Paul's Internet Landfill/ 2016/ Unable or Unwilling to Help

Unable or Unwilling to Help

Electoral Reform

It looks like the Trudeau government is serious enough about electoral reform to go through the motions of running a subcommittee on electoral reform. Fair Vote Canada and LeadNow are ramping up their efforts, and have put together a so-called Every Voter Counts website advocating for proportional representation. They are also planning outreach campaigns.

I am interested in electoral reform. On balance, I support proportional representation more than I oppose it. One would think that I could be an asset in this campaign. But it looks as if I might well sit this out, make things worse and/or destroy my mental health in the process. It's so frustrating.

The LeadNow people want money and they want boots on the ground canvassing people door to door. I can and have given a little bit of money. I cannot (or am not willing) to help them canvass door to door. Everybody feels anxious about canvassing door to door at first, but that feeling is supposed to go away. I keep attempting to do it and I just can't. I am rocked by social anxiety and do not recover for days. I cannot trespass on other people's property and demand their time and attention towards my cause. It's too hard.

I am not saying that canvassing is unneccessary. If electoral reform is going to win it has to enter the consciousness of the general population, and giving talks to a bunch of voting nerds is not going to cut it. Some of those nerds are going to have to overcome their introversion enough to speak to strangers, but I don't think I will be one of them.

In addition to social anxiety I am also reluctant to deceive the public, which makes me doubly useless to the electoral reform movement. Truth is an early casualty of political activism. Given the choice of telling the truth and hurting their cause or telling people what they want to hear and advancing their cause, successful activists have no compunctions about telling people what they want to hear. There is ample evidence of that on the Every Voter Counts website, and if I choose to join forces with Fair Vote Canada or LeadNow I will be expected to toe that party line. I am unwilling to do so, for both ideological and pragmatic reasons.

Although I have been associated with activist movements, I am a terrible activist. I give credence to opposing views. I question my own side and my own positions relentlessly. I am more interested in what is true than in what is politically effective. That might work well in antiseptic academic environments, but such traits are liabilities when pushing through political change.

I keep wanting to protest that I have skills that could be of help to the process. I may not be able to canvass, but I am a relatively effective public speaker. I am able to explain the nuances of electoral reform and voting systems in terms that are easy for non-experts to understand. My knowledge of these issues is deeper than the average person, because I have had interest in the topic for a long time. I have some perspectives and lessons learned from previous attempts at electoral reform. None of this matters, and it hurts.


I am incapable of contributing to open source. I take criticism too harshly. I don't have a thick skin. I was reminded of this when re-reading a thread on jwz's blog the other day:

That blog post is five years old, and the discourse in open source development has shifted. jwz is notoriously curmudgeonly to begin with (which is part of what makes his blog entertaining) so maybe his commentators are also more curmudgeonly than average. It is possible that some of those commentators no longer endorse the comments they wrote five years ago. Nonetheless I think the underlying message is much the same in 2016 as it was in 2011, and I take that message to heart:

Maybe you should get out of the business, and/or get less precious about your stuff. Any dev worth his salt already knows everything he/she creates is buggy unusable shit, and should be nodding right along to reports like this, and thanking them for pointing out such an awful mistake. Their continuing mission: make it less buggy and shitty, the mission that never ends. You don't get good software from people whose feelings are so easily hurt.

I see the virtue of this position. All the software I have ever produced has been buggy and unreliable, which is why I usually keep it in house. Whatever I release to the Internet is either trivial or heavily disclaimered or both. When people point out problems in my code that I can fix, I am usually more grateful than not. (When they point out structural problems I cannot fix, then things get trickier.)

I also know enough about myself to know that my tolerance for entitled hostile bug reports is very thin. My tolerance for uncivil discourse is also diminishing. The message is crystal clear: I am incapable of producing good software (or bug reports, or user meetings, or documentation, or ...) and the Free Software world is better off without me.

Again, I want to resist by arguing that even people who have fragile egos and mental health issues ought to be capable of producing something of value to the world, and that I have two degrees in computer science in addition to a sustained interest in Free Software issues. None of this matters, and it hurts.

Unable or Unwilling?

If I was willing to change myself then maybe I could be of some use to others. I could get over my social anxiety and my foibles around deceiving people, and then maybe I could be useful as a political activist. I could develop a thicker skin and then maybe I could be useful to the Free Software community. Although I like to proclaim that I am unable to make contributions to these movements, the reality is that I am unwilling to do so. I still don't know how I feel about that.