Archive for September 19th, 2009

Life has been interesting since I wrote a piece called ”Sexism: Open Source Software’s Dirty Little Secret” for Datamation a couple of weeks ago. I won’t go into details, but, since then, replies pros and cons have occupied a disproportionate amount of my time. The supportive replies are gratifying, if embarrassing, but what really disheartens me is the dreary sameness of the hostile responses. Free software, I like to think, attracts intelligent and rational people. So why are so many of the hostile responses so supremely illogical?

Let’s start with Sam Varghese’s reply to my article. After making some sensible points about the current background to the issue, such as the upcoming mini-summit on women in free software Varghese misrepresents me by saying that I have already concluded that sexism exists in FOSS. In fact, I have simply looked at a set of figures that shows a surprisingly low proportion of women in free software – a figure far too low to be the result of margin of error or in any way ambiguous – and concluded a systemic bias. Correlation, of course, is not the same as causation, but when a trend is so pronounced, causation does become a leading hypothesis.

Varghese is on better logical ground when he examines the figures I cited. However, while he validly suggests that the higher figures of female involvement for proprietary development might include women who are not directly involved with coding, he neglects to consider that many roles in FOSS are also not directly involved with coding, such as documentation or user assistance.

However, Varghese’s article seems a model of reason besides one written by Hans Bezemer. What is especially fascinating about Bezemer’s piece is how many logical fallacies and inconsistencies it squeezes into such a small space.

Bezemer gets off to a false start by framing the debate in terms of either-or: Either we have free will and can change our behavior, or we don’t. In such complex questions, coming down entirely on one side is an over-simplification that creates distortion. In particular, he classifies all feminist thought as having the same basic underpinning of assumptions about free will — something that nobody who had actually read any feminists could possibly believe, and that renders anything else he says untrustworthy.

Bezemer continues by making a biological appeal to authority. We can’t do anything about sexism, he declares, because gender differences are innate. I am not sure whether he also lacks knowledge of biology or hopes that his opponents do, but, once again, matters are nowhere near as simple as he suggests. But, by pretending that they are, he tries to close off discussion.

Bezemer then stoops to ad hominem arguments — attacks on the people holding views he disagrees with, rather than on their arguments. He does so by implying that they are attempting to impose “political correctness,” a label that is meant to be both dismissive and demeaning, and leave the impression that the views of his opponents are valueless. Yet what is being asked? Only the same basic level of professionalism that is required in any modern workplace. Or, to put things another way, common decency.

But perhaps Bezemer doesn’t want to oppose common decency in public. So, instead he weakens his argument still further by implying that his opponents hold views that they have never expressed. “Unless a huge number of males quit making FOSS software,” he says, “that ratio is not going to change – no matter what.”

Of course, this comment ignores that the ratio has changed in several projects that have attracted seven or eight times more women than free software as a whole. But the real point is, where has anyone suggested that men should quit projects? The idea is entirely Bezemer’s. Apparently, either the idea of feminism in free software raises the specter of affirmative action in his mind, or else he wants to raise the specter in other people’s minds. Either way, the suggestion is not the highest-minded part of his argument.

Bezemer winds down by saying that “only coding matters,” and that women who want to contribute to free software should simply do so. Unfortunately, his generosity is belied by his apparent need to write an anti-feminist piece. If only coding matters to him, then why does he ignore the issue? Why would he try so hard to debunk an issue that could be preventing more code contributions? If code contributions are really that important to him, then why is he not doing everything in his power to encourage more?

Bezemer then concludes with two classic bits of evasion. First, he insists that he is not sexist, although his eagerness to see gender differences where the evidence is spotty and contradictory suggests otherwise. Then, he reverses himself and says that people can call him sexist if they want, but should let people like him do their own thing. “We’re people, too, you know,” he says, neatly turning himself into the victim.

In the end, while both Varghese and Bezemer claim some sympathy with the aspirations of female contributors to free software, in both cases their articles amount to a plea to leave things as they are. Both are defending the status quo and any sexism that might be involved in it.

But, just to complicate things, I suspect that both are moved to write at least in part because of their dislike for me. As a quick search on our names can quickly prove, both Bezemer and Varghese dislike me, and criticize me whenever possible, sometimes even to the extent of contradicting or reversing a previous stand. I have no idea what Varghese’s motivation is, and I will spare Bezemer the embarrassment of explaining his possible motivations, but I strongly suspect that both partly oppose efforts to combat sexism simply because I support them.

Still, I urge everyone to read these two bits of anti-feminism. If you don’t already recognize the classic counter-arguments when anyone objects to sexism, you can learn them very quickly from these two articles.

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