Category: Long Thought

A longer thought.

An Analysis of the Fantasyland Learning Code of Professionalism (FCOP)

I have a good amount of experience regarding codes of conduct for open source communities. I am co-author of the Citizen Code of Conduct. I was part of the incident response team for Open Source Bridge and Stumptown Syndicate for several  years. I know what’s involved in responding to the code of conduct you adopt for your community.

Part of my experience includes reading a lot of other communities’ codes of conduct and providing feedback on what is likely to work well and what is not likely. Creating governance policies is not easy, and is more difficult so the less experience you have.

Recently the organizers of LambdaConf drafted and adopted a code of conduct, which they call the Fantasyland Institute of Learning Code of Professionalism (FCOP). This code is beyond mediocre. It’s downright dangerous. I do not recommend you adopt it in your community nor that you attend any event using this as its code of conduct.

To demonstrate why, I will give a detailed textual analysis of the FCOP.


STATEMENT OF PURPOSE

The Fantasyland Institute of Learning Code of Professionalism (FCOP) dictates the terms and conditions under which we allow you to participate in the community.

First off, the name “Fantasyland” gives me the creeps. I either think Disney-style amusement park, or the adults-only connotation of “Fantasyland” related to sex toys and porn. Neither of these have much to do with what I think of as professional programming spaces.

Also, “dictates” and “we allow you to participate” indicates a very top-down, hierarchical approach.

The purpose of FCOP is to facilitate inclusiveness and productivity (towards our professional goals) in our community despite operating in a pluralistic society.

Use of the word “despite” presupposes that community and diversity are necessarily at odds with each other. My way of looking things is that conflict in inevitable in any community, and that certain types of conflict arise when you have a very diverse community. Conflict is a normal part of social interaction. It’s how we learn and grow together. Conflict is not the same as abuse, though conflict not appropriately resolved can lead to abuse and abuses certainly create conflict as a way to exercise power and control.

To accomplish this goal, we restrict the community to civil people, and protect such people from discrimination, stereotyping, harassment, judgmental communication, and breaches of privacy.

What is meant by “civil” is defined later on, and I find the definition given a bit bizarre. Before I get to that, I want to examine the text with regard to the dictionary definition of civil. The one that adds the most meaning to this context is: “adequate in courtesy and politeness.”

To me it doesn’t make sense to prohibit people from being discourteous or impolite. To do so is to confuse niceness for kindness and to prioritize manners over genuine interaction. What is considered mannerly behavior is highly contextual and is based on class, culture, ethnicity, age, gender, and more.

Part of being in community is giving space for people to express themselves even if that means doing so angrily or impolitely or in another manner you might find distasteful. Expressing anger is not necessarily the same thing as acting violently.

Moreover, it is entirely possible for a person to act abusively all the while doing so politely. In fact, this is how many serial abusers get away with their behavior for so long.

But, like I said, the FCOP authors aren’t using the dictionary definition, or even really a conventional meaning of “civil.” Here’s how they define it:

Civil. We define civil individuals as individuals who, in our sole estimation, do not and will not engage in the following behaviors during active participation or inactive participation:

Crimes. Any criminal behavior in which there is a victim.

Community Sabotage. Any behavior (excluding non-violent communication) directed at sabotaging the community for political, religious, ideological, or moral reasons.

Professional Sabotage. Any behavior directed at sabotaging a member’s career for political, religious, ideological, or moral reasons; including attempting to no-platform a member or pressuring an employer to fire a member.

So, to FCOP authors, and LambdaConf organizers, being civil and participating meaningfully in community is defined solely by not engaging in criminal behavior for which there is a victim, or any behavior that counts as sabotage of the community or any of its members.

Pretty low bar, don’t you think?

If anything, it tells you what they value most: Not wanting any responsibility for making decisions about handling “criminal behavior” (whatever that means, they don’t specify), and not wanting to have to respond to any negative criticism at all, which they characterize as sabotage.

FCOP is explicitly not intended to impose any system of politics, religion, ideologies, morals, or values onto members.

Perhaps not, but it is certainly doing so implicitly as any standard of community norms and behavior does, whether it is written or not. FCOP authors seem to be trying to impose an apolitical worldview upon their community, which is not possible (because there is no such thing).

SHORT-FORM

We welcome all civil people to participate in the community. We do not allow discrimination, harassment, judgmental communication, or breaches of privacy. We do not exclude any civil people from our community unless they have been banned by us for a violation of these terms and conditions.

Again, the use and emphasis on civility tells me “you can get away with a lot if you sound polite.”

(My former evangelical co-worker who, in one email, tells me how much he respects me but then reiterates that my invalid marriage threatens the very fabric of his and also that I am godless would love this provision.)

But, of course, once you scroll down to the TERMS section you’ll realize that’s not even how FCOP authors mean civility. You’re civil as long as you don’t perpetrate crime upon another or sabotage the community.

Furthermore, this is how FCOP authors define discrimination (from the TERMS section):

Discrimination. We define discrimination as any favoritism shown or withheld to someone either on the basis of a stereotype or a non-community related group membership.

When discrimination is defined without an reference to power dynamics, it is usually a bad sign. I’ve seen this definition used countless times to dismiss or discourage any program or effort designed to get more folks from underrepresented groups involved in tech. Those who cry “reverse racism love this definition.

WELCOME STATEMENT

We welcome civil people of all genders, gender-expressions, sexual-orientations, gender-orientations, races, ethnic origins, skin colors, physical handicaps, mental handicaps, ages, sizes, political views, religious views, philosophies, beliefs, and attitudes.

Again with the use of “civil.” Also, I am pretty sure “handicap” is not the preferred term any more.

We pledge that we will not tolerate discrimination, harassment, judgmental communication, or breaches of privacy. We pledge to hold ourselves to these same standards and, in so doing, set a positive example for others to follow.

Most of this sounds okay. But what is “judgmental communication”? Can’t wait to learn what they mean by that! It smells bad to me already.

Saying “we pledge to hold ourselves to these same standards” is a weird way to indicate that these rules also applies to leadership. The whole code of conduct should apply to leadership as well as “regular” community members.

We greatly value integrity and pledge to establish the highest levels of trust in members.

Who is doing the establishing here, leadership or members?

BEHAVIOR

Oh, now we get to the good part. First, they create a distinction between “active” and “inactive” participation. We don’t learn how each of these types of participation is defined until the end of the FCOP in the TERMS section:

Active Participation. We define active participation to include the behavior of members while they are in the boundaries of the community.

Inactive Participation. We define inactive participation to include the behavior of members at all times and under all circumstances.

Ah, so FCOP authors distinguish between “active” and “inactive” participation as a way to clarify scope: within community activities and outside of it.

ACTIVE PARTICIPATION

During active participation, you must behave as described in this section.

Don’t Stereotype. Treat everyone as unique. Do not infer characteristics of a person based on their [perceived] membership in some group or category.

This might sound like a good thing to include in your code of conduct, but is likely to have unintended consequences.

First, not all stereotypes are negative or invalid. If someone introduces themselves as a born-again evangelical Christian, and they don’t explicitly tell me they support marriage equality, there is a very good chance they do not. Second, stereotyping is an important cognitive tool that helps us make sense of the world. It’s not possible to prohibit it because it’s something we all do.

What’s important is how we act on the information an assessed stereotype has given us. And there’s nothing inherently wrong with making initial judgements about others based on stereotype. This is how we survive in the world. Stereotypes become problematic when we do not update our understanding of someone based on new information, when stereotypes are used to perpetuate biases not based in reality, and when they are used to reinforce existing unjust power structures.

Don’t Communicate Judgmentally. You must not communicate the idea that any person, place, thing, idea, or action is superior or inferior to any other. Instead, talk about observations, analyses, models, and your own personal preferences.

I can’t think of any way it would be possible to have meaningful discussion while following this rule. As worded, it is a prohibition against discerning right from wrong, or even good from better, about anything, even in the most relative or contextual ways.

As written, you couldn’t give a technical recommendation in the form of “Given what you just told me about your situation, I think X would be the best solution.” Rather, you would have to phrase it as “In a similar situation, I have observed A solution have B result, and X solution have Y result,” or as “In that situation, my preference is for X solution.”

What is the value is in asking your community members to jump through such linguistics hoops?

Furthermore, stating something as a personal preference doesn’t preclude folks from implying (and thereby communicating) the idea that something is inferior or superior. Saying, “I prefer that society only recognize the marriages of heterosexual couples and that all sexual activity outside of legal marriage be punished” sends a pretty clear message about what you find superior and inferior.

Don’t Harass. Do not interact with anyone who does not consent. For verbal and written interaction you may assume consent for the first interaction, until the recipient communicates otherwise. For physical interaction, close physical proximity, and persistent gaze, you must assume non-consent until the person clearly and unambiguously communicates otherwise.

Harassment is not defined here, but later on under TERMS with this very narrow scope:

Harassment. We define harassment as an attempt to interact with someone who does not consent to the interaction.

Neither statement addresses the issue of repeated, verbal and written communication to which there is no response or the many other forms of harassment which might occur.

Don’t Pry. Do not go out of your way to read, watch, or listen to the private communications of other members (including trying to read their screens or listening to their private conversations). If you do read or overhear a private conversation, do not share it.

This feels weird to me as worded and I wonder why it’s in here. Is the intent here to be respectful or people’s privacy, or is to shield bad actors from scrutiny?

Don’t Obstruct. Do not attempt to disrupt communication between members, the activity of members, or the congregation of members.

I feel the same about this provision as I do “Don’t Pry.” Would intervening when another community members appears distressed be considered obstruction? What about speaking up during a talk if the speaker is presenting inappropriate material?

