Emotional invalidation

"Debate is useless when one participant denies the full dignity of the other." -- Eric Berndt, "Debriefing Scalia"
One time, at a job I had in the past, my colleagues and I were chatting at lunch, and I had occasion to point out that not everybody who's married is monogamous. At the time, I was married and in a poly relationship with my spouse, but I didn't mention that, I just made the general point. My colleague said, authoritatively, "well, that wouldn't be a marriage, then." I could have said in response "You've just told me that my spouse and I aren't really married," but I chose not to, as I felt it would be easier to be silent. If I know that, if I speak up, someone with social power -- the power to be taken seriously -- will say that how I structure my own life is false, that effectively stops me from speaking up. I am not superhuman and don't always have the energy to fight just to prove my own legitimacy every time I talk about my life. And that means that unlike my colleagues at this job, who were free to talk at length about their wives (since I'm talking about men with cis and heterosexual privilege here) and children, I didn't have as much ability to bond socially with my colleagues. In general, where that inequality exists, it has a chilling effect on my professional relationships. While I would find such a comment to be wounding in a purely social situation, when it happens at work, it also means I'm simply not as equal as everyone else in how I can develop my career. Plus, my employer suffers, because experiencing othering and marginalization renders me less able to feel part of a team and thus less able to collaborate and contribute effectively. There's a reason why business people talk about "corporate culture" and "fit": people work together more smoothly when they're homogeneous. Heterogeneity doesn't have to be a bad thing, or at least I hope not, but things don't go smoothly when being different means being devalued.

In describing the patterns of invalidation I've observed, I'll sometimes use the generic terms "in-group" and "out-group" to describe a group that has social power and whose statements are generally believed (the in-group) and a group that experiences social marginalization and that's distrusted and has to work hard to have its experience believed or acknowledged (the out-group). I use these terms to emphasize that although I saw all of these patterns at work in the Mozilla discussions about homophobia and community standards, they really have very little to do with homophobia as such, and much to do with the dynamics between oppressor classes and oppressed classes.

False equivalences

A false equivalence is a logical fallacy that presents two different things as being equal or comparable in their effects, just because they appear superficially similar. An example that occurred repeatedly in the governance discussions was:

"Alice": "I feel hurt and angry about what you said or did."
"Bob": "Well, I feel just as hurt and angry that you feel hurt and angry as you feel about what I did."

Alice is hurt and angry because Bob did something that hurt her, even though he didn't intend to do it (the fact that she wasn't important enough to him for him to bother to take steps to avoid hurting her doesn't excuse his behavior; as I'll discuss later, intent is not an excuse). Bob feels uncomfortable because Alice pointed out that he was being hurtful; in general, people want to think of themselves as good and feel resentful or uncomfortable when others point out that they did something that violates that image, especially when those others are people they see as social inferiors. It would be a false equivalence to say that Alice has done just as much harm in this situation. Bob is the aggressor, while Alice has merely said she doesn't like being aggressed against.

In her essay "Teleology on the Rocks", Patricia Williams used two examples of privileged people responding to challenges to their domination of another group and grouped both together under the umbrella of the "need to avenge" challenges of one's domination:

The need to avenge becomes a separate issue of protocol, of etiquette---not a loss of a piece of the self, which is the real cost of real tragedies, but a loss of self-regard. By "self-regard" I don't mean self-concept, as in self-esteem; I mean, again, that view of the self which is attained when the self steps outside to regard and evaluate the self; in which the self is watched by an imaginary other, a projection of the opinions of real others; in which "I" means "your master," not your servant; in which refusal of the designated other to be dominated is felt as a personal assault. Thus the failure to avenge is treated as a loss of self-regard; it is used as a psychological metaphor for whatever trauma or original assault constituted the real loss to the self. It is more abstract, more illusory, more constructed, more invented---and therefore potentially less powerful than real assault, in that it can with effort be unlearned as a source of vulnerability.
(Emphasis added.)

