No Filter

Recently Linus Torvalds, creator and chief developer of Linux, temporarily exited the Linux Project to get his mind right. Just prior, Linux Foundation and the Linux Project adopted a code of conduct based purely on social justice warrior (SJW) principles. This code of conduct (CoC) has been shown to be detrimental to other projects where it has been adopted, and may spell the end of the Linux Project, if project developers continue to show heated resistance to it.

I won’t go deeply into the CoC in this essay. I’m more interested in Linus’ and others conduct prior to his leaving.

It’s well known that the Linux Kernel Developers Mailing List is a rather harsh and toxic environment. Subscribers are routinely rude and insulting to each other. Ostensibly, the reason for this is that they care a great deal about the quality of code which goes into Linux. This consideration is primary above all. People’s feelings simply don’t count. Quality of code counts. Any code deemed to be of less than stellar quality gets rejected with a harshly worded email to the submitter.

But the kernel mailing list is not the only place on the Internet where you find this kind of conduct. It’s on Youtube, Twitter, Facebook, and various other landing zones throughout the Internet. Keep that in mind.

It has been said that Linus has a form of “Asperger’s Syndrome”, a mental condition characterized more or less by a lack of social filters. People supposedly afflicted with this syndrome typically say rude things to other people without understanding the possible detrimental effects of their conduct on the recipients. Person A says something rude to person B, and person A looks at person B in wonderment that they act this way, because the rude comment shouldn’t warrant this reaction.

While Linus undoubtedly acts this way, I argue that this is not some mental defect or actual “syndrome”, Instead it is the nature of the medium being used for communication.

Flash back with me to the 1950s. You walk into a bar and have a drink or two, along with everyone else. You start up a conversation with someone, and begin to cast aspersions on their parentage. The next thing you know, you’re flying out of the bar’s front window. Lesson learned: don’t publicly cast aspersions on someone’s parentage. When enough of these incidents happen to you, you figure out that their are classes of things you simply shouldn’t express to someone’s face unless you like having the snot kicked out of you. Of course, if you are lucky, you never have to learn this lesson the hard way. Hopefully your parents, siblings and other people in your life educate you about this before you ever become old enough to walk into a bar. And you thereby avoid the problem.

This whole process of learning things like this is called “socialization”. It used to be common among humans. It still is, for example, amoung animals. We used to have a scrawny female cat who hated other cats. She had spent too little time in her litter when she was young, and so had a tendency to suddenly lash out at humans and other cats when she became impatient or irritated. She had a tendency to bite, and when she did, she bit hard. She had never learned not to. Had she spent more time with her litter mates play fighting, she would have learned what was an acceptable bite was.

Humans are this way as well. They spend 18 years “in the nest” learning, among other things, how to get along with their fellow man. Assuming, of course, their parents and siblings choose to teach them these things.

Increasingly, we live in a permissive society where parents refrain from criticizing the behavior of their children, and instead allow them so much freedom and independence that they never really go through a solid period of “socialization”. They are simply left to act in whatever way they choose, regardless of the consequences.

Back to Linus, I don’t know him or his parents. So I can only speculate what sort of treatment he had as a child. But it’s a fair bet that, given his and his parents’ ages he may have been weakly socialized in his home environment.

But what exacerbates this situation is that when a medium like the Internet is involved, there are no consequences for bad behavior. Say anything you like, and no one will throw you through the front window of the Internet. Conduct yourself in the same way in “real life” and you may find yourself on the receiving end of quite painful retaliation.

In other words, I would guess that Linus was never socialized as a youngster, arrived at the Internet and never learned that certain actions, in real life had negative consequences. And the Internet, having essentially no consequences, allowed him to act in any way he chose, including rudely and cruelly.

When I was the administrator of several mailing lists, I was appalled at some of the things said on them. I was socialized as a young boy, and learned quickly what was and wasn’t acceptable in public. And I was suddenly confronting behavior on an email list which ran counter to everything I’d been taught. And I was considered a rather blunt child at that.

So I think we can dispense with attributing Linus’ behavior to some syndrome or mental defect. He simply lacks socialization, as do many of his peers. This is not, of course, what the SJW CoC was meant to resolve. It has entirely political roots and intentions. But it allows for the targetting of anyone disagreeing with its premises, whose behavior is less than fully socialized. Even fully socialized behavior can be criticized under the CoC, which is the purpose of the CoC in the first place.