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: