Tag Archives: gender and sexual minorities

The Filter Bubble Is a Misguided, Privileged Notion

nina de jesus is a digital projects librarian on Mississauga land. Interests include digital preservation, information ethics, and long walks on the beach. nina conducts experiments on her life as performance art in an attempt to resist, challenge, and inspire discourse on #libtechwomen. This post originally appeared on nina’s blog.

The basic notion of the filter bubble is that personalization on the internet (with google search, facebook, etc) creates this individualized spaces where we only see things we already agree with, stuff that confirms our points of view, rather than stuff that challenges us or makes us uncomfortable.

The first and most glaring problem with this idea is that it wholly makes this into a technological problem when it is a social problem.

On the whole, we actually know this. Idioms like “birds of a feather flock together” suggest that we have a very basic, folk understanding that people tend to stick with other people who are like them. This is something that holds true in pretty much every social arena that you care to pick. From the moment we are born, we already exist in a filter bubble. A bubble that is determined by many factors outside of our control: race, gender, class, geography, etc.

Eli Pariser mentions that he is from Maine. Which is one of the least racially diverse states in the US, with 95% of the people in the 2010 US Census reporting that they are white. The fact that he is able to posit filter bubbles as a predominantly technological problem while growing up in one of the most racially segregated and homogenous states in America is… well. Exactly how my point is proven.

The thing is. Say he successfully solves the technological problem. How will this, in anyway, deal with the fact that his home state’s demographics precludes most of the white inhabitants from ever actually encountering a person of colour in real life? Where, arguably, it is far more critical that we don’t have filter bubbles so that we can experience the humanity of other people, rather than just being exposed to facts/articles/whatever.

This also explains why his solution won’t work. As the recent piece about polarization on Twitter demonstrates… Most people don’t bother seeking out stuff that disagrees with them. This is stark on a site like Twitter, where your timeline is still chronological feed, rather than one decided by relevance. You can follow people you don’t agree with, see what they post, etc. But most of us don’t bother. And this isn’t going to change anytime soon and no amount of tech whatever will change it either.

Second. Only the most privileged of people are truly able to exist within a filter bubble.

The other main part of his notion of the bubble is that it is good for ‘democracy’ and ‘responsible citizenship’ for people to be exposed to contrary view points that make them uncomfortable or challenge them.

The fact that, in his narrative, he has to describe how he used the internet, as a youth, to seek out these contrary viewpoints demonstrates, more than anything, the amount of privilege he has as a (presumably) straight, white, cis d00d.

This is a problem I often find with people who are similarly privileged.

Existing in the world as a marginalized person means that there is never a filter bubble. You don’t get protection like this.

And it doesn’t deal with the biggest culprit of filtering: the public education system. This is something particularly relevant given that it is February, Black History month. The solitary month every year where Black people get to show up in history. And we also know that every single time this month comes around, white people complain and ask why they can’t have all twelve months for white history (re: white mythology).

Then we can talk about the media in Canada. About how most of the books I read in or out of school had white men/boys as protagonists. Or how most TV shows, movies, etc. and so on likewise not only have white men/boys as protagonists, but also very much serve to emphasize this point of view as default, normal, unmarked.

I have literally spent my entire life listening to, learning about, being exposed to ideas, thoughts, worldviews that make me uncomfortable and that I do not agree with.

Instead of having to expend effort to find stuff that disagrees with me, I’m always on an eternal search for information that agrees with me. As soon as I was able to access the internet, visit the library on my own, have any amount of agency and control over the information I consumed, I have been seeking things that let me know that I am a human being. That I (and people like me) actually exist. That we live, breath, have adventures, have a history, that we have fun, that we are sad — just that we are human. That we exist.

Last, what are, precisely, the viewpoints that disagree with me or make me uncomfortable?

On the first pass, I’d say it is probably the points of view of the people who shout things like “ft” “chk” or “t**y” at me when I’m moving around and existing in public space (so happy that these people are excersing their good democratic citizenship by treating me to their challenging viewpoints in public!).

What does this mean for the internet?

Maybe it means reading sensationalized and dehumanizing stories about the death of a trans Latina, Lorena Escalera from notorious liberal/left media news rag, the New York Times.

Maybe it means reading an imperialist post when I’m just trying to learn about Ruby.

Or perhaps seeing something about how because some men are sexual predators, trans women deserve no public protection or acccommodatons.

Does it mean that I should spend my time reading the content at stormwatch or Fox News?

Or maybe it could mean that the internet is one of the very few places I have any real amount of control to filter out these points of view so that I can find people who agree with me. People I can build community with. People I can rant to/with. Find support for things that most of the world refuses to support me for.

Because, at the end of the day, I do, in fact have to live in the real world. The world where (this was me yesterday at Ryerson) I have to spend 15 minutes looking for a gender neutral washroom (and another 10 waiting for it to be unoccupied) because using either gendered washroom makes me uncomfortable and feel very unsafe. The world where if I want to regularly watch TV shows with PoC, I have to watch them in languages I don’t understand. Where I get stared at all the time in public — which does nothing to help my agoraphobia. Basically the world where — almnost my entire life — I’ve felt unsafe in most public spaces.

But, hey, filter bubbles, amirite?

It is easier now that I look like a guy

This is a guest post by Fortister, who prefers to remain otherwise anonymous.

This was inspired by a question on Twitter by Dr. Kortney Ziegler: “so much energy focused on women in tech — rightfully so — but for trans men or other non binary gender identities…crickets…”

It is easier now that I look like a guy.

I think of myself as a shapeshifter, and with that comes shifting perspective. I am non-binary identified. I’ve kept my expressive voice and use female pronouns out of political stubbornness, because in this place, at this time, being a woman is exceptional, and I didn’t want to disappear. I spend enough time as the second woman in the room that it would feel like leaving my community to leave that role. Even as a woman, though, it is still easier now that I look like a guy. Masculine privilege is a powerful thing.

In meetings I state my opinion with no apologies or waffling and no one is taken aback. I get invited to dinners with coworkers and we talk about work instead of their wives. I don’t get hit on at industry events, and I go to hotel room parties at conferences with only lingering fear from another life. No one expresses surprise at my technical competence, and no one has yelled at me once since I shifted.

There was a time my long hair and I were assumed to be someone’s wife or girlfriend or HR rep. Now HR reps walk up to me. I know when it is time for a haircut because people start questioning my tone or dismissing my opinions. There was a time when I wondered how much makeup to wear, and which shirts were too thin. Now my clothes come from Amazon and I dress just like everyone I work with and I wake up fifteen minutes before rolling out the door.

It’s easier now.

The usual downsides of my identity don’t even seem to apply. No one questions my pronouns; after all at times I am the only example of a “woman” in the room. Neither do I feel misgendered as simply “woman”; just being a programmer queers my gender. It is convenient for the men around me to appropriate my presence and ignore the distinction. My boss doesn’t even blink when I get “Sir’ed” at a business dinner.

The women’s bathroom is nearly empty and the women there are unsurprised by my presence. We usually know each others names and at least half them are as grateful for the lack of gender police as I am. I still glance down with a self-deprecating smile, because I don’t want to make anyone any more uncomfortable than we already are.

