Saturday, March 23, 2013

The angle of the dongle is disproportionate to...

The story going around my circles of the internet this week involves a female tech blogger, Adria Richards, who reacted to a couple of dudes in the row behind her at PyCon making sexual jokes. Since you're hearing about this story all over the internet, one of two things happened: either Richards (1) publicly shamed them on the Internet, or (2) confronted them quietly and told them to knock it off, and one of them made the story public.

As it happens, the actual story is (1). And so the internet has mostly fallen into camps of "it was inappropriate for Richards to try these guys in the court of public shaming without first going through channels" versus those, like me, who find her approach confrontational and, I suppose, rude, but not thereby blameworthy.

Dave Brockington over at LGM says most of what I wanted to say, but I think he pulls a couple of punches. Dave writes:
However, how many such quiet words have been exchanged in how many public settings, and what aggregate effect have all these isolated admonishments had on the culture, not only of the tech industry, but on society writ large? Perhaps some, but not enough to prevent these episodes from continuing. When observed in isolation, Richards overreacted. The guys were offensive and unprofessional, but as they violated a social norm, so too did she. However, they also had no reasonable expectation of privacy. A few quiet words wouldn’t have changed their attitude, but it probably would have ended the running dialogue, but also might have resulted in a confrontation. Nothing would have changed save for one isolated episode.
The nuclear option adopted by Richards has brought some degree of attention to this issue that otherwise would have remained invisible. In isolation, tweeting the picture was a disproportionate response to mildly unprofessional behavior. However, it’s not difficult to imagine the sense of frustration that Richards must have felt. Operating within the system, in this case within acceptable social norms of behavior via a quiet conversation, isn’t working. Bringing greater attention to the episode via, yes, the dramatic, is potentially more effective in the long run.
I think this can be said more forcefully.

"Channels", in the "working through" sense, exist (in a perfect world) so that some class of issues get resolved through them. In the real world, however, some channels exist to perpetuate existing power dynamics: they are where grievances go to die of benign neglect.

Now: I am not at all claiming that PyCon in particular has a problem with ignoring complaints; in fact, they apparently responded quickly and sensitively when they heard about the incident. I'm making the broader point that working through channels and solving problems by personal confrontation is a viable strategy only if the community at large has an ethic of policing itself, which this confrontation will be seen as an instance of.

What I see instead right now, is that Richards is standing up against the prevailing ethic of the geek community: one of unfettered violation of norms of appropriateness, one where context is irrelevant and that which is funny to your officemates must also be funny to strangers in the next row.

Public shaming is not a simple matter of saying that an individual was in the wrong, and if that is all that is meant, I agree that it's an inappropriate tactic. Public shaming is an indictment, not just of an individual, but also of the system of formal and informal governance which allows them free rein to offend. We do not put bank robbers up to public shaming, because our system doesn't cover for them and let them walk free. By comparison, our system frequently does let rapists walk free, and attacks their victims instead -- and those of us who find this an appalling state of affairs use public shaming not as a weapon against rapists, but against rape culture more generally.

So people: I like a dumb dick joke as much as the next geek. Let's make the geek world a space where no one is driven away by dick jokes by not making our space a free-fire-dick-joke zone. Make dick jokes in contexts where you know everyone is cool with dick jokes. Great and cool. Make no dick jokes in uncontrolled contexts where you don't know who the people in the next row are. And if you hear a dick joke in the row behind you, the very least you can do is turn around and tell them to knock it off; if that works, it will be a step towards functioning positive self-governance.

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