Assume the Best. Assume the best intention when others communicate with you. If you don’t understand what someone meant, or have questions about it, ask them directly rather than speculating or spreading rumors. If someone appears to be communicating judgmentally (“Coffee is good”), assume they did so only as a shorthand way of speaking, and ask them to clarify what objective metrics and personal predictions and preferences they are implying (“I like coffee”).

Not everyone acts with the “best intention” and operating with those folks like they do can be detrimental. It is your choice how much good or bad intention to assume about another person’s behavior. No one else has the right to dictate that for you. It’s a highly personal decision, based on many factors including your lived experience in the world and possibly your prior history with the person, community, or context in question.

If “assuming good intent” works for you personally, great. But it’s a tactic that doesn’t serve everyone equally. And when you require community members to assume good intent, you take away their personal agency. It is a tool of domination. Don’t do it.

These requirements on behavior apply to members only while they are actively participating in the community.

If it applies to members only, what rules, if any, apply to guests in community spaces?

The standing of members is unaffected by behavior that does not comply with these requirements if this behavior occurs in other communities.

This is one of the most dangerous provisions in the whole code.

It means that anyone with a past or present history of bad conduct in another community is completely exempt from consequences in this community. Did you abuse your position of authority in another community? No problem in this one, you’re welcome to have a position of authority here. Are you a serial harasser and abuser of women elsewhere? No problem here, we welcome you with open arms! Have you been sanctioned by other communities for homophobic, transphobic, racist remarks? We welcome you!

The best predictor of future behavior is past behavior. It is patently absurd to make it a rule that you will ignore any and all information about a person’s past behavior in making decisions about how to include them in  your community.

INACTIVE PARTICIPATION

During inactive participation, you must behave as described in this section.

Be Civil. Do not engage in criminal activity, and do not sabotage the community or member’s careers for political, religious, ideological, or moral reasons.

Does that mean it’s okay to sabotage them for other reasons?

It can be dicey to draw lines around criminal activity, especially with regard to non-violent crimes for which people of color, for example, are arrested and punished for at much greater rates than their white counter parts. It also excludes a whole section of our citizenry who have almost no economical opportunities except those that are underground. Or those who break unjust laws for good reasons.

The reference to “sabotage” here reads to me like a prohibition against doing anything that might possibly create negative consequences for the community or one of its members. That’s problematic because: a) it’s not something one has total control over, b) it implies you’re supposed to subjugate your own needs to avoid even the possibility of bringing unwanted attention to the community or one of its members.

Don’t Dox. Do not disseminate any private details about others learned within the community without express permission, including but not limited to real name, address, phone number, or photo identity.

Other codes of conduct define doxing and “posting” or “publishing”, which implies doing so publicly, in a place available to a wide, uninterested audience (“uninterested” here meaning: without a valid interest in the information).

That FCOP authors use “disseminate” implies to me that you’re not to share anything you’ve learned about community members outside of that community, even in a non-public, secure way to an interested audience.

Sharing information about people, in order to increase the safety of the community as a whole, is not the same thing as doxing.

Don’t Shame. You must not negatively communicate about a member’s behavior (which occurred inside the community, or which you learned about while inside the community) with anyone outside the community without express permission of the discussed members, where the discussed members themselves decide what is negative.

Also one of the most dangerous provisions of this code.

It prohibits you from telling anyone outside the community about any “negative” experience you had with another community member without their permission. Someone harasses you? Can’t tell anyone about it unless the person who harassed you says it’s okay.

Moreover, the person who engaged in the behavior defines what is “negative”  so you might very well break this rule without meaning to or even knowing you did.

These requirements on behavior apply to members at all times, even when they are not actively participating in the community.

Ah, okay, so what you do outside of the community doesn’t matter as long as you don’t do something that happens to bring negative attention to the community. Got it.

PRIVACY

Private Communication. During active participation, you may take phone calls, direct messages, emails, and other semi-private forms of communication. Although private communication is not bound by FCOP, we expect all communication that can be seen or overheard by other members will comply with the requirements of FCOP.

Why is this even in here? It adds nothing except an onerous requirement than anyone you’re conversing with follow the FCOP if there’s any possibility they can be overheard or seen.

Private Consumption. During active participation, you may consume material on your own personal devices and from your own channels of communication, and this material does not have to conform to FCOP, assuming the material is not easily discernible to others.

Watching porn or reading ESRs blog out in the open in a community space is fine as long as no one knows you’re doing it. Okay. Wait, is porn even actually prohibited by the FCOP?

VIOLATIONS

No Victimless Crime. If you are a victim but you do not feel victimized, you may choose to not report the violation. In this case, we will not treat the incident as a violation.

In other words, we only want to do work if someone makes a stink about it. And we’re very specific about who is allowed to make a stink about it.

Reporting Process. Active participation violations must be reported to us within 15 days by victims, and may not be reported by third-parties. Inactive Participation violations may be reported at any time, and by anyone, even non-_members_.

Two weeks and a day. That’s all you get to rest, recover, and reflect upon anything that happened about which you might want to report. Take longer than that to process? You’re SOL. Get distracted by a work deadline, vacation, or come down with the conference crud? Sorry Charlie, you’re SOL.

I can’t think of any good reason for this provision other than reduce the amount of work for those tasked with responding to reports.

Want to report something you witnessed on behalf of another conference attendee? Nope, not allowed. Even if they’ve asked you for help.

Oh, except “inactive participation” violations can be reported at anytime, by anyone, including non-members.

 

Unofficial Resolution. For minor offenses and in cases where they prefer doing so, we encourage victims to speak to violators, using the language of non-violent communication (NVC). If you would like to do this with the help of an independent mediator, contact us and we will arrange for one.

This tells me organizers want to do as little work as possible, putting as much of it on those who are subject to transgressions. This is not how you empower those in your community, especially those who are marginalized.

Official Resolution. If you want an official intervention, we will appoint a judge. The judge will speak individually to all parties, including witnesses, before deciding on a course of action, which will involve rejecting the reported violation, or accepting it and imposing a penalty on the violator.

Correct me if I’m wrong, but don’t judges usually determine when a “person, place, thing, idea, or action is superior or inferior to any other”? Isn’t that disallowed by this FCOP?

The writers of the FCOP are so unimaginative and ill-equipped to be leading community, they can envision only two ways to respond to a report: outright rejection of it or a punitive measure. In my several years experience responding to code of conduct issues, the needed response has almost always been somewhere in-between those two extremes.

Penalties. Violators may be warned, asked to apologize, forced into training, counseling or mediation, or ejected and banned from the community, at the sole discretion of the judge.

That being warned, or asked to apologized, is framed as a penalty tells me a lot about how the FCOP writers think about stewarding community. Getting feedback on your behavior along with a request to modify it is not a penalty in and of itself. Nor is it handing out a penalty if you’re the one giving that feedback. It is part of being a social being. We all engage in inappropriate or unskillful behavior at one time or other and get feedback from others about it. Yes, sometimes this hurts and we feel shame, but this isn’t the end of the world. Learn from it and move on to do better next time.

You can’t force community members into training, counseling, or mediation. You can ask that they go as a condition of continued participation in the community, but that’s about it.

It’s not a good idea to have one person solely responsible for addressing code of conduct reports, as this implies.

Social Rehabilitation. No one can be banished for life, only for a determined number of years, not to exceed 5 years. Formerly banned parties can be reintegrated into the community through a rehabilitation process determined by us.

I would generally applaud a nod to rehabilitation, but I at this point I have zero trust in the authors of the FCOP. And including an arbitrary prohibition against lifetime banishment and a maximum of 5 years makes little sense to me. It implies banishment expires after 5 years, regardless of the circumstance.

Confidentiality. Reporting a violation is a confidential process. We will not publish information on any reported incident or the parties involved in the incident. Note that criminal behavior of any kind will not be kept confidential.

Again, I wonder how they determine criminality, at what point they make that decision and what they do with information they don’t consider confidential. This does not inspire trust as worded.

DISPUTES

In the event there is a dispute about the meaning of any term or clause in FCOP, we alone will clarify the intent.

In other words, it doesn’t matter how the community at large interprets what we’ve written in the FCOP. We’re free at anytime to clarify what we actually meant by what we wrote and use that instead.

More thoughts about the neveragain.tech pledge and what you can be doing instead

The neveragain.tech pledge continues to gain traction (if you can call it that) and I continue to analyze why I find it so troubling. For my initial thoughts, see this blog post.

A code of ethics or a call to collective action?

It’s not clear what the pledge is supposed to be. Is it a code of ethics and and conduct for our profession, or is it a call to collective action? I think it’s trying to be both, and it’s doing both very poorly.

Our profession already has a code of ethics.

In terms of trying to be a code of ethics: our profession already has this and has for some time. In fact is has a few to choose from. There’s the ACM Code of Ethics and Professional Conduct, the joint ACM/IEEE-CS Software Engineering Code of Ethics and Professional Practice, and the IEEE Code of Ethics. One of these are referenced by the pledge, but only way on down in the resources section and without context.

Whenever you eschew an existing standard, you ought to give a compelling reason why. Otherwise you give the impression of ignorance (not knowing about it in the first place) or egotism (doing something new so you can put your name on, h/t @JohnMetta).

I suspect a lot of us have never heard of any of the existing codes of ethics for our profession, or if we have it hasn’t been in any serious context of actually applying the code in our day to day work. If this is because so many of us are self-taught, or because these codes aren’t taught in computer science curricula, or some combinations there of, I don’t know. I am interested in finding out and in helping to educate my colleagues and put these codes into wider practice with commensurate accountability mechanisms.

If these existing codes are flawed and need revising, let’s work on that together. You can comment on the ACM’s revised draft now through 15 January, 2017. If you care about this stuff, go do that now. Don’t put it off.

In terms of serving as a code of ethics for our profession, the neveragain.tech pledge is significantly lacking. It is simultaneously uncomprehensive and overly prescriptive.

A poorly thought call to action.