Just because it is easier doesn’t mean it is easy. So much of my effort has gone to things that have nothing to do with tech. I choose my company for culture and the possibility of being promoted as a woman, even one who looks like a man, instead of for the technical problems that I would like to solve. I don’t move around as much because I would have to establish myself all over again. I’ve wasted countless hours to men who find it easier to ask questions of me than my colleagues, though I value the opportunities to mentor as well. At meetings I’m distracted from the topic at hand when the only other woman is ignored. “What was that?” I ask, interrupting the interrupter, but in the same moment I’ve lost the technical thread in a rush of adrenaline. At technical conferences men ask me what I think about women in tech, or guiltily admit their discomfort with our culture, instead of inquiring about my work. I’ve given up on Hacker News after yet another vicious round of misogyny and had abandoned Slashdot years before, and so my coworkers talk about things I have no energy to seek out for myself. I limit my conferences to ones where I will not be an oddity. (In the rest of the world my masculinity makes me an oddity. Here it is the vestiges of womanhood.)

Instead of spending my weekend hacking open source I spend my weekend figuring out how to defend the notion of my humanity. How to explain, just a little more clearly, why the oblivion of the men around me is harmful and destructive. How to make it about them, so that maybe finally they will care. I’m glad I’m not job hunting; instead of a github I have a portfolio of blog posts I’m too afraid to share (they are all insufficient for the impossible task of changing my world.) When people talk about wanting to only hire the most passionate, the most committed programmers I want to tell them that if I weren’t I would have never made it this far. Merely being a mid-career woman programming is a demonstration of passion the privileged men around me will never have an opportunity to display.

I can smell their fear, the possibility that their mediocrity is merely covered by privilege. When they protest that women aren’t interested, it is with the fear that their house of masculine cards might come toppling down. There is nothing manly about typing, about understanding systems, about communicating with humans and machines to create useful tools. Our work is not white-collar networking and control. It is not blue-collar physical strength. It is not pink-collar emotional labor. It is something new, beyond the gender binary. A huge amount of political work has gone into turning this profession masculine, but that distinction is precarious and some of us seek to actively undermine it. There is nothing masculine about what we do, and so the masculine performances that accompany it are beyond ridiculous. To need pictures of naked women to prove that we are all Straight Men here, we must know it isn’t true. Some of us are so anxious that if we can not use “he” in our job postings and documentation we might, what, forget that we are men?

I have no sympathy; some of us didn’t have this option. If you rely on your profession to validate your gender identity, you are setting yourself up for disappointment as well as acting like an exclusionary jerk.

The capitalists exploit men’s fear of being unmanly, offering them paltry rewards relative to the value they produce in exchange for brutal hours, insulting treatment and the inevitable eventual betrayal of their values. “Do no evil” becomes “evil is hard to define”, and if men admit they care they are considered soft. Organizing for working conditions or caring about missing your children’s childhoods would be womanly, not ruggedly individualistic. When there is any pushback, it is cloaked in the most masculine language possible, of “life hacking”, of seeking time to lift heavy objects or get trashed to cover for the lack of meaningful interpersonal relationships in our work-dominated lives. The only alternative to the capitalist-driven workplace is the even-more masculine world of VC and the near-certainty of failure, with egos protected by the knowledge that they are at least not women. They are doing something women cannot do, they assume, rather than doing something no one with any self respect would be willing to do, woman or man.

It is easier because I merely look like a guy. I do not need to protest my manliness, because I know in my womanly education and upbringing I was taught skills that are valuable here. “He” is not as valuable a programmer as “they” are, since “he” is artificially limited. The competence of women is no threat to my self-image; it is patently obvious to me that women can code because I have met good programmers who are women in the spaces where we congregate, reassuring each other of our existence when the people around us deny it. I do not need to believe that I am special, that my profession is exclusionary, in order to feel whole, nor am I willing to write off the millions of potential programmers who have never had the set of happy accidents that led me to the profession. I seek to prove neither my relevance nor masculinity, since I am confident of both. That confidence comes from having to fight for them; it is impossible to know what we are capable of if we never reach our limits.

Men still tell me openly that they think women are better at “that people stuff” than “technical things”, as though their opinion outweighs my experience and citations and as though technical problems were not caused by people. They say that boys are better at math, as though they don’t turn to StackOverflow any time they need an equation. A few brave and very ignorant men suggest that it’s my masculinity that enables me to code. I tell them the best software development class I took was Introduction to Writing Poetry and I am the only one in it who became a programmer. I tell them a story where our insistence on masculinity is bankrupting our profession. I say that there are millions of women who have been driven from the field by the ignorance and sexist behavior of people like them. Each time, I blush in fear at my audacity, but my masculinity protects me. Before the shift, they laughed at my protestations of belonging or mocked my supposed naivete. Now in person the worst they do is walk away or change the subject uncomfortably.

Online, of course, is a different story. I am either assumed male or dismissed, belittled and told to make sandwiches if I make a point to be read female (I use sex here purposefully, for lack of better terminology: online I’ve found read sex more important than identity, voice, tone or gendered behavior. That reading of sex, of course, is fraught.) The area for us shifters is erased; there is no true self for me to show because there is no space in people’s expectations for me. I am presumed to not exist.

Online it’s easy to be a man. It is also deeply uncomfortable; it feels like a lie to erase my other life. However, going out of my way to be read a woman is to cut away a part of myself as well. This is perhaps part of why I keep to the shadows, the private forums, the feminist hideaways. Among the geeky feminists, I have found a story that allows my existence. Things can be more complicated.

Editor’s note: We welcome and encourage guest post submissions from trans women, and from non-binary-identified, genderqueer, gender-fluid, and/or agender people who were coercively assigned male at birth, about their experiences in geeky communities, professions, or subcultures — as well as any other geek feminist or social-justice-related topic. We would love to feature more guest posts about the experience of being gender-non-conforming in tech, from people with a variety of lived experiences.

A group photo of about 30 people, with the banner "trans* hackers code it better" in front

Trans*H4ck 1.0 – Trans* coders make (their own) history

This is a guest post by Naomi Ceder, who has been active in the Linux and Python communities since… well… for a long time. She has taught programming and Python online, in high schools, at Linux Fests, and in the Chicago Python Workshop, and is the author of The Quick Python Book, 2nd ed. from Manning Publications. She is vastly relieved to have finally transitioned to female after half a lifetime stuck “undercover as a man”. She speaks and blogs both about Python and about her experiences with gender transition in the tech community.

In mid-September of 2013 in a small art gallery in Oakland, something wildly improbable (to say the least) happened. Some 40 people – trans*, gender variant, queer, cisgender – came together for Trans*H4ck, the very first hackathon dedicated to helping the trans* community. Hackathons for various causes are common enough these days, but for many of us Trans*H4ck was truly special – in spite of trans* people being relatively common (if you can use the word “common” for us at all) in the tech community, there had never before been a hackathon devoted to trans* issues. Not one.

[Author's note: trans* is used with the intention of including gender variant and gender queer. I know that's not ideal, but it does make things less cumbersome to type and read.]

A banner with the text "Trans*H4CK Oakland"

TransHack banner

On the evening of September 13, under the leadership and vision of Dr. Kortney Ryan Ziegler (one of the inaugural Trans 100) that changed. The first evening was spent getting acquainted with the some of the issues and with each other. Janet Mock, Sarah Prager (of Quist App), and Micha Cardenas spoke via Google hangouts and Kortney briefly recapped some of the all too depressing statistics relating to being trans* – high rates of unemployment, homelessness, violence, and suicide and low rates of income, access to health care, and basic human rights.

