Death by 1,000 Cuts

Anita Hill was telling the truth. How do I know she was telling the truth? Because what she accused Clarence Thomas of was, in many people’s eyes, inane. He made a really, really bad sexual joke. Something to the effect of “That looks like a pubic hair in your coke.”

Anita Hill was offended. I wouldn’t have been offended. You might not have been offended. But Anita Hill was.

It is not our role to tell others that they are wrong in finding something offensive. What makes them wrong and me right? My upbringing, life experiences and religious beliefs are different from yours. Our senses of humor and tolerance levels for potty humor, puns and racist humor are likely different as well. My tolerance level for off-color humor also differs by who is delivering the “joke”. If Carlos Mencia and Dick Cheney make the same joke, I may find one funny and the other completely offensive: intention of the speaker matters.

Adria Richards was telling the truth. There is no doubt about it. The persons she accused of making offensive jokes admitted to making at least some of the jokes. They were sexual jokes. Not sexist jokes. She was offended.

Did she handle it the way you or I would have handled it? Unlikely. You may have laughed at the joke. I might have turned around and glared at them. Pat (I am using gender neutral, imaginary people.) may have asked them to tone it down. Chris may have reported it to the conference organizer. Adria chose to tweet it.

Whether or not we would be offended doesn’t matter here. She was offended, and that is what matters.

Most people’s gut reaction may not be to tweet it. Most people rationally arguing against Adria’s handling of the situation state that she should have turned around and asked them to stop, or, if she was fearful of their reaction, to speak directly with the conference organizers. Both of these would have been good reactions — likely better reactions — but this is not what happened.

Let’s dig deeper into why it didn’t go down like this.

For most men, this may be the first time they hear of someone being reproached for making sexual jokes. For many women in the tech industry, they’ve either reproached someone for making a sexual joke, or consciously made a decision to “not make a fuss.” Just because the person sitting in front of you doesn’t give you the death stare, doesn’t mean they’re not offended, they don’t find your jokes inane, or they just want you to shut up so they can hear the speaker.

We know the dongle joke happened. There is debate about whether the forking joke happened too. Whether or not the forking joke happened or not doesn’t really matter in this story. Since the reaction was based on hearing a forking sexual innuendo joke, a joke was heard whether or not it was intentionally made.

This is not the first time a “private” offensive joke has been overheard. If others can hear you, like when you’re on your cell at Starbucks, it’s not private. The first few times we let such things slide. The next few times we give a “if looks could kill” stare. The next few times, we inform the perpetrator that we’re offended. For the comedically inclined, the next few times we mock the perpetrator. The next few times we ask them to shut up. The next time we tweet.

So, when you want to argue that she just should have asked them to stop making jokes she found offensive, how many times do we have to ask boys to behave?

I vividly remember when I was three years old I asked my black baby-sitter how come her hands didn’t get clean when she washed them. Most of you may think it’s OK for a three year old to ask that question. Some people think it is kind of cute. It’s not.  If you have sensitivity outside of your own life experience, you may find it mildly offensive. It is offensive. Can you imagine being that baby sitter and having to answer questions like that every day of your life, in every one of your jobs, not just from 3 year old children. It’s tiresome when you’ve heard it 1,000 times.

Let me reiterate: when I asked the question one time, it doesn’t seem racist. When my babysitter was being asked the same question for the 1,000th time, it felt racist.

It’s tiresome when you’ve heard inappropriate sexual jokes in a professional setting 1,000 times. It’s ‘Death By A Thousand Cuts’. At some point the micro-aggression kills your spirit.

Adria was tired of confronting directly. Many people argued “why didn’t she just confront them.” Is that our job? How many times do we have to repeat this chore?

Many people are too scared to confront people. When was the last time you confronted a mother who was smacking her child? Or a police officer who was harassing a black teenager? Why do people think it’s OK for them to insist that Adria have confronted the men behind her when they themselves don’t confront when they’re offended.

Some argue she should have told the organizers directly. She should have left her seat, and the session, to find the organizer to make a formal complaint, missing the session she wanted to hear, instead of Tweeting?

