Thanks to everybody who gave for supporting reproductive choice!
Thanks to everybody who gave for supporting reproductive choice!
Creative Commons-licensed image by David Swayze
"Be your entire self at work." You might hear these words during orientation at a new job, if you work for the kind of company that prides itself on its open, informal culture -- a software company in Silicon Valley, perhaps. When you hear that everybody is free to be their entire self at your workplace, do you hear a promise or a threat?
"You're allowed to bring your whole self to work" should be true by default; in an ideal world, it wouldn't need to be said. Repressing essential aspects of your personality is an energy-sapping distraction. At the same time, it's such a broad statement that it denotes nothing -- so we have to ask what it connotes. When your boss (or your boss's boss's boss, or someone acting on that person's behalf) grants you permission to bring your whole self to work, what's the subtext?
Here's another thing you might hear tech people say that's so vague as to be tautological: "We don't need a code of conduct, because all we need to do is be excellent to each other or say 'don't be a dick.'" The tautological part is "don't be a dick", which is an anti-pattern when used as a substitute for clear community expectations. Nobody could reasonably argue against the value of being excellent to other people or in favor of being a dick. As with "be yourself", the vacuity of "don't be a dick" suggests the need to ask what it really means when someone says the only rule we need is "don't be a dick" (or its relative "be excellent to each other".)
"Be yourself" and "don't be a dick" share at least three problems.
- Unequal distribution of risk: If you're trans, neuroatypical, queer, or poly, you're probably familiar with the risks of disclosing important parts of your life. In the absence of evidence that it's actually safe to be yourself at work, telling people "be yourself" is a request to trust everyone to respond appropriately to you being yourself. That's a lot to ask somebody who is brand-new to a group. Is there a way to show newcomers that it's safe to be who you are here, rather than telling them?
- Unwritten expectations: "Don't be a dick", when accompanied by unwillingness to codify your community's norms (such as in a written document like a code of conduct), is a request to trust everyone to not be a dick. When norms are codified, you don't have to trust everyone to not be a dick: the document doesn't prevent anyone from being a dick, but it provides a basis for increased trust that if someone is a dick, they will be discouraged from future dickishness and, in the case of repeat offenders, potentially be excluded from interaction.
- Unhelpful balancing of different goals: Both "be yourself" and "don't be a dick" (the latter with its implication that you're free to do whatever you want as long as you don't think you're being a dick about it) reflect on apparently arbitrary weighting of personal freedom as more important than fairness.
Different people perceive a statement like "be yourself" differently -- and the same person might perceive it differently depending on who's saying it -- because different people have different levels of trust in each other. Trust is political: marginalized people manage risk in different ways than people in dominant groups, and the more marginalized groups you're in, the subtler it becomes. Likewise, written community norms benefit newcomers and marginalized people, while unwritten norms (such as the ones implied by "don't be a dick" serve to maintain in-group homogeneity. If people who say "don't be a dick" want to keep their communities uniform, it would behoove them to at least say so.
The assumption that mutual trust already exists may lead you to conclude that we'll be equal when everyone gets to act exactly the way they want. But marginalized people have legitimate reasons not to trust people in groups that dominate them -- namely, past experiences. Trust has to be earned; one way to establish it is by being explicit about expectations.
In computer systems, sometimes we use the terms "pulling a thread" or "thread pulling" for the process of finding the root cause of a problem in a complex system, which is often hidden beneath many layers of abstraction. At the same time, sometimes what seems to be a minor problem as observed from the outside can signify deeply rooted flaws in a system, the way that pulling on a loose thread in a knitted garment can unravel the whole thing. In this essay, I want to pull a cultural thread and examine the roots of the assumptions that underlie statements like "just be yourself." Just as problems in large, distributed computer systems often have causes that aren't obvious, the same is true for social problems. While you don't have to agree with my analysis, I hope you agree with me that it's worth asking questions about why people say things that appear to be trivial or obviously true at first glance.
The Risks of Disclosure
Personal disclosure can be risky, and those risks are distributed unevenly through the population. Here are some examples of what can happen when you do take the risk of being your entire self at work -- or anywhere, for that matter, but any of these reactions are more concerning when they happen in the place where you earn your livelihood, and when they're coming from people who can stop you from making a living.
- Mentioning your membership in a sexual minority group can make other people uncomfortable in the extreme. You could reasonably debate whether that ought to be true when it comes to talking about kinks, but even mentioning that you're gay or trans can become cause for sexual harassment accusations. You say your company isn't like that? Will someone who's experienced this at a previous employer believe you?
- If you talk about having PTSD, or ADD/ADHD, or being on the autism spectrum, you may be told "don't label yourself, just live!" To not label yourself -- to not seek solidarity and common ground with others who share your life experiences -- is tantamount to not organizing, not being political, not taking power. Maybe you don't want to be told this for the nth time. (Of course, you also risk retaliation by managers or co-workers who may not be thrilled about having disabled or neuroatypical employees or co-workers.)
- If you disclose that you are trans, you are likely to be misgendered in the future (or worse).
- If you mention a chronic illness, people are likely to provide unsolicited and unhelpful advice; dealing with their reactions when you say so can be draining, and smiling and nodding can be draining too.
More broadly, disclosing mental health or sexual/gender minority status (as well as, no doubt, many other identities) means managing other people's discomfort and fielding intrusive questions. Maybe it's easier to not disclose those issues, even if it means letting people think you're someone you aren't. And in some cases, disclosure might just not be worth the discomfort it causes to others. Am I being less real when I keep certain aspects of myself private in the interest of social harmony? Does thinking about how others will feel about what I say make me less authentic? Does being real amount to narcissism?
There are always boundaries to what we reveal about ourselves in non-intimate settings: it's why we wear clothes. Telling people to be authentic obscures where those boundaries are rather than clarifying them. And what does "be who you are" or "be your entire self" mean, anyway? Every person I know gets to see a different side of me. Which one is the real me? Is the person I am when I'm with my closest friend more like the real me than who I am at work, or is it just different? The idea that everybody has a single true self rather than multiple selves of equal status is just a way in which some people formulate their identities, not a universal truth.
I think part of the origin of "be your entire self" rhetoric lies in the imperative -- popular among some cis gay and lesbian people and their allies -- to implore all queer people to come out of the closet. Being open about your identity, they say, is essential to helping queer people gain acceptance. There are a lot of problems with coming-out as a categorical imperative. One of them is that closets are safe, and it's easy to sneer at others' desire for safety when you yourself are safe and secure.
I think "be your entire self" comes from the same place as "everyone should come out." Both statements can be made with good intentions, but also, necessarily, naïve ones.
Unwritten Expectations Impede Trust
"Be yourself" may seem harmless, if trite, but I hope I've shown that it relies on assumptions that are problematic at best. It can also conceal failure to make social expectations clear. Unwritten expectations often serve to exclude people socially, since fear of violating rules you don't know can be a reason to avoid entering an unfamiliar space. When that fear means not applying for a job, or not participating in a community of practice that would benefit from your participation and help you grow as a professional, it has concrete consequences in marginalized people's lives.
"As a reviewer of code, please strive to keep things civil and focused on the technical issues involved. We are all humans, and frustrations can be high on both sides of the process. Try to keep in mind the immortal words of Bill and Ted, "Be excellent to each other."
-- Linux kernel "Code of Conflict"
When you refuse to say what your community's standards for acceptable behavior are, you're not saying that your community has no standards. You're just saying you're not willing to say what they are. When Linus Torvalds says "be excellent to each other", what do people hear? If you're someone socially similar to him, maybe you hear that the kernel community is a safe place for you. If you're someone who has been historically excluded from tech culture, you might hear something different. You might ask yourself: "Why should I trust you to be excellent to me? What's more, how do I know I can trust everyone in this group to be excellent to me, much less trust that everyone's definition of 'excellent' is compatible with my well-being?"
