2007-07-02

In Good Faith? About SIL International

[This is a work in progress.... and as it evolves, so too does SIL: it increasingly distances itself from its roots and mission.]

I like being straightforward about what OpenOffice.org is. I consider this level of honesty a civic and civil necessity, especially when one is dealing with something as apparently novel as Free and Open Source Software (FOSS), which has for about a decade mystified business with its raison d'être, its funding, and its general operation. So I try to be as clear as possible about us. I can't speak, of course, for the motivations of those who contribute to the project, only refer to what we have all agreed is the project's mission.

OpenOffice.org is proud to be an inclusive open-source project and direct in its efforts to work with all to give to everyone who has access to a computer free and useful tools for producing content of all sorts. We are bridging the digital and developmental gap, and we are not doing so with neoliberal tactics or rhetoric. Our goal is informatic autonomy for all. The community making up OOo is like many other: those engaged in it are surely part of others; it's nonexclusive. I am for instance a member of various academic organizations (the Modern Language Association, the American Studies Association, Narrative), an associate of the Free Software Foundation, a member of OASIS, and probably a member of some other organizations I can't offhand recall. Until recently I was also employed by CollabNet, and will soon be working for Sun, and I endeavour to clarify to all when I am wearing my employer's hat and when my OpenOffice.org, when, that is, I am representing OOo and when my employer. (None of what I write here represents CollabNet or Sun or OpenOffice.org: it represents my own views.) And I am sure that most involved in OpenOffice.org do exactly the same. We are all concerned about the good faith of our representations.

How is affiliation--personal, professional--related to OOo's consideration of contributions? It isn't. This where the democratic character of FOSS comes in, and also where it is meritocratic. OpenOffice.org welcomes all contributions, though of course not all are accepted. We base our acceptance on the merits of the contribution, not on the contributor, and our processes are transparent; if they are not, let us know and we can improve things so that they are. We do ask that for contributions of code the copyright holder sign a joint copyright assignment form, the JCA, which jointly assigns copyright to Sun, which owns copyright over OpenOffice.org, and to the original copyright holder. For non-code, we ask that the copyright holder use our Public Document License, which allows for subsequent free collaboration. The actual provenance of the material, and why it was created, is not terribly interesting, unless of course the presumed copyright holder has misrepresented her relation to the work and does not in fact legally hold copyright over it and is thus not legally entitled to change its license or assign it to any one. How the subsequent product (the community-enhanced code) will be used and by whom is another story altogether, and one that we can't really control, beyond the issue of license and the protections imposed by our trademark. But for what it is worth, the OOo project will, for one, use the code in accordance with its mission. How others outside that domain use it is less clear, and there are many who are now distributing more-or-less strong flavours of OOo.

Put another way, someone can contribute to OOo in order to further the product for her own selfish interests. All will naturally benefit from her meritorious contributions, as is the nature of FOSS, but her own contributions will be more particularly motivated. They may be good motives or they may not be, at least by my standards. But if she follows the protocols and is honest about the intellectual property contributed, her actual motivation will be of no concern. What counts is the contribution, not the contributor. Of course, one way the contributor can matter relates to how seriously she takes the project: we prefer sustained contributions, not one-offs, though we are always eager to consider all contributions; as well, we are generally willing to help a willing programmer or other sort of contributor develop her skills. This is in one of the ways we are a community: we care about the communal process.

That community, I've written often enough, is a participatory community, one made up of peers engaged in producing something in common, engaging in limited public sphere to do so. It's not, or not necessarily, a community of friends or a community that would exist without its own public identity that transcends individual particularity. We can come from other companies, and have a wide range of beliefs, political philosophies and cultural backgrounds, but our work on OpenOffice.org brings us together under the banner of a shared goal. Outside of OpenOffice.org, we may have nothing in common, not even be friends, though I have formed friendships through OpenOffice.org, and I'm sure others have, too.

One of my primary goals as the Community Manager is to enlarge the scope of the global OOo community. To this end, I go to a lot of conferences, present on OpenOffice.org, ODF and FOSS, meet many interesting people, and try to excite them into contributing to OpenOffice.org and other FOSS projects on a sustained basis. I can't assume that everyone is always representing herself in good faith, but equally I cannot really care, as what they do outside the boundaries of the public community is pretty much their own business. (If I do care, I care privately, as a private person.) What counts is the contribution itself, not the contributor. And if the contributor counts, as a member of the OOo community, she counts in a limited way, the boundaries being shadowed by her participation in the project and the implicit social contract she has formed with the community. If inside OOo everything is visible and transparent, outside, there is a kind of blindness.

There are interesting complications to this logic of social blindness. Critics of social contract theory (liberalism: the political theory that society is predicated on an individual's "right" to engage in contract), as it is applied generally to society writ large, point out that we are never such abstracted agents as liberal contract theory would imagine, and that various classes of people are always encumbered by more or less visible commitments and their obligations. I tend to think this is an obvious but no less important point. Rich people have more freedom than poor, and poverty and wealth can be conditioned by a host of qualities, such as skin colour, gender, age, etc. (An excellent and polemical analysis of the problem of evaluating social power is Walter Benn Michaels' The trouble with diversity.) But the social contract that a Debian developer engages in differs from that which supposedly constitutes the larger society in which she lives. It's a self-consciously designated utopia, a perfected space, though in practice, the typical FOSS community is just like any other human zoo and a space of politics and fun. Still, FOSS strives for utopic social contract where what counts is what you do in the project not what you do outside of it.

