Individuals who make death threats start with less egregious behavior and systematically test the boundaries of the communities in which they exist. When they get away with small violations, they often move on to larger ones. They watch what others are able to get away with, too. The pattern of behavior is common among abusers. If you’re an abuse survivor, you know this implicitly.
The open source community consistently condones the type of behavior that can escalate to death threats. The “free as in freedom” philosophy has created a haven for privileged individuals to act without accountability. Harassment, discrimination and exclusion of women, queer and trans people, racial minorities and other individuals from marginalized groups are commonplace. This is not okay. Not only is it morally wrong to exclude people in this manner, but communities thrive on diversity and stagnate without it. Open source is no different, and we have largely been failing to address this issue.
If you’re not actively working to make your community welcoming to a diverse set of individuals, you are part of the problem. If you are a white, straight cis man and you look around at your community and the majority of what you see are straight, white, cis men, then you are part of the problem. If your project or community does not have a code of conduct and you are not actively providing meaningful enforcement of those standards, then you are part of the problem. If you are not holding your technical leaders accountable for their behavior that is harming the community, then you are part of the problem.
We can no longer operate under the fantasy that maintaining healthy open source communities is solely a matter of technical skill or competence. As Matthew Garrett recently stated:
No matter how technically competent a community leader is, no matter how much code review they perform or how much mentorship they provide, if they’re expressing unacceptable social opinions then they’re diminishing the community. People I know and respect have left technical communities simply because people in positions of responsibility have engaged in this kind of behaviour without it causing them any problems.
Want to lessen the number of death threats that women (and others) in open source receive? Adopt a strong code of conduct and enforce it. Do not allow misogynist, sexist, racist, homophobic, etc. comments or behavior, no matter how trivial they feel to you. Don’t ask people like me to explain to you ad nauseam why a fellow community member saying “we don’t want you around” is a threat. Don’t argue when we say that a co-worker who advocates against universal marriage is advocating legislative violence. Instead, hold those who make these statements accountable.
In other words, reducing and eliminating death threats in the open source community starts with being intolerant of microagressions.