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Slowly and painfully starting to possibly get it, maybe

This post is about my reaction to the drama in and around the Python community the last few days. It’s about me. It’s not directly about the events themselves (except to summarise), and one of its tentative conclusions is that my opinions about those events are structurally and essentially suspect because of my background. For that reason, and because there’s no way this blog could handle even a trickle of new traffic, I’m going to cen/sor the googleable details and skip linking: I’m not sure this post adds to the general conversation, so I don’t want it swept up in it even by accident. I’m writing it mainly for myself, to get it out of my system, and so I can look back in six months time and check: did I have it more-or-less right? Am I doing better?

The whole story starts at PyCon, the national conference for the Python programming language. Or really, it starts before that, with the observation that women have a really hard time in tech fields: programming has been such a boys club for so long that it is extremely hostile to women, both in overt ways (e.g. frequent incidents of harassment and worse at conferences) and in more subtle ones (e.g. sexually charged language used to make documentation “more interesting” or “a bit funny”, systematic wage gaps, etc). The PyCon organisers have tried to make the conference a safe space for everyone, but with a deliberate focus on women because of this poor history in the industry, among other things by adopting a Code of Conduct which explicitly notes that sexual language and imagery is not appropriate at the conference.

At this year’s PyCon, during one of the major talks attended by hundreds of people, two guys in the crowd were cracking juvenile jokes (about big don/gles, as it happens). Ad/ria Richards, attending the conference as a developer advocate for her company, found this offensive and tweeted a photograph of the two along with a complaint. The guys were taken aside by conference organisers and apparently the situation was resolved. But then things got completely out of control.

Because of the public complaint and photo, an internet shitstorm descended. One of the guys was fired (presumably, although only presumably, in response to the size of the internet reaction), and some people made incredibly vile attacks on Richards: threats of rape, exhortations to commit suicide, the worst language you can imagine. (Every comment thread I’ve seen that hasn’t been ruthlessly policed has contained some of the same kind of vileness.) Then she, too, was fired.

Many people have suggested that Richards was out of line in publicly posting the photograph instead of making a private complaint. The PyCon organisers are trying out language amending the Code of Conduct to discourage taking public action (the Code is open source and that process is still ongoing). Others point out that such a system makes it too easy for complaints to be suppressed and censored, and that only fully public disclosure gives victims of harassment (or worse) full assurance of their complaints being properly addressed.

Now we get to me. I thought I had a sensible, moderate opinion: that there’s a world of difference between harassment and innocent joking; that the guys were breaking the code but innocently, without intending harm, and that Richards overreacted by publicly posting their photo; that the PyCon folk were doing the best they could and that leaving things to them would have been better; that both companies overreacted massively in firing their employees; and that the shitstorm, the DoS attacks, the threats and hate speech, were just unutterably vile. The last point I stand by, and maybe the one before that,1 but the rest I’m not sure about any more.

What changed my mind is, I think I might have got a glimpse of what being a woman at a tech conference might be like.

I’ve lived in the Netherlands for nearly ten years, and recently started the process of moving to Greece. I identify with Greek culture (via my partner, her family, and our Greek friends) more than I do with Dutch. And I’ve felt a lot of anger and unhappiness at the perception of Greek life and Greek culture that the Dutch have come to hold as the crisis set in: there’s a lot of misinformation (about statistics such as average pension ages and payments), a lot of ignorance (about current tax burdens and unemployment rates), and a lot of what feels to me like misplaced moral outrage (“they stole from us for so long, they deserve what they’re getting”).2 This mix sits as a generally accepted background, which might ground either jokes about how my work habits will change once I move, or serious and thoughtful discussions of whether the Dutch are right to require austerity measures in return for supporting loans and bailouts.

I’ve come to dread both kinds of conversations, because the only options I have are to go along with them (which feels like a betrayal) or to derail them by turning the focus on the assumptions. If I’m objecting to the jokes, then I should lighten up. If I’m derailing the serious and careful discussions, I’m going against what such-and-such a public figure said recently and am I absolutely sure I have my statistics right? (And no, I’m not absolutely sure, because I haven’t made a careful study of the details — neither has anyone else in the conversation, of course, but because they share the background assumptions, it’s harder to make that stick.) It’s even got to the point that I start to tense up when Greece enters a Dutch conversation entirely innocently, because I’m half-waiting for the topic to turn painful.

