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On disengagement.

This post is not specifically about Debian but, none the less, the recent decisions of some Debian developers to disengage from the project has found some empathy with me. As recently as the end of last week I was feeling a strong desire to pull away from almost all of my public responsibilities. Granted, pulling away from one project is rather more measured than something as drastic as pulling away from everything but that's where I was. Even today I feel some of that desire. What I want to do here is examine the root of this desire and rationalize not pulling away.

First, allow me a little detour. I have some experience walking away from projects. Over the course of the past seven years (starting at age 17), I have been both a participant in and volunteered for local gay and lesbian youth groups. There are myriad issues involved with running a group like this; it's intrinsicly controversial and has forces outside of it constantly attempting to destroy it. One issue of particular concern is what sociologists call "internalized homophobia". Basically, that's a fancy way of saying that we subconsciously believe all the horrible things that society says we are. So, in short, if society says we are child molesters, we believe that we are, and a gay youth group will constantly go through cycles of volunteers that accuse each other of sexual impropriety with youth. In the years that I have been involved, I have seen these accusation utterly destroy the organization four times - each time with little or no evidence of any actual wrong doing; only innuendo. Each time the organization was destroyed, youth kept showing up and eventually some adult who hadn't heard all the bad rumors would show up, get wrapped up in the Just Cause, and things would start over again.

Through all of these deaths and rebirths, I kept going. Sure, there were times that I was so discouraged, burnt out and disappointed in human behavior that I couldn't muster the motivation to leave my home to attend a meeting. But time heals, people forget horrible things that were said and I end up going back. But sadly, most people never come back to Passages (the name of the group). The best we can hope for is that individuals will be available for private, confidential phone calls to offer advice or their memories of the circumstances at the time of the last collapse. A year ago, at the board meeting establishing the most recent incarnation of Passages, tensions were running high over new accusations and I got up on my soap box and pleaded with the fifteen people in the room to consider the cost of attrition for a few moments. The organization had existed for fifteen years at the time; I asked them to considered the fact that over the course of only the four years that I had been there, some one hundred different adults had come to Passages to offer their help. With only six adults in the room, I asked, "Where could Passages be today if those people were still here?"

Coming back to the topic at hand, why do we desire to disengage from projects and causes that we are passionate about? What can we do to control attrition?

Personally, I feel least interested in giving my energy to a project when the people in the project are the demotivator. Notice in the story above: at no point was the organization destroyed by pressure from some fundamentalists. No, we destroyed ourselves. Allow me to point to some recent anti-social behavior which has demotivated me:

  • In the 20's group that I run, certain individuals have taken selfish actions which have damaged group coherence and trust. Additionally, we have the continuing problem of finding people who want to attend whom aren't interested in simply having a dating pool. This is part of the on-going post-modern gay rights movement identity crisis.
  • In the Debian project which my company has contributed financially too, a number of flamewars and personal attacks have detracted from the very immanent Etch release. Additionally, seeing others walk away from the project is hugely demotivating.
  • In my atheist group, I am representing my group in a cross-organizational guest speaker event. Despite each of the groups being at least partially founded on reason, there has been some irrational infighting over power and ownership issues. Additionally, holding planning meetings is, in some ways, like pulling teeth. We must cover ever issues at least three times because someone wasn't paying attention or didn't understand the way that something was said. Thing said must be said diplomatically, if it all.
  • In the GNOME project, a particular individual has been a point of frustration for me including a renewed focus last week. I have decided to stay away from any non-essential discussion; this is unfortunate because a good way to stay motivated in a project is to communicate with other volunteers.
  • And finally, these are to say nothing of the disappointments of U.S. politics which I am ever involved in. Anyone reading the news recently has a pretty good idea of how bleak things are right now.

Perhaps I am just involved in too much and it was too much to take all at once.

In any event, the universal truth that I think that I see above is this: in all instances of those things which are demotivating, it is a single individual or small group of individuals which are ultimately responsible for the anti-social behavior. And if anything can be said about the health of the project as a whole it's this: the heath of the project is measured by its resilience to internal strife. In some projects, such as Debian and my 20's group, the strife is amplified, I believe, by a lack of explicit expectations of conduct.

Personally, I take it that individual "crisis events" should be taken in as a part of a larger perspective on the project: "What is the project accomplishing despite this event?" So, that's how I'm approaching this current desire to withdrawl; taking a breath and looking at the big picture. Despite the strife, in each instance, we are still doing good things.


( 7 comments — Leave a comment )
trs80 [typekey.com]
Oct. 4th, 2006 07:47 am (UTC)
Why aren't you on Planet Debian?
Oct. 4th, 2006 08:01 am (UTC)
Don't give up!
Maybe you're involved in too much... but still, don't give up, you're doing good things!
Oct. 4th, 2006 08:24 am (UTC)
I recognize so much of this
I feel with you. I have run against many of these issues, especially with the gay community which I am a part of. At some point the cause just isn't worth the personal aggravation for me.

I would not have pulled the cart as long as you have,so you have my respect, no matter what you do. Just remember to take care of yourself before taking care of others. Especially since it's very hard to find someone who would do that for you.
Oct. 4th, 2006 09:31 am (UTC)
Code of Conduct
In some projects, such as Debian and my 20's group, the strife is amplified, I believe, by a lack of explicit expectations of conduct.

Quite right, I think. Ubuntu, as one of the projects with a code of conduct, has a pleasant and thriving community. At least, I'm not aware of any tensions within it. There might be other factors involved though; it is young.
Oct. 5th, 2006 01:30 am (UTC)
I certainly understand the desire to pull back from things, but I personally hope that you stay involved in the GNOME community. I haven't had much direct contact with you yet, but I've enjoyed reading your updates on planet gnome, etc.

Oct. 5th, 2006 02:28 am (UTC)
Brain fart.

In "real life" there are mechanisms to isolate, marginalise and separate unwanted people.

Seemingly online right now it's much harder to do that.

My general stance is to ignore the person, but advising other people to do the same sounds antisocial too.
Jun. 17th, 2007 06:14 am (UTC)

.Good luck!

( 7 comments — Leave a comment )


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Jason D. Clinton

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