Williams characterizes the false equivalence as an equivalence between loss of self, and loss of self-regard. If you accept this false equivalence, then to confess one's hurt is, according to Bob (who speaks for the in-group, regardless of whether he's actually part of it) to be just as bad as the bully or abuser. The last thing that someone who knows how it feels to be bullied, and who has reflected on it, would want to do is to turn around and do the same thing to somebody else. Just to introduce the shadow of a doubt about whether Alice is right to be presenting her grievance in search of redress for it is to invoke an entire library of cultural programming that devalues emotional responses and praises people who seem to "grow a thick skin". (In reality, people like Bob often have a thin skin; it's just that hardly anyone tries to pierce it.)

I noted above that I'm talking about people who have both experienced bullying and reflected on it because there seem to be two general patterns for how people react to bullying and abuse. One pattern is to be angry and upset about it, and avoid becoming a bully oneself because one has thought about it in depth. The other pattern is to become a bully oneself as soon as one attains the social power necessary to do so. The archetypical nerd story is that of the kid who was unpopular in school and bad at sports, and bullied for it. When I read online fora like Reddit and Hacker News, I can infer that many of those kids have grown up into a world where adult men who do software engineering have a great deal of power and status, and use that power and status to bully and exclude. It seems that some people experience abuse as a result of being at the bottom of a social hierarchy and want to tear down that hierarchy, whereas others see the hierarchy and think the only problem is that they aren't on top. Some people sympathize with their abusers, and some resist. (In reality, it's not a simple dichotomy like that; what I think is more common is to resist consciously, but internalize abusive thinking unconsciously and potentially use it against others later even when one believes one is anti-oppression.) My main point is that having experienced bullying as a child is not an excuse for being a bully as an adult. Some people who've experienced abuse end up abusing because they've internalized the idea that they deserved the abuse, which means others might deserve it too. Others do it because they just couldn't wait for the opportunity to do what the bully or abuser was doing to them. In any case, the argument that geeks, nerds or hackers can't be abusers because they were once victimized for being smart kids doesn't fly with me.

Tone arguments and the accusation of oversensitivity

It is as though passionate protest were a separate crime, a rudeness of such dimension as to defeat altogether any legitimacy of content. -- Patricia Williams, "Fire and Ice"

Whenever I talk about violence that I've experienced from people who were defending their privilege, someone commands me to "grow a thick skin", to "not be so oversensitive", or to "not look for reasons to get offended". To be charitable, such an imperative assumes a higher degree of emotional regulation than almost any human being has. To be less charitable, all three forms of the command carry no semantic content other than an assertion of the speaker's domination over the listener.

Such power, of course, is usually not reified by the threat of physical violence, but rather of social rejection, in any of its forms from ignoring to banishment. The threat of social rejection is the kind of coercion that's behind almost all of the oppression I talk about in this essay.

The people who say these sorts of things might have the power to decide whether you get a job, whether you can stay in school, or whether you have civil rights. They might be the people who make the difference for you between living in a neighborhood where you and your neighbors smile and say hi to each other, or where every glance tells you that your presence is unwanted. The idea of "too sensitive" implies that it is possible to be too sensitive, and that someone else, who isn't you, gets to decide where that line is and when you're crossing it. The threat of being shamed as "too sensitive" is the threat that if you cross that line, you won't be welcome and your voice won't be heard. This threat serves as a reminder that the out-group person doesn't have the privilege of setting their own emotional boundaries without having those boundaries constantly undermined. In the limit, "Don't be so oversensitive" is a threat: a threat that if you tell the truth about your life, you will be shunned in your community, which many people find scarier than a physical threat. For one thing, there are no laws, no enforcers who are even nominally supposed to protect you from being shunned.

Even if it were possible, I simply wouldn't want to make myself so cold and ice-like as I would have to be if I were to become so "thick-skinned" that comments that have the effect of cutting me down, or cutting down my friends, wouldn't affect me. To be open to love and trust, I also have to be open to hate and betrayal. I'm sensitive; I'd if anything prefer to be more sensitive. My sensitivity is for my benefit; it's not an invitation to hurt me.