We all introduced ourselves and spoke of our backgrounds, our goals for the hackathon, and, yes, our preferred pronouns. It was clearly the first time some of the cisgender folks had ever been asked that particular question.

By the end of the evening teams had formed and work continued on through the night and into the next day, when things paused at noon for a panel discussing being trans* in tech, featuring Enne Walker, Dana McCallum, Naomi Ceder (me), Jack Aponte, and Nadia Morris and moderated by Fresh! White. The discussion ranged from using open source projects and GitHub to build a professional portfolio to finding a champion at work to how to take care of yourself in the face of the inevitable stress.

After the panel, the hacking resumed and the teams sprinted towards a submission deadline of noon on Sunday, with the demos and judging to follow.

The judging and exhibition took place at the New Parkway, which is a cross between a theater and the coolest family room ever. The judges were Monica “The Transgriot” Roberts, Erin Armstrong, and Benji Delgadillo. Even having seen the projects in development I found the presentations impressive, and ones I’m looking forward to using as they gain traction. The winners were:

In first place, Trans*ResourceUS, an ambitious effort by the largest team. Trans*ResourceUS is a user editable database of services for trans* people – giving location aware listings for health care, mental health, social, restrooms, employment and housing resources. Right now the submitter is the only one allowed to enter ratings on things like accessibility and trans friendliness, but that is slated to change. One very cool thing about this service is that it is also accessible via SMS on a flip phone, so even users with limited resources can take advantage.

The second place winner was Dottify.me, a social micro survey site. Here the idea is that to collect any reliable information on trans* people it needs to be both very easy to interact with and preserve anonymity as much as possible. Dottify.me does this by collecting only a zip code for now and the displaying that zip code as a pin placed at a random spot in the zip code on a map. Future enhancements are planned.

Third place went to the Trans Health Access Wiki, a wiki to collect information on how to take the fullest advantage of the health coverages available and mandated for trans* people, state by state. While it is starting with California, Oregon and Vermont, the creator (a one-woman team at the hackathon) is already working on expanding it.

A couple of the other very cool projects created at Trans*H4ck were Know Your Transgender Rights an interactive map of trans* rights in all 50 states and ClothesR4ck (still in development) a clothing exchange aimed at helping people get quality used clothing to trans* people going through transition who might not be able to afford it.

What Trans*H4ck means to us

The apps and content marshaled during Trans*h4ck were pretty amazing for such a small group of people in just a little more than 36 hours. That all of the efforts were so immediately useful speaks both to the developers’ vision and skills as well as to the lack of digital resources for the the trans* community. Those few teams in those few hours have probably advanced trans* friendly resources by years.

But the outstanding thing about Trans*H4ck to those of us who were there was not the applications, as useful as they are, so much as the community spirit of the weekend. Even though we were from all across the gender spectrum, of different ages and backgrounds, and even (gasp!) preferred different programming languages, there was a true sense of cooperation instead of competition, and an atmosphere of acceptance, support, and affirmation.

For many of us it was a rare respite from feeling different and alone and a special chance to stand together as a community and take action to help our own. For all of us it was a precious moment of unity and, corny as it may sound, joy.

So was Trans*H4ck a success? As one hacker put it, “we did, we can, and we will make history.” Indeed.

A group photo of about 30 people, with the banner "trans* hackers code it better" in front

This is what a community of trans* hackers looks like.

For more information on Trans*H4ck, see the Trans*H4ck home page or look on Twitter or Facebook for the #transh4ck hashtag or contact the author.

Chelsea Manning: on pressing the button

This is a guest post by Abigail Brady. It originally appeared on August 22, 2013 on her blog. Abigail Brady is a software engineer and writer, and has been a Wikipedian since 2003. This piece is under CC-BY-ND.

Private Manning’s announcement today that she is a trans woman came as no surprise to those of us who’d read the chat logs. Admittedly, the name she’s picked: Chelsea, was a bit of a turn-up: in the logs she’d previously identified as Breanna. Anyhow, on seeing this news I did what any self-respecting Wikipedian would do, and had a look to see if anyone had updated the Wikipedia article yet.

This had come up before, but it was thought that the transcripts and a few sources reporting on the implications of them were not enough. Some trans activists had been championing visibility on this issue, but I had felt uncomfortable with both sides. Sure, Manning, by her own words, which I had no reason to doubt, was probably trans. But those chat logs had hardly been released with her full agreement and she hadn’t socially transitioned (that is, actually asked people to start calling her a different name, or use female pronouns). But, also, it was not clear that’d she’d be able to ask that, as her contact with the outside world was very limited. Wikipedia took the side of caution and didn’t mention it except peripherally, and it certainly didn’t move any articles. Meanwhile, I, in conversations, carefully avoided referring to Manning by anything other than surname.

We’d had a similar issue with the article on the Wachowskis – where there had been rumours floating around about Lana for years, but they all traced back to a single, rather salacious, source (we try to be careful about that, in Wikipedia, believe it or not – although what’s worse is when some article is using us as a source without citing us and we get into a horrible citation loop). Eventually Lana did let it be known – the Wachowskis are quite private so what really clenched it was her official listings on a union site and IMDB. Laura Jane Grace, the lead singer of Against Me, was another interesting case because she initially announced that she was going to transition, so we kept referring to her with her old name and gender for a bit.

What do I mean by “transition”, anyway? Well, as I use it here, that’s the process of actually changing your name and asking people to start calling you by it; and also to use new pronouns. People who aren’t trans (“cis people”, if you follow the Latin pun) often seem to obsess about genital surgery, and claim that “she” is really “he” until that happens, but, disregarding the unhealthy fixation on other people’s genitals, this ignores the legal and practical reality of the situation: being socially transitioned for a good length of time is generally a requirement for surgery. You might as well claim that having passed a driving test is a prerequisite for learning to drive.

Manning’s statement was pretty clear that she was transitioning immediately, such as it was possible (and I don’t even really want to think about doing that inside the US military justice system, but that’s another issue). I got agreement from a few other interested parties on the talk page, and moved the page, and started copyediting it. But to what exactly? There are two schools of thought here (well, there are three schools of thought: the third is that transition is sick and wrong and against nature and biologically impossible and so on, and therefore the prose shouldn’t acknowledge it at all other than as a delusion; but I’ll discount that one).

The first is that you should use “old” pronouns and names for pre-transition events, back when Manning was living as male; and the new ones for ongoing statements of fact and events afterwards. The second is that the new pronouns and names be applied for the entire biography. The first is often justified based on an appeal to the unalterability of the past, and the avoidance of awkward wording, but it can lead to plenty of difficulties in phrasing in its own right. How would we phrase “[X] is imprisoned at Quantico, after [X] was convicted for multiple charges of espionage”? One of these things is in the present; the other in the past. We can’t be switching pronouns within a sentence, that’s what I call real nonsense.

Fortunately, the Wikipedia Manual of Style is completely clear on this point, favouring the second:

“Any person whose gender might be questioned should be referred to by the gendered nouns (for example “man/woman”, “waiter/waitress”, “chairman/chairwoman”), pronouns, and possessive adjectives that reflect that person’s latest expressed gender self-identification. This applies in references to any phase of that person’s life. Direct quotations may need to be handled as exceptions. Nevertheless, avoid confusing or seemingly logically impossible text that could result from pronoun usage (for example: instead of He gave birth to his first child, write He became a parent for the first time).” (my emphasis)

It has been like this for a long time, and reflected long-established usage well before that. So, our manual of style backs me, I’ve got the citation I needed, I got consensus on the talk page. I pressed the button and watched.

