Principle of neutrality

[Moderator’s note: this post and its replies were moved from Major Nixpkgs contributor leaving]

This is sort of more in the vein of semantics, but it feels important nonetheless: Personally, my desire to remain politically neutral where possible is not an endorsement, tacitly or otherwise, of any status quo. I acknowledge that political neutrality inherently supports the status quo in some sense, by declining to challenge it, but it does not mean I am happy with the status quo. It is an acknowledgement that sometimes, for better or worse, the status quo is what we are all begrudgingly dealing with. There will always be a status quo, and it will never, ever be perfect. I have many, many complaints about the status quo.

On one hand, you won’t see me arguing that shutting down any discussion that could be construed as “politics” is a good policy. That said, unrestrained political discourse is often just not very healthy, and it’s getting worse rather than better. I more or less subscribe to Kurzgesagt’s proposal for why internet polarization is such a problem, though the exact reason isn’t necessarily too important.

My political leanings are mostly irrelevant, but I consider myself to be very liberal. That said, my personal opinion is that it would be bad if the Nix community was a place that was downright unwelcoming to people who are not liberal. If someone’s reason for feeling “unwelcome” is because of their own intolerance and inability to collaborate with others, then so be it: we can’t do anything about that. I think that’s the really difficult part of all of this: the best choice for the project is not to simply bend to the whims of important people, be it because they are “de-facto BFDL”, or they are a valuable contributor, but well, the best choice is the one that is right in principle. It is legitimately not possible to please everyone, so that can never be the goal. The best that can be done is to take in all of the feedback, step back and try to figure out what the right long-term decision is, regardless of the short-term and mid-term side effects.

In my opinion, when reasonably possible, remaining neutral is good general policy. This is not an argument for “centrism” or in favor of taking the average of multiple extremes, and it is not an argument to always defer to the status quo, but rather to pick a reasonable and well-thought-out position on the spectrum out of principle, without regards to the extremes or what is popular.

I understand that many people are rather strongly repelled from this viewpoint, especially in recent times. There are many different ways it has been expressed, from analogies to anecdotes, for why remaining neutral is not so “neutral”, and I will grant you that there is truth to this, and I don’t suggest that it’s possible to avoid taking some stances that fall along ideological lines. But the truth is, the Nix community and Nix leadership can’t please everyone. Sometimes, it’s hard to really even please anyone, as people are bound to see course corrective actions as “too little too late” and “half-measures”, while people in opposition to the change of course will see it as a negative on the whole. And frankly, I am not suggesting that just because it’s hard to please people means that they are wrong, but does it even matter if there’s literally nothing reasonable that can be done that would satisfy them? I think that Nix as a whole should aim to make the right decisions even when they are not initially popular, and while that rightly precludes the ability to always remain neutral, neutrality is an excellent principle to keep around in general.

This text-wall has been a bit abstract because it kind of needs to be to make the right point. This is not about jon or marsam or eelco, it’s about the Nix community as a whole, and well beyond the Nix community, too.

I hope that we can see each-other as equals, even though we will not agree on everything. I hope that we can take each-other’s words at their best interpretations, at least when we don’t have reason to believe there is bad faith, and put aside the snark and prejudices as much as possible.

In my opinion, though it is always hard, it is also always the right way to go.

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Would your insistence on “neutrality” extend to shutting down other people’s efforts to change the status quo because it actively harms them? If not, I don’t see the point of this post.

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There are large parts of your post that I agree with as written, and other parts where I think you and I would use different words to describe the same basic idea but can still agree on the idea.

But I want to run this past you, because it’s been sitting in my head for months while the sponsorship debate happened, and I think it’s a useful counterpoint to your thinking about the relationship between ‘neutrality’ and ideology.

Imagine you’re in a group with four of your friends and you’re deciding where to order dinner from. And you sort of talk noncommittally about options until someone proposes the dumpling place down the street. Four of you are in favor. But then Ari pipes up that she hates the food there. It just doesn’t agree with her. She doesn’t want the group to order from there anymore.

In my experience, it would be profoundly weird for the group to say, well, sorry Ari, but majority wants dumplings so stop making this about you.

