Dec. 9th, 2012

tim: "System Status: Degraded" (degraded)
I promised I was going to post something related every day until I reached 20 donors for the Ada Initiative for my 32nd birthday. So far: 3 down, 17 to go!
I'm going to start with Valerie Aurora's absolutely brilliant post, 'Connecting the dots: "Everyday sexism" and the École Polytechnique massacre'. Valerie Aurora is a co-founder of and executive director of the Ada Initiative.

Really, I could just link to this post, tell you emphatically to read it, and leave it at that. But there's a little more I want to add, since the topic of Aurora's post is an incident that directly affected me: not the École Polytechnique massacre, that is, but the most recent events involving the the Planet Mozilla controversy and the harassment of my colleague Christie Koehler that resulted from it.

Aurora writes:
This anniversary is important for women in technology in part because it connects obvious, overt crimes against women in technology with the ugly root system of "everyday" sexism that feeds and sustains it. Lépine left a long note explaining why he targeted women: feminists had ruined his life ("les féministes qui m'ont toujours gaché la vie"). In particular, he told people that women in technology caused him to be unable to get a job or complete a university degree in technology.


It's pretty obvious that there is a parallel -- in intention if not in effect -- between the massacre and the death threat that Christie received from a person who had an interest in what goes on in the open-source community. In my opinion, these two examples of hostility -- from men in the tech community, aimed at women in the tech community -- clearly show the source of a lot of the more everyday, more insidious hostility towards women in the software industry and especially open source. The hostility comes from men defending what they believe to be their property. Lépine believed that he was entitled to have an engineering job -- to the point where he should not have to face competition from women who were as qualified as he was, or more qualified than him. To defend his turf, he literally murdered women who were potential rivals with him for jobs. As with any hate crime, his action also served as a warning to all women who might consider studying or working in engineering: that if you encroach on a man's turf, he might defend it by killing you, and that engineering is a man's turf.

While less harsh in its consequences, a death threat from someone who believes that the open-source community should be a heterosexual men's club serves the same purpose: to terrorize, to instill fear in any women who participate or might think about participating that if they question anything about how they're being treated, someone might hurt or kill them. Hans Reiser, who was at least formerly an accepted and influential member of the open-source community, made this less hypothetical by murdering his wife, Nina Reiser. While Nina Reiser was not a programmer herself, this incident shows that committing extreme violence against women is not incompatible with being in the open-source community -- that you can't assume that just because someone is your colleague, or works on the same project, that they're not capable of hating women enough to kill one.

So far, I don't expect what's been said to be too controversial. But, as Aurora did, I also want to problematize the incident that set off the Planet Mozilla controversy and gave rise to the discussions that made at least one person (whose identity is not known at this date) feel so passionate about defending the right of some other people to use a work space to say certain things that they were willing to threaten somebody's life over it. That is: a paid Mozilla contributor made a statement on his blog, which was syndicated on Mozilla's blog aggregator, encouraging readers to sign a petition that says: "I support the legal definition of marriage which is the voluntary union for life of one man and one woman."

Now let's talk about what this means. Opponents of universal marriage might say that they don't hate or fear gay, lesbian, bisexual, pansexual, intersex, genderqueer, transgender, or transsexual people -- just that they want to make sure that "marriage" "means what it's always meant". But clearly, this "always" statement is based on universalizing a very particular white, heterosexual, monogamous, middle- to upper-class, Protestant, Western European definition of "marriage" (and it might be something even more specific than that) in a way that denies history. So the concept of "not wanting to change what it's always meant" is a red herring, since there is no single thing that marriage has "always meant".

I think what's really going on is about ownership as well. The aforementioned privileged group (a subset of individuals who are white, heterosexual, Protestant, and so on) believe that they own the concept of marriage and have the right to exclude people from it as they choose. They think marriage belongs to them. Let's make a table. By the way: when I say "fundamentalists" in the heading, I'm not meaning to imply that all opponents of universal marriage are religious. I also don't mean to blame the abstraction of "religion" for the misguided beliefs of real, concrete human beings. They are responsible for their beliefs, which can't be blamed on an abstract concept. I'm religious myself, so I know that many religious people hold open and accepting views, and many non-religious people hold bigoted, narrow views. Rather, the group I mean to name is that group that uses obsessive, almost fetishistic attention to the literal meanings of words (always according to dictionaries they wrote) as a weapon. Many of these people identify as religious, but not all.

Violent, misogynist men in the tech industryFundamentalists
Believe themselves to be superior to womenBelieve their relationships to be more sacred than, more moral than, better for society than, better for children than, just all-around better than queer people's relationships with each other
Rely on their roles as hackers, programmers or engineers to reinforce their self-esteemRely on the concept of "traditional marriage" in order to feel good about themselves and their relationships
Feel that open-source belongs to them and they have the right to enforce who enters geek/nerd/hacker spacesFeel that marriage belongs to them and they have the exclusive right to decide whose marriages the government recognizes
Are sometimes willing to use outright violence, or at least threats thereof, to protect their turfUse legislative and rhetorical violence to protect their turf, diminishing the quality of queer people's lives in real and concrete ways

Some people might say that fundamentalists don't deserve to be compared to murderers. Honestly, I couldn't care less how fundamentalists feel about being compared to murderers. When fundamentalists start thinking about how it feels for me when they tell me their relationships are better than mine, maybe then I'll start thinking about how they feel about the comparison. My activism is not to "convince" or "persuade" fundamentalists that it's more rewarding and enriching to see oneself as equal in worth and dignity to others than to see oneself as others' master, anyway -- I don't think I'm clever enough to convince them of that. My activism is to convince people like me to not sit down and take it.

