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Regrets Handling Conduct Concerns Earlier this Year

[This message was initially drafted just after the AH/DAM/DPL sprint.
This is in no way a response to the recent discussions on -project,
although I did know that I would eventually send this message while
participating in that discussion.]

Debian has always been strongly committed to its principles and to
learning to do things better over time.
Earlier this year, the Debian Account Managers intervened when a member
of our community failed to act constructively when concerns were raised
about their behavior.  Let there be no doubt: I support DAM’s actions.
They hoped to send a strong, private message to an individual and over a
period of time resolve the issue.  Things ended up being a lot more
public and painful than DAM intended.

Whenever anything like that happens, we naturally ask ourselves how we
can do better.  And so even though I support the actions we took using
the tools we had at the time, I’m also writing to express my regrets
about how we handled the situation with Norbert Preining.  I'm writing
in the hopes that we as a project can find much-needed healing.  I’m
writing in hopes that next time we’ll have better tools and skills; next
time let us do this without so much pain.

In this message I am writing as the project leader—as someone who has a
vision for the project and who has reasonably good visibility into the
broad picture.  However I am sharing my own thoughts.  This is not a
statement on behalf of the project nor does it represent the views of
anyone directly involved in that incident.

I regret that Norbert’s private business with the project was dragged
onto a public list more than Norbert might have chosen.  Norbert was not
the one who brought this to debian-project; that choice was taken from
him by a third party.

Most of all though I regret that we did not work with Norbert to find
ways for him to express his views while meeting our community
standards.  Norbert said that no one reached out and offered mediation;
no one offered to work with him.  All the evidence I’ve found supports
his claim.  Many people wrote  and told him they believed his behavior
was inappropriate.  Sometimes they even explained specific aspects that
were inappropriate.  Yelling is not the same as mediation, and I think
it would be all too easy to hear what we did as yelling.  We did not
succeed in taking the conversation away from legalisms—arguments about
whether a particular phrase was or was not appropriate—to a discussion
of how he could  express frustration and disagreement in terms more appropriate
to our standards.  Some people have suggested that a suspension or
something like that was necessary to express the severity of the
situation and make it possible for people outside DA and Antiharassment
to work with Norbert to make progress.  I regret that we’ll never know:
we never really tried before the suspension.

I regret that the person handling most of this case within the
Antiharassment team had what in my opinion is a clear conflict of
interest.  Past negative interactions made it really hard for Norbert to
trust that he would get a fair hearing.  Past negative interactions
probably also made it hard for the Antiharassment team to reach past
Norbert’s initial frustration and take the conversation to a place past
the legalisms where real progress could be made.  However, I also know
that this was not simply a case where recusing was a clear and easy
answer (see below for details).  I regret that we didn’t have better
tools for dealing with conflict of interest and hope we will develop
those tools going forward.

The Debian account managers struggled to create new tools for this
situation.  They wanted to send a clear message while still allowing
Norbert to do technical work.  I regret that the way Salsa works proved
a significant obstacle to that.  Norbert was not able to access
repositories for the packages he maintained.

In the future I hope we can work with people to help them out when they
are struggling to express themselves within our standards.  I know we
can do that without compromising our standards.

I hope we’ll have a clear understanding of what conflicts we need to
avoid.  I hope we’ll have strong enough teams that we can still be
functional when people recuse themselves.  I hope we’ll have appropriate
tools to get extra review when we find we are a bit under staffed and
someone cannot easily recuse.

And obviously I hope that we fix some of the technical challenges we
discovered with our infrastructure in this case.

We discussed all of these issues at the recent DA/Ah/DPL sprint and made
good progress.
I look forward to the Antiharassment team’s report from that activity.

But this message is also one of forgiveness (see [1] for exactly what
I’m talking about by forgiveness). I don’t speak of
forgiveness and understanding from Norbert: part of respecting him  is
letting him have his own reactions and expressing my genuine feelings
without pressuring him.
But we as a project need to forgive ourselves, and I do think it is
appropriate for me to start that work.

So, having expressed my regrets and hopes, I’d like to remind us that
there are reasons we did what we did.  We might choose to act
differently in the future, but we can offer compassion and understanding
to ourselves.

First, the people doing this work are all volunteers working to make the
best Debian they can.  We care about respect.  We care about showing
compassion when members of our community are hurting.  We care about
minimizing unnecessary pain and creating a welcoming community.

This particular incident was challenging because it came at a point when
people were very emotionally drained.  And yet, some aspects of the
situation required immediate action.

Also, aspects of the situation had built up over years.  Tensions were
already near the breaking point.

People did the best they could.
Now we’re learning from the mistakes.

As for the specifics.  We were not the ones who dragged this onto a
public list.  But there are some positive consequences of that
unfortunate situation.  We learned a lot about what our project needs
for transparency.  We will have a better balance for how to share
information with the members of the community while respecting privacy
going forward.

I hope we can develop better tools and success at bringing a
conversation to a place where we can discuss how to help someone meet
our standards.  But it is really hard.  Sometimes there are immediate
problems you need to stop.  People have strong responses when approached
about a conduct issue.  It takes a lot of skill and sometimes emotional
energy to get past that initial response.  We’re working to develop
those skills and to understand appropriate limits for how we approach
these skills.  The Antiharassment job needs to be one that people can do
without subjecting themselves to abuse.  And the Antiharassment team has
a significant communications challenge.  A lot of people in that role
have indicated that they are afraid to send antiharassment emails
without a team consensus.  Even once someone has indicated willingness
to work on an issue, it’s difficult to be responsive enough for empathy
and compassion while building a consensus behind communication.  We
still don’t have the answer for this one.

The conflict of interest issue had no easy answer.  There was one
member of the AH team departing.  There was one new member not fully up
to speed.  And there was a member who had some strong negative
interactions with Norbert before joining the AH team.  There was not a
clear conflict of interest policy.  Sometimes in situations like that
you don’t have good options.


So is this an apology?  If you think that apologizing is about
expressing regrets, understanding what you would do differently, and
developing empathy for someone who is hurting, then absolutely this is
an apology.  We’re all going to have things we regret.  Communication and
respect are hard.  I want a community where it’s easy to express these
regrets.  I want a community where we grow stronger and more confident
every time we face our regrets and consider what (if anything) we would
do differently.

But if apologizing is about submission and humiliation and blame, then
this is not an apology.  Humiliation and denigration have no place in

Sam Hartman
Debian Project Leader

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