It was not as uncontroversial as it should have been. There is currently a raging argument on the talk page, in which all sorts of mud has been flung (I’ve been accused of misusing my admin rights, even though any user could do what I did!) A lot of this has been supportive of my decision. But a depressing amount of it full of people repeating the same canards as if they are being original, and I’m not even allowed to block them because technically they haven’t done anything wrong (well, apart from the ones who have tried to move it back in a technically incompetent way.) Instead, we’re supposed to argue individually with each tendentious passer-by, each of them saying things like “ooh, but it’s just a matter of the facts” like we hadn’t considered facts before or something. I kept it up for a while, but it’s draining. Instead, I’ll address them en masse here:

Other sites have in fact changing things throughout the day. It’s not like we were breaking news or anything at any point.

Chelsea Manning’s genitals are none of your business. Or mine.

No, we are not a laughing stock of the world. I have been watching twitter. Twitter thinks what we did was awesome. I’ve been watching “Manning” and “Wikipedia” all afternoon and it’s been well 95% positive.

How is it you are so sure of Chelsea’s chromosomes? Did you have her karyotype done?

Can you not read or something? The Manual of Style clearly is meant for cases like this. No, you can’t point out that it only applies in cases where there is a “question” and then claim there is no question.

Look, you seem to be denying the the validity of transsexuality in general and then using that as a basis for keeping the article at “Bradley” and the pronouns as “he”. I don’t expect to persuade you that you’re wrong, not on a Wikipedia talk page, but can you see that failure to even pay lip service to the idea that the entire medical-scientific-social consensus in the West might be right about trans people is not be an entirely sensible basis for a discussion of policy? What are you going to do next, edit Oscar Wilde so it calls him a sodomite?

Maybe putting these answers here will work. Because nobody seems to be listening on the talk page.
It’s easy to forget, dealing with these sort of nonsense, that Wikipedia’s openness has advantages as well. It’s precisely because anyone can edit that I’m able to do so, and that the article was moved at all. Right now, people are voting about whether it should be moved back. Or rather, they are participating in this bizarre consensus-reaching procedure which is way more than a simple headcount. And ultimately, I probably don’t need to be countering every spurious invocation of the same nonsense on the talk page, because the closing admin (the person who takes it upon themselves to be responsible for looking at what we’ve thrown at the wall and somehow discerning the consensus of the discussion) will look at the facts and the policy and the arguments, weigh them up carefully, and decide that it’s not going anywhere.

Editor’s note: Manning’s announcement that she is a woman was quoted by The Nation, among other sources. The chat logs that Abigail refers to were published by Wired. Other background reading includes Manning’s Wikipedia article and talk page (content warning for cissexism, misgendering, and transphobia, particularly on the talk page). Abigail mentioned Lana Wachowski‘s and Laura Jane Grace‘s Wikipedia articles as well. Since the writing of this post, the Wikipedia discussion has taken a more cissexist turn.

Re-post: A Problem With Equality

During December and January, Geek Feminism is republishing some of our 2012 posts for the benefit of new and existing readers. This post originally appeared on September 5, 2012.

This post is cross-posted to Tim’s blog on dreamwidth.org.

“Most women fight wars on two fronts, one for whatever the putative topic is and one simply for the right to speak, to have ideas, to be acknowledged to be in possession of facts and truths, to have value, to be a human being. ” — Rebecca Solnit, “Men who explain things”

A Problem with Equality

In March 2012, Gerv Markham, who works for the Mozilla Corporation dealing with issues of community and governance, ignited a controversy about what kinds of content Mozilla tolerates on its Web properties. That debate opened the broader question of whether the Mozilla Corporation should have a code of conduct for its employees, as well as whether the Mozilla project as a whole should have a single code of conduct for its employees and volunteers. An internal — but world-readable — discussion on Mozilla’s online discussion group, mozilla.governance, ensued, examining the nature and desirability of community standards for inclusion.

That was about as neutral and objective as I'm going to be in this essay. In what follows, I analyze the controversies of March and April, while sharing a hefty quantity of my own feelings and opinions about them. These opinions are my own and solely my own. While I'm an employee of the Mozilla Corporation, in what follows, I am speaking only for myself. I'm not writing from the perspective of someone who has formal education in political and social analysis; the only authority I claim to have is on my own lived experiences. Thus, I don't have citations at hand for every idea; moreover, much of what I am saying here has been said before, by people who make it their calling to interrogate sexism, homophobia, racism, and other social structures of domination. I'm writing for an audience of people who think critically, reflect openly, and draw their own conclusions.

Disclaimers: please read them.

What happened

In what follows and in the subsidiary links, I'll frequently use the sociological concepts of power and privilege. If you don't feel familiar with notions of power and privilege as they play out in everyday life and interaction between people, or if you don't understand how the same person can have power over others in one situation and be powerless in another, I've written a brief primer about these concepts.

Planet Mozilla ("Planet" from here on) is a blog aggregator that aggregates the blogs of people in the Mozilla community -- both paid Mozilla Corporation employees, and community volunteers -- who choose to maintain blogs and include themselves in the Planet newsfeed. The sidebar states: "The content here is unfiltered and uncensored, and represents the views of individual community members." Glancing at Planet, most content is related to Mozilla projects, but some personal posts from community members, about non-Mozilla-related topics, appear -- some people syndicate their entire blogs to Planet, while others only syndicate posts that have a particular tag (or keep completely separate technical and personal blogs). For example, I syndicate my work-related posts on my Dreamwidth blog to Planet Mozilla Research (not part of the main Planet) by tagging only those posts with the tag "research". My posts about politics or what my cats are doing don't show up.

I look at Planet sometimes, but don't read it every day. Some Mozilla employees, however, are required by their managers to read it regularly, in order to stay abreast of what's going on in the community.

On March 6 while I was getting off Caltrain to go to work and reading email on my phone, I saw an email on the Homozilla (internal Mozilla LGBTQ and ally group) mailing list about the fact that a post from Gerv Markham [Content note for homophobia and advocacy of legislative violence in post and some comments], a Mozilla employee who works remotely from the UK, had written a blog post encouraging people to sign a petition distributed by the Coalition for Marriage, a homophobic hate group, that would endorse the legal codification of marriage in the UK as "the voluntary union for life of one man and one woman to the exclusion of all others". This post appeared on Gerv's personal blog, but as per his settings, all of his personal blog posts were at the time syndicated to Planet. Thus, without him taking explicit action, a post encouraging people to support social inequality and discrimination against a group into which many Mozilla contributors fall appeared on a Mozilla Web property.

I've only been at Mozilla for a year and a half, so I don't have too much context, but people who have been at Mozilla longer have said that the discussions that resulted were the most intense of any of the debates that have occurred about what content is acceptable on Planet. A number of Mozillans, both people who are out as LGBTQ and people who are allies, wrote blog posts or tweeted saying that it was wrong for a Mozilla Web property to be used to spread hate, and that we needed to set a clearer standard for what content is acceptable either on Planet specifically, or on mozilla.com and mozilla.org domains in general. I think most or all of the people in this category would agree with what the person who posted the first Homozilla email said: "Gerv is entirely entitled to have his opinions on gay marriage, but I absolutely do not want to see them in Planet Mozilla, just as I don't expect to see pro gay marriage posts there or posts about the upcoming US election." Another Homozilla member wrote, "Even at work, we're not free from being reminded that some say we're different, not normal, and not worthy of the same rights as everyone else", which is something that I agree with and that I'll attempt to explain and flesh out in much of the remainder of this post.

