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Why Can't We Just Be Nice?

A new code of conduct for an open-source software project has sparked controversy and led to the resignation of one programmer. Rafael Avila de Espindola has announced he will no longer contribute to the compiler infrastructure tool set known as the LLVM Project.

In a post to the llvm-dev mailing list, Avila cited "changes in the community" as the primary reason for leaving.

The community change I cannot take is how the social injustice movement has permeated it. When I joined llvm no one asked or cared about my religion or political view. We all seemed committed to just writing a good compiler framework.

Somewhat recently a code of conduct was adopted. It says that the community tries to welcome people of all "political belief". Except those whose political belief mean that they don't agree with the code of conduct. Since agreement is required to take part in the conferences, I am no longer able to attend.

Nothing in the LLVM Project's code of conduct should be controversial. It simply asks people to:

  • be friendly and patient,
  • be welcoming,
  • be considerate,
  • be respectful,
  • be careful in the words that you choose and be kind to others, and
  • when we disagree, try to understand why.

Avila notes the irony that, in striving to be welcoming to people of different beliefs, the community is choosing to exclude those who do not agree with the new code of conduct. What he fails to grasp, apparently, is that it is nearly impossible not to exclude someone; the key to building a successful online community is to ensure that those who would disrupt it are the first to be excluded. That's the benefit a code of conduct brings.

And make no mistake, the software development community has no shortage of people who don't want to get along. In a response to Avila's resignation, LLVM founder Chris Lattner described some of the double standards he has witnessed in commnity reactions toward Tanya Lattner, founder and president of the LLVM Foundation.

When it comes to discrimination and minorities, I'll point out that I am a mid-career white male, who is married to a successful woman in tech. The challenges we have each faced over our careers have stark contrasts, and I have seen situations through both sets of eyes. I do not believe I have ever directly benefited from or suffered from discriminatory behavior, but I can say with certainty that Tanya has suffered from it, and this means I have indirectly benefited from it. I believe that this is morally reprehensible. A trivial example is when organizations like the Register denigrate Tanya's contributions by referring to her first as my spouse.

If community members have the freedom not to be friendly and welcoming to newcomers—especially to people who are different from them—racism, sexism, and homophobia have the potential to decrease the pool of potential community members. And when that community is organized around open-source software development, a smaller pool of developers means less robust software.

While high-profile departures like Avila's are unfortunate, a commitment to a more respectful and more welcoming community should eventually result in more additions to the community than subtractions—not just to the LLVM community, but to the software developer community as a whole. And that will benefit us all.

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