We'll see | Matt Zimmerman

a potpourri of mirth and madness

Do not stand by

We all witness bad behavior at some point or other.  For many of us, the most common examples are provided by men misbehaving toward women.  Whether it’s in public at a conference, on an IRC channel, in an errant wiki page or two, or in a private conversation, how we respond to it is critically important.  This is particularly true where the behavior undermines the security or agency of another person.  Perhaps most of all, it applies where someone is speaking up about it.

If I’m standing with a group of people, and one of them behaves badly, I think that they’re a jerk.  If no one else seems to notice or object, then I start to wonder if they’re all jerks.  If someone speaks up, and is attacked, ignored or discredited, then I’m certain that I’m in a den of wolves.  Feelings like these are toxic to communities, and I don’t want anyone to have to feel this way in one of mine.

Managing one’s own behavior, although it is an essential first step, is not enough.  We must also critique the behavior of others, and signal to our peers that we object to bad behavior.  Furthermore, we must support those who speak up, particularly when they are doing so on their own behalf, or as a member of an underprivileged or under-represented group.  It may be difficult to speak up when you are an observer, but it is much more difficult when you are a target.  This isn’t about coming to anyone’s rescue, but openly accepting their objection and their right to voice it—even if it’s directed at you.

I will not trivialize the effort required to do this.  It is not easy to “break ranks” and stand as (or with) an objector. It is, however, often the right thing to do, and justifies the application of will and the taking of risks for the sake of integrity.  I will also not profess that I have always made the right choice myself.  Indeed, too many times, I have stood by, and I am ashamed for it.  I have made excuses for myself and rationalized my choices, explaining to myself why I couldn’t do what was right in a particular situation.

That is why, in the title of this article, I am addressing myself above all.  I am calling myself out, and calling on my peers in the Ubuntu community to do the same.  Don’t accept bad behavior.  Stand behind those who object to it.  Hold yourself and others accountable for the well-being of your community, and let others know that you are doing so.


Written by Matt Zimmerman

May 2, 2009 at 22:27

Posted in Uncategorized

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32 Responses

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  1. You forgot to illustrate your post ;)


    May 2, 2009 at 23:12

  2. Matt, I’m glad you talk about standing up to bad stuff (definitions vary). I personally can’t agree it’s best to do so. Some trolls go away faster when ignored, and you seem to forget one own’s integrity (personal, professional etc.).

    Fabian Rodriguez

    May 2, 2009 at 23:34

    • It’s true that trolls often go away faster when ignored, but I’m not talking about trolling here. That’s when someone falsely presents themselves in order to provoke a reaction. I don’t think that most sexist behavior falls into that category.

      I don’t understand your last comment about integrity, though. Can you explain? Acting with integrity, by expressing one’s opinions honestly and openly, is exactly what I am advocating.


      May 11, 2009 at 22:32

  3. @MDZ Excellent post.

    @Yann Somehow xkcd always seems to apply. ;-)

    Nathan Nutter

    May 3, 2009 at 00:42

  4. Ironically, some of the worst offenders of polite discourse are Ubuntu fanbois, and some of them also happen to be Ubuntu forum moderators (whom I’ve personally witnessed doing some very unethical things). Why is that so many folks associated with Ubuntu have so much “advice” to give the whole linux community when it’s the Ubuntu community that is a large source of the problems? Canonical should concentrate upon cleaning up its own backyard, and avoid giving anyone else any advice until they’ve actually done so.


    May 3, 2009 at 04:10

    • Thanks for your comment.

      If you read the last paragraph of the article, it is quite clear that I am directly addressing the Ubuntu community, of which I am a member.

      This isn’t to say that the “whole linux community” doesn’t have very much the same problems to solve (it does). However, I’m focused closer to home in this article.

      If you’d like to provide examples of the unethical behavior you made reference to, I would be interested in exploring that further. I don’t spend much time on the forums, but with several hundred thousand people there, I’m sure there are problems from time to time which deserve attention.

