Bold Ideas Uttered Publicly: PyCon, Richards and Responding to Conduct Violations

One thing quite noticeable at this year’s PyCon US is that the Python community’s efforts towards increasing diversity are starting to work. More women are attending and children are being included in an integrated way (coding!). To be clear, we still have a long way to go. Twenty percent attendance by women is an improvement, but it by no means demonstrates parity, and other minorities and those with intersectional identities remain greatly underrepresented. What’s important, though, is that actions of the Python community, including adoption of a code of conduct, are showing real results. Hats off to the PSF and to various PyCon organizers around the world. You are doing good work, thank you.

In the days that have followed the main part of the conference, and while the code sprints were still going on, word reached the internet of a certain code of conduct violation, how it was handled by all parties involved and what the consequences were (or continue to be).

And now we start heading to the heart of my post.

I’ve spent a lot of time over the last couple of years thinking about the tactic of public shaming as a tool for combating institutional oppression. Is it ever appropriate? Under which circumstances? When is it most effective? Does it have some other empowering use? What’s the best way to respond to backlash? I think about this every time I am witness or subject to an aggression. Or when I am the organizer for an event where an incident is called out publicly before I have a chance to respond privately. Or when others make the decision to document publicly another’s transgressive behavior. I think about it especially when that person is then subject to a torrent of negative backlash including threats of violence and death.

Tech is dominated by white, straight, able-bodied, middle- and upper-class men because our industry reflects the social structure of the society in which we live. Our demographics are the result of the racism, sexism, heterosexism and homophobia, sizism, ableism, etc. that persists in society that we allow to propagate within our own, smaller community. That’s why increasing diversity, whether you want to recognize it or not, means combating its enemy: institutional oppression.

How does one fight oppression to increase diversity?

It’s not easy because the tactics available to those who oppose institutional oppression are limited and judged by the very institution that is oppressive. Those from and to a certain extent those who ally themselves with oppressed groups, by definition, have less social capital and the associated benefits than their counterparts. When a queer person, or a person of color, or, god forbid, a disabled queer person of color reports that they have been subject to or a witness of transgressive behavior, they are taken as less authoritative about their own experience than their straight, white, abled counterpart would be. They get less attention and support from the social structures that are supposed to aide them. And quite often they are subject to violence in its many forms.

These responses are not accidental. Those who benefit from the status quo, whether they realize it or not, have a vested interested in maintaining that status quo. That means working to ensure that any threat to it is rendered ineffectual. The best way to do that is to discredit the person who generated the threat. If the threat is the reporting of a transgressive act that the dominant social class enjoys with impunity, then the reaction is to attack the person who reported it.

And that’s exactly what happened this week to Adria Richards.

PyCon made efforts to transform the status quo of a male-dominated environment where sexualized speech is acceptable to one where it is not so that women and others felt more comfortable participating. At least two attendees continued to acted in ways that were no longer acceptable. They probably weren’t the only ones. And I’m sure more than one person was made uncomfortable. But one person chose to speak up about it.

That she chose to do so publicly isn’t really for me, or any of us to judge. As I mentioned before, as someone not part of the dominant social order you have limited options for calling attention to transgressive behavior. You can do so to the individual or individuals demonstrating the behavior, you can report it to the social structures available to you (parents, school, organizations, government, etc.) or you can report it publicly.

The first option is obviously risky. If you don’t have as much power as someone, it is scary to interrupt them and tell them what they are doing is wrong. If you have past experience with violence (as most people with minority identities do), then your experience tells you this is not a good idea because the confrontation may become violent. Additionally, when you are a in a room surrounded by people who look exactly like the person or persons committing the transgressive act it’s sensible to assume that you will not be the person who will have support in a confrontation.

The second option also carries risk. If you do not have a significant history of an organization helping in these matters, there’s a good chance they won’t. Asking them to do so takes emotional work, and handling rejection thereafter takes even more emotional work. Plus, organizations, like the people that run them, also have a vested interest in maintaining the status quos from which they benefit.

Furthermore, it’s not anyone’s job (except perhaps your caretakers’, when you’re young) to remind you how to behave. Ignorance of appropriate social norms is not an excuse for transgressing them. Richards had zero obligation to be polite to the developers or to educate them. We are well into the post-colonial era. Feminism is not a new idea. Get a book and educate yourself.

And that’s how we arrive at the public option. Sometimes publicly outing someone’s bad behavior is the safest, most effective way you can respond. This is particularly true when you don’t have a lot of time to figure out what to do, when you are in the minority position and when you are in an environment that feels unsafe.

