In today's climate, when spinmeisters are trying to gain ascendancy in the FOSS world and are succeeding to a large extent, Torvalds' comments would not go down well. The man was clearly not showing respect – which, as Stephen Colbert would say, is today's word.
But the topic of respect is raised only when it suits people to do so. Canonical, the company behind the Ubuntu GNU/Linux distribution has been under siege recently, for its decisions to adopt a new interface and also a new X server. Some of the criticism has been rather, shall we say, pointed and direct.
Now suddenly, Jono Bacon, the Ubuntu community manager - the spinmeister-in-chief - has come up with an initiative to try and create respect within the FOSS community. Why? Well, Bacon feels that all the aggressiveness in the community is not of much help in what the community is trying to do.
The timing is rather funny. There have been countless instances over the last few years when respect was the last thing being shown in FOSS circles. Yet Bacon was silent. He hasn't explained why he's all over respect right now.
Now when Canonical has its feet held to the fire, we have a new website called OpenRespect.org registered and volumes of spiel being generated by Bacon.
It seems a bit odd that Bacon, in his initial introduction to the initiative, cited the names of two other community leaders - Stefano Zacchiroli, leader of the Debian GNU/Linux project and Jared Smith, head of the Fedora GNU/Linux project - as people he had consulted. He then promptly issued some kind of manifesto without obtaining agreement from either of these people.
Both promptly made it clear that the initiative, in its present form, did not have their support. Another community leader, Aaron Seigo of the KDE Desktop project, wrote a lengthy analysis of the implications of the word respect, making it clear that he did not support the initiative in its current form either.
As an aside, it seems ironic that the first person to comment on one of Bacon's posts was Jo Shields, who packages Mono for Debian. Shields, an employee of Oxford University, has no qualms about attacking viciously any developer who does not conform to his way of thinking. He has no qualms about using racist epithets either. Shields, incidentally, supports the respect initiative!
In this, he closely resembles Linux kernel developer Matthew Garrett, who is on a similar mission to spread civil behaviour in the FOSS community. Garrett is one of those who was better known for his ability to flame people. However, he has not aligned his mission to any company; he's apparently made a trip to Damascus sometime in the last few years.
Mind you, Bacon is not saying that there should not be criticism. No, only that you should be respectful when you criticise. In other words, you can abuse a person behind his or her back; just don't say it to the individual on a web forum. Maintain a civilised exterior and practice cannibalism at home.
Life in the FOSS world has always been punctuated by flame wars. People are frank and often brutally honest on mailing lists that are open to the world - it is something like having the process of making sausages revealed to the public at large. A recent example: senior GNOME developer Murray Cumming let fly at former GNOME media adviser Jeff Waugh in 2007, revealing a number of home truths that outsiders knew nothing about, facts that Waugh himself could not rebut. A year later, Waugh left the project.
Canonical has a code of conduct for its Ubuntu project - but then Canonical is a company owned by one man. The FOSS community is an unmanageable entity and has more loose cannons than most other communities. One cannot dictate a code of behaviour and then expect people to conform - especially when the motives are so suspect.
If anything, this obvious PR initiative will lead to much more robust criticism of Ubuntu than would have happened otherwise.