Is Linus Torvalds too abusive on the Linux Kernel Mailing List?

Sparks are flying on the Linux Kernel Mailing List!

There's a controversy raging among Linux developers about abusive language allegedly used by Linux Torvalds and other Linux developers on the Linux Kernel Mailing List. Sarah Sharp, an Intel Linux developer, commented about it in a post on the LKML.

Sarah's Post: Professionalism on the LKML

Here's Sarah Sharp's post on the LKML (I've included Linus' response later in the article). Strangely enough, she uses an f-bomb in her own message. This would seem to go against her suggestion about needing more professionalism on that mailing list.

Seriously, guys? Is this what we need in order to get improve -stable?

Linus Torvalds is advocating for physical intimidation and violence.

Ingo Molnar and Linus are advocating for verbal abuse.

Not *f--king* cool. Violence, whether it be physical intimidation,

verbal threats or verbal abuse is not acceptable. Keep it professional

on the mailing lists.

Let's discuss this at Kernel Summit where we can at least yell at each

other in person. Yeah, just try yelling at me about this. I'll roar

right back, louder, for all the people who lose their voice when they

get yelled at by top maintainers. I won't be the nice girl anymore.

More at Mailing List Archives

Libertarian Free Speech Versus PC Corporate Speech Restrictions

I'm somewhat torn on this issue. First, I don't read the LKML generally so I can't comment on all of the exact words used by Linus or other Linux developers in various posts over the years. I've included two from Linus below. You can get a feel for what's been going on in those messages.

The libertarian in me dislikes politically correct or corporate standards of language. So the idea of Linus or other developers having to censor themselves or use "feel good" language really turns me off. Sometimes it's better to be direct, even if it's done in a rough or even profane way if it gets the point across...particularly if you're dealing with somebody that is pushy and won't taken no for an answer.

On the other hand, sometimes you catch more flies with honey than with vinegar. Interactions between people that don't have some sort of code of conduct can quickly devolve into pointless bickering, personal attacks, and other useless wastes of time. Who wants to bother with that? It's a huge turn off to me, and it would discourage me from participating if I were a developer.

Part of this seems to be a culture clash between the corporate world of Sarah at Intel, and the home worker world of Linus Torvalds. Those who work in a corporate environment know that such places don't lend themselves to free speech or even independent thought sometimes. A freelancer or work-at-home person enjoys much more freedom in that sense. Folks like us aren't used to the self-censorship that goes on in corporations like Intel.

The Effects of Salty Language & Rude Behavior on Linux Development

Perhaps one way of looking at it is to ask a simple question: How has the current level of interaction on the LKML affected the development of Linux?

I wonder if it has helped or hurt Linux. My worry is that overtly abusive language might turn off some talented developers from contributing to Linux. That's a real loss for all of us, and it might mean that some behavioral changes are needed on the part of Linus and other developers.

However, it may also have helped Linux development by cutting through the crap quickly and efficiently. And it may have encouraged Linux developers to think carefully before submitting ideas to the list. Who wants to be pilloried for making a stupid suggestion?

Linus' Response to Sarah's Message

Linus had his own response to Sarah's post that focuses on the libertarian angle I mentioned before. Like Sarah, he uses a profanity in his message. This seems to indicate that perhaps the two of them are more on the same page than they think? Heh, heh.

Bull--it.

The thing is, the "victim card" is exactly about trying to enforce

your particular expectations on others, and trying to do so in a very

particular way. It's the old "think of the children" argument. And

it's bogus. Calling things "professional" is just more of the same -

trying to enforce some kind of convention on others by trying to claim

that it's the only acceptable way.

Because if you want me to "act professional", I can tell you that I'm

not interested. I'm sitting in my home office wearign a bathrobe. The

same way I'm not going to start wearing ties, I'm *also* not going to

buy into the fake politeness, the lying, the office politics and

backstabbing, the passive aggressiveness, and the buzzwords. Because

THAT is what "acting professionally" results in: people resort to all

kinds of really nasty things because they are forced to act out their

normal urges in unnatural ways.

More at Mailing List Archives

Linus in Action on the LKML

Here's an example, in an unrelated LKML thread, of Linus dealing with another developer. I'll let you make your own judgement about it. Was he right in how he handled it, or should he have been more...er...diplomatic?

Mauro, SHUT THE F--K UP!

To make matters worse, commit f0ed2ce840b3 is clearly total and utter

CRAP even if it didn't break applications.

More at Mailing List Archives

Final Thoughts: A Tempest in a Teapot?

It's quite possible that all of this is just a tempest in a teapot, and that most people could not care less about any of it. Still, it makes for a bit of juicy drama for Linux geeks who weren't aware of what's been happening on the LKML all these years.

In the end, I think I have to come down on the side of Linus (particularly given Sarah's use of a profanity in her own message). Despite some of the nastiness, I'd rather that a free exchange of ideas continue on the LKML, even if some of it takes place in ways that wouldn't happen in a corporate environment. Such blunt honesty and direct feedback has probably served Linux well over the years.

What's your take on this? Is Linus right? Is Sarah right? Or are they both wrong? Tell me in the comments.

Top 10 Hot Internet of Things Startups
Join the discussion
Be the first to comment on this article. Our Commenting Policies