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Tuesday, 16 February 2010 03:29

LCA 2010: Using a public platform for personal attacks

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When Red Hat employee Matthew Garrett stood up to deliver a talk at the recent Australian national Linux conference on "The Linux community: what is it and how to be a part of it", he wasn't prepared for at least one of the questions that followed.

The appearance of the man who asked the question was nondescript but the question he asked was insightful. At the end of a rambling treatise on peace and harmony in the Linux community, this man had the good sense to ask: was it just possible that what was classified as disruptive behaviour in the community came about, at times, because of cultural differences? He had an excellent example to substantiate his point: the way women were expected to treat men as superiors in Iran.

The reaction was surprising. Some of the women in the audience booed. Why exactly, one is unaware; the man wasn't condoning any kind of sexist behaviour, he was merely stating the reality. But that didn't seem to percolate down to the intelligentsia among the booers.

Garrett's answer gave one some insight into his way of thinking: he replied that as, in his opinion, the Linux community was largely a Western, English-speaking one, those who participated in it necessarily had to adapt to the norms of this group.

To put it mildly, such thinking is woefully narrow-minded and insular in the extreme. It is also disingenuous – few, if any, of the ructions in the community have been caused by people outside the West.

That there is a fairly large Linux community in China was a fact that Garrett failed to recognise. There are a few who can count themselves among the same community among the billion-plus in India too. And in Japan, Brazil, and Malaysia... but I guess the point is obvious.

CONTINUED


The LCA styles itself as promoting sharing and openness. Garrett did not seem to be on the same wavelength with his concept of an exclusive community that restricts itself to the British Queen's language.

The irony of someone like Garrett trying to define what was, and what was not, divisive in the Linux community was not lost on at least one member of the audience. Senior Debian developer Martin Krafft asked him what had happened between 2004 and the present – Garrett, once a Debian developer himself, has a reputation for aggressive and arguably divisive posts on mailing lists aplenty.

Garrett's failure to acknowledge that the Linux community could be something bigger than an (corrected) Anglo whites-only club, was in this writer's view inappropriate. Also inappropriate was his use of the LCA platform to attack someone who has criticised him in the past and at whom he has hit back – yours truly.

One needs to go back a bit in time to understand the context. The FOSS community has seen more ructions in 2009 than it has in many others, the two main ones being the furore over Richard Stallman's keynote at the Gran Canaria GNOME conference which led to allegations of sexism against the FSF chairman and a similar row over Ubuntu chief Mark Shuttleworth's keynote at LinuxCon in Portland, Oregon, which led to allegations of sexism against that august gentleman.

There have been numerous other happenings in 2009 that have led to much name-calling and exposure of factions within the community.

But when Garrett wanted to provide an example of something that had, in his opinion, caused division in the community, he chose to recall a paragraph from a piece which I had written in response to an adult using the f-word to abuse Stallman and what were described as "GNU trolls". The quote was: "When people advertise their ignorance and parade it as a virtue, it frightens me. Sorry, but not everyone is as ignorant as you, dear boy." It was taken from this article.

CONTINUED


Garrett had already attacked me about this article, presuming to know the intentions behind my writing it. Exactly how he could divine that is bemusing.

During his talk, Garrett chose to single out one person for attack – using a platform provided by an international conference that counts among its sponsors IBM, Intel, Red Hat, Google and others. It begs the question: do these organisations seek to provide a stage for personal attacks?

And he chose to pick on someone who has taken pains on numerous occasions to point out in no uncertain terms that he is not part of the Linux community. No professional journalist can be part of any community about which he or she is writing – he or she would be hopelessly compromised.

It provides some context here to mention that only 30 percent of the talks submitted to the LCA were accepted; nearly 300 submissions were received, according to the organisers. Garrett was, thus, one among a privileged few to be allotted a talk during the main part of the conference.

This year, the organisers of the LCA had drafted a lengthy set of terms and conditions, some of them specifically drawn up to prevent a repeat of incidents like those mentioned earlier.

Such a detailed list of terms and conditions has not been in evidence at any previous events, certainly not in 2008 and 2009. The Ts and Cs included this: "LCA2010 is proud to support diverse groups of people in IT, particularly women, and will not tolerate in any fashion any intimidation, harassment, and/or any abusive, discriminatory or derogatory behaviour by any attendees of LCA2010 and/or LCA2010-related events."

CONTINUED


But strangely, when a complaint was made about this abuse of the LCA platform, the organisers concluded that the matter was one between two individuals. Following my complaint, I was not called to appear before the organisers. Only Garrett was allowed to present his point of view, something that violates all principles of justice, as any case sees the defendant and accuser called before the judge and jury.

But then there are precedents. In 2007, when some delegates to the Sydney LCA were accused of unseemly behaviour at a social function organised by Google, the organisers, similarly, took a decision to exclude them from further conference activity without calling on them for evidence.

On behalf of the 2010 organisers, Andrew McMillan wrote to me: "We have now reviewed the video of Matthew's talk and I have discussed your complaint with Matthew, and we see nothing actionable in what Matthew said. I feel that it is quite natural of Matthew to hold up examples of behaviour that are personally relevant to himself, and indeed in his talk he appeared to be holding up his younger self as another example of poorly considered behaviour. From my discussions with Matthew I am personally convinced that his choice to highlight a quote from you was not intended to give offence, and that it was a legitimate example used to illustrate a point in his talk, so the LCA team will not be taking any action against Matthew in this regard."

Garrett sent me the following email: "Andrew McMillan mentioned to me that you felt that my presentation unfairly singled you out. I'd like to apologise for that - my intention was to indicate that behaviour I perceive as harmful to the greater community was not limited to technical or development communities, a point I felt was better made with a real world example. I certainly did not mean to imply that you were solely responsible for such behaviour, any more than I meant to imply that I was solely responsible for such behaviour in the technical communities. However, I realise that I may not have made that point well at the time, and I'm genuinely sorry that I gave you this impression. I'd be absolutely delighted to talk to you about this in person if you feel that would help in any way."

It must be mentioned here that in the cases of Stallman and Shuttleworth, both said they had not intended to offend people either. Garrett was quick to find fault with both of them. Yet in his own case, he offered up the same excuse.

After I asked him to come and meet me, he did so and then agreed to issue the following apology at the LCA: "In my presentation on Wednesday, I used a quote by ITWire journalist Sam Varghese to illustrate a point I was trying to make – that is, that behaviour I perceived as unhelpfully hostile to the Linux community was not restricted to members of the technical community or direct contributors to projects. It has been mentioned to me that this may not have been made sufficiently clear, and that as a result the impression was that I was singling out Sam's comments in order to engage in a personal attack. This was inappropriate, and I apologise sincerely for that."

The organisers, however, were unwilling to let him make a public apology. Their response was: "The LCA team do not believe the situation is sufficiently noteworthy to present to the conference in the manner you have proposed, and that it is a matter to be resolved privately between you and Matthew."

Linux Australia president James Turnbull said he supported this decision. LCA founder Rusty Russell, who was informed of the matter, did not make any comment.


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Sam Varghese

Sam Varghese has been writing for iTWire since 2006, a year after the site came into existence. For nearly a decade thereafter, he wrote mostly about free and open source software, based on his own use of this genre of software. Since May 2016, he has been writing across many areas of technology. He has been a journalist for nearly 40 years in India (Indian Express and Deccan Herald), the UAE (Khaleej Times) and Australia (Daily Commercial News (now defunct) and The Age). His personal blog is titled Irregular Expression.

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