Author’s Note: I have never felt uncomfortable contributing to GNOME. This is a more general post about online communities, and targeted at some of the other FOSS communities I’ve been interested in contributing to or have contributed to in the past.
In certain online spaces, the idea that not including people who are intolerant of others is itself a form of negative intolerance has gained traction. This would be excluding those who post white supremacist content, misogyny, homophobia, transphobia, etc. A common argument against excluding these people is the “slippery slope” – if you exclude these people for hate speech, soon you’ll try to exclude any people for anything.
In reality, this slope does not exist. In healthy online communities, these people are kept out and the community continues to move forward. How? Well, it’s because these communities could not be healthy and safe without the exclusion of harmful elements. This is where we hit the paradox of tolerance.
What Is The Paradox of Tolerance?
…if a society is tolerant without limit, its ability to be tolerant is eventually seized or destroyed by the intolerant.
In online spaces, “tolerance” refers to who you allow in the community. To be tolerant means to allow people from all walks of life into your space, regardless of race, sexual or gender identity, or other factors used to marginalize people within society. To go further, a good community should do more than tolerate them, but let them know that they are welcome and that they will not be marginalized within the community.
A person is marginalized when they are abused for their identity, or made to feel less important because of it. In real life, this manifests as workforce discrimination, housing discrimination, police brutality, and many other forms of oppression that make it so that the value of a victim’s life and livelihood are less important than the oppressor’s. In an online space, marginalization is more subtle. It would be if a black person saw someone use the “n word” – or worse, is called one – without reprucussion. It would be if a trans woman had to deal with someone saying that they are “men trying to invade women’s spaces”. It would be if a woman in general had to deal with men making sexual remarks and unwanted advances. These things all make the victims uncomfortable, and the lack of action taken can make them feel unimportant.
Some communities like to think of themselves as “perfectly tolerant”. This means that they would tolerate people that take actions to make marginalized people uncomfortable. When a community does this, they are actually being intolerant, and enabling abusers.
Isn’t It Intolerance To Keep Out The Intolerant?
Yes. In a very literal sense, it is intolerance to keep these people out of communities. However, the effect of this intolerance is that people who face real intolerance in their day-to-day lives feel safer in those communities. So it comes down to what you think is important. Do you think it’s more important to let people abuse others, or to have a safe and productive community? If you want to run a community, you have to make that choice.