Author Archives: Tim Chevalier

About Tim Chevalier

Tim has written Haskell code on the job, worked on the Rust programming language at Mozilla, and been a graduate student in computer science at Portland State University and at UC Berkeley. He is currently a Senior Member of Technical Staff at Heroku, whose opinions his writing does not represent. He likes cats and bikes. His personal blog is at http://tim.dreamwidth.org/

Verifiability, truth, and hearsay: feminist point of view on the Geek Feminism wiki

The following quasi-anonymous comment was received and acknowledged on the Geek Feminism Wiki’s article about the Gittip crisis.

If I understand the editing policies here (I just read them), lies or heresay [sic] can be printed as fact, because you don’t take an NPOV, you take a feminist point of view. That implies that feminism involves lies or hearsay otherwise you would recognize that incorrect information (whether it supports a feminist viewpoint or not) doesn’t belong in an article of any merit.

“NPOV” stands for “neutral point of view”, a notion that Wikipedia editors take as a governing principle. NPOV is useful in some contexts, but also can be abused to camouflage specific ideologies — especially those that happen to dominate discourse in a particular place and time. Like “meritocracy“, NPOV is an abstraction that may or may not be realizable, but in practice often serves as neutral clothing for the decidedly non-neutral opinions of those who power structures currently happen to serve.

The inimitable Rick Scott took the time to craft a patient reply, which I’m reproducing in its entirety here (with Rick’s permission) because it deserves to reach a broader audience. I think it’s a good companion to Skud’s “Feminist Point of View” talk from July. It also serves as an illustration in a specific case of the general points we make in the Geek Feminism wiki editorial guidelines.

The remainder of this post is Rick’s words, not mine.


You have read the editorial guidelines (for which I thank you), but not understood them. Perhaps I can clarify.

NPOV properly applies to opinions and analysis, not facts. We convey the facts as accurately as we can ascertain them—there’s no such thing as “feminist facts” and “non-feminist facts”.

Having gained our best understanding of the facts at hand, we analyse and interpret those facts from a feminist perspective—one which is informed by the substantial research, scholarship, and critique that the field encompasses. For instance, if a woman is harassed by a male colleague, her supervisor may deny that sexism played a role, explaining the incident in other ways: “He’s just a jerk”; “He’s not good with people”; “Are you sure you aren’t imagining it”, etc. A feminist perspective, however, draws on the considerable research documenting gendered patterns of harassment in the workplace, and points out that this incident is likely part of the larger pattern—that the woman’s gender probably played a significant role in how her colleague elected to treat her.

What you actually take issue with is our approach to matters addressed by Wikipedia’s two other core content policies, namely Verifiability and No Original Research. Our editorial guidelines, which you so kindly read, state (emphasis added):

While citations are preferred wherever possible, we do not require them. Much of our wiki is primary source material, sometimes added anonymously in order to avoid backlash against the whistleblower. Original research is welcome.

To take but one example, harassment and abuse often occur in ways which leave no artifact save the accounts of those involved. Turning our back on these accounts would eliminate our ability to document what happened and undermine our work. Moreover, in the face of a society which tries to silence marginalized people and casts them as liars when they talk about their actual lives, we push back against this erasure by respecting their integrity, taking them at their word, and treating the facts, as they describe them, as facts. This may offend some people’s utopian notions of epistemological purity, but in a world where speaking truth while female can invite significant retribution, this is what we have.

On the topics of truth, fact, whom we presume to be telling the truth, and whom we presume to be lying, you may find some of the articles linked from the Innocent until proven guilty page to be illuminating: specifically, Christie Koehler’s post on Community Safety, and Jill Filipovic’s article The ethics of outing your rapist.

Finally, and separately from all of the generalities above: I can affirm that the information described as “heresay” (sic) comes from an impeccable source, and so am content to leave the description of events as they are. Since nobody has deigned to present any evidence to the contrary, I consider the matter closed. — RickScott, 18:01, September 4, 2014 (UTC)

Breaking news: the gamer community is broken

[CW: verbal abuse and massive online harassment directed at women]

In case you missed it, there’s a war on against women in games. Trolls and/or misogynists (when the two groups are observationally equivalent, fine distinctions seem beside the point) used the 4chan hate site to organize an attack against game developer Zoe Quinn, opportunistically exploiting a series of revenge posts made by Quinn’s disgruntled ex-boyfriend.

