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On wikis and social contracts

From: Alex Taylor
Subject: On wikis and social contracts
Date: Wed, 29 Jan 2020 12:05:04 +0100

In one of Richard Stallman's essays he describes a time when the hackers at MIT were lured away.   They were lured away from contributing to a community.  They were lured away from cooperation with others.   They continued to exercise their technical skills, but no longer for a benevolent cause, but for a predatory one (proprietary software companies). These highly skilled people were lured away with the promise of money.  This broke up the community.

Today, the GNU project is facing a similar threat.   This time however, the lure is not money, but power.   The GNU hackers are being tempted by suggestions of a place of power within a new regime which the temptors wish to impose, replacing the existing GNU community.  In the age of the internet one way offer power is through a wiki.  This invention indeed empowers everyone to put forth their views on a website which otherwise
only the webmaster could do.  Other promised instruments of power they refer to as "Code of Conduct", "social contract" or other names which hide their true purpose.

Using this device, they purport to offer a means by which their followers can impose their will upon anyone who crosses their path.   The promise includes "temporarily or permanently [banning] any contributor [...] that they deem inappropriate", removing or rejecting others' work "that are not aligned" to thier own views,  and unspecified "temporary or permanent repercussions as determined by other members".  In other words the people wielding power may do ANYTHING to ANYONE they want.

If these words were posted unadorned, people would simply dismiss them as the ranting of a deranged demagogue.   But they perpetrators are not deranged.  They are intelligent and cunning.  The words are dressed in a mantel supposed to persuade the victims and onlookers that it is for some higher, purer purpose.   In the case of proprietary software, the temptors seek to justify themselves using  arguments like market forces, supposed greater security, and increased revenue to fund development.  These arguments have been debunked elsewhere.  We know they are flawed.  We know they are presented as a smokescreen.

The code-of-conduct powermongers similarly dress their words in a persiflage of justification.  They cite "harassment-free environment", "professionalism", and other factors known to incite emotions including religion and race.   It is important however that when listening to these people, we do not allow our emotions to rise.  We should not be distracted by the camouflage.  The power grab is what they want to hide.   The best way to counter their propaganda is to expose their true intentions.  Expose their lust for power.  Expose their desire to impose their arbitrary will over the GNU community.  When the CoC pushers' true intent is laid bare, the words they are saying lose their potency.

Richard's essay makes no mention of what happened to those who were lured away by the promise of money.  However many people who follow such a promise find either that the promise is empty, or that it comes at a price which makes it worthless.  Some even pay that price up-front, only to find out later that the promise is not nearly so lucrative as it appeared.   We must not make that mistake.    If people do succumb to the temptation of power most of them  will find that, except those at the very top of the CoC power pyramid,  they become the victims of its broad and arbitrary powers, rather than its executors.

We must continue the fight to maintain GNU as an inclusive, welcoming and tolerant community.  To help us, we have the GNU Kind Communication Guidelines.  If you want to help keep GNU vibrant and effective, tell the power mongers that you reject their arguments, that you will not follow their lure, and that their power grab rhetoric is unwanted.  Do this with consistency - be polite but firm -  and we can overcome.

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