Why Hackers Must Welcome Social Justice Advocates

Coraline Ada Ehmke

November 28, 2015

"The hacker culture, and STEM in general, are under ideological attack."

Eric Raymond, "Why Hackers Must Eject the SJWs"

There are those who firmly believe that the politics of social justice have no place in the world of open source. They think that the injection of political ideologies is a corruption of the apolitical nature of free software.

From the onset open source has been inherently a political movement, a reaction against the socially damaging, anti-competitive motivations of governments and corporations. It began as a campaign for social liberty and digital freedom, a celebration of the success of communal efforts in the face of rampant capitalism. What is this if not a political movement?

All political movements start with an ideology. But when they are set in motion this ideology may become obscured. It is crucial that we constantly scrutinize the manifestation of our principles to ensure that the lofty goals of our ambitions are in line with our actions.

The Foundations of Open Source

"The open source way can change our world in the same way the open source model has changed software."

(http://opensource.com/open-source-way)

An examination of the founding principles of open source, which are common to all manifestations of this movement, reveals its underlying social and political motivations.

The first principle is the open exchange of ideas, what Eric Raymond likened to a "bazaar" or marketplace of ideas in a culture dominated by the centralized "cathedral" thinking of corporations. The open exchange of ideas has the potential to empower a variety of voices in a collaborative environment.

The second principle is freedom of participation. When all people are free to collaborate, they create solutions to problems that no one person could solve alone.

The third principle involves learning by doing, including allowing for the possibility of rapid failure. It is thought that this approach can lead to understanding problems in a different light and finding answers in unexpected places.

The fourth principle is meritocracy, the idea that since everyone has equal access, contributions can be measured solely on the basis of merit.

The fifth principle, community, puts forward a vision of groups of people organized around a common purpose, bringing diverse voices and ideas together for the greater good.

The Reality of Open Source

Unfortunately, the political structures that have emerged in far too many open source communities undermine many of these principles.

The Open Exchange of Ideas

The historical homogeneity of open source developers means that the marketplace of ideas is dominated by the voices of straight white men. The problems that open source addresses thus conform to and address the needs of this majority. In the startup world in particular, we're seeing the multiplication of poorly thought out applications that either ignore or exacerbate the problems of marginalized people, some of which become funded by investors who also are unable to think through those ramifications. The open exchange of ideas demands full participation across the diverse spectrum of technology users and creators.

Freedom of Participation

Are all people truly free to participate in open source? Between 2% and 10% of open source contributors are women. Statistics are not available for other marginalized populations, such as people of color, people with disabilities, or people on the LGBTQ spectrum, often because the surveys that track these demographics do not even ask such questions–another manifestation of the problem.

There are lots of barriers to entry for marginalized people. Those from economically depressed communities may lack high bandwidth connections and access to the latest hardware and software. People with caregiving responsibilities may not have an abundance of spare time to devote to the free labor of writing software. Women may be dissuaded by the use of sexist, insensitive, or gendered language in project documentation. LGBTQ people may feel unwelcome in project spaces that freely use derogatory phrases in their online communications. But overall, people from underrepresented populations fail to participate fully because they don't see themselves reflected in the power structures that govern open source projects. They feel like unwelcome outsiders.

Learning by Doing

The focus on merit as a ground rule for participation in open source runs counter to the idea of learning through experience and failure. First-time contributors are regularly dismissed and even attacked for naive implementations of needed functionality. Projects that favor the contributions of established developers do not leave space for learning, growth and failure when they punish newcomers for their lack of experience.

Meritocracy

The principle of meritocracy is, in practice, valued above all others in open source. And it's a grand idea: when race, sex, gender identity, physical ability, religion, and socio-economic status are irrelevant, ideas can be evaluated on an independent basis and individuals are free to earn merit accordingly.

The problem is that these factors are not irrelevant, and in fact figure greatly in the ideas, opportunities and success of individuals across a wide spectrum of the population. Ignoring the personal circumstances of potential contributors is, in effect, a devaluation of their lived experiences. And far from being an equalizing force, meritocracy has been shown to paradoxically increase bias in favor of white men over equally performing marginalized people.

People with "merit" are often excused for their bad behavior in public spaces based on the value of their technical contributions, which can create an atmosphere of hostility or even an ‘elite' class of contributors that are considered above criticism. Meritocracy naively assumes a level playing field, in which everyone has access to the same resources, free time, and common life experiences to draw upon. These factors make contributing to open source a daunting prospect for many different kinds of people.

Community

A community thrives on the diversity of its population. It's clear from scientific research that diverse groups of people outperform homogenous teams when differences in communication styles are properly managed. Common challenges unite us, but without access to the ideas and experiences of a wide range of people, the promise of communal solutions will continue to elude us.

A Force for Social Good

"For those that do treat technological empowerment as an ethical ideal, it is both justified and essential to condemn the systematic disempowerment of others. If one is taking an ethical position, it is justified, and often necessary, to not only speak about the benefits of freedom but against acts of dispossession and disenfranchisement. The desire to right wrongs has been a critical part of our movement's success."

Benjamin Hill, Board of Directors, Free Software Foundation

The roots of the social justice movement can be traced back to the writings of Thomas Paine, who made the case for creating fair and universal opportunities for all people. Social justice addresses the problems of distribution of wealth, opportunity, and privilege within a given society. It calls for governing institutions to enable the full and positive participation of people in cooperative efforts toward shared benefits. This is the same motivation behind the desire for the free and equal participation expressed by the common ideals of the open source movement.

There is a social contract implicit in all forms of governance. This social contract demands that we hold community leaders accountable for their words and actions. Our insistence on codifying and enforcing standards of acceptable behavior, for example through written codes of conduct, is intended to secure the rights of full participation, acceptance and access for all contributors in the community.

The ultimate goal of social justice in the realm of open source communities does not stand in opposition to the philosophical underpinnings of its idealized meritocracy, but rather seeks to address the shortcomings and weaknesses of its current incarnations. Social justice strives for nothing less than a complete and fair execution of the founding principles of open source, in a way that is respectful of the challenges and lived experience of a diverse population of participants.

It's important to recognize that social justice advocates are not an external force acting on the open source movement; rather, they represent the voices of people within the community who are rarely heard. They are working to improve the state of open source from the inside.

We should honor and welcome the hard work of social justice advocates just as we value the work of early proponents of open source software. Social justice is far from being at odds with the goals of open source; it is a manifestation of the same lofty principles on which open source was founded. Through open source and social justice we're collectively working toward a more just and equitable community that better serves the common good.