Quinn has now posted detailed excerpts from 4chan members’ IRC logs that make their intentions to carry out a false-flag operation, and manufacture a controversy about “ethics in game journalism” out of thin air, crystal-clear. The people making sockpuppet accounts to post what they think are convincing simulacra of feminist thought aren’t concerned about ethics; they’re not even sympathetic with Quinn’s hapless ex. No, they simply have a vendetta against “social justice warriors” (I guess they think that term is an insult?)

You can follow links to read many more details. I’d like to highlight one thing, though. Normally, we don’t publish rejected comments on this blog — sort of by definition — but most comments this blog receives never see the light of day, whether they’re nonsense spam, indiscriminate proposals for posts on the most faintly on-topic issues, trolling, or outright hate. I’ll make one exception, though. This comment sat in the pending queue for a while before it was deleted:

The full text of a comment from Matthew Rappard that was left on this blog

This is a comment that was deleted before it appeared on the blog. Wow, are we glad.

As far as I can tell (people who are sufficiently dull, sheltered, or both to think that fighting against social justice is the best thing they can do with their clearly-copious free time), 4chan trolls planned to manipulate the Fine Young Capitalists to provide publicity for their hate campaign. I was already suspicious, when I saw the initial comment, of a group purporting to help women in games that has a spokesperson with a traditionally masculine first name; more suspicious by not seeing obvious credit given to any women who were also collaborating with the organization. I thought it might be innocent, though. And now, I see that it was — but that it could well have been preparation for some not-so-innocent manipulation.

(By the way, I didn’t think to whois the IP address until just now. Turns out it’s a public Toronto Public Library terminal. That probably would have raised a red flag for me as well — usually, representatives of nonprofits that are on the up and up don’t need to hide their identities by using a public library computer.)

I think the moral of the story, for people who moderate blog comments, is to be careful and seek second (and third) opinions. It’s natural to want to err on the side of not dismissing somebody as a troll when they actually have a genuine issue that you don’t know much about. But sometimes, when it looks like a duck and quacks like a duck, it really is a member of Anas platyrhynchos.

I take it wearing cat ears wouldn’t help?

Moskowitz

A Twitter friend of mine linked to a cute post that Asana — a startup that makes collaboration software — has on their web site. It’s a joke proposal for furnishing the office with kittens. This is a nice type of humor because it doesn’t rely on making fun of anyone. I would have appreciated it, if not for one thing.

Back in June 2013, I got a recruiter email from Asana. I was already considering leaving my job at the time, and it seemed like the company was doing something pretty cool. I asked whether they offered trans-inclusive benefits. The recruiter looked into it for me, and came back with the following answer:

“We researched this and went back and forth with the insurance company and our insurance broker. It appears we probably do not have the coverage you are looking for. Sorry about that. I would have liked to be able to talk.”

So that was it. I would have considered the job otherwise, but not if I was clearly going to be a second-class employee. There was nothing particularly unusual about this interaction. As trans people, we’re not a protected class under US law, so it’s okay for insurance companies to deny us medically necessary care as long as it’s care that only a trans person would need. This isn’t because insurance executives actively hate us or something like that — no, it’s because of something worse. They know that because the American public considers us subhuman, they can get away with cutting costs by denying us health care — just because we happen to be in a politically unpopular group. To me, that’s worse than being actively hated.

Is this the fault of a small tech startup? No, of course not. But at the same time, many companies — big and small — have found ways to be fair and just in how they provide benefits to employees. Generally, this just means negotiating a deal with an insurance broker to add a rider for trans-related care. It should be the default, but in the meantime, negotiating that deal is the right thing to do. Engineering is supposed to be about solving problems, not reassigning blame so as to accumulate more of them.

Negotiating a better insurance plan is also the smart thing to do, because at a time when it seems widely accepted that there’s a shortage of tech talent, turning somebody away because a doctor assigned them an incorrect sex category at birth makes no sense; being trans has no bearing on anybody’s ability to write software. And even when you are not actively discriminating against trans people, saying (explicitly or tacitly) “it’s not worth our time to treat trans employees the same way as everybody else” is effectively equivalent to active discrimination.