It would be profoundly weird for the group to interrogate Ari at length about what exactly is so objectionable about the dumpling place, and what even is a dumpling, and can you classify all restaurants by whether they serve any dumplings or not, before agreeing to order from somewhere else.

It would be profoundly weird for someone in the group to start arguing that we can’t have restaurants get vetoed by group members because what if Ben decides that he doesn’t like pizza, and what if Criss objects to the salad shop, and if we allowed that then we wouldn’t get any food at all.

And it would be profoundly weird, in my opinion, to call any of those reactions ‘neutrality’ with respect to restaurants, or ‘neutrality’ with respect to members of the friend group. I would describe someone as restaurant-neutral if their reaction is to say, okay, no big deal, let’s pick another restaurant. I would describe someone as person-neutral if they would extend the same accommodations with respect to Ari’s preferences as they would for any other member of the group. Fighting that hard for the dumpling place is, uh, being pro-dumplings. Obviously.

And sure, I guess this whole line of thinking is an ‘ideology’, but I don’t think it’s a radical one. More to the point, doing a not-profoundly-weird thing here doesn’t involve taking a stance along ideological lines. It involves considering Ari’s reaction to be more important than an insistence on majority rule or not reconsidering an initial choice or what have you when there are other options available and it’s relatively easy to take one.

So if that’s what you mean by ‘neutral’, I’m all for it. But a lot of people seem to use the word ‘neutral’ to describe the other thing. Which I find profoundly weird, but if that’s how the word’s going to be used, I’m against it.

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This is exactly the difference between a group of friends and a large organization. Methods that work well in a group of friends don’t scale

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So you agree that this example is correct, but the only problem is the number of people?

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It would be profoundly weird for someone in the group to start arguing that we can’t have restaurants get vetoed by group members because what if Ben decides that he doesn’t like pizza, and what if Criss objects to the salad shop, and if we allowed that then we wouldn’t get any food at all.

This sounds like the natural escalation to me.

And it would be profoundly weird, in my opinion, to call any of those reactions ‘neutrality’ with respect to restaurants, or ‘neutrality’ with respect to members of the friend group. I would describe someone as restaurant-neutral if their reaction is to say, okay, no big deal, let’s pick another restaurant. I would describe someone as person-neutral if they would extend the same accommodations to Ari’s preferences as they would to any other member of the group. Fighting that hard for the dumpling place is, uh, being pro-dumplings. Obviously.

Agreed, but I’m not entirely sure what point you’re trying to make in the context of this thread. Is the implication that the neutral choice is to say okay, no big deal, let’s pick another sponsor? That sounds like taking a side to me (and I’m not trying to say whether this side is right or wrong). If this is not your intention, please could you clarify?

The point of this post is to oppose the idea that political neutrality isn’t a good principle, even if it is not always possible to remain neutral, and to try to fight the notion that the idea of wanting to remain neutral is necessarily an endorsement of status quo.

I think anybody would agree that one would just simply try to find a compromise; It would be weird if everyone dug their heels in, mainly because the stakes are so low. To be honest, I can’t really picture any reasonable person having an earnest debate about this, so I don’t really think much “neutrality” of a discussion comes into the picture. It would seem pretty immature to debate it in the first place!

When it comes to the sponsorship debacle, I have a leaning but I’m not really strongly on one side or the other. My personal stance, having read everything that I have and thought it over, is that it would be completely reasonable to decide to decline a sponsor on the basis that the foundation wishes to uphold a set of principles, and the view is that an association with said organization is simply too counter to those principles to have in any form. That said, I feel that a policy decision like this needs a lot of thought put into it, and isn’t something that should be done lightly. There’s a finite number of sponsors out there, and I definitely want the list of Nix sponsors to grow rather than shrink. I don’t want to create even more debate, but I definitely fear e.g. the potential loss of sponsors if sponsors were declined based on their public affiliation in ongoing military conflicts worldwide, some of which don’t even fall directly on typical political boundaries.

I really don’t want to spur even more debate on the specifics. (Sorry; I really wanted to stick to the analogy, but I couldn’t stretch it far enough.) But, I think there is some implication that people who are not in favor of declining a sponsorship are acting in bad faith, or at least, acting petty or unreasonably, like someone refusing to just get something else to eat instead of dumplings, but I just don’t see it that way. There is definitely more at stake here than what to eat for lunch, and it will definitely have broader implications than stomach problems.

