How does Debian handle tragedy?


Debian recently announced the sad passing of Lucy Wayland, giving credit to the various ways she contributed to the project and the well-being of the community. Those of us who visited Cambridge had met Lucy from time to time, her absence will be on many people's minds when we return there for future events.

It is an awkward moment for Debian. It is inappropriate to draw any specific conclusions about something we don't completely understand. On the other hand, we need to recognize that there has been heightened risk to people in Debian and some other free software communities. Wayland's death happened in January, some time before the news was made public in March yet it occurred only shortly after a number of people were made to feel unwelcome in very cruel circumstances during the Christmas week. Some have spoken publicly about being threatened, feelings of shame or apprehension and others have started giving private feedback about similar encounters in the community.

In mid-2018, when a member of the community was in a period of pain and grief, the project leader, Chris Lamb, saw it as a political opportunity and took it upon himself to try and shame and humiliate that person with a series of sly and malicious emails. Relentlessly pouring on undeserved blame and guilt with a series of condescending emails over half the year. How would we feel if Lamb reproduces this behavior with those mourning Wayland at this moment, twisting his rusty knife in an open wound to see if he can get a reaction? Towards the end of the year, the same so-called leader lit the fuse and then stood back and allowed a lynching culture to emerge and thrive during the week of Christmas. This is normally a period of rest and reflexion for people and that has been taken away, replaced with a period of vindictiveness. In a large distributed community like Debian, the consequences of such leadership/bullying can be dangerous and unpredictable. Nobody in an official capacity has even acknowledged that a problem exists and Lamb has yet to show any remorse.

An important point to consider: people who witness bullying by Debian's leadership may be more deeply affected than those who are bullied. To what extent was Wayland exposed to this? Once again, in such a large community, the probability that at least some people will find this deeply disturbing is quite high.

In another well-known NGO, Amnesty International, there were two work-related suicides during 2018. We are not speculating that Wayland's cause of death was suicide or work-related, nor do we know, that is a matter for the coroner's inquiry to officially rule on. This is being raised in the interests of the community at large. Amnesty decided to get external help and made the report public. A number of similarities with free software culture jump out of the page, consider the quotes from the Key Findings section (p14).

There has been only one nomination for the role of Debian Project Leader. The secretary brazenly decided to ignore the candidate and reopen nominations. The organization's culture and structure may well be a factor in Lamb's shortcomings and the apprehension that other people have about the role. While it may seem daunting to recover from such a position, it may be possible for somebody who is finally willing to meet with people and listen to all sides of the story. That is where leadership begins.

If you have concerns or stress in the free software community right now, please consider speaking to somebody offline. Amongst other things, only those viewpoints compatible with the Debian monoculture are now permitted on Debian's mailing lists but more importantly, when you speak to somebody face to face, it may be both a safer and more effective way to explore your feelings about the issue.

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