The Clean Code Blog

by Robert C. Martin (Uncle Bob)

Thought Police

09 August 2017

Let me tell you the sad story of Edward. Poor Edward is an escalator operator working for a company named Escalators-R-Us (ERU). ERU had noticed that people less than the average height (short people) tend not to become escalator operators. In fact, at ERU, only 20% of escalator operators are short. So ERU held classes for short people, encouraging them to take escalator operator jobs. ERU also adjusted their hiring practices so as to prefer short people over tall people. ERU’s goal was to increase the height diversity of escalator operators. The managers at ERU felt that the height gap was a result of deeply ingrained societal heightism. They believed their policies were a way to promote social justice.

Edward, being tall, didn’t think this was the right approach. He felt that the issue was not really a problem. His idea was that there’s something biological about short people that predisposes them against operating escalators. So Edward wrote his ideas in a memo and published it on one of the internal discussion groups.

The memo said that, on average, short people are more anxious about operating escalators than tall people are. It went on to say that there is lots of overlap between short and tall people when it comes to escalators, and that there are lots of short people who have no problem with escalators. It’s just that on average short people tend to be slighly more anxious about escalators and so tend not to be interested in escalator operator jobs.

Edward went on to recommend that ERUs policy of giving preference to short people was discriminatory and harmful to the company.

Poor Edward. It wasn’t a new idea, of course; and the research had already been done, and was conclusive. Short people had never been shown to be more anxious about operating escalators. Moreover, short people had been conclusively shown to be just as capable, and sanquine, about operating escalators as tall people. So Edward’s idea was wrong. He really should have done his homework better.

Now, predictably, lots of short and tall people were outraged by Edward’s memo. They thought his ideas were offensive. They thought his ideas were harmful. They were firmly convinced that the reason for the height gap was that heightism is deeply embedded in our society. Some were so offended that they raged and moaned and declared that Edward was a heightist and should be fired for positing such a toxic idea.

And so, poor Edward was fired. He was fired for expressing an idea. A disagreeable and incorrect idea, to be sure; but an idea nonetheless.

Instruction Manual for Creating a Monoculture.

  1. Fire people who express ideas you disagree with.

End of Instruction Manual.

Now this story was fictional. But if it were real, and if I were an escalator operator at ERU, then I would RUN!

I would run as far and as fast as I could! I would get the hell out of there!

Because a company who fires people for expressing ideas is dying. It is dying because expressing ideas has become intolerable. So all creativity, all imagination, all risk taking, all the things that make a company, a community, and a society, vital is being suppressed.

If the people in power fire those who express bad ideas then no one other than the people in power will ever express an idea.

If this were not fiction, and I was chairman of the Board of Directors of ERU, I would – in no uncertain terms:

Fire the people who fired Edward. I would Fire them with extreme prejudice. I would gather their belongings and put them on the sidewalk, NOW! I would cancel their keycards. I would not let them anywhere near the company ever, ever, again! And then, maybe… maybe… the company would survive.

Because, you see, there is a simple rule about vital and free companies, communities, and societies:

You never punish bad ideas.

Instead, you counter bad ideas with better ideas.

The people and companies in this posting are fictional. Any resemblance to any real individuals or companies is coincidental. The events described herein are solely about the fictional individuals and entities, and should not be interpreted in any other context.

So there.