On the ubiquity of morality

It's not often that one has the pleasure to write about topics that concern both programming and philosophy (to a certain degree).

Yesterday, Coraline Ada Ehmke announced on Twitter her incorporation to the GitHub team (source). Thought I didn't know anything about her until today, she seems to have been polarizing people in the open source community for a while, regarding her views about people's stance and declarations concerning LGBT. One of the top comments about this on reddit links an issue in which she demands the removal of a contributor from the project on the basis of a transphobia accusation. She links a thread of tweets of the aforementioned contributor.

Anyway, let's get started with the interesting question.

Should we refuse to work with people whose vision we deem intolerant?

I'm not acquainted with many precedents of this or related prior events, but there is one that popped in my mind as soon as I understood why was everyone yelling FIRE, EVERYBODY OUT OF GITHUB!.

Although GitHub has recently been the focus of strong criticism by respected voices in the open source community, that's a topic for another post.

The case I was talking about is that of Brendan Eich, creator of JavaScript and co-founder of the Mozilla Project/Fundation/Corporation (all of them, according to Wikipedia). Brendan Eich was appointed CEO of the Mozilla Corporation in March 2014, just short of two years ago, only to step down 9 days later because of his controversial donation of $1000 in support of the ban of gay marriage in California.

Let's see the differences between those cases and how were they received by the community:

  • Coraline Ada requests a project maintainers to eject a contributor because of his statements on Twitter, which were regarded as intolerant towards transgender people.

  • Brendan Eich makes a public donation towards the ban of gay marriage in the state of California, which is an action towards a not very tolerant goal either, the refusal of the right of gay couples to marry.

First of all, as hinted by the emphasis, Brendan Eich's situation can be considered as more extreme than that of the project contributor. Here we are talking about actions v. words, or whether we should be made accountable of the opinion we convey on Twitter. It could be argued that this contributor would understand that his opinion on the matter may be different than that of the other contributors/maintainers of the project and would not let his own interfere with his contributions. Now, that is something that could be said about Brendan Eich too, since privacy in donations of private money can hardly be regarded as lower than that of tweets. We understand that both of them can have an unpopular opinion without this opinion having consequences on the users of their "products".

Also, from what I have gathered, people seem to be glad of Eich stepping down as CEO but angry that Caroline was hired by GitHub, considering her as too radical, and stating that the views of the aforementioned contributor are completely unrelated to his contributions in the project (which is right but, as I explain later, I don't think is the point).

But, are consequences on users the reason why people protested Brendan Eich appointment as CEO?

No! It's all about the world we wish to live in

People didn't fear that Californian gay people were going to be discriminated if they decided to use Firefox or Thunderbird (as far as I know). People wanted to make a statement. We do not want the head of Mozilla (corp) to be linked to such intolerant opinions, in which some people have some rights, but some other are denied in basis of their sexual orientation. We do not want that of the "makers" of open source project XYZ either. We want that people who claim that some animals are more equal than others notice the effect of their statements.

And this is different than say, "We do not want a Clinton supporter in this project", or "Feeltheberners should not be heads of nonprofits", or catholics, muslims, black people, farmers. This is not an arbitrary discrimination against people. This is a boycott against intolerance, because intolerance is a whole 'nother beast. People who live under discrimination already have it hard enough, and this is one of the things that we can actually do to help the situation, before stepping into the muddy waters of differences of opinion. People must be respected (yep, intolerant people too), but their opinions must be challenged, especially those that threaten the human rights, including dignity, which is relevant to the case.

Now, to help me distance from the current debate about Caroline, let me say that I have not read much about her declarations, nor about this project contributor accused of being transphobic, so I don't have a view about the intolerance of either of them. This case is about intolerance, not about particular people.

In case Caroline is right, and this contributor's statements are indeed offensive to transgender people, I think she has a point in requesting his removal from the project, on the grounds of transgender people feeling supported in their rights against discrimination, as Californian gay couples would feel supported in their right to marry (against discrimination too, obviously). Maybe this request should have been private between Caroline and the project maintainers, to avoid all the drama that sprang from it.