Tag: abuse dynamics

Thoughts on recent Drupal governance decisions

(Content warning: This post discusses BDSM and abuse.)

[Updated 12:20 PDT 28 March 2017: Corrected spelling errors and added a few clarifications, including the opening notes 1-3 below.]

[Update 9:30 PDT 31 March 2017: Dries and Drupal Association have posted a thoughtful follow-up regarding this situation. Link added in-line below as well.]

[Updated 18:50 PDT 3 April 2017: Fixed minor typos. Added clarification about targets of kink-shaming. Added notes 4-5.]

[Updated 10:30 PDT 18 April 2017: Added notes 6 and 7.]

Note 1: In many contexts, including when talking about community governance, I use a rather broad definition of “abuse” and “abusive.” Abuse includes not just physical and sexual assault, but also repeated interpersonal misconduct as well as harassment. Interpersonal misconduct includes many things such as: lying, deception, and manipulation; violating the boundaries of others; not respecting the agency, autonomy, and equality of others; and more. These types of transgressive behaviors are often hard to detect and discern by others in a way that is actionable and can go on for a long time without the person engaging in them being brought to account.

Note 2: Many have characterized what I have written below as evidence of my passing unfair, hasty judgements about the contributor who was asked to step down from Drupal leadership. Some assume I made these judgements based on the sole fact of that contributor’s participation in the Gor community. In reality, I reviewed a lot of the contributor’s publicly available writing, including Drupal-related ones and formed my opinions based on that. If you haven’t done that and are vehemently defending the expelled contributor, I encourage you to reassess. And if you have and found the writing perfectly okay, I question your experience, maturity, and judgement.

Furthermore, I intentionally and specifically did not make direct statements about the “guilt” or “innocence” of the contributor or whether or not he is an abuser and nothing below should be read as such. Rather, the below should be read for two things: a) an explanation and refutation of common misconceptions people have about these kinds of situations when they arise, and b) a hypothetical alternative point of view of what might have happen in a situation such as what unfolded recently in the Drupal community.

Note 3: Several people have commented that Drupal has a Code of Conduct and a conflict resolution process, that it was followed and that the Community Working Group (CWG) found that the contributor had not violated the code of conduct. This is true, but doesn’t mean that there wasn’t a serious issue to address. In fact, the CWG indicated this to be the case and escalated up the leadership chain. Those who have experience in these matters know that even the most well-thought out and well-written policy isn’t going to handle every edge case and that you will need to have a process for handling those edge cases. That is, community governance doesn’t end with your code of conduct. In the most recent situation with Drupal, I believe they found an edge case where a contributor’s conduct was counter to the kind of community they wanted to foster but that they hadn’t accounted for in their code of conduct. (And, this doesn’t really surprise me, Drupal is using one of the weaker codes of conduct, one that I do not recommend, for this very reason, among others.)

Note 4: See this twitter thread for a follow-up analysis regarding those wanting a clear “victim” and wanting to know what the “rules” of conduct are. Also see this thread about consent and BDSM and this blog post about autism and compliance. See this thread for details on what makes me qualified to speak about the intersection of BDSM/Code of Conduct issues.

Note 5: A few people have asked which of the Drupal contributor’s public writings I read that informed my thinking on this issue. These include:

Note 6:  Below is a list of follow-up responses from various groups involved.

Statements from Drupal Community Working Group (CWG):

Statements from the Drupal Association:

Statements from Dries Buytaert:

Note 7: Members of the Drupal community and outsiders (including alt-right brigaders) who oppose the decision to ask LG to leave have created Drupal Confessions (DC) to pressure a reversal along with other governance changes. A lot of the language in DC’s statement reminds me of statements from LambdaConf organizer and Fantasyland Code of Professionalism (FCOP) author John de Goes. I wrote about what’s wrong with the FCOP earlier this year and updated my analysis in this twitter thread.

The Drupal community recently asked a long-time contributor to leave. (See follow-up post from DA/Dries on the matter here.)

