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Divisive Behavior

Past Sins

Sam Varghese wrote an article about Matthew Garrett’s LCA talk “The Linux community: what is it and how to be a part of it” [1]. In page 2 Sam quotes Martin Krafft as asking about how Matthew’s behavior had changed between 2004 and the present, Sam cites some references for Matthew’s actions in 2005 to demonstrate. I think that this raises the issue of how far back it is reasonable to go in search of evidence of past behavior, something that I think is far more important than the specific details of what Matthew said on mailing lists many years ago and whether he now regrets such email.

If someone did something that you consider to be wrong yesterday and did the same thing five years ago you might consider it to be evidence of a pattern of behavior. If someone’s statements today don’t match their actions yesterday then you should consider it to be evidence of hypocrisy. But if someone did something five years ago which doesn’t match their current statements then in many situations it seems more reasonable to consider it as evidence that they have changed their mind.

Then of course there is the significance of what was done. Flaming some people excessively on some mailing lists is something that can be easily forgiven – and forgotten if Google doesn’t keep bringing it up. But as a counter-example I don’t think that Hans Reiser will be welcome in any part of the Linux community when he gets out of jail.

For the development of the Linux community (and society in general) I think it’s best to not tie people to their past minor mistakes. While it is nice when someone apologises for their past actions, the practical benefits of someone just quietly improving their behavior are almost identical. A particular corner case in this regard is the actions of young people, anyone who was born after about 1980 will have had great access to electronic media for their entire life and will have left a trail. Most people do a variety of silly things when they were young, the older members of the Linux community were fortunate enough not to have electronic records remaining where Google could find them.

Back to Matthew, I think that if he is to be criticised about such things then evidence that is much more recent than 2005 needs to be used.

Cultural Differences

Sam quotes Matthew as claiming that “the Linux community was largely a Western, English-speaking one, those who participated in it necessarily had to adapt to the norms of this group“.

I don’t believe that there is a single Linux community. There are a number of different communities that are formed around free software, which have significant amounts of overlap. I don’t believe that there’s any reason why a Chinese or Indian Linux mailing list should conform to the same standards as those of an American list. But there will be a trend towards meme propagation through people who are associated with the Linux communities in multiple countries – every time you meet Linux people in another country you are helping to reduce the cultural differences in the Linux community.

Someone from China or India who joins a LUG in Australia will have to adapt to some of the norms of Australian behavior – in the same way as an Australian who migrates to China or India would have to adapt to some local norms.

On page 4 of the discussion Matthew disagrees with Sam’s interpretation [2], maybe Matthew’s opinions on this matter are closer to mine than the way Sam describes them.

Is Division Inherently Bad?

I believe that the word “divisive” is overused. The only way to avoid division is to have everyone agree with the majority, but sometimes the minority will be right. Note that I am using the word “minority” to refer to any group of people who happen to disagree with the majority, among other things that includes people who vote for a political party that isn’t one of the two biggest ones. An entirely separate issue is that of the treatment of “minority groups“, one of the most divisive events in history was the US civil war – it’s good that slavery is outlawed but unfortunate that a war was required to gain that result.

On page 4 of the discussion Matthew says to Sam “Your writing is influenced by members of the Linux community, and in turn it influences the Linux community. The tone of it is entirely relevant to the behavioural standards of the community” [2]. If a community can be easily divided then the real problem probably isn’t the person who triggered a particular division. Also there is the issue that even if you could get a general agreement that certain issues shouldn’t be discussed in certain ways then with the wide range of cultural attitudes and ages of participants you have to expect someone to raise the issue you don’t want raised. Of course it’s impossible to objectively determine whether a division is productive or not, so it doesn’t seem at all viable to have any expectations regarding outsiders not being divisive. Sometimes you just have to deal with the fact that the Internet contains people who disagree with you.

It seems to me that the most divisive issues we face involve people who mostly agree on contentious issues. If someone entirely disagrees with you then it’s easy to ignore them (if you even have a conversation with them), but if they are someone that you communicate with and they are almost “right” in your opinion then there’s the potential for a big argument.

Probably the best way to minimise division in the community is to have the first people who get involved in a dispute take a Rogerian approach [3]. Failing that a good approach is to respond by writing an essay. When an issue is made popular by services such as Twitter that give little explanation then everyone rushes to the barricades.