When you say the only rule is "don't be a dick", or implore people to be themselves, or tell people they don't need to put on a suit to work at your company, what you're really saying is "trust me!" Trust everyone in the group not to be a dick, in the first case. Trust everyone not to judge or belittle you, in the second. Trust them to judge you for who you are and not on what you're wearing, in the third case. When somebody says "trust me!" and your gut feeling is that you shouldn't trust them, that's already a sign you don't belong. It's a grunch. It's a reminder that you don't experience the automatic trust that this person or group seems to expect. Does everybody else experience it? Are you the only distrustful one? Is there something wrong with you, or is your mistrust warranted based on your past experiences? Asking yourself those questions takes up time.
Freedom and Equality
Sometimes, freedoms conflict, which is why freedom is just one value that has to be balanced with others, not an absolute. If your freedom of expression prevents me from being at the table, or making a living, or even beginning to realize my potential at all, then your freedom limits mine and the solution involves considering both of our interests, not concluding in the name of "freedom" that you should be able to exclude me. Inequality isn't compatible with freedom, and boosting your "freedom" at my expense is inherently unfair and unequal.
The bridge between freedom and equality is trust. People who trust each other can be who they are while trusting other people to call them out on it if being who they are infringes on other people's well-being. Likewise, people who trust each other will give each other the benefit of the doubt and assume good faith when conflicts happen. But in the absence of trust, freedom won't naturally lead to equality, because marginalized people will (rightly) assume that the power dynamics they're used to are still operating, while less-marginalized people will assume that they are free to keep recreating those power dynamics.
In tech, there's a certain kind of person who often champions "freedom" at the expense of others' safety.
"...if you want me to ‘act professional,’ I can tell you that I’m not interested. I’m sitting in my home office wearing a bathrobe. The same way I’m not going to start wearing ties, I’m *also* not going to buy into the fake politeness, the lying, the office politics and backstabbing, the passive aggressiveness, and the buzzwords." -- Linus Torvalds, as quoted by Elise Ackerman
There's a lot to unpack in this quote; in it, Torvalds exemplifies a tendency among programmers, especially privileged male programmers, to use having to wear a suit or tie as a proxy for the forms of oppression they fear if their (e.g.) open-source project adopts norms about respect which they associate with big companies that produce proprietary software. Torvalds and his ilk might express contempt for the notion of a "safe space", but they actually care a lot about safe spaces: they want spaces in which it's safe for them to wear their bathrobes and swear. They're afraid that creating a space that's safe for every open-source contributor, not just white cis men in bathrobes, might threaten their own safety.
If having to wear a suit is the worst limitation on your life you can imagine, maybe it's time to take a step back and consider the experiences of people with less privilege. In fact, standardized expectations about dress can be helpful, at least when they aren't based on binary gender. Replacing "everyone has to wear a suit" with "only people in T-shirts and jeans will be taken seriously" doesn't fundamentally reduce the degree to which people get judged on their appearance rather than their abilities -- it just replaces one limiting dress code with another. And maybe suits aren't really that limiting. Uniforms can have an equalizing function. I'm not a particular fan of wearing suits all the time myself, but when abolishing suits doesn't result in the emergence of another sartorial hegemony, it potentially burdens people with decisions that they wouldn't have to make if there weren't clear norms and expectations for dress. As always, there are going to be expectations. I'm not aware of many companies where going to work naked is encouraged. So if suits aren't encouraged, a whole host of decisions have to happen, and guesses have to be made, about what people will think of you based on your clothing. It's a lot of cognitive load. Maybe sometimes, clear expectations about how to dress help people be equal! Who loses when Torvalds and others like him win the ability to work in their bathrobes? Who loses when Torvalds, apparently unable to conceive of sincere politeness and genuine respect, wins the right not to feign regard for others?
"If telling people to be themselves creates unsafe spaces, how can I let people know my space is safe?", you might ask. I'll try to answer that in part 2.
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(from awesome-picz on Tumblr)
I like bunnies. I also like expanding access to abortion. If you do too, you should donate to the National Network of Abortion Funds. For my 35th birthday in 3 days, I'm trying to get 40 people to donate -- so far, 32 awesome people have given! Here are their names, and if you comment saying that you gave, I'll add your name too. (Or let me know privately so I can update my tally without using your name, if you would rather be anonymous.)
We can do this!!
Well, probably not. But I will be. With 3 days left to my 35th birthday, I'm still trying to get 12 more people to make a donation to help people get abortions. It's just that simple. Here's how to give, and once you do, let me know so I can update my tally!
Now that I've got your attention, why not donate to the National Network of Abortion Funds? You'll be helping somebody get the abortion they need. You'll be annoying a forced-birther. And if you do it within the next 4 days, you'll be helping wish me a happy 35th birthday. If you let me know that you gave, I'll be one step closer to not having to post nag messages multiple times a day ;)
I'll be 35 in 6 days, and all I want for my birthday is for you to donate to the National Network of Abortion Funds. So far, 21 people have donated, bringing me more than half the way towards reaching my goal of donations from 40 people. Please let me know if you give so I can continue tracking my progress! And thanks to the wonderful people who have donated so far (follow the previous link to see their names)
Now that I've got your attention, how about helping wish me a happy 35th birthday by donating to the National Network of Abortion Funds? Please let me know if you do so I can track whether I reached my goal!
I don't know what this cat's opinion about reproductive choice is. But I know what mine is! It's that I want you to donate to the National Network of Abortion Funds for my birthday. 5 down, 35 to go!
I'll be turning 35 on December 18. If you would like to celebrate with me, please make a donation to the National Network of Abortion Funds (NNAF) and let me know. Since I'm turning 35, I suggest a $35 donation if you can afford it, but any amount matters, even $1.
NNAF is a network of local, grassroots organizations that provide direct financial aid to people who need abortions but can't afford to pay for the costs (which often include the costs of traveling to a remote location, since in many parts of the US, the closest facility that performs abortions is hundreds of miles away). Local abortion funds exist in 42 states of the US, and you're welcome to donate directly to your local fund, but NNAF helps get the money to where it's most needed.
Right now, why NNAF's work is necessary should need no explanation. Outright violence against clinics, with the goal of scaring people who provide abortions into stopping, has been happening consistently for the past 40 years. This campaign has been accompanied by a more respectable campaign of legislative violence aimed at making abortion as hard to obtain as possible, including but not limited to the Hyde Amendment, which bans Medicaid from covering abortions and effectively prevents low-income people from getting abortions except with the help of nonprofit groups like abortion funds.
I agree with NNAF's statement: "every woman needs to have the ability to make her own decision about having a child, no matter what her income is." I would go further and say that the same is true about every person who may become pregnant, no matter what their gender.
My goal for this year is for 40 people to donate; in 2013, 36 people donated to the Ada Initiative (which has since shut down) for my birthday, so I think I should be able to get 4 more donations this year! So, if you donate, please let me know. If you don't let me know, I won't be able to know if I reached my goal, and I'll be sad. You can let me know by commenting on this post, tweeting at me or commenting on my Facebook wall, or -- if you prefer to be private -- emailing me (catamorphism at gmail.com) or sending me a private message on any of the services I use. Also, I will assume it's okay to thank you in a public post by the name or pseudonym that I know you by unless you tell me otherwise. You don't have to tell me the amount that you donated.
By donating you'll make me happy, piss off the religious right, but most importantly, help make sure nobody has to go through a pregnancy and give birth because they're short $100. So do it now! NNAF is a nonprofit 501c3 organization, so if your US employer matches funds, please request a matching donation from them so that your money goes even further.
Thanks to the following people for donating:
- Chung-chieh Shan, ccshan
If you donated, your name isn't on this list, and you would like it to be, let me know!
