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Linus Torvalds is back at Linux while GNU’s Stallman unveils a “kindness” policy

Linus Torvalds is back at Linux while GNU’s Stallman unveils a “kindness” policy
[Photo: Jason Leung/Unsplash]

Linus Torvalds is apparently back at the helm of the Linux operating system he created in the early 1990s, after taking roughly a month off after complaints about his brusque, often vulgar communications style.

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“The fact that I then misread people and don’t realize (for years) how badly I’ve judged a situation and contributed to an unprofessional environment is not good,” he wrote in a public September 16 email to a Linux kernel developer list, just days before a New Yorker article highlighted how his style turned away women from contributing to the popular operating system.

In announcing version 4.19 of the software on Monday, Linux temporary leader Greg Kroah-Hartman wrote “Linus, I’m handing the kernel tree back to you” and called for the Linux community to be both more welcoming and more united. He codenamed the version “People’s Front” in a reference to ineffectively divided activist groups in the satirical Monty Python movie Life of Brian.

“Don’t fall into the cycle of arguing about those ‘others’ in the ‘Judean People’s Front’ when we are the ‘We’re the People’s Front of Judea!'” he wrote. “That is the trap that countless communities have fallen into over the centuries.”

Also on Monday, Richard Stallman, head of the GNU Project that contributes free software widely used with Linux and other operating systems, announced a new set of Kind Communications Guidelines for the project.

Stallman emphasized that the policy isn’t a strict “code of conduct” and that he doesn’t see demographic diversity as a specific goal for the project. Rather, he wants to make sure that no demographic group feels unwelcome, meaning the project would lose out on contributors, he wrote.

A code of conduct states rules, with punishments for anyone that violates them. It is the heavy-handed way of teaching people to behave differently, and since it only comes into action when people do something against the rules, it doesn’t try to teach people to do better than what the rules require
[…]
The idea of the GNU Kind Communication Guidelines is to start guiding
people towards kinder communication at a point well before one would
even think of saying, “You are breaking the rules.” The way we do
this, rather than ordering people to be kind or else, is try to help
people learn to make their communication more kind.

The guidelines do seem to include some normative policies one might expect to find in a traditional code of conduct, like avoiding personal attacks, honoring people’s names and gender identities, avoiding statements about “presumed typical desires, capabilities or actions of some demographic group” and being kind to people who make technical mistakes.

Torvalds’s apparent speedy return and Stallman’s not-explicitly-pro-diversity not-quite-a-code-of-conduct seem to show the open source and free software movements are intent on taking their own approaches to diversity and gender relations. There’s no doubt this side of computing, which has historically been male and white and somewhat insular, is feeling the impact of external critiques. But so far, the projects have made relatively bland moves toward change that may not be enough to satisfy their critics or make would-be contributors who’ve felt excluded see themselves as welcome.

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