I was nervous. I was not part of decision making earlier this year around code of conduct issues. I was worried that my concerns would be taken as insensitive judgment applied by someone who wasn’t there.
I was worried about whether I would find my values aligned with the others. I care about treating people with respect. I also care about freedom of expression. I value a lot of feminist principles and fighting oppression. Yet I’m happy with my masculinity. I acknowledge my privilege and have some understanding of the inequities in the world. Yet I find some arguments based on privilege problematic and find almost all uses of the phrase “check your privilege” to be dismissive and to deny any attempt at building empathy and understanding.
And Joerg was there. He can be amazingly compassionate and helpful. He can also be gruff at times. He values brevity, which I’m not good at. I was bracing myself for a sharp, brief, gruff rebuke delivered in response to my feedback. I know there would be something compassionate under such a rebuke, but it might take work to find.
The meeting was hard; we were talking about emotionally intense issues. But it was also wonderful. We made huge progress. This blog is not about reporting that progress.
Like the other Debian meetings I’ve been at, I felt like I was part of something wonderful. We sat around and described the problems we were working on. They were social not technical. We brainstormed solutions, talked about what worked, what didn’t work. We disagreed. We listened to each other. We made progress.
Listening to the discussions on debian-private in December and January, it sounded like DAM and Antiharassment thought they had it all together. I got a note asking if I had any suggestions for how things could have been done better. I kind of felt like they were being polite and asking since I had offered support.
Yet I know now that they were struggling as much as any of us struggle with a thorny RC bug that crosses multiple teams and packages. The account managers tried to invent suspensions in response to what was going on. They wanted to take a stand against bullying and disrespectful behavior. But they didn’t want to drive away contributors; they wanted to find a way to let people know that a real problem required immediate attention. Existing tools were inadequate. So they invented account suspensions. It was buggy. And when your social problem solving tools are buggy, people get hurt.
But I didn’t find myself facing off against that mythical group of people sure in their own actions I had half imagined. I found myself sitting around a table with members of my community, more alike than different. They had insecurities just like I do. They doubted themselves. I’m sure there was some extent to which they felt it was the project against them in December and January. But they also felt some of that pain that raged across debian-private. They didn’t think they had the answers, and they wanted to work with all of us to find them.
I found a group of people who genuinely care about openness and expressing dissenting views. The triggers for action were about how views were expressed not about those views. The biggest way to get under DAM’s skin and get them started thinking about whether there is a membership issue appears to be declining to engage constructively when someone wants to talk to you about a problem. In contrast, even if something has gone horribly wrong trying to engage constructively is likely to get you the support of all of us around that table in finding a way to meet your needs as well as the greater project.
Fear over language didn’t get in our way. People sometimes made errors about using someone’s preferred pronouns. It wasn’t a big deal: when they noticed they corrected themselves, acknowledged that they cared about the issue and went on with life. There was cursing sometimes and some really strong feelings.
There was even a sex joke. Someone talked about sucking and someone else intentionally misinterpreted it in a sexual context. But people payed attention to the boundaries of others. I couldn’t have gotten away with telling that joke: I didn’t know the people well enough to know their boundaries. It is not that I’m worried I’ll offend. It is that I actively want to respect the others around me. One way I can do that is to understand their boundaries and respect them.
One joke did cross a line. With a series of looks and semi-verbal communication, we realized that was probably a bit too far for that group while we were meeting. The person telling the joke acknowledged and we moved on.
I was reassured that we all care about the balance that allows Debian to work. We bring the same dedication to creating the universal operating system that we do to building our community. With sufficient practice we’ll be really good at the community work. I’m excited!