Around the blogs, women and offensive behaviour

There’s been a little confluence of events lately, resulting in yesterday (still time, if you’re not at GMT+10!) becoming Stop Cyberbullying Day. There’s been a lot of good discussion and I wanted to quote a bit of it rather than add much to it. If you’re only going to read a bit of this though, just go straight on through to Dorothea Salo, who is quoted extensively below.

Two angles here: is a hostile environment harming the women participants and potential participants in geekland (and also other groups, Dorothea Salo does note homosexual people too, I just didn’t quote that bit)? And then, how do you actually stop it, noting that being open about your goal of being friendly or welcoming to women is actually counterproductive?

Matthew Garrett, part 1:

The Ubuntu Code of Conduct is something that’s designed to ensure two things. Firstly, and perhaps most obviously, that discussions don’t end up bogged down in personal abuse with no useful conclusions being drawn. Secondly, and perhaps more subtly, to ensure that potential contributors aren’t put off by an atmosphere of perceived hostility.

A good rule of thumb is probably that if you think it would potentially result in a complaint to your boss if you did it in a moderately large company, then doing it on an Ubuntu mailing list is a bad plan.

Matthew Garrett, part 2:

We have basically three classes of people:

  1. People who won’t work on “fluffy” projects
  2. People who won’t work on “hostile” projects
  3. People who will work on pretty much any project, independent of the atmosphere

So, think of it as an optimisation tactic – projects benefit from having skilled people working on them. Do you gain more skilled people from being “fluffy” or “hostile”?

I am not certain whether or not this is the limit of Garrett’s opinion or just a practical summary in order to win the argument. In theory I’d go further: being inclusive within reasonable limits, good to newcomers, behaving in ways that will put people socialised to expect current widespread standards of professional behaviour at ease and not defending crass behaviour to women or anyone else as some kind of position of moral strength is actually morally better as well as probably more attractive to potential contributors. In practice I suppose if it takes the “but being better to people helps Linux!” argument that’s what it takes, but it’s not ideal. The idea is for the software and the associated communities to help people, and the other way around is just facilitating the end result.

But as we see below, the argument that we might be better people if we were gentle with each other, considered offending people generally a bad thing (sometimes necessary, seldom actually a good in and of itself) is well defended against.

Dorothea Salo:

I’m dubious that women can fix these windows on their own, in fact. It’d be nice, but geekland culture [earlier Salo notes “It’s not just the computer geeks, either, which is why I use the vague term geekland. Gaming of various sorts, comics, science-fiction fandom—same story”] has got a cozy little cycle going: demean women, then accuse them of overreacting (I’m being kind here; the accusations are generally much nastier than that) if they protest it, then demean the protesters, who are after all women, until they are driven off. Then demean women some more; who will be left to protest? And who will be left to protest should merely demeaning women escalate to threatening them? Threatening them sexually? Threatening their lives?

So here is what you do, if you’re a man wanting to help. You say, Um, was that supposed to be funny? Because, not laughing here. You say, Hey, could we not use that phrase? I don’t like it. You say to the main perpetrators, in IRC whispers or private email or whatever, Hey, would you mind toning down the jokes? That kind of talk really bothers me.

The key here is to express that the demeaning of women bothers you, you personally. Don’t appeal to nebulous higher causes; geekland scoffs at that stuff. Don’t even say the words sexist or sexism, much less feminism, and avoid woman and women whenever you can. If you say that kind of talk, trust me, they’ll know what you mean; whereas if you invoke the loaded words, they’ll shut down like a portcullis before an invading army.

And don’t say that you want the talk to stop because you want a comfortable environment for women, or even for a specific woman (your significant other, your sister, your daughter, your boss, your employee). Geekland doesn’t care. You can’t even say that you want more women to join the community. Some geeks will openly say Why? (Or, less openly, they will say that women aren’t there because they don’t want to be—without answering the question begged—or aren’t smart enough or good enough or tough enough to be. The last-mentioned, of course, is code for honorary guy.) The rest will simply assume that you want women for sex, because that’s all that women are for in geekland.

In fact, don’t get drawn into discussing why sexist talk irks you; doing so has probably been my major mistake. Geekland is very, very good at attacking feminist arguments, and dismissing and besieging the arguers. If they ask you why you’re bothered, just ask Shouldn’t I be? Doesn’t it bother you? Uh, isn’t it wrong? and like that—let them defend. (They will, don’t mistake me. But at least they have to.)