It is entirely acceptable for someone to take whichever option they feel to be the best course of action based on the situation at hand and the person’s lived experience up until then. It is not anyone else’s right to determine that for another. This is true regardless of how unskillfully you believe the person handled the situation.

No conference organizer likes dealing publicly with issues, but…

As a conference organizer who has been in the position of responding to public reports of conduct violations, I can tell you it doesn’t feel good to be denied the opportunity to deal with them privately. Not only do you have to process why the person reporting the incident didn’t come to you first, but you have to deal with a much larger response and you have to do so immediately. You no longer have the luxury of time, nor the ability to be distracted by the other million things you’re supposed to be keeping track of while running an event. While it may not feel so at the time, that you are forced to deal with things promptly and publicly is not necessarily a bad thing. There is value in doing so for your community.

Let’s talk about shame for a moment.

Shame isn’t always a bad thing. When you’ve done something you know to be wrong and you feel shameful, that is an appropriate response. If someone calls out your behavior publicly and you feel shame as a result, that’s probably a sign you should pay attention and evaluate your behavior. Shame is contextual. It doesn’t work the same way going up the power hierarchy as it does going down. Power magnifies shame and magnifies the damage it does when applied incorrectly. A young child can’t shame a parent and have the same effect as when a parent shames a child. A white male using shame against a women or a person of color to uphold his social status is not the same thing as a women or a person of color using public shame to bring visibility to inappropriate behavior.

Being the trigger of shame in others while documenting a broken system is not the same thing as enacting revenge.

At one point in Never Sorry, Ai Wei Wei says something like “the broken system must be documented.” I found this statement to be very powerful. Often we feel powerless to change the monolithic systems around us, no matter how broken we know them to be. One power we can exercise is to document what we see and experience.

So, if you find yourself in a situation where you feel your only option is to say nothing or say it publicly? Absolutely say it publicly. Howard Zinn explains the power in this act very eloquently:

“The power of a bold idea uttered publicly in defiance of dominant opinion cannot be easily measured. Those special people who speak out in such a way as to shake up not only the self-assurance of their enemies, but the complacency of their friends, are precious catalysts for change.”

That quote above encapsulates why the reaction to Richards’ act has been so strong, far stronger than the reaction to the code of conduct violation that prompted it. The checking of male privilege and the imposition of consequences for unabashed exercise of that privilege is threatening to all those who enjoy it, as well as those who are ambivalent to its exercise.

Most disappointing of all? SendGrid’s response.

What I find most disturbing about this incident is the response of SendGrid, Richard’s employer up until this week. Rather than having the insight and moral courage to stand behind their employee they gave into the fervor of the mob. That news of Richard’s firing is at the top of the MensRights and WhiteRights subreddits is telling. SendGrid chose to go in the wrong direction on this moving train. They claim to want to build their developer community “across the globe,” but the qualifier they add with their actions is “as long as you are a white male or don’t make white males angry.” I suppose this is none too surprising when you look at SendGrid’s leadership team: Only one out of the twelve company leaders is a women. SendGrid has put into words the unspoken rule we already know: Speak out and you risk your livelihood.

How to we move forward from this incident?

We keep doing what we’re doing. Speaking up when we feel we are able to. Asking the communities of which we are a part to continue adopting and enforcing codes of conduct. Making allies and supporting each other and groups like the Ada Initiative. Avoiding employment, when possible, at companies who, like SendGrid, decide not to advocate for their minority employees the moment is become inconvenient. Pressuring our peers and managers to embrace the change required to make a diverse workforce possible.

I’ll close with a final quote from Mr. Zinn:

“We don’t have to engage in grand, heroic actions to participate in the process of change. Small acts, when multiplied by millions of people, can transform the world.”

Update 22 March 11:31 PDT with some further reading, now that this is getting some sensible coverage:

20 comments

  1. Tim Chevalier

    This is a great post. I especially appreciate the distinction between “shaming up” and “shaming down”, and the parent-child analogy is great.

    The geekfeminism.org post is actually not an official Ada Initiative post (it would be on TAI’s blog if it was), but rather, a collective statement from the geekfeminism.org contributors. I am not the author of the post but it’s my impression that this was the intent.

  2. LSF

    I recommend you look at the *research* into shame carried out by Brené Brown. You may end up with a different opinion regarding any positive impact in respect to shame.

  3. Lindsey Weedston

    I, too, very much appreciate the shaming up vs. shaming down bit. I have been struggling for some time to explain why the “public shaming” of the male developers who made the jokes is not some great sin committed by Richards, but a necessary and brave action for which said male developers can blame no one but themselves.

  4. Stefan

    You say: “Richards had zero obligation to be polite to the developers or to educate them.”

    Ok, but I don’t think this will change the world to the better. If we rather like to rant/talk about each other (especially on the web) rather than to each other in person, this won’t help the cause very much. There has been similar discussions in Germany a few weeks ago (not sure if you followed that) and I think in the end quite a few people agreed that it would often help to talk to each other more, then (in this case) some bad (in this case: sexist) jokes would not happen. At least in this case the argument with unsafe environment etc. does not really apply. Especially when the organizers of the conference do seem to have a way to deal with such things.

    • Christie Koehler

      You say this as if many of us don’t already spend considerable effort talking with people. Explaining these issues over and over again gets tiring. Those who hold privilege have a responsibility to do most of the work themselves.

  5. Stefan

    Make this “then (in this case) some bad (in this case: sexist) jokes would not happen.” -> “then (in this case) some bad (in this case: sexist) jokes would not happen anymore as then people get more sensitive about this. I doubt ranting helps.”

  6. Stefan

    Christie, why are you deleting my comments? Not interested in a discussion? Oh well, whatever.

  7. Stefan

    Eh, I’m sorry! :-) browser cache issues, I did not see my comment anymore when loading the blog page. Delete my last comment (and this one ;)

  8. Perry

    Thanks for the contrary view to what most women seem to be writing about the incident. You caused me to dig deeper and think harder about the incident than I otherwise would have.

    You say that it was okay for her to come out using a political howitzer to swat a (really smelly) fly because she legitimately feared for her life in a crowded room. If she’d used a gun, would it have been self-defense? What about measured or appropriate response?
    I am not a lawyer, be gentle with my use of vocabulary.

    Because she did pull out the (political) howitzer, she attracted the attention of those on the planet who do wish her harm, instead of the most likely two harmless fly’s who likely would have been educated by the exchange of “hey not cool, how do you think it makes me feel?”. Sure it feels better (to some people, not me) to blow people away than trying to educate them, but civilization didn’t get built by condoning feuding. Do you want eggshells or equality? Some women say they don’t want the eggshells.

    In her own words, she started out by demonizing the two men. She then ended up being demonized herself. I thought the goal was for everyone to treat everyone else as humans? How does automatic escalation cause that to happen?

    I was unable to locate the dirty jokes she allegedly tweeted in the days prior to the incident. The dirtiness was probably exaggerated like everything else, but it still seems relevant enough to mention. Humans are human.

    I’m a pacifist. I humanize everyone.

      • Perry

        My long experience is that as many women are assholes as men. All are human.

        Adria’s not automagically a victim because she is female. Here, I think she is a victim of a stupid-dongle-joke indeed told inappropriately, but mostly of her own howitzer like PR-campaign overreaction, which spiraled way out of her control. Mr Hank (?) is apparently the other victim of her PR-campaign.

        She didn’t mean to get him fired? Huh, what? That’s precisely what she set out to do.

        She was supposed to be a diplomat. She wasn’t one. She eve started a war, so I expect that’s what got her fired. Did you read the blackmail notice?

        PS. I was sorta expecting to have my argument picked apart, point by point. Not trolled. Sorry.

        • Christie Koehler

          Perry your argument wasn’t picked apart point my point because it doesn’t deserve the time it would take to do so. It might sound original to you, but it’s not. It fits the pattern of a handful of arguments we encounter all the time. I don’t have time to write a detailed response to every single one of them. You have a responsibility to do some of the work yourself.

          If you continue to focus on Richards’ actions in your comments, I will delete them. There are many place on the net where you can kvetch about how poorly she acted. I don’t need to provide another one here.

  9. TJ

    As a gay Python developer, I frequently overhear homophobic remarks at conferences. I do not believe that PyCon’s code of conduct is the way to deal with it and I do not believe having such codes is in the interest of minorities. And I found Adria’s reaction unprofessional and completely inappropriate.

    • Christie Koehler

      How you feel about codes of conduct personally isn’t really relevant. As conferences adopt them, It’s becoming obvious than having a clear set of expectations for participant behavior and a mechanism for dealing with inappropriate behavior is helping make space for women and other minorities.

  10. Sumana Harihareswara

    Thanks for writing this, Christie. I’ve been linking to it — it helps me explain to people why I can see why Ms. Richards did as she did.

    I noticed that in a few places here (and at least one other past post of yours) you used ‘women’ as a singular – is this an error, or is this a conscious choice? If the latter, would you mind educating me regarding your reasons for making that choice, or pointing me to your preferred style guide? Thanks!

    I especially appreciate your perspective as a conference organizer on this issue. Thank you for sharing it.