It's closely related, then, when in-group members express offense or outrage at the mere fact of an out-group member calling something "hateful", or saying that they feel like they've been treated as if they are fundamentally inferior to somebody else. Likewise, in-group members sometimes become outraged or offended that out-group members are describing their oppressive behavior as "oppression", rather than declining to call attention to it and treating it as normal and expected. As I said before, this offense or outrage reflects a false equivalence between being harmed, and being told that you're doing something harmful. I don't doubt that in-group people can feel genuine discomfort, pain or shock when it is pointed out that something they may not have known was hurtful is, indeed, hurtful. But with power comes responsibility. One of those responsibilities is to constantly question whether your hurt arises from having been attacked in a vulnerable place, or whether it arises from internal conflict. That is, the conflict between doing as you've been taught, and the little voice inside you that says that maybe, just maybe, that's wrong, and your critic is right. Many white people cherish their ability to tell racist jokes, and many men cherish their ability to repeat sexist jokes, and that's because they've been taught to do it and rewarded for doing it. As a white person, as a highly formally-educated person, as a person who's never experienced homelessness or hunger, as a person who's (for the time being) not visibly disabled (and I could go on), I have failed at that many times, and probably will fail again. The problem isn't when one person fails, anyway. The problem is when the community rewards oppressive behavior and punishes behavior that attempts to expose patterns of exclusion and make space for previously unheard voices.

Accusations of oversensitivity -- coercive attempts to set another person's boundaries for them -- are closely related to tone arguments. A tone argument is a silencing tactic in which an in-group member will deflect attention from an out-group member's attempt to seek redress of grievances by criticizing the tone that the out-group member has used in doing so. It is a logically empty "argument", since it is essentially about the in-group member asserting dominance by determining the acceptable level of anger that the out-group member is allowed to express, and claiming that the out-group member has exceeded this level. The out-group member can never win a tone argument, since it's characterized by the in-group member moving the goalposts: setting an impossible standard, as well as a hypocritical one (in-group members are never held to such an exacting standard of politeness and deference) for the out-group member to meet before they are allowed to have their voice heard.

In the context of, for example, a discussion about universal marriage, tone arguments impose a double standard: it's acceptable for people who hate and fear queer people to spend money -- and abuse the power of the majority and of fear, hate and propaganda -- to make queer people's lives harder. That is polite, civil, courteous, and not at all hostile or aggressive. What is not acceptable is to use a four-letter word when expressing one's feelings about having your life made harder and being powerless to change that. It draws a false equivalence between structural, legislative violence against a class of people; and individuals' unorganized anger about that violence, an anger that is backed up by no institutional power. Of course it's easy to use kind and courteous language to justify the unjustifiable -- when you aren't constantly under attack. Oppression and offense are not the same.

Tone arguments are habitually used by people who know they have said or done something indefensible. They are the last recourse when a person cannot defend their views or actions with logic and reason. Criticizing etiquette plays into our ingrained fear of offending an authority figure, and creates a diversion from the examination of the truth of the original argument.

The point is that when someone tells you that you're hurting your cause by being so angry, or that if you were just nicer and more polite, people would listen to you, or delivers a lecture on how you ought to be more civil and courteous when you're explaining to them how they hurt you; and it happens that you are an out-group member in relation to an in-group that person is in, that is part of a pattern. I find it useful to know when another person is making a tone argument against me, because I know they're no longer engaging with me, so I need not engage with them. When delivered across a power disparity, a tone argument is always logically fallacious because it sets up an impossible standard: the "correct" tone is defined as whatever the interlocutor isn't using. At different times, you can be accused of being too angry, too vague, too inspecific (what are the Occupy movement's demands?), too accusatory towards individuals, too much like a "conspiracy theory" (that one gets used against any attempt to analyze social structures rigorously), too abstract, too elitist, too radical, too intersectional. The in-group member can't tell you what the right way to criticize authority or to tell them that you've been hurt is; all they know is that you're doing it wrong. And so on, until the goalposts are all the way in the parking lot.