So when I saw that “kittens” link, this is what I thought about. Somebody at Asana had enough time to write a cute, silly blog post — that nevertheless must have taken some effort — on the clock. And there’s nothing wrong with that in and of itself. But at a company with more than 50 employees, nonetheless, nobody has time to spend a few hours executing a simple, well-documented procedure to make sure that they are treating all employees as equally welcome. So that says something about their priorities.

When I made this observation on Twitter a few hours ago, it didn’t take much time before Asana’s co-founder Dustin Moskowitz was in my Twitter mentions explaining to me that Asana doesn’t have any trans employees (how does he know that, exactly?) but if they ever did, they would be sure to make their health insurance coverage fair after that person got hired.

Even more mind-bogglingly, he defended this choice by saying that many HR processes work this way, using pregnancy leave as another example. This is like saying “we are only going to install men’s restrooms in our office, and wait until a woman gets hired before installing a women’s room. Too bad if she needs to take a bathroom break while we’re interviewing her.” Lazy evaluation can be a great feature in a programming language, but it’s a terrible way for a company to ensure it’s meeting minimal standards about equity and inclusion right from the beginning.

Right now, I’m thinking about the free labor that I’m expected to perform by virtue of my membership in a marginalized group. If I actually did apply to Asana and was hired, I’d be expected to out myself to, potentially, people outside HR, just so I could get something every other employee takes for granted: health benefits. As it is, Moskowitz attempted to deflect criticism by asking me if I knew which insurance brokers were willing to negotiate trans-inclusive riders. Is that my job? And anyway, I reported the problem directly to Asana over a year ago — if they had acted on my feedback (as a job candidate who would have considered working there if not for this), the whole conversation would never had had to happen! How much more work do I have to do for free? In the time Moskowitz spent writing defensive tweets, he could have instead called up Blue Shield and gotten a price quote for a trans-inclusive rider. It took me less than five minutes on Google to find that Blue Shield has been offering such riders since 2012. Moskowitz never claimed that cost was an issue in deciding not to provide equal care for trans employees, so what’s the problem, exactly? Is this a good way to do public relations?

I don’t mean to single out Asana here. There are many companies that fail to provide this basic health coverage to their employees. But today, there was only one whose co-founder chose to spend his time arguing with me instead of fixing the problem. Is that a good way to do business? While Moskowitz eventually replied to me saying that he recognized he’d been wrong and would look into it more, still, I’m tired. I’m tired of the knee-jerk reaction to constructive feedback about how to stop marginalizing people that amounts to, “when you do more work for us for free, we’ll stop marginalizing you.” Again, no startup founder made the decision that insurance companies shouldn’t treat trans people equally by default. But by expecting trans people to take the lead in working around that decision, they reveal their own complicity with it.

What it amounts to when a startup co-founder says, “fix the problem for me, being fair isn’t important enough to me for me to do it myself” is attempting to convince users that a problem those users are having isn’t really hindering them, in lieu of just solving the problem. I think engineers can do better than that. If you want to build reliable software, you do the research on tools for static analysis, debugging, and testing; you don’t ask your customers to tell you what the best test framework is. Likewise, if you want to show that you treat people equally — that you try to be like a meritocracy, even if that abstraction is unrealizable — then you take the lead. I think business people call this “being proactive”. And when proactiveness is selectively applied so that no work ever gets done to move a company closer towards fairness unless the people being treated unfairly do all the heavy lifting — well, we notice. There is nothing complicated about what trans people are asking for. We want to be treated like everybody else. Apology or not, Moskowitz’s reaction to criticism today confirmed what we already knew: for many of the companies that employ us, treating us fairly is just too hard and takes up too much time that could be spent writing proposals about kittens.

Quick hit: Free travel grants for women to attend EuroBSDcon 2014 in Sofia, Bulgaria

Google is offering 5 grants for women in computer science (either working in or studying it) to attend EuroBSDcon 2014 — the main European conference about the open-source BSD family of operating systems — in Sofia, Bulgaria, to take place September 25-28. The grants cover conference registration as well as up to €1000 in travel costs.

Women who have a strong academic background and have demonstrated leadership (though if you don’t think you do, you should apply anyway) are encouraged to apply. Google’s form requires selecting either “male” or “female” as a gender; if you are not binary-identified but are marginalized in computer science and wish to apply, make use of the contact information for this Google program.

