Roche’s Maxim of Community states:
A community is defined by the behaviors it tolerates.
I played the “maxim” card already a few months ago, I think it’s time to play it one more time, because this is another succinct formulation of a fundamental principle, general truth, or rule of conduct that I need to share.
As you read this you might be thinking about the recent change in leadership at Twitter, and how the new leadership is inviting in and promoting prominent neo-Nazis, insurrectionist leaders, and other extremist, anti-democracy, and authoritarian figures, and how more and more members of the technical community are turning their backs on this now-sullied social network. I’m thinking about this too, but I’m also thinking more broadly because any maxim needs to be broadly and generally applicable.
So let’s start with a few examples. If you’ve made it this far I hope you stick with me for the rest.
I’m part of of the global Historical European Martial Arts (HEMA) community. I love training and fighting with swords, and I love the camaraderie that can be found through martial arts and combat sports. When your community activities bring with them a direct risk of serious injury, it’s important to be able to trust your training partner, your sparring partner, and your tournament opponent to keep your safety in mind.
Back in 2017 I competed in a tournament organized and by a HEMA club with an established “Cobra Kai” reputation. I attended with a clubmate who is a fantastic swordsman and all-around martial artist. I was competing in open tournaments. He was competing in the advanced invitational tournament that included the head coach of the organizing club. The invitational tournament was also refereed and directed by members of that club. Yeah.
During the match between my clubmate and the coach of the club running the tournament, that coach exhibited the unsafe and unsportsmanlike behavior that earned him and his club their reputation.
I was in my clubmate’s corner both coaching and taking video. At the end of the day I shared the video, and it started making the rounds on HEMA groups on Facebook. Even though “sharing tournament footage so fighters and clubmates watch and learn” is pretty standard behavior, this one caused some waves and started some difficult conversations. I don’t believe that the video showed anything surprising – this was the behavior everyone knew about already, and which they talked about behind closed doors. The video simply shone light on it, and made it harder to ignore, or to pretend you didn’t know.
I started avoiding events where this club was involved. I didn’t make a big deal about it, but when people asked me why I wasn’t going back to a tournament where I’d competed the previous year, I was honest in sharing my reasons. Fast forward to the HEMA event circuit starting back up in 2021, this club is no longer involved in multiple tournaments that they previously ran. Several of their most senior and prominent members have left the club, and started their own.
I’m a pretty small part of the HEMA community, so I doubt my personal actions had that big of an impact – but I know they were part of this positive change. I saw behavior I would not tolerate and I voted with my feet. Others did the same, and the community evolved and grew.
Progressive and inclusive HEMA clubs like Valkyrie Western Martial Arts in Vancouver, BC and London Longsword Academy in London, UK demonstrate this maxim in a positive and proactive way. I’ve already written previously about the aggressive inclusivity that pervades Valkyrie’s culture, so here I’ll focus on a few aspects of London Longsword Academy and their Fighters Against Racism (FAR) initiative.
As the FAR page says, Fighters Against Racism is a reaction to the “unpleasant element” in the HEMA community. If a club displays a FAR poster or banner, people who are offended by anti-racist statements will feel unwelcome – which they are. If a fighter wears a FAR t-shirt or patch to a tournament, they’re sending a clear message to everyone there what they believe, and that they are confident that this belief will be accepted and welcome at the event. My FAR t-shirt is pretty successful at attracting YouTube comments, but so far I’ve never been confronted in person.
A community is defined by the behaviors it tolerates.
If you’re reading this blog (and I have every reason to believe that you are) you’re probably more interested in data and technology than in swords. My next example is more recent, where in August of last year there was an online discussion about the need for codes of conduct at conferences and community events. My tweets have since been deleted, so I’ll reproduce the thread here, starting with the same warning: foul language later on.
The phrase “doesn’t need saying” is a red flag for me when it comes to conversations about communities, events, and codes of conduct.
If it “doesn’t need saying” that certain behaviors are not acceptable, there is no need to not say it, because no one will be offended or feel targeted, right?
For example (here comes that foul language) it probably doesn’t feel necessary to have a “no shitting on the carpet” rule, because who would ever do such a thing? This just “doesn’t need saying,” does it?
But if there was ever one time when someone did shit on the carpet and no one did anything about it, you might start to reconsider. Maybe we do need to be explicit in saying “no shitting on the carpet” for the next event.
What if it wasn’t just one time? What if after your event people were talking about how someone shit on the carpet… they just weren’t talking about it in front of you because your inaction signaled that you were ok with that sort of thing? Might a code of conduct be in order?
Or would it be better to say “I didn’t see the shit on my carpet” or “I couldn’t smell it from where I was” or maybe even “it was just that one time, and the person who did shit on the carpet is an important member of the community”?
What if the idea of a code of conduct feels like a slippery slope? If we tell people they can’t shit on the carpet, what is next? Telling them they can’t shit on the hardwood floors? On the tiles? Telling them they can’t piss on the carpet? Where does it all end???
A community is defined by the behaviors it tolerates. If a community organizer says “this problem isn’t important” that sends a very strong signal – and not a virtuous one. It says “this behavior is ok and I will permit it to continue.”
A community is defined by the behaviors it tolerates. If a community organizer says “this problem doesn’t affect me, so it isn’t a real problem” that sends a strong signal too.
