You Do Not Have A Right To Contribute

(Another in a series on the proposed PHP code of conduct, itself a work in progress in at least one other place.)

Over the weekend I listened to a recent episode of the Dev Hell podcast, hosted by Chris @grmpyprogrammer Hartjes and Ed @funkatron Finkler, and guest-starring Amanda @AmbassadorAwsum Folson. (Full disclosure: I have been a guest on the podcast previously.)

The episode is #70 “Anti-Canuckite Leanings”, and in it, they discuss the proposed code of conduct starting around 26:00. You should listen to the whole discussion, which ends after about 30 minutes (and really the whole episode if you can).

There’s a lot to address in the discussion, but I’m going to concentrate on only one point. Chris Hartjes says, at about the 30:17 mark:

I think fighting against the code of conduct is a losing battle, because it will get passed. And you have a choice, you can either keep contributing to PHP, or move on and do something else. It’s as simple as that. You do not have a right to contribute to PHP, it’s a privilege. It sucks how that privilege is handed out, and it sucks how sometimes that privilege is wielded as a stick by which to beat other poeople, but at the end of the day, despite it being an open source project, it is a private project, and nobody has to take your contributions. It’s as simple as that.

He reiterates the point a few times:

(48:09) If you don’t like it, go on and contribute to another project.

(48:44) The people who complain, well they either get with the program, or they just go do something else with their time.

(51:45) If you don’t like it, just don’t participate in the project.

To be sure, Chris does not specifically say he is either for or against the code of conduct as presented in the RFC, which currently uses the language of the Contributor Covenant.

Even so, I have heard variations of this from Contributor Covenant supporters. These kinds of comments strike me as interesting in two ways.

First, “If you don’t like it, just don’t participate in the project” and its variations do not seem in the spirit of “fostering an open and welcoming community.” I see this as revealing part of the true intent of Contributor Covenant supporters: to wit, they wish to set themselves up as judges of who is to be accepted, and who is to be rejected.

Second, and more importantly, the very same argument applies in favor of the status quo; that is, not having an explicit code of conduct. Let’s take a look at the same wording, but against having a code of conduct:

If the project does not have a code of conduct, you have a choice, you can either keep contributing, or move on and do something else. It’s as simple as that. You do not have a right to contribute, it’s a privilege. At the end of the day, despite it being an open source project, it is a private project, and nobody has to take your contributions. It’s as simple as that.

So the argument is simultaneously made for not-having a code of conduct, using exactly the same wording. If you don’t like that there’s no code of conduct, “go on and contribute to another project.” After all, “you do not have a right to contribute.” You can “either get with the program, or just go do something else with your time.”

This means to me, among other things, that the burden of proof remains on those who support the Contrbutor Covenant, proof which they sorely lack, or are unwilling to put forth.

For the record, this is not an attempt to hammer on Chris, whom I count as a friend. It is an attempt only to point out one of the many flawed arguments of some who support the Contributor Covenant.

Finally, for the record, I continue to be opposed to the Contributor Covenant and anything substantially similar to or derived from it. Having no code of conduct is better than having the Contributor Covenant.

On the Proposed PHP Code of Conduct

Recently, Anthony Ferrara opened an RFC for PHP internals to adopt and enforce a code of conduct. Even leaving aside for the moment whether this is an appropriate use of the RFC system, the RFC generated a lot of discussion on the mailing list, in which I participated at great length, and for which I was hailed as abusive by at least one person in favor of the RFC (a great example of a kafkatrap).

To restate what I said on the mailing list, my position on the RFC is not merely “opposed”, but “reject entirely as unsalvageable” (though I did make some attempts at salvage in case it goes through). I continue to stand by everything I said there, and in other channels, regarding the proposed Code of Conduct.

Normally, if you had not heard about this particular discussion, I would say you were lucky, and probably the happier for it. In this case, I have to say that you should be paying close attention. The Code of Conduct as presented enables its enforcers to stand in judgment of every aspect of your public, private, professional, and political expression. I understand that’s a bold assertion; I will attempt to support it below.

The Contributor Covenant version on which the RFC is based is authored and maintained by intersectional technologist and transgender feminist Coraline Ada Ehmke. Ehmke believes that open source is a political movement:

From the onset open source has been inherently a political movement, a reaction against the socially damaging, anti-competitive motivations of governments and corporations. It began as a campaign for social liberty and digital freedom, a celebration of the success of communal efforts in the face of rampant capitalism. What is this if not a political movement?

Why Hackers Must Welcome Social Justice Advocates

Whether or not this description of open source is accurate, it is true that Ehmke thinks of open source as a political arena. As such, one must read the Contributor Covenant as a political document, with political means and political ends. Specifically, it is a tool for Social Justice.

