It's Time to End the War On Stupid People

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I never knew Sarah Sharp personally, but I was aware of her.

On one hand, it's hard to say how; I've never had particular interest in the USB stack, or much at all outside of the core kernel, and even there I've never managed to actually contribute beyond a couple of cosmetic patches.

On the other hand, it's little mystery at all: Sarah was the first female kernel contributor I'd ever heard of, and the only one I can readily name now. It's an uncomfortable answer, because when someone breaks into a space that doesn't often include their gender or background, we feel we avoid culpability by being nonchalant. No exclusion here, nosiree. Didn't even notice you were a woman. It's comforting and dishonest; when someone breaks a boundary of cultural exclusion, regardless of how your reaction may later be judged, the fact is you notice.

Although apparently nobody noticed when Sarah quietly disappeared over the past year, finally coming out to cite now-familiar complaints about the toxic and hostile atmosphere on LKML and in the kernel community in general.

In an ignorant youth that I'd rather was further away than it is, I remember liking the atmosphere on LKML. Mentioning being in the kernel community seemed to have the same effect on the right kind of crowd as saying you were from Brooklyn did in the early 90s. The threads of LKML were mean streets that would chew you up and spit you out if you weren't tough enough to handle it. But I was, of course. I was tough, you betcha, and only real tough guys have what it takes to stand up for code the way it should be written.

It's not hard to see the appeal, for a certain sort of ego, but there's something deeper. "Nerd" communities gravitate toward this form again and again. Other open source forums, video game communities, 4chan, the marks are similar no matter how distant the topics get. And why? What is it about geeky types that produces this sort of structure?

What is the war on stupid people?

Being cursed with doting parents, I got called a "genius" from a very young age, well on in to my adult years. I had my share of unusual feats, and I liked computers which were proper "genius" things to like, and at some point I took an IQ test and a very impressive number was produced. "Genius" it was then.

Of course, the older I get, the less I'm convinced there really is any such thing. Getting anything meaningful out of as gloriously defective a thing as a human brain, no matter what condition it may be in, is a skill and an art, not a product of ordainment into a pantheon of great thinkers. So I stopped thinking of myself as a genius.

But before I did, I remember thinking everyone else was stupid.

Perhaps it's too much praise, or some failure to notice the dissonance in thinking you're better than everyone else and then also expecting them all to keep up, but I'm hardly the only sufferer of the condition. To a certain sort of mind, stupidity is the chief moral and cultural demon in the modern world. When you have the answer to everything, it suddenly becomes clear that the only thing between the world and paradise is all of those people who just won't fucking listen no matter how many times I explain the most obvious thing God damn them!

It is human nature to define our enemies, and soon the abstract and ill-defined idea of "stupid" begins to take on concrete and fantastically fictional features. It becomes intentional; every futile political debate, every badly indented piece of forgotten code, every near-mishap on the freeway, all engineered by some malevolent demographic of those who wish to fuck everything up for everyone.

And so protectorates are established. Bastions to hold back the encroaching stupid masses. The mean streets of LKML, where yes you will be lambasted and degraded and torn apart daily, but you're ok with it because you're tough. You're a real tough guy who can take this sort of thing because you're not one of them. It is all necessary to protect you from them. And if you can't, well maybe you're one of them after all and you should leave, traitor.

As the airport screenings protect you from Muslims and the mass incarcerations protect you from drugs, so this sort of personal violation protects you from idiocy.

I'm prone to hyperbole, on this blog especially, but I have also witnessed a contributor in #fedora openly proclaim that someone seeking help in the channel was being deliberately incompetent for the purpose of causing him frustration. On multiple separate occasions. If one ever wanted to destroy the field of economics entirely, one need only come up with a single example of a person dedicating time and effort to such a perfectly and absolutely unproductive task. What can we call the belief that such people exist and are out to get you other than psychotic paranoia?

And so, I ask, what is it to be stupid, really? Are some slower to process information or discover novel solutions to problems? Certainly, and some run less quickly than others. If we leave behind our childish desperation to invert the high school hierarchy, I can scarcely find much reason to value one much over the other. A person who is "stupid" in this way does me no harm whatsoever. Is irrationality and succumbing to bias a better definition? Doubtful. These are real and dangerous problems, but irrationality is not so intrinsic as we claim of "stupidity." Rationality is a procedure, the "skill and art" I mentioned earlier. It can and has been described as a step-by-step process, and it requires only minimal mental power to execute. What it requires a great deal more of is self-discipline. I hardly think the behaviors we describe here demonstrate much of that.

So let's bring an end to it. Call of the war on stupid people. Respect others as a matter of policy. I promise you the kernel will be fine. All of us will be. Most of us better.

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