Mikkel Høgh

Coding the web since 1999

18 Apr 2017

Why I care about the Drupal drama

There’s been a lot said and written about the most recent drama in the Drupal community, quite a few people have asked me why I care. This is hard to answer without sounding flippant in 140 characters, so I’ve taken the time to write another blog post about the topic. This one a little less angry and more reasoned than the first.

The immediate facts

In short, one of the most industrious and influential members of the Drupal open source project, named Larry, was “asked to leave” the Drupal community, the thing he’d dedicated a solid chunk of the last decade of his life to.

Larry himself has publicly stated that he believes the reason was because that the Drupal Association found out about his involvement in a sexually charged subculture (only involving consensual adults). I am certainly no fan of this particular subculture, but as long as it only involves consenting adults, it is not for me to pass judgement on.

The Drupal Association, on the other hand, has issued a number of statements, without ever making clear what their reasoning was. If we ignore the inconsistencies between Drupal Association President, Dries Buytaert’s first statement (which I lambasted in more detail in my previous post), and only consider the latest statement from the very same Dries Buytaert, the official explanation is:

“This incident was about specific actions of a single member of our community.”

And nothing further. Nowhere is it made clear what the actions were, but the Community Working Group (that determines such things) has made clear it does not involve a violation of the Drupal Code of Conduct. That rules out pretty much any negative actions taken against a fellow Drupal Community member, so that makes it even more mysterious what the actions that warranted a ban could be. The DA is denying any request for clarification, with a variety of excuses along the lines of “sensitive information”, “limiting liability” and “protecting privacy”.

If you care the least bit about justice, your spider sense should already be tingling. One the most influential members of the community has not only been disinvited from Drupal events, but even told to stay away from the online community, and no discernible reason for this drastic act has been provided? The Drupal Association is thus claiming the right to summarily ban community member, of any standing, without having to justify their actions. That’s a downright totalitarian amount of power to grant any body.

Who watches the watchers?

The Drupal Association board technically only governs the association itself, but since said association has slowly taken control of everything of importance in the community, so that is not a meaningful distinction.
If the DA decides to ban someone, they control the web site where development happens, and all the main conferences. A DA ban will thus make normal community participation impossible.

So, surely we have an oversight mechanism to make sure such power isn’t abused? Unfortunately, nothing of the sort. The Drupal Association board answers to no one but Dries, and since he’s on the board himself, there’s effectively no external oversight of the boards decisions.

We can’t elect another board if we are dissatisfied with the actions of the current one, either. Quoting the 2014 bylaws of “DrupalCon, Inc” (which is the legal name of the Drupal Association):

Directors of the Board shall be elected by majority vote of the Directors then in office

That is, the board elects itself. There are two extra seats on the board that are filled by public election, which serve as community representatives, but since these are only two seats out of twelve and actions are decided by simple majority, that is mostly a symbolic gesture. No matter who the community elects, the board can carry on as they please.

So, bottom line, as long as Dries and the board members he himself participated in electing can agree, there are no limits to what they can do.

What’s really going on?

This is hard to say with certainty, since Dries and the DA refuses to say with anything close to clear language.

I think we get a glimpse of the real reason for Larry’s ban in Dries’ first statement on the matter, where after he explains how Gorean philosophy has a different view on gender roles, namely that (some) women desire to be subjugated by strong men, he states:

It’s my opinion that any association with Larry’s belief system is inconsistent with our project’s goals.

If you read the rest of the post, I think it is clear as glass that this is the actual issue.

Between Dries, the DA and the CWG, we have as many as five different statements (1, 2, 3, 4, 5), which, taken together, are incongruent and confusing, perhaps intentionally so. But combined with Larry’s own statements (1, 2, 3), I think we can safely conclude the following:

  1. A group of people find Larry’s Gor-inspired views on gender roles deeply abhorrent, and want him him removed from any official position in the Drupal community (and possibly banned completely).
  2. This group has worked behind the scenes to gather what the Russians call “kompromat”, material that can be used to smear Larry’s name enough to get him banned. This kompromat has been circulated in the community before it was brought to the attention of the CWG/DA, possibly to gather enough support to compel Dries/DA to act.
  3. Larry hasn’t done anything that would warrant a ban on its own, but the kompromat taken together with his public statements in controversial debates are enough to make the cases that his views have influenced his actions in the Drupal community.
  4. The aforementioned anti-Larry group either includes Dries and the DA or has enough influence to compel them to act. A threat of going public if Larry wasn’t removed might be involved.
  5. The DA decided to remove Larry as track chair and speaker, based on the kompromat.
  6. Dries asked (or insisted, depending on who you believe) that Larry leave the community. This has (apparently) not happened yet, and Larry will (apparently) be attending DrupalCon Baltimore.