A lot of the public response I’ve seen has been negative. And, most troubling, the separate decisions by the Drupal Association and project leader Dries are being cast by some as bigoted and exclusionary. I am seeing this sort of response from folks who are normally supportive — at least on a surface level — of projects having a code of conduct and of supporting diversity and inclusion. Interestingly, I am also noticing who is staying silent about the manner — a lot of women and folks who I generally know to have experience and good judgement in this area.

I am not part of the Drupal community, though I was part of the PHP community for many years. I do not have insider knowledge of the situation.

From my view as an outsider, I think the Drupal Association and Dries made the right decisions. If anything, they likely could have acted more decisively and skillfully sooner than they did, but that is often the case with these situations. Hindsight is 20/20, of course, and the FLOSS community is just started to exercise these type of governance skills. We have a lot to learn and we’re going to stumble along the way.

What I want to address in this post are the misunderstandings and misconceptions I see repeated every time one of our FLOSS communities reaches the point of imposing significant consequences upon a long-term, well-known contributor. And I want to share an alternative idea of what might have happened, one not based in bigotry or ignorance about consensual BDSM.

BDSM is not a protected class

While those who engage in BDSM might feel marginalized by mainstream society, they are not, as a class, subject to oppression anywhere near equivalent to what queer and trans folks, non-Christians, people with disabilities, and persons of color are. I believe folks have a right to privacy, including in regard to their sex life, and don’t believe in kink-shaming. However, to equate engaging in BDSM in and of itself with being a member of an oppressed class is incorrect and gross. (Furthermore, on a personal note, I loathe the equating of BDSM and queer in this way because it re-contextualizes being queer as being about sex, which it’s not.)

Furthermore, I do not think folks are commonly ostracized from communities simply because it becomes known that they engage in consensual BDSM play. In fact, I’ve never encountered this at all. (Update 3 April 2017: When I wrote this I was thinking in terms of white, straight, hetero cis men as those who are not kink-shamed. I absolutely recognize marginalized folks are subject to kink-shaming. See Shanley’s twitter thread for more on this.)

What I do now to be common are the following two scenarios.

One, a non-BDSM community or community member sets a boundary and asks someone not to discuss their BDSM practices within that community setting. This is entirely appropriate. No one is entitled to share and have an audience to share the intimate details of their sex life whenever they want. This isn’t oppressive or bigoted. It’s reasonable and appropriate boundary setting. (Tangentially, it’s not appropriate to “come out” as BDSM either, especially during times set aside for queer folks to do that.)

Two, a BDSM or BDSM-adjacent community ostracize a community member who has been engaging in transgressive behavior. Usually this is abusive behavior conducted under the guise of consensual, above board BDSM but instead crosses the line of established norms and practices into abuse.

BDSM and Gor are not equivalent

Okay, so the bit about Gor is kind of specific this Drupal incident…I hope? Regardless, it exemplifies the kind of discernment skills we need to be able to apply in these situations. One (acceptable) thing can look like another (not acceptable) thing and we need to practice telling the difference.

Even a cursory bit of research tells you that Gor and BDSM are not the same thing. Predominantly, those who engage in Gor are into the philosophy (not the fantasy) of the Gor novels. These novels posit that women are intrinsically inferior to men and should be rightfully dominated by them. For many who call themselves Gor, these ideas exceed the realm of fantasy enacted as part of recreational roleplay and extend into their everyday world view. This fact, to me, crosses the line from the privacy-deserving consensual power exchange of BDSM into something unacceptable and deserving of scrutiny. A “lifestyle” follower of Gor is overwhelmingly likely to negatively impact any community in which they participate in a non-trivial way.

Perhaps this seems harsh. Maybe it is. I strongly believe folks have a right to whatever weird private life they want to have. But there are limits. If on weekends you like to roleplay as a Nazi in charge of exterminations at Auschwitz, or a white plantation owner who whips Black slaves, I have a hard time believing you are a perfectly decent person during the week at work. Maybe it’s possible, I don’t know. My personal experience with kink is minimal and tangential (never really my thing). But I know folks with kink experience and they confirm the Gor sub-community is not well-regarded.