Posts from Al Billings [Content note for homophobic derailing in some of the comments, but not in the post itself], Graydon Hoare, and Christie Koehler [Content note for derailing in some comments] soon after March 6 describe why many of us found the presence of Gerv's post on Planet objectionable and why some of us feel that it illustrates the need for community conduct standards at Mozilla. I'll avoid repeating what they already said very well. I wrote an initial reaction as well on the 6th.

The same day, the Planet Mozilla Module Team (made up of both Mozilla staff and volunteers) published a response [Content note for derailing in both post and comments] to the concerns raised by people like Al, Graydon, Christie, and myself, as well as to a letter from Homozilla people that was sent privately, and possibly to other private communication. The line of reasoning in this response is an old one: speech like Gerv's must be allowed because of a social-libertarian commitment to freedom of speech, which is assumed to be part of Mozilla's mission. Somehow, this means that Planet Mozilla must be a forum even for content not related to the project, so long as one project member wants to use the megaphone for that purpose.

Through private communication, it became clear to me that the Mozilla HR department and legal team do not see any legal liability on their part to allowing unrestricted (more later about whether it's really unrestricted) free speech on a mozilla.org Web site. As far as I can tell, they do not believe that speech that helps construct the inferiority of a particular social group creates a hostile working environment for employees, because they believe that nobody is required to read Planet as part of their job responsibilities. However, that belief is simply incorrect: some people are required to read it. And they do not appear to believe that such speech damages Mozilla's reputation, because they believe it is clear that Planet, as its disclaimer said, "represents the views of individual community members" and not of the Mozilla Corporation or Foundation as a whole.

User interface design principles suggest that the guiding principle for an interface should not be how its developers prescriptively think its users should understand the interface, but rather, how its users will understand the interface, even if those users' understanding is incorrect or naïve. The idea is that if the user comes to a wrong conclusion from looking at the interface, that's the responsibility of the interface designers -- they should have made the interface less confusing -- rather than the user's fault. That's because computers should be tools for people rather than people serving computers.

Likewise, if people outside Mozilla read Planet and assume that the opinions there are representative of or endorsed by the company or the community, the answer to that is not to say they're wrong, but to either make the user interface of the site clearer (not everyone will read a disclaimer in small text away from the main flow of the page), or simply avoid including content that could go against the company's values or damage its reputation. At least in this sense, the customer is always right.

Separately, I've written about my personal views on the issue of same-sex marriage (the term I prefer is "universal marriage") and why I find opposition to universal marriage to be baffling and incoherent, for those who wish to appreciate what someone who is simultaneously regarded as more than one sex and gender by government agencies might think about restricting marriage by sex or gender. Otherwise, there's so much that's already been said about universal marriage that I don't feel the need to say more. Anyway, this post is about general patterns that occur in discussions about many different forms of social power imbalances, and not primarily about the specifics of homophobia or heterosexism.

The conversations that happened as a result of Gerv's post and of the response from the Planet Mozilla Module Team eventually led Mitchell Baker, the chair of Mozilla, to initiate a
thread
[Content note for more or less every kind of psychologically/emotionally abusive comment directed at minority groups that's possible, not in the original post, but in the replies] on the open mozilla.governance mailing list/newsgroup. In the unstructured discussion that followed, I saw some comments that were far beyond the level of harmfulness and hurtfulness that I would expect from colleagues. I read a number of open Internet fora, and some of these comments were worse than I would routinely expect from those fora.

In the rest of this essay, I won't talk much about Gerv's original post. I don't mean to make him into the bad guy. I am less concerned about individuals and their opinions or decisions than about systems and processes, and I'm going to talk about how underlying, external systems of oppression -- systems that Mozilla did not invent, that predate its existence by centuries -- were nevertheless replicated inside Mozilla during the community discussions that followed. Again, my choice of the word "oppression" is quite deliberate, to emphasize the real, damaging nature of being treated with unequal respect and dignity. Being oppressed as queer people corrodes our self-esteem and limits our life chances. It also stops us from contributing all that we can to whatever endeavors our talents and desires would normally allow for.

Why it matters

First of all, I am writing about the Mozilla community as a member of the community. I am as much a member of the community as anyone else who is involved in Mozilla's projects, and I belong here as much as any other Mozillan does. If you want to ask me why I don't just go somewhere else, the answer is because this is my community too, and I like it here. Out of all of the parts of the world that I could choose to focus on changing, I choose to focus on the community of people who work on software -- and specifically in that part of the community that happens to employ me -- because it is home to me, and I don't have another home. If you're still wondering why I bother or what my stake in it is, here you go.

In the discussions on mozilla.governance and on various blogs, many people claimed (implicitly or explicitly) that there was a tension between protecting free speech and protecting people in minority groups. They claimed that there was a tension between the right of people in minority groups to feel safe and comfortable in a space, and the right of people in majority groups to say what they want.

I challenge the precept that this tension is difficult to resolve. In part, I think the apparent tension arises from the logical fallacy that doing nothing is the neutral choice. Actually, adopting a laissez-faire "free speech" policy in an organization is to take a political position: it means taking the position that existing power dynamics from the larger society will and must recreate themselves in your organization. To do nothing is to let bullies be bullies, because bullies always bully when they get the chance to and when there are no checks and balances against bullying.

So in reality, the choice isn't between taking a laissez-faire, neutral position; and adopting a code of conduct that excludes some form of speech. The central conflict is:

Shall we implicitly exclude people in socially stigmatized minority groups, or shall we explicitly exclude people who cannot or will not behave with respect?

Another way of asking this question is to ask "In a conflict between abusers and people who are being abused, should we side with the abusers or the victims?"

To some people, the language of "oppression", "abuse", and "victims" may seem harsh or strident. To some people, speech that proclaims the inferiority of a particular social group may seem like "only words", words that are only as hurtful as the recipient chooses to let them be. I disagree, and have written a number of subsidiary essays to explain why. Together, they add up to a lot of words, but I hope that after reading them, most people will at least be able to understand why I see the choice between excluding minorities and excluding people who choose not to behave with respect as the central choice here, even if they disagree with my conclusions.

That one form of exclusion (tolerance of disparaging remarks about minorities) is implicit and the other form (formal codes of conduct) is explicit doesn't make the implicit kind of exclusion any less real. You may believe that you, personally, don't exclude anyone, and that you never do anything to exclude people who are socially stigmatized. Even if you don't intend to exclude people, you may still be engaging in behavior that has the effect of excluding people, and you're still responsible for the consequences of your actions even if you don't intend those consequences.

There is no neutral choice. No matter what position the leadership takes, someone will be excluded. If this is unclear, please keep reading. If what I'm writing makes you feel guilty or defensive, please take a moment to step back and think about why.

Roadmap

What I've just written may raise a number of questions for some people. I've tried to anticipate, and answer, some of those those questions.