She posted a picture to Twitter, with the facts as she saw them, and the hashtag #PyCon. That is a perfectly reasonable thing to do if you think about it. It might not be what I would have done. It might not have been what you would have done. But it is what she chose to do. It worked. The conference organizers knew exactly what was going on and exactly who was involved immediately, and immediately dealt with the situation. It was effective.

PlayHaven chose to terminate one of their employees.  They didn’t post their reasons online. This is NORMAL. Companies are not supposed to divulge when or why they terminate an employee. (They later posted a clarification, but no identifying information).

If they chose to terminate their employee based solely on the PyCon interaction, I think they sorely over reacted. Perhaps they terminated the employee not for the joke but for the fact that he was being paid to learn at a conference and instead was bantering: not paying attention and hindering those around him from paying attention.  A lot of people goof around at work and at conferences, so that might be an over reaction for some work environments. For others, that might be an expected reaction.

The man who was terminated chose to post the experience on HackerNews. To me, that is a TOTAL overreaction. To you that might be a normal thing to do.  This is definitely not what I would have done, but it is the option he chose.

He apologized, which I think was awesome. I just don’t think HackerNews, being a troll Eden, is a place to post personal information about yourself or others.

Then a shit storm blew up.

No one at PyCon is to blame for this fiasco. Bad jokes were made, but unless we start firing people for puns (which I sometimes think we should, but that’s just me hating on puns), there was no fire-able offense there. I am purposely not using their names since I don’t think there should be a witch-hunt there. Adria was offended. I am using her name, since her name has already been thrown out there beyond recapture. The organizers handled the situation very well and didn’t publicize.

So, who is to blame? I don’t think it really matters anymore. All I know is that this week has been horrible. It all started because of an off-color sexual joke. There was nothing sexist, and no one was accused of sexism. But the reaction was sexist, racist, homophobic, misogynistic and outright hateful.

I know so many people who had a hard time sleeping this week. I know several who love the web, love their profession, love what they do and the people they code with who have fallen out of love this week.

It doesn’t matter if you like Adria or you don’t like Adria. For most of you reading this, you’ve never met her. Why and how do you even have an opinion on her? Because of a coward using a fake name on a Change.org petition? Because of a conference organizer who respected Adria enough to invite her to speak repeatedly, but decided to hash their issues out in public several years later?

Every time I get an alarming story on Facebook I check Snopes.com to see if it’s true. In this case we have one-sided stories. Adria is rightfully staying out of the spotlight. So, we really only do have hearsay to go on. We don’t have a Snopes. We shouldn’t be formulating opinions.

Who should have been professionally disciplined? How about the SendGrid sysAdmins who couldn’t handle a DDoS attack? Seriously! SendGrid focused on the wrong staff people when their site went down. Even Adria’s site stayed up. CloudFlare anyone? How about the SendGrid CEO for publically terminating an employee. That is completely inappropriate.

But the real culprit is the anonymity of the Internet. Privileged people from their parent’s basement think they can say anything. Some stated it was illegal for Adria to post the picture on Twitter, followed by posting “rights reserved” pictures from her flickr stream. They felt they could threaten her and bully her, then threatened lawsuits when called out. They can tweet, but we can’t call them out on their hateful speech?

4Chan, Reddit, HackerNews? They are not fact checked. They are not safe places.

I just hope that all the people who suffered hundreds of cuts this week — a cut for each sexist, racist, homophobic, xenophobic, misogynistic and outright hateful tweet, article, and comment — heals before they lose faith in our industry and in our society.

Published by

Estelle Weyl

My name is Estelle Weyl. I an open web evangelist and community engineer. I'm a consulting web developer, writing technical books with O'Reilly, running frontend workshops, and speaking about web development, performance, and other fun stuff all over the world. If you have any recommendations on topics for me to hit, please let me know via @estellevw.