Also note that EuroBSDcon does not appear to have a code of conduct or anti-harassment policy. (If I’m wrong, add it to the wiki’s list of conferences that have anti-harassment policies!)

Quick hit: Maryam Mirzakhani wins the Fields Medal

Image of Maryam Mirzakhani

CC-BY-SA 3.0 image by Ehsan Tabari

The Fields Medal is the highest award in the field of mathematics. Some people have called it the math equivalent of the Nobel Prize, though it’s not a perfect analogy since Fields medalists must be younger than 40 years old. Fifty people received the Fields Medal between 1936 and 2010 (the award is given every four years to between two and four mathematicians). All of them were men.

Today, Stanford math professor Maryam Mirzakhani (born in 1977) became the first woman, and the first person of Iranian descent, to win the Fields Medal. (It was also awarded to Artur Avila, Manjul Bhargava, and Martin Hairer.) Her work lies in the intersection of geometry, topology, and dynamical systems.

You can read more about Dr. Mirzakhani in a profile of her by Erica Klarreich:

Mirzakhani likes to describe herself as slow. Unlike some mathematicians who solve problems with quicksilver brilliance, she gravitates toward deep problems that she can chew on for years. “Months or years later, you see very different aspects” of a problem, she said. There are problems she has been thinking about for more than a decade. “And still there’s not much I can do about them,” she said.

Mirzakhani doesn’t feel intimidated by mathematicians who knock down one problem after another. “I don’t get easily disappointed,” she said. “I’m quite confident, in some sense.”

Madison Young, rape apologism, and HackerMoms

[Content warning: sexual assault, rape apologism, victim-blaming]

Madison Young describes herself as “a sex positive Tasmanian devil”; she’s been active in the feminist porn community for some time, and founded the Femina Potens art space in San Francisco. She’s also on the steering committee for Mothership HackerMoms, serving as their director of programming. Mothership HackerMoms describes themselves as “the first-ever women’s hackerspace in the world”.

Last week, a video resurfaced that Young, along with Billie Sweet, made after the filming of their movie “Heartland: a Woman’s POV”. “Heartland” was nominated for a Feminist Porn Award, but the clip (which appears to no longer be available online) probably wouldn’t win any feminist awards. In it, Young — an alum of Antioch College — discusses having sex with another student at Antioch while both women were drunk. She observes that this encounter violated Antioch’s much-misunderstood SOPP (Sexual Offense Prevention Policy), which requires people on campus to ensure that explicit consent is present before initiating a particular sex act. She goes on to deride the SOPP — this isn’t exactly an original sentiment, but what I think we’re meant to take away from the dialogue is that clearly, Madison Young couldn’t possibly be a rapist. And therefore, the SOPP — a policy that she violated by initiating a sex act with someone who was too intoxicated to consent — must be ridiculous, since what kind of policy would censure someone like her for having some innocent undergrad fun?

Young issued an apology for the video and for her initial — highly defensive — comments on Twitter when the video resurfaced. But as Kitty Stryker at Consent Culture does a great job of explaining in her post “Consent, Critique, & Feminist Porn: Madison Young’s Hard Lesson”, the apology itself is still very defensive. In it, Young does not demonstrate understanding of why it was wrong for her to indulge in victim-blaming rhetoric, both in the original video and in her comments about it in July 2014.

I find it especially worrisome that Young characterizes a code of conduct that simply seeks to affirm the need for sexual consent as “censorship”: “Although SOPP is an extreme policy around consent, that came out of the now defunct Antioch College, I do applaud its effort. Like many things that were generated from Antioch College it started with good intentions but went too far to extremes to be useful and effective in practice. There was an inherent policing at Antioch that bordered on censorship.” (n.b. Antioch College is not, in fact, defunct.)

Can a hackerspace be a safe space if one of its organizers is somebody who styles herself as a consent advocate while engaging in derailing and victim-blaming speech about sexual assault? If you are directly involved with HackerMoms, I encourage you to start that dialogue.

It has been zero days since the last sexist incident in tech

[Content warning: sexual objectification.]

Obie Fernandez is the author of The Rails Way, the editor of Addison-Wesley’s Professional Ruby Series, and a co-founder and CTO of Javelin, a startup that builds “tools and services to help you change your world”.

