“Be Excellent To Each Other” Considered Harmful

tl;dr: “Be Excellent To Each Other” was not intended as a problem-solving measure. But sometimes it is misinterpreted as a policy of ignoring i3Detroit’s problems instead of resolving them. Be polite but firm about clutter, tool breakage, flame wars, and inappropriate touching. That will work in most cases — but the remaining cases will leave the membership in our current state of constant dis-satisfaction. For other cases the Board must solve i3Detroit’s problems by forcing the issue with both incentives and disincentives. Until then, our perennial complaints will remain.

I have been asked to answer some questions about my candidacy for the Board of Directors at i3Detroit hacker space in Ferndale, Michigan. I’d like to thank whoever nominated me.


Personal History

How long have you been a member of i3?

In November I will have been a member for three years. I was a regular guest for about a year before that.

What types of personal projects do you work on?

I make prototypes of my boardgame designs, and run the i3Detroit boardgame night twice a month.

What appointments have you held/do you hold now at i3? (previous board, officers, zone wardens, committee chairs, etc)

I’m a previous board member of i3Detroit, and warden of the Laser zone.

Incidentally, I also have been a Board member and/or convention committee member for Penguicon, ConFusion, the Ann Arbor Science Fiction Association, and the Logical Language Group. So far I’ve seen the same issues over and over, and I learned a lot. Our issues are not new.

What projects have you worked on to improve i3?

I ran a fundraiser which purchased our big laser cutter, Bumblebee. I arranged the donation of our automated embroidering machine. I created the vinyl pop can decorations for the recycling bin, the Hack For Great Justice sign, the sweep-up-after-yourself floor stencil, and the “Where does this go?” box stencil.


Philosophy

What qualities do you look for in a fellow board member?

If you are a Board member and don’t want anyone to be angry at you (even if they’re wrong), you can’t do your job. At least don’t get in the way.

Your job is to know what’s going on. If you’re out of touch, recuse yourself from decisions you know nothing about.

If you disagree with the code of conduct, tell us, and work to change it to something you stand behind. It is a declaration to our members of what to expect. If you leave that expectation in place, and then surprise us when you refuse to enforce it, you created a false expectation. Speaking of which:

Do you agree with i3's current Harassment Policy?

Yes. I wrote it, and drafted its revision.

I’m willing to re-phrase the wording of item 2 (Ask before touching another person, and interpret the absence of a clear “yes” as a “no”. Abide by it.) to preserve its intent, while making it specific enough that every Board member will be willing to enforce it.


What is your stance on rules/organization vs pure do-ocracy in the space?
When/where is there a place for each?

I do not care about procedural minutiae. The only rules I care about are those that exist for one reason and one reason only: to set expectations between us, regarding things we care about.

One question: When you enforce this rule, does it have anything to do with the will of the membership? With harms to anyone? Does anyone benefit?

No? Then you’re just jumping through hoops for the sake of rules. We have too much of that.

Yes? Then I will not let it drop until it is resolved.

All that matters is member satisfaction, not Robert’s Rules Of Order.

What is the biggest issue at i3 that you hope to address in the next year, whether you serve on the board or not?

I want to solve one of the root causes of almost all our problems. It’s not clutter, tool abuse, member dis-engagement, or the resignations of some of our most valuable members. I am about to describe something at the root of all of those.

Imagine if we only had two kinds of tools: paintbrushes, and blowtorches. Until recently, that was the state of i3Detroit’s problem-solving “toolkit”. We had scolding, and a permanent ban from the space.

I was one of those instrumental in creating enough support to pass a recent rule change, so that we can now put memberships on a temporary time-out, proportional to the offense. Previously, i3Detroit only responded to one thing as a group: danger of physical violence to you, or to tools. Of all our many problems, that was the only one we took seriously enough to do anything real. Aren’t you glad we will start to have a higher standard than that?

The problem is, we are culturally still afraid of problem-solving with anything other than tiny soft paintbrushes. All disciplinary action still looks like a blowtorch that will set everything on fire.

Oh my god, that’s not a paintbrush! The Board is on a blowtorch rampage!

Without taking real, concrete action to force our problems to change, i3Detroit’s problems

will

not

change.

I have led several volunteer social organizations over the past 15 years, and learned they are founded on a potentially self-defeating contradiction.

  1. One of the main motivations to join is to use the group’s social health to improve one’s own individual social health.
  2. If attendance is frequently unpleasant, pleasant members drift away, and mostly unpleasant members remain.
  3. An unenforced code of conduct is no code of conduct.
  4. Enforcement means saying “no” to someone, which damages the individual social health of the enforcer, which decreases the motivation to be in the group.

