Four wrongs and no rights

21 Mar
March 21, 2013

There are so many things wrong with the PyCon incident surrounding Adria Richards and the ensuing fall-out that the specific behaviour of the people involved doesn’t even begin to get into it.

The events, as I understand it, are thus: Adria Richards was in conversation with two men at a coding conference, during a presentation. The conversation moved on–or maybe it didn’t, it’s unclear–and the two men cracked some jokes that were sexual in nature. Richards took a photo of the men, and tweeted about her issue with the jokes. PyCon organizers saw the tweet, came into the presentation to speak to the men in private. The men apologized, and did not return to the presentation. Richards wrote a blog post about her experience. The internet explodes in hate, as it is wont to do, with rape threats, death threats, and public and private harassment directed at both Richards and PyCon developers.

Then, Playhaven, the employer of one of the men, decides to fire him. Richards’ website is targeted by a DDOS attack, then Richards’ employer, SendGrid, also falls victim. So SendGrid fires Richards.

In short: it’s a mess.

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Python, from what I’ve read, is a development community that is more cognizant than many of the need to be inclusive and accessible. PyLadies is one of the first “programming for women” initiatives I’ve heard about, and many of the female devs that I know in the community are very enthusiastic and loyal to the community. And you know what? 20% female attendance at a development conference of 2,500 is great, because that speaks not only to proportional interest, but also absolute volume of female developers in the community. I’m thrilled 500 women attended PyCon.

But flip that number on its head: that also means that 80% of attendants were male. And 80% isn’t just a majority; it’s an overwhelming supermajority. Imagine a president with 80% of the popular vote, or a political party with 80% of the House and Senate. The skew is so enormous that it seems almost laughable. And the only reason that PyCon is being lauded for this ratio is because the skew is so much worse everywhere else.

I say this not to lay blame at the feet of the PyCon staff, who seem to have behaved exactly as they should have behaved, and are now getting harassment and threats from the internet hate brigade for duly performing their duties. I say this to set the stage of how intimidating it can be to be that outnumbered, how many thousand cuts of microaggressions you are likely to encounter before one more breaks your spirit.

I think everyone behaved sub-optimally in this situation. Whether you personally agree or not, the jokes that the two men were making contravened PyCon’s codes of conduct. One of them admitted as much in a Hacker News comment. Richards is well within her rights to call it to the attention of the Con staff, and to want to not put up with that at a presentation she was trying to listen to. PyCon staff intervened, the men apologized and withdrew from that particular presentation, all was well.

She is also well within her rights to call attention to it publicly on her blog, and to address why this is a problem. Post-facto debriefs of this nature about troubling incidents at conventions are the most effective and efficient way of engaging with the community, and are an accepted way of broaching the problem. I don’t agree with her decision to tweet a photo of those men, but I am not her, and I believe in her judgment.

Where everything goes to hell in a handbasket is three-fold: 1. The internet’s reaction, 2. Playhaven’s decision to fire one of the two men, and 3. SendGrid’s decision to fire Richards.

It’s an unfortunate reality that women who call attention to themselves in any way invite abuse, even if they have all the justification in the world. It happened with Rebecca Watson, it happened with Anita Sarkeesian, it happened with Sandra Fluke, it happened with Zerlina Maxwell, it happened with Steubenville’s Jane Doe. No matter how much a woman has been wronged, how much she deserves justice and support, she will bring down upon herself legions of death threats, rape threats, digital harassment, and often real-life harassment if she dares to speak up.

We see this time and again. Activist exhaustion is a huge deal in feminist circles, because you just get worn down by the constant hate streaming your way. Even if you don’t identify as a feminist, every woman who is active on the internet learns that being loud-spoken means you are a target for hate. It’s why so many women are so hesitant to speak up about their own experiences with sexual assault, sexual harassment, and misogyny. It’s why the MRA bullshit claim that women make up rape accusations for fun is so utterly mindboggling. Because no woman who speaks up about her own victimization ever escapes unscathed, ever escapes ostracism and ridicule and derison. It’s a very personal decision that achieves a purpose, but at a very high personal cost.

So when Richards makes the decision to be outspoken with it, I absolutely believe her that it mattered enough to do so. Her decision was hers to make, and it is not my place–nor anyone else’s–to tell her what she ought to have done. We weren’t there.

But even in relatively “progressive” circles, there’s been so much impugning and smearing of her character that it hurts my brain. She works for a mass-email company, therefore she’s a sociopath. She has a Twitter persona, therefore she’s an attention-seeking harlot wanting to get ahead. She has an uncommon job title, clearly she wants to throw her weight around. Her blog post didn’t strike the right tone, therefore she’s disingenuous and mercenary. It’s utterly awful to see that we still can’t discuss behaviour without denigrating personal integrity. You can disagree with Richards’ handling of the situation, but misogyny is so frequently the default starting position to take that many don’t even realize they’re falling into common sexist tropes.

