Linus Torvalds diversity gaffe brings out the best (and worst) of the open source world

Linus Torvalds diversity gaffe brings out the best (and worst) of the open source world

Comments by Linus Torvalds have prompted a new debate on the role of meritocracy, diversity and inclusiveness in the community.

It all started at the Conference, when Nebula developer (and former colleague) Matthew Garrett kicked off a post-keynote Q&A session with Linux kernel creator Linus Torvalds by asking about his often-abrasive, super-aggressive tone on official mailing lists.

"I'm not a nice person, and I don't care about you. I care about the technology and the kernel--that's what's important to me," went his response (in part), per the Ars Technica report. He also dismissed talk of diversity as "just details and not really important."

This set the tone for the remainder of his session, where he dismissed questions about diversity in the open-source community with responses along the same lines. To Linus Torvalds, it seems, the means justify the ends.

Reaction has been mixed, as you may expect: Torvalds is a legend in the community, and many on social media, forums and the world at large sprung to his defense. Of note is a satirical (in the loosest sense of "satire") project on GitHub by the so-called "Feminist Software Foundation," boasting a fork of the core Linux kernel revamped to reflect a strawman vision of feminism. To wit: "There is no objective way to determine whether one person's code is better than another's. In light of this fact, all submitted code will be equally accepted. However, marginalized groups, such as wom*n and trans* will be given priority in order to make up for past discrimination."

The message is loud and clear. Meritocracy of the kind espoused by Torvalds at the conference is a powerful idea in the world of software development: What you can do is more important than what you look like or how you relate to other people, which is a large part of where people who work in technology get their reputations as tactless hoodie-wearing misanthropes.

But there's a growing sentiment that nowadays, when Intel is announcing a $300 million diversity fund to bring more women and minorities into the company and its leadership, and when victims of online harassment are banding together to fight back, the open-source world's vision of meritocracy as exemplified by Torvalds is outdated and obsolete. Copping an attitude doesn't just make a project unpleasant to work on -- it keeps very smart, very talented people from even wanting to put themselves in such a toxic situation.

Garrett's question must have struck a nerve, because open-source advocates took to Twitter and their blogs to express their frustrations with Torvalds and the open-source world at large, saying his abrasiveness kept people out of the community. It's not a new grievance, by any means, but its time has come around again. A popular tweet by coder Bodil Stokke captured the feeling:

The conversation restarted yesterday when CPython core developer and Red Hat employee Nick Coghlan posted a blog entry called Abusing Contributors is Not OK. The upshot: It's fine if you're not nice or even if you don't care (Coghlan says empathy is something he struggles with himself), but your bad attitude and focus on merit comes with a significant impact to the quality of the technology involved. Coghlan writes:

[What] I do care about, passionately, is helping the best ideas win (where I include "feasible" as part of my definition of "best"). Not the "best ideas from people willing to tolerate extensive personal abuse." The best ideas anyone is willing to share with me, period. And I won't hear those ideas unless I help create environments where all participants are willing to speak up, not just those that are prepared to accept a blistering verbal barrage from a powerful authority figure as a possible consequence of attempting to participate. Those are upsetting enough when they come from random strangers on the internet, when they come from someone with enormous influence not only over you and your future career, but also your entire industry, they can be devastating.

Coghan makes a long, cogent case for a more tolerant, understanding contributor base where ideas succeed without the yelling, screaming, and yes, abuse. If you're really after the best ideas for free code, he asked, why are you imposing the unrelated skill requirements of "able to put up with bad behavior" and "able to tolerate personal abuse from the community and from project leaders?"

Responses poured in, and many chimed in with their agreement. The post was briefly a hit at popular Silicon Valley news aggregator Hacker News. I say briefly, because it was flagged and taken down by people who apparently were very upset by the notion that being nice to people might improve the state of open-source software. (It's worth noting that Hacker News staff eventually reposted, but the damage had been done.) This presents its own challenges, per a tweet by Garrett:

Diversity is going to characterize a lot of the conversations about technology in 2015. The arrow of history is pointing towards greater inclusiveness, and the participatory nature of the open-source world places it in an excellent position to lead the way. But there's a lot of friction, and a lot of pushback. It's really up to the community to decide what it wants to be -- and who it wants to represent its ideals to the world.

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