Double standards

"I am all for humor and compassion, but I reject the notion that, as a woman and a black person, I need be extra compassionate and jovial in a society that often affords people like me neither of those things. I reject the notion that we ought to spare more empathy for the homophobe than the gay men and women her bias hurts." -- Tami, 'Marginalized folks shouldn't always have to be "the bigger persons"'

"Why can't you just accept that other people's experiences, needs and barriers are different than your own? Why can't you just accept a level of humility in addressing these issues, remember that there's almost certainly something you don't understand going on?

Why can't you just listen and learn?" -- Natalie Reed

Over and over again, comments in the governance discussions implicitly established a double standard for how queer and hetero people should expect to be treated. We were scolded for asking so much, as if the baseline level of expectations should be that we aren't actively getting violently assaulted, killed, or regularly called "faggot" or "dyke" by people who aren't faggots or dykes. What was never interrogated is what heterosexual people expect: reasonably enough, they expect that people will have a baseline level of regard for their feelings and treat them as reliable narrators of their own emotional lives, without imposing arbitrary standards (based in nothing but emotional blackmail) for how sensitive you're allowed to be.

One comment suggested that no code of conduct was necessary except a kindergarten-ish exhortation to be "kind", "nice" and "gentle" to each other. The problem is that all of these words have multiple meanings: the fewer intersectional oppressions somebody experiences, the more benefit of the doubt they receive as to whether they're really being kind, nice, or gentle. The more comfortable a social status they occupy, the more latitude they're given to excuse their bad behavior by saying that their intent was good. As I'll explain in more detail later, saying that intent matters really means that intent matters for people at your own comfortable social standing -- in the governance discussions, queer people were rarely if ever given the benefit of the doubt that our intent was to preserve space for ourselves, communicate our pain, and take steps to make the project better by making it a space where more people in minority groups feel comfortable working and contributing. When we were angry, we were assumed to be irrational, mentally ill (and attaching stigma to mental illness is a problem in and of itself), and/or hell-bent on forcibly exercising our power (what power?) as the politically correct thought police to make everybody think the same way. When heterosexual people were angry at us for challenging their so-far-unquestioned privilege to show as much disrespect for us as they wanted to, their intent was anything... except to dominate and subordinate queer people, of course.

That's why "be kind, nice and gentle" isn't good enough: because on its own, it doesn't do anything about the social reality that if you're a queer person, a person of color, a person with disabilities, or a woman, you have to be far kinder, nicer and gentler than a hetero white able-bodied man would to deserve those labels.

Finally, two recurring themes -- and I'm not sure which was more popular -- in the governance posts were: "Why are you talking about this? It doesn't have anything to do with work," and insistence that to disallow non-work-related hate speech on Planet would be to "silence my opposing viewpoint". While these threads were coming from different people, it's hard not to conclude that the concept of relevance to work, as well, can be weaponized.

Ultimately, double standards -- explicit or not -- are dehumanizing. If there are two sets of rules for how to communicate civilly, allowing in-group members to be polite about subordinating out-group members while forbidding out-group speech that expresses anger and pain at this subordination as "incivil", that's forcing the out-group into a status of being less than adult, less than human, less entitled to speak the truth about how they feel about their lives and to ask for the redress of grievances.

Another way to look at double standards is that they are unfair. Expecting one person to maintain an exacting level of politeness and courtesy at all times, and allowing another person to express strong emotion when they feel they've been hurt, is unfair. The long-term effect of such double standards is that queer people leave a space altogether (or observe it from the outside and determine it's not safe to join to begin with), which is unfair. Failure to play fair ultimately hurts the community more than it hurts the individual people who get excluded.

Hate Speech

"It's an utterly meaningless, self-serving framing to focus on explicit personal hatred as what makes something racist or not." -- Twitter user graceishuman
Some people think that "hate speech" is an extreme way to describe, for example, a call for legally reinforced subordination that codifies the inferiority of queer people's romantic relationships. "Hate speech" is a term of art; it doesn't necessarily mean speech that carries an explicit emotional charge of personal hatred or animosity. A person can engage in hate speech without personally, consciously feeling any hate towards any other person. That's because no such hate is necessary for such speech to be effective: in a homophobic culture, most people are pre-programmed with psychological and intellectual structures at a very young age that tell us that failure to conform to gender norms is wrong, loving someone of the same gender is failure to conform to gender norms, and therefore loving someone of the same gender is wrong. Hate speech doesn't mean personal hostility; it does mean the deliberate or unintentional, unreflective process of participating in the maintenance of structures of domination. People, including queer people, come already pre-programmed with so much hatred of queerness and gender non-conformity that it actually takes very few words to engage in an act of hate speech.