I'm not saying that fundamentalists' feelings don't matter. Everyone's feelings are real, everyone's feelings matter. But there's a difference between having a feeling, and compelling someone else to care about it. If a fundamentalist tells me it hurts their feelings to be grouped together with violent people, I'm sure that they really do feel that way. But I can't address their concern if, when I engage with the person, all that happens is that they:

  • tell me that their intentions ought to govern me (i.e., that I'm not allowed to have any feelings about their words or actions that they didn't intend to make me have)
  • tell me that I'm obligated to sacrifice my autonomy to protect their abstractions (e.g. "traditional marriage")
  • refuse to acknowledge that it hurts to be told that you're inferior
  • even, sometimes, refuse to acknowledge that their actions could make people feel inferior

I have seen this pattern from both fundamentalists and misogynists too many times. Were I to spend my compassion on such people, I'd be entering into an abusive relationship: one where I am asked to consider another person's feelings, but they don't consider mine. I can't afford to pay that price. And that's the long way of saying that yes, I've considered what it means to draw an analogy between people who advocate that the state should repress queer people and people who commit violent crimes, and no, I'm not going to censor myself for the sake of the feelings of people who already hold power and privilege.

And, of course, I am not saying that rhetoric and murder are literally the same. They are different. But we can all agree on that. Where I disagree with some is that I'm not satisfied being told "You should be grateful we're only suggesting to other people that you're disposable, rather than killing you directly." Saying that we're second-class -- by designating us as the one class of adults that isn't allowed the basic freedom of having our relationships recognized as serious and committed -- as adult -- does send the message that we're disposable.

So, I believe that when an open-source community like Mozilla tolerates anti-universal-marriage rhetoric in a form that lives under a Mozilla domain name, that is tacit endorsement of an entitlement, on the part of fundamentalists, to claim marriage as their own and to use rhetorical violence -- language that implicitly (through appeal to a host of cultural baggage about the relative value of heterosexuals' and queer people's relationships) proclaims people like me as less good and less deserving of fair treatment than heterosexuals are. The spirited defense, in terms of so-called "free speech", that quite a few members of the community mounted of their right to use the blog aggregator in this manner -- as well as the total failure of Mozilla leadership to condemn the anti-universal-marriage statements as contrary to Mozilla's philosophy of openness and inclusion -- connotes, to me, the way in which violence against women and subordination of queer people are intertwined. And if it wasn't clear, the fact that one of our colleagues, a person who works in the same office as I do, explicitly told Christie and me that we didn't belong at Mozilla and should go somewhere else, as well as the fact that this person faced no concrete consequences for what he did, drives that message home. And if that wasn't clear, the fact that somebody with a stake in it was so passionate about fundamentalists' right to use any platform to defend their turf that they were willing to make a death threat drives home -- tellingly, aimed only at Christie (not at me, though I've been equally vocal) and shot through with disgusting comments about her gender, sexuality, and body -- that it's all connected.

You might ask me at this point whether I'm engaging in mind-reading when I argue that fundamentalists are really defending their turf, rather than defending "traditional marriage". I don't have time for that question. I'm entitled to interpret what you say, just as you're entitled to interpret what I say. A basic measure of respect adults grant to each other is to recognize that other people won't automatically trust you, assume you're telling the truth, or believe you when you state your motivations. I'm happy to hear someone tell me that I'm wrong or that I'm right, but deflecting attention from the content of what I'm writing by questioning my right to have higher-order thoughts about my social superiors -- insinuating that I'm obligated to believe that cops never lie, teachers tell the truth, and authority figures are always open and honest -- is just a way of derailing the discussion from substance into vacuous meta-discussion.

So what does this all have to do with the Ada Initiative? Well, I think the problems we have in open source are not primarily due to the relatively small number of men who are willing to commit physical violence or threaten it in order to keep open source a boys' club. Rather, I think they're due to the large majority of men in the community who are sympathetic to women's issues, who want to change things but aren't sure how, or who stay silent at everyday sexism -- the remarks that, as Aurora showed quite well, create an environment where more serious acts of violence flourish. The work of the Ada Initiative is helping make it easier to do the right thing instead of staying silent. Their work on codes of conduct for tech conferences has already made it easier for a woman in the software industry to attend a professional conference without worrying she'll be sexually assaulted or harassed -- something that almost all men in the industry take for granted.

I support the Ada Initiative because I stand with cis women, with trans women, with trans men, with genderqueer people, with queer cis men, who don't want to own the world -- who don't want to control a community or an industry -- but who just want to govern their own lives. People who want to make a good living, do honest work, and collaborate with others to build tools that will make life easier and better for people. These are modest goals, but if enough of the industry remains complicit in misogyny, they won't be achieved. Likewise, as queer people, we don't want to define marriage for everybody else and exclude people who aren't like ourselves from deciding what it means. We just want to live our lives, too: paying our fair share in taxes, visiting our partners in the hospital, raising children if we choose to, transferring property when we die, and so on. And where these two threads come together is that I still work in an industry that doesn't recognize that opposition to universal marriage is both a mainstream political view and hate speech that makes people in a minority group feel unwelcome and unsafe.

If you agree with me that the Ada Initiative's work is important, please wish me a happy 32nd birthday and make a donation. And then let me know. By doing so, you can be as cool as [personal profile] juli, [personal profile] etb, and Henry!

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Tim Chevalier

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