My Views on GNU Kind Communication Guidelines and Related Material

Thursday 22 November 2018 by Bradley M. Kuhn

I have until now avoided making a public statement about my views on the various interrelated issues regarding the GNU Kind Communication Guidelines that came up over the last month. However, given increasing interest in our community on these issues, and the repeated inquiries that I received privately from major contributors in our community, I now must state my views publicly. I don't have much desire to debate these topics in public, nor do I think such is particularly useful, but I've been asked frequently about these GNU policy statements. I feel, if for no other reason than efficiency, that I should share them in one place publicly for easy reference:

  • I think the GNU Kind Communication Guidelines, as a stand-alone document, are useful suggestions and helpful to the GNU project and would be helpful, if adopted, for any software freedom project.
  • However, I think that the GNU Kind Communication Guidelines standing alone are inadequate for a project of GNU's size and number of contributors to address the stated problems. Traditional Codes of Conduct, particularly those that offer mechanisms for complaint resolution when bad behavior occurs, are necessary in Free Software projects of GNU's size. Codes of Conduct are the best mechanism known today in our community to ensure welcoming environments for those who might be targeted by inappropriate and unprofessional behavior.
  • I therefore disagree with the meta-material stated in the announcement of these Communication Guidelines. First, I disagree with the decision to reject any Code of Conduct for the GNU project. Second, I believe that diversity is an important goal for advancing software freedom and human equality generally. I support all Outreachy's goals (including their political ones) and I work hard to help Outreachy succeed as part of my day job. I have publicly supported affirmative action since the early 1990s, and continue to support it. I agree with “making diversity a goal”; Richard Stallman (RMS), speaking on behalf of GNU, states that perse disagrees with “making diversity a goal”.
  • I also disagree with encouraging GNU project contributors to ignore the request of non-binary-gender individuals who ask for the pronouns they/them0, as stated in RMS' personal essay linked to from the GNU Kind Communication Guidelines. My position is that refusing to use the pronouns people ask for is the same unkindness as refusing to call transgender people by a name that is not their legal name when they request it. I don't think the grammatical argument that “pronouns are different from proper nouns” is compelling enough to warrant unwelcoming behavior toward these individuals. The words people use matter. RMS has insisted for years that people make a clear distinction between open source and free software — for good reason —. I believe that how we say things makes a political statement in itself.
  • Related to the last point, I am concerned with the conflating of GNU project views with RMS' personal views. RMS seems to have decided unilaterally that GNU would take a position that requests for use of they/them pronouns need not be honored. I think it is essential that RMS keeps per personal views separate from official GNU policy; I have said so many times to the FSF Board of Directors in various contexts. It was a surprise to me that RMS' personal view on this issue was referenced as part of GNU project guidelines.
  • I think the GNU Kindness Communication Guidelines should apply to all communication from the project, including GNU manuals themselves, and I also believe the glibc abort() joke should be removed. I don't believe free speech of anyone is impacted if a Free Software project forbids certain types of off-topic communication in its official channels. Everyone can have their own website and blog to express their personal views; they don't need to do so through project channels.

I have been encouraged many times this year by various prominent community members to resign from the FSF's Board of Directors (sometimes over these issues, and sometimes over other, similar issues). I have also received many private communications from other prominent community members (including some GNU contributors) expressing similar concerns to the above, but these individuals noted that they feel much better about the FSF and its shepherding of the GNU project because I'm on the FSF Board of Directors, even though I clearly pointed out to them that my views on these matters will not necessarily become GNU and/or FSF policy. The argument that many have made to me is that it's valuable to have dissenting opinions in the leadership on these issues, even if those dissenting opinions do not become FSF and/or GNU policy.

I am swayed by the latter argument, and I have decided to continue as an FSF Director indefinitely (assuming the other Directors wish me to continue). However, these recent public positions are far enough out of alignment with my own views that I feel it necessary to exercise my own free speech rights here on my personal blog and state my disagreement with them. I will continue to urge the FSF and GNU to change and/or clarify these positions. (I also sent this blog post privately to the FSF Directors 8 days before I posted it, and had also discussed these concerns in detail with RMS for a month before posting this.)

Governing well means working (and finding common ground) with those you disagree. We oscillate a bit too much in software freedom communities: either we air every last disagreement no matter how minor, or (perhaps as an over-correction to the former) we seek to represent a seemingly perfect consensus even when one isn't present. I try to avoid both extremes; so this is the first time in my many years on the FSF Board of Directors where I've publicly disagreed with an FSF or GNU project policy. FSF and GNU primarily fight for one principle: equal software freedom for all users and developers. On other topics, there can easily exist disagreement, and working through those disagreements together, in my opinion, usually make the community stronger.

As always, this is my personal blog, and nothing here necessarily reflects the official views of any organization with which I am affiliated, including not only the Free Software Foundation and GNU, but also Software Freedom Conservancy.

Change made on 2019-03-25: Above, the words I am a supporter of Outreachy and work hard to help it succeed as part of my day job. were changed to: I support all Outreachy's goals (including their political ones)

0 A review of various links shows that this particular text was surreptitious changed in the weeks following my publication of this blog post. I was never contacted nor consulted to review the original condemnation by the GNU project of they/them pronouns nor the improvements. This footnote here was added in 2020 long after these incidents, as that's when I first became aware those changes were made after the fact. I believe that the change, which evolved into something more reasonable after a few months of edits (but coming after I posted this blog) vindicates both my position that the GNU project should not have initially condemned the use of they/them pronouns for non-binary individuals, and that it would have been advisable for the GNU project to seek input from the FSF Board of Directors (which I was a member of at the time but am no longer) before setting such policies about diversity and inclusiveness.

Posted on Thursday 22 November 2018 at 08:09 by Bradley M. Kuhn.

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Both previously and presently, I have been employed by and/or done work for various organizations that also have views on Free, Libre, and Open Source Software. As should be blatantly obvious, this is my website, not theirs, so please do not assume views and opinions here belong to any such organization. Since I do co-own with my wife, it may not be so obvious that these aren't her views and opinions, either.

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