Your project is political, people’s identities aren’t

A woman facing away from the camera holding a bullhorn to her mouth.

Every so often, I run across a project that claims to be all about the code. “No politics!” they say. Whether they mean it or not, the message is often received as “this isn’t a space for you”. Any identity that is not the same as the project’s leadership (typically: cisgender white man) is treated as political. This is ridiculous. A person’s political views may form part of their identity, but their identity is not political.

The SerenityOS found itself in the middle of this conversation recently after a pull request to make documentation more inclusive was closed by the project for violating the “no controversial topics” rule. (The changes were later accepted in a subsequent pull request.) But as the author pointed out: “The change I proposed is specifically as to not alienate people who aren’t men”.

Developing free and open source software is an inherently political act. People voluntarily coming together to cooperatively produce something for the public good? That’s political as hell!

Setting aside the impossibility of being apolitical, the SerenityOS contributing file has this policy:

This is a purely technical project. As such, it is not an appropriate arena to advertise your personal politics or religious beliefs. Any changes that appear ideologically motivated will be rejected.

Contributing to SerenityOS

No project that involves people is “purely technical.” And “ideologically motivated” is not a synonym for “bad”. In fact, if the change is technically sound, then prohibiting it on the basis of being ideologically motivated seems…ideologically motivated. “Let’s change references from ‘he’ to ‘they’ in the documentation” is no more ideologically motivated than “let’s use ‘he’ throughout the documentation” (even if the latter wasn’t a conscious choice).

I’m not writing this post to pick on the SerenityOS project or any of its contributors, but it’s a timely reminder that not only do our choices have consequences, but our defaults do, too. If your project is going to say “we only want contributors who are like us”, that’s certainly a choice you can make. But if that’s not the choice you want, make sure you’re not saying it accidentally.

Sidebar: a subtle example?

This felt like a topic I had surely written about here before, so I searched Google. The only post that came up when I searched for “politics” was “Should you prohibit pseudonyms?” When I searched for “political”, the top result was my post about offering a donation to Black Girls Code for every sale in March 2023. Neither of those mention any variation of the word “politics”, but the former talks about transgender people and the latter talks about Black people.

This post’s featured photo by Maayan Nemanov on Unsplash.

Ben formerly led open source messaging at Docker and was the Fedora Program Manager. He is the author of Program Management for Open Source Projects. Ben is an Open Organization Ambassador and frequent conference speaker. His personal website is Funnel Fiasco.


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