In many ways, the pledge looks much more like call to collective action, especially given the part that commits signers to resigning their employment if they are forced to comply with behavior defined as misuse of data. This is a kind of direct action.

But in this it fails too, for any metric more significant than shallow performance. Where is the accountability, the support, the education, the building of trust required for effective collective action? Where is there any clue that the organizers of the pledge actually understand how to lead a collective action?

There are some glaring statements and omissions that make it clear to me they do not. First, the pledge requires people to quit their jobs rather than comply. Now, resigning might be the right thing for an individual to do based on their own sense of dignity or respect or emotional well-being. And, it might feel like a righteous and just action. But it isn’t necessarily the most effective action to take. For it to be effective many people would have to quit at once. And perhaps not even then. In their guide on Effective Strikes and Economic Actions, the IWW says “Workers can be far more effective when they take direct action while still on the job.”

It’s clear the organizers are overwhelmed and delighted by the volume of response to the pledge. However, it’s not clear to me they’ve given any real thought to the number of people required to partake in a collective action in order to make it effective and whether or not those numbers are achievable starting with this kind of online pledge.

How many does it take to be effective?

There’s no definitive participation rate at which strike-like actions are guaranteed to be effective. While we have a rich history of labor organizing upon which to draw, every direct action is different. What we do know is that whatever the circumstances, enough of the labor force needs to participate such that the target organization feels or fears significant, negative, long-term financial consequences.

Let’s say, for sake of this thought exercise, that the number is 20%. (Here is where I would love to hear from managers or executives about which percentage would cause you concern and make you change course.) According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, approximately 4 million people are employed as tech workers. This doesn’t include those who are self-employed, and it might also be excluding those who have other job classifications but happen to write software. Again, this is a thought exercise, not a scientific paper. The idea here is to get a rough idea of scope.

20% participation x 4 million tech workers = 800,000 signers to pledge

As I’m writing this, 1943 people have signed the pledge already.

1943 / 800,000 = 0.24% towards goal

What would it take to reach the goal of 800k? Let’s say another 8k folks hear about the pledge through word of mouth, are sold right away, and show up to sign the pledge. That would bring the total to 10k.

10k / 800k = 1.25% towards goal

Now what would it take to get those additional 790k signers? Each existing signer would need to convince 79 of their colleagues to sign.

Applying the 20% goal to individual companies looks something like this to reach 20%:

  • Google (Alphabet): 13.9k
  • IBM: 75.5k
  • Facebook: 3.14k
  • Oracle: 27.3k

I’m using these companies global workforce numbers, because that’s what is most readily available, but you get the idea.

I bring up these numbers not to shit on the efforts of the neveragain.tech pledge organizers. I bring them up because I continually see our community fail to coherently, meaningfully discuss and analyze our tactics for driving change. It’s not enough just to have enthusiasm. You also need to know what you’re doing and have a good plan!

(The above numbers assume that everyone who signs the pledge will also follow through on their commitment to take direct action in their workplace. Assuming 100% is highly optimistic.)

There is more at stake than a Muslim registry. And there has been for a long time.

I say this not to minimize the threat to Muslim Americans or Muslim refuges living in America. That threat is very great.

It is also great to women, Latinos, Blacks, queer folks, those who are trans and gender non-conforming, those who are neuroatypical, those living with differently-abled bodies, those who struggle with houselessness, and those who are poor. The scale and nature of likely harm to individuals with differing intersections of these identities will vary, of course. I list them here not to equate them, but to demonstrate the scope of probable harm to our fellow citizens (of America and of the world).

Moreover, these folks have already been subject to varying kinds of harm and oppression and for quite some time. This did not start with the election of Trump. Tech has always had an obligation to stand up for these folks and by and large it has done a very bad job. Just look at how many of your co-workers are not white, straight, cis, male, and abled-bodied.

Every conversation about diversity and inclusion you stood by and watched or played “devil’s advocate” in was a missed opportunity to stand up for injustice. Every time you did not take us seriously about Gamergate. Every time you let your “difficult” colleague (who was likely a women, or Black, or queer, etc.) stand alone and be ostracized for raising an issue about how something your company was doing would have negative effects.

Tech colleagues, you’ve had a lot of opportunities that you’ve just completely squandered. I personally, have very little confidence, you will suddenly start to do markedly better.

And my confidence is not raised when the mechanism by which you are promising to do better repeats the very same mistakes we as a community have been making all along.

Continuing the status quo.

In my earlier blog post, I mentioned that I can’t join a movement when I don’t know who its leaders are. It turns out that the organizers of the pledge aren’t anonymous. They are revealing themselves to the media and on Twitter and probably elsewhere. But this isn’t the same as transparency or accessibility.

The pledge itself gives no background on how it was created or by whom. One should not have to dig for this information. It should be available via the pledge itself or no more than a link away.

Obfuscating leadership and process doesn’t promote individual responsibility nor does it make an effort more inclusive. All it does is obscure the context and motivation conferred by the project and make leadership less accountable to participants.

In tech, we have a long history of imposing our solutions on those who are marginalized, without their input or consent. We compound this error by ignoring or dismissing feedback when given.

Because the organizers have chosen to obscure who they are and by what process they created this pledge, I can only assume this same pattern is true. This is all the more true when at least one of the organizers is has a history of being hostile towards others’ religious practices and of ignoring the feedback from the people of color in communities they steward.

What I do see is a lot of (white) people on Twitter defending the pledge and Black folks saying it’s performative, shallow, and not helpful and not being listened to. Go see for yourself.

Not every effort deserves merit.

In my earlier blog post, I countered the idea that the pledge is the least folks can do. I want to expand on that by saying it might actually be quite counterproductive to support this thing.

It can hurt and does hurt to give attention to ill-conceived efforts. Attention is a finite resource. Giving our attention to poorly conceived or implemented efforts means there is less to give to ones that are better designed and better serving of their communities. Positive attention often brings benefits of all kinds: social and financial capital, credibility, etc. Folks with greater privilege, like white folks, receive more than their fair share of these benefits for work of lesser quality. And once they do, their projects and methods are remembered as good examples. And thus the cycle of mediocrity reinforces itself.

This is dangerous and counter-productive. It inhibits our ability to learn and grow. It reinforces the status quo and is antithetical to building solidarity.

Right action is way more complicated than you think.

Something else implied by this pledge is that there will be definitive moments where you know you are being asked to do something wrong and you will have a clear choice to comply or to walkaway.

In my experience, the actual situations we end up facing are nothing like this. They are complex and confusing and how best to act is quite often not clear. It takes continual, stumbling practice and a trusted network of advisors to gain enough experience to skillfully embody the ethical action we commit to.

And, for the most part, steps towards wrong action are gradual and indirect. I’ll illustrate this with a story.

Once upon a time, at my old job, I was on a call with the marketing team. We were discussing a project aimed at raising awareness about the importance of the open web. I noticed that the team, who was solely responsible for sourcing content for this project, was all men. I asked about the plan for including some women on the team. The response was deafening silence and the energy completely drained from the “room.” After some moments, someone responded with some kind of non-answer so empty I don’t recall now. The call continued and then concluded.

Sometime later, this same project published a pro-gamergate piece. All hell broke loose. Leadership had to deal with the ensuing PR mess. The project lead left the organization. We lost yet more credibility with our community.

Now, I’m not saying that having a woman on the team would have prevented the selection and publishing of a pro-gamergate piece. But I think it would have lessened its likelihood.

More importantly, the team’s and leadership’s failure to respond to the diversity issue I raised is directly related to the giant misstep it look later in publishing that gamergate article. No one was asked on that call to find and publish a pro-gamergate piece. They weren’t even asked to stay silent about the topic I raised; they simply did so because that was the prevailing culture. And in doing so, they took a small step towards creating the conditions for that later bad action to occur.

The lesson here? Start developing your senses now. Be on the look out for repercussions five, ten, twenty steps down the line. Speak up for all the little things because they lead to big things. Listen to your “difficult” colleagues when they raise issues even if you don’t quite understand where they are coming from. Use your privilege to assert publicly that what your colleague is saying is important and needs to be addressed. Start spending your social capital. Don’t wait for a rainy day, it is already upon us.

Some things you can do.

There are things you can do that require a lot more work than signing a pledge, but will be much more meaningful and impactful. Starting with the most specific and moving to the most general:

Read everything you can about labor organizing. If you’re curious about strike actions in particular, start here. Haymarket Books has a good collection of books about the labor movement and is having a 50% sale. While you’re ordering books from Haymarket, you might as well also get some on black politics and feminism. Read everything you can on IWW’s website. Then join if you are eligible. Figure out how to apply what you are learning in your workplace and in your community. A general strike is being planned for inauguration day. Learn about it and figure out if it makes sense for you to participate and how.

Commit publicly to abiding by one of the established codes of ethics for our industry. If you can’t decide, use ACM’s. Write a blog post saying that you’re committing to it and why. Tweet about it referencing neveragain.tech so folks following along know there is another option. Ask your colleagues to commit publicly as well. Encourage them if they hesitate. Start brining up the code of ethics in your daily work. You can do this by asking questions in your team meetings such as, “How does feature X abide or not abide with the code of ethics we’ve agreed to uphold?” Do this for processes that are already in place as well as new ones you are asked to create. Do this until it feels natural and then keep doing it. Hold your colleagues accountable, in whatever mechanism makes most sense, if you see them doing something contrary to the code. Likewise, support them if they seem to be struggling to uphold the code or being pressured to ignore it. Share your experiences doing all of these things, via which ever channels make most sense.

Find ways to materially and emotionally support the existing efforts of those who are most marginalized and at greatest risk. Support these efforts publicly, when it makes sense. Ask others to support these efforts. Listen deeply and learn from the folks leading these efforts without burdening them or colonizing their spaces.

