On Public Outrage And Bad Actors
Out Of Date Warning
Languages change. Perspectives are different. Ideas move on. This article was published on February 23, 2013 which is more than two years ago. It may be out of date. You should verify that technical information in this article is still current before relying upon it for your own purposes.
Five years ago, a “that’s what she said” joke wouldn’t have had the least bit of impact on a room full of developers. Chances were good that room was all male. Chances are good today that the room is mostly or all male still, but we have become aware of the consequences of such jokes, and we’ve made progress at recognizing it. This is a good thing.
The problem is that we’ve moved fully from being reasonably outraged at outrageous events, to being outraged even at the small ones. Many of us are quick to outrage but slow to action. We focus on what offends us, but we don’t do anything about it. Our outrage gets ignored, because people are used to seeing it. This is a bad thing. It’s time for this to change.
The rise of public outrage
As best I can trace the rise of public outrage over sexism in the technical world, it arose out of the infamous SmutOnRails incident at a conference in San Francisco, CA. In that incident, the conduct was absolutely egregious, the official response criminal, and the outrage reasonable and justified.
Since then, the tech community at large has had several incidents of sexism that were beyond the pale. They were outrageous, and people were reasonably outraged.
Over time, however, it seems that we have traded our justified outrage at serious and severe incidents for over-the-top outrage at foolish incidents that were either unintentional or don’t merit the type of public outrage that including sexualized women on slides would.
Outrage in exchange for action
As a man, I know I can never experience sexism in the workplace in quite the same way as my female colleagues. But as a man whose wife is a civil engineer, I understand all too well the sad consequences of sexism in male-dominated fields. It makes me angry. It outrages me.
But I also know that I cannot use outrage as a substitute for inaction. I cannot simply sit back and be mad; I have to do something about what I observe.
Many of these changes come through adjusting how I think and behave. It’s careful consideration of language I use when writing. It’s thinking through what I’m saying and how it will be perceived. It’s taking heed and changing my behavior when Laura Thomson called me out for referring to two women as “girls” in a conversation. It’s being careful what kind of jokes I make and laugh at. It’s carefully and politely correcting others who act in an inappropriate manner.
It’s too easy to allow outrage to replace action, and to make us feel good. But we have to remember that being outraged isn’t enough; we have to be inclusive, not just be outraged when people aren’t inclusive.
Dealing with bad actors
From time to time, people make mistakes. They say something that’s crude, inappropriate or wrong. They don’t mean to offend. They didn’t intend to hurt anyone’s feelings.
When this happens, it’s up to everyone to politely rebuke bad behavior. Most of the time this solves the issue entirely; apologies are made, lessons are learned, people move on. This is how communities ultimately get better.
In other cases, bad actors not only make poor decisions, but they then defend those decisions as “plays on words” or tell people to “get a grip”.
When people defend their bad actions, and are not willing to see the fact that their behaviors hurt the communities they’re representing, it’s up to the community to take action. Not with faux outrage but with direct action. I believe Cal Evans put it best when he wrote:
To all PHP Conference organizers, I will not participate in any conference that @webandphp or their parent company S&S is involved in. I will not attend, I will not speak. If I agree to speak or purchase a ticket and then they get involved in any way, I will refuse to participate.
Dealing with the larger issues
Still, even taking direct action against one company won’t solve the problem. We need to deal with the larger issues in the software development world to encourage participation from everybody.
Encouraging this participation doesn’t come from expressing outrage; it comes from direct action. Groups like Hacker School and Etsy are moving the cause forward by sponsoring women who are interested in software development. Conferences like phpDay are encouraging women to submit proposals. DjangoCon and other conferences have adopted codes of conduct that set expectations and offer solutions for everybody who might feel threatened at a conference.
These efforts make a difference and I would love to see more of them. I may never experience the problems of sexism first hand, but we can all do more to make sure that others don’t have to either.