On the right to disagree

A recent incident on the purulent cesspool that is Twitter has led me to reflect on the fucked up culture that we’re all busily constructing.

I don’t have direct knowledge of what happened here, and I haven’t read all of the publicly available commentary, but here’s a summary of what I understand to have happened:

  1. Brandon Dail gets fired from Facebook for publicly calling out another Facebook employee on Twitter, Christopher Chedeau, who is a well-known figure in the React community.
  2. Specifically, Brandon asked Christopher to brand the Recoil documentation site with a statement of support for the Black Lives Matter movement, similar to how some other open source projects have done, but Christopher allegedly refused, saying that "open source should not be political". Brandon, in turn, claims that "intentionally not making a statement is already political".
  3. During the timeline of these events, the usual Twitter mobs with torches and pitchforks came out to heap damnation on one side or the other, with thousands of likes, retweets and comments being amassed across the platform. It would appear that the negative attention was sufficient to make Christopher switch his account to private (at the time of writing, his account has 52.9K followers).

So, what we have here is a fairly consequential series of events for the people involved. One person, Brandon, lost a job and was branded a bully for publicly targeting another individual; the other, Christopher, has presumably been branded a racist for his lack of solidarity with a critical cause. And in the backdrop, we have many questioning whether Facebook unjustly used dismissal to silence employee dissent (in contrast with its unwillingness to interfere with public political speech, most infamously, the incendiary misinformation of the 45th President of the United States), or simply followed through with enforcing its "respectful workplace policy".

There’s obviously a lot of nuance in here, but the point that I want to focus on is this: that these two contrasting views — that "open source should not be political" versus "intentionally not making a statement is already political" — sound like the kinds of things that reasonable people should be able to respectfully discuss or debate, in public or in private, without somebody getting fired. I can think of fair, grounded arguments in favor of both positions. It’s not like either person involved here is alleging that the Sun goes around the Earth. And neither of the people is the devil incarnate. They both seem well-intentioned, decent folks. This is exactly the sort of topic that I’d expect such human beings to be able to have a civilized conversation about, and yet, it’s all devolved into a nasty debacle.

I’m not in possession of all the facts, so it’s futile for me to speculate further about what might have happened, but I do want to discuss what it is about this whole incident that bothers me in the broader context. It’s that we seem to have lost the ability to disagree with one another without it escalating towards some kind of explosive conclusion. I can’t imagine how we can hope to sustain a functioning democracy if we can’t discuss opposing points of view. And so, we either speak our minds and don our hazard suits for the inevitable shit-storm that follows, or we allow fear to silence us, and keep our thoughts to ourselves. This really feels like the anti-Enlightenment.

Something in our mindset has changed. We seem to be ready to try and convict anybody and everybody on the base of their public (or non-public) utterances (or non-utterances). And social media is permanently on standby, waiting to mobilize and grow the mob, to amplify and propagate the inferno. Twitter is a field of land mines, ever ready to blow off the limbs of the unwary. There’s a reason why I am posting this on my blog and not as a thread of tweets, and even here, in this relative privacy, why I’m being extremely cautious to express things in a balanced way that doesn’t risk inciting the ire of the crowd.

So, in that spirit, allow me to tentatively explore the core disagreement that started all of this: the question of whether open source should be political; whether it can be legitimate for it not to be. My initial gut instinct here is that in an ideal world, it would be apolitical. Open source projects themselves are meaningless if not for their technical content. But while they might be abstract objects of mathematical perfection in their source code, they are embedded in social systems where the political can and does materialize: prejudices, unfairness, discrimination — these exist in the context of open source projects because human beings are involved. At some point then, the flawed external reality of human society must impinge on the exquisite purity of the technological artifacts. Visible evidence of where these two realms meet can be found in the codes of conduct attached to a project, its governance structure, how it regulates its communication and interaction, and so on.

Even from those brief brush strokes, I think it’s already clear that there is no simple black-and-white answer. In one sense an open source project is apolitical, and in another it is inescapably embedded in a political context. There is something worthy of discussion here. One can imagine various reasonable positions. Total, permanent consensus seems unlikely.