      I don’t quite understand your generalization about “folks associated with Ubuntu”, but maybe if you give me some specific detail or examples, I can respond more effectively.


      May 3, 2009 at 17:57

  5. Do you have a TV? Are you not offended constantly by the idiocy there? How about the lies to get us into wars so the people who funded our politicians can make money? Are you offended we don’t have a free health care system like every other industrialized nation? Are you offended we have a larger prison system and keep a larger percentage of people in it than any country since time began? How about all the racial slurs that still exist. I guess you have to start drawing the line somewhere, usually with those you have some influence with, but don’t forget the bigger topics while you are at it…


    May 3, 2009 at 05:11

    • As it happens, I don’t have a TV (see https://mdzlog.alcor.net/2008/09/27/death-taxes-and-television/), and yes, I am offended by plenty of television programming. I don’t object to the medium itself, but it provides an unwelcome reminder of how low the standards of behavior and debate are in many countries.

      I assume from your comments that you live in the US. I don’t, but I agree with you that those are very real problems, many of which are shared (to varying degrees) by other nations. If you know of a course of action which would tackle all of these problems at once, I would be very interested to get involved. Otherwise, we need to continue to work on them one at a time.

      Consider this, though: why did this article in particular elicit this feeling in you? If I had written an article about the problems of education, would you have commented that it was neglecting US healthcare and racial issues? Why do women’s issues seem trivial to you in comparison?

      I’ve written plenty of articles about such trivial concerns as computer software, and no one has ever been offended that I wasn’t tackling the “big issues” before. Food for thought…


      May 3, 2009 at 18:14

  6. Bored:
    Actually, I think they DO have socialized healthcare where MDZ lives. And they definitely don’t have that prison issue you’re talking about, seeing as he’s not in the US…

    “Fanbois” do not represent the entirety of the community, just like douchebag Mac users who think they’re cooler than everyone else don’t represent every OSX user, k? There are a LOT of Ubuntu users, so of course we have our fair share of jerks…hence MDZ posting about trying not to be sexist assholes and using things that have happened in the Ubuntu community as examples.


    May 3, 2009 at 08:57

    • Jordan says “douchebag” is a gender-oriented insult, so um…oops.

      I’m just not sure *which* gender it’s supposed to be oriented toward. I’ve heard it both ways. Either it’s insulting to men because somehow a part of male anatomy got the name of a feminine hygiene product, or it’s insulting to women because it implies that women are particularly dirty for needing feminine hygiene products. Then that makes me wonder…if it’s an insult to both, is it still gender-oriented?


      May 3, 2009 at 16:28

  7. Not all assholes are fanbois but all fanbois are assholes?


    May 3, 2009 at 10:04

  8. Or is it the other way around?


    May 3, 2009 at 10:07

  9. Oh well,

    the same topic every now and then….
    But you know what…the presentation mentioned was good..

    Yes. the mentioned presentation is hard, but it follows very known rules for presentations (e.g. http://www.cs.cmu.edu/~mihaib/presentation-rules.html). It was on the borderline, but it didn’t fail, because it reached the audience. At least you and others wrote about it.

    Actually you won’t change the sexist thing in IT until you change it in other areas of our life.

    Take as an example tv adverts for washing agents..I wonder why they always put women as hosts for those crap..why not men?
    This is really sexism…and to stop nonsense as shown in the presentation, you need to change the world…and that you can’t.

    Critique can be good when it’s used where appropriate (e.g. this presentation example) but in real world…when I would always tell my environment that they are morons sometimes, I couldn’t concentrate on anything else.


    May 3, 2009 at 12:26

    • @shermann

      It’s this same kind of thinking “you need to change the world…and that you can’t.” that keeps us all from making or at least trying to change for the good. Because the rest of the world is bigoted doesn’t mean that we in the communities that we belong to have to be. As a community effort making changes in world we should not stand by. In Ubuntu community we should not forget what Ubuntu translates to “I am because of what we are” meaning the actions of each of affects everyone else both in communities and the world.