(For more details about Gor and how it isn’t BDSM, check out this article.)

Slippery slope!

Some folks have invoked a slippery slope argument: Well, if we exclude folks based on their misogynistic private life, are we also going to exclude fundamentalist evangelical Christians who publicly espouse misogyny and homophobia?? To which is say: Yes.

Yes, it is okay, and, I would argue, just, to exclude people from your community who publicly express cis, white, male, straight, Christian, heterosexual supremacy (in any combination of those attributes). Those who do this are the people keeping everyone else who is not them away. You do not need to coddle or protect these people. If you think your project cannot survive without the support of white male supremacists and their enablers, stop to consider if perhaps you are part of the problem.

Lack of public details does not automatically indicate bad governance

Those of us who have been a part of FLOSS communities for a long time are used to certain ways of working. We’re used to “working in the open” via written, recorded media. We expect to be able to get up to speed on an issue by reading though a mailing list’s archives, an IRC channel’s log, or a bug’s comment thread. We feel entitled to access and absorb this information and then chime in with our own view of things, be it lay opinion or reasoned expertise, or something in between. We expect to have this point of view meaningfully considered in the process of decision-making.

These norms work relatively well for collaboratively producing software. They do not, however, work for addressing certain community governance topics, including most conduct issues. These require private communication, limited numbers of people involved in making decisions, and a vagueness when publicly reporting outcomes.

All but the most trivial issues regarding community members’ conduct requires careful handling. The security principle of least access necessary applies. Only those who need to be a part of the decision-making process should be party to the often very private details of conduct-related incidents. This is especially true of situations regarding on-going or long-term abuse.

When a decision is reached it is unwise and likely unethical to share the details of the evidence that was considered in making that decision. Public statements you make about individuals involved in the decision are subject to libel and defamation law suits. The more specific your statements, the greater the risk. Not only to project leads have an obligation to limit the liability they expose their projects too, they also have an obligation to protect the privacy of all those involved, perpetrator and victim alike.

Unlike with technical decisions, decisions about governance, especially conduct, can never be as transparent as we’d like. As such, a certain amount of opaqueness is not necessarily a sign of bad governance. In fact, it can be a sign of good governance. At best project leads should, if they are able, share the nature or category and volume of evidence considered as well as the process that was followed.

Because in these cases good governance prohibits complete transparency, it’s incredibly important that you trust your project leaders. And, likewise, it’s important that project leaders work to establish and build trust continually, not just when code of conduct issues arise.

Lack of understanding of abuse dynamics

Each time one of these conduct issues arise, I’m reminded of how insidious abuser dynamics are and how little awareness there is with in our community about how they work.

This lack of understanding combined with lack of information about specific incidents causes a lot of otherwise decent community members to come to the defense of those who have engaged in transgressive behavior, including serial abusers.

Abusers are master manipulators. They are adept at shaping how people perceive them and they use a whole array of techniques to do this, deflection and distraction chief among them. Abusers always have the upper hand when it comes to (mis)information because they aren’t playing by the same rules as the rest of us. They will lie, violate others’ privacy by reveling intimate details, and overshare irrelevant details. Anything they communicate serves the purpose not of genuine communication and connection, but of creating a particular outcome in their favor.

In terms of public opinion, organizations who take action against serial abusers are almost always at a disadvantage. It’s the prisoner’s dilemma (to use an imperfect analogy). You always lose when you play with a cheater unless you’re also a cheater.

Abusers leverage social power and privilege to gain access to potential victims and to maintain their ability to abuse. It’s not unheard of to discover abusers have been masquerading as advocates for women in tech, for example. Doing so gives them credibility, cover, and access.