I hope things can be resolved in a way that makes everyone feel happy to contribute to NixOS and Nix, but it still stands that the best solution ‘in principle’ is not necessarily going to be the one that makes the most people happy, and that’s the bitter reality that we’re faced with. Now that this is a whole big ordeal, any solution is going to make some contingent unhappy, making it feel a bit like a trolley problem. I’m still hoping for the best.

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It may be an ideology, but it has a pragmatic aspect that it allows the whole group to continue to function, instead of creating a breakdown over differences in preferences, worldviews, and opinions. It wasn’t a big deal for the group to compromise that time, and choose something else. It’s also not a big deal to help a minority within the majority have some support for agency and representation. It should be the least we can do.

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We’re not talking about abstract ideas here. We’re talking about a massive undermining of the NixOS community’s ability to self-govern by the so-called “leadership” of the Foundation that was supposed to serve the community’s interests. I ask again, are you opposing the people taking part in activism to change the status quo?

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Is the implication that the neutral choice is to say okay, no big deal, let’s pick another sponsor?

To me, that sounds very neutral, yes. Saying “okay, I see you are very opposed to this decision, let’s reconsider” seems to me like a perfectly neutral and reasonable position. Strongly opposing the decision, or justifying why the decision needs to be made despite the strong opposition - seems to me like a non-neutral position.

I take issue when people claim they are neutral, but then go on to ridicule the strongly opposed people and justify why their opinion can be safely discarded. And unfortunately, there are people who took that stance rather boldly.

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I take issue when people claim they are neutral, but then go on to ridicule the strongly opposed people and justify why their opinion can be safely discarded. And unfortunately, there are people who took that stance rather boldly.

Agreed, although I personally do not believe this situation has a neutral option.

Appreciate you taking the time to explain.

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I honestly think it would be best for me to withdraw from this discussion at this point, but I would at least like to clarify that my position is not that “neutrality” should be used to shut down opposition or discussion. In fact, what I’m really trying to do is acknowledge that it can’t always be applied for this exact reason, while suggesting that it is still a generally good principle in spite of this. As for exact specifics, I think it has to come down to human judgement, just like moderation: sometimes with social settings there’s no exact rubric that can give the right answer for what to do.

I acknowledge that some people use the concept of remaining ‘neutral’ in bad faith, and I view this in the same light as concern trolling more generally: it shouldn’t undermine the value of the principles.

I am sorry if I am not understanding you correctly. It is not my intent to get under anyone’s skin here.

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Whatever is undermined is not the ability of community to self-govern. RFC SC rotation is not a community vote exactly because we lack an accepted notion of borders of community that could self-govern.

Foundation asked for policy proposals after the first sponsorship debacle iteration, sure, a policy can include a judgement call based on balance of factors but that’s after listing the factors… I would not be that much surprised if Foundation tried to weigh in on creating a final policy out of proposals, and botched that up… but in reality it simply got zero proposals that can be callled a policy proposal. There are some people who assumed that they complained enough to blacklist a specific company by name.

The Foundation is, if anything, quite consistent in saying they are not equipped and are not going to do any leadership, neither good nor bad. It periodically disclaims its suitability to wield authority that people offer to it.

I cannot speak for John, but I will push activism towards demands shaped in a way that doesn’t damage further our ability to do even technical decision making. This might end up being directly opposed to it sometimes, even in the cases where I mostly support the underlying object-level values (especially when the real bottleneck is elsewhere anyway).

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It seems you’re not actually arguing for anything relevant to the concrete discussion we’re having about actual events and people, but instead are simply derailing it with a different discussion of “principles” that on a surface level sounds related but isn’t.

If you or anyone else would like to talk about this “principle of neutrality”, please take this as a sign to move it to another thread where it may lead to productive discussion.

EDIT: It seems that the moderators have taken notice and moved this discussion to its own thread, so continue as you please! :slight_smile:

If there is no way for the community to act in its own interests, it is not self-governed.