  • "Why are you talking about power so much? I don't have power over you." Power and privilege operate in ways that often make people who have power unaware that they have it.
  • "How can I be engaging in behavior that oppresses or excludes? I would never intend to do that, after all; have you ever seen me treating an LGBT person badly?" Understanding how systematic patterns of behavior act themselves out through individuals may help answer that.
  • "Don't you think it's rather harsh, describing your pain as 'oppression'? Isn't that a word that refers to things happening in a far-off country or in the distant past?" Here's what "oppression" means to me, and why I don't see any satisfactory synonyms for it.
  • "Is it really that bad, what happened? Can't you just ignore it and not let it have power over you? After all, no one meant harm, and anyway, if you're so angry, how do you expect anyone to listen to what you're saying?" These questions are a form of emotional invalidation, an insidious set of learned social behaviors that have the effect of making people in oppressed groups question their own understanding of reality in order to silence discussion of abuse.
  • "No, really, is it that bad?" Well, yes, it is; for me, being told I'm inferior is painful, and I've tried to explain what that's like.
  • "So what should we do about it?" I don't have a single answer, but here are some possible solutions.
  • "What does all of this have to do with Mozilla's mission? And why are you being so critical?" My conclusions might answer that.

Everything I've written in the linked-to posts is an attempt to clarify some aspect of the single question above, about explicit versus implicit exclusion.

Summing up

It may appear that we're stuck excluding some people one way or the other, and if exclusion is always bad -- if the badness of intolerance means we must also tolerate intolerance itself -- isn't there no way out?

I reject that premise. To exclude people based on who they are -- based on qualities that either cannot be changed or that there is no good reason for them to change, such as gender, sexuality, race, ability, age, shape, and so on -- is to exclude needlessly, to harm the community by excluding people who would otherwise contribute to it. To exclude people based on what they do -- engaging in anti-social behavior -- is fair. It says that anyone can be part of this community as long as they're willing to observe community standards; to do what's best for the community; to play fair. If my employment agreement says that I must protect confidential information and trade secrets, and that I will use company resources wisely, I don't see that as an unfair limitation on my rights. I see it as something I'm being asked to do to maintain a healthy community. I think the same should go for a request to behave in a way that's inclusive and welcoming. Expressing speech at work that is racist, sexist, homophobic, ableist, or that otherwise maligns an entire group of people based on identity rather than based on behavior hurts the company and project as a whole, by making it harder for some people to contribute. (If you see being queer as a matter of behavior that any individual can give up without fundamentally compromising who they are, and are not willing to trust the lived experience of many queer people when they say it's no more possible for them to become heterosexual than to become a redwood tree, I suppose I have nothing more to say to you.)

I'm disappointed that some Mozillans objected to other people's objections to being demeaned in the workplace. I understood their arguments as essentially saying they felt that being asked not to be an asshole was a violation of their rights. I'm disappointed that some of my colleagues would respond to a request to stop hurting people by asserting that they have the right to hurt people.

I'm also disappointed that Mozilla leaders entertained the "free speech" argument. The majority must not determine minority rights -- that never ends well for minorities, and in fact, it doesn't end well for the entire group, because the community needs minority members' contributions. That's why it's so important for leaders to take a stance in favor of inclusion. I didn't see the leaders do that -- instead, I saw them fumble about whether it was more important to them to include everyone who's capable of contributing to the project respectfully, or to protect the freedoms of the minority that claims it's their right to abuse others. Mozilla can retain its commitment to the free exchange of ideas while also declining to be a forum for ideas that attack people in vulnerable groups. This decision would violate no one's freedom of speech, as everyone is free to say anything that's legal in their home country when they are not at work or using their employer's computing and networking resources. The fundamental flaw in the "free speech" argument is the supposition that freedom of speech means freedom from having to face the consequences of one's speech. It does not.

Leaders have to make a choice about who to exclude. Including everyone is not an option: every community excludes people who harm the community and do not respond to requests to stop doing so. The question, then, is who in the community merits protection from harm. I think the answer to that question should be "everyone", not just the people who conform most closely to social norms about gender and sexuality.

We can exclude people based on who they are, or we can exclude people based on what they do. I prefer a community built on norms for healthy behavior, one that has a mechanism -- to be used as a last resort -- for excluding people who repeatedly violate those norms. I think such a a community is better and safer for me to work productively in than one that is built on a hierarchy in which a smaller sub-group rules, and excludes others capriciously, for no reason other than being different. If your response is that a community like Mozilla doesn't need the contributions of people in minority groups, I guess there's no way I can persuade you otherwise, but I would wonder why you think we can afford to turn people away for reasons unrelated to their technical and collaborative ability. I think that protecting the open Web is a job that requires the help of everyone who's willing to commit to it.

I think we can do better, and moving forward, I hope that we do better. I hope that the community participation guidelines serve to make Mozilla a more inclusive community and that in the future, dialogue will be less about people defending their privileges and more about people listening to the experiences of those who are unlike themselves. Ultimately, even though I know some of the intellectual reasons why, I still don't get why we can't build great open-source software and protect the Web while also setting standards for ourselves about how we treat each other while we're doing it.


Acknowledgments

I thank Gwen Cadogàn, Ellie Collier, Jessamyn Fairfield, Graydon Hoare, Carolyn Hogg, Christie Koehler, Lindsey Kuper, Sheree Schrager and Alley Stoughton for reading drafts of this essay and providing useful feedback. Several other people also gave valuable feedback who did not grant permission for me to thank them by name; my gratitude to them is no less. I also thank Juli Mallett for originally drawing my attention to "Letter from a Birmingham Jail". Inclusion on this list does not necessarily imply agreement with or endorsement of any point of view in this set of essays. All of the opinions contained in it are solely my own.

A Problem With Equality

This post is cross-posted to Tim’s blog on dreamwidth.org.

“Most women fight wars on two fronts, one for whatever the putative topic is and one simply for the right to speak, to have ideas, to be acknowledged to be in possession of facts and truths, to have value, to be a human being. ” — Rebecca Solnit, “Men who explain things”

A Problem with Equality

In March 2012, Gerv Markham, who works for the Mozilla Corporation dealing with issues of community and governance, ignited a controversy about what kinds of content Mozilla tolerates on its Web properties. That debate opened the broader question of whether the Mozilla Corporation should have a code of conduct for its employees, as well as whether the Mozilla project as a whole should have a single code of conduct for its employees and volunteers. An internal — but world-readable — discussion on Mozilla’s online discussion group, mozilla.governance, ensued, examining the nature and desirability of community standards for inclusion.

That was about as neutral and objective as I'm going to be in this essay. In what follows, I analyze the controversies of March and April, while sharing a hefty quantity of my own feelings and opinions about them. These opinions are my own and solely my own. While I'm an employee of the Mozilla Corporation, in what follows, I am speaking only for myself. I'm not writing from the perspective of someone who has formal education in political and social analysis; the only authority I claim to have is on my own lived experiences. Thus, I don't have citations at hand for every idea; moreover, much of what I am saying here has been said before, by people who make it their calling to interrogate sexism, homophobia, racism, and other social structures of domination. I'm writing for an audience of people who think critically, reflect openly, and draw their own conclusions.

Disclaimers: please read them.

What happened

In what follows and in the subsidiary links, I'll frequently use the sociological concepts of power and privilege. If you don't feel familiar with notions of power and privilege as they play out in everyday life and interaction between people, or if you don't understand how the same person can have power over others in one situation and be powerless in another, I've written a brief primer about these concepts.

