Powerful people: Mark Pesce’s linux.conf.au keynote

Warning: this entry discusses a sexualised presentation, and links to slides from that presentation. Images linked include stylised sexual violence.

Note to LCA2011 attendees and other members of the technical community: discussion at Geek Feminism is restricted by our comments policy. If you want to make commentary that does not adhere to that policy, you need to do it somewhere else. Discussion of Pesce’s technical content or the importance of his main subject matter is also off-topic for this post and will not be published.

On Friday at linux.conf.au 2011, Mark Pesce gave a morning keynote that resulted in complaints citing their harassment policy. I made one such complaint, here is an excerpt:

Dear lca2011 organisers,

Your anti-harassment policy at http://lca2011.linux.org.au/about/harassment
states that:

Harassment includes sexual images in public space.

This morning’s keynote by Mark Pesce included slides with the following
illustrations among others:

1. a pig and a duck apparently having sex
2. a black and white sexualised strangulation
3. a fetish scene with a woman in a mask spanking a man in a mask

Several of these were accompanied by a verbal metaphor to “being fucked” in
case the visuals weren’t explicit enough.


Content warning: Pesce’s slides are available. [Link is via the Coral Content Distribution Network, the slides are a 25MB OpenOffice file.] The slides I referred to in my complaint were numbers 36, 38 and 63. Video of the talk will be available at linuxconfau.blip.tv relatively soon I believe, I will update the post when it is published. (Update May 12 2011: it was published at blip.tv.)

The presentation was preceded by a verbal warning from Pesce. The exact nature of the warning seems unclear: I didn’t hear it. Everyone agrees that he used the phrase “PG-13″, reports vary on whether he warned for just language or also visuals, and whether or not he suggested that under-13s leave the room.

Following complaints, the LCA organisers apologised at the beginning of the closing plenary session that same Friday afternoon and indicated that they’d told Pesce of the complaints. Pesce posted an apology to Twitter before the conclusion of the weekend:

An apology to the #lca2011 community to those offended by my choice of images – http://j.mp/eYjdcj

The short link is to a PDF with a short apology text.

Warning: some unsympathetic commentary linked. The conference community’s response can be found on the publicly archived chat list at the threads beginning with I am upset about the ‘Sexual Images’ censure. and The Friday keynote and its imagery: another take. As one would anticipate, support for the policy in general and for that particular action on the part of the organisers is not universal, but it isn’t absent either.

There are a couple of notes I’d like to make about the whole experience:

The first is that the policy applies to powerful people, as it should. Possibly people who are coming second-hand to the conference harassment discussion imagine that harassment and related incidents are perpetrated by fringe members of the community. This is not so universally. Harassment incidents have involved conference organisers, conference sponsors, and invited speakers. This is perhaps a caution to conferences who would adopt the policy and have not imagined themselves enforcing it: how would you enforce it when an incident of harassment appears or is confirmed to have been perpetrated by the key representative of a sponsor? Or by a key conference volunteer?

The other point is that last minute verbal content warnings do not work. The problem the no-sexual imagery policies are trying to solve has several parts (this list is not intended to be exhaustive):

  1. sexual imagery is highly charged psychologically and physiologically for many people. Unwanted viewing of it ranges from unpleasant to stressful to extremely upsetting for some of them.
  2. women attendees (in particular) are the subject of unwanted sexual attention at many technical conferences, and use of sexual imagery (especially gratuitously, that is, for making a non-sexual argument) contributes to an environment where any conversation or interaction is open to becoming sexual based on only one party’s desires. After all, the speaker did it.

Verbal content warnings would need to be moderately specific and explicit which could cause a triggering problem in and of itself. They cannot be heard by people who arrive late. They require that those who anticipate that they do not want to see or hear the content stand up and leave a crowded room, thus subjecting themselves to potential embarrassment and perhaps to harassment from members of the audience as they leave, not to mention inviting certain inferences about things that upset them that they might not have wanted to share with an entire room.

Written content warnings would solve some of these problems, particularly that of needing to leave in response to the warning. However, conferences accepting talks that require written content warnings need to balance that against making the content of that talk inaccessible to some members of the audience (disproportionately although not solely women, children and teens), which is why technical conferences, which generally don’t need to show sex in order to make their key points, are beginning to ask that they not happen at all. There are obviously group environments where one wants to discuss or show sex or have sexual discussion: sex community conferences, sociological conferences, biology conferences, feminist discussions among others and in these cases clear, prominent, timely, and written warnings may be more appropriate.

Updates

References:

20 thoughts on “Powerful people: Mark Pesce’s linux.conf.au keynote

  1. deborah

    Ugh. Why do people think that it is reasonable to ask people who have PAID to attend the conference to leave the keynote speech because the keynote speaker has chosen to use sexualized imagery that has absolutely nothing to do with the content of the speech?

    If you can’t capture your audience’s attention without BDSM imagery, perhaps you aren’t a good enough speaker to be an invited keynote.

    1. Danielle

      I completely agree. People should always have the expectation of freedom from harassment. People should have the freedom from being forced to participate in a hostile social environment, or leave.

      I blogged about this event at the time (http://blogs.gnome.org/danni/2011/01/27/disappointing-linux-conf-au-keynote/) and received a reasonable amount of abuse for my trouble (said comments did not pass moderation). Common theme in these comments was that people should have the freedom to express themselves (OMG CENSORSHIP).

      How do we explain to privileged persons, who have never had to establish their “freedoms from”, that “freedom from” is more important than “freedom to”?

    2. Waquo

      Some attendees disagree about the disturbing imagery having nothing to do with the content.