Fernandez also, apparently, can’t talk about technology without reminding everybody that he has, on some occasion or another, had sex. Despite being a CTO, he also apparently doesn’t know that the Internet doesn’t have an erase button — which goes to show you that extremely poor judgment doesn’t stop you from getting copious VC funding for your company, if you’re male.


A screenshot of a tweet from Obie Fernandez, which he later deleted

Fernandez’s Twitter bio declares, “Author, Programmer, Dad”. Usually (certainly not always, I’m aware!) being a dad implies that you have had sex at least once. But it’s so important for Fernandez to remind us that he has had sex — with people of multiple ages — that he also has to inject tortured sexual analogies into what could have been a perfectly benign programming language flame war.

At 8:36 PM tonight (in my time zone, anyway, Fernandez tweeted, “still not sure exactly what I’m supposed to apologize for other than being a bit crass about 20-year old people.”

By 9:11 PM, Fernandez had evidently thought about it deeply and carefully enough to issue a retraction. I guess the “lean startup” approach is so powerful that its adherents can go from sneering at their critics (including a risible attempt to backjustify his sexism with an appeal to pansexuality — folks, we’ve been over that already) to heartfelt apology in less than 40 minutes. (I fear that his apology may not be entirely heartfelt, though, as he quickly moved on to declaring that he’s “not a sexist” and attempting to pay for his blunder by citing all the women he hires.)

Readers of this blog are aware that one asshat in tech would have little effect on his own, if he were indeed an isolated case. They are equally aware that Fernandez is no anomaly of asshaberdashery. I think the hapless Fernandez is providing us with a valuable lesson: the message to “not feed the trolls” is a dangerous one. While any given individual absolutely can and should disengage with trolls when necessary to protect their physical and mental health, engaging with them can have value. Judging from his Twitter avatar, Mr. Fernandez is at least 30 years old. That makes 30 years or more in which not a single person in his life has told him that the world generally does not need to know that he has done a sex. Perhaps his demeanor makes them afraid to challenge him. Perhaps they don’t think it’s worth the time. Who knows? But at one point in his life, one presumes that he was impressionable — one knows that he’s impressionable, since nobody acts like he does unless they get rewarded for it. Rewarded with laughs, with buddy-buddy slaps on the back from fellow bros, with congratulations on how delightfully politically incorrect he is, with 1.5 million dollars of venture capital money from the likes of Mark Suster, Eric Ries, and 500 Startups.

Back when I was first dabbling in Usenet in the mid-1990s, it was conventional wisdom that trolls were usually children sitting at a computer in their mothers’ basements. That, in other words, they had no real power other than the ability to rustle a few jimmies for a moment. It’s 2014 now, and some of those children have grown up and become technology executives — people with hiring and firing power, with a lot of control over a big part of the economy. If the adults in the room had spent a bit more time trying to socialize those children (because clearly, they weren’t getting it from their parents) and less time stating their troll-starving prowess, perhaps we would be able to attend a conference without hearing about some guy’s crotch.

Postscript: On Twitter, Matt Adereth pointed out this 2005 blog post from Fernandez:

I didn’t particularly like Ruby the first time I met her. I thought she was interesting, but a few months later (to my surprise) something changed. I started seeing her appealing qualities. My friends really spoke highly of Ruby, so we started spending time together. The love affair began in February 2005 and about a month later, things started getting pretty bad with my wife, Java. Even when I was doing Java, I couldn’t stop thinking of Ruby and how much better she is for me.

So it looks like Mr. Fernandez has been unnecessarily sexualizing technical discussions for fun and profit for quite some time. As Adereth observed, it also looks like Fernandez’s use of the “who said I was talking about women?” derailing tactic is entirely disingenuous.

Can geekiness be decoupled from whiteness?

As a fledgling nerd in my teens and early twenties, grammar pedantry was an important part of geek identity for me. At the time, I thought that being a geek had a lot to do with knowing facts and rules, and with making sure that other people knew you knew those facts and rules. I thought that people wouldn’t be able to communicate with each other clearly without rigid adherence to grammatical rules, a thought that may have been influenced by the predominance of text-based, online communication in my social life at the time.