Elitism as Insecurity
The preoccupation with hacker-as-identity sets the field of engineering back. It's also anti-meritocratic: preserving the quasi-religious or homosocial-bonding-based cult of the hacker doesn't do much to advance the field of software development. Being able to be chummy or weird with your bros doesn't have much to do with getting work done. (I like to make in-jokes with my friends too, but I don't carry with me a feeling of entitlement to make those in-jokes a union card for my profession.) Homogeneity makes people work worse, not better.
The primacy of this temptation is why the anti-SJW moral panic is the face of fascism in technology. It's about the fear that if nobody can be the king, then you never can either. It's about the fear that if you're not worshipped like a quasi-deity, you are nothing. If you think "fascism" is taking it too far, then I recommend graydon2's article "The EntitleMen: techno-libertarian right wing sockpuppets of silicon valley".
"Elitism grows out of arrogance mixed with insecurity. Elitists aren’t interested in sharing knowledge, they’re interested in being the source of the knowledge. Elitists are only interested in disseminating their knowledge to the larger population if they are the authority."
-- Cahlan Sharp, "Software Developers’ Growing Elitism Problem"
The group that Sharp calls "elitists" and that I've been calling "J. Random Hackers" are anti-SJW because they are insecure about their own lack of understanding of people, social groups, and cultures that they regard as unimportant (but fear might be important). When an elitist says "SJW", they mean someone whose knowledge makes them feel threatened. Elitists attempt to respond to this threat by devaluing knowledge possessed by SJWs and by discrediting SJWs as engineers. After all, if you could be both a good SJW and a good engineer, and if to be an SJW means to be in possession of facts and truths that could be useful, what room would be left for the elitists? They could learn more, but as Sharp wrote, they don't want to learn -- they want to be the source of knowledge for other learners.
Against Pollution of Agency
As I wrote in "The church of the hacker, or fake geek girls and outside agitators", "To say, 'It doesn't have to be this way' is to expose yourself and your reputation and credibility to every kind of attack possible, because 'it doesn't have to be this way' are dangerous words." The danger that elitists perceive from SJWs is that elitists will both lose their comforting, safe space built in apparent absolute truths and formal systems and lose their socioeconomic status if forced to compete with people who don't match the Archetype.
When ESR writes that SJWs must be expelled from tech, he is polluting the agency of people he feels threatened by. In fact, pollution of agency is the primary, perhaps the only function of the term "SJW".
This is what “SJW” means. Everything, nothing. A bogeyman, a strawman. And so the only thing it can really mean is an adamant refusal to consider a certain kind of idea — a staunch emphasis that a certain kind of idea is not even worth consideration. It’s a kind of shorthand for loudly and proudly sticking one’s fingers in one’s ears. It exists to save people the trouble of thinking; it exists to give people something to stay angry at.
“SJW” is the ink used to draw lines through which a distasteful ideology need not pass. To put it bluntly, it defines the boundary of a safe space.
-- eevee, "Words mean things, unfortunately"
J. Random Hacker says he's apolitical, but uses his social capital in order to weaken the cognitive authority of ideas that threaten his interests. He says he's non-ideological, but he's so worried that his ideology can't succeed without the use of force that he cannot fathom it succeeding on its own merits. He says he rejects safe spaces, but he uses words like "hacker", "SJW", and "meritocracy" to demarcate a space in which he and his friends can feel safe. He says he believes in evaluating contributions based on merit, but has no definition of or metric for "merit" that doesn't depend on the names and faces of the people making those contributions. He says that his approach results in the highest quality of outcome, but doesn't know how to measure quality. He says he believes in free speech, but uses bullying words like "SJW" to silence people he disagrees with. He says the groups he belongs to comprise the best people, but is terrified of his own mediocrity. He says his claims are backed up by evidence, but asserts without proof that definitionally, SJWs can't also be competent engineers with technical contributions to make. He says SJWs are wasting his time by bringing irrelevant concerns into tech communities, but wastes his own time by patrolling the borders of those communities rather than tending the gardens inside them. He exemplifies what George Orwell wrote about in his 1946 essay "Politics and the English Language".
Political language -- and with variations this is true of all political parties, from Conservatives to Anarchists -- is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.
We have to recognize and name pollution-of-agency attacks for what they are: on a moral level, in order to protect the truth and defend the use of words to convey meaning rather than to leverage power. And on a practical level, we need to call pollution-of-agency attacks what they are in order to assert our right to use our talents and to work at jobs we can do.
Finally, isn't it more fun to learn and grow than to cling to one's rigidity? While the work of inclusion doesn't happen on its own, including people still takes less effort than fighting off people who want to join the party. The small amount of time it takes to use inclusive language and to consider what you say before you say it is an investment in the future health of your project. The time it takes to fight off SJWs, on the other hand, is time spent self-sabotaging. Why would you even consider forking a project based on fear rather than an irreconcilable technical disagreement?
Isn't it more fun to write code than to guard social borders in the name of Jesus, 10x engineers, or J. Random Hacker? What are you really achieving when you spend your limited time on a witch hunt rather than on reviewing pull requests? I guarantee you that hunting witches won't make your code pass more tests, patch its security vulnerabilities, or help anybody switch from proprietary to open-source software. If all bugs are shallow with enough eyes, encouraging people to turn their eyes away from your code will permit bugs to thrive. If the bazaar model works better than the cathedral model for development, then joining forces with people who share your goals is more effective building a walled garden into which only the ideologically pure can enter. And if the usefulness of code can be measured with no knowledge of its author, then you should be striving to remove barriers of entry into your project that filter out code solely on the basis of who wrote it.
"Where does magic come from?
I think magic's in the learning
'cause now when Christians sit with Pagans
only pumpkin pies are burning."
-- Dar Williams, "The Christians and the Pagans"
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Hackers and Christians
I've so far argued that discourse like ESR's blog post reflects an assumption that no "SJW" can truly be interested in doing engineering work, whereas within the same discourse, it is a given that Christians can be good engineers. I've also argued that the distinction made is a distinction between marked and unmarked ideologies. But I still haven't answered the question of why it is that Christianity (and the set of assumptions that come with the public declaration of oneself as "Christian", distinctly from e.g., "Catholic", "Methodist", "Anglican", or "Baptist") came to be an unmarked ideology within Anglophone software engineering culture (forthwith, just "tech") whereas the "SJW" label came to be a marked one.
A lot of us SJWs never wanted to be ideological ourselves; we embarked from a place of just wanting to do the work, sincerely believing that we would be seen and judged on the basis of our work output rather than our gender, race, or other identities that aren't strictly relevant to doing work. Or, if we didn't totally believe that was how it was going to go, at least we hoped so. Some of us believed that "show me the code" was sincere and that if we just leaned in, paid our dues, and contributed, we would be recognized and accepted as members of a community of practice.
For many of us, then, our ideological convictions arose out of self-preservation, when we realized that meritocracy was a lie and that in fact, the tech in-group was more interested in maintaining its power than in doing the highest-quality possible work. When you harass people who are trying to do their jobs, or support that harassment, or fail to speak out against it, you're not interested in building the best thing you can, because to build the best thing you can you have to include everybody who wants to and can work together on it and contribute. Pushing away people who have something to contribute is an exercise in purity-based morality, not a sound business or technical strategy.
At the risk of stretching a metaphor, then, I posit that Christianity (again, the exercise of publicly self-labeling as Christian rather than a particular set of beliefs, since that exercise tells you nothing about what someone believes or does and everything about how they want to be seen by others) meshes well with the J. Random Hacker archetype because both worldviews are monotheistic. It's just that the deity that J. Random Hacker offers the most praise to is the abstractions of empiricism, rationality, and objectivity, not as tools for thought but as fundamental principles that afford fixed interpretations. Ontologically, Christianity and science -- the version of science that software engineers believe in that mostly involves flagging as a person who "fucking loves science" rather than actually doing science -- are two great tastes that go great together, at least when you define "Christianity" and "science" right. Acolytes of J. Random Hacker impoverish both science and Christianity by casting them as forms of textual literalism that prioritize obedience to a higher authority (whether that's God, or objective truth) ahead of relationships with equals.
