Death Threats in Open Source Are not Occurring in a Vacuum

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.


  1. Magalie says:

    I totally agree with you. I’m a french web app engineer, and I LOVE working with people coming from different places and so experiences, having different technologies education and so approaches, having a completely different way of life and so way of thinking.
    We are ALL different from one to another and this is our force, if we all think the same thing, if we all do the same things, if we all love the same thing, we cannot make improvements.
    This is always the confrontation of different ideas that make things evolve and problems resolved.
    Please continue to be intolerant with this kind of behaviour :), you’re not alone thinking like this, see? even in France !
    I’m sad for this kind of people that have such hatred inside themselves, they avoid a lot of nice friendship. But they are NOT the future of us… us, human beings :)
    Lol, as in Lots Of Love…
    and may the force be with you ;)

  2. Hardin John says:

    Part of what problem? The code doesn’t care what sexual orientation you are but the people care, this is just another post in support of alternative sexual behaivours and not about diversity. Have safe sex people with your opposite sex in marriage and remain faithful. Ces’t Finito

  3. I hope you will agree that when you suggest that I am cut from the same cloth as, or an apologist for, or a way-clearer for those who send death threats, I should have the opportunity to respond. (Would you have calmly accepted such an insinuation being made of yourself, I wonder?)

    This is not only wrong, it’s completely inverted. Jesus came so we could have life, and have it to the full, and I’m in favour of extending that offer to everyone. I believe in life – from the moment of conception to natural death. (In passing, it is funny how many of those who are against violence towards the vulnerable and underprivileged are fine with it so long as the vulnerable person hasn’t popped out of a womb yet.) I’m a consistent supporter of life, and want everyone to have true life to the full; death threats are antithetical to everything I stand for.

    Calling a desire to keep marriage the way it is “legislative violence” diminishes the word violence, just as calling consensual sex between a 17 year old girl and her 18 year old boyfriend “statutory rape” diminishes the word rape, which should be reserved for much more serious crimes. “Legislative violence” is an escalation which is designed to shut down debate, and win by rhetoric rather than by argument. So I am arguing that point with you, and do not believe that this will encourage any lowlife to threaten you beyond whatever sinful desire to do so they already have.

    If you were physically threatened with a knife, and I was present, I would not be the guy holding the knife. I’d be the guy standing between him and you.

    • If you want to have a civil conversation, Gerv, try not ordering Christie or any other person to use different terms to describe oppression they’ve experienced that you haven’t had, just because those terms make you uncomfortable. This comment shows that you’re not interested in having an honest conversation, but rather, in dominating other people. This is why Christie said that comments like yours exist on a continuum with death threats: both are attempts to intimidate and silence.

      • I didn’t “order” anyone to use a different term. I am merely disagreeing that it’s appropriate.

        I’m sure you’re very aware of how powerful words are, and how the people who get to frame a debate have an in-built advantage. You might call it a privilege. You will also be aware of the logical fallacy called “poisoning the well”, whereby you put an idea in terms which the audience will instinctively dislike, and try and get anyone who wishes to defend that position to take that on. Calling support for marriage-as-it-is “legislative violence” and forcing me to accept that label (as you clearly wish to do as a condition of further discussion) puts me in the position of having to defend “violence”, with all the connotations that would have in the mind of a reader – and which are inapplicable here.

        I would also suggest that telling me that I’m not interested in having an honest conversation – an ad hominem – is also an attempt to intimidate and silence. After all, it’s not possible to refute such an accusation, and yet how could I continue if I accept it? You will, of course, deny this charge and point to it as further evidence of wrongdoing of some sort on my part.

        Your view seems to be that, to have a dialogue with you, I need to have already accepted your worldview and parameters for the debate, including using terms which are loaded in favour of your side. Otherwise, I will face accusations of bad faith. I do not think this is reasonable.

        • Taryn Fox says:

          “I don’t like being called out for bad behaviour, and being shown how it hurts others. I would rather that we all operate under the assumption that I am doing the people that I hurt a favour. How dare you all talk about how you feel, using the language that seems appropriate to you.”

    • Christie Koehler says:

      When you advocate for legislation that excludes queer people from civil marriage, you are advocating for my continued subordination as a second class citizen. You are saying that Sherri is not my wife and that we are not deserving of the same rights and recognition as you and your wife enjoy.

      You other me in the name of your religious beliefs to justify the type of legislation that hurts people like me every day. The fact that you can advocate for such legislation openly, without significant reprisal, demonstrates how culturally acceptable it still is to engage in harm against queer folks. People see this and they know that not much will come of it if they engage in their own harmful behavior. So, yes, your behavior exists on the same continuum as the person who called me a “stupid dyke” and threatened to cut my throat. Let’s not forget that your post to Planet is what set this entire chain of events in motion.

      Threat of physical power constitutes violence, Gerv, and what you engaged in on Planet Mozilla fits that definition because the legislation you advocated for seeks to leverage the state to continue the subjugation, physical, economic and otherwise, of a class of people.

      It causes me pain every time you comment on my blog, Gerv. Every time you issue a compliment, I have to swallow it with the bitter pill of knowing that you find part of me lesser and less deserving of certain rights because I am married to a woman.

      So, please, I ask you to stop commenting here on my blog. I don’t wish to have further communication with you, outside of what I am required to have as part of my Mozilla duties.