The text: Let's eat grandma! Let's eat, Grandma! Punctuation saves lives, juxtaposed with an image of an older woman
The image shames people for where they place commas and suggests sarcastically that a punctuation error could result in misunderstanding of a suggestion to have a meal as a suggestion to practice cannibalism.

If Facebook had existed at the time, I would have been sharing this image, and others like it, with the best of them. I was sure that correct use of punctuation and adherence to the grammatical rules of standard American English was an essential step along the way to achieving truth, justice, and the American Way. Though I wasn’t sure exactly how. It definitely seemed a lot easier to teach people how to use commas correctly than to teach them how to take another’s point of view (something I wasn’t very good at myself at the time), and like the drunk looking for their keys underneath the lamppost because that’s where it’s easier to see, I ran with it.

Nerds, Rules, and Race

A few years ago, Graydon Hoare mentioned Mary Bucholtz’s article “The Whiteness of Nerds” (PDF link) to me. As a recovering grad student, I don’t read a lot of scholarly articles anymore, but this one has stayed with me. Perhaps that’s because the first time I read it, felt embarrassed. I felt that I had been read. By this point, I suppose I had let go of some of my attachment to grammar pedantry, but I still felt that it was just a bit of harmless fun. I realized that without being consciously aware of it, I had been using devotion to formal rules as a way to perform my whiteness — something that I would certainly have denied I was doing had someone accused me of such.

Bucholtz argues, in short, that geek culture (among American youths) is a subculture defined, essentially, by being whiter than white:

“This identity, the nerd, is racially marked precisely because individuals refuse to engage in cultural practices that originate across racialized lines and instead construct their identities by cleaving closely to the symbolic resources of an extreme whiteness, especially the resources of language.”

Bucholtz is not saying that there are no nerds of color — just that nerd culture, among the teenagers she studied, was defined by hyper-devotion to a certain set of white cultural norms (which some youths of color are perfectly happy to adopt, just as some white youths perform an identification with hip-hop culture).

If we accept her analysis of nerd culture, though, it’s clear that it excludes some people more than others. Adopting hyper-whiteness is an easier sell for people who are already white than for people who are potentially shrugging off their family of origin’s culture in order to do so. If it’s assumed that a young person has to perform the cultural markers of nerd culture in order to be accepted as someone who belongs in a science class or in a hackerspace, then it’s harder for youths of color to feel that they belong in those spaces than it is for white youths. That’s true even though obsessing about grammar has little to do with, say, building robots.

In my own youth, I would have said that I liked nitpicking about grammar because it was fun, probably, and because I wanted to communicate “correctly” (perhaps the word I would have used then) so that I could be understood. But was I harping over it for the intrinsic pleasure of it, or because it was a way for me to feel better than other people?

I think people who have been bullied and abused tend to use rules in the hopes that rules will save them. It’s true that many kids who are academically gifted and/or interested in science, math and engineering experience bullying and even abuse, even those who are otherwise (racially, gender-wise, and economically) privileged. It’s also true that some of the same people grow up to abuse their power over others in major ways, as most of the previous posts on this blog show. As a child, I thought that someday, someone was going to show up and stop my mother from abusing me and that that would be made possible by the fact that it was against the rules to hit children. I think that’s part of how I got so interested in formal systems of rules like grammar — eventually leading me to pursue programming language theory as a field of study, which is about using formal systems of rules to make computers do things. I suspect many nerds had a similar experience to mine.

But it’s easier to like formal systems of rules when those rules usually protect you. If you live in a country where the laws were made by people like you, and are usually enforced in ways that protect you, it’s easier to be enamored of technical adherence to the law. And, by analogy, to prescriptive sets of rules like “standard English” grammar. It’s also easier to feel affection for systems of rules when people like yourself usually get a say in constructing them.

Not all nerds are abuse survivors, so perhaps other nerds (as adults) value rule-following because they believe that their aptitude for compliance to formal systems of rules is the key to their economic success. From there, it’s easy to jump to victim-blaming: the line of thought that goes, “If other people would just learn and follow the rules, they would be successful too.”

