By now many of you will have heard the news about Adria Richards attending PyCon, notifying the conference staff about attendees behind her telling jokes during a conference presentation (about, among other things, making the coding community more welcoming for women and girls). Richards felt the jokes were sexualized enough to harm the environment of the conference. PyCon had a Code of Conduct for the conference that encompassed this kind of issue. In a room with hundreds of attendees, in a context where she hoped this harm to the conference community would be dealt with rather than let go (which gives it tacit approval) but where she also didn’t want to disrupt the presentations underway, Richards took a picture of the men telling the sexualized jokes and tweeted it with the conference hashtag to get the conference staff to deal with the situation.
The conference staff addressed the issue with the men telling the jokes. Subsequently, one of them was fired by his employer, although it’s in no way clear that he was fired on account of this incident (or even if this incident had anything to do with the firing); Adria Richards started receiving an avalanche of threats (death threats, rape threats, we-know-where-you-live threats, you-should-kill-yourself threats); Adria Richards’ employer fired her; and PyCon started tweaking its Code of Conduct (although as far as I can tell, the tweaking may still be ongoing) to explicitly identify “public shaming” as harmful to the PyCon community and thus not allowed.
So, as you might imagine, I have some thoughts on this situation.
My big-picture thoughts on naming and shaming are posted at my other blog. This post focuses on issues more specific to this particular incident. In no particular order:
1. There is NOTHING a person could do that deserves to be met with death threats, rape threats, or encouragement to kill oneself — not even issuing death threats, rape threats, or encouragement to kill oneself. Let’s not even pretend that there are circumstances that could mitigate such threats. The worst person you know doesn’t deserve such threats. Making such threats is a horrible thing to do.
2. People disagree about whether the joking Adria Richards identified as running afoul of the PyCon Code of Conduct was actually sexual/sexist/inappropriate/creating a climate that could be hostile or unwelcoming to women. (A person claiming to be the joker who was subsequently fired seems to be ambivalent himself about the appropriateness of the joking he was doing.) But it’s worth remembering that you are a good authority on what kind of conduct makes you feel uncomfortable or unwelcome; you are not automatically a good authority on what makes others feel uncomfortable or unwelcome. If you’re a social scientist who has mounted a careful empirical study of the matter, or if you’re up on the literature describing the research that has been done on what makes people comfortable or uncomfortable in different environments, maybe you have something useful to add to the conversation. In the absence of a careful empirical study, however, it’s probably a good idea to listen to people when they explain what makes them feel uncomfortable and unwelcome, rather than trying to argue that they don’t actually feel that way, or that they’re wrong to feel that way.
In other words, that certain jokes would not have been a big deal to you doesn’t mean that they could not have had a significant negative impact on others — including others you take to be members of your community who, at least officially, matter as much as you do.
3. So, if Adria Richards was bothered by the joking, if she thought it was doing harm and needed to be nipped in the bud, why couldn’t she have turned around and politely asked the men doing the joking to knock it off? This question assumes that asking nicely is a reliably effective strategy. If this is your default assumption, please [I just noticed myself typing it as a polite request, which says something about my socialization as a female human, so I’m going to let it stand] cast your eyes upon the #Iaskedpolitely hashtag and this post (including the comments) to get some insight about how experience has informed us that asking politely is a pretty unreliable strategy. Sometimes it works; sometimes, buying a lottery ticket wins you some money. On a good day, politely asking to be treated fairly (or to be recognized as a full human being) may just get you ignored. On a not as good day, it gets you called a bitch, followed for blocks by people who want to make you feel physically threatened, or much, much worse.
Recognize that the response that you expect will automatically follow from politely asking someone to stop engaging in a particular behavior may not be the response other people have gotten when they have tried the approach you take as obviously one that would work.
Recognize that, especially if you’re a man, you may not know the lived history women are using to update their Bayesian priors. Maybe also recognize, following up on #2 above, that you may not know that lived history on account of having told women who might otherwise have shared it with you that they were wrong to feel the way they told you they felt about particular situations, or that they couldn’t possibly feel that way because you never felt that way in analogous situations. In other words, you may have gappy information because of how your past behavior has influenced how the women you know update their priors about you.
I try to recognize that, as a white woman, I probably don’t really grasp the history that Adria Richards (as a woman of color) has used to update her priors, either. I imagine the societal pressure not to be an “uppity woman” falls with much, much more force on an African American woman. Your data points matter as you plot effective strategies with which to try to get things done.