Planet Mozilla ("Planet" from here on) is a blog aggregator that aggregates the blogs of people in the Mozilla community -- both paid Mozilla Corporation employees, and community volunteers -- who choose to maintain blogs and include themselves in the Planet newsfeed. The sidebar states: "The content here is unfiltered and uncensored, and represents the views of individual community members." Glancing at Planet, most content is related to Mozilla projects, but some personal posts from community members, about non-Mozilla-related topics, appear -- some people syndicate their entire blogs to Planet, while others only syndicate posts that have a particular tag (or keep completely separate technical and personal blogs). For example, I syndicate my work-related posts on my Dreamwidth blog to Planet Mozilla Research (not part of the main Planet) by tagging only those posts with the tag "research". My posts about politics or what my cats are doing don't show up.

I look at Planet sometimes, but don't read it every day. Some Mozilla employees, however, are required by their managers to read it regularly, in order to stay abreast of what's going on in the community.

On March 6 while I was getting off Caltrain to go to work and reading email on my phone, I saw an email on the Homozilla (internal Mozilla LGBTQ and ally group) mailing list about the fact that a post from Gerv Markham [Content note for homophobia and advocacy of legislative violence in post and some comments], a Mozilla employee who works remotely from the UK, had written a blog post encouraging people to sign a petition distributed by the Coalition for Marriage, a homophobic hate group, that would endorse the legal codification of marriage in the UK as "the voluntary union for life of one man and one woman to the exclusion of all others". This post appeared on Gerv's personal blog, but as per his settings, all of his personal blog posts were at the time syndicated to Planet. Thus, without him taking explicit action, a post encouraging people to support social inequality and discrimination against a group into which many Mozilla contributors fall appeared on a Mozilla Web property.

I've only been at Mozilla for a year and a half, so I don't have too much context, but people who have been at Mozilla longer have said that the discussions that resulted were the most intense of any of the debates that have occurred about what content is acceptable on Planet. A number of Mozillans, both people who are out as LGBTQ and people who are allies, wrote blog posts or tweeted saying that it was wrong for a Mozilla Web property to be used to spread hate, and that we needed to set a clearer standard for what content is acceptable either on Planet specifically, or on mozilla.com and mozilla.org domains in general. I think most or all of the people in this category would agree with what the person who posted the first Homozilla email said: "Gerv is entirely entitled to have his opinions on gay marriage, but I absolutely do not want to see them in Planet Mozilla, just as I don't expect to see pro gay marriage posts there or posts about the upcoming US election." Another Homozilla member wrote, "Even at work, we're not free from being reminded that some say we're different, not normal, and not worthy of the same rights as everyone else", which is something that I agree with and that I'll attempt to explain and flesh out in much of the remainder of this post.

Posts from Al Billings [Content note for homophobic derailing in some of the comments, but not in the post itself], Graydon Hoare, and Christie Koehler [Content note for derailing in some comments] soon after March 6 describe why many of us found the presence of Gerv's post on Planet objectionable and why some of us feel that it illustrates the need for community conduct standards at Mozilla. I'll avoid repeating what they already said very well. I wrote an initial reaction as well on the 6th.

The same day, the Planet Mozilla Module Team (made up of both Mozilla staff and volunteers) published a response [Content note for derailing in both post and comments] to the concerns raised by people like Al, Graydon, Christie, and myself, as well as to a letter from Homozilla people that was sent privately, and possibly to other private communication. The line of reasoning in this response is an old one: speech like Gerv's must be allowed because of a social-libertarian commitment to freedom of speech, which is assumed to be part of Mozilla's mission. Somehow, this means that Planet Mozilla must be a forum even for content not related to the project, so long as one project member wants to use the megaphone for that purpose.

Through private communication, it became clear to me that the Mozilla HR department and legal team do not see any legal liability on their part to allowing unrestricted (more later about whether it's really unrestricted) free speech on a mozilla.org Web site. As far as I can tell, they do not believe that speech that helps construct the inferiority of a particular social group creates a hostile working environment for employees, because they believe that nobody is required to read Planet as part of their job responsibilities. However, that belief is simply incorrect: some people are required to read it. And they do not appear to believe that such speech damages Mozilla's reputation, because they believe it is clear that Planet, as its disclaimer said, "represents the views of individual community members" and not of the Mozilla Corporation or Foundation as a whole.

User interface design principles suggest that the guiding principle for an interface should not be how its developers prescriptively think its users should understand the interface, but rather, how its users will understand the interface, even if those users' understanding is incorrect or naïve. The idea is that if the user comes to a wrong conclusion from looking at the interface, that's the responsibility of the interface designers -- they should have made the interface less confusing -- rather than the user's fault. That's because computers should be tools for people rather than people serving computers.

Likewise, if people outside Mozilla read Planet and assume that the opinions there are representative of or endorsed by the company or the community, the answer to that is not to say they're wrong, but to either make the user interface of the site clearer (not everyone will read a disclaimer in small text away from the main flow of the page), or simply avoid including content that could go against the company's values or damage its reputation. At least in this sense, the customer is always right.

Separately, I've written about my personal views on the issue of same-sex marriage (the term I prefer is "universal marriage") and why I find opposition to universal marriage to be baffling and incoherent, for those who wish to appreciate what someone who is simultaneously regarded as more than one sex and gender by government agencies might think about restricting marriage by sex or gender. Otherwise, there's so much that's already been said about universal marriage that I don't feel the need to say more. Anyway, this post is about general patterns that occur in discussions about many different forms of social power imbalances, and not primarily about the specifics of homophobia or heterosexism.

The conversations that happened as a result of Gerv's post and of the response from the Planet Mozilla Module Team eventually led Mitchell Baker, the chair of Mozilla, to initiate a
thread
[Content note for more or less every kind of psychologically/emotionally abusive comment directed at minority groups that's possible, not in the original post, but in the replies] on the open mozilla.governance mailing list/newsgroup. In the unstructured discussion that followed, I saw some comments that were far beyond the level of harmfulness and hurtfulness that I would expect from colleagues. I read a number of open Internet fora, and some of these comments were worse than I would routinely expect from those fora.

In the rest of this essay, I won't talk much about Gerv's original post. I don't mean to make him into the bad guy. I am less concerned about individuals and their opinions or decisions than about systems and processes, and I'm going to talk about how underlying, external systems of oppression -- systems that Mozilla did not invent, that predate its existence by centuries -- were nevertheless replicated inside Mozilla during the community discussions that followed. Again, my choice of the word "oppression" is quite deliberate, to emphasize the real, damaging nature of being treated with unequal respect and dignity. Being oppressed as queer people corrodes our self-esteem and limits our life chances. It also stops us from contributing all that we can to whatever endeavors our talents and desires would normally allow for.

Why it matters

First of all, I am writing about the Mozilla community as a member of the community. I am as much a member of the community as anyone else who is involved in Mozilla's projects, and I belong here as much as any other Mozillan does. If you want to ask me why I don't just go somewhere else, the answer is because this is my community too, and I like it here. Out of all of the parts of the world that I could choose to focus on changing, I choose to focus on the community of people who work on software -- and specifically in that part of the community that happens to employ me -- because it is home to me, and I don't have another home. If you're still wondering why I bother or what my stake in it is, here you go.

In the discussions on mozilla.governance and on various blogs, many people claimed (implicitly or explicitly) that there was a tension between protecting free speech and protecting people in minority groups. They claimed that there was a tension between the right of people in minority groups to feel safe and comfortable in a space, and the right of people in majority groups to say what they want.

I challenge the precept that this tension is difficult to resolve. In part, I think the apparent tension arises from the logical fallacy that doing nothing is the neutral choice. Actually, adopting a laissez-faire "free speech" policy in an organization is to take a political position: it means taking the position that existing power dynamics from the larger society will and must recreate themselves in your organization. To do nothing is to let bullies be bullies, because bullies always bully when they get the chance to and when there are no checks and balances against bullying.

