It's time for the next step with anti-harassment policies

Off the Beat: Bruce Byfield's Blog

Mar 22, 2013 GMT
Bruce Byfield

For several weeks, I've resisted writing this blog entry. I don't want people accusing  me of mansplaining  -- of lecturing women about what they already know better than I do -- as an easy way of discrediting me. Nor do I care to hear my resignation from The Ada Initiative in November 2011 dredged up to as evidence of my personal animosity. But, being the mouthy type that I am, I'm going to plunge in anyway, simply because nobody else has.

Writing as a pro-feminist, I would like to make the case, as respectfully as possible, that getting conferences to establish anti-harassment policies is not enough. The time has come for a discussion about how those policies need to be carried out and how they should affect both conference organizers' and conference attendees' behavior. Without such discussion, not only are anti-harassment policies likely to be  discredited, but the goals of feminism in free and open source software could also be set back for years.

Beyond the conventional analysis

If you are interested in such matters at all, you probably already know the backdrop I am writing against: the apparent lack of enforcement of the anti-harassment policy at the Chaos Communications Congress in the last week of 2012;  Valerie Aurora of The Ada Initiative having Violet Blue's talk at BSides SF canceled based upon her interpretation of its title; and Adria Richards' posting of a picture of men whose sexual jokes she overheard at PyCon, and the resulting Twitter storm that caused both she and one of the jokers to lose their jobs.

Each of these events has been discussed to exhaustion on Twitter and blogs. Even more importantly, they have roused a singularly vicious reaction by anti-feminists, some of whom claim to be defending free speech against prudish and dictatorial straw feminists.

Feminists have responded to this reaction by saying that it is simply the usual misogyny that erupts when a woman speaks out. For instance, the Geek Feminism site posted a statement in defense of Adria Richards that said in part:

"We condemn the racism directed at Adria, which has been amply demonstrating that women of color are particularly unwelcome and vulnerable in the technical community. We continue to hope and to work for for a technical and wider geek community where women, especially women of color and other oppressed women, can voice their concerns about being unwelcome without being widely abused and threatened and thereby silenced."

Similarly, Valerie Aurora is quoted by The Daily Dot as saying, "The feeling has always been there in our culture. What I think the Internet has changed is that it's made it lower cost for people to express their sexist and racist comments or feelings."

This interpretation is undeniable, and needs to be made. Until you have been on the receiving end of online misogyny (as I have, although nowhere near to the degree that many women have), it is hard to imagine the concentrated nastiness, and your first exposure to it can easily cause an over-reaction. More than anything else, it probably explains the otherwise unseemly glee in  Adria Richards' account of her actions and in many similar accounts. It may not be the height of maturity to enjoy getting a little of your own back, but it certainly is human.

However, as an analysis sexism-as-usual is incomplete. Leaving the analysis at this level encourages feminists to continue doing exactly what they are already doing -- and that means that similar incidents are likely to keep on happening.

Further incidences would not be a tragedy if they encouraged people to accept the tenets of FOSS feminism. Undoubtedly, they do, to an extent. In fact, one reason why feminists dismiss the reaction as more of the same could be that they hear from those whom the misogyny disgusts while declining to read opposing views, whose gist they are already wearily familiar with.

The trouble is, responses to these events are far from entirely misogynistic. Some sound genuinely concerned about free speech, which is a core value in the tech community. By restricting themselves to a conventional analysis, feminists risk allow the misogynists to frame them as dictatorial and pro-censorship.

Even more importantly, left unchallenged, the misogynistic framing causes many to hesitate to identify with FOSS feminism. During discussions of events at BSides, for example, I read a number of people regretting that they had donated to The Ada Initiative, or saying that they no longer supported it. They supported encouraging more women in FOSS, such people wrote, but they did not want to donate to puritans and censors.

Not much can be done about the misogynists. The best to hope for is that they eventually understand that their views are unacceptable, and fall silent. But, considering that the success of FOSS feminism requires community support, the fact that the undecided and even a few former supporters are distancing themselves should be cause for concern.

In practical terms, this is a publicity crisis, and few FOSS feminists are trained to think in marketing terms. At times, it seems that they can no more see in these terms than someone with color blindness can distinguish between two colors that their eyes tell them are the same. Yet, until feminists learn to do so, they are in effect handing their opponents a weapon to use against them, and weakening their own cause.

The discussion that needs to happen
Possibly, the incidents I am talking about are growing pains, and will gradually stop happening as anti-harassment policies become the norm and people learn to govern their own behavior by them. But that is a chance that pro-feminists should not take. For all anyone can guess, such incidents are just as likely to keep happening indefinitely, dividing the FOSS community without having any useful effect.

Rather than gamble on what will happen, I suggest that FOSS feminists need to come to a deeper understanding of what is happening and eventually produce a consensus of how to make such policies work.

This goal requires a wide-ranging and multi-level discussion in order to be useful. However, based on recent incidents, I can think of a few starting points. For example, how can proponents ensure that a policy is not something that is adopted by conferences, then ignored like a mission statement?

Similarly, how do you train the volunteers on a conference team to deal with incidents quickly and without being pressured? How do they mediate between complainers and those complained about?

Other guidelines might be useful for those who wish to make a complaint. Contrary to the misogynist's predictions, so far there is no reason to think that false or malicious complaints are a major problem. But what about complaints made on insufficient information, or about comments overheard but not directed at the one who complains? If the main advocate of anti-harassment policies can make an inappropriate complaint, then a reasonable take-away is that anyone can.

In addition, some sense of proportion needs to be established. What is the definition of reasonable grounds for a complaint? What is the scale of responses that should be made? Is the point to punish, or to educate and to prevent future incidences from the same person?

A consensus on such questions might not only add up to a reasonable reply to misogynistic framing, but also give anti-harassment policies a better chance to work. Without it, trivial or misguided complaints can all too easily discredit the entire idea -- and with it, FOSS feminism itself.


  • Re: A good policy explains what to do


    Thanks for the comments based on experience.

    Has anyone detailed how the Ohio LinuxFest handles such matters? It seems to me that more people should hear what you are saying.

  • A good policy explains what to do

    Discussions of how situations should be handled was part of the original discussions on how to make a conference policy that was going on between conference organizers before Val Aurora grabbed things and made it all about her. Those of us who did most of the original work at least do get an acknowledgement.

    The Conduct Policy for the Ohio LinuxFest spells out how someone can report a problem, and how it will be handled.

    Our event-only volunteers are told to refer all complaints (no matter what) to a staff member. We do need to be more clear that they're to do it without making any kind of judgement. However, every complaint so far has always gone directly to a staff person.

    We did have a problem last year where someone reported a man who appeared to be following a female around the area and making her feel uncomfortable. Our security person investigated and found that the man wasn't part of our conference. The female turned out to be a staff person at the convention center. Convention center staff asked the man to leave and not come back, which he did.

    The saddest part is that the Convention center staff tried to make light of the situation. I told them that we take these kinds of things very seriously, no matter who is involved.

    As for things like what Richards did, you cannot force someone to report things to the conference staff. You cannot make people do or not do something. You can only make it clear that if someone does report something it will be taken seriously and dealt with. Armchair quarterbacking might allow you to say what someone should or shouldn't have done in the past, but you can only try to fix the future.
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