Empathy

I’ve been asked by a few people for my thoughts regarding the ‘gendered pronoun’ incident that’s occupying the node community this week. I am purposely not linking to that thread. I appreciate Ben Noordhuis contribution to node, and I think that contribution merits a more nuanced response from me than a Twitter one-liner.

First, because it is worth saying, there is no argument that Ben is a very smart guy, has made a significant contribution to node and libuv, and has been tremendously generous with his time and talent. I do not believe the node community is “better off without him”. I hope he comes back.

To me, this is the core of the issue: Ben has an established history of dickishness. This attitude has been tolerated by the node community longer than anyone else’s inappropriate behavior because of Ben’s clear talent and contribution. But this is never sustainable and at some point, one more slip is enough to cause an uproar, and this is what happened here.

If the response from individuals and companies feel exaggerated and over the top, it is because for many insiders, this is not a single incident but the last straw. Whether that is fair or not is a matter of opinion.

I witnessed this behavior in a response to a node issue a member of my team opened a few months ago. I sent a private letter to Ben’s company explaining why I felt it was inappropriate and offensive. The response I received suggested that this was simply a result of Ben’s work load and his need to sort through many issues quickly. I was unsatisfied and expressed that. Shortly after, Ben corrected his behavior on that particular issue and provided thoughtful and patient feedback.

There wasn’t an apology or an acknowledgement of wrongdoing, and that stuck with me. Ignoring all the ‘gendered pronoun’ debate, what is really at the core of this incident is lack of empathy. It’s failing to say a simple ‘sorry’. It might sound trivial or petty but the incident a few months ago left enough bad taste in my mouth not to want to engage Ben further. I’ve actively directed my inquiries to other members of the node core team.

Ben is by no means unique in his attitude. I am sure half the people I interacted with when I was working on that “awful 2.0 security protocol” feel the same way about me. But when I offend people unintentionally, I immediately apologize publicly and privately, and when I choose not to, it is done with the clear understanding of the repercussions. When I quit that working group, the negative reaction I received was very much earned by my actions.

Every community has to decide what is acceptable behavior within its boundaries and especially what it allows its leaders to do. Whether it is an open source project or the workplace, there is always a balance between someone’s attitude and contribution. One often does counter-balance the other, but only to a point.

My behavior within the node community is in sharp contrast to that of my behavior in other communities. It’s not because I’ve changed, matured, or evolved. It is simply because it is the only acceptable behavior within the node community. Context matters.

Ben had multiple opportunities to back out of the corner he put himself in – and he still does. It really doesn’t take much. At least not in word count. People are just looking for some empathy, for acknowledgement that their feelings were hurt, and that the offender understands and regrets their actions, especially now that they know how offensive it was to people.

I hope Ben comes back from his break and continues to contribute. And when he does, it will be our turn to show empathy and move on.