But of course FOSS goes beyond that. Richard Stallman preaches freedom not juts in coding but in daily politics, and rails against any suppression of liberal freedom. I and others also critique companies that use free software but do not contribute back to the community and are thus not "good FOSS citizens." The utopia of freedom whose kernel is FOSS, has no boundaries. But no one is wholly within it.

A short while ago, I wrote about meeting two people from SIL International at the Libre Graphics meeting in Montreal last May, where I presented on the ODF. They demonstrated the font work they've done and emphasized their commitment to FOSS and interest in OOo. I praised their fonts and open-source efforts and urged them to contribute to OpenOffice.org. They represented themselves to me as being simply concerned with improving free fonts. Open source fonts are quite important, and not having good, open-source and standardized fonts that accommodate a range of complex writing schemes has held back a fair amount of FOSS efforts. So I was enthusiastic about SIL's work.

It turns out that SIL is in fact an evangelical organization and its interest in fonts and translation derives from and is motivated by its proselytizing desire. Translating the Bible to this or that recherche language--and they are very active in codifying autochthonous languages--is a means the missionaries chose (and it's an effective one) earlier this century to spread the word. FWIW, Wikipedia has an entry on SIL, describing it right off as, "a worldwide non-profit evangelical Christian organization whose main purpose is to study, develop and document lesser-known languages in order to expand linguistic knowledge, promote literacy and aid minority language development." The entry is labelled as needing to be checked for impartiality, but one can easily confirm the claims.

SIL does not actually hide its identity and in its About page is direct in stating that it is a "faith-based organization" whose staff share a

Christian commitment to service, academic excellence, and professional engagement through literacy, linguistics, translation, and other academic disciplines. SIL makes its services available to all without regard to religious belief, political ideology, gender, race, or ethnic background.

A "Christian commitment"? What a vague modifier! And what work, exactly is it doing? But moving beyond that, the page seems dedicated to underscoring SIL's commitment to an impartial public sphere and to rescuing languages at risk. The affiliation with Wycliffe is buried, and the bloody and politically deplorable history of the group is unstated, though t
he Wikipedia article cites some good sources, which I recommend. Reading them, one can quickly understand why SIL people don't trumpet their past or, for that matter, the motivations for their interest in ethnolinguistics.

None of that comes across; rather, SIL appears to be as disinterested as academia. But where academics are motivated institutionally if not always historically by disinterested goals, SIL seems motivated by something else, presumably their "Christian commitment." An academic ethnolinguist doing field research might only want to document the language to prove a point, or simply to document it; an SIL agent (and she may be a trained linguist, too), will seemingly want to document the language in order to create a Bible that can be used to convert and establish their religion, all under the pretence of impartial linguistics.

I'm not blind to the tainted history of ethnography (a now-evidnetly discredited for being racist discipline) or of anthropology itself. (See in particular, .....; see also geertz). Nor am I ignoring the fact that the very act of documentation and all it entails is hardly innocent. It affects, perhaps irreversibly, the cultural environment. But there is a huge difference between conducting research that for all its unintended effects is nevertheless dedicated to maintaining the liberal freedom of its cultural interlocutors to one that is using the guise of that claim to freedom to try for the opposite. The academic is (supposedly) uninterested in changing the beliefs of her interlocutors; the SIL agent is.


But it's not obvious at all, and they make no effort to reveal their agenda to people like me or even casual visitors of its website. For instance, its "About" page mentions, at the very bottom, its affiliation with Wycliffe Bible Translators: "Resources for SIL’s work are provided primarily by affiliated organizations in various parts of the world. Major contributors include affiliated member organizations of Wycliffe International, which have a goal of promoting the translation of Christian Scriptures into the world’s languages where appropriate." Wycliffe is a little bit more upfront about what it does (translation) but not about why. For that, one must read into the unfortunate history of Wycliffe and SIL (t

Why is this an issue, if SIL does good fonts or if they contribute to ethnolinguistics? Who cares if they are funded by an organization which has historically kept itself close to bloody dictatorships

But SIL It doesn't trumpet the news, and it takes pains to make it appear as if the work it is doing is disinterested; indeed, it states that it does not care about religion or other characteristics. But if you work with them, even in a more or less indirect way, one can infer, you are in effect supporting a historically far-right wing Protestant evangelical effort. It's as if some reprehensible political or ideological organization were doing work one approved of but whose goals one disapproved of. Would I react the same, say, if it were a Nazi organization? No doubt.

Yet let's unpack this issue. How problematical is it to work with this organization or any other organization one disapproves of? After all, but for their statement about their evangelicalism, they seem just like any secular NGO. Perhaps my problem with SIL is personal, and I should state here that I am an atheist, but I don't think the issue is personal, and characterizing it as such would be but a version of an ad homiinem attack. I don't, for instance, discount the scientific work done by, say, Jesuits simply because they are also priests and thus ipso facto religious, or begin to imagine that Francis Collins' work is any less brilliant or tainted for him being a Christian. That would be idiotic.