Both Christianity and science can mean a lot more than that, and I think that both are better when they aren't reduced to fundamentalism. Myself, I like a rich sauce to season my thinking better than the sticky, burnt residue left when you boil away everything that can't be formulated as a rigid system of rules. The point, though, is that both Christianity and science, when conceived of by J. Random Hacker, have more to do with the burnt residue of absolute truth than with the flavors or nuance of conversation, trade-offs, and conditional truth.
Paganism, then, also at the risk of stretching a metaphor, is the archetype to which haters of "SJWs" truly appeal. (No, the irony of ESR, a self-identified neopagan, calling for an anti-SJW witch hunt isn't lost on me). If somebody calls you an SJW, what they're probably saying is that you think we have to balance multiple concerns in order to lead a good life; that maintaining and nurturing egalitarian relationships comes ahead of adherence to rules and worship of a higher power; and that your mind can admit multiple conflicting truths.
It's tricky to use identities you don't subscribe to as metaphors, and that's what I'm doing. But I think there is something to the tension between focus on private religious practice and personal salvation ("Christianity" as such) and focus on collective action and, indeed, justice ("what love looks like in public", cf. Cornel West), that can be identified with Paganism. Indeed, to rise to power, Christians (historically) had to discredit and threaten Pagans; that's exactly what's happening in the struggle between SJWs and JRHs.
In tech, like "white", "Christian" actually means very little as a label other than "not in the oppressed class". In a white- and Christian-dominated society, to advertise one's pride in either one's whiteness or one's Christianity has nothing to do with pride in a genuine identity and everything to do with contempt for somebody else's identity. "White pride", like the broad concept of Christian identity, is a threat concealed as an identity.
Jesus as 10x Engineer
How does the tension between private and public action, between absolute and relational ethics, reflect other realities about engineering culture? Maybe it explains the currently-fashionable focus on technical skills, so-called "10x engineers", and individual genius and its attendant deprioritization of collaboration, teamwork, and the work it takes to create healthy organizations.
Maybe it explains the attribution of messaianic qualities to "great hackers", something that seduced me when I read the King James Version of the Jargon File (which is to say, the version that ESR edited) as a teen. Keeping the girls out of the treehouse looks childish when 28-year-old senior engineers are doing it, so recasting the struggle as the protection of the temple from invaders lends the scene a nice epic quality, like a popular video game or fantasy movie series.
Maybe it explains hostility to flexibility in process, to moral relativism, to anything that might break the embrace of strict, rigid rules for how things and people do and should behave that makes the tech industry a safe space for J. Random Hacker and his followers.
Maybe fear of SJWs is fear of genuine connection with other people, of interruption of the communion with machines that J. Random Hacker claims to be all about. He says this communion is more important than community, even though the only entities he truly ever communes with are the people, living and dead, who designed and built the machines.
I think "Christians vs. Pagans" maps well onto "Hackers vs. SJWs" because what self-identified Christians and Hackers (even non-Hacker Christians and non-Christian Hackers) share is a desire for absolutes, for unambiguous formal specifications, for clear meaning, for single answers; they share a fear of complicated questions, nuance, emotions, empathy. Of course, formal specifications can be useful tools and some questions do have right answers. Humans really are changing the climate, and vaccinations really don't cause autism. But there's a difference between use of formal specifications as a tool, or as an idol.
Maybe this is also why some people (including myself a few years ago) are so obsessed with preserving the meaning of the word "hacker" as a special kind of engineer. It's not enough just to be an engineer, to have an occupation. "Hacker" goes beyond that, and is an identity, a group you can feel you belong in (if you look like the right kind of person). Sort of like a church.
For "Hacker" to remain special, for that word to retain its mystical or priestly qualities, it is necessary to keep those who are believed to see engineering as "just a job" from claiming it, and also for Hackers (sometimes called "10x engineers") to retain social status that engineers as a group lack.
To be continued!
Edited to add two other perspectives on why ESR is wrong:
When I worked at Mozilla, my co-worker "Bill" (not his real name) emailed me on my personal account to tell me that I would be less angry if I found Jesus like he had. At the same job, when I was on my way out, another co-worker, "Ted" (also not his real name), told me that "people here think you're only interested in politics and not in code."
I thought about Bill and Ted when I saw Eric S. Raymond (ESR)'s latest hot take: "Why Hackers Must Eject the SJWs".
What unites Ted and ESR is the belief that interest in "politics" precludes interest in engineering -- or, perhaps, interest in the wrong kind of politics. What unites Bill and Ted is the assumption that there are some outside interests that are acceptable for engineers to have (like being a Christian, and converting others to one's faith) and others that are not (such as social justice).
As per Joanna Russ's system of categorization for tactics used to silence women's writing, the rhetorical strategy that Ted and ESR shared is that of the pollution-of-agency attack:
Pollution of Agency attacks use a woman's character or traits attributed to her considered to be negative to deny the quality or importance of her work. Sex and sexuality, mental health status, or physical attractiveness are common traits or actions used in a pollution of agency attack.
-- "Russ Categories", Geek Feminism Wiki
While pollution-of-agency attacks are disproportionately used against women, they're also used against anyone else who threatens conservative control over a particular domain of cultural production, whether it's science fiction writing or engineering. The script that both Ted and ESR followed is that having the wrong political views (specifically radical or progressive ones) devalues an engineer's work, regardless of any intrinsic properties of the work (indeed, may justify ignoring that work altogether). ESR's attack was particularly effective because it used the term "SJW" ("social justice warrior"), which has become shorthand for that group of people whose work must be either attacked or ignored because they hold political views that challenge your own stronghold on prestige and power.
What unifies all three stories is the question of what it costs to hold a particular ideology in tech. Being seen as an "SJW" has a cost: the effort it takes to contend with pollution-of-agency attacks. Being seen as a Christian engineer does not have this cost; while people may disagree with your views, they won't question your competence or the legitimacy of your work just because you are a Christian.
Husband, Father, Christian, Fascist
The reason why Bill and Ted could coexist at the same organization -- why my right to be there was questioned because of my interest in "politics" while Bill was welcomed despite his constant efforts to use the workplace as a forum for religious evangelism -- lies, I think, in a certain archetype about what it means to be an engineer. ESR himself described one version of this archetype in "A Portrait of J. Random Hacker", an appendix he added to the Jargon File. Subsequently, using ESR's term, I will refer to this archetypal engineer -- a fictional person who many engineers are anxious about emulating as closely as possible -- as "J. Random Hacker", though my characterization of JRH will depart from his.
J. Random Hacker identifies as an apolitical man who also isn't religious in a way that would set him apart from his underlying culture. He could lack religious views altogether, or he could subscribe to the religion that is dominant in his culture. Although I'm going to be using Christianity as a metaphor for monoculture in this essay, I could just as easily have used atheism. The important thing isn't the specifics of the belief system so much as that J. Random Hacker doesn't rock the boat when it comes to views outside a narrow construction of "technical" discourse. Likewise, JRH certainly isn't apolitical, since he participates in society and therefore takes part in power relations -- but he holds a set of political views (such as the view that it's desirable or even possible for a person to be apolitical) that support existing power structures rather than challenging them.
In other words, J. Random Hacker presents himself as non-ideological. Ideology, he says, would only get in the way of getting work done. But without ideology, we wouldn't know what work is worth doing or what methods are acceptable for getting that work done. J. Random Hacker is just as ideological as any SJW; the difference between them is the broad acceptance, or lack thereof, of their ideologies. J. Random Hacker knows that he is ideological, and lives in terror that his secret will get out. He is uncomfortable around SJWs because he fears that any engagement with other ideologies will highlight that his own beliefs are not necessarily normal, natural, logical, or rational, but rather, continge on the needs and desires of the interest groups to which he belongs.
