Taking Punches is a Sucker’s Game

There are two camps when it comes to issues of harassment, bullying, diversity, and making inclusive communities, especially when the medium is online or in the tech industry. Without trying to let my own bias tilt my presentation, I think these two camps can be summed up with the following sayings:

“Even if you think it’s a light jab, you shouldn’t throw punches.”

and

“I’ve taken worse and haven’t been bruised. You need to learn how to take a punch.”

If you don’t think the low rates of women and minorities participating in the tech industry is fundamentally a problem that should be corrected, you can stop reading now and save yourself a few minutes. But software developers are in high demand. There’s a lot of great software out there waiting to be written. And while the current generation is much more technically literate than say, 30 years ago, raising the general level of technical expertise would blossom the possibilities for more sophisticated products and avenues of communication. We should get as many people across all demographics on board as possible.

I’m not going to talk solely about sexism itself in the tech industry (though at the front of my views on that are pointing out how widely the Internet blames Adria Richards for the dongle-joker’s firing rather than Play Haven, who did the actual firing.) But I also want to talk about inclusion and how to build community, and the attitudes that tear community down.

Again, there are a lot of people who don’t view it as a problem, or at least if it is a problem it’s one that doesn’t deserve addressing. Most of the time these are people who are already in the community, and see any active outreach as unnecessary or even unfair. “I didn’t need someone to hold my hand. If that’s what they need (or worse, demand) then they’re self-selecting themselves out of tech industry anyway.”

I simplify (perhaps oversimplify, but this just my casual commentary) the issue into the “Don’t throw punches” and “Learn to take a punch” camps but they encompass a lot of attitudes that I’ve seen before (especially in the last couple of days): “That wasn’t professional.” “Lighten up, it’s just a joke.” “Not cool.” “It was a private conversation anyway.”

I simplify the issue into two camps, and I completely, utterly place my chips in the former, not the later. Being able to take a punch may be sufficient to get along in a heterogeneous community, but discouraging people from throwing them is absolutely necessary for holding one together.

* * *

“I’ve taken worse and haven’t been bruised.”

The comment in poor taste, the slide with the technically-not-nude porn image, the staring, the unsolicited proposition, the following, the boys locker room humor, the unconsented photographing, the hired booth staffer in the skintight outfit meant to arouse “the crowd” (i.e. heterosexual men), the “not a real developer” comments, the flier with outright sexist garbage anonymously posted up on the public wall, the antagonism you get when you tear down the flier.

As common as these things are at tech and geek conferences (and they are common), they aren’t things people call the cops over. Often the police aren’t even brought in when it escalates to stalking or an arm-grab. But they are more than enough to make people give up on participating. Since it doesn’t involve law enforcement or courts, many people treat these things lightly. The common attitude (and it is common) is: If there’s a problem, it’s because the person bringing up the problem is creating it.

This trivializing of incidents as “you’re too sensitive” sends a clear message: “That’s your problem. You’re on your own.”

The later camp either hasn’t experienced this targeted at them or if they have, they’ve accepted it as a small part of the price of admission. This isn’t welcoming, it’s hazing. Hazing is neat little psychological trick: by undergoing some humiliation or pain, you can get someone to ascribe value to a community (after all, if it wasn’t valuable, why did they take those punches for it?) It further also makes them want (or at least allow) to continue hazing new members: if you had to do it, then why should they get a free pass?

I could criticize this as a race to the bottom, but there’s no bottom. Outside of something that brings in the police, there is no bound to how bad accepted behavior can get when “learn to take a punch” is your cover-all. And people can get very creative when it comes to socially-cruel ostracism when they feel entitled to it.

At the core, I see the “don’t be so sensitive” attitude as the well-intentioned cousin of trolling: It devolves into a staring contest to see who will break first. To admit offense is to lose. To win you will need either indifference or the strength to suffer in silence. That’s a sucker’s game and either way, you will live with the knowledge that tomorrow you will be dealing with the same bullshit that you had to deal with today, because if you speak up it will only get worse. Especially if you’re a woman or minority.

This isn’t the foundation you can attract and build a community on and it’s not something anyone who wants to grow a community can ignore. (I point to Anil Dash’s blog post “If Your Website’s Full of Assholes, It’s Your Fault” as a great take on this.) Learning to lighten up, to not be so easily offended, to not make a big deal out of it, or to take a punch is never the raison d’etre of any community. People don’t pay conference registration fees to test their emotional mettle for abuse. (If PyCon’s increased attendance and rates of women’s participation demonstrate anything, it’s that people pay money for the exact opposite.)

Having resilience to not let insensitive comments or outright abuse drive you away is a good thing to have. It’s admirable to be shatterproof. But it’s callous to demand it from others. I thank the PyCon board and volunteers for putting together a great conference and a great community. They’ve had the guts to stick to their guns about not just having a Code of Conduct (the mere existence of which hasn’t been without resistance) but also the spine to enforce it and provide guidance for attendees to do the same. They’ve had to take quite a few punches themselves for this (and not just in the last few days), but I’m grateful that they do and that they push to ensure others won’t have to.

(If you’re interested in more on this topic, I recommend John Scalzi’s blog posts “The Sort of Crap I Don’t Get” and “Straight White Male: The Lowest Difficulty Setting There Is” (and the rest of his blog in general) and the Geek Feminism Wiki.)

6 comments.

  1. Thank you for writing this.

  2. Well said, thank you.

  3. *Like*!

  4. “I’m not going to talk solely about sexism itself in the tech industry (though at the front of my views on that are pointing out how widely the Internet blames Adria Richards for the dongle-joker’s firing rather than Play Haven, who did the actual firing.)”

    The reason “the Internet” blames Adria rather than Play Haven is because of the way she chose to handle it. There were staff on hand that she could have spoken to directly rather than blow it into something larger on the Internet herself. As evidenced by PyCon’s CoC and the way they handled it showed that they were serious about enforcing against bad behavior.

    Your post talks about getting to a point where we shouldn’t throw punches – even if they’re just light jabs – then we definitely shouldn’t condone throwing sucker punches like she did.

  5. Mark,

    One can either think Play Haven overreacted in firing the guy or that Play Haven did not overreact. If you think Play Haven overreacted, then it’s Play Haven’s responsibility for the firing. If you think Play Haven took appropriate action, then there is no one to “blame”. Either way, Richards is not the cause of the man’s firing. Play Haven is. This is still true even though Richards was in the wrong to post the photo to Twitter.

    > The reason “the Internet” blames Adria rather than Play Haven is because of the way she chose to handle it.

    I disagree. “The Internet” (i.e. the vitriolic and often anonymous crowd) blames Adria because the Internet likes to target outspoken feminists. My argument: If Richards had forwarded the photo to PyCon staff and Play Haven overreacted by firing the guy (and considering they did in reality overreact once, this is fair assumption to make that they would do so again), the Internet would still blame Richards with the same level of venom. Posting the photo was wrong on Richards’ part, but for the outraged and hateful crowd (which I would say makes up a large part of her critics) it is just an excuse.

  6. I say damn them all who cannot have a slight bit of etiquette and decency in a professional setting. That means both parties. The behavior that offended Adria Richards should never have happened and her response could have been handled discretely. In both cases, parties did not extend some reasonable decency towards their environment. Handling it in a name-and-shame public channel made it a one-upsmanship zoo, which is (IMHO as an ardent feminist) both anti-feminist and far less than pragmatic toward the end of improving diversity and camaraderie in technical communities.

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