On Accountability

Back in July, someone claiming to be a “Mozilla member” made threatening comments here on my blog, directed towards myself and my colleague Tim Chevalier. I reported the comments immediately to Mozilla HR. It look nearly three months, but I can now report a resolution.

The person who left the comments is a Mozilla employee. They have been contacted by Mozilla HR and directed not to make these kind of comments to Mozilla employees or community members in the future, or else face disciplinary action. They have also issued an apology to me personally. Unfortunately, the person has declined to provide a public apology and isn’t being compelled to do so.

I find the lack of a public apology disappointing and a detriment to the Mozilla community. Those who violate community conduct standards should face the consequences of their actions and they should have to face them publicly.

Why? Many reasons. Without having to face consequences, abusive behavior is likely to continue, and likely to escalate. When those who violate conduct standards are held publicly accountable for their actions, it gives those who might have been a target of such behavior in the past a chance to finally speak up. And, it demonstrates that the Mozilla community takes its employees’ and contributors’ conduct toward one another seriously and doesn’t tolerate abuse. A public apology gives those who transgress an opportunity to make amends with the community.

In the case of the person who left the threats on my blog, their desire not to look bad is being placed above our (mine, Tim’s and others from marginalized groups) need to feel safe, and thus represents a refusal to acknowledge their deleterious effect on our entire community.

The commenter’s actions harmed not just the two of us who were the direct targets, but the Mozilla community as a whole by setting the example that if a queer person feels they are being discriminated against at Mozilla and speaks out about it, they will be penalized with a public threat. Why was the original comment a threat? Because saying “we don’t want you two around” implies that they would do their best, either directly or indirectly, to make sure Tim and I were not able to continue to be around. Furthermore, their use of “we” created anxiety that there was not just one, but many people at Mozilla who wanted to force out people who speak out against discrimination.

More generally, the commenter’s actions set a precedent that if somebody is in a vulnerable minority group, they must choose between being silent and accepting what they experience as discriminatory treatment or risk being humiliated and threatened if they speak out against it. Being in a situation where the only choices are to accept abuse without criticizing it or be retaliated against for speaking up, is unfair. A community where people in minority groups are treated unfairly is one that many such people will either leave, or not join in the first place, because they don’t feel welcome. And driving away people in minority groups hurts the community. It deprives the community of all that minority group members can contribute, and means Mozilla won’t have the best employees and contributors it can possibly have.

In the lack of acknowledgment that the commenter’s actions harmed the community, I hear unwillingness to say that Mozilla values its contributors who are queer. If harming us does not harm the community, then the only logical conclusion is that we’re not an important part of the community. It’s hurtful to see that the facts apparently point to this conclusion.

While it’s true that I could reveal the identity of the anonymous commenter, I don’t feel comfortable doing so publicly, here on my blog because I fear a lack of support from the Mozilla community. On the one hand, many of you expressed your outrage and disapproval of the commenter’s behavior, but on the other hand, some of you also expressed doubt that the commenter could even be part of the Mozilla community. Also, I have not seen a lot of outspoken support for those who speak up on these issues, and have certainly experienced a lack of institutional support on behalf of Mozilla leadership.

What I will do is encourage those of you who have been the target of threatening behavior, even if it seems insignificant, to document and report it.

Update 3 October 19:45 PDT: Read Harassment, Accountability, and Justice for Tim’s response to this issue.

33 comments

  1. HULLOITSMEEAGAIN

    HEY CHRISTIE, GO FUCK YOURSELF WITH ALL THIS WHINING.

    Editor’s note: I don’t normally publish comments like this, but thought it would be useful for others to see the kind of negative feedback speaking about these issues can generate.

  2. Kronda

    It’s sad that the higher ups at Mozilla think that ‘protecting the interests’ is more important than protecting their employees. This is a lame response at best.

    And you’re absolutely right. Despite the many advantages you’ve shared with me about working there, I would never consider applying to a company with such a lame attitude about (what should be) basic civil rights issues.

  3. tom jones

    while i condemn the actions of the anonymous coward, i’m not sure what the appropriate reaction from the Mozilla co/org should be.

    forced public apology could only escalate the situation without much visible benefit. on the other hand, i would be against if they got fired (quietly). i simply don’t know..

    on the other hand, i would totally support you publicly calling them out, as in my opinion you have every right to do so. and if things escalated from *that* action, at least we would know where we stand, as a community..

    • tom jones

      i *would NOT* be against if they got fired (quietly).

      don’t know how i messed that up, sorry..

  4. Boris

    Christie,

    I really appreciate you speaking out about this. I have to admit that I’m shocked that we have members of our community who would think such a thing (the “don’t want” bit) of another community member, much less come out and actually say it. I had really thought we were better than that, and in particular that we could at least maintain basic standards of human decency and courtesy to each other, no matter what else is going on, and it’s incredibly saddening that that’s not the case.

    You’re absolutely right that attitudes and comments like that, especially when they are expressed anonymously, are incredibly poisonous to the community.

    I understand your reluctance to publicly disclose the author of those comments, and I’m left wondering whether there is any way we can move forward here without further support from HR and official Mozilla project leadership. I’ll admit that _I_ certainly want to know who in our community is capable of doing such things. :( I know it doesn’t do much to help, but please accept my apologies for this person’s behavior. I’ll certainly be looking into ways in which I can help prevent that sort of thing from happening again.

  5. Jeff Walden

    some of you also expressed doubt that the commenter could even be part of the Mozilla community

    I assume you meant me, at least. But what I meant was, I wasn’t willing to jump to that conclusion, it being super-easy for any random schmuck to anonymously comment on a blog and claim to be whoever. Now that it’s clear it wasn’t just some random schmuck (I’m a little curious how this was determined, but of course I don’t need to know), well, sigh. I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised that in any large-enough group there are going to be bad apples, but that doesn’t mean I’m not disappointed nonetheless.

    I’m a little surprised the response stopped where you say it did, but I can at least imagine how it makes some sense doing so. Seeing as it was roughly akin to an anonymous insult, and the bar probably doesn’t sit at a single insult in other cases (anonymous or not), I would guess it’s just parity with other situations. Which I’m sure doesn’t make it sting any less. :-(

    Anyway, glad to see this got (mostly) cleared up. And thanks for sticking around through it!

    • Boris

      Maybe it’s just me, but “we don’t want your kind here” is a heck of a lot more than “an insult”. Certainly to me it would be.

        • Tim Chevalier

          It’s easy to have a thick skin when you’re not in a minority group that is the target of constant derision. For Christie and me, this incident didn’t stand on its own. It was just one in a constant stream of subordinating messages that we have to deal with every day. I would say that both she and I have *very* thick skins. It takes a very thick skin to survive as a queer trans person, or as a queer woman, in a world that treats us as less than human. It takes a *huge* amount of mental effort for me to preserve my ability to function at the standard expected of a non-marginalized person. I’m really tired of people who haven’t had the life experiences I’ve had attributing the pleasantness of their own lives to their “thick skins”, rather than to the absence of people stabbing them.

    • Lindsey Kuper

      Tim explained how the identity of the anonymous commenter was determined in his post. Quoting from there:

      On the Internet, few actions are truly anonymous. Christie’s blog software records commenters’ IP addresses. Also, every time you send an email, the headers include the IP address of the computer you used to send it (unless you go to some effort to obscure your identity). Mozilla has some well-trafficked internal mailing lists, and I save a lot of the email I receive in them. These facts together meant that I was able to confirm with a high degree of certainty that the comment really was written by a Mozilla community member: a Mozilla employee who works in the Mountain View office, where I also work. I’ll refer to this person as “X”. Christie contacted Mozilla’s HR department, who contacted X, who admitted that they did indeed write these comments, giving us total certainty about the commenter’s identity.

      • Jeff Walden

        …wow. Guess I should have gone with Occam’s Razor after all! I had assumed whoever it was couldn’t possibly have commented in a way which would make that possible. Thanks for the pointer!

  6. Mary Anne

    Thanks for being persistent and going forward. Community building and inclusiveness is important for peacefulness

  7. Aravind Gottipati

    Hi Christie, I have never met you (I was before your time at MoCo), but I follow planet and I just wanted to ramble a little. I am a little sad that you had to endure B.S like this – it didn’t have to be Mozilla, this would have been a sad situation at any workplace. The fact that this happened at MoCo is a little extra sad. Oddly enough, I saw a WSJ article today about folks being ruder online than they would in real life. Maybe this is a case of that. Maybe we all just need to get a thicker skin, specially when we open ourselves up in the digital world. What would not normally happen in the real world can now happen with relative impunity in the digital world – there are fewer consequences after all. Maybe the solution is to segregate our personal world from our professional world – but that would be hard to do – specially when we end up spending significant portions of our lives at work, professional communities related to work and so on..

