory and/or mutually offensive at some level to adherents of others. So there should be no shortage of beliefs for which we can excommunicate others.

I hear the common objection: "But I have a friend who is a <insert religion> and they don't believe anything (like that) - perhaps we can only exclude the ones that actually believe these things?". I'm sure you do have such a friend, and so do I. Clearly no world religion has a monolithic interpretation. The balance between revelation & personal experience, the hermeneutics and theology varies extraordinarily widely. That results in sets of people under the same apparent umbrella holding widely different beliefs; even if we can safely assume that you truly know what your friend believes; and this is before we get into more esoteric Spaghetti Monster style creeds.

All that aside - I see no way to argue for excluding RMS on the basis of his beliefs (ie. he is not progressive-orthodox enough) without also loosing a big chunk of the rest of the world as well. Please notice - nothing in the statement that so many signed says this is specific to leaders, or being a prominent person, each belief itself is grounds: "these sort of beliefs have no place in the free software community?". Why pick belief as a rationale?

Potential allies in surprising places

An acquaintance of a friend spent many decades smuggling 'pornographic literature' into the Eastern Block - (very good for marriage enrichment). He also founded a non-profit Open Doors, here's a quote from the pre-amble to their watch list:

In the most populated countries on earth, [people] live in a surveillance state ... China has also developed widespread facial recognition software and established laws requiring facial scans to purchase a phone. When taken together, these two technological advances mean the government can track individuals like never before ... China is also rolling out a country-wide Social Credit System (SCS) by which authorities plan to reward "good" citizenship and punish "bad."

Do people with those beliefs, who are actively working to educate, lobby, change hearts & minds to guard society and help others - have common cause with us in the "digital rights community"? - or do they need excommunicating too? It is interesting that Open Doors provide one of the more conservative estimates of the ~thousand(s) of Christians killed each year specifically for their faith. I worry about an ethnocentricity that extrapolates from the USA's poisonous cultural divisions to erase the oppression of minorities around the globe. It is not acceptable to consider the impact of community policies based only on the Silicon Valley population & culture.

Transient heretics in surprising places

Another interesting problem with orthodoxy is the surprising belligerence and infighting that it can breed - often on minor issues. This is familiar from the innumerable schisms in small churches. A joke is told in the aftermath of a church dividing; of an old friend checking in with one of the new leaders: "Ah, these are terrible faithless times - we've split again over doctrine, and now it's just me and my brother. And to be honest - I'm not so sure about him!". I was interested to see the story of eg. Valerie Aurora: an extremely smart & dynamic feminist who is a leading expert on the latest diversity topics. Yet she was somehow ejected from Double Union the hacker/maker space she co-founded because of inadvertently infringing the code of conduct that she ~wrote. I fear living in a world where even outwardly conforming to the latest progressive orthodoxy would tax the wisdom of Solomon.

Prophets of a new creed

It is interesting to read about the beliefs of some of the people involved here; sadly I don't know Molly - but I've had the privilege of working with Matthew Garrett in his early days on GNOME - and a smarter, more charismatic, outspoken, iconoclastic(?), amusing person it's hard to find - quite apart from his amazing depth of contribution to Free Software. I was interested to try to quickly skim Molly & Matthew's beliefs based on what they write and see how they measure up.

Before doing that - let me re-assert that I take the freedoms of speech, conscience and expression extremely seriously as self-evidently vital for the functioning of an open society, though not absolute. While I want everybody to live in a physically safe space, I want to discuss views robustly in an atmosphere of respectful enquiry, with complete freedom and openness. It is not my intention to enlarge the sphere of (self) censorship.