Here’s our wiki’s description of the “Be excellent to each other” motto. Its description stacks the deck against resolving problems, and in favor of ignoring problems. It places responsibility on the individual, and discourages us from holding each other accountable with real, measurable consequences. You are the only person who should do the right thing. When you leave a mess, break stuff, flame the mailing list, or touch someone inappropriately, nothing happens but talk. You’re rewarded the same either way by the group. If someone mistreats you, resolve it as private non-i3Detroit individuals, not at the formal “acting as group” level. And we wonder why many members are un-engaged with the group?

“Be excellent to each other” is not a code of conduct. These adages, such as “Don’t be negative”, only protect the status-quo and prevent improvement.

Positive and negative should both be tools in the toolkit — the right tool for the right job.

Conflict-averse authority figures attempt to write a code of conduct as if it were a computer program, to be executed robotically. This disperses responsibility to the entire group, instead of accepting personal responsibility for a decision that someone will dislike.

A robotic system can be exploited in two ways. First, conflict-averse leadership will protect their own social status (or social anxiety) before they protect the membership. They will selectively enforce minutiae to stall the process, and find technicalities with which to excuse a long-standing pattern of misconduct by their buddies. This happened twice at i3Detroit in the last term.

Second, false accusations are another tool in a persistent campaign to drive someone out of the group — for ulterior reasons unrelated to the code of conduct. This can be prevented by the Board exercising personal judgement to preserve the intent of the rules, instead of robotically executing the letter of the law. Vote them out if they get this wrong.

I’ve seen this abuse of power in other groups. We are nowhere near there. We couldn’t see abuse of power from here with a telescope. We tie the hands of those who give us selfless dedication, if they even hint that they might tie the hands of the selfish.


Elect people you trust. That’s all. Elect me if you trust me. Remove me if that trust is no longer deserved.

Elect me because I live in this state, so I know what’s going on. Since I actually use the space, I stand to lose as much as you do if my leadership is bad. Expect me to resign if I move out of state.

Ask me to tell you why I made a decision you disagree with. If I won’t tell you, or my answers are unacceptable, vote me out.

What isn’t i3 for?
  1. A “family”.
    That would be great! But raise your hand if you know half the members. All you need to be a member is $50 and a free Tuesday night. It’s a revolving door. I went to great lengths to limit the number of people who I will unconditionally care for, for the rest of their lives. So, if you want to call i3Detroit a “family”, let’s talk about limiting the membership to those who pass a quiz matching faces to names, and whose names and faces are most often matched on the quiz.
  2. A place you dread going to.
    …because an entitled jerk will make your experience unpleasant when you were minding your own business, and nobody else will have your back. Don’t worry, you’re thinking of Noisebridge. i3Detroit is different.
  3. Getting permission in one-on-one conversations to spend the group’s money; Feeling loved and affirmed in member meetings.
    No, switch those sources. It works the other way around.
  4. Your court-appointed behavioral rehabilitation therapist.
    i3Detroit is not a group of pushovers for you to exploit with impunity under the cover of “Be excellent to each other”. We will not give up and leave in exasperation like so many have before. When asking doesn’t work, we’ll start demanding. The next time three subsequent member meetings pass voting resolutions telling you to get your failed project out of the space, we will throw it in the dumpster and put you on a time-out. The expressed will of the membership is no longer just a suggestion.
Should we work to make i3 more inclusive and diverse? How can we?

Yeah. See my essay Laser Cutters and Social Justice.

Jo Freeman’s classic essay The Tyranny Of Structurelessness explains how all groups have power relationships. You cannot have “no structure”. All you can do is pick between intentional or unintentional structure. So, when you avoid giving out power intentionally, all you are doing is perpetuating the existing unintentional power. Racism and sexism are unconscious, not intentional. So structurelessness always advantages the old-boy’s club.

That’s why when well-meaning white males get together to make a group, they sincerely think all you need is “Be excellent to each other”. It’s not being a bad person; it’s just not realizing something that many non-white-non-males tend to know from experience.

What makes i3 great? Why did you join/why do you keep coming back?

Pandering.

LOL, no, seriously, though. It’s not to improve my employment prospects (although it does that). Quite the inverse — it lets me live frugally in order to partially opt out of the economy. That way I can afford to spend less time growing my career, and more time doing things I will be happy about when I’m on my deathbed.

And what is that? That is doing things together, with those who are doing it because they want to, not because they have to.