Look for ways to build and support community where you live and to help meet the needs of those living closest to you. Pay attention to your neighborhood. Be a meaningful, respectful part of it.

Find ways to do the hard work of changing yourself. Prepare to give up things you have long taken for granted.

Thoughts about movement building and the neveragain.tech pledge

I’m glad to see burgeoning efforts in the tech community to organize in response to Trump’s looming presidency. One current effort is the neveragain.tech pledge, which opposes the creation of a Muslim registry and vows to refuse participation in such work.

I absolutely oppose the creation or use of any kind of registry to oppress those deemed to be undesirable. But I haven’t signed the neveragaint.tech pledge and I probably won’t. I have concerns about the pledge in particular, and about efforts like it in general.

I am not criticizing you if you signed it, feel empowered by it, or otherwise derive value from attaching your name to it. There are many ways to act in the world according to one’s values and I don’t prescribe one right way of doing things.

Here I want to share my thoughts on the pledge, and movement building in genera, especially for those who might be concerned by the absence of my name on the list of signatories.

I need to know who my leaders are.

I am always cautious of joining movements (or communities), especially ones that appear to develop rapidly. It’s important for me to understand what the shared values, agreements, and goals of the movement are. It’s important that I know who the leaders are, how they govern now, and how they have governed in the past. All of this information helps me understand what committing actually means in practice and helps ensure that I am living up to the commitments I make.

The neveragain.tech pledge lacks nearly all of this context. I don’t know who started the pledge or what their history organizing is. I don’t know if they have a demonstrated pattern of acting ethically and in good faith. All I have to go on is the list of signers, which continues to grow. Many names I recognize. Some of the signers I know personally and trust a great deal. Others I know to be problematic actors. The latter adds to my weariness about signing on.

I appreciate the need for anonymity in many contexts. And yet, having anonymous leadership never works for me.

Update (16 December 2016): Organizers of the pledge are identifying themselves to media and on social media. Still, you have to go track down this information. It’s not on the pledge itself.

I  need to understand strategy, context, and history.

I also want to understand the long-term vision of a particular movement and the strategy of a particular action, including how it serves the short- and long-term goals of the moment. I want to know it is well thought-out and is likely to use resources wisely, including the material, emotional, physical, and spiritual resources of the people involved.

I do not want to participate in vanity exercises or ones that end up being learning experiences that merely retread well-documented ground.

Of course, we must learn by doing. That’s fine. But I don’t want to start at square one when it’s not completely necessary. I want us, the tech community, to understand that there is a long history of organizing for social justice and a deep body of knowledge and experience derived from that history. I want us to acknowledge and build from this wealth of experience, using it as our starting point.

What resistance strategies have been effective?

Being a student of history, I want to understand the role of similar pledges in resistance movements and in organizing for social justice. Off the top of my head, I can think of examples of a lot of other kinds of actions that proved to be effective. I can’t think of a single pledge-type activity that was. (Please, let me know if you have examples.)

I’m still learning about what’s been effective. What I’ve learned so far is that localized, direct action is critical. Coalition building over geographic distance is important for knowledge and resource sharing, as well as fundraising and consciousness building. But it’s localized, direct action and community building that is the fundamental building block of movements.

What building solidarity feels like to me.

Building solidarity and community, especially in terms of trusted relationships and networks of mutual support are equally critical to building effective resistance and social movements. Organizing is tough, dangerous work. When it’s effective, it has real consequences. Living up to the neveragain.tech pledge means putting your salary and your health benefits on the line. I think many of us in tech are not prepared to do that.

In order to achieve and sustain mass participation, we must be willing and able to take care of each other, especially those who are most vulnerable and who will bear the greatest losses. We need to work on adjusting our mindsets so we are willing to give up some of our own security to help out others. We need to become adept at pooling and sharing resources so that we can provide each other with food, shelter, sundries, rent and mortgage money, household repair, medical services, etc.

So does the neveragain pledge help build solidarity in this way? It doesn’t for me. Generally I find that solidarity-building efforts that are primarily online and distributed feel too diffuse and empty. I need more direct, person-to-person interactions. Solidarity is fundamentally about trust. I need to have opportunities for shared vulnerability in order to build trust. I can do a lot of that via online communication, but need interactions to be consistent and frequent. And even then I need a certain percentage of these relationships to be based near to where I actually live.

I can see how signing the pledge might be the first time some people have ever made a public statement opposing the status quo. I can see how if that’s the case, doing so would feel like they are putting something on the line for what they believe. And with this in mind, I could see how those folks feel like they are building mutual trust with the other signers.  It’s just not where I’m at personally and I’m eager to start at a much different place.

We need to support a multitude of approaches.

The neveragain pledge is highly aspirational and prescriptive but it lacks accompanying support mechanisms and context. It sounds nice and just. Signing seems like the obviously right thing to do. But how do you actually embody the pledge in your day-to-day life? It is my experience that the moral calculus of the situations we actually end up facing are far from simple and a clear best choice is hardly ever available.

I once thought there was always clear, undeniable value in the lone employee, or small group of employees, standing up and walking out after all other avenues of addressing injustice had been exhausted. But having experienced this personally, and witnessing it play out several times, I now think differently. Power does not care about the lone employee or even the few. Power might care about a mass exodus or work stoppage if it impacts their bottom line. On the other hand, the individual employee(s) almost always have a lot to lose.

If you’ve done something like this as a lone employee or in small group, I’m not saying you should not have. Sometimes you have to speak truth to power even if its seems likely nothing will change. I support you in doing so. Likewise, I want to find better ways to support folks who resist injustice, both in terms of limiting harm (to individuals and their families) and maximizing effectiveness (of the overall movement or specific action).

And I also support you if you aren’t in a position where you can just stop working for a problematic company. This stuff is complicated. It’s not my business to tell you to quit and/or make public statements, or take any particular action for that matter, especially if I don’t know about all the others things you’re dealing with in your life. And even if I did, it still wouldn’t be my place to judge since I’m not the one that has to live your life!

Aiming higher than “the least we can do.”

I’ve seen a few people saying that signing the pledge is “the least they/you/I can do.” And that’s precisely the problem with pledges like this. Just as electricity takes the path of least resistance, humans will quite often do the least they have to and then move on to the next thing. I worry that this pledge will have that effect for many. Instead, we need to be focusing on the most that we can possibly do at any given time.

Our energy and attention are finite. We need to use them both wisely. Maybe the neveragain pledge is a great first start, one that will mobilize a great number of people to significant action. Or maybe it’s just another demonstration from the tech community that will get a lot of attention for very little impact.

What can you confidently infer about who signs these pledges?

There’s a strange side-effect I’ve noticed with these kind of pledges that I’m rather uncomfortable with. Those who sign it are awarded a king of “good” point and those who don’t fail to get the point. Or, worse, are assumed to be in favor of the things the pledge promises to work against. I’ve already seen one person in my personal network say something like “sign this or don’t talk to me.”

I think this is why there is always a group of people who rush to be the first to sign these things. Is it because they have truly committed to embodying the pledge, or because they want to be visible as having signed it?

Seeing a name on this list, by itself, does nothing for me. What touches me is direct interaction with you. It’s witnessing substantive conduct on your part. It’s hearing first hand from others whom I trust about your actions and deeds. It’s collecting these touch points over a period of time and contexts sufficient enough for me to get a sense of your overall pattern of behavior.

Signing a pledge does not constitute substantive conduct. It’s everything you’ve done before and after signing the pledge that matters.

The machine is already here; Our focus needs to be subversion, sabotage, and protection.

Another thing this pledge supposes is that there aren’t already sufficient, significant mechanisms for identifying and surveilling those deemed undesirable. I believe there is. And I believe there are plenty of organizations and individuals willing, no matter how many of their colleagues quit in protest, to maintain and improve these mechanisms.

And so I am much more interested in collectively developing, practicing, and deploying counter-measures. How can we technologists disrupt and sabotage what is already here? What protective mechanisms can we provide? What existing in-person support networks and movements can we participate in? How can we support coalition building across our vast country?

 

Remote vs in-office work is a false dichotomy

Johnathan Nightingale, who I know from when we were both at Mozilla, recently wrote about Why More Companies Don’t Do Remote Work (and probably shouldn’t).

How we talk about “Remote vs. In-Office” work

I agree with much of Johnathan’s analysis. I don’t think those who favor in-office work are monsters. I don’t think companies shy away from remote work because they hate freedom. Nor do I think such companies should be shamed for their decisions. Mostly what struck me about Jonathan’s post, and many like it, is that we still think of remote vs in-office work as either/or.

At best, we talk about it as if it were a continuum. On one side, there’s flexibility, greater access to talent and the added benefits that come with building the infrastructure and communication practices required to make remote work possible. On the other side, there’s the efficacy that comes with being co-located, the ability to share central, office-based resources, the convenience of your co-workers being visible and in close physical proximity during business hours. Hybrid companies, as Jonathan refers to them, fall somewhere in between the two ends, slightly favoring one mode of work or the other.

What if they aren’t mutually exclusive?

What if, instead, we recognized that what we’re really talking about is modes of work that people naturally alternative between, depending on how they’re feeling, what’s going on in their life, the type of work they are trying to get done, and many other external factors? What if we design work places and processes that took this into account?

Why I hardly ever went to Mozilla’s Portland office

To explore what I mean, it’s helpful to look at some real-life examples. When I first started at Mozilla in September 2011, it was as a remote employee. Later Mozilla opened a Portland office, but I still did most of my work from my home office. When I did go in, which was about 2-3 days a month, it was mostly to be seen and to catch up with co-workers.

