First published: Nov 14, 2015, 2:31pm -0600
Last edited: Nov 14, 2015, 6:35pm -0600

Equity vs Equality, Meritocracies, Social Justice, and Codes of Conduct

Eric Raymond is at it again and so I guess I am too.

His most recent post delves into why Social Justice Warriors (which I guess is meant to be a disparaging term) should be expunged from hacker communities.

Arguments on the internet tend to end up having some vocal subgroups who espouse idiotic things, but this one especially rubs me the wrong way, so I think it’s worth rebutting.

While it’s certainly easy to denounce things ESR says about social justice through tangents about his less savory beliefs (PUA, etc), it might distract from the substance of this discussion, so instead I’m just going to mostly just talk about meritocracy, which has become a hot-button issue even in its own right.

I do want to point out that every camp has bad apples, so please refrain from defining your opinion of a group (social justice or meritocrats or whatever else) by the worst ideas you’ve heard from them. This goes both ways. Everyone’s just trying their best at something.

Meritocracy is good, right?

The tech industry has often applauded itself for its focus on meritocracy. ESR says that he doesn’t

care whether my fellow contributors were white, black, male, female, straight, gay, or from the planet Mars, only whether their code was good.

I believe him! To try and achieve excellence at anything, it’s important to evaluate ideas and solutions independently of anything else. We should definitely not “lower standards” to try and be more inclusive. This is a common argument from people who praise meritocratic leanings.

Equality vs Equity

I’m here to tell you things are never so simple.

If you’re in a foot race, equality is when the rules are the same for everyone. This is reasonable! Everyone wants to run the same race.

To bring this metaphor into a GitHub pull request is much trickier. Evaluating if the finish line is the same is easy. Let’s just look at the code and ignore everything else.

But evaluating if the starting line is the same for everyone is much, much harder. The only way a race to the finish line is fair is if everyone gets to start at the same place, and that is simply not true of the tech industry.

Credit: Mary @ Off She Goes

There are all kinds of structurally oppressive tendencies in our society that, at scale, have strong filtering effects on who was able to participate in the early tech industry and who is able to participate now.

Poverty may prevent you from getting access to a computer.

Stereotypes may prevent you from feeling allowed to contribute.

Feeling like you don’t belong is a powerful effect, and while any individual might overcome it, the stochastical effects of this at scale are significant.

Meritocrats vs Social Justice

Social justice advocates aren’t opposed to excellent output and excellent work, nor are they for the long-term lowering of standards. In fact, social justice advocates are attempting to raise standards and improve output by increasing the diversity of thought, voice, and opinion! So in this way, meritocrats and social justice supporters have a lot in common.

Where I think the difference lies is that meritocrats typically aren’t the first to admit we currently have problems. The system is working for the meritocrats, who don’t feel shut out.

Social justice in my view is the attempt to not only recognize there is a problem but find solutions to getting everyone to the same starting line.

What Equity looks like

I’ve written about microaggressions before, and the key thing to point out is that large amounts of small issues seriously add up.

In the situation ESR describes, djangoconcardiff might be a troll I guess, but it doesn’t matter. Also, Roberto Rosario seems like a nice guy! And Roberto’s point that a code of conduct wouldn’t really affect the outcome of things from his end is a reasonable point. It doesn’t make that much of a difference to Roberto, or to the code, because Roberto will keep on worrying about keeping the metaphorical finish line of code excellence the same.

However, the argument that adding a code of conduct shouldn’t matter cuts both ways. If it doesn’t matter to add one, it doesn’t matter to not add one, either. And even though it might not affect the finish line, it could very definitely affect the starting line.

Good codes of conduct make people feel safe. If you don’t feel safe and you don’t feel welcome, why would you attempt to contribute?

To achieve true equality, we must first achieve equity. And to achieve equity, we must address the things that make minorities in our industry feel unwelcome or unable to start.

Diversity of opinion leads to better analysis of problems and possible solutions. Our industry can’t afford to overlook such an obvious increase to our combined merit.