And when Playhaven made the stupid, knee-jerk, thoughtless position to fire one of the men–a decision that all involved agree was ridiculously over the top–this is attributed to Richards as something that she intended all along. “He wouldn’t have been fired if she’d kept her mouth shut”, people cry, ignoring that he also wouldn’t have been fired if he’d kept his mouth shut, or listened to the presentation, or didn’t go to the conference, or any number of things.

Look at how many instances of highly publicized misogyny in geek communities have happened within the last 2-3 years. Off the top of my head, Sarkeesian, Skeptic Con (twice!), WisCon, Readercon, Microsoft in Norway, Dell in Copenhagen, the many many brogrammer incidents, the many many fake geek girl incidents. Look on GeekFeminism for the full timeline. Look at how many consequences were actually meted out to the perpetrators. Can anyone honestly, genuinely say that it was a reasonable expectation that Playhaven would react this way? Do we also hold Nobel accountable for all the harm people do with TNT?

But the internet hate brigade doesn’t care, and heads after Richards and her employer SendGrid, who cravenly cave in to mob frenzy and fire her, as well. Is anyone blaming the ex-Playhaven employee for having cost Richards her livelihood? No, of course not. Because he can’t control how impartial third parties behave. But neither could Richards control how Playhaven would grossly overreact.

And my overwhelming feeling in all of this is just…disappointment. Disappointment that SendGrid and Playhaven reacted as they did. Disappointment that despite dozens and dozens of precedents, we still can’t discuss these situations without impugning a woman’s character. And most of all, disappointment about how much this incident will henceforth muddy the waters.

Four individual acts came together to form this giant mess: the joke, the tweet, the first firing, the second firing. Encompassing all of these is the wider internet atmosphere, of screaming hatred targeted at women and anyone who dared consider their interests. It absolutely sucks that the guy got fired. It also absolutely sucks that Richards got fired. But at the end of the day, the guy is a martyr, and Richards is fielding rape threats. At the end of the day, it’s female developers now and in the future who will be disproportionately harmed by this clusterfuck.

The reactions of these two employers have escalated it to a point where there are going to be so many bridges burned between those who want inclusivity in the tech world and those who fear the PC Bogeyman that we’re set back, once again. It created a convenient strawman for those who want the tech world to continue to be an old boy’s club to point to, as the slippery slope that doesn’t exist. And that does real harm to women who work in male-dominated fields. I don’t believe anyone came out on top here.

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A quick note on the Internet Hate Brigade: I’ve talked about this over and over again, but it’s worth noting that they are not just teenage basement dwellers without any social skills, and to dismiss them as such is to minimize the problem of misogyny and hatred within our communities. We’ve seen plenty of situations where grown men are more than happy to attack and harass women. There are Facebook pages dedicated to putting “13-year-old sluts” in their places where men post awful comments with their real identities. The developer who made the “Beat up Sarkeesian” game is in his mid 20s. The most egregious harasser I know who has plagued my Twitter circle who is now facing several charges is 40-something. The people who run A Voice For Men who regularly incite internet hate mobs against us uppity feminists are all well into adulthood.

If we assume the majority of Internet trolls are teenage basement dwellers, it becomes easy to not take them seriously, and it discounts how threatening and upsetting it can be to receive demeaning and angry messages from anonymous usernames. One teenager talking shit may be laughable, but hordes of trolls acting tough drove a 15-year-old girl to take her life. Even in the unlikely scenario that the majority of Hacker News, Reddit, and Facebook trolls calling for Richards to be violently assaulted in many different ways are teenagers, it’s still incredibly important to examine why these teenage boys have such knee-jerk disdain for a woman’s humanity.

And no: “Boys will be boys” is not an acceptable answer.

6 replies
  1. Dan Lyke says:

    So I don’t have any better knowledge than you do, but my reading is that your statement that “Adria Richards was in conversation with two men at a coding conference, during a presentation.” is better characterized as “Adria Richards was sitting in front of two men who were having a conversation… and overheard them.”

    Not that I have any answers.

    • Phire says:

      I don’t think the specifics of what happened are in any way justification (or anything else) for the reaction that this event has engendered, but for whatever it’s worth, according to her own account she was engaged in conversation with the men when the sexual jokes started:

      The guy behind me to the far left was saying he didn’t find much value from the logging session that day. I agreed with him so I turned around and said so. He then went onto say that an earlier session he’d been to where the speaker was talking about images and visualization with Python was really good, even if it seemed to him the speaker wasn’t really an expert on images. He said he would be interested in forking the repo and continuing development.

      That would have been fine until the guy next to him…

      began making sexual forking jokes.

  2. someone says:

    I’m sorry to tell you, but you need to get some facts correct which put Adria in overly reactive thin-skinned light.

    1) According to what one of the two guys wrote on hacker news (HN) – which is credible due to even Adria answering to his post – they talked to each other. Not to Adria, so she overheard (some may even say eavesdropped) on their discussion.