There is however a kind of humour whose value (if any) is drawn from trampling the personal & sacred to elicit a response; is it nervous schadenfreude for those thus offended? (in this case those who love Christ more than friends or family). I don't see many cursing with ~obsolete god's names eg. Marduk so what can we learn from:

I'd prefer five words such as: challenging, fascinating, absorbing, collaborative, rewarding myself - but I'd hate to live in a world devoid of humour. Another example - I was interested by Molly's re-tweet on another hot potato (as always well worth reading the primary source court judgement rather than the dubious spin below):

To me it is curious that someone can champion excluding people over their heterodox beliefs, while simultaneously shouting things like the below; perhaps some irony overload here:

Apparently it is easy to end up championing the gentle treatment of a sexual minority while thinking it is funny to be gratuitously offensive to other minorities. Surely it can be offensive enough to respectfully state ones position. Still - in a world where there is a broad freedom of belief, conscience and speech, possibly some humour can cut through the gloom. A possibly tragic, possibly humorous but probably co-incidental aside here is that some chunk of this is based on an excessive focus on a small divergence in linguistic orthodoxy; when this was a hallmark of the GNU-slash-Linux campaigns of the past.

Perhaps you think it is deeply unfair to examine people's public twitter feeds - which occur outside the context of a project - to determine whether their beliefs are aligned with the standards they demand from others. Actually - I tend to agree. For good reason any sensible code of conduct excludes speech and behaviour outside its immediate project context. Not so this statement - its scope is everyone, everywhere and all of the time - even historic beliefs.

But possibly you think that it is ok to attack the privileged to defend the weak; that it is proportional to agitate to end someone's career in order to avoid the risk of a friendly minority member inadvertently working alongside someone who has some subset of beliefs that differ from theirs.

Saint Obama: the world is complicated

I was encouraged recently to watch this, and I excerpt the first part:

This idea of purity, never compromised, always politically woke & all that stuff - you should get over that quickly. The world is messy, there are ambiguities, people who do really good stuff have flaws.

(his Catholic vice-president also seems to be doing well as of late too). I expect that any model of people that doesn't tolerate the complexity and malleability of human experience and belief will ultimately not represent the world well. That will lead to disappointment. You should get over that quickly. I'm certainly far from perfect, my views change over time, perhaps the same is true for you. As Lincoln pointed out that Those who look for the bad in people will surely find it, I'm often guilty of that myself.

Conclusion

Should we fear a world-view that locates most of the world's problems in other people? The flaws I'm most concerned about are my own (which are more than obvious though I'm certain I have more that you can locate). It is because of those flaws that I need to live in a place that is patient and loving.

Should we fear a world-view that builds a path to redemption via being maximally unpleasant to others who disagree? Or is it better to try hard to "Act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God" (Micah 6).

Is being offended occasionally by others' (truly objectionable) beliefs the price of collaborating with people with diverse viewpoints, discussing anything and everything without boundaries and learning? Not always a small price to pay, but is it not necessary? Surely it is the case that each member of outlying groups benefits from mutual tolerance. Indeed we often celebrate the amazing contributions to society of those who (at the time) were viewed to have unacceptably fringe beliefs & practices. Becoming a less tolerant society is potentially polarizing and dangerous.

What is love's response to a neighbour in need in this instance? Probably it is to vigorously encourage RMS to setup a representative governance so actual users of the GPL family can determine its post-RMS future. Perhaps it is to loudly re-iterate the obvious: that RMS does not represent you or me - and that we don't share the details of his unusual politics; to make more obvious that personal views are disjoint from organizations' missions, and to ensure we are able to choose our representatives in a secret ballot. But love's response is certainly not to let Free Software get twisted into a new and narrow orthodoxy consumed by gender politics to its own harm and the exclusion of others. We should remain a broad, tolerant and inclusive church even when it hurts. We used to be focused on liberty & freedom - I miss that.

"We ask for contributors to free software projects to take a stand against bigotry and hate within their projects."

Bigotry - a stubborn and complete intolerance of any creed, belief, or opinion that differs from one's own.

Postscript A - why religious tolerance?