A community is defined by the behaviors it tolerates. If a community organizer says no, this is not ok, this is our code of conduct, and these are things that we simply will not accept, that sends a signal. A virtuous one.
This “virtue signaling” will be heard by the people who have a history of (literally or figuratively) shitting the the carpet, and they’re not going to like it. They might stop participating, and they might make trouble and noise on the way out.
Because the reality is that far too many events in far too many communities have allowed shit on the carpet for far too many years. We’ve just pretended that it’s not a problem, because the people doing the shitting are well-known for other things, and because the people who stepped in the shit generally left in disgust without saying anything. Does it really need saying that you’re not allowed to shit on the carpet? Yes. It does. Your code of conduct is an explicit statement about the behaviors you will tolerate.
You don’t need to be perfect, but being willing to change is a prerequisite to positive change. Admitting that there is a problem is the first step to solving the problem. FFS. /thread
When I wrote that thread in 2021 I was thinking about that HEMA tournament from 2017, where the community event organizers were complicit. Thankfully, the thread was in response to an announcement by the organizers of Data Grillen, DataMinutes, and New Stars of Data posting about their code of conduct. These folks (in this case it was the always incredible William Durkin) know what type of community they want to build, and they were unwilling to back down when a few dudes took umbrage with the news.
Earlier this year, renowned C++ developer, consultant, and speaker Patricia Aas stood up and spoke out when her community continued to welcome an organizer and speaker who was convicted of serious sexual crimes. She made it clear that her community’s milquetoast response was intolerable to her, and she made her voice heard, even though it was likely that this would impact her ability to participate in a community she had helped grow.
Warning: There’s some additional profanity ahead.
I mention this example not because I was personally involved, but because it feels like a concrete canonical example of so many similar stories. There’s some guy. He’s been around forever, and has made serious positive contributions to the community. He’s use these contributions to build a clique, a power base, a center of social gravity and influence that’s about him, not about the community.
When it comes to light that he’s using his power and influence for ends that run contrary to the community’s stated goals and culture his clique stands up for him, often supported by the actions or inactions of those not directly harmed by the guy’s actions.
“Think about all that he’s done for the community,” comes the familiar refrain. “Think about how much good he’s done, and how much we’d lose if not for his contributions.”
Fuck that. Fuck that, fuck him, and fuck his supporters.
Instead, think about how much the community has already lost and will continue to lose because of him. Everyone he has harmed, everyone he has driven away from the community, everyone who has considered joining the community but was repulsed by his behavior and the community’s acceptance of his actions. Think about what each of these people could have contributed.
A community is defined by the behaviors it tolerates. This is why codes of conduct are important.
A community is defined by the behaviors it tolerates. This is why it is important to speak up when you see someone behaving in ways that violate the community’s written or unwritten rules.
A community is defined by the behaviors it tolerates. This is why it’s important to hold the powerful to account, and to hold them to a standard that is at least as high as the one by which the powerless are judged.
A community is defined by the behaviors it tolerates. Your participation in a community is a statement of your acceptance of the behaviors taking place in that community. It doesn’t matter if you weren’t the abuser, if you weren’t directly causing harm, if you weren’t actively shitting on the carpet yourself.
A community is defined by the behaviors it tolerates. Your participation in a community is a statement of your acceptance of the behaviors taking place in that community. If you’re at a party and someone walks in wearing blackface, wearing a white hood, wearing a swastika armband, you get to choose if you leave or if you stay. But if someone wearing a swastika armband joins the party and you do decide to stay because they’re not personally bothering you – congratulations, you chose to attend a Nazi party.
A community is defined by the behaviors it tolerates. What behaviors do you choose to tolerate in your community? Does your community reflect your values or is it time to leave and join/start something better before you get shit on your shoes?
Wow. This ended up much longer than expected. Thank you for staying with me until the end. As is the case with Roche’s Maxim of Data Transformation there’s not really anything new or unique here. I’m saying something you probably already knew, and which was completely obvious once written down – and I took 100 pages to say it. Despite this, I believe it’s important to put in writing, and important to think and talk about, especially these days.
A community is defined by the behaviors it tolerates. Why not find me on Mastodon?
 I also haven’t published a blog post since July. The more technical topics I’ve been fermenting aren’t quite ready to be served, and I don’t want the whole month to pass without finishing something.
 LOL @ Past Matthew who wrote footnote 1 in August 2021 (and who wrote footnote 2 in December 2021).
 Each example is based largely on my personal real-world experience, but deliberately avoids any names or details that would be obvious to people who weren’t already involved. I believe there is a time and a place to “name and shame” but I don’t believe this post is the right place, and I don’t want to encourage any sort of pile-on.
 I’m not going to link to the video here, but if you’re motivated you can find it on my personal YouTube channel. It’s the one with the very high view count and with comments disabled.
 London Longsword Academy is run by my dear friend David Rawlings, who often reminds us that he is “not straight, but still a great ruler.”
 Yes, you can buy one too.
 Yes, way back when I started writing this post.
 It’s always dudes, isn’t it? Do better, my dudes
 That was the profanity I warned you about. I’m done now. Ok, almost done.
 Particularly if they’re personally invited and welcomed by the host of that party.