For better or worse, the first thing I thought upon reading Adria Richards’ blog post about the now-notorious PyCon incident was, “wait a second, I thought a tech conference was exactly the place for dongle and fork jokes!” The off-color comments that compelled Richards to speak out remind me of many comments that I have both heard and uttered at similar conferences. It does not immediately register as blatantly unacceptable behavior, if it registers that way at all. It implicates a lot of us.
To objectively debate whether or not fork and dongle jokes are “offensive” misses the point entirely. It is not for me to decide whether somebody else is empirically correct in being offended or upset by something. In Richards’ own words, the “fork” and “dongle” jokes were a Popeye-esque “couldn’t ‘stands it no more’” moment after months of being subjected to varying degrees of inappropriate behavior at tech conferences. The harder question is: how do we create an environment where people can safely express that they are upset and offended? How can we have that conversation without attacking, threatening, or scapegoating anybody?
So, right off the bat, let’s acknowledge that there is a wide spectrum of language and behavior that could leave certain people feeling unwelcome at an event such as PyCon. Making off-color jokes, no matter how innocuous-seeming, falls on this spectrum. Peppering a presentation with gratuitous images of bikini-clad women falls on that spectrum. Drunkenly slobbering on a female conference attendee, slipping her your company’s business card with your hotel room written on it, and slurring “my wife doesn’t know I’m here,” falls on that spectrum.
…. I actually witnessed that last one at the afterparty for a tech event in NYC a couple years ago. I got between the drunk guy and the young woman in question, chatted him up for a while, and made a note not to do business with the company he was there representing. BUT I didn’t do the one thing I obviously should have done, which is to tell him: “the way you are behaving is not okay.” In the best of all possible worlds, directly and honestly communicating with people is always the right thing to do. But it is not always easy. I couldn’t bring myself to do it from the excruciatingly safe and privileged position of a 6’4” dude at a conference where I had just spoken, so I certainly can’t get mad at Adria Richards for taking to Twitter to vent her frustrations. Putting all the responsibility on the offended party to always “do the right thing” only makes it harder for us to move forward.
By every account I’ve read, the staff at PyCon handled Richards’ complaint well — they spoke to both Richards and to the men in question, the men apologized, and everybody got on with their business. This could have been a much-needed blueprint for how to resolve issues like this respectfully. Instead, two people have been fired, and a woman who called out behavior that offended her is (once again) fielding grotesque threats from the usual suspects, and smug schadenfreude from a much wider swath of the Internet.
Acknowledging the horror and injustice of what Richards is currently experiencing does not mean we must agree with everything she’s ever said. I’ve never met Adria Richards, but some of the language in her post troubles me, especially her suggestion that the “future of programming” rested on her actions, and her broad assertions about what “women in technology need.” I don’t think it helps any of us to use Richards herself as a stand-in for ALL “women in tech.” The fact that other women might not have been offended, or might not have acted in the way that Richards did, does not render her individual experience less valid. Similarly, Richards’ actions do not make the experiences of other women with different perspectives any less valid.* No one person should have to stand in for anybody else, nor should any one person be able to speak for anybody else without their consent; Richards being offended and upset should be enough; enough for us to take it seriously, enough for us to reflect.
In the wake of this, some have pointed to past situations where Richards has publicly decried or boycotted things without directly addressing the offenders. If there is concern about Richards appropriating the experiences of others for her own personal gain, I would suggest that such appropriation is only possible if we create room for it, if we elide the gap between “things that upset Adria Richards” and “things that are always incontrovertibly sexist and offensive to women.” If we give Adria Richards unilateral authority to decide what is sexist, it is not because women are all-powerful and to be feared, but rather because it is easier for us to let someone else bear the burden of calling these things out than it is for us to discuss them together.
Looking at the way Richards has been treated in the wake of this, it’s not hard to see why we would be quick to defer that discussion, to let someone else speak to these issues and then criticize them for not doing it “the right way.” It is always easier to scapegoat individuals than to examine our own behavior. As many have pointed out, Richards herself did not get anybody fired; she publicly started a conversation that we don’t know how to have, and firing somebody is easier than wading into such rhetorically treacherous waters. Wringing your hands about how we’ll never be able to make funny jokes in public again is easier than acknowledging that, yes, when we talk within earshot of other humans, we run the risk of offending or upsetting those humans.
Nobody disagrees that there is misogyny in tech — the disgusting but all-too-familiar way in which Richards has been attacked in the wake of this is proof enough of that. But many articles and comments I’ve read in defense of Richards make a lot of assumptions about the men who made those jokes being “douchebags,” “neckbeards,” “sexists,” etc. I can’t help but feel that we’re saying some of these things to make ourselves feel better, to insist that we are NOT irredeemable tech bro douchelords, regardless of whatever crude jokes we may have made in earshot of other people.
I know for a fact that the profanity I’ve use in some of my classes and talks has left people feeling upset and alienated. My initial reaction to hearing this is always a hot-faced combination of rage and embarrassment; “well, they should just lighten up! It was just, like, TWO f-words!” The truth is, we all do things that hurt or offend other people sometimes. I have participated in conversations a thousand times more heinous than those attributed to said tech bro douchelords. You probably have, too. You’ve also probably reached the end of your rope and vented about somebody or something that falls on the relatively tame side of an ongoing, systemic frustration of yours. There is no perfect solution here, no way to make sure that we can all say exactly what we want and never offend anybody. We can, however, examine our own behavior and think about what we can learn from other people’s perspectives.
… or we can keep not-really-having this conversation every couple months. We need a way to talk about this stuff that isn’t temporarily “resolved” by a few people getting fired, or by all of us agreeing that misogyny exists somewhere in the tech world but refusing to examine the ways in which we ourselves might be complicit, and what we can do to make things better.
*For more on the“some women are not offended by this so it cannot be offensive” trope, I’d recommend both Ariel Levy’s Female Chauvinist Pigs and Susan Douglas’ Enlightened Sexism: The Seductive Message that Feminism’s Work Is Done.