Why didn’t I go into the office more? Couple of reasons:

  • The office environment was exceptionally distracting. All of Mozilla’s offices have an open-plan layout, which I find it nearly impossible to concentrate in. The Portland office also has a very limited number of conference rooms and they were nearly always booked. I couldn’t count on being able to use one for a quiet workspace (or even a meeting for that matter).
  • None of my direct team members were based out of the Portland office. While I always enjoyed talking with fellow Mozillians on other teams, going into the office didn’t give me the direct benefit of sitting side-by-side with whom I was directly collaborating.
  • It cost time and money. I’m one of those people who loathes commuting, even when transit options are timely and plentiful (which they aren’t from my home). A daily commute of 30 minutes each way is 5 hours a week I could better spend on any numbers of things. Meditating, doing yoga, walking our dogs, reading, writing, gardening, etc.

That said, I very much miss having access to the Portland Mozilla office. It’s incredibly useful to have a go-to, well-appointed space for collaboration. Offices are great for that.

I also think it’s great to have a go-to, well-appointed space for deep work. Unfortunately offices, particularly those with open plans, are terrible for that.

The drawbacks of remote work apply to in-office work

Regarding some of the supposed benefits of in-office work and the drawbacks of remote work, we are likely mistaking correlation for causation. The three drawbacks that Johnathan specifically mentions all apply to in-office work too. They are just sometimes more apparent with remote workers:

  1. Remote Work Exacerbates Performance Problems. Remote work is going to put strain on some worker-organization relationships and for others it will lessen that strain. Likewise, in-office work masks certain kinds of performance problems. Simply showing up each day and appearing to get shit done, doesn’t actually mean you are.
  2. Remote Work Often Creates Two Tiers of Employee. While I agree that remote workers are more easily left out of the loop, all organizations have tiers of workers, regardless of where they work. Unless the core groups of organizations work exceptionally hard at it, there will always be some employees more in the loop and with greater access to opportunity than others. This disparity isn’t eliminated when you’re all co-located and it’s a trap to think otherwise (because you’re then less likely to continue doing the work of including everyone).
  3. Marginal Drag Matters. Having remote workers may cause marginal drag in one direction, but what about the marginal drag created by requiring everyone to come into a central office in order to consider that real, focused work is being done? To assume there is none seems to ignore how people actually live their lives and do their work.

 

What would it look like to support both kinds of work?

What would it look like to recognize and fully support both remote and in-office work, allowing everyone the freedom to select which mode is appropriate at a given time?

I believe it would include:

  • Having well-appointed, accessible offices with flexible seating and plenty of meeting and private workrooms alike. I would like workplace to be much more like university libraries. The office should have great shared infrastructure, including all the tools and reference material you need to get work done. You should be able to go to it when it’s the best place for you to work, and when you need to collaborate in person, but not be required to be there any kind of set hours. Likewise, if you want to work only at the office, you can.
  • Great collaboration infrastructure that enables remote and in-person ways of working alike, at the same time.
  • Good, multi-modal communication and documentation is valued, supported, encouraged, and practiced at all levels across the organization.
  • Managers are trained and supported in leading inclusive and diverse teams, including how to deal with issues related to flexible schedules and work environments.
  • Team members’ expectations of one another are clearly communicated and there is a clear and supported process for resolving conflict when it arises. There is agreement about when and where people will be available, and people follow through on those agreements. The team meets regularly in person and remotely according to its needs.
  • Ample opportunities to socialize, both on-line and in-person, and in structured and spontaneous ways.

Such a setup would allow people and organizations to benefit from both kinds of working situations. So, rather than judging and vilifying the different ways of working, we can realize that each has benefits and drawbacks depending on the situation. And we can work to maximize the benefits and minimize the drawbacks of each .

You still have to make decisions

All of the above requires that an organization’s leadership recognize that there is no such thing as a one-size-fits-all approach. It requires they lead more and control less. It also requires a certain level of investment in technology infrastructure, though much less now that things like Skype and Google Hangout are ubiquitous. So, by far, the first requirement is the much harder one to meet.

And organizations still have to decide from how far away they are willing to hire. This should in part be a function of how much in-person collaboration is needed for the role, where the rest of the team is located, the annual cost that employee’s travel, and their willingness to travel.

Actually, now that I think about it, I would love for every job description to specify how much in-person collaboration is required. A job where I’m expected to spent half my time in meetings is very different from one where I’m expected to spend half my time pairing one-on-one, and different still from one where most of my work will be solitary.

And, even if you’re comfortable with remote work, hiring employees who live in different states, let alone countries, creates additional overhead.

 

Life one year after leaving Mozilla

A year ago tomorrow was my last day as a Mozilla employee. Quitting was the one of the best decisions I’ve ever made. I’m working for myself and I love it.

Here are some projects that I’ve been working on:

Building a wood bookcase from scratch.

Bookcase I built from scratch.
Bookcase I built from scratch.

Watching and photographing the birds that visit our yard.

Pine Siskins have words at the feeder.
Pine Siskins have words at the feeder.

Recruiting and on-boarding several new Stumptown Syndicate board members.

Driving to California (accidentally during a snowstorm) to visit family. One of the things we did on the trip was visit the Monterey Bay Aquarium, which I had never been to.

23774600566_edd8ecf29f_z

Starting a consulting practice, Authentic Engine. I have a few client projects now, and am looking to book more work for the Fall. Know an open source project wanting expert help with participation, leadership, or governance issues? Get in touch. I’m also available for contract programming (python, php). If you like stickers, I have those for sale too.

No endeavor is truly launched until it has stickers.
No endeavor is truly launched until it has stickers. And so it is with Authentic Engine. Buy some!

Learning audio recording and engineering and launching the Recompiler Podcast.

recompiler-podcast

Handing off the organizing of Open Source Bridge to two new co-chairs!

Taking Bertie to the beach for the first time. He loved it. Although, we learned the hard way bulldogs really can’t exercise for very long because Bertie needed several days of recovery afterward.

Bertie's first trip to the beach.
Bertie’s first trip to the beach.

Seeing my favorite band, The Cure. Twice! Once in Los Angeles and again closer to home in Ridgefield, Washington. We had much better seats at the Ridgefield show and had a fantastic time.

The Cure performing Just Like Heaven, Ridgefield, Washington, May 2016
The Cure performing Just Like Heaven, Ridgefield, Washington, May 2016

Touring SpaceX. While we were in LA to see The Cure, a friend of ours arranged a tour of SpaceX. It was amazing. Couldn’t take any pictures inside, unsurprisingly, but managed to get a goofy selfie outside.

Smiling because we just toured a fraking rocket facility!
Smiling because we just toured a fraking rocket facility!

Attending Allied Media Conference, including the excellent Growing our Souls tour (my photos) of Detroit.

Me, at Project Heidelberg in Detroit, Mi
Me, at Project Heidelberg in Detroit, Mi

Shopping for individual health insurance plans three times. Yes, three times in one year. The first was before I left Mozilla because applying COBRA would have been prohibitively expensive (~$1,400 per month). The second was during 2016 open enrollment because our rates had been raised over $100/month. The third was last month when the State of Oregon abruptly put Oregon Health Co-op into receivership. Fun times! But, hey, at least thanks to the ACA, we can actually sorta find health insurance outside of a group plan. We’re with Providence now and we hope they stay affordable and in business for a while.

Gardening. Lots and lots of gardening. This year we planted lots of vegetables and added several new flower beds, populated mostly with plants I started from seed. It turns out I have a bit of a green thumb! Who knew?

An evening's harvest from our garden.
An evening’s harvest from our garden.

 

Flower beds in bloom. Most of these I grew from seed.
Flower beds in bloom. Most of these I grew from seed.

Photographing the flowers I’ve been growing. I don’t have a macro lens, but am faking it well, I think, with my 35mm and some close-up lenses.

Bee on Shirley Poppy, one of the many flower macros I've taken this season.
Bee on Shirley Poppy, one of the many flower macros I’ve taken this season.

Watching hot air balloons launch at the Tigard Festival of Balloons. I first heard about this festival shortly after I moved to Portland in 2007 and realized just before my birthday that it’s practically in our neighborhood, so Sherri got us tickets. It was challenging to get up at 5am to get ourselves over there in time for the sunrise launches, but it was so worth it.

Hot air balloons launching at the Tigard Festival of Balloons!
Hot air balloons launching at the Tigard Festival of Balloons!

Speaking at Open Source & Feelings on a really tough topic.

Reading and more reading. Soon I will have read all of Walter Mosley’s Easy Rawlins‘ books and this will be bittersweet. I take solace in knowing I still have plenty left to read of Mosley’s Fearless Jones and Leonid McGill series and I’m only a little over half-way through Laurie King’s Mary Russell and Sherlock Holmes books. Plus you never know when you’re going to stumble across a great new detective series such as M.J. McGrath’s Edie Kiglatuk or Cara Black’s Aimee Leduc Investigations.

Feeling better about myself and being less stressed than anytime during the previous 4+ years. Our income isn’t steady yet and dealing with health insurance is obnoxious. But we’re making it work. I can say now that leaving a job that was steadily grinding me down was absolutely the right call, even if it felt totally wrong at the time.

Thanks everyone who’s supported me along the way and continues to do so! You make all the difference. If there’s anything I can do for you, please let me know.

 

Free speech and its many meanings

The last two weeks I’ve been spending way too much time reading, thinking and tweeting about LambdaConf. If you’re unfamiliar with the situation and want to catch up, read this excellent post by @codepaintsleep.

One thing observing the situation has made me realize is that some folks have a very different conception of free speech than I do.

In my mind, our right to “free speech” prohibits the government from restricting or punishing speech. I do not view it as anti-free speech when a group of private citizens denies you the opportunity to speak in their spaces. Nor do I believe our constitutionally protected (in the United States) right to free speech guarantees anyone the right to unfettered expression via commercial platforms such as Twitter, Facebook, etc.

That’s not to say that I don’t have concerns about how companies and commercial bodies regulate expression within their realms. They often do it badly, enabling abuse, or reinforcing existing inequalities. Some entities have sufficient control in how business is done in their industries that their suppression of speech can have adverse affects similar to government censorship.