It seems obvious to me that this new orthodoxy combined with political power is rather dangerous. Perhaps those who have not grown up with some of the common stories would do well to read them. How about the fiery furnace - takes two minutes of your life; but why is it so hard to show due respect to the pagan government's request? is that really breaking the 2nd commandment? Or - if you have a very strong stomach - try just eat the pork: why won't they obey orders from an authority (Epiphanes: 'god manifest') - perhaps interesting? What requirements or forced conformity might be too much? Is there a shortcut via coercion to truly change society to how I want it to look? or is winsome persuasion the best way? Of course there is a shameful record of burnings, division & bigotry - often over rather small divergences in orthodoxy throughout the Church's history, without even getting into where major creeds interacted at a larger world scale. Then again I'm sympathetic to the Pastafarian concern that arbitrarily unreasonable creeds can be created, and that other points of view have no systematic orthodoxy to protect them which seems unfair: surely it is so: so lets treat all people fairly when our worlds collide.

Postscript B - hiring people

"We want to hire diverse people - but only if they are exactly like us."

One of the things that has saddened me most among those I've worked with in the past is that it is now acceptable for people to say that they would not hire people with beliefs that I know many wonderful, excellent, Christian programmers have. There is a rising tide of intolerance of those that are perceived not to kowtow to the new progressive orthodoxy.

Generally an attitude of graciously accepting others' hostility has held, along with avoiding law-suits. I fear though that as attacks on believers' presence in Free Software get more explicit there will be a slowly growing realization of the problem here. Not to pick on Mozilla (though they did sign this problematic statement) but I'm curious how views that are 'traumatic and damaging' can be accommodated there. I think it is past time to start monitoring religious affiliation as well as ethnicity as part of diversity.

Can any company explain how These sorts of beliefs have no place in the free software, digital rights, and tech communities can intersect with companies that build products around such communities? Surely we can find lots of quotes saying how important community is to developing software. Surely we can find statements that employees are members of such communities. So is it really credible to a-priori exclude masses of people on the basis of their beliefs from your employee pool? Does that extend to refusing to hire people based on their beliefs? Or perhaps people with incompatible beliefs just get inferior jobs inside the company partitioned away from those communities? Certainly - I feel far from safe & welcome applying to one of the listed companies there without further re-assurance. It is deeply ironic that in the past one of the (baseless) explanations from some of the more reasonable people I talk with for excluding believers from management is that they might discriminate when hiring.

If this statement was focused on leaders, it could be characterized as installing a new glass-ceiling for any who are not progressive-orthodox. Even if it were re-written as a criteria for leaders - I'm still far from sure we will get better leaders by selecting for conformity rather than competence.

As the virtual becomes increasingly more important than the physical for some people's livelihoods hopefully we can all agree that encouraging equitable behaviour online is a good thing.

Postscript C - (goes without saying)

As should not need saying: these views are mine, my own. I don't speak for my employer, nor any projects I'm affiliated with, nor my Church, or my friends. Feel free to borrow any views you find persuasive or reject any you find objectionable.

Updates

2021-04-14: Impressed to receive a very gracious apology from Matthew G for his language; though of course - I'd prefer movement on the substance; good chap; (he approved this, and tweeted). Also an amusing comment from a friend on the parallels between Act justly, and to love mercy and the Robustness principle


My content in this blog and associated images / data under images/ and data/ directories are (usually) created by me and (unless obviously labelled otherwise) are licensed under the public domain, and/or if that doesn't float your boat a CC0 license. I encourage linking back (of course) to help people decide for themselves, in context, in the battle for ideas, and I love fixes / improvements / corrections by private mail.

In case it's not painfully obvious: the reflections reflected here are my own; mine, all mine ! and don't reflect the views of Collabora, SUSE, Novell, The Document Foundation, Spaghetti Hurlers (International), or anyone else. It's also important to realise that I'm not in on the Swedish Conspiracy. Occasionally people ask for formal photos for conferences or fun.

Michael Meeks (michael.meeks@collabora.com)

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