      The changes that we make from within our communities CAN have a positive impact on the rest of the world. I believe this and is one of the motivating forces behind my involvement especially within the Ubuntu community.

      Lines drawn between countries are just that. Humanity to others is undeniable. We certainly do not live in the age of Jim Crow, etc. but bigotry whether subtle, blatant or institutionalized should not be tolerated. Allowing it only serves to make excuses like “you need to change the world…and that you can’t.”

      Jimmy (pak33m)

      JImmy (pak33m)

      May 3, 2009 at 16:03

    • Stephan,

      (the URL you referenced is 404)

      I didn’t write about the Rails presentation; I used it as an example in passing. I don’t think that my article promoted the content of the presentation, so the fact that it attracted my attention doesn’t mean that the presentation was effective. People write a lot of newspaper articles about murder, but the fact that murderers are “reaching the audience” says nothing about the merit of their behavior.

      Don’t fall into the trap of believing that just because you can’t change everything all at once, you can’t make a difference. The only sure thing is that if you don’t start somewhere, you’ll never get anywhere. Even immeasurable change adds up.


      May 3, 2009 at 18:26

  10. Jeez I hate the hippie crap that my favorite Linux distro attracts. Look, don’t be dickish to anyone, male or female (gender specific protection is as demeaning as gender specific harassment) and don’t be a holier than thou douchebag about how sympathetic you are to the plight of women. We get it, you’re enlightened.


    May 3, 2009 at 15:54

    • Thanks for taking the time to provide such a clear example. The application of a misogynist insult was particularly artful, and beautifully illustrates how blind one can be to one’s own contempt.

      If you can stop feeling defensive long enough to acknowledge that you are part of the problem, you can start contributing solutions. I hope that you can.


      May 3, 2009 at 22:59

      • See? Holier than thou douchebag.

        The problem is that guys that are part of the problem are completely unlikely to listen to someone like you, as they automatically suspect you’re just some weak penis-guilt gelding looking for approval from the strong women in his life.


        May 3, 2009 at 23:42

        • Holier than thou? Hardly. I have publicly acknowledged some of my own shortcomings in this article and elsewhere. I am far from perfect, and have no trouble admitting this.

          I’m not concerned with reaching the sort of contemptuous antifeminist that you’re describing. That would surely be a waste of my time. I’m more interested in people who are willing to listen, understand and participate.

          If you believe what you say, put your name to it, save the insults, and be a part of the discussion. Otherwise, you seem to be sniping rather than participating, and that’s a waste of both our time.


          May 4, 2009 at 11:24

          • Ah yes, your publicly acknowledged shortcoming:

            “Oh, the _shame_ I feel that I could have done _more_ to stand up against the bad behavior of others! I shall do better and challenge others to follow my example!”

            Wow. Where in the world would I get a Holier than thou out of that?


            May 4, 2009 at 21:12

        • Doing the right thing is not about who listens to you, it’s doing it regardless.

          Choosing Free Software is part of that, being open to people in general regardless of gender, race, religion, … is another.


          May 6, 2009 at 13:30

  11. I am not so easily offended myself. being easily offended only troubles yourself.

    about the whole, being bastards or priks or whatever. Most people are not so good, be it bastards or just selfish persons, manipulating others, etc. (women can be quite skilled in that i learned from experience).

    So the “I am because we all are” = your a bastard because everyone else is. even if you think your not, there are always others who think you are. :-)

    I think the important part is that the Ubuntu community is not the right place to express your holy bastardness. Do that somewhere else. The community and such Ubuntu as a whole prospers in a positive climate.

    If you a bastard, look down on woman or man, doesn’t matter, its fine! just do it elsewhere. :-)

    Herman Bos

    May 3, 2009 at 20:19

    • Thanks for your comment.

      As a white male, it’s relatively easy to avoid taking offense at this sort of behavior. It’s a different story when it’s directed at you, though.

      Let’s say that a Dutch man once deceived me. If I then deduced that “Dutch men can be quite skilled in deception”, how would that make you feel as a member of that group?