If this is true, it should defer to the community’s leadership. For instance, an open letter with over 232 signatures including many well-known and prolific contributors. Or maybe the resignation of 23 maintainers in protest of Eelco and the Foundation’s behavior? How about a different open letter with over 116 signatures calling for (among other things) Eelco’s resignation?

At what point will the community reach these ever-receding goalposts?

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The problem isn’t that I can’t relate this discussion back to anything concrete. The problem is that I wasn’t trying to make an argument about a specific, concrete event, but rather a more general point that I feel does apply broadly to much of the discourse. We’ve already discussed specific, concrete issues to death in many other threads, and I indeed do have some resistance to make this specifically about the existing incidents. To be somewhat more concrete about how I feel this might apply, though, a good example of where I feel that the principle of neutrality is especially important is in moderation decisions. I believe moderation decisions should be fair and proportionate, and it should not feel like contributors are given a lighter touch as a result of their personal viewpoints or their status within the community: in my opinion, misconduct is misconduct. Although I believe most people would agree with that principle, personally I didn’t feel it has been upheld very well in the past few days, and that’s why I felt compelled to defend the principle when it was questioned.

I will admit that it did indeed derail the thread, but I absolutely didn’t set out to do that. Sorry.

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There is a way for the community to self-govern to act in it’s own interests. However, everyone involved will have to be ready to compromise on various points, so that they can operate together in a group/community/team/project/org

Starting to discuss some well researched and proven ways here Consider applying Ostrom Principles to Nix organizational structure - #6 by samrose

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Correct, and no action from the foundation would fix the RFC SC issue.

For those who have not followed the corresponding discussion, there were zero implementability-claiming proposals for the constituency definition for voting for the RFC SC.

A bill of attainder is not a policy proposal. The examples you bring up are not providing leadership that can be usefully followed in making decisions looking forward.

At the point when not only vibe-based special-case demands are raised.

Foundation cares about infrastructure (including financial, yes). Yes, shrugging off some of the calls for scope creep happens.

The procedural proposal happened when people noticed that Foundation effectively ignores protests against refusal to make substantial decisions without policy. The changes might not be that good, and they are not self-governance as some call for in abstract (it’s still based on self-perpetuating teams, and there is nothing going on that would help that change), but it is clear-ish what is supposed to be implemented, so it will somewhat work.

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i may be replying more to the title than the latter parts of this discussion, but i notice the aim to remain “neutral” and the aim to remain “on-topic” (in quotations to emphasize the difficulty in defining either) are closely related to the Overton Window, or the “window of discourse” which is something like “the range of positions which are socially acceptable to discuss (, promote, challenge) in some venue”.

within Nix spaces, there’s both a range of positions which are valid to vocalize on any specific topic, as well as a range of topics which are relevant to bring to the space.

if one were to poll Nix users, i would expect to find conflicting views around, say, intellectual property, substance use, animal welfare or veganism, spirituality, economic systems, bodily decisions and expression, and of course views about whole countries, organizations, or industries. and yet the vast majority of these differences are never made prominent, would be considered off-topic even by those who hold a strong position within the topic, do not (visibly) divide us[^1].

the window of discourse is a thing most of us intuit as part of daily life: we can to some degree understand what causes the window to widen or shrink, and thereby predict such changes, and act in mind of this upstream.

for example, deciding to hold any physical event will imminently broaden the window of discourse because now substance policy, bodily expression, location (country) and possibly animal welfare are relevant to a degree they weren’t in an online-only space. further, we can predict in relative terms how much any of these will impact the window of discourse: location will be the topic which most expands the window, and if the event is catered then animal welfare should enter the window more than if it’s not catered.[^2]

i don’t think “neutrality” will always guide consensus or acceptance (which are, loosely, the things i think we most need). but i do think sudden expansions, retractions, or shifts to the window of discourse will challenge consensus. i think those mark the places we need to be attentive to, i think we can identify many of them before they effect too much (that’s my point in the previous paragraph), and there might even be ways to institutionalize parts of all that.


[^1]: the window of discourse does in fact impact who feels at home in a community. i do not mean to say it should always remain static.

[^2]: why wouldn’t one expect the other items i claim are relevant to enter the window of discourse? possibly because they are beyond a broader Overton window.

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I don’t see how this supposed “principle of neutrality” is relevant to Nix in any way.

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