I also have complicated and unresolved feelings about the use of boycotts. Particularly this is true when it’s a call to boycott a vendor who provides a lot of things to the general public. I think even the most offensive material, should be available for people to learn from, to understand, to be aware of, should they choose to investigate. I think it’s possible in certain contexts to sell something without endorsing it.

Furthermore, I believe that the right to free speech must be balanced with the right to choose with whom we spend our time and what we do with our bodies. This doesn’t make me anti-free speech. This makes me pro-free speech, pro-free association, and pro-bodily autonomy. None of those rights make sense on their own without the others. If your right to free speech means that I have to listen to you no matter what, my right to free association and bodily autonomy is diminished.

Prior to this year’s LambdaConf debate I never thought there was a real debate about this. I’ve been around open source for a while, so I’m familiar with the idea that some think any restriction on speech, regardless of context, is censorship.

What’s new to me is that there are folks who think any mechanism which enables someone not to listen to you violates free speech and is censorship. By this logic, if Twitter were a noisy cafe, then putting on your headphones so you could concentrate would be censorship. And, by this logic, any tool that allow others to reduce their exposure to harassment (blocking, muting, etc.) is censorship. It’s even more egregious censorship if these tools are provided at scale.

Furthermore, some of these folks seem to think ‘free speech’ is an exemption from civil behavior and social norms.

I’m still processing what this means. If nothing else, it helps me understand better what’s going on when we debate about this stuff. Being weary of centralization and government interference is different from being weary of systems which empower individuals to choose what they consume and how they communicate with each other online.

I firmly believe we can create tools and systems which mitigate harassment and abuse while enabling free expression and exchange of information based on choice and autonomy. I believe we can design these systems in a ways that preserve anonymity when desired and that don’t necessarily further government surveillance and intrusion.

But we probably aren’t going to build these systems with the help of folks who are fully committed to prioritizing free speech at the expense of free association and bodily autonomy.

 

 

A product development epiphany

At the beginning of the year, I announced Authentic Engine, my new consultancy.

I’m going to share a rather honest update about how things are going, and I plan to do so with some regularity. This gives me some trepidation. Visibility nearly always makes me feel vulnerable, even if the attention is subjectively positive. And general business wisdom favors secrecy and possessiveness above transparency and sharing. Instead, I’m making a deliberate choice to muster courage to favor intimacy (which requires vulnerability) and community.

Perhaps some of you reading are potential clients or customers and in reading about my uncertainties and missteps you’ll decide not to work with me. I’m okay with that, for if my writing here turns you off then we were never going to be a good match. What’s gained, I believe, will be far greater than whatever’s lost. Some will be enriched reading about my experience. Others will appreciate my candor and that I’m willing to do the scary work of making mistakes, sharing those mistakes, and trying again. Some of you will be motivated to work with me explicitly because of this writing.

So here goes it!

A raison d’etre

While I have a great deal of open source tech experience (my first tech job was in 1997 at UC Davis’ network operations center), I have almost no experience consulting in the way I’ve set out to do now. I’ve worked at start-ups and well-established companies. I’ve started and ran non-profits. I ran my own programming shop under CK Web Development. All those experiences have been immensely valuable, but my experience with them has limited applicability to what I want to build now.

I’ve gravitated towards consulting because I want to apply my experience as a programmer, a technical project manager, a developer advocate / technical evangelist, a non-profit manager, a small business person, and an open source community organizer to help folks working in those fields have better work experiences.

By better work experiences, I mean a few things:

  • authenticity, presence, mindfulness, and empathy in day-to-day work;
  • empowered, adaptive leadership;
  • effective navigation of organizational life; and,
  • the building of meaningful and fulfilling careers without burning out.

This isn’t just about making people feel better at work. Whatever your current role in tech, these are practices which will make you better at your job. The production of software, the governing of open source projects, the evangelizing of technology all requires building and maintaining relationships with people. The better your people skills, the better you can effectively apply your technical skills.

By focusing my work on individuals, I intend to contribute to a cumulative effect of improving our technical and open source communities. The more the folks that make up our communities practice and cultivate the above “people” skills, the more inclusive, sustainable, resilient, and commons-serving they will be.

So that’s my raison d’etre for starting Authentic Engine, but how am I actually going to make a living?

What appeals to me about “consulting”

Before I announced Authentic Engine, I did a lot of reading on what it mean to be a consultant and how to run a consulting practice. Some things I read resonated with me deeply: consulting as a calling, humble inquiry, being a trusted adviser, process consultation and the helping relationship. Other things I couldn’t connect with at all, especially the nature of the marketing and sales processes many consulting business books (such as this one) espouse. I don’t want to have a ton of annoying pop-ups soliciting your email for watered-down content, or resell someone’s proprietary organizational trait assessment. Moreover, many books are scant on details about how to actually develop customers if you don’t already have a base established.

Finally it occurred to me to start thinking in terms of answering the question, “what is my product?” The consulting books say you are your product. Okay, I get that to an extent. But it doesn’t feel very sustainable or scalable to me. Nor does it have the depth of experience I want Authentic Engine to bring to others. I want many teachers, and coaches, and trusted advisers, with all their varied histories, experiences and backgrounds to inform and create what we bring to others.

If I am not my product, what is?

So now that I’ve rejected that I am my product, I have to find out what is. That has me researching and learning all about product development. Working in technology as a programmer, project manager, and developer advocate means that I’ve been on the periphery of product management and development most of my career. Now I’m embracing the role officially, which means learning and practicing a new way of thinking.

I’m in the middle of Steve Blank’s The Four Steps to the Epiphany, which focuses on a kind of lean product development for startups that Blank calls Customer Development. So far the framework is making a lot of sense to me. It centers upon developing a deep understanding of your customer and their needs and using that to inform your product development.

Learning deeply from my customers

So that’s what I’ll be doing next. I’ll be thinking about my customers — starting with folks who hold the jobs I’ve had before: technical evangelists (aka developer advocates) and their managers, software developer and their managers, technical product marketing managers (which I’ve worked for, producing events), and open source project stewards.

Actually I’ll be doing more than just thinking about them. I’ll be reaching out to as many of them–as many of you–as possible to listen and learn what their pain points are, what those pain points are costing them, and how they’d like to solve them. I’ll use this information to validate and improve my hypotheses about the Authentic Engine products that will help them.

Exciting and scary

I’m finding this approach very exciting. I love connecting with people, learning about them, building connections, and figuring out ways . But it’s also terrifying because I know this will take time and our financial reserves are dwindling. While I’m developing my customers and products, I’m also going to have to find income, either through consulting or contracting.

How you can help

So, if you or someone you know is needing help with planning a community-focused technical event (like Open Source Bridge, which I co-chaired for 5 years), or managing a technical project (like creating a localization platform for Firefox OS App developers, which I did at Mozilla), or revitalizing a community contributor platform (like I did with MozillaWiki), or improving open source governance (Stumptown Syndicate), or anything else about which I have subject area expertise, please get in touch or book a meeting.

A promise to continue sharing and connecting

Meanwhile, I’ll keep sharing here what I’m working on and what I’m learning.

Soon I’ll post about:

  • realizing I need to be talking to lots more people and how I’m following through on that despite how weird and shameful it can feel;
  • what I’ve learned about content-based marketing and how I’m putting it into practice;
  • how Sherri and I are figuring how how to support one another and keep our household functional while we both build new businesses;
  • what I’m doing to manage my workload, replenish my “spoons,” and avoid burn-out; and,
  • learning to be okay with uncertainty, imperfection, and iterative improvement.

Keeping in touch

As I intimated above, I promise to make more, better connections with all of you. And I invite you to do the same. Leave a comment below, send me an email, or a tweet, or give me a call (go to authenticengine.com for phone number).

The complex reality of adopting a meaningful code of conduct

A number of prominent, globally distributed open source projects are debating the adoption of a Code of Conduct: Ruby, PHP (rfc, discussion), WordPress. There are probably others. Additionally, thousands of smaller projects have adopted codes of conduct as have many conferences.

Why are some communities able to quickly and effortlessly adopt a code of conduct while others become mired in conflict and division whenever the topic arises?

In this post I explore what I see as the main reasons we experience conflict when talking about adopting codes of conduct in our communities:

  1. misalignment of perceived shared values
  2. the relative difficulty of facilitating organizational change
  3. lack of governance infrastructure and non-technical leadership

What I hope people take away from this post is a greater appreciation for the potential complexities of FOSS communities meaningfully adopting a code of conduct and some ideas for confronting these challenges constructively, including:

  1. closing the non-technical leadership gap in our communities
  2. embracing multiple viewpoints and integrating conflict productively
  3. employing compassion and unconditional positive regard whenever possible

Some Background

Why the current momentum around adopting CoCs?

Many FLOSS communities have been around for years, yet the push for codes of conduct is relatively recent, picking up steam about 5 years ago.

What is the reason for this momentum?

First, let’s examine what a code of conduct is for. The purpose of a code of conduct is to make explicit the agreed upon social norms of group interaction within the community. There are many ways to accomplish this, but generally a code of conduct should document:

  1. expected behavior;
  2. unacceptable (transgressive) behavior,
  3. a mechanism for reporting problematic conduct and grievances, and
  4. consequences for unacceptable behavior.

All communities already have an implicit set of social norms. This is important, so I’m going to repeat: All communities already have a set of norms that govern group interactions, whether they are written or not. What a code of conduct does is make a subset of those norms explicit by putting them in writing where everyone can see them.