At Mozilla, I saw the Hacker and SJW archetypes clash during the Planet Mozilla Controversy, and later, from a distance, during the Gamergate coordinated harassment campaign when a member of the Mozilla ops team expressed concern about whether Mozilla would appear to be "supporting misguided Social Justice Warriors".
The first debate was about whether hate speech against people in protected classes is a normal, natural thing for J. Random Hacker to engage in, or whether it needed to be highlighted as harmful to the community. Disagreeing that hate speech harms the community amounts to consensus that the community doesn't need people who don't match the J. Random Hacker pattern.
The second conversation reflected the double standard applied to "Social Justice Warriors" vs. harassers: to appear to support "misguided Social Justice Warriors" would contaminate the purity of Mozilla as an engineering organization, whereas supporting harassers of women would not, because, indeed, women themselves are a threat to the purity of the J. Random Hacker archetype, and thus misogynist harassers do the work needed to protect the in-group from contamination. Gamergate strengthens the archetype by continuing to ensure that it won't be spoiled by what women might have to contribute; "SJWs", on the other hand, would harm it with the introduction of ideology (but really, of foreign ideology).
It is a truth universally accepted among some of us who use Twitter that the substring "husband, father" is a red flag in a bio. Sometimes the substring appears as "husband, father, Christian". You might protest that I shouldn't be assuming things about people just because they're husbands and fathers, but that's precisely my point: I'm not. I'm assuming things about people who feel the need to foreground their identity as husbands, fathers, Christians ahead of descriptors that mean something. There is nothing especially unique about being a husband or father; knowing that someone is a husband and father tells you very little about them (for example, it doesn't tell you whether they're a loving or a controlling husband, or whether they're a nurturing or an abusive father). Someone who needs to tell you that he is a husband and father, who describes his identity in terms of the women and children he feels he controls, is doing something more specific: he's flagging the purity of his identity. Which is to say, at least from his point of view, his lack of identity; his lack of ideology. Don't you just hate "identity politics"? It was easier when politics was only about advancing my identity.
Some people would see me as a Christian because of the religion I belong to, and that's fine, although I don't identify as one. I'm also not especially attached to the label "SJW" other than that it's a fun form of alchemy to reclaim terms used to attack and use them as terms of pride. I'm less interested in accepting or rejecting either label for myself than in asking what "SJW" signifies within the cultural context of Anglophone engineering culture, and likewise for "Christian". I think that it's important to some people to identify as "Christian engineers", and important to them to maintain the conditions under which nobody blinks at that, because to identify yourself as Christian (within the scope of the broader interest groups that the tech industry serves) is to unmark yourself, to assert yourself as in the majority or dominant group. "SJW", on the other hand, is a catchall for whatever the in-group doesn't want polluting their air.
Whether somebody is self-identifying as "husband, father, Christian" or declaring that we must eject the SJWs, their concern is with the maintenance of in-group purity and the consolidation of power. Professing disdain for ideology and a preoccupation with the purity of one's identity -- whether it's husband- and fatherhood or fidelity to the J. Random Hacker archetype -- are aspects of fascist ideologies. To declare oneself as a husband, father and Christian reflects fascist-influenced thinking: it is predicated on a choice to distinguish oneself primarily on the basis of a single identity (that of the technically meritorious engineer), and to organize one's other life choices around minimizing the edit distance between oneself and J. Random Hacker. Of course, these choices aren't exactly choices, since we don't choose our genders, among other things. That's the point of the "husband, father, Christian" avowal: it's an avowal that you are a person who has the privilege of opting out of marginalization.
Part 2: Jesus as 10x Engineer
I was reading a thread on a friend's Facebook profile when I saw a comment on it consisting of an image with the same text as this one. The text is: "I often worry about the safety of my children, especially the one that is rolling their eyes at me & talking back right now."
Somebody made the choice to introduce an image like this one into a space containing people they did not know (our mutual friend's friends-only Facebook post). Let's unpack the assumptions behind this choice -- but first let's try to figure out what the image really means.
The speaker in the image -- along with the person who shares it in order to communicate their feelings -- wants to harm their child, presumably physically, because the child has "talked back". This desire to harm is unmistakable -- whether it will be acted on is unclear, but what is clear is that the speaker wishes to distance themself from their desire through the use of linguistic indirection. It's a verbal trick that furnishes plausible deniability just as it communicates perfectly clearly: "I want to physically assault my child because the child used words that displeased me, and maybe I will... nah, of course I really won't, I'll just think about it! *wink* *nudge*"
Let's talk about the assumptions implicit in a choice to share this image:
Assumption 1: The desire to physically assault a child (as opposed to the actual act) is a plausible or reasonable reaction to the child's verbal insubordination.
All feelings and reactions are real, and sometimes we have feelings we don't like, such as the desire to hurt somebody we love. It's okay for a parent to admit that sometimes they want to hurt their child. It's okay to admit that we feel that way, but honesty and vulnerability are very different from jokes like this one. "It's just a joke" is a defense mechanism and is disingenuous discourse.
Assumption 2: The speaker would, of course, never really hurt their child; they're a good person who wouldn't abuse, and you're supposed to know that.
This assumption is predicated on another assumption, that abuse is a character trait rather than a behavior. Assuming "abuser" is a fixed category, or that in other words, only monsters abuse and good people can never commit harm, is a prerequisite for assuming that it's easy to tell who does or doesn't abuse.
This is part of how jokes create unsafe spaces: Why should we trust you, exactly? This is part of the reason (see assumption 1) why such discussions should perhaps be saved for therapy sessions. If you don't have friends who abuse their kids, you almost certainly have friends whose friends abuse their kids. In a Facebook discussion, you don't know who the real abuser is and who's just joking about it. The presence of these jokes in a group makes it harder to trust people in it. They continually remind group members that there are abusers their midst and some of them will use "I'm only joking" to disclaim responsibility for their actions. It's a reminder to stay on guard, even for adults, because let's be real, people who abuse their kids aren't people who are safe to be around (especially not if you're a survivor of childhood abuse) -- they may not pick on people their own size physically, but they don't usually hesitate to do so emotionally.
Even if you accept this assumption (and why wouldn't you, except for people you know very well?), something else happens if someone who's listening is an abuser: that person will interpret the joke as further evidence that their behavior is acceptable, that it's socially approved of enough to make knowing little jokes about. Just as rape jokes serve the function of telling rapists that their behavior is the norm, that anybody would do it, child abuse jokes serve that same function for abusers.
Assumption 3: "Talking back" (failing to accept a parent's authority unconditionally) is something that should be punished.
Alice Miller has written extensively about the enduring popularity of authoritarian parenting and the intense harm that it does to children, even in the absence of physical violence. I just wonder what kind of child you're trying to raise if you want to teach somebody to accept authority at all times, no matter how arbitrary.
Regardless of whether the speaker actually wants or intends to commit physical violence against a child, the joke doesn't make sense unless you agree that "talking back" by a child (or really, by any subordinated person to their subordinator) is unacceptable.
Assumption 4: Parents need a "coping mechanism" for dealing with their children.
It was suggested to me that jokes like this are a "coping mechanism" to let off steam. But coping is something that you have to do when you're in a situation you can't get out of -- when you're powerless. Parents have near-absolute power over their children. If you are a minor, your parents have the legal right to hit you without your consent. Under some circumstances, they can deny you medical care and education. They're legally entitled to money you earn. You don't have the legal right to run away until you become a legal adult.