Rather, or most directly, my problem with SIL concerns SIL's duplicity in representing its agenda, at least with regard to its academic and open-source efforts. More generally, it has to do with the clouding of intentions. The result is an uncertanty then of what is being validated by one's engagement with SIL, by SIL itself, and that by validating one thing, I and the project may be validating an organization whose primary work has less to do with coding languages or making fonts than with making more of their sort of Christians. In concrete terms, by helping the development and distribution of the fonts I am helping SIL's work; by building on their linguistic work (compiling dictionaries, grammar rules, etc.), I am furthering their Bible efforts. Agreement with their work is not the issue. It's engaging in the relationship in good faith.

I have no doubt that many among the SIL are passionate about their linguistic and font work, and see their religion as validating what they do, and vice versa. I can sympathize with this belief. I too believe that what I do with OpenOffice.org and FOSS is morally and politically good (I also believe it so for my own academic work) even though I also know it is merely a production and distribution strategy and really only as good as its practitioners make it and that it in itself is like any other dance minus the dancer, an abstraction without effect. But I nevertheless believe what I do because I see its effects (greater access to the tools of informatics for more people) and like them. My basic political rationale is democratic and liberal, and I am philosophically opposed to strategies of power and to a politics that institutionalizes inequality.

But let's say that SIL had announced themselves for what they are and what they are about: That their work on behalf of FOSS and with linguists, was for the purpose of producing the kind of Christians they want. FOSS and all the etnolinguistic work they do was of secondary importance; a mere vehicle for the real brand of politically valenced soteriological work at hand.

Would I have reacted differently? Yes: I, in my OpenOffice.org capacity, would probably have appreciated the work they do for FOSS and OpenOffice.org independent of ulterior motives. As I mentioned, the fonts are good and will make a positive difference to FOSS if the licenses are in order. I would not be, however, enthusiastic about their evangelical work, as I think that by framing the linguistic work in evangelical terms inevitably brings into the picture interested political and moral considerations that do damage to the essentially disinterested work linguists and academics in general supposedly do. Yes, I am cognizant of the fact that no such work is ever truly disinterested and that even the act of recording and coding deploys a system of disciplinary power that both Foucault and Bourdieu and many others have written on. But that doesn't legitimate the interested fracture of the very fragile public sphere being developed in the regions where SIL most travels.

In fact, independent of my approval of their work for FOSS and linguistics, I'm downright opposed to SIL's agenda, as I do see it as shaking the necessary trust in a disinterested and in-common public sphere that allows all participants to engage in and circulate discourses without the concern that what they say and how they say it is not already in the service of an entity they may--but not necessarily--agree with. The public sphere may be a fiction but it is a necessary fiction, irreducible to any religious or governmental or commercial or ideological agenda, and we maintain it precisely in order to support the world we live in.

I want to emphasize that the world I would like to live in is not homogeneous in its beliefs. I am not insisting or suggesting everyone believe as I do and not believe in any religion at all, though I confess to thinking that would hardly be worse than the current headlong plunge into religion and it probably would be better. That's why I like believing what I believe--that and the fact that I really cannot even imagine believing otherwise. (I'd have to suspend a lot of disbelief.) Rather, I would urge a greater transparency of motive and funding, so that those who work with others for disinterested and civic reasons (or reasons that can be mapped to such) do not find themselves unintentionally supporting reprehensible political agendas or belief structures they do not agree with. (Supporting OOo is a neutral objective: it is a group project utterly irreducible to any politics or beliefs, let alone mine.) In areas where funding is tight, that kind of problem is not unusual, I'd imagine, and I'd guess that religious groups like SIL threaten the very existence of the kind of field linguistics in which they play such a large role, just because their role is so large and just because it depends finally on ulterior not disinterested motivations. SIL may also be affecting the open-source font work which is so needed. Nothing is ever free of political (or even, in capitalism, financial interest), and FOSS can obviously be put in the service of any agenda. But it's a practice, a tool, a mode of power, and as such, cannot be simply contained.

Of course, there are many instances in daily life where we "support" organizations, often religious, without really thinking through what our support means. For example, if I give money to Salvation Army or my discarded furniture, I am casually supporting the religious efforts of the Army. If I buy something at a church sidewalk sale: the same thing. I am implicitly supporting a religious agenda as much as the individuals who materially benefit, and these include myself, if my gifts are deemed tax deductible. How is this different then from the case of SIL international? The difference lies in the knowledge I have going into the exchange. I *know* what the Salvation Army is about and though I receive zero little pleasure from donating to it because it's religious, and in fact wish there were more secular options available, still I recognize the good it does and the necessary altruism that its supporters daily demonstrate; the church here provides a function and fulfils a need that other institutions have not. But this is not entirely the case with SIL International. They have mystified their agenda and obscured their purpose. With the Salvation Army, t I know what I am doing. With SIL, do people know? They should.


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