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Linus, Sarah and the Linux Civil Code

Linus, Sarah and the Linux Civil Code

Are swearing and abusive language just an inherent part of the Linux kernel culture? That's been a matter of considerable debate in the Linux blogosphere lately. "Believe it, Linus," blogger Robert Pogson said. "There are people who just want to get on with the job rather than read foul language in the inbox. You changed the world. You can change, too."

By Katherine Noyes
07/22/13 5:00 AM PT

Anyone who has ever spent five minutes in the Linux blogosphere is probably already well-aware of Linux creator Linus Torvalds' propensity for speaking his mind in the plainest of terms.

It was just slightly more than a year ago, after all, that he dropped an "F-bomb" on Nvidia, though that's by no means been the only example over the years.

Linux Girl

Well, Torvalds is surely no stranger to criticism for his blunt approach, but recently an example arose to make that disapproval more clear than ever.

The critic this time around? None other than a Linux kernel developer named Sarah Sharp.

'Not Acceptable'

"Seriously, guys?" wrote Sharp in response to an email exchange involving kernel developer Ingo Molnár and Torvalds himself.

"Is this what we need in order to get improve -stable?" Sharp went on. "Linus Torvalds is advocating for physical intimidation and violence. Ingo Molnar and Linus are advocating for verbal abuse. Not *f---ing* cool.

"Violence, whether it be physical intimidation, verbal threats or verbal abuse, is not acceptable," Sharp added. "Keep it professional on the mailing lists."

Sharp concluded with an invitation to discuss the matter at the next Kernel Summit, adding that, "I won't be the nice girl anymore."

An Historic Move?

History has often shown that sometimes it just takes a single small voice in the dark to bring about monumental change.

Will Sharp's protest go down in history as one such example?

That's what Linux bloggers have been trying to figure out, on Slashdot and beyond.

'Be the Bigger Man, Torvalds'

"There are a lot of things which we may want our children to emulate about Linus Torvalds, but his use of language is not one of them," offered Robin Lim, a lawyer and blogger on Mobile Raptor.

Indeed, "it's called being a pro versus being an ass," Slashdot blogger hairyfeet agreed. "Torvalds falls firmly in the latter.

"Be the bigger man, Torvalds," hairyfeet urged. "If I can do it with customers that make me want to scream then you can do it with someone with years of education."

'He Should Watch His Mouth'

Similarly, "I think Sarah Sharp is correct to point this out," Google+ blogger Kevin O'Brien opined. "There is no reason that the kernel team *needs* to be an abusive environment, and it is well-known that it is, and that Linus is the main reason.

"There may be a group of emotionally immature men who will defend Linus, but adults should be capable of working together with a certain level of respect," O'Brien added. "In most companies Linus would have been fired long ago for his behavior."

Torvalds "should watch his mouth nowadays," quipped Google+ blogger Alessandro Ebersol. "There are ladies around, listening. Not good, not good at all."

'She Is Right'

Linus is "wrong on this one," blogger Robert Pogson agreed.

"Linus' point of view is that he needs to crack a whip from time to time to keep the herd of cats moving in the right direction," Pogson explained. "Sarah is simply asking for civility. She is right. It is possible to herd cats by persuasion.

"Shouting and swearing adds nothing to the conversation," he added. "Linus could get a treadmill or go jogging to raise his level of endorphins. He doesn't need to tell the world how he really feels when it's supposed to be about technology rather than emotions."

In fact, "clear guidelines and private messaging could accomplish what Linus wants without any of the flaming," Pogson pointed out.

"Linus long ago established that his ability to reject commits was the supreme feedback," Pogson added. "That's brutal enough for getting the message through to the most stubborn cat. A brief, executive-summary type of message would do."

'You Can Change, Too'

As for swearing being "a part of Linus," that's just an excuse -- "a very poor one," Pogson said. "Grumpy old hermits use excuses like that. Linus is the head of an international consortium of developers working on a huge project. Foul language is just a waste of bandwidth on LKML. It certainly is not inclusive of valuable contributors like Sarah, who works with Intel.

"In my teaching career, I observed that I could go all summer without hearing a swear word while my students used the F-word like punctuation," he noted. "When I communicated this to my students they refused to believe me."

Bottom line: "Believe it, Linus," Pogson concluded. "There are people who just want to get on with the job rather than read foul language in the inbox. You changed the world. You can change, too."

'She's in the Wrong'

Not everyone was so sure, however.

"I have a great deal of sympathy for Sarah and her point of view here, and I cringe when I see some of the responses she's gotten as a result of her taking this stand," Linux Rants blogger Mike Stone told Linux Girl. "I think she has some very valid points."

That being said, however, "I think she's in the wrong here," Stone opined. "Linux is Linus's house, and she's a guest. That's why it's called 'Linux' and not 'Sarax.' You don't go into someone else's house and rearrange their furniture without asking."

'She's Free to Not Participate'

Some of Sharp's responses also "feel as if she's attempting to assume some kind of parental position over the mailing list ('I'm not going to put up with that #$&@ any more')," Stone suggested. "If she doesn't like the way the mailing list is run, she's free to not participate.

"What she's not free to do is tell Linus how to behave in his own house," Stone concluded.

"I think that Linus has been pretty mellow in his responses considering, and that's honestly surprised me," he added. "I'd be more on Sarah's side if she brought this up as a suggestion and less as what feels very much like a demand."

'I Don't Think She Understood'

Similarly, "I just don't get why she thought it was her business to complain about a conversation between Linus and someone else," consultant and Slashdot blogger Gerhard Mack suggested. "It seems like an attitude of, 'I'm here now -- do things the way I want.'"

The worst part is that "I don't think she understood the original email," Mack added. "Linus wasn't advocating physical violence -- he was making jokes about Greg's size. On top of that, he was right about sometimes needing to be harsh with people to avoid them thinking they can just keep pushing.

"It's actually one of the more annoying things I've learned about human nature," Mack concluded. "It seems a significant number of people don't think someone is serious about something until they are angry."

Torvalds has a point, Google+ blogger Gonzalo Velasco C. agreed. "Sometimes you'll have to say 'no' -- let's hope it's still in a respectful way."

'Why Can't We Do Better?'

Last but not least, "it is complicated, and yet, not at all," Google+ blogger Brett Legree told Linux Girl. "Respect for others -- that's all this is about, really.

"Development of the Linux kernel WAS historically a volunteer effort, but it is not a small, volunteer project any longer, it is a billion-dollar venture," Legree pointed out. "Linus and Sarah are paid by different companies to work on the Linux kernel. This is a business setting, thus the rules of engagement can and probably should be different."

The LKML "can and should change policy," he opined. "It is possible to run an effective project AND be respectful of all involved.

"Of course, it is certain that this kind of thing happens in other companies," Legree added. "Steve Jobs was known to be hot-headed, and Steve Ballmer most definitely is (chair!)."

At the same time, "why can't we do better?" he mused. "Why can't we show the world that we ARE better? This would be another way."


Katherine Noyes is always on duty in her role as Linux Girl, whose cape she has worn since 2007. A mild-mannered ECT News Editor by day, she spends her evenings haunting the seedy bars and watering holes of the Linux blogosphere in search of the latest gossip. You can also find her on Twitter and Google+.


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