Parents, on the other hand, choose every day to continue caring for their children. It may not seem like a choice, but it is. Every parent has the option of abandoning or surrendering their child to someone else's care. These options have serious consequences -- potential emotional ones for the parent, legal ones in the case of abandonment -- but parents have the privilege of choosing between facing these serious consequences, and continuing to accept responsibility for a child. Children don't have the choice to leave; they are subject to the coercive power of the state in returning them to their family of origin, except in cases of very severe abuse that can be substantiated. Even in those cases, the state has the right to place the child with other substitute parents without regard for the child's wishes, so the child still has no power.
Joking about hurting someone you have absolute power over isn't a coping mechanism; it's a threat. Parent/child relationships exist at the pleasure of the parent and without regard to the child's consent. You could hurt your child if you don't like their "talking back". Who's going to stop you? Why stop at joking about it? Why should anybody assume that you will stop at that, if you're joking about that?
A more extreme version of the "coping mechanism" line of reasoning is that autistic children are a burden their parents must cope with. I think there's a continuum between the assumption that a child is something to cope with rather than the result of a constantly-renewed choice to continue being a parent, and the assumption that a disabled child requires extra-strong coping mechanisms.
Assumption 5: Children have power over parents
Similarly to the idea that women really run the world or that married men just do what their wives tell them, the idea that children control parents is a reversal that helps people collectively deny inequality. One hears parents talking about kids manipulating them, about throwing tantrums to get their way, but children don't have total control over their parents' lives and bodies that is reinforced by the state. Parents do, over children.
Assumption 6: Survivors aren't listening
Even ignoring assumptions 1 through 5, I would think that most people would realize it's in bad taste to joke about child abuse when adults who have survived child abuse are listening. So there's an assumption being made that survivors don't participate in society, or at least aren't in your social group, or if they are, they will stay silent in shame about their survivor identity.
This assumption is similar to the widespread contempt shown for the provision of empathetic metadata (aka trigger warnings or content warnings) that's part of the ongoing moral panic about acknowledging and recognizing the existence of trauma resulting from widespread, structural violence. Anti-empathy thinkpieces declare: survivors don't exist, or if they do, what they say about their own experiences is false, or even if it's not, they have no right to complain about not being heard. Stop making the rest of us uncomfortable!
Assumption 7: Of course everyone knows it's just a joke.
Related to assumption 2.
Well... no? I mean, it's like those "ironic racism" jokes where a white person says something racist and you're supposed to know they're saying it "to make fun of racism". Maybe us white people should be working to dismantle racism rather than using it to score laughs, but I digress. In both cases, the jokiness is contingent on child abuse, or racism, not being a thing that really happens anymore. Or maybe being a thing that happens in communities very far away from your own. Another Facebook friend-of-a-friend recently expressed shock about student protests over racism at Ithaca College, stating that Ithaca isn't "Mississippi." In reality, racism is fundamentally woven into the fabric of all of the United States, and child abuse is common everywhere, in every region, in rich families and poor families. Parents of every gender abuse their kids. People with Ph.Ds abuse their kids. Maybe ironic child abuse comments will be funny when all of the abuse has stopped, but that hasn't happened yet. Authoritarian, emotionally violent parenting is even more common than outright abuse. In a way, it's the norm. How often have I read somebody on a "childfree" forum saying the equivalent of, "If I had behaved that way in public [where 'that way' amounts to being a child], my parents would have tanned my hide"?
Interpersonal violence is a thing that has happened to your friends, that is happening to your friends right now, and is something that your friends are doing to other people. It's not something that the Other does in some distant place.
Assumption 8: Joking about beating or killing your child is different from a man joking about beating or killing his wife.
The latter kind of joke was more acceptable at one point but seems to have mostly fallen out of fashion. Given how much more power parents have over children than husbands have over wives, you would think that the former joke would be less acceptable than the latter, not more.
It's interesting that people react differently if you ask them:
"Why is it socially acceptable to joke about hurting your child?"
than if you show them this specific joke. Maybe people assume that it's normal and natural to "worry about your child's safety" when the threat to your child's safety is yourself, or more to the point, that this is funny rather than something to bring up with a professional counselor. People see that the abstract concept of joking about child abuse is disturbing, but fail to recognize concrete instances of the abstract concept for what they are.
As with all jokes, the joke-teller expects to get a laugh. People tell jokes to get approval, validate their beliefs, and increase social cohesion. Jokes make a space less safe when they function to remind people in that space that it's natural, normal or necessary to subjugate others. Child abuse jokes serve the dual function of signalling that a space is already tolerant of abuse, and reinforcing and recreating tolerance of abuse. They're not so much a barometer of emotional danger as a thermostat for it. The audience's reaction to a joke provides feedback that determines what else might be acceptable to say or do; that's how jokes make a space unsafe. It's no different from how sexist jokes in male-dominated professional spaces make a space unsafe for women. In the same way that sexist jokes are primarily signals to other men, simultaneously checking that sexism is still acceptable and reminding men to accept and promote sexism, jokes about harming kids aren't directed directly at kids -- they're reminders to other adults that it's okay to be authoritarian and requests for approval from those adults that your authoritarianism is okay. The approval can be as simple as a laugh.
Next time someone tells a joke like this in your presence, don't laugh. Disapproval can be simple as a raised eyebrow, and it sends the message that jokes like this aren't okay to make around you. Online, disapproval can be as simple as typing the words "not cool" or "that's not funny." Online, the onus is on people who aren't survivors, who don't need to protect themselves by immediately blocking people who make jokes that suggest their lack of safety, to express disapproval. Few people are willing to admit to having been wrong immediately, but saying "not cool" can make an unsafe space a little safer; can let silent onlookers know that not everybody thinks this is okay.
Do you like this post? Support me on Patreon and help me write more like it.
I would like to acknowledge some of the people who have been major inspirations for my public writing over the past 5 years; I hope they all lead long and happy lives, but I think it's important to thank people while they're still alive if we can.
- Mary Gardiner and Valerie Aurora co-founded the Ada Initiative. On an organizational and on a personal level, they both have changed how I see the world in ways I often take for granted now. Mary, in particular, contributed a huge amount of content early on to the Geek Feminism blog and wiki, both of which have influenced me in such deep ways that it's hard to summarize exactly how they've changed me.
- Skud created the Geek Feminism Wiki (and later handily summarized its history in in a a retrospective talk).
- Leigh Honeywell has set an example for me with her uncompromising pursuit of justice.
- Lindsey Kuper has been a colleague and comrade in navigating sexism in the programming language research community.
- Clarissa Littler has and continues to awe me with her tenacity in the face of adversity. In a very literal way, I would be less happy and more complacent without her.
- Kake created the original version of the Male Programmer Privilege Checklist in 2006, which opened up for me what it was possible to talk about.
- The anonymous author of the original version of Derailing for Dummies gave me names for the patterns I'd observed but been unable to articulate in how oppression operates through discourse.
I can't possibly make a complete list, but I can say for certain that without these individuals, my feminist consciousness would be sadly lacking and I would never have thought it important to share what I had to say about social justice in technology. I owe them a debt.
This month, I wrote (here) about emotional labor in tech, and about cognitive liberation and bodily autonomy, thanks to the encouragement I received via your contributions. I'm planning a more ambitious post, or possibly series of posts, for the middle of November.
To everybody else: If you can afford to, and if you think I contribute at least as much to the Internet as ESR does, then how about supporting me in November?
What Would You Eat on a Breakfast Taco?
What would you eat on a breakfast taco?
What would you eat on a breakfast taco?
What would you eat on a breakfast taco?
Early in the morning
Pork, beans, and scrambled eggs
Beef, fish, and pepper jack
Corn salsa, guacamole
Early in the morning
( Read more... )
As long as I continue to work as a software engineer, I'll have a second job. I can't quit this second job except by quitting the job I get paid for, yet I don't get paid for the second job and I probably never will.