All in all, a horrid mess.

No one is pure

As I see it, this is not about what Larry has done, or even about Larry in particular. It is instead the beginning of a new paradigm in the Drupal world. It is no longer enough to be a good developer, and be friendly and professional in your interactions. You now also need to be “pure”: You need to be free of negative bias and harbour no controversial views or opinions. You cannot do anything that might offend someone.

Problem is, this is an impossible standard. No one is without bias. It is impossible to hold no controversial views, especially in today’s political climate. And since offence is a subjective emotion, the only way to not cause offence, is to do nothing and say nothing. And even that might not be enough.

Sure, this is an extreme example, with someone holding views far from the mainstream, but once purity tests like these are an institution in the Drupal community, maybe even enshrined in some of the new process and governance we hear rumbles about, it is only a matter of time before we see it applied to something less extreme, and if you don’t watch out, one of these days, it might be you facing a committee because of something stupid you said on IRC 10 years ago.

No, once you start demanding ideological purity checks, it all goes downhill from there. Much evil has been done in such pursuits, from the harassment of gays these last few hundred years (“their sinful nature corrupts the young”) to kangaroo courts, gulags and gas chambers. Chances is that everyone in the community holds at least one opinion, that another community member might find just as reprehensible as, as some find Larry’s views on sex and gender roles.

The only way to stop purity tests from tearing communities (and societies) apart, is to say no at the beginning. Refuse ideology checks for anyone and everyone. Be a true liberal. “Live and Let Live”.

But what about {{ person.name }}?

So, if you can’t get over the fact that {{ person.name }} has a different view on sex/gender roles/politics/OOP than you do, what to do (assuming that they are not harassing you in any way)?

Simple, just avoid them. Don’t go to their talks. Don’t seek them out. If you find you have to engage with them in the issue queue or elsewhere, act professionally, like you would with a colleague at work you dislike.

If enough people shun them, this will have a much more powerful effect than making a martyr of {{ person.name }} by banning them. Shunning is one of the most effective way for societies to express disapproval, without escalating the situation.

That’s how you achieve peaceful, civilised communities. Not when people have to be forced to pretend agreement, but when people are free to associate (or not associate) with people as they like.

And if you’re not capable of being civilised like described above, perhaps you are the problem.

But I might get treated unfairly at the hands of {{ person.name }}, because of their ideology?

True. Even if you interact with {{ person.name }} professionally, they might still treat you differently based on their personal biases.

But that’s not particular to {{ person.name }}. As mentioned before, everyone has biases. People’s reactions to you are coloured by all of them. What they think of your clothes/face/hair/race. Whether or nor they’re sexually attracted to you. If they are irritated by your poor English grammar (native speaker bias). If they think your gender/race/identity is over- or underrepresented and needs en- or discouragement. If they disagree with you on politics. If they disagree with you on technical matters. If they just really hate the sweater you’re currently wearing, and so on, ad infinitum.

You might think I’m being silly, but our human brains are bias machines. We are biologically hardwired for subconsciously evaluating everyone we meet as a possible threat or ally, and we simply can’t help think more or less of someone, based on those subconscious impressions. In fact, when you think of it, our whole human society is set up around this, with all sorts of mechanisms to allow for this factor. Good lawyers dress their clients nicely for trial, so they’ll make a good impression on the jury. The jury is composed of many different persons, who don’t know the accused personally. The judges will recuse themselves, if they have specific reasons to be biased towards the accused. And on top of that, we have multiple ways of appeal, and that’s just the legal system. In the job market, getting your bosses to appreciate your work is good, but getting them to like you is much better. Bias is the reason we use double-blind medical experiments. It is why nepotism is frowned upon. It colours the very fabric of our reality.

So, whether {{ person.name }}’s actions in respect to you will be coloured by their personal biases is not even a question. That is always, unavoidably, so. Smart people might have some awareness of their bias, and will try to compensate intellectually, but it is impossible to compensate perfectly, because you can never know how you might feel, if you didn’t know what you know. If you try really hard, you will likely overcompensate, which means you’re still biased, just in the other direction.

So instead of thinking about how this one personal in particular might have this one special bias against someone, we should instead be thinking about how we can limit the impact of personal biases in general. The most obvious thing to do is to make sure that decisions aren’t made by a single person – that there’s two “chairs” for every “track”, that its possible to get input from multiple people in code review, etc. To encourage people to get a second opinion if they can’t agree with someone. And of course remind everyone to be mindful of their biases.