Abusers groom victim as well as accomplices. This is an incremental and long-term effort. Abusers do not exist in a vacuum. Their abuse is enabled by others who look the other way, come to their defense, and otherwise provide cover. Perfectly reasonable, “good” people participate in this all the time. It’s hard to spot and hard to break away from. Abuse endures through denial. It’s “normal” for those subject to abuse to minimize and lie about what they experience until they’ve been able to breakthrough this denial. Having previously said good things about your abuser, characterized their behavior as okay, or come to their defense is not an indication you weren’t abused.

Most abuse is never reported. As such, most abusers aren’t reported until they’ve abused multiple people and most communities don’t or aren’t able to take action until they’ve received multiple reports about a single person.

Fruit of the poison tree

Sometimes we hear things about others we’d rather not have been told. Sometimes we are given information obtained through questionable or even transgressive means.

In US law, evidence obtained through illegal or improper means is usually excluded from consideration, as being “fruit of the poison tree.” While I think this is an important standard in criminal legal proceedings, I do not think it applies in the same way to community stewardship. I’ve written before about how communities can and should act extra-legally and I believe the same concept applies here.

So, as opposed to in a court of law, in community we must still account for the fruit of the poison tree, even when we’d rather not.

Earlier I invoked the prisoner’s dilemma, in which the only way to win against a cheater is to either not play or to cheat as well. Dealing with abusers is not all that dissimilar. It’s hard to gather enough information about a potential abuser in order to confirm their abuse, and to do so, you often have to play their game, at least a little bit.

Am I condoning outright digging into anyone’s personal life and sharing those details with project leadership or the public? No, I’m not. There’s great potential there for abuse, especially of already marginalized folks. But if that’s the only way to reveal serial abuser? Yeah, then a certain amount of it might be justified.

Furthermore, the appearance of poison fruit could be an intentional distraction designed to deflect blame, or even a mere coincidence. It is not unheard of for abusers, when their abuse is revealed, to claim discrimination or persecution based on some unrelated aspect of themselves, including participation in BDSM activities.

What might have happened

Again, I don’t have insider information about the Drupal situation. But I have been on the leadership side of complicated community conduct situations. It is never easy or straightforward.

In the case of Drupal, it’s my best guess that something like this happened:

It was an open secret that the long-time contributor (LTC) they asked to leave held problematic views. He did not act on them so egregiously as to provide a clear, unequivocable reason to expel him. Instead, some in leadership positions grimaced at LTC’s conduct, while others looked the other way, or failed to see the problematic behavior at all or as problematic. People warned their friends to stay away from this LTC and tried to shield them as much as possible from his bad behavior. At the same time, this LTC had allies who supported him and helped him maintain his leadership position.

Over some period of time, people started coming forward with reports of abuse by this LTC. As is often the case, the folks making the reports request privacy and that the details of their reports not be made public or otherwise shared widely (and so most of us will never have direct knowledge of it). Perhaps also at this time people who felt this LTC’s behavior was problematic took it upon themselves to try to help and started mining private message boards for incriminating information about him. They found some and shared with project leadership.

At this point, project leadership has several reports of abuse by this LTC (which they can’t tell us about in any detail) along with information about LTC private life they’d rather not know, but that they feel they must act upon, particularly in light of the several other reports of misconduct they’ve received.

So, project leadership works their process, perhaps skillfully, perhaps less so, and this culminates in LTC being asked to step down from their leadership position and/or leave the project. Being less than experienced at dealing with such issues and wanting to respect people’s privacy as well as limit the liability exposure of the project, they refrain from making a public statement.

The LTC, seeing an opportunity to gain back some of the upper hand, posts his own story in which he includes a bunch of semi- or completely irrelevant details, crying BDSM discrimination, in hopes of obfuscating and confusing the real reason he was asked to leave. Project lead, in turn, responds with a post attempting to explain as much as he can, as clearly as he can, without violating anyone’s privacy or exposing the project to a defamation/libel action.

I have no idea if I’m right, but that’s my intuition about what’s going on in this case. I certainly find the above scenario far more plausible than a project expelling someone who is otherwise completely decent for consensual BDSM play in their private life.