Positive and Negative Openness

Yesterday, R-Ladies posted this great list of practical steps that people can take to build an R community where they work. I’m going to quote it a lot, but first I want to respond to this tweet:

i dont get it. why this obsession with the “r community?” this is just a programming language.

I disagree, and my reason for doing so is based on Isaiah Berlin’s distinction between two kinds of liberty. Negative liberty is the absence of obstacles: nobody’s actively stopping you from doing something. Positive liberty, on the other hand, is the real possibility of acting: you have the means to accomplish your goal.

This is why community matters so much. I’ve watched PyCon go from almost exclusively white and male in the early 2000s to one of the most diverse gatherings in tech. I’m new to R, but I am deeply impressed with how hard many of its users work to foster positive liberty. Both communities have gone from saying “nobody’s going to stop you” to saying, “somebody is going to help you,” and that has made all the difference in the world to thousands of tentative newcomers.

People who like things the way they are tend to think negative liberty is all the world needs, or work very hard to avoid talking about the subject at all. I certainly did: I spent my first thirty-odd years playing on easy mode while arguing that if the rules were fair then so was the game. Knowing what I know now, I believe that positive liberty is a better foundation that negative liberty for open software, open science, and society in general. Boiling it all down to a tweet:

If you say, “It’s just a programming language” then a language is all you’ll ever have. If you want users, and really want to help them, then you need a community.


Note: I recognize the irony (or hypocrisy) of praising inclusivity and then citing authors who are 80% male and 100% white. I’m reading as fast as I can…