      The spirit of Ubuntu has to do with interdependence. It means that we can exist only through reliance on each other, not that we’re all excused for misbehavior. Indeed, the health of a community depends upon the willingness of its members to regulate behavior.

      I agree with your conclusion that there is no place for this sort of behavior in the Ubuntu community.


      May 3, 2009 at 23:14

      • Very good points of course. The example about the deceptional Dutch man is good but doesn’t really offend me, because the group “Dutch men” is just some demographic group to which I don’t have any personal bond. The example would stick better if you put me and my friends in one group and then try again. Then it would probably trigger frustration and annoyance.

        Culture might have to do a lot with it as well, in general Dutch are more individualistic then others and have less nationalistic pride (except when its about football). To compare this to the other end: Chinese for example will never admit anything bad about they country and are very proud about it towards foreigners (in the meanwhile they can have some pretty critical discussions between themselves to be complete).

        Lets say most cultures are something in between there. :-) And for reference lets say I am probably one of the more individualistic Dutch and write from that viewpoint. Which is likely a small minority.

        But more to the point, some people are very sensitive to be offended (you see that within ubuntu a lot). Besides troubling themselves with this, they also trouble the “offenders” if they get a majority. Now this doesn’t sound as much of a problem if it where not that everyone has its own perception about what is offending.

        If “People “”who are offended all the time”” from one particular culture” have a big say in things they will start forcing others out. That might be nice for that group but if that happens in Ubuntu, Ubuntu will definitely lose the Ubuntu spirit.

        So I believe there should be focus not only on not offending others (to a particular degree) but also the understanding that others have a different view on things which is also “right”. And thus respecting that even if it offends you.

        I hope my example about the different cultures earlier supports this opinion. Also lets take culture in a broad meaning here and of every kind.

        It will probably never happen but if your talking about to make the world a better place (or the little ubuntu part of it) I did want to express this.

        I have the feeling you are fighting against “the culture of men who look down on women”. Or maybe better said: you fight for “the culture of equality of men and woman”. With a little positive discrimination for women added there. :-)

        Anyway its difficult to find the balance between not offending others, not being offended by others and respecting each other.

        That said Ubuntu’s community’s success is likely because background culture of the people who participate doesn’t really matter. Its about something technical, cool, a big positive vibe and creates a culture of its own. Something to which many people of many cultures can relate to. Just don’t confuse keeping this positive attitude with defining what is right or wrong to say or do.

        In the end I just feel that I am proving your point about not letting views of particular cultures show up in the documentation and other ubuntu communication. Except for this: Same for you too! :-)

        End of my brain fart. :-)

        Herman Bos

        May 9, 2009 at 10:41

  12. Thanks for taking the time to share your thoughts about this. Posts like this are one of the primary reasons that I enjoy using Ubuntu and participating in the community. There have been times on the mailing lists when lewd jokes have been met almost immediately with references to the community code of conduct and requests that everyone behave respectfully and mindfully. Seeing that kind of behaviour from the Ubuntu community reminds me to do the same in my workplace. Bringing this type of social awareness to software and engineering is one of the primary goals of Free Software and I’m glad to see that continuing.

    Brad Griffith

    May 4, 2009 at 22:48

  13. Matt

    A good post, and this applies to all forms of discrimination be it racism, sexism, …, we need to step up and say no.


    May 6, 2009 at 13:25

  14. Excellent post, thank you. I held out hope that you would provide the All-Purpose Formula for shutting down bad actors without getting any of their bad vibes on yourself, but you just confirmed that it is a hard problem. And that is acceptable.

    Here’s to the struggle.


    May 19, 2009 at 13:03

  15. Wow, I think as I read your commenters that you have an uphill battle 8-) Good luck.


    June 21, 2009 at 16:41

  16. […] this year, I began writing about problems affecting women in the free software community, inspired in part by friends in the […]

  17. […] I want to discuss here, though, is how people are received when they speak up about this, for example by criticizing sexist behavior they have observed. Often, the problem is […]

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