Recently, I wrote about PyCon, Sexism, and Responsibilities. In it, I started with a rule for addressing social problems:
When trying to redress a wrong, one should prefer more private mechanisms to more public ones.
After hearing some stories of how that has gone really wrong (public shaming, death and rape threats), I revised that to
When trying to redress a wrong, one should prefer more private mechanisms to more public ones; pick the first that has a high likelihood of success.
Today I talked with my friend and colleague Devaris P. Brown, who told me this nugget of wisdom he learned from his grandmother:
Progress happens every day; change takes a long time.
We talked about how though it would be nice if we could right social injustices just by pulling someone aside and saying, “hey, not cool,” that simply won’t happen. People just aren’t that malleable. Thus, I’d like to propose an amendment:
When trying to redress a wrong, one should prefer more private mechanisms to more public ones. One may skip mechanisms that one feels would have a significant chance of backfiring or escalating.
That is, if you feel comfortable pulling the person aside and saying, “hey, not cool,” try it, even if you don’t think it will work. If you don’t feel comfortable, go to the next step. (In the case at hand, go to the conference organizers privately.)
I really like what Avdi Grimm has written on this subject. I want to take one of his points a bit further:
There was one repeated refrain in the responses I read, though, that I want to address. It’s the idea that Adria should have just confronted the jokers there & then, rather than enlisting social media or the conference organizers in her cause. According to these commenters, that’s how civilized people resolve things.
Actually, I kind of agree. It would be nice if we could handle things that way. Unfortunately, we can’t have nice things. And the people who are making these objections are part of the reason why.
Let’s broaden this rule: when trying to redress a wrong, one should prefer more private mechanisms to more public ones. PyCon’s own Code of Conduct says,
Note: Public shaming can be counter-productive to building a strong community. PyCon does not condone nor participate in such actions out of respect.
Others have expressed similar sentiments:
If the @adriarichards #pycon incident teaches us anything, hopefully it’s mature conflict resolution doesn’t involve Twitter. #GrowUpYall - https://twitter.com/basitmustafa/status/314612090952368130
The problem with the “prefer more private mechanisms” rule, though, is that more private mechanisms have higher failure rates. As Avdi pointed out, those not in a position of power are less likely to get positive results:
What if I knew from observation of similar situations that the likely outcome of saying “hey, not cool” would be a pile-on of defensive reactions? Reactions ranging from “lighten up, we’re just kidding around”
Even those who understand the limits of taking the issue up with the culprits directly expressed the desire to keep it somewhat private:
@jo_liss @avdi I understand the point about being afraid to address directly, but is there any reason you see why it needed to be tweeted? - https://twitter.com/wagenet/status/314539007587545089
Many have learned, after trying this approach a few times, that going the authorities (conference organizers, HR department, etc.) will yield just as poor results. I know of women who have been told to be quiet, or even publicly shamed after reporting something.
Given this, let’s amend the rule: when trying to redress a wrong, one should prefer more private mechanisms to more public ones; pick the first that has a high likelihood of success.
I don’t presume to know what Adria was thinking or feeling at PyCon, but I know women who, in that scenario, would have felt that only a very public action would have solved the problem. Therefore, it is the responsibility of those of us in charge of the more private mechanisms to make sure they work effectively. If they’re toothless, people will very reasonably bypass them. (From what little I know of the PyCon organizers, I think they probably would have responded the same in this case, but one positive example isn’t enough. We need enough positive examples to prove that the general rule holds.)