Let’s try and answer just one narrow question about all this then, and let’s try to get there from first principals: "Is it morally defensible for an open source project to remain silent in the face of mass societal struggle, and specifically in the case of the current situation, struggle over systemic racism?". A good starting point seems to be freedom of speech. It seems hard to disagree with its place as one of the most fundamental of human rights. I obviously support the right to speak and defend your beliefs. But it seems evident to me that with the right to free speech must also come the right not to speak. To argue otherwise is to admit that speech may be compelled.

And in inevitable fulfilment of Godwin’s Law, as soon as I touch the notion of compelled speech, I can’t help my mind from going straight to images of Nazi Germany, seen in countless films, of hands raised in unwilling salutes of "Heil, Hitler". Speak, prove your commitment to the tribal ideal, or be destroyed.

Obviously there are some differences between the Germany of the 1940s and modern day America (although sadly, fewer than I would like). In Hitler’s Germany, failure to toe the line could lead very directly and obviously to violent death. In a 21st century democracy, saying the wrong thing (or not saying the right thing) on social media or a GitHub page can result in losing a job (or not getting one), destroying a reputation, or being harassed, among other things. And the people seeking to compel speech in favor of Black Lives Matter are coming from the opposite end of the political spectrum from fascism.

While the difference between the darkest corners of Nazi ideology (with all its genocidal consequences) and the obviously correct arguments that police brutality and systemic racism must end couldn’t be clearer, I find it really hard to get past the conviction that you cannot compel speech without violating somebody’s rights.

None of that invalidates the many famous claims of people like Martin Luther King, Jr along the lines of "we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends". You can convincingly make the same argument that the atrocities of the Holocaust could have been averted if good Germans had spoken their minds instead of being silenced by fear. At least every German generation since then seems to think that’s the case, if their tremendous sense of national guilt is anything to go by. In order to impose a change in spite of an opposing force, it is action and not inaction that will deliver the desired outcome.

But I think it’s really important to be clear about the facts here:

  1. One of the reasons systemic racism persists is because good people who are not otherwise racist fail to speak out in opposition.
  2. It is reasonable and fair for advocates of equality to make the case that, because silence permits racism to continue, people who would see racism end should not be silent.
  3. Notwithstanding the preceding two points, it is a violation of free speech to compel speech in another.

All this means that it is healthy and a sign of a functioning democracy for people to argue about how much and what to say, but ultimately the content of one’s speech must remain the private election of each individual. And I would hope that we could debate all that without people getting fired or their reputations tarnished.

I’m aware that I write this from a position of privilege. I’ve never really suffered. I live an existence that is so sheltered that it frees me to worry simply about the wellbeing of my family and not about whether I’ll get shot or killed because of the color of my skin (which is just outrageously, blood-boilingly fucked, by the way). An existence so devoid of threats that I can pen long-winded blog posts about racial issues from the comfort of my sofa, without any real skin in the game beyond the fear that my words might be quoted as evidence of some reprehensible alt-right sympathy (despite all my political views having been well left-of-center for my entire adult life).

This produces a feeling of discomfort. I’m arm-chair theorizing, with nothing to really lose, trying hard to tread the fine line of neither virtue-signalling, nor being branded as a closet white-supremacist just because I’ve argued in favor of free speech (one of those weasel words that superficially sounds intrinsically good, but is so easily linked to other, more dubious freedoms).

It should be possible to simultaneously hold the position that free speech is a fundamental right and that Black Lives Matter, without any internal contradictions. You should be free to ascribe to either, both, or none of those views, without being cast out for failure to adhere to the totality of the currently blessed doctrinal viewpoint of your political tribe. And you should be able to discuss in good faith the nuances of what is obviously a very complex landscape of ideas, without fear that you will be punished for expressing a point of view.

It just feels like the world that we’re constructing is one in which precisely the opposite will happen.