3.5. An aside: About a month ago, my elder offspring was parked in front of her laptop, headset on, engaged in an online multiplayer game of some sort. As the game was underway, one of the other players, someone with whom she had no acquaintance before this particular gaming session, put something pornographic on the screen. Promptly, she said into her headset mic, “Hey, that’s not cool. Take the porn down. We’re not doing that.” And lo, the other player took the pornographic image off the screen.
I was pretty impressed that my 13-year-old daughter was so matter-of-fact in establishing boundaries with online gamers she had just met.
I thought about this in the context of #Iaskedpolitely. Then I realized that I maybe didn’t have all the relevant information, so today I asked.
Me: That time you were online gaming and you told the other player to take down the porn? Is it possible the other player didn’t know you were a girl?
Her: Not just possible.
My daughter has a gender-neutral username. Her voice is in a low enough register that on the basis of her voice alone you might take her for a 13-year-old boy. This may have something to do with the success of her request to the other player to take the porn off the screen in the game.
Also, she didn’t bother with the word “please”.
In the three-dimensional world, where it’s less likely she’ll be assumed to be male, her experiences to date have not departed nearly as much from what you can find in #Iaskedpolitely as a mother would like them to.
4. Some of the responses to the Adria Richards story have been along the lines of “A convention or professional conference or trade show is totally not the same thing as a workplace, and it’s a Bad Thing that organizers are trying to impose professional-environment expectations on attendees, who want to hang out with their friends and have fun.” I’ll allow that even a professional conference is different from work (unless, I guess, your entire job is to coordinate or do stuff at professional conferences), but in many cases such a conference or convention or trade show is also still connected to work. One of the big connections is usually the community of people with which you interact at a conference or convention or trade show.
Here’s a good operational test: Can you totally opt out of the conferences or conventions or trade shows with no resulting impact on your professional life (including your opportunities for advancement, networking, etc.)? If not, the conferences or conventions or trade shows are connected to your work, and thus it’s appropriate to expect some level of professionalism.
None of which is to say that conventions one goes to off the clock, for fun, should necessarily be anarchic events, red in tooth and claw. Unless that’s how the community at that particular con decides it wants to have fun, I suppose.
Also, this is not to say that companies should necessarily fire their employees for any and every infraction of a conference Code of Conduct. Depending on what kind of violation (and what kind of ongoing pattern of problematic behavior and failed attempts at remediation an employee might have displayed) firing might be the right call. I have seen none of the personnel files of the persons directly involved in this case — and you probably haven’t, either — so the best I could do is speculate about whether particular firings were warranted, and if so, by what. I’m in no mood for such speculation.
5. On the matter of tweeting a photo of the PyCon attendees who were telling the jokes Adria Richards felt were inappropriate in the circumstances: Lots of people have decried this as a Very Bad Way for Richards to have communicated to the conference staff about bad-behavior-in-progress with which she felt they should intervene. Instead, they say, she should have had a sense of humor (but see #2 above). Or, she should have turned around and politely asked them to cut it out (but see #3 above). Or, that she should have done something else. (Email conference staff and hope someone was monitoring the inbox closely enough to get promptly to the location ten rows back from the stage so that Richards could point the jokers out in a room with hundreds of people? Use a Jedi mind trick to get them to stop quietly?)
She alerted the conference staff to the problem via Twitter. She made the call, given the available options, the fact that she didn’t want to generate noise that would disrupt what was happening on the stage, and probably her judgments of what was likely to be effective based on her prior experiences (see #2 above).
Maybe that’s not the call you’d make. Maybe the strategy you would have tried would totally have worked. I trust you’re prepared to deploy it next time you’re at a conference or convention or trade show and in earshot of someone behaving in a way likely to make members of the community feel uncomfortable or unwelcome. I hope it’s just as effective as you imagine it will be.
Even if Adria Richards was wrong to tweet the picture of the jokers, that doesn’t mean that their joking was appropriate in the circumstances in which they were doing it at PyCon. It wouldn’t mean that the conference staff would be wrong to investigate the joking and shut it down (and deal with the jokers accordingly) if they judged it in violation of the Code of Conduct.
Also, one of the big complaints I’ve seen about the tweeted photo of the PyCon jokers is that using Twitter as a tool to report the problem removes the confidentiality that ought to accompany allegations of violations of the Code of Conduct, investigations of those allegations, penalties visited on violators, etc.
There’s a couple things I want to say to that. First, dealing with bad behavior “privately” (rather than transparently) doesn’t always inspire confidence in the community that the bad behavior is being taken seriously, or that it’s being addressed consistently (as opposed to, say, being addressed except when someone we really like does it too), or that it’s being addressed at all. Especially when the bad behavior in question is happening in a publicly observable way, taking the response completely private may be nearly as harmful to the community as the bad behavior itself.