    2) Forking and dongle are actually tech words despite them being very near to jokes which are innuendo. Forking someone’s repositoriy means copying the person’s project source code so that you can work on it. Like a road which takes a fork. As one of the guys described on HN, they were talking that forking is a novel form of flattery, implementation the highest form. This makes sense for every tech savvy person.
    Adria calling herself a “developer evangelist” or whatever should know those two terms.
    Making jokes about dongles are neither misogyny nor sexist. They might be immature at most, but as a grown up person, you should be able to cope with that under any circumstance.
    Btw. you don’t have a right to not hear what you don’t want to hear…

    3) The conferences code of conduct (CoC) clearly states that the route of escalation of problems is: talk to the persons. If this does not work, talk to the staff. They will manage the problem. Problem solved. Taking steps as Adriana did is obviously against the CoC. Even more is taking photos of people. And guess what, most tech guys are extremely sensitive about their photo being taken. She should have known that as well (see “developer evangelist” above).

    4) The hypocrisy in here statements. When you look at here twitter page, she claims herself to be with SendGrid (well, sadly she was…). So everything she tweets needs to be professional, as it might directly reflect her (former) employers view. Nevertheless, she made some p…s jokes “with a friend”, publicly on twitter. There is no large difference between this and the two guys joking around at the conference. Both is doubtfull, but doesn’t need to be handled in the way she did.
    But here again: According to my experience, IT guys are extremely sensitive to hypocrisy.

    There would be even more, but this by itself explains a lot of the outrage. But please don’t take this as any way of accepting threats or whatever. It is not. Threats are never okay.

    However, if you expect others to behave in a certain grown up and civiliced way, you need to be held by the same standards. She failed with respect to that.

    This whole incident shows primarily one thing – at least to me: As soon as someone is accused of sexual harassment, this person has lost. Even if he didn’t do anything at all. But even the notion of it can destroy someones reputation. From my experience, this is amplified by the accuser being female.

    But I have to stress this again: If you are offended by a joke which is a) not directed to you in any way, b) does not make fun _of you_ (by being insulting in any possible way) or c) you overheard tells more about that person being offended than the ones joking around.
    You sould make sure that the steps you take after being offended are the right ones.

    Adria did not make sure here actions were appropriate.

    • Phire says:

      She can be the most imperfect person in the world, but she still has a lived experience, and still deserves respect. You can say that you would have handled the situation differently, but it is diminishing of her to question the veracity of her account of the situation, and her statement about her own feelings.

      If the IT community is as sensitive to hypocrisy as it claims to be, they would denounce the threats and harassment pouring towards Richards for being far, far more toxic and damaging than anything Richards could have said or done. They would not have launched a DDOS attack on her employer, who until now was wholly uninvolved. If anything, they would’ve targeted Playhaven for their terrible decision. The fact that some perceive Richards to have behaved hypocritically is not a license for them to then hurl abuse at her – this is the height of hypocrisy in and of itself. You can’t say “threats are never okay” and in the same breath say “if your behaviour is inappropriate others are allowed to be uncivilized”; it’s a distinction without a difference.

      I’ve seen very little negative feeling towards the Playhaven employees online. Even people in absolute support of Richards acknowledge their classy apology, as well as that of PyCon. The dev who lost his job is already getting new leads. It’s not an accusation of sexual harassment that brings you down, it’s unrepentant defense of continued abuse.

      I also don’t think it’s as simple as “it wasn’t about you, it wasn’t directed to you, stop overreacting”. It’s about the environment created by your words. I’m well aware of what forking and dongle mean. I’m also well aware of how double entendres can create a really uncomfortable work environment for someone in a minority position, whatever the intention of the speaker.

      As I said, I don’t agree with everything Richards has done, but I stand by her account of the events, and trust that she had reason to do so. It doesn’t matter if I think she overreacted: she reacted the way she did, and that was her prerogative. What I am calling out is not the behaviour of the men, or the behaviour of PyCon, or to beg Richards’ case. I am calling out how quickly the entire internet rallies to attack a woman who behaved “inappropriately” using the especially vitriolic language that we reserve for putting women down, and how much of an opportunity was missed by these organizations who could have perpetrated harm instead of good. Plus ça change.

  3. Patrick says:

    I find this whole thing fascinating and not a little disturbing given the vitriol on both sides. I am glad that I don’t have a dog in this race or however you are supposed to say it! Geez, now I feel like I should be spamming an anti-anxiety drug here…

    I guess I will just say that “geek girls” are cool and the coolest ones have cool heads. And that I am kind of excited to see Phire’s deleted post over at MetaFilter get a call out in MetaTalk (and a closed thread!). I’ll have you know that I bought Phire a drink when she was underaged and she did not take advantage of me. To me that is indicative of a mature individual (and, in retrospect, a grown up).

    Now I am going back to re-watching the American version of The Office and trying not to be Michael Scott. Oh, wait, I am more like Kevin. :-(

    • Phire says:

      Funny, I was just talking about that meet-up with another MeFite a few days ago. At the time I was mostly like “welp, this could have gone super badly for me, glad it didn’t”, but in retrospect it must’ve been rather awkward for you, too, ha ha.

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