It seems to me that the unreliability of some blogging platforms is part of the cause of the problem in this regard. I’ve just given up on writing comments on Blogger, I’m not going to write a good comment only to have it eaten by blogger. There are lots of blogs that have problems which discourage the population from writing anything other than a one-sentence response.

The Good that can come from Disputes

On page 5 of the discussion there is a comment from Anirudh – the Indian student who was criticised by Sam (which ended up inspiring part of Matthew’s talk and leading to more disputes) [4]. Here is the start:

I am the person who wrote the ill thought-out post that drew criticism eight months ago. There has been some discussion about that, so I wish to say something.

I am very grateful to Sam Varghese. I say this with utmost sincerity.

Read the rest, it’s educational. I’m sure that there are others who have had similar learning experiences but who don’t want to write about them. I’m sure that there have been many disputes which would appear to the casual observer to have resulted in no good at all, but which would actually have resulted in people learning things and amending their behavior.

The issue of Age

Car rental companies generally don’t do business with men who are less than 25 years old. Life insurance policies don’t offer reasonable rates to males between the ages of about 16 and 25. This is because the insurance companies have good statistical data on the results of the typical actions of people at various ages and know that young men tend to be at a high risk of earning a Darwin Award. The same combination of hormones and life experience that makes a young man a danger on the road will also tend to make him get involved in flame-wars on the net.

If we could figure out how to influence teenagers into being less anti-social then it would be a great achievement. The current young people will become older and more sensible soon enough but will be replaced by a larger number of young people who will do the same things. As things stand I don’t expect the next cohort of young people to learn from Anirudh.

19 comments to Divisive Behavior

  • Do you really want to direct readers towards Sam? He really doesn’t warrant the attention any more than any other poorly-informed blogger.

  • etbe

    Jo: Anirudh doesn’t seem to think that Sam is undeserving of attention.

    As for the attempts that some people make to try and get people to stop reading Sam’s work, if you have a community that is working well then commentary won’t do any harm.

    Do you think that your comment might be a little ironic in the context of a blog post about divisive behavior?

  • It might be ironic, if one assigns full credibility to all participants. Frankly, I don’t.

    Sam has proudly stated that he’s not part of the community, and I don’t think his guestimates regarding said community should hold any more weight than, say, the cookery column editor in a womens’ weekly.

  • Hi etbe,

    I put up that note to mention that there was a positive side effect to the strong criticism that I received. A lot of people questioned the validity of the degree of feedback, and this issue kept propping up every once in a while. I don’t hope to imply anything more, and do not wish to engage in any discussion unless it’s technical.

    That doesn’t imply there aren’t any negative effects either. I’m looking for angel funding for a startup, something that’s hard to find in India, and even harder if you mention your work will be open-source. While I have good references and credentials, someone doing a detailed background-check might find something that’ll change his/her mind about backing me. There’s an old proverb in my native tongue, roughly translated, says “the respect you lose for stealing a walnut, you cannot gain by gifting an elephant”.

    A friend of mine at college used to be skimpy on the oral hygiene once upon a time. We tried to hint it to him, but to no avail. He once approached a girl anticipating courtship, but was bluntly, publicly and vocally rejected on grounds of unpleasant breath.

    I’ve known him well for two years after that event.
    There hasn’t been a single day when he hasn’t flossed twice.

  • etbe

    Jo: The issue is not credibility, the issue is being forced to take sides in someone else’s dispute. It’s well known that some people don’t like Sam, they periodically write blog posts about this – which reveal more about themselves than about Sam. But why should I be forced to choose who to support on this issue? Why not just write about the issues?

    As for your cooking analogy, you don’t have to be a chef to write a restaurant review…

    Anirudh: Good proverb, I’ll remember that one. In regard to your situation, this is going to suck a little in the short-term – it’s difficult to convince people that you have changed in 8 months. But in a few years time it’s not going to be a big deal for you. Of course it doesn’t help that it’s now become a political issue in the Australian free software community and will be brought up repeatedly.

    Also it sounds like you are doing some interesting things. Maybe you should offer a talk for LCA some time.

  • Not to write a restaurant review, sure. But some kind of industry experience would be beneficial when discussing the politics inside the kitchen.

  • sam varghese

    I haven’t “proudly” stated anything. I have said what I _need_ to say – that I am not a member of the Linux/FOSS community. I cannot be a member of a community while I am writing about it. That much should be apparent to anyone who understands the term “conflict of interest.”

    And if someone does not understand that term, especially in the context of working as a journalist, then I can’t help them.