So in reality, the choice isn't between taking a laissez-faire, neutral position; and adopting a code of conduct that excludes some form of speech. The central conflict is:

Shall we implicitly exclude people in socially stigmatized minority groups, or shall we explicitly exclude people who cannot or will not behave with respect?

Another way of asking this question is to ask "In a conflict between abusers and people who are being abused, should we side with the abusers or the victims?"

To some people, the language of "oppression", "abuse", and "victims" may seem harsh or strident. To some people, speech that proclaims the inferiority of a particular social group may seem like "only words", words that are only as hurtful as the recipient chooses to let them be. I disagree, and have written a number of subsidiary essays to explain why. Together, they add up to a lot of words, but I hope that after reading them, most people will at least be able to understand why I see the choice between excluding minorities and excluding people who choose not to behave with respect as the central choice here, even if they disagree with my conclusions.

That one form of exclusion (tolerance of disparaging remarks about minorities) is implicit and the other form (formal codes of conduct) is explicit doesn't make the implicit kind of exclusion any less real. You may believe that you, personally, don't exclude anyone, and that you never do anything to exclude people who are socially stigmatized. Even if you don't intend to exclude people, you may still be engaging in behavior that has the effect of excluding people, and you're still responsible for the consequences of your actions even if you don't intend those consequences.

There is no neutral choice. No matter what position the leadership takes, someone will be excluded. If this is unclear, please keep reading. If what I'm writing makes you feel guilty or defensive, please take a moment to step back and think about why.

Roadmap

What I've just written may raise a number of questions for some people. I've tried to anticipate, and answer, some of those those questions.

  • "Why are you talking about power so much? I don't have power over you." Power and privilege operate in ways that often make people who have power unaware that they have it.
  • "How can I be engaging in behavior that oppresses or excludes? I would never intend to do that, after all; have you ever seen me treating an LGBT person badly?" Understanding how systematic patterns of behavior act themselves out through individuals may help answer that.
  • "Don't you think it's rather harsh, describing your pain as 'oppression'? Isn't that a word that refers to things happening in a far-off country or in the distant past?" Here's what "oppression" means to me, and why I don't see any satisfactory synonyms for it.
  • "Is it really that bad, what happened? Can't you just ignore it and not let it have power over you? After all, no one meant harm, and anyway, if you're so angry, how do you expect anyone to listen to what you're saying?" These questions are a form of emotional invalidation, an insidious set of learned social behaviors that have the effect of making people in oppressed groups question their own understanding of reality in order to silence discussion of abuse.
  • "No, really, is it that bad?" Well, yes, it is; for me, being told I'm inferior is painful, and I've tried to explain what that's like.
  • "So what should we do about it?" I don't have a single answer, but here are some possible solutions.
  • "What does all of this have to do with Mozilla's mission? And why are you being so critical?" My conclusions might answer that.

Everything I've written in the linked-to posts is an attempt to clarify some aspect of the single question above, about explicit versus implicit exclusion.

Summing up

It may appear that we're stuck excluding some people one way or the other, and if exclusion is always bad -- if the badness of intolerance means we must also tolerate intolerance itself -- isn't there no way out?

I reject that premise. To exclude people based on who they are -- based on qualities that either cannot be changed or that there is no good reason for them to change, such as gender, sexuality, race, ability, age, shape, and so on -- is to exclude needlessly, to harm the community by excluding people who would otherwise contribute to it. To exclude people based on what they do -- engaging in anti-social behavior -- is fair. It says that anyone can be part of this community as long as they're willing to observe community standards; to do what's best for the community; to play fair. If my employment agreement says that I must protect confidential information and trade secrets, and that I will use company resources wisely, I don't see that as an unfair limitation on my rights. I see it as something I'm being asked to do to maintain a healthy community. I think the same should go for a request to behave in a way that's inclusive and welcoming. Expressing speech at work that is racist, sexist, homophobic, ableist, or that otherwise maligns an entire group of people based on identity rather than based on behavior hurts the company and project as a whole, by making it harder for some people to contribute. (If you see being queer as a matter of behavior that any individual can give up without fundamentally compromising who they are, and are not willing to trust the lived experience of many queer people when they say it's no more possible for them to become heterosexual than to become a redwood tree, I suppose I have nothing more to say to you.)

I'm disappointed that some Mozillans objected to other people's objections to being demeaned in the workplace. I understood their arguments as essentially saying they felt that being asked not to be an asshole was a violation of their rights. I'm disappointed that some of my colleagues would respond to a request to stop hurting people by asserting that they have the right to hurt people.

I'm also disappointed that Mozilla leaders entertained the "free speech" argument. The majority must not determine minority rights -- that never ends well for minorities, and in fact, it doesn't end well for the entire group, because the community needs minority members' contributions. That's why it's so important for leaders to take a stance in favor of inclusion. I didn't see the leaders do that -- instead, I saw them fumble about whether it was more important to them to include everyone who's capable of contributing to the project respectfully, or to protect the freedoms of the minority that claims it's their right to abuse others. Mozilla can retain its commitment to the free exchange of ideas while also declining to be a forum for ideas that attack people in vulnerable groups. This decision would violate no one's freedom of speech, as everyone is free to say anything that's legal in their home country when they are not at work or using their employer's computing and networking resources. The fundamental flaw in the "free speech" argument is the supposition that freedom of speech means freedom from having to face the consequences of one's speech. It does not.

Leaders have to make a choice about who to exclude. Including everyone is not an option: every community excludes people who harm the community and do not respond to requests to stop doing so. The question, then, is who in the community merits protection from harm. I think the answer to that question should be "everyone", not just the people who conform most closely to social norms about gender and sexuality.

We can exclude people based on who they are, or we can exclude people based on what they do. I prefer a community built on norms for healthy behavior, one that has a mechanism -- to be used as a last resort -- for excluding people who repeatedly violate those norms. I think such a community is better and safer for me to work productively in than one that is built on a hierarchy in which a smaller sub-group rules, and excludes others capriciously, for no reason other than being different. If your response is that a community like Mozilla doesn't need the contributions of people in minority groups, I guess there's no way I can persuade you otherwise, but I would wonder why you think we can afford to turn people away for reasons unrelated to their technical and collaborative ability. I think that protecting the open Web is a job that requires the help of everyone who's willing to commit to it.

I think we can do better, and moving forward, I hope that we do better. I hope that the community participation guidelines serve to make Mozilla a more inclusive community and that in the future, dialogue will be less about people defending their privileges and more about people listening to the experiences of those who are unlike themselves. Ultimately, even though I know some of the intellectual reasons why, I still don't get why we can't build great open-source software and protect the Web while also setting standards for ourselves about how we treat each other while we're doing it.


Acknowledgments

I thank Gwen Cadogàn, Ellie Collier, Jessamyn Fairfield, Graydon Hoare, Carolyn Hogg, Christie Koehler, Lindsey Kuper, Sheree Schrager and Alley Stoughton for reading drafts of this essay and providing useful feedback. Several other people also gave valuable feedback who did not grant permission for me to thank them by name; my gratitude to them is no less. I also thank Juli Mallett for originally drawing my attention to "Letter from a Birmingham Jail". Inclusion on this list does not necessarily imply agreement with or endorsement of any point of view in this set of essays. All of the opinions contained in it are solely my own.