    I used to think this stuff was okay – I was mostly in the “free speech, and it’s the internet – who cares” camp, until I read fligtar’s comment on one of the posts – “just because *you* aren’t made to feel unwelcome or demeaned by someone’s comments doesn’t mean that others aren’t”. I for one have been more careful and generally a bit more sensitive about stuff since then.

    I realize I am rambling, so I will stop.

  8. Sean

    I normally respect people’s spaces, but by choosing to post this to Planet Mozilla you’ve opened it up as a public forum.

    I feel that describing the comment (of which we have seen only a piece) as a “threat” is intentionally dishonest. You are framing as an act of violence a comment that, while it may be wrong and hurtful, does not rise above an individual wishing they didn’t have to be around you. As a rational human being you understand that you weren’t threatened, which is why you felt the need to put that tortured rationalization in the middle of your post. You made a choice to frame what occurred in this dishonest way, that choice speaks to your motivations, and is taken into account when people act on the information you bring to them. You may have had a more favorable experience with Mozilla HR if you had simply been honest about what happened and how it made you feel, and accepted an outcome that was reasonable based on that honest assessment.

    • Christie Koehler

      Mansplaining: check! Victim blaming: check! Tone policing: check!

      No, Sean, you don’t get to tell me what I experience, feel, think, believe or understand. Nice try, though.

      • Scared Anonymous Bystander

        I don’t understand. I’d really like to hear your opinion on the individual points Sean raised. Instead you dismiss his comment as a whole… why?

        • Christie Koehler

          Which, point(s) exactly? The comment doesn’t really make a point other than to dismiss that I am a reliable reporter of my own experience by telling me what I actually think and feel. Furthermore, the issue of why the original comment was a threat and speech that created a hostile work environment has been thoroughly explained by both myself and Tim. It’s really clear Sean doesn’t want to accept the explanation.

        • Lindsey Kuper

          Scared Anonymous Bystander, I’ll take a shot at responding to the individual points Sean raised:

          I feel that describing the comment (of which we have seen only a piece) as a “threat” is intentionally dishonest.

          Trying to imagine what Sean is thinking here, I can only imagine that Sean is in the fortunate position of never having felt threatened at their job or on their blog, and therefore cannot imagine what it would be like for anyone to feel threatened in those settings. Therefore, they react by deciding that Christie must not have actually felt threatened at all, and is in fact lying about it.

          You are framing as an act of violence a comment that, while it may be wrong and hurtful, does not rise above an individual wishing they didn’t have to be around you. As a rational human being you understand that you weren’t threatened, which is why you felt the need to put that tortured rationalization in the middle of your post.

          I suppose that the part of Christie’s post that SEan is referring to is this part (quoting in bold): Why was the original comment a threat? Because saying “we don’t want you two around” implies that they would do their best, either directly or indirectly, to make sure Tim and I were not able to continue to be around. Furthermore, their use of “we” created anxiety that there was not just one, but many people at Mozilla who wanted to force out people who speak out against discrimination. I think Christie put that in her post because she knows her audience, and she anticipated someone asking that question. But Sean is so dead-set on believing that Christie couldn’t possibly have actually felt threatened that they read Christie’s anticipation of the question as a “tortured rationalization”. This seems like a damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don’t situation to me; if Christie hadn’t said anything about why the original comment was a threat, Sean would likely have used that as “evidence” for why she must not have really felt threatened.

          You made a choice to frame what occurred in this dishonest way, that choice speaks to your motivations, and is taken into account when people act on the information you bring to them. You may have had a more favorable experience with Mozilla HR if you had simply been honest about what happened and how it made you feel, and accepted an outcome that was reasonable based on that honest assessment.

          Here, again, Sean is saying that Christie is being dishonest about how she feels. It seems to me that Sean is acting out of fear. Sean has probably never had to face a situation like the one Christie has been facing, and is afraid to confront the idea that places that they have always thought of as neutral or welcoming might, in fact, be threatening for someone else. So, instead of confronting that idea, Sean concludes that Christie must have never felt threatened at all, and that it was all a lie.