Some people also think that "hate speech" only applies to speech that directly and explicitly advocates violence against people in a protected class. I think this narrow definition of hate speech reflects an understanding of violence that's based on media depictions of it, rather than lived experiences of culturally perpetrated violence. Being harmed by cultural prejudices against your group doesn't always look like the experiences of Matthew Shepard, CeCe McDonald, or Marie-Eve Baron, just to name a few people who experienced violent hate crimes based on their perceived sexual orientation and/or gender. Those are just the extremes of a continuum that also includes the little ways in which being told, over and over again, that you're lesser whittles down your self-esteem. Such "little" ways aren't so little when they add up to lowered self-esteem, depression, and resulting self-destructive behavior. Emotional harm is genuine harm, even when it doesn't lead to suicide. So that's violence, too. And because belittling and demeaning speech against queer people has real, measurable effects that don't have any equivalent for heterosexual people as a group, it's reasonable to say that heterosexist speech is hate speech.


It's common for people confronted with their oppressive behavior to cite good intent. They claim, "What I said might seem harmful or oppressive to you, but I meant well, so you can't criticize me."

My understanding is that the philosophy that intent excuses all bad actions is one that a lot of nerds learned from the popular novel Ender's Game; I don't really know, because I haven't read it. I'm also aware that the valuation of intent is built into the American legal system. However, that view of intent is specific to just one culture, and perhaps the legal system is not necessarily the best model for all aspects of behavior anyway. In any case, when I hear someone excusing their actions with good intent, I hear a bully demanding that their version of the story be the only one that's taken seriously. If the bully gets to define what bullying is, that defines bullying out of existence altogether; if the victim experiences pain, that must be because they like experiencing pain. That's absurd, though.

One privilege that's unevenly distributed is the privilege of having your intent taken seriously. Notice that in-group members never consider the intent of out-group members: "grow a thicker skin" is a total dismissal of the other's intent, as it's quite possible that they do have a very thick skin and still don't like being abused. "Don't be so sensitive" erases the fact that the out-group member might not have intended to be sensitive at all. Thus, when someone appeals to their own good intentions, it's really an assertion of power: it means they feel entitled to have you trust them as to what their intentions were, but they're not willing to extend the same trust to you. After all, believing someone about their own intentions requires trust; no one can read minds. When someone expects you to forgive their bad actions because of their good intent, they're acting entitled to your trust.

In a very sarcastic essay that rings true for me, Kinsey Hope addresses those who believe intent to be a magical salve that erases the consequences and effects of one's speech. I hope that we can stop talking about intent and start talking about how we can better express our good intent by communicating as if people in minority groups matter. Appeals to intent are unfalsifiable and thus don't belong in a productive conversation. Intent may matter sometimes on a more small-scale, one-to-one level, in the context of an existing base of trust, and when a person uses it to ask for partial forgiveness rather than as a total excuse. However, that's not the way I saw it used in the Mozilla discussions, which were large-scale and many-to-many.

Finally, I think Patricia Williams characterized the shield of intent well, in writing about the interaction between white tourists and Black church-goers in Harlem on Easter Sunday:

What astonished me was that no one had asked the churches if they wanted to be stared at like living museums. I wondered what would happen if a group of blue-jeaned Blacks were to walk uninvited into a synagogue on Passover or St. Anthony's of Padua during high mass---just to peer, not pray. My feeling is that such activity would be seen as disrespectful, at the very least. Yet the aspect of disrespect, intrusion, seemed irrelevant to this well-educated, affable group of people. They deflected my observation with comments like "We just want to look," "No one will mind," and "There's no harm intended." As well-intentioned as they were, I was left with the impression that no one existed for them who could not be governed by their intentions. While acknowledging the lack of apparent malice in this behavior, I can't help thinking that it is a liability as much as a luxury to live without interaction. To live so completely impervious to one's impact on others is a fragile privilege, which over time relies not simply on the willingness but on the inability of others---in this case blacks---to make their displeasure heard.
This quotation recalls the mozilla.governance discussions for me, as a number of people seemed to believe that there was, indeed, no one who was not "governed by their intentions".