      See http://lists.followtheflow.org/pipermail/chat/2011-January/001463.html
      David Woodhouse: “The purpose of the talk was to make us
      feel uncomfortable. The imagery complemented and reinforced the talk
      perfectly, in my opinion. To talk about the dangers of delegating your
      life choices to facebook and conclude that if you do so, ‘YOU ARE
      FUCKED’, [..] *did* bring the point home. [..]
      It’s one thing to say “that was unacceptable”, but I feel it’s
      disingenuous to *also* suggest that it was gratuitous and that it didn’t
      actually work. It *did* do the job it was intended to do, and I felt it
      contributed to an extremely *good* presentation.”

      1. Danielle

        This reminds me. There was a lot this rape language that occurred throughout the talk. “We are so fucked.” “You’re gonna get fucked.” “Skull-fuck Steve Jobs.” etc. Also un-called for.

      2. Carla Schroder

        And yet if David Woodhouse were clobbered with a similarly powerful cluebat re misogyny and rape culture and other related issues, I bet money he would not be so receptive. These guys love this crap and won’t admit it. The talk was supposed to be about online privacy– the culture of denial is strong.

  2. A.Y. Siu

    A lot of those images are highly disturbing and inappropriate. I think the worst offender is actually evil Ronald McDonald forcibly shoving a large hamburger into a crying little girl’s mouth. The severed finger on the hand is a close second.

    1. Chris

      I’ve heard from a few people that they found the Ronald McDonald image a lot more inappropriate than the other ones. But that image would not appear to be contrary to the anti harrassment policy which appears is to be aimed primarily to sex related content. Violence related imagery should be just as unacceptable at conferences.

      Perhaps the policy would be clearer and less open to literal interpretation misunderstandings if the policy was less specific. And just insist that all content of talks and events at the conference – speeches, talks, slides, video, audio at the conference be G rated.

      1. Carla Schroder

        Ronald McDonald shoving a burger into a little girl’s mouth is totally sexual. It’s not about food. (Yes, I viewed the slides. Yuck. This clown got a keynote spot??)

        Pesce’s last-minute “warning” was disingenuous, if not dishonest.

        I wrote a letter of thanks to the conference organizers, http://lca2011.linux.org.au/contact

      1. Clinton Roy

        One of the sponsors has requested that if their name is mentioned in the video that it not be published. As to what finally happens with the video, it’s more than likely that it’ll be decided by linux australia and not the lca team.

  3. Jeshyr

    I am thoroughly disappointed that this happened, and especially that this happened at a conference with such an excellent and thought-out anti-harrassment policy. I’m glad to see this post and other public discussion.

    I have been finding certain sections of the mailing list discussions following this incident to be baffling, as a percentage of men (a minority, as far as I can see) seemed to be of the genuine belief that the policy had not been breached. I found this email, stating that “A sexual image is one depicting the act of sex” helped me understand the (alleged?) thought process that lead to somebody apparently genuinely believing that the images in Mark’s talk did not breach the harassment policy. I don’t agree with that person’s definitions, but assuming that person has in good faith interpreted the policy that way I can see how they could believe that the policy as written was not breached.

    It seems a deliberately over-literalist interpretation of the policy to me, but the geek community is indeed full of over-literal people who are known to fail when expected to make “common sense” interpretations. But how literal can a harassment policy be before it’s so specific it’s unusable?

    Wish I had better answers.

    1. Carla Schroder

      IMO this over-literalness is deliberate nitpicking and hairsplitting to derail and deny. Same old tired denials, defenses, and arguments, nothing new.

    2. kaberett

      [TW for language of rape apology]

      I am absolutely willing to bet that that same person is not somebody who insists on enthusiastic, informed consent, but just knows that she wanted it (or whatever).

    3. Clinton Roy

      So. If we didn’t go with the policy, and just went with the original terms and conditions, we still would have been able to act on the complaints, I think we still would have apologised and I think Mark would have too. I don’t think the policy was a failure at all, but I think the original terms and conditions gave us enough room to move. I don’t think it’s really possible to have a policy that covers all corner cases.

      What I was hoping for was a more public statement of beliefs about the community, we did get a very vague one in the welcome (‘you all know how to behave’) which I wasn’t too impressed with when I finally saw the video of it. I did manage to get an equally pointless `Please help us maximise everyones enjoyment of the conference, respect everyones boundaries’ into the badge.

      I’m happy that this happened over an event that didn’t target a specific person, i’m sad that the email discussion has turned into just such a targetted attack on individuals. I’m worried that the public wailing and gnashing of teeth is going to stop some people from reporting serious incidents.

      LCA is a technical conference, and swearing about stuff is very much the norm; that might have to change; but that would be like pushing the proverbial uphill.

      1. Mary Post author

        I am yet to hear of complaints about swearing per se at technical conferences. That’s not to say there aren’t any, and that if some come to light the reasons for them shouldn’t be taken seriously, but actual concerns I am aware of from this community are about imagery/themes, not swearing. The concern about it in my complaint was not about the word “fuck” itself, but the fact that it was evidence that the imagery was indeed intended as a sexual metaphor.

  4. Dermott Banana

    It’s interesting, in a detached kind of way, to see the diversity of things from the Pesce presentation which caused offence. The images Mary mentioned, the Ronald McDonald image, his spoken words. Personally, I found the airport scanner image inappropriate and I’m surprised more hasn’t been made of it, especially as some defenders have leapt up with the curious line that bondage isn’t sexual.
    And I think that while the community permits such behaviour, even passively, and the debate about policies, and their implementation continues, the open source community is entrenching themselves on the periphery of the IT world. And until it is prepared to act in a professional manner, that’s where it should remain.

    1. Waquo

      Given that the keynote was about privacy, the airport scanner image is certainly the one that is most on topic among the controversial images.

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