      • dan

        hi Christie,

        It seems to me that what you feel is threatening is not what some would call threatening behaviour. Now suppose that we say that threatening behaviour is defined subjectively then that could lead to paradoxical outcomes.

        What if someone were to feel threatened by this blog post? Would the mozilla governors then be compelled to sanction you too?

          • dan

            Arguably neither did the original anon email (it targeted two individuals based on the authors perception of their behaviour).

            It also sounds like you are now trying to define what constitutes threatening behaviour.

            • Carolyn

              Christie has never said she wants this person fired, or that anyone who respectfully disagrees with her be driven out of the community. There’s kind of a big difference here.

            • Tim Chevalier

              That’s right. I *do* get to define what kind of behavior makes me feel threatened, because I’m the only one who has the authority to say what I feel. No one else has the authority to do that.

              • James

                Christie and Tim – Sorry to hear you two felt threatened, that sounds like a really shitty way to feel.

                Are you acknowledging the possibility that what was said was not a threat?

                I understand and respect that you felt threatened, your subjective experience is as valid as that of everyone else. Your subjective experience however does not mean that the person who wrote the words wanted to scare you.

                Maybe they did, maybe they didn’t. You seem determined to interpret the comment as a threat. Asserting the supremacy of your interpretation is the best way to perpetuate division. Is that what you want here?

                Maybe the commenter hates all gays and wants to intimidate them out of Mozilla, and maybe he’s an actual supporter of LGBT rights, and he just doesn’t like you – maybe he’s just not a fan of your personality.

                What would his apology sound like then? “Hey, I think you are really annoying, I am sorry that you assumed that I don’t like you because you’re gay and then felt threatened.”

                Do think HR should be forcing people to make such statements publicly? I don’t.

              • Tim Chevalier

                James — you seem determined to blame victims and to defend and protect abusers by appealing to their intent. I would suggest taking a long, hard look at why you feel that way.

              • James

                I am sorry that you see yourself as a victim, that sounds like hell to me. Do you ask yourself what you gain by relating to yourself that way? I don’t see you or Christie as victims, I see you as people.

                Are you a victim of free speech? What country do you think that you live in? Living in a free country does not mean that you are free from unpleasant feelings. Other people are not responsible for how you feel.

                Your phrase “appealing to their intent” makes absolutely no sense to me, so I don’t have response to that.

                I am here as an advocate for clear thinking. I gave voice to a possibility that I am hearing you adamantly deny. I am not denying the possibility that someone intended to harm you with their comments. I am hearing you denying the possibility that they didn’t.

                I am standing up for free speech. I believe that the first amendment is more important to the progress of the human species than your emotions.

                What you and Christie seem to be proposing here seems counter-evolutionary to me. I think people should be free to speak their mind, without being forced to apologize if what they say offends anyone.

                If you seriously believe you were threatened, take the evidence you have to the police, and see what they say. Take it in front of a judge and try to get a restraining order if you are seriously scared, if you sincerely feel like your safety is being threatened.

                Or continue playing the victim, it’s your life. I am a human rights advocate. I support your right to say what you want, to love who you want, to fuck who want.

                But I do not support your strategy here of coercing another free human being into making an apology – that does not seem like free speech to me.

                I am asking you to see yourself in a civil rights context. I do not see how your right to love who you want is any different than an individual’s right to say what they want. They both fall in the category of human freedom to me.

                So please please please – if you want people to respect your rights, then please please please respect theirs. Stop demanding a public apology.

                Respect free speech – respect your own freedom – respect yourself.

                I do.

  9. Gervase Markham

    Another unfortunate side-effect of the lack of public apology is that people may feel tempted to speculate as to the identity of the person, and come to incorrect conclusions which are unfair on the person wrongly suspected. So, while the situation is as it is, I would encourage people not to engage in this sort of speculation, either in public or private.

  10. Carolyn

    Thank you Christie and Tim, for your strength in standing up for yourselves as well as the rest of us. I really don’t understand how “Seriously, don’t be mean to people you work with,” or “Defending yourself from bigotry in the workplace is not the same thing as being a bigot” is so hard to understand.

  11. Pingback: My First Internet Death Threat (Trigger Warning) | Subfictional Studios