“Mrs. Smith is a wonderful linguist. Give her a few hours with a grammar and she’ll know everything except the pronunciation.” — Graham Greene, The Comedians

In Graham Greene’s novel The Comedians, set in Haiti in the 1950s, Mrs. Smith — an American who is in the country to proselytize for vegetarianism (not realizing that in the country she’s visiting, nobody can afford to eat meat) — believes that all she needs to do to speak the language of the natives, wherever she’s going, is to memorize the language’s grammatical rules. Not only does she not (apparently) realize the difference between Haitian Creole and Parisian French, she doesn’t seem to know (or doesn’t care) about idioms, slang, or culture. If she really is a wonderful linguist, perhaps she has a native ability to pick up on connotations, which she’s discounting due to her belief that adherence to rules is what makes her successful.

In general, it’s possible that some grammar pedantry is motivated by a sincere belief that if others just learned how to speak and write standard English, they’d be able to pull themselves up by the proverbial bootstraps. But success doesn’t automatically grant insight into the reasons for your success. Maybe understanding rules is secondary to a more holistic sort of talent. Maybe you’re ignoring white privilege, class privilege, and other unearned advantages as reasons for your success, and others won’t enjoy the same outcome just by learning to be good at grammar.

Maybe it’s especially tempting for programmers to play the prescriptivist-grammar game. By nature, programming languages are prescriptive: for programs to make sense at all, a language has to have a formal grammar, a formal mathematical description of what strings of characters are acceptable programs. If there was a formal grammar for English, it would say, for example, that “The cat sat on the mat.” is a valid sentence, and “Mat cat on the sat.” is not. But there isn’t one; English is defined by what its speakers find acceptable, just as every other human language is. Different speakers may disagree on what sentences are acceptable, so linguists can outline many different dialects of English — all of which are mutually understandable, but which have different grammatical rules. There is no correct dialect of English, any more than any given breed of dog is the correct dog.

Programming consists largely of making details explicit — because you’re talking to a not-very-bright computer — that most other humans would be able to fill in from context. Context is why most of the grammar memes that people share are very shallow: no English speaker would actually sincerely confuse “Let’s eat Grandma!” with “Let’s eat, Grandma”, because of contextual knowledge: mostly the contextual knowledge that humans don’t treat each other as food and so the first sentence is very unlikely to be intended, but also the contextual knowledge that we’re talking to Grandma and have been talking about preparing dinner (or, I suppose, the knowledge that we have survived a plane crash and are stranded with no other food sources). If punctuation really was a life-and-death matter any appreciable portion of the time, the human race would be in deep trouble — on the whole, we’re much better at spoken language, and written language is a relatively recent and rare development.

But I think programmers have a good reason to value breaking rules, because that’s what programmers do whenever they are being truly creative or innovative (sometimes known as “disruption”). Hacking — both the kind sometimes known as “cracking” and the legal kind — are about breaking rules. In spoken language, grammatical rules are often (if not always) developed ex-post-facto. It’s probably more fun to study how people actually use language and discover how it always has internal structure than it is to harp on compliance with one particular set of rules for one particular dialect.

Bucholtz argues that nerds are considered “uncool” by virtue of being too white, surprisingly, since white people are the dominant cultural group in the region she was studying. She made that observation in 2001, though. Now, in 2014, “nerd” has come to mean “rich and high status” (at least if you’re male), much more than it means “unpopular and ignored”. We hear people talk about the revenge of the nerds, but are we really talking about the revenge of the hyper-white? Nerds often see themselves as rebelling against an oppressive mainstream culture; is it contradictory to resist oppression by defining oneself as “other” to the oppressor culture… by outdoing the oppressor at their own game?

Bucholtz addresses this question by arguing that while “cool” white youths walk a delicate balance between actng “too black” and “too white”, “nerdy” white youths resolve this tension by squarely aiming for “too white”. I don’t think she would say that the “cool” white kids are anti-racist, just that in defining themselves in opposition to the cool kids’ appropriation of Black American culture, nerds run the risk of behaving so as to devalue and stigmatize the culture being appropriated, intentionally or not.

Moreover, we know that cultural appropriation isn’t a respectful act; are the “hyper-white nerds” actually the anti-racist ones because they refrain from appropriating African-American culture? And does it matter whether we’re talking about youth culture (in which intellectualism can often go unappreciated) or adult culture (where intellectualism pays well)? I’d welcome any thoughts on these questions.

