This is a developing and highly-controversial story, so I’ve got to give y’all a warning that this quick post is based on provisional research. There’s probably a lot more to the story than I know, and I’m going to try and follow it and update folks. But it definitely seems important enough to warrant this early note.
About a week ago I noticed a kind of weird story about Linus Torvalds (creator and leader of the Linux kernel project)1 apologizing for his infamously abrasive personality and promising to get better. What I didn’t notice at the time was that, simultaneous with his temporary departure, he also implemented a “Code of Conduct” for the Linux kernel project.2 Then, people’s heads started exploding. Why? Because many people believe that the Code of Conduct is basically a SJW3 take-over of Linux.
The best article I’ve found so far to explain that rationale is this one, which points out that the Code of Conduct was written by Coraline Ada Ehmke, an LGBT activist who has a history of using her Contributor Covenant to go after people she thinks are bigots.
For example, she tried to have a core contributor to the Opal project expelled because–in an unrelated Tweet–he stated that “(trans people) not accepting reality is the problem here.” Although Ehmke wasn’t involved in the project or the conversation, she campaigned to have Elia removed. She failed in that regard, but got Opal to adopt her Contributor Covenant, and she then tried to modify Opal’s version of the Covenant in a way that would give her new ammunition to take on Elia.
The obvious threat is that activists like Ehmke will use the Linux kernel Code of Conduct to go after Linux developers the same way Ehmke went after Elia, and there are early signs that that is exactly what will happen. A “diversity and inclusion consultant” named Sage Sharp called out Linux developer Ted Tso in a Tweet:
Sharp subsequently backed off and claimed that “I don’t want Ted Tso reviewing Code of Conduct cases involving sexual assault or sexism” and that they “did not make a statement asking for him to be removed from the board.” Yeah, sure. Because it’s totally believable that Sharp is content with having a rape apologist on the board. They kicked Brandon Eich out of his own company for much less than this, and the only reason they’re not doing a full-court press on Tso (yet) is that the Linux community is both hostile and well-armed, up to and including a potential nuclear response.
The nuclear deterrent was described in this (slightly sensational) article. Basically, some anonymous person posted to the Linux Kernel Mailing List with a suggestion that anybody kicked off the project for Code of Conduct violations could revoke permission to use their contributions to the Linux kernel. The legal case here is complex and hypothetical, but folks like Eric S. Raymond believe the threat has enough legitimacy to be taken seriously. If they can really revoke permission to use their code, then it becomes effectively illegal to run Linux, and if it becomes effectively illegal to run Linux then the Internet pretty much dies, because a vast swathe of the servers that power the Internet run the Linux operating system, to say nothing of all the Android phones and various embedded systems out there.
I don’t think this is very likely for two reasons. First, the social justice activists don’t want to overplay their hand, and you can see that in how Sharp walked back their original claim. Second, the legality of withdrawing code from the Linux kernel is complicated and untried; it’s never been tested in court and nobody knows for sure what would happen.4
The nuclear deterrent may be grabbing all the headlines, but it’s not my long-run concern. I’m more worried about a subtler problem, the infiltration of post-meritocratic thinking into software that runs so much of the hardware that we all depend on. Linux is critical to our infrastructure. It’s not just powering the Internet. Linux is also the basis of Android, for example, so it’s the foundation for a big chunk of our smartphone ecosystem. It’s also in a lot of embedded hardware from cash registers to medical devices. Even if we avoid the nuclear option, you have to ask yourself: do you want potentially life-saving hardware to be developed and maintained by a community that has rejected merit as their guiding criteria?
It’s not an exaggeration or a conspiracy theory to assert either (a) that up until now Linux and the open source community had embraced merit as their ultimate guiding principle or that (b) the Code of Conduct is the spearhead of a philosophy that emphatically and explicitly rejects that position. In the past, I would have had to cite a definition of critical race theory from the UCLA School of Public Affairs and then link critical race theory to wider social justice theory, and basically you’d have had to trust me. But Ehmke has made my job much, much easier in this regard. Not only did she write the Code of Conduct, but she also wrote the Post-Meritocracy Manifesto. The manifesto begins:
Meritocracy is a founding principle of the open source movement, and the ideal of meritocracy is perpetuated throughout our field in the way people are recruited, hired, retained, promoted, and valued.
But meritocracy has consistently shown itself to mainly benefit those with privilege, to the exclusion of underrepresented people in technology…
It is time that we as an industry abandon the notion that merit is something that can be measured, can be pursued on equal terms by every individual, and can ever be distributed fairly.
The manifesto goes on to embrace ominous values such as the belief that “working in our field is a privilege, not a right,” a clear statement of intent to “no platform” all those who fail to affirm the dogma of the social justice activists. It’s just that in this case we’re not only preventing the undesirables from spreading their opinions, but also from contributing code to open-source projects.5
Obviously there are political dimensions here. Ehmke has stated that the Contributor Covenent–the basis for the Code of Conduct–is a political document.
The politics are problematic, in my view, to say the least. But while the politics can be complicated and ambiguous, the practical considerations seem a lot less murky. Let me ask you this: how comfortable would you be if your airline pilot or cardiac surgeon was trained by a post-meritocratic institution?
Don’t get me wrong: obviously software developers don’t have an immediate, life-or-death impact the way airline pilots or surgeons do. But that just means the degradation in quality from rejecting merit as the ultimate guiding principle will be more subtle and diffuse, but also have a correspondingly broader impact. Instead of diluting merit in the evaluation of pilots and surgeons, we’re going to dilute merit from the evaluation of software developers who write the code for air traffic control and teleoperated surgical robots. That still seems like cause for concern.
I always sort of resent having to add this caveat, because I think it should be obvious, but I emphatically support the purported goal of equality and fairness. What I don’t support is the willingness to sacrifice merit to get there, much less the assumption implied by the belief that we need to do so. I don’t think we need to reject meritocratic ideals to accept women, gays, blacks, or any other minority as coders for the simple reason that I think women, gays, blacks and all other minorities are just as capable–given equal opportunity–of contributing equally meritorious code. If they cannot due to unequal opportunity,6 then it seems more like a betrayal than a helping hand to jettison merit as a benchmark instead of undertaking the much harder work of rectifying unequal opportunity to ensure that everyone has the same chance to develop their skills and talents. Equality and merit are not mutually exclusive. On the contrary, it is only in the context of a meritocracy that we can ultimately have equality. Not only should we be unwilling to accept anything less than a meritocracy for vitally important infrastructure, but also for a just society.