Hidden Inequality (or, "But My Free Speech")

"...you don't have to allow people to say anything they want on your turf in order to preserve your freedom and your system of government. Your conference, mailing list, or company can ban or punish or delete whatever it wants without compromising the integrity of our country. Free speech and its power to keep us safe will continue to work even if we refuse to allow hateful commentary in our communities." -- Valerie Aurora, "What free speech really means"
"When did 'not censoring yourself' become a good thing? We censor ourselves all the time, because we are not entitled, sociopathic fucks." -- Lindy West, "How to Make a Rape Joke"

One common thread in the mozilla.governance discussions was the notion of "freedom of speech". Some people claimed that their right to freedom of speech (disregarding for the moment that not everybody making this claim lives in the US and enjoys its strong free speech protections) was threatened by the responsibility to respect others. Other people cited the value of an informal workplace, or their desire to share more of themselves with each other. I think all of these concerns amount to one belief: "this is my world". Some people, not because they're terrible people but because of their social placement, are used to being able to dominate conversations. They equate increased egalitarianism -- which is to say, the loss of their privilege to dominate -- with oppression of themselves. They resent it when people they consider inferior tell them what they can't do -- or even when perceived inferiors ask nicely, as in, "please don't do that, it hurts"! They get to define themselves, specifically when it comes to whether or not they're acting bigoted (and the answer is that, regardless of anything they do or don't do, they are never acting bigoted).

After all, talking about "rights" is a pretty creepy way to talk about relationships. It's all about what I'm allowed to do to you, rather than about mutual aid, trust, and understanding. Granted, I have used the terms "civil rights" and "human rights" already several times in this essay. So much of our discourse is based on coercion that it's hard to talk about justice without talking about rights. Still, I encourage you to reflect on what you really mean when you insist that you have the right to ignore my request for respect, because you have the right to free speech. It's true that in a technical, legalistic sense, you do have the right to say that I'm less deserving of equal treatment than you are, that my relationships are less loving than yours, that the kind of sex I have is deviant -- indeed, you have the right to speculate about what kind of sex I have and who I have it with, though you know nothing about that. You also have the right to say that I'm not as good or smart as you are, and that the work I do isn't as valuable, all because I'm in a group that you believe should be stigmatized. No one would say that you should be hurt or imprisoned for saying any of those things. So when somebody responds to a request for respect with an assertion of their right to withhold respect, I interpret that as a rejection of any relationship that is based on mutual regard rather than on coercive power and control.

One use of the "rights" discourse is to turn around oppressed people's grievances to imply that the oppressed people are actually the oppressors. In the governance discussions, leadership -- particularly Mitchell Baker -- not only failed to acknowledge a situation in which some community members were being deprived of dignity; they also demanded that out-group members accept in-group members' right to deny us dignity, and insinuated that we would be intolerant if we did not respect in-group members' rights to put us down and say that we're less equal and less valid.