5 thoughts on “Death by 1,000 Cuts”

  1. I disagree with the statement “She was offended, and that is what matters.”

    I agree with Stephen Fry: “It’s now very common to hear people say, ‘I’m rather offended by that.’ As if that gives them certain rights. It’s actually nothing more… than a whine. ‘I find that offensive.’ It has no meaning; it has no purpose; it has no reason to be respected as a phrase. ‘I am offended by that.’ Well, so fucking what.”

    He was talking about people being offended by another’s religious beliefs. But I think it has wider application; no-one has the right not to be offended. Anything, anyone says can potentially offend *someone*.

    That said, of course, social norms and acting like grown-ups also matter. This is how I wish it had gone: http://venturebeat.com/2013/03/22/pycon-2013/

    And, of course, the comments and tweets that Ms Richards received after all this went down were despicable.

  2. For the sake of the post, “She was offended” IS what mattered.

    There are 2 issues with the Venturbeat article as it relates to this post: 1) being offended, and 2) the 1000 cuts. I’ll also take a quick look at offense under UK law.

    1) The first issue is that I find the Venturbeat article “offensive”.

    “most of the female folks in tech don’t know how to code (yet)”

    But most of the women AND men in tech attending a PyCon conference do know how to code. If it is true that most of the women AND men in tech don’t know how to code yet if you include sales, management, marketing, board members and the cleaning crew.

    Do I have the right to be offended? Yes. While I find it offensive, I am not actually “offended”. Personally, I can only be offended by people I care about or who hold a power position, and even then I am not that easily offended. The statement itself is STILL offensive.

    2) The second issue is the 1,000 cuts.

    I think you’ve missed the point of my post. “It’s tiresome when you’ve heard inappropriate sexual jokes in a professional setting 1,000 times. It’s ‘Death By A Thousand Cuts’. At some point the micro-aggression kills your spirit.”

    Reading the venturebeat article, ask yourself, “how tiresome would it be to have to have that conversation every single day, several times a day.” When does it stop being Alice’s job to correct every dumb comment.

    Many will argue it isn’t her job. If that is your argument, anyone can say anything, and those who are easily offended shouldn’t attend.

    In #DongleGate, the bar for offense was low. But, it is not up to me to determine where someone else’s bar is. Sexual innuendo at a professional meeting is inappropriate whether or not anyone thinks it is offensive. At what point do we react? How many times do we react until we give up?

    3) “What is an offense.”

    Under UK law, causing offense such as swearing in the vicinity of a police officer, minor or a shopping precinct is an Offense. Section 5 of the Public order act!

    You may or may not know this because you may be privileged enough for this never to happen to you. However, it is widely used in poor neighbourhoods. Enforcing this law is left to the ‘sensitivites’ of the officers.

    Officers are in less affluent areas arresting people for mumbling a swear word in public. Officers stop a person for looking ‘suspicious’ or under stop-and-search laws. The person mumbles ‘oh fuck’.

    In this scenario, the police are in the power position. They aren’t offended. They do react. The inverse is what happened in our story: The person with no power who was offended grabbed an inkling of power and reacted, perhaps not in the best way, and the internet has destroyed her for it.

  3. It’s also worth pointing out that in the US, sexual harassment is defined not by intent but by perception. (It’s of course more complicated than that, but in this case, it really does matter that Adria felt uncomfortable because of / was offended by these jokes.

  4. If you really thing what Adria did was wrong the sue her! Why the underhanded tactics of DDoS attacks. I don’t know how people are justifying the DDoS attack and public discussion of lewd jokes but think a person calling out another for rude behaviour is wrong!

  5. Hi Estelle

    We chatted on Twitter, but for the sake of poor souls who don’t use Twitter 24/7:

    “For the sake of the post, “She was offended” IS what mattered.” – point taken.

    “The first issue is that I find the Venturbeat article “offensive”. – “most of the female folks in tech don’t know how to code (yet)” Yup; I meant that I wish the fictional conversation in that article had actually taken place.

    “Under UK law, causing offense such as swearing in the vicinity of a police officer, minor or a shopping precinct is an Offense. Section 5 of the Public order act!” – yes, and it’s entirely stupid.

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