Over the last few years there has been a significant push for tech communities to adopt codes of conduct that make explicit a specific set of norms that strive to make these communities more equitable, welcoming, and safer for individuals from groups generally underrepresented in tech. This includes explicitly defining the destructive behavior that those from underrepresented groups are disproportionately subjected to and specifically labeling that behavior as unacceptable. The reason this is important is that the opposite standard of behavior generally remains the status quo across our communities. We may want to believe that harassment and other problematic behavior rooted in racism, classism, homophobia, sexism, transphobia, misogyny, ableism, etc., does not happen in our communities because we have never personally witnessed or been subject to it, but it happens nevertheless.

Making explicit a set of social norms that so clearly strives to re-balance power dynamics is one reason why some have such a vehement reaction against adopting a code of conduct. Those previously in the dominant social group will, on average, have to give up some of their power. Everyone will have to learn new ways of interacting. Change is scary.

Let’s not forget intersectionality

Before I continue, I want to make the intersectionality of my approach clear. Those who generally belong to the group with the dominant social power can suffer abuse and injustice too. Everyone in a community needs to abide by the community norms. Everyone is deserving of compassion and unconditional positive regard. And, many who, because of their relative privilege, are not accustomed to doing so will have to yield power, tolerate some loss, and stretch their emotional muscles further than they have generally been required to do. Some will have to do this while learning how to heal from their own experiences of abuse and injustice.

Two Personal Examples

Case Study 1: Citizen Code of Conduct

We wrote the Citizen Code of Conduct for use at Open Source Bridge in early 2011. We’ve modified it a few times since then and now use it for all Stumptown Syndicate events. Starting with text from a sample conference anti-harassment policy written by members of the Geek Feminism community, we modified and added text as needed to represent and embody the values of our community.  For example, for us, it was important to include not just a list of prohibitions, but also to set positive expectations for community interaction.

We’ve fielded a handful of reports or otherwise acted on our our code of conduct since we adopted it in 2011. None of them matched what I had imagined. Often they were more mundane yet more complicated to respond to than I had anticipated. Adopting our code of conduct did not stir up controversy, though at least one of our responses did. Generally the feedback we’ve received is that our code of conduct makes the conference more welcoming to underrepresented groups and this has been reflected in our changing demographics (more women, more PoC, more queer folks). A small number of people have expressed their discomfort or have stayed away entirely.

We’re a relatively small, contained community. In a given year, about 500-800 people are involved in Syndicate events and we operate almost exclusively in Portland. This has made adopting a code of conduct and responding to it a relatively manageable thing.

But we still have missing stairs. We have a mechanism in place for responding to code of conduct reports, but it’s almost entirely implicit. That works in the short-term, but it’s not scaleable and doesn’t ensure stability and adaptability over time. Communities need ways to transfer critical institutional operating knowledge as new leaders come aboard. Stumptown Syndicate just elected six new board members and Open Source Bridge is looking for new co-chairs, so we’re figuring out how to do this right now.

Another thing that made adopting and responsibly using a code of conduct possible was the reason Stumptown Syndicate was founded in the first place. We created Stumptown to be a trusted holding institution for the open source projects we cared most about. From the beginning we were about providing important governance and other structures that help ensure the long-term health of open source communities.

Case Study 2: Mozilla Participation Guidelines

In late 2012, Mozilla adopted their Participation Guidelines after a months-long and highly contentious process that was kicked off by the Planet Mozilla controversy. I was heavily invested in seeing Mozilla adopt a code of conduct. This cost me a lot emotionally — I got a threat from a co-worker (still employed by Mozilla and now a manager) as well as an anonymous death threat. Looking back it almost certainly burned a good deal of my social capital, too.

I suppose all that would have been worth it if I could say now with confidence that the Participation Guidelines have been useful for improving community interactions and improving diversity and inclusion.

But I can’t. (I would love to hear from you if they’ve been useful to you.)

For the most part, the weird, uncomfortable, blocking, and transgressive behavior I encountered while involved with Mozilla wasn’t (and still isn’t) addressed clearly by the Participation Guidelines. And in the few cases where you’d think the Participation Guidelines would be helpful, they weren’t. One involved a co-worker and was addressed via our employee anti-harassment/discrimination policy through HR channels (to a less than satisfactory end, but that’s another story). The others were from anonymous sources and thus weren’t easily actionable.

What are actionable events according to Mozilla’s participation guidelines are by no means clear to me. What are “exclusionary practices” in this context? The guidelines say

“Intentional efforts to exclude people from Mozilla activities are not acceptable and will be dealt with appropriately.”

But “intentional efforts” aren’t defined or exemplified.

And then the guidelines includes this bit, which to me signals a fundamental misunderstanding of how institutional oppression manifests in individual behavior:

“It’s hard to imagine how one might unintentionally do this, but if this happens we will figure out how to make it not happen again.”

It’s not hard for some of us to imagine how others can unintentionally make spaces unwelcoming because it happens all the time.

Most people who engage in behavior that makes others uncomfortable or otherwise transgresses a social norm do not do so intentionally. And these are the people who benefit most from explicit norm setting and compassionate intervention. The group that engages in transgressive behavior intentionally is much smaller and does so for a varied, complex set of reasons, some of which is more easily addressed by community governance than others.

If the participation guidelines are getting invoked more than I realize, I wonder, by what mechanism are issues being resolved?

Early on the guidelines mention “groups for escalation and dispute resolution” but what are these groups? Later on, the guidelines instruct you to do the following if you experience conflict, you’re to engage with:

  1. the person with whom you have conflict,
  2. other “trusted Mozillians,” or
  3. Conductors.

To my knowledge, Conductors is completely self-selected (no training,  qualifications,  vetting, or standard of conduct) and…mostly defunct. Defunct as in many of the people listed are no longer employees and may or may not even still be involved in Mozilla projects.

Furthermore, the values indicated by the Participation Guidelines conflict with my direct experience of the community and its capacities.

This line would seem to indicate Mozilla values differing perspectives and spending energy to surface and integrate these different perspectives:

“Try to understand different perspectives. Our goal should not be to “win” every disagreement or argument. A more productive goal is to be open to ideas that make our own ideas better. “Winning” is when different perspectives make our work richer and stronger.”

However, Mozilla seems to have no functional, consistent mechanism for doing this. Many times during my four years with Mozilla I saw people who voiced differing perspectives ignored or outright silenced. (Example: Those of us who calmly, clearly, and respectfully voiced concerns about migrating to Gmail were invisibly silenced — our managers were instructed privately to make us stop.)

This line would seem to indicate we value working through conflict respectfully:

“Be respectful. We may not always agree, but disagreement is no excuse for poor manners. We will all experience some frustration now and then, but we don’t allow that frustration to turn into a personal attack. A community where people feel uncomfortable or threatened is not a productive one.”

But we have no effective channels for resolving conflict so we vent publicly and in back-channels, or simply stew in silence.

And how does the value of “respect” as alluded to in Mozilla’s Participation Guidelines apply to the co-worker who proselytizes to people in project spaces without their consent? Or the contributors of religious faith who worry that private demonstrations of their faith could be used to expel them from the project? Or the queer employees who wonder why their company remains silent while nearly every other tech company celebrates the SCOTUS ruling on gay marriage?

Who is getting use from this document? Did the protracted and divisive process the Mozilla community endured to get this document create any lasting, useful change? I don’t know what percentage of the community buys-in to the Participation Guidelines or even knows about them. Does the mere existence of the document make some more comfortable knowing they are there even if they’ve never invoked it?

A comparison to frame the issue

Is adopting a code of conduct like adopting a FOSS license?

Reinventing the wheel bugs me a lot. In tech, I think we waste a lot of resources and make a lot of unnecessary blunders not building upon and learning from what has come before. It’s why we’ve put effort into the Citizen Code of Conduct and making it easy for other communities to adapt and use. It’s why I’m glad others have engaged in similar work, like the Contributor Covenant, the Geek Feminism Wiki sample policy, and others.

Let’s look at a similar activity that should be familiar to a lot of FOSS contributors: licensing.

In the same way that adding a license to your project is “easy” — especially now that Github includes a drop-down selection of them during repository creation — it’s also easy to add a code of conduct.

But how many project owners who have added the GPL, or MIT, or any other open source license actually qualified, capable, and willing to enforce these licenses? And how do they determine, if they’re not well-versed in IP law, which license is really best for their project? Or what the long-term ramifications will be of their selection? Project leads already give a lot of their free time to open source development and community organizing; Do they really have more time to learn the skills required and then respond to licensing questions and concerns? Is that a fair request to make of our technical leaders?

Let’s say a project is five, ten, or fifteen years old by the time someone suggests adopting a license. How is consensus achieved across long-term contributors when some of them are very MIT-leaning and others are very-GPL leaning? Not just that, but when some folks already assumed everyone in the project was pro-GPL and are astounded the topic is even up for discussion.

This analogy has its limits, so I ask you not to over analyze it or take it too far. I don’t think it makes sense to have a third-party body doing code of conduct enforcement, for example. I think enforcement needs to stay within communities. Though I do think we need third-party experts providing training — and there’s a handful of us working on that now.

(Though if you do want to explore the idea of copyleft licensing and codes of conduct further, I suggest reading Sumana Harihareswara‘s excellent essay Codes of conduct and the trade-offs of copyleft.)

The licensing analogy demonstrates two main issues related to meaningful code of conduct adoption:

  1. The complexity of selecting and adopting a code of conduct especially in larger, already established and highly distributed projects/communities.
  2. That code of conduct response requires skills and resources many project leaders don’t already have.

Misalignment of shared values and the painful process of re-alignment

The role of shared values in conflict resolution.

Ultimately, a code of conduct is one part of a community’s conflict resolution strategy.

Making a plan for how to resolve conflict is one of the first things any community needs to do, long before any conflict arises. And it starts with reaching agreement and making explicit what your shared values are. Why? Because the values you agree as a community to prioritize in your work together need to drive decision-making about that work. Do we value unconstrained free expression of speech, or do we value inclusion of underrepresented groups? Do we value “free as in beer” or “free as in freedom”? Do we value shared public resources or do we value private ownership? Do we value adherence to using open source software, or do we value promoting the open web? In cases where are shared values fall somewhere in the middle of two extremes, where do we draw the line and which side is most important?

When communities are young, values alignment is usually implicit. This makes sense. A small number of folks get together to work on a project or advance a particular mission. Often times these folks already know each other. They may know intuitively and from past experience what their shared values are and so they don’t think about spending energy to make them explicit.

If the shared values that were implicit when a community forms are not made explicit as the community grows, you end up with divergent thinking about what the shared community values are. People who where there at the beginning have one thing in mind. People who joined at different points in time think another thing, based on what attracted them to the project and their own experience of interacting with the project/community. It’s really easy to assume the shared values of our FLOSS communities are what we want them to be. Because why else would we be there?

Misalignment of perceived shared values is at the heart of conflict

I see this misalignment of perceived shared values to be at the heart of numerous conflicts in open source communities. I see it pop up in every discussion about whether and which code of conduct to adopt. I saw it over and over again at Mozilla (migrating to Gmail, supporting EME, integrating Pocket, appointing Brendan as CEO, how community is included, etc.). I noticed it each time we struggled with a decision around Open Source Bridge / Stumptown Syndicate, which is why we spent a whole weekend last year debating what our shared principles are and then made them explicit and public.

Adding a code of conduct often requires the painful process of values re-alignment

So, one reason it is so much more complex to add a code of conduct to long-standing projects is because a code of conduct is an operating document born from a community’s shared values and in many of our large open source communities we do not have an agreed upon set of shared values. Adopting a code of conduct is a forcing function that brings that values misalignment out in to the open.

Values re-alignment requires organizational change capacity beyond what we have

To realign on values, a community needs to go through the process of agreeing what its shared values should be (not are — because people have been operating under mixed assumptions) and then put them in writing and make them public. This will inevitably require some change in the community. It’s likely that everyone will have to shift their position at least a bit. If not, some will need to leave the community. The larger and more complex the community, the longer this change process will take and the more facilitation it will require.

Organizational change is extremely difficult and most FOSS communities do not have the capacity and experience to manage the change. For the change to be navigated successfully, great care needs to be applied and community leaders, as well as everyone participating in the discussion really need to step up their game. There needs to be room for anger, for disagreement, for being weary of change, for being ravenously hungry for change. People have to be willing to change their minds. There need to be mechanisms for dealing with the inevitable flood of disruptive outsiders and blocking/sabotaging insiders. Leaders need to be able to hold the environment well enough to drive change but not let their communities implode. Everyone needs to understand and be patient with the reality that the process will take time. Months, not days or weeks.

Adopting a code of conduct in larger communities is not a technical problem with clear, templated solutions. Rather, it is an adaptive one that requires the community learn how to change itself.

The role of governance

Having a code of conduct is part of having a conflict resolution strategy, which is, in turn, essential to good governance.

What do I mean by governance? Governance includes everything about how a project carries out its work and engages with its community.

Key governance questions are:

  • how are decisions made and communicated?
  • how is conflict resolved?
  • how are conflicts of interest handled?
  • who are our leaders, and how are they selected, evaluated, and held accountable?
  • how is community membership decided?
  • how are tasks tracked and delegated?
  • what is our mission, vision and how are we planning to achieve that?
  • what are our values and are we living up to them?
  • what is our reputation within our own community and outside of it?
  • do ensure we have the resources we need to carry out our mission both in the short-term and the long-term?
  • how are we developing our community members and leaders?
  • are we serving our mission or just ourselves?
  • are we in compliance with with local laws? are we up to date on our taxes?
  • are we doing what our community needs us to do?
  • are we hearing all the feedback we need to be? from whom we need to hear it?

Having mechanisms that answer these questions in an explicit, transparent way is key for long-term sustainability and success.

In the same way that shared values are implicit when communities first form, so are the ways in which community members work together. And so must they be made explicit as a community grows. Many communities have not made these governance structures explicit. Or if they have, they are incomplete, out of date or simply don’t match how the community actually operates.

In some situations, generally when communities are small and relatively contained (e.g. to a geographic locality like a conference), it works to start with a code of conduct and make explicit the other governance structures as you go. But that becomes much more difficult the larger and more complex a community becomes.

In the same way that a large community will have misalignment in their perceived shared values, they will also have misalignment about how they think the community works together. Re-aligning is a process that takes time and care.

Does a community need to have all the above questions answered and documented before adopting a code of conduct?

No. But any community, especially large and highly distributed ones need to answer these governance-related questions when figuring out how to meaningfully adopt a code of conduct:

  • Who’s going to be responsible for holding the community accountable to the standards documented in the code of conduct?
  • How will those people be chosen, what training & resources will they need, and by what mechanism will they be held accountable?
  • How will code of conduct reports be collected? Will their resolution be communicated to the larger community? How?
  • What are the legal/privacy/etc. implications of our chosen method of reporting?
  • Have we selected a code of conduct that accurately reflects our community’s shared values, as they are actually practiced?
  • Have we selected a code of conduct we are actually willing and able to enforce?

I can’t stress the importance of the last two enough. No community should adopt a code of a conduct they think people want to see if it’s not a true representation of their community’s values and one they are willing and have the capacity to enforce. It’s immensely damaging for a community to have explicit policies that it doesn’t, for whatever reason, live out in practice. Integrity is essential for healthy community.

There’s also a danger is trying to make the perfect plan before acting. This is impossible. Sketch out a reasonable starting policy, practice it for a while and work with your community to adapt as needed over time.

If you’re trying to adopt a code of conduct and members of your community seem overly focused on legalistic analysis or want to negotiate every conceivable yet hypothetical situation before moving forward, it’s a sign that trust in governance and leadership is low.

The role of non-technical leadership

Community leaders, both those with formal authority and those without it, are critical to a community’s ability to successfully navigate change. Those with power in a community need to be on board with the change required be willing to do the work otherwise meaningful change is very unlikely to happen.

It’s entirely possible some of the FOSS communities that we have so much invested in aren’t willing or able to go through the change we need of them in this moment. For our  well-being and to avoid burn out, it’s important we develop the wisdom to be able to identify when that’s the case so we use our energy to build alternative communities.

(I do think there are strategies for bringing leaders on-board when change is needed and they are reticent to productively engage. But discussion of them is out of scope for this post.)

Some strategies for making things better

Close the leadership gap in our FLOSS communities

By now it should be clear that we have a non-technical leadership gap in our FLOSS communities and it’s harming our ability to navigate change and thrive.

To close this gap we need to develop, recognize, support, and elevate non-technical leaders. Non-technical leaders need to be recognized as valuable experts in the same way we recognize technical leaders for their expertise.

Embrace multiple viewpoints and integrate conflict productively

We need to avoid denigrating and silencing those who are reticent of change or raise concerns over adopting a code of conduct. I’m not talking about folks who show up for the sole purpose of trolling, derailing, and abusing. Let’s not increase the damage those people inflict by casting everyone who’s not automatically on board as one of them.

Conflicting points of view are crucial tool for learning. Ronald A. Heifetz in Leadership Without Easy Answers says:

“the mix of values in a society provides multiple vantage points from which to view reality. Conflict and heterogeneity are resources for social learning. Although people may not come to share one another’s values, they may learn vital information that would ordinarily be lost to view without engaging the perspectives of those who challenge them”

Respond compassionately to people’s sense of loss brought about by change

Some may respond with concern or be against a code of conduct because of the loss of power and privilege it represents to them (whether they are conscious of this or not). While we may feel that these folks have long enjoyed what they did not rightfully earn and that a redistribution of power as might occur with a code of conduct is fair, just, and necessary, we still need to respond to their sense of loss with compassion, not derision. Some will never adjust to the changing world in which they live, but many are capable of doing so and will, but they need help doing so.

Good governance and leadership prevent abuses of power

There are a handful of folks (example) who keep playing the dog whistle of impending fascism in response to their community’s proposal of adopting a code of conduct. This assertion simply has no merit and serves mostly to distract and derail. It also serves as a rallying call to those who feel disenfranchised by the changing social, political and economic environment.

Fascism and other abuses of power can happen with or without a code of conduct. Good governance, of which an explicit, written code of conduct is a part, is the antidote to abuses of power. In fact, I believe that keeping the ways your community works implicit and unwritten is more fertile ground for abuses of power than having written, communally available policies you actually follow.

Well-written codes of conduct are enforceable yet flexible enough to adapt to a community’s changing needs and circumstances over time. They are one mechanism by which conflicts can be resolved judiciously (as in, with good judgement, not related to a court of law) and consistently. Without a code of conduct or similar operating procedure, conflicts still arise but a community has no way to consistently approach or resolve them.

Some words of caution: A code of conduct won’t enable abuse of power where previously none was possible, but it might shift the the targets of that abuse or create unintended ones. It may also provide a false sense of security if there are not robust mechanisms in place to receive and respond fairly to reports. This is why a code of conduct needs to be backed up by skilled, ethical leadership and good governance infrastructure.

One last thought about compassion, unconditional positive regard, and emotional labor

Several times in this post I’ve stated we should show everyone compassion and unconditional positive regard.

When I say that, I’m not asking every individual and every given time to show compassion and unconditional positive regard for everyone else, including those who are or have engaged in abusive behavior or are members of social groups that have relatively greater power and privilege. Instead, what I ask is that people cultivate compassion and practice unconditional positive regard as they are able and willing.

Community is a shared burden, as a well as a shared resource. At any given time, some of us will be more capable of and willing to do certain things than others. Sometimes we need to concentrate on our own needs and healing.

Cultivating compassion, understanding, and unconditional positive regard is a communal activity, a communal responsibility. It’s how we’re going to move forward together towards a brighter future.