Emotional labor has been a topic of discussion lately, and I actually wrote much of this piece before the MetaFilter discussion on it came out. I hope, though, that I have something to add as it relates to working rather than personal relationships.
As an example of what I mean by teaching people how to take other people's subjective experience into account -- that is, teaching people to practice the skill of empathy, which they usually already have but apply only selectively -- I present some comments from this thread on the Haskell subreddit. I did not participate in it, but since I've spent much of my professional life as part of the Haskell community, it's a good example of what I've had to deal with over the years.
"The gender inequality might be caused by men being socialized to be less risk averse." -- someone who has not bothered to familiarize themself with women's accounts of their subjective experience in male-dominated communities, but nonetheless feels comfortable speculating about the reasons why male domination is self-reinforcing.
"Bits of useful advice used as a vehicle to force through the author's politics..." -- reflecting an assumption that marginalized people's opinions are political whereas one's own opinions are not -- that is to say, that interactions that reinforce existing power dynamics are apolitical, whereas interactions that challenge those power dynamics are political.
Many comments have been deleted by the moderators (to the moderators' credit!), but that doesn't change that as a community, we still consider it up for discussion whether it's worth effort to welcome marginalized people. In fact, we still consider it up for discussion whether the community drives marginalized people away -- hence the speculation here about whether people in gender minorities are "less risk averse", or (elsewhere) just less interested in writing code. The very fact that this is a topic of discussion drives more people away.
Those who aren't driven away are tasked with an unpaid job: teaching people to listen to the views of those whose experience departs from their own; teaching people that experiences they haven't personally lived through can be real. There are two parts to this job: the practical work of teaching people how to take others' subjective experience into account, and the persuasive work of teaching them why it's important and helpful to do so. Both are essential to social change.
A marginalized person in tech who declines to do this job is given a different task: to defend, over and over, their position as an expert on their own lived experience. As Rebecca Solnit put it, "to be acknowledged to be in possession of facts and truths, to have value, to be a human being." I write as someone who has chosen to do the job rather than to internalize a lot of anger and hurt. Either way is a valid choice.
Emotional work steals our time and attention
It's not that privileged people (I'm using this as a shorthand for people with relative privilege -- someone who enjoys privilege along multiple axes, including but not limited to gender, race, age, ability, sexual orientation, neuro(a)typicality...) can't empathize; it's that they've been taught to empathize with people like themselves, and disbelieve people who are unlike themselves.
I think denial of empathy is so pervasive in software is that it's such a monoculture. It's dominated by men -- relatively privileged men, at that. From early in their lives, white men get taught that they are special and important and deserve to be heard above all else, and that thinking about other people's feelings is a sign of weakness. This is truer the fewer intersecting oppressions a given white man experiences.
It's harder for people experiencing multiple intersecting oppressions to be a software engineer for reasons having nothing to do with our ability to write code. Being a software engineer is about more than just doing work for the company that writes your paychecks. It's also about being part of a community, being visible in a community. If you are going to advance in your career, you generally have to participate in discussions online -- which is where much of the community-of-practice around tech. "Don't read the comments" is not an option. In these discussions, even ones that start out as seemingly something totally esoteric and technical, conflicts arise that essentially come down to who is going to be seen as a person with feelings that are worth respecting, and who is not. The Haskell discussion that I linked to is a relatively mild example of that.
And whenever one of those conflicts happens in my sphere, I have to put down whatever else I wanted to do today and explain to somebody, again, why other people's feelings matter and are real and cannot be made to go away by any amount of talking that he believes is logical and rational. I would rather not be doing this. I chose to become a software engineer because, at least at the time when I made that choice, I liked writing code, not helping people learn to apply interpersonal skills consistently.
I don't want to overstate how hard things are for me, either, because when I write about my experience, people listen. And being treated as a man, while also actually being one, helps. But I want to write about the second job anyway because I think a lot of other people have it too, and are not necessarily believed when they talk about having it.
For example, look at what kf writes in another Haskell Reddit thread -- both in the linked-to comment, and the follow-ups to it. She exhibits an immense amount of patience while explaining things that we adult professionals shouldn't be having to explain to each other. And she shouldn't have to spend her time doing that, ever.
But she does, I'm guessing, for the same reason I do: in the hopes that it will make it easier for her, and her friends, to survive in software, which is one of the few remaining lines of work that has a reasonable chance at eliminating economic insecurity for somebody starting from nothing.
(By the way, I'm picking on the Haskell community in this post not because it's especially bad as far as tech communities go, but because it's my technical home and I have higher expectations for it than for, e.g., the Linux kernel community.)
The rage of the privileged manifests itself in denial of empathy
For me, at least, it's not an option to just put my head down and do the work and leave those explanations to other people. The price of trying to do that would be such intense cognitive dissonance that I wouldn't be able to maintain mental stability. I can't stand by and let the discourse be impoverished by refusal to listen, refusal to believe others' reports of their own experience, refusal to care about whether others' suffering. I can't be in a professional field where that stuff, the narcissistic rage of the white hetero cis male ego -- outraged he might feel shame or doubt and desperate for someone to blame those feelings on, someone he can hurt further in the hopes of destroying those feelings, destroying those unsightly parts of himself -- rages on, unchecked. "White fragility" is one term for this narcissistic rage, but whatever you call it, its existence constitutes violence in defense of the feeling of innocence experienced by those who would rather attribute their unearned privilege to their merit.
I want to emphasize that when I use the term "narcissistic", I'm not referring to a psychological diagnostic term, or to anybody's basic neural wiring. I'm referring to a particular kind of behavior that people are taught and rewarded for; the rewards increase with the number of intersecting privileges someone experiences. You can see the process of people being rewarded for their narcissistic behavior in action by reading those Reddit threads (and, of course, comment threads on many other parts of the Internet.)
So the options for me are exit and voice; loyalty, which is to say silence, isn't an option for me. As you know if you've read my blog post about wanting to leave tech, I've been strongly considering exit. But economics might be ruling out that option for me, leaving the option of continuing to speak out. That is: of doing a second job, unpaid, on top of the job I'll be getting paid for. I wonder about whether I could just switch to a job where it's my explicit task, rather than my tacit one, to teach people to be emotionally competent -- like therapy, or education. I'd get paid less, but at least I'd only have one job. For the time being, though, writing software pays more, and I have student loans. It pays more, but not enough.
False dismissal limits speech
Conversations about diversity in tech, when hosted on technical fora, consistently draw huge numbers of comments compared to technical discussions on the same fora, which some people think are more on-topic. If diversity is off-topic for technical fora, why are forum participants so interested in it, when we measure interest by volume of comments? The Haskell reddit thread about Sarah Sharp's community post had 152 comments. The Haskell reddit thread about functional programming and condescension had 141 comments. When I posted on the Haskell subreddit announcing the ally skills workshop that was held at ICFP this past September, my two posts (several months apart) drew a total of 70 comments. And the Haskell Reddit thread discussing the original version of my blog post "How To Exclude Women From Your Community Without Really Trying" had 342 comments, three years ago. If the Haskell community is a representative example, people want to talk about diversity and inclusion with other people in their technical communities.
So why do people keep saying "this is boring" or "this is off-topic", when the way to discourage discussion of a boring subject is to decline to comment on that discussion? I think it's an example of false dismissal, which I talked about in my Model View Culture article "Gendered Language: Feature or Bug in Software Documentation?".
What false dismissal looks like: "I would prefer that an OSS community be a discussion about software, not about non-technical issues," from the Haskell thread on "what makes a good community". If "non-technical issues" are what people comment on the most, what conclusion are we to draw?