  • sam varghese

    You are welcome to your opinions, Shields. But using a term like Sambo which has clear racist connotations shows your way of approaching criticism – by using personal insults.

  • Ignoring the argument in order to scream “racism!”

    How utterly unprecedented.

  • sam varghese

    Shields, if you are going to pretend that you don’t know the implications
    of a white man using a term like Sambo to address a non-white, I guess I
    would just have to chalk it up to your pathological habit of being economical
    with the truth. I recall that, on the iTWire forums, you once tried to claim
    that the Novell-Microsoft deal had nothing to do with Mono.

    Ryan Paul is a developer who is a fine writer. But if some problem arose in his own
    project or with one of those who contribute to gwibber, he would not be able to comment
    without facing a conflict of interest. For some people, it is important to anticipate
    that kind of situation and be ready to avoid it before it even arises.

    And I’m sure of one thing: as soon your Mono-laden microblogging client gTwitter is
    ready to compete with gwibber, your attitude towards him will change. I’ve
    seen the kind of vicious abuse that you and others from the Mono camp levelled against
    Hubert Figuiere, abuse which finally led to him abandoning the development of Gnote.

  • I like the assumptions about my own ethic background. Very very telling.

    Perhaps I was using a respect-free diminutive nickname like “Jimbo” or “Gazza”, given neither of us come from a country where the southern US black stereotype is even relevant or in common use. Perhaps I consider you a total gourd. Or perhaps I consider you a real fighter. Who can say?

    And I’m pretty sure if there was a story to write regarding Gwibber or one of its contributors, then Ars Technica are fully capable of giving that assignment to another writer. Hiring an expert on fishing or knitting as their main Free Software guy wouldn’t be “anticipating that kind of situation”, it’d be stupid and lead only to ill-informed diatribes.

    As for gTwitter (which seems upstream-dead from what I can see), I really couldn’t care less about it – and it only goes to demonstrate your lack of understanding of the communities you purport to cover that you’d make that assumption. As it happens, I use (proprietary) TweetDeck, whilst waiting for Gwibber to stop randomly eating messages. Other than the message-eating, it’s clearly the best Free Twitter client – the horrible bugs in the 2.0 UI notwithstanding.

    Although isn’t it a case of the pot calling the kettle blac… um… a kind of dark metalic grey, to moan about vicious abuse, given your usual screeds attacking developers?

  • etbe

    Jo: The pictures on your web site reveal that you are Caucasian.

    The Wikipedia page says that it “can also be used less specifically for a black person in the United States and the United Kingdom. It is considered a racial slur”. Do you believe that the Wikipedia page is incorrect in this regard? The cited references are in print (not on the net) so I can’t verify them.

    There is of course a significant difference between criticising someone for their actions and attacking them for something that is genetically determined.

  • Photos rarely tell the whole story.

    And really, yes, I think Wikipedia is wrong in this regard – I’d never heard the word “sambo” before September. If I were really going to attack Sam using racial slurs, I’m more than capable of researching some relevant to Indian heritage rather than those specific to African-Americans (which would be just stupid in context).

    My dislike for Sam is purely because I consider him to be an over-cited, ill-informed, talentless hack with a far bigger platform than anyone with as little understanding or experience of the topics he writes about should logically have. I couldn’t give any less of a fuck about his ethnic background – although I do find his constant use of “zomg! racism!” whenever anyone criticizes his meaningless scribbles pretty hilarious.

  • Jon

    I think Jon Corbet at is a good example of an excellent journalist working within the open source field who is definitely a part of the community.

  • etbe

    Jon: I think that Sam has a reasonable point regarding the benefit of being separate from the matter that is being reported on. There are many examples of journalists reporting on contentious issues who have been part of one side of the dispute and who’s work has suffered as a result.

  • [...] free speech through a form of retaliation. “Divisive Behavior” is the title of this post about the ordeals of Varghese. It’s a fascinating read. Past [...]

  • etbe

    The “Boycott Novell” blog references this post and describes it as being about the “ordeals of Varghese”. Strangely they quote the first section which mildly criticises Sam for his choice of examples.

    The second section of this post disagrees with one of Sam’s beliefs. The third and fourth sections could be taken as defense of Sam’s work – although I tried to make them reasonably generic. My aim is to stimulate productive discussion of serious issues not to defend Sam (who really can defend himself rather well).

    My post about “Terms of Abuse for Minority Groups” (at the above URL) was inspired by the comments on this post.