As a tool for Social Justice, it recognizes no boundaries between project, person, and politics. This attitude is written into the Contributor Covenant with the text, “This Code of Conduct applies both within project spaces and in public spaces when an individual is representing the project or its community.” So, when is a project participant not representing the project? The answer appears to be “never.”

That is, a project participant is always representative of the project. We can see one example of this from the “Opalgate” incident. In reference to a Twitter conversation where Opal is not the subject, Ehmke opens an Opal project issue, and then attempts (with a Social Justice mob of backers) to intimidate the project managers into removing one of the Twitter conversants from the project because of his non-project-related speech.

This is Social Justice in action. Remember, it is the author of the Contributor Covenant acting this way. To look at this incident, and simultaneously opine that the Covenant as a tool of Social Justice is somehow not political, or that it does not intend to police speech unrelated to the project, reveals that opinion as obviously incorrect. This kind of behavior is not “abuse” of the Contributor Covenant; it is the intended application of the Covenant. The Covenant is designed specifically to enable that behavior under cover of “safety” and “welcoming” and “respect”.

But “safety” and “welcoming” and “respect” are the primary goals of the Covenant, aren’t they? I assert they are the curtain behind which the true goal is veiled: power over persons who are not sufficiently supportive of Social Justice. I think is it appropriate to mention the motte and bailey doctrine here:

[The doctrine is compared] to a form of medieval castle, where there would be a field of desirable and economically productive land called a bailey, and a big ugly tower in the middle called the motte. If you were a medieval lord, you would do most of your economic activity in the bailey and get rich. If an enemy approached, you would retreat to the motte and rain down arrows on the enemy until they gave up and went away. Then you would go back to the bailey, which is the place you wanted to be all along.

So the motte-and-bailey doctrine is when you make a bold, controversial statement. Then when somebody challenges you, you claim you were just making an obvious, uncontroversial statement, so you are clearly right and they are silly for challenging you. Then when the argument is over you go back to making the bold, controversial statement.

Sentiments like “safety” and “welcoming” and “respect” are the motte of the Covenant: the defensible tower from which challengers are ridiculed. (“It’s nice! Who doesn’t want to be nice? Why do you think we should enable harassers and abusers? Why do you want to exclude women, LGBTQ, etc?”) But the real purpose of the Covenant is to enable work in the bailey: that is, to gain power over the political enemies of Social Justice, by using project membership as a form of leverage over them.

We saw that bailey-work in the Opalgate example above. As another example of attempting to use leverage, we have the following incident in the Awesome-Django project, run by Roberto Rosario. Rosario turned down a pull request, and thereafter received this demand to adopt and enforce the Contributor Convenant. (Interestingly enough, Github deleted the issue entirely, as far as I know without comment, and without notification to Rosario; the link appears to be the only evidence of the issue’s existence.)

After Rosario declined, the issue-opener ended the conversation with an attempt at intimidation: “You are a member of the Django Software Foundation and are supposed to be setting the example. I will be forwarding the content of this issue to the Chair to evaluate your continued presence in the DSF.”

Thus, the issue-opener began in the motte (“welcoming” and “respect”) but ended on the bailey (threats to leverage refusal of the Covenant into rejection from a project). Again, this is not an abuse of the Covenant. As a tool of Social Justice, that is its author’s intended purpose: to give cover for threats and intimdation against those who do not support the author’s politics.

Since threats and intimidation are the end-game, consider what else might be threatened by being insufficiently supportive of Social Justice in general, and the Contributor Covenant in specific. Any project leader, any conference organizer, any publisher, or any employer, might be approached regarding your politically-incorrect opinions as expressed on any non-project forum or subject, and be threatened and intimidated into distancing themselves from you. This leads to ejection from projects, denial or disinvitation from conferences, rejection of manuscripts, and refusal-to-hire or outright firing, based on political (not professional) concerns.

This is not the kind of behavior found in a free and open society. It is instead the behavior of a society that is totalitarian, even fascist-with-a-smiley-face. You are not allowed to disagree with the Social Justice proponents, in any capacity. You are not even allowed to “not care” – you will be made to care.

As such, I assert that the Contributor Covenant, and any other codes of conduct originating in Social Justice, are to be opposed out of hand, both in PHP, and in any other place they are suggested.


While reading in preparation for writing this piece, I came across a lot of information that didn’t really fit, but might still be useful. Here’s a partial list of links.

Social Justice In Action

Discussions About Codes of Conduct

Alternative Codes of Conduct