Unbundling Geekiness

What am I really doing if I click “Share” on that “Let’s eat Grandma!” image? I’m marking myself as discerning and educated, and I don’t even have to spell out to anyone that by doing those things, I’m shoring up my whiteness — the culture already did the work for me of convincing everyone that if you’re formally educated, you must be white; that if you aren’t, you must be poor; and then if you’re a person of color and formally educated, you must want to be white. I’m also marking myself as someone who has enough spare time and emotional resources to care a lot about something that has no bearing on my survival.

Incidentally, I’m also marking myself as someone whose neurology does not make it unusually difficult to process written language. There are similar memes I can share that would also mark me as someone who is not visually impaired and thus does not use a screen reader that would make it impossible for me to spell-check text for correct use of homophones. An example of the latter would be a meme that makes fun of someone who writes “fare” instead of “fair”, when the only way to avoid making such a typographical error is to have the ability to see the screen. In “Why Grammar Snobbery Has No Place in the Movement”, Melissa A. Fabello explores these points and more as she argues that social justice advocates should reject grammar snobbery. I agree, and also think that geeks — regardless of whether they also identify as being in “the movement” — should do the same, as it’s ultimately counterproductive for us too.

Geek identity doesn’t have to mean pedantry, about grammar or even about more substantive matters. The Hacker School Rules call out a more general phenomenon: the “well-actually”. The rules define a “well-actually” as a correction motivated by “grandstanding, not truth-seeking”. Grammar pedantry is almost always in the former category: it would be truth-seeking if it was about asking what unclear language means, but it’s usually targeted at language whose meaning is quite clear. I think that what the Hacker School document calls “grandstanding” is often about power dynamics and about who is favored and disfavored under systems of rigid rules. But rules are to serve values, not the other way around; I think geekiness has the potential to be anti-racist if we use our systems of rules in the service of values like love and justice, rather than letting ourselves be used by those systems.

Thanks to Chung-Chieh Shan and Naomi Ceder, as well as Geek Feminism bloggers Mary and Shiny for their comments on drafts.

Quick hit: Girls just don’t wanna have fun at conferences

Over at The Spandrel Shop, Prof-Like Substance writes about women’s experiences with harassment at academic conferences:

So dudes, pull this apart a little bit. First off, the frequency with which inappropriate advances occur is causing some women to avoid after hours social events. Not only does that have consequences, but that very fact in itself should bother you. Also consider that even consensual sexyfuntimes have very different career implications for men versus women. These communities are small and things get around. Finally, are you going to be That Guy who women are warned against being around alone? Do you want the dumb things you say when you’re out late to be the reason a woman leaves the field or is uncomfortable attending social events? Consider that maybe your work colleagues are not the best target audience for your affections.

This is ground we’ve covered before at Geek Feminism, of course. But I thought the comment thread on this post was, for once, worth reading. I especially liked the following comment from user EMoon, replying to a persistent concern troll asking for rules to tell “oblivious” men when to hit on women (so they don’t have to think about it for themselves):

You want a rule? Here’s the rule. Don’t do it. Never hit on women at a conference of any kind, or in a workplace of any kind, or at any function associated in any way with work, or at any function not associated in any way with work. Don’t make suggestive comments on their appearance, either to them or to other men with the intent that they will overhear. Don’t wink at them. Don’t stare at their bodies. Don’t stand too close. Don’t touch. Don’t pat them, hug them, drape an arm around their shoulders, or–should you necessarily be in a picture with them (an award ceremony or the like) decide to put an arm around them with that excuse. Don’t follow them around. Never hang around in the hotel hall outside their rooms, or outside the women’s toilet. Don’t do it. ANY of it. And don’t think it’s not noticed if you do.

Quick hit: #NotJustHello

Today, Mikki Kendall — who you’ll remember from a previous Wednesday Geek Woman feature — started the #NotJustHello hashtag to talk about how women experience street harassment, in ways that go far beyond an unknown man saying “hello”. In just a few hours, there have already been a lot of great conversations not just about specific experiences of harassment, but about boundaries and the difference between flirtation and harassment.

Inspired by some of the responses to the hashtag, which echo responses that I’ve seen every time women share their experiences being harassed, I created a new Geek Feminism Wiki page, I can’t believe that happens, about the repeating pattern of men responding to these accounts in ways that reflect a need to prove that they are surprised it ever happens.