Second, shouldn’t the people who want us to trust that the PyCon staff would have dealt with the PyCon jokers fairly and appropriately in private themselves trust that the PyCon staff had addressed any violation of the conference Code of Conduct Adria Richards might have committed by tweeting the picture of the PyCon jokers (rather than emailing it or whatever) — and that they’d dealt with such a violation on Richards’ part, if they judged it a violation, in private?
There’s just a whiff of a double standard in this.
6. On the post-conference update to the PyCon Code of Conduct to to explicitly identify “public shaming” as harmful to the PyCon community and thus not allowed: I’m hopeful that PyCon organizers take account of the effects on the community they have (and on the community they are trying to build) of opacity in dealing with bad behavior versus transparency in dealing with bad behavior.
It’s not like there isn’t already reason to believe that sometimes conference organizers minimize the impact of instances of harassment reported to them, or deny that any harassment has been reported at all, or back off from applying their own explicit rules to people they judge as valuable to the community.
These kinds of actions may harm their community just as much as public shaming. They communicate that some harassers are more valuable to the community than the people they harass (so maybe a bit of harassment is OK), or that people are lying about their actual experiences of bad behavior.
7. There has been the predictable dissection of Adria Richards’ every blog post, tweet, and professional utterance prior to this event, with the apparent intention of demonstrating that she has engaged in jokes about sex organs herself, or that she has a history of looking for things to get mad about, or she’s just mean, and who is she to be calling other people out for bad behavior?
This has to be the least persuasive tu quoque I’ve seen all year.
If identifying problematic behavior in a community is something that can only be done by perfect people — people who have never sinned themselves, who have never pissed anyone off, who emerged from the womb incapable of engaging in bad behavior themselves — then we are screwed.
People mess up. The hope is that by calling attention to the bad behavior, and to the harm it does, we can help each other do better. Focusing on problematic behavior (especially if that behavior is ongoing and needs to be addressed to stop the harm) needn’t brand the bad actor as irredeemable, and it shouldn’t require that there’s a saint on duty to file the complaint.
8. Some people have opined that it was bad for Adria Richards to call out the PyCon jokers (or to call them out in the particular way she did) on account of the bad consequences that might befall them if they were known to have violated the PyCon Code of Conduct. But the maxim, “Don’t call out bad behavior because doing so could have negative consequences for the person behaving badly” just serves to protect the bad behavior and the bad actors. Being caught plagiarizing can be harmful to a scientist’s career, so for heaven’s sake don’t report it! Being convicted of rape can end your future as a football player, so your victim ought to refrain from reporting it, and the authorities ought to make sure you’re not prosecuted!
Bad behavior has bad consequences, too.
The potential bad consequences of being caught behaving badly should, perhaps, help motivate people not to behave badly, especially in cases where the harms of that bad behavior to individuals or the community are not themselves sufficiently motivating to prevent the behavior.
9. Finally, some people have been expressing that it makes them feel uncomfortable and unwelcome when they are not allowed to act they way they want to, tell the jokes they feel like telling, and so forth.
I don’t doubt this for a minute.
However, this is not necessarily a bad thing. In the end, it comes down to a question of who you want in your community and who you want out of it. Personally, I don’t want my professional communities to be comfortable places for racists or sexists, for rapists, plagiarists, or jerks. Other people, I imagine, would prefer a professional community that’s a comfortable place for racists or sexists, for rapists, plagiarists, or jerks to a professional community that’s a comfortable place for me.
But here’s the thing: if you say you want your community to be welcoming to and inclusive of people who aren’t yet represented in great numbers, it might require really listening to what they say about what’s holding them back. It might require making changes on account of what they tell you.
It’s still possible that you’ll decide in the end to prioritize the comfort of the people already in your community over the comfort of the people you thought you wanted to welcome into your community. But in that case, at least have the decency to be honest that this is what you’re doing.
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Also, pretty much everything Stephanie says here.
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UPDATE: So, there are people who seem very eager to share their take on this situation (especially, for some odd reason, their autopsies of every wrong thing Adria Richards did) in the comments, but without engaging with anything I’ve written in the 3000 words here — including the things I’ve written here that directly address the points they’re trying to make.
There are many, many places on the internet where these not-really-engaging-with-the-conversation-we’re-having-here contributions would be welcome. But it’s probably worth updating some prior probabilities about whether those comments will make it out of moderation here.