Undoubtedly, these conversations will continue to flourish. But there is work, genuine work, that needs to happen to make them productive. Some of that work is getting performed, for example, by the moderators of the Haskell subreddit. Yet in the threads I linked to, you can also see commenters devaluating the work that the moderators and others do to try to make those conversations with productive. They are uncomfortable with discussions about feelings, and channel their discomfort outward by shaming others for daring to talk about how they feel. To engage with this type of discomfort is work.
Shouldn't we credit people for the emotional work they do in discussions like this, and make them feel like mentoring others emotionally is an asset and not a liability?
Ideally, learning to empathize with a wider range of people and learning to be more comfortable talking about feelings wouldn't happen in these discussion threads. It would happen in individuals' therapy sessions, or maybe in support groups that don't yet exist. But those therapy sessions aren't happening, so we voluntarily offer help in these threads. It's hard work. People tend to prefer to go on with however they're doing things, even if what they're doing is hurting themselves or others, rather than changing. Encouraging change ought to be acknowledged. False dismissal of emotional or interpersonal subjects contributes to the devaluation of this work.
Community work is technical work
If we can't trust each other, we can't work together. If we can't work together, then I'm sorry to break it to you, but we can't do jack. The "lone male hero" archetype of scientists and engineers, the one that elevates individual male scientists as "legends" and individual male engineers as "rockstars" is a fairy tale. Technical progress is made, awesome new things are invented, by groups of people pooling their resources to build something that's better than anything any one of them could have made on their own.
Trust can't occur without willingness, on everyone's part, to believe others' reporting on their own subjective experience. Teaching people how to do that is technical work, because community work is technical work. It is essential to any technical project or goal that matters. It is not off-topic. It is central to the topic.
How will companies and open-source projects change in order to reward community work the same way they reward code contributions?
Image credit: Wikimedia Commons
Work that has contributed to my thinking on this topic (not an exhaustive list):
- Lauren Bacon, Women in Tech and Empathy Work
- Cate Huston, Codes of Conduct and Worthless Manfeelings, Tweeting Shit That Men Say, and much of her other writing
- Beerops, On Interrupting Interrupt Culture
- Patricia Williams, Teleology on the Rocks in The Alchemy of Race and Rights
- Any number of blog posts from women who just wanted to write some fucking code, but had to write a blog post about what was getting in the way of writing some fucking code in order to be able to write some fucking code ("That's the same thing I'm asking for"). How many of them worried about some boss seeing them supposedly slacking off on the clock, doing work that isn't about generating immediate economic value but rather about sustaining an environment in which they can continue to generate value in the long term?
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October 15, 1982Q: Larry, does the President have any reaction to the announcement—the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta, that AIDS is now an epidemic and have over 600 cases?
MR. SPEAKES: What’s AIDS?
Q: Over a third of them have died. It’s known as “gay plague.” (Laughter.) No, it is. I mean it’s a pretty serious thing that one in every three people that get this have died. And I wondered if the President is aware of it?
MR. SPEAKES: I don’t have it. Do you? (Laughter.)
Q: No, I don’t.
MR. SPEAKES: You didn’t answer my question.
Q: Well, I just wondered, does the President—
MR. SPEAKES: How do you know? (Laughter.)
Q: In other words, the White House looks on this as a great joke?
MR. SPEAKES: No, I don’t know anything about it, Lester.
Q: Does the President, does anybody in the White House know about this epidemic, Larry?
MR. SPEAKES: I don’t think so. I don’t think there’s been any—
Q: Nobody knows?
MR. SPEAKES: There has been no personal experience here, Lester. -- quoted by Ben Dreyfuss in "Flashback: The Reagan White House Thought AIDS Was Pretty Hilarious In 1982" Mother Jones
October 15, 2015I remember the year I began to think for myself. It was 1995, and I was fourteen. 1995 was the year that I started thinking it might be okay to be queer (although I would have said "gay" then) and that maybe abortion should be legal.
Now, it's easy for me to forget that I ever thought otherwise.
But I did. In 1995, I dared for the first time to believe something that the adult authority figures in my life (of whom there was really only one) had not authorized me to believe.
The sacred nature of that moment is not recognizable at the time. At the time it feels uncomfortable, the way many parts of adolescence are uncomfortable. I missed out on a lot of the parts of what's normally constructed as "adolescence" in my culture, but I did get to have that magic moment, or series of moments, where I realized my mind was my own and I could disagree with the person who raised me, which meant that I could be something other than what the people who raised me were. I don't know whether people ten years younger than me, or ten years older, understand the atmosphere of fear that us children of heterosexual parents were breathing during the 1980s. The first time I heard about the existence of queer people, it was because my mother told me that my Girl Scout troop leader, who was rumored to be lesbian, was "trying to have a baby with another woman". I had already been taught how babies are made, so there was some missing piece of information there. A vacuum that contained something frightening. I was told that gay people deserved to get AIDS because "they should know it's not clean to have sex that way", and I didn't have any reason to doubt it. What did I know about sex? I believed what I had received: that gay people weren't quite people. In 1994, I wouldn't have seen too much wrong with what Larry Speakes said in 1982.
I went to college instead of high school, and when I was 14, and taking a sociology class called "Social Movements, Democracy, and the State", I read AIDS DemoGraphics by Douglas Crimp and Adam Rolston; we also watched the documentary "The Times of Harvey Milk". I was uncomfortable -- I was experiencing cognitive dissonance between what I had been taught and what the beginnings of my own independent moral sensibility were telling me. It wasn't just that I was rejecting something I had been taught, but something that had been glued down in my mind with the adhesives of shame and silence. "It's not clean to have sex that way", I was told at the same time I was being told in so many tacit ways that it wasn't okay for me to think or talk about sex at all. Slowly, a light came on, and I saw that the small room constructed by that shame and silence had an exit door.
In the same sociology class, I learned about the concept of "cognitive liberation" from Douglas McAdam's book Political Process and the Development of Black Insurgency, 1930-1970. McAdam explained that a prerequisite for organized social change is internal personal change: the process whereby individuals (potentially working together to do so) free themselves from the beliefs that limited them. Without freeing themselves from the beliefs that limit them on the inside, people can't organize to demand change on the outside.
Without knowing it, I was experiencing cognitive liberation myself at the time. I was developing the ability to conceive of bodily autonomy as a fundamental human right. I wasn't raised to believe in bodily autonomy. I had to learn about it as a teenager and as a young adult. I don't remember the moment when I became pro-choice, but that, too, happened around the same time. I couldn't formulate the concept of bodily autonomy then, but I remember deciding that if enough people disagreed about a moral issue, it was better for the government not to legislate one side of it or the other.
To recognize that my body belonged to me, and that other people's bodies belonged to them, I had to take ownership of the inside of my own head first. That wasn't something I could have done at home -- I had to go to college to do it. 14-year-olds today don't have to go to college in order to be exposed to non-family-approved ideas. At least, not if they have access to the Internet.
Maybe this is why it's so popular for adults to dismiss "Tumblr culture", Tumblr being the current chosen stand-in for a forum where young people's voices get heard. As a culture, we haven't really made up our collective minds about whether young people's bodies are their parents' property or not. It's threatening when people you think are your property start getting ideas about autonomy.
That's why it's even more threatening to adults when teenagers get to experiment with ideas, in a space unsupervised by parents or parental proxies, than it is when teens experiment with sex or drugs. On the Internet, teenagers get to talk to each other in a way that isn't constrained by adult rules, or by geographical homogeneity. They get to compare notes. They get to find out firsthand that their parents' beliefs are not always fundamental truths. "Thinking for yourself" sounds so clichéd; it feels inadequate to describe that moment of moral awakening that, for me, was just as powerful as sexual awakening.
Teenagers going through cognitive liberation remind adults that when they were that age, they weren't free. That makes some adults angry and uncomfortable.
All hail the Internet, all hail young people daring to be wrong in public, and all hail all of us stumbling towards freedom in our minds and bodies.
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