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?

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