Reading through the various responses to the Ad/ria situation, I didn’t at first think of this experience. It took some slightly painful jolting on Twitter to bring it to mind, as I struggled to see how what I thought were basically reasonable ideas could be so vehemently opposed by someone whose opinions I have some respect for. What I eventually came out with (via a roundabout route) is the suspicion that my experience with Dutch attitudes about Greece is perhaps a small glimpse of the general experience of oppression.

If women at tech conferences hear a joke about dongles with the same clenching feeling as I experienced when someone started talking about how they used to go to Greece for their holidays, then it doesn’t matter that the joke is itself innocent, and that no harm is intended. The clenching feeling comes from wondering, “What is coming next?” And of course for women the stakes are much higher: what comes next could be a rape joke, a rape story, or a rape attempt (or a barefoot-pregnant-in-the-kitchen joke, a story about that one amazing night, or an unwelcome and persistent suitor: less bad, but that’s all you can say for it).

That’s why, I think, PyCon set so explicit and simple a barrier: sexual language and imagery is not appropriate. Not “derogatory sexual imagery”, not “unwelcome sexual language”, not specifically about women: simply, sex is off-topic. Because those of us who haven’t experienced that clenching feeling don’t realise that what we know, deeply and emotionally, to be innocent fooling can be perceived by others as equally deeply and emotionally threatening. I suspect the Code of Conduct is deliberately designed to make it difficult to hide behind “I didn’t mean any harm by it,” even when that’s an honest statement.

Which brings me to privilege. Because I’m starting to think (to my great surprise) that it might actually be somewhat ok, in some situations, to dismiss my opinion because I’m white and a man.

The reason is that I can see, from inside, how enormously my snap emotional reactions about various aspects of the Ad/ria situation changed when I stumbled on this analogy with my own experience. I went from snap-judging the joke-teller as basically innocent and Ad/ria as violently overreacting, to empathising with her and seeing him as wantonly obtuse in disregarding the clear instructions of the Code of Conduct. (Please note the word “snap” here: I don’t mean my carefully-thought-through conclusions, which are still entirely unclear and which I don’t think are important for anyone except myself, but rather my immediate emotional impressions.) If that’s relatively representative, then there’s a huge gulf of experience between those to “get it” and those who don’t: those who understand viscerally and emotionally what the experience of oppression is like, and those (like me) who try to follow along intellectually, when we remember to pay attention.

I’ve seen plenty of feminist writing that struck me as overblown, out of proportion, not levelheaded and careful enough. I think I see a little bit, now, where that comes from: you could say that the perception comes primarily from my position of privilege that lets me safely ignore or downplay a lot of what these women cannot ignore. (Again, this is about snap emotional judgements: it may be that plenty of feminist writing is overblown, but that immediate impression says, I now think, more about me than about the writing.) On the other side, I just saw an article praised as “reflective” that excoriates Ad/ria for her behaviour, but doesn’t even mention the threats and hate speech she has received. I guess the author is someone a bit like me: thoughtful, trying to get it right, but missing an essential experience without which the whole story just doesn’t make sense. And, most importantly, not aware that he’s missing anything.

In the end, I still feel that she should have chosen a different way to lodge her complaint. But I understand now, a little, why someone might decide to dismiss that opinion because of my background of privilege. And I’m not sure they’d be wrong, either.


  1. I’m not sure that Richards could function as a developer advocate with the reputation these events have given her, but even if that’s the case firing might not be the right response, compared to simply shifting her to a different function. []
  2. The examples are oversimplified and incomplete, just to give a sense of what I mean. []

One Comment

  1. S. glaber wrote:

    I think you have got it, or some small measure of it, as far as I’m able to judge from my equally privileged position. The point is a good one: it’s impossible to see the world through someone else’s eyes, except in small, very fuzzy glimpses, hard-won through the kind of analogic thinking you describe. With that in mind, it might indeed be best just to listen to them when they tell us what it’s like.

    Reasoning about the limitations of your own reason is a tricky business. ‘I no longer equate thinking I’m right about something with actually being right about it.’, said someone who’d acquired this very useful and very difficult skill.

    Thursday, March 28, 2013 at 6:11 pm | Permalink