Free speech arguments against mutual respect are also culturally biased, privileging a particular solution to the problem of balancing individual liberties and community welfare that's specific to American law and culture. More importantly, it's a red herring. No one is willing to tolerate every idea. Planet Mozilla exists in order to advance the Mozilla project; even informal, off-topic discussions can potentially advance the project by promoting bonding between community members, so that doesn't necessarily mean that every post on Planet Mozilla should be about Mozilla business. But some ideas simply do not advance the project. Some ideas actively harm it. For example, everyone would probably agree that -- regardless of local laws -- if a Mozilla community member posted child pornography on their blog, this content should be removed, because it doesn't advance the project, and harms it by associating the project with harm to children. So the notion of "free speech" that was brought up over and over again in the governance discussions was irrelevant. Even in the most freewheeling conversational spaces, everybody has a line to draw that separates acceptable from unacceptable content. Pretending you believe there should be no such line is unhelpful. We need to accept that everyone draws the line somewhere in order to have a productive conversation about where to draw the line. Moreover, some kinds of speech, while not severely harmful or offensive, have a way of expanding to fill all available space. If we had the kind of freedom of speech some people say they want, every blog, every magazine or newspaper or radio show, would be a forum primarily devoted to chemtrails or why your phone will give you brain cancer. Almost nobody wants that. The paradox is that to make room for free speech on a variety of topics, a community has to set standards that deprecate speech that has the tendency to shut down discussions instead of opening them.

That is to say: a reason why the "free speech" concept is inadequate is that unchecked freedom of speech, as such, entails tolerance for attention-stealing. To tolerate attention-stealing behavior is to reinforce fundamental inequalities, because different people have different amounts of power to command attention. One reason why people in privileged groups grasp so tightly onto their self-asserted right to make racist jokes, refer to sex explicitly in a work context, and reiterate their support for the subordination of queer people is that making such jokes and comments can be a way for a privileged person to improve their social standing with other privileged people. A man who makes a sex joke may not consciously intend to subjugate women; but rather to impress any men who may be nearby. One might think that in a professional context (or anyplace other than a middle school) nobody would be impressed by such shenanigans, but the viciousness with which attempts to codify prohibitions against some of the more extreme forms of sexual harassment show otherwise. You just have to watch "South Park" (and notice how many self-identified technology professionals are fans of the show) to understand the social currency of displaying one's sexism, racism, homophobia, and transphobia.

I call this "hidden inequality" because my understanding of calls for "free speech" is that they endorse freedom to say anything you want to say as long as it's the sort of things that a heterosexual white cis man would say. The same people who call for free speech seem to be the first to try to silence discussion of inequality.

To refuse to tolerate dehumanization is not the same thing as banning disagreement. They are really very, very different. To confuse the two betrays that you have internalized abuse culture: you really believe it's not possible to disagree without attacking not an opponent's ideas, but rather, the very validity of their own explanations of their feelings and experiences, and their entitlement to feel the way they do about what people do to them.

There are more reasons for a community to choose not to tolerate hate speech than merely that it hurts the feelings of the people it targets. One way to view hate speech is as a denial-of-service (DoS) attack. People who are not targeted by a particular act of hate speech may find it unpleasant or irritating, but for many people who are in the targeted class, hate speech is intolerable. It exploits a vulnerability (a vulnerability that's placed by early socialization and reinforced by ongoing life experience) to redirect a person's attention from whatever they wanted to do today, to running the scripts that a person has to run to defend their own psyche from that attack, again, to self-reassure that no, really, they're a human being, and the 529th person to tell them this year that they're not one is wrong, just like the previous 528 were.

For example, in many online discussions in fora that don't have or enforce safe space guidelines, almost any discussion about rape culture, or any specific cis or trans woman or genderqueer person who has been raped, rapidly turns into a discussion of false rape accusations against cis men. All the evidence suggests that such accusations are statistically approaching nonexistent compared to the number of rapes that occur (especially given underreporting), but nonetheless, generally it only takes one man who brings up his concern about cis men suffering because of false rape accusations to derail the entire discussion into how common such false accusations are, the harm they do to hypothetical men, and so on. My experience suggests that every time you talk about rape in a non-heavily-moderated forum, you have to debunk the same arguments about false rape accusations. After the first hundred times, this gets really tiring and boring. It would be understandable to simply stop talking about rape. And the effect, like the effect of a DoS attack, is to prevent useful work from getting done: in this case, to prevent needed and empowering conversation from happening. Such a space would actually be more free and more diverse in its expression if moderators stated (and enforced) community guidelines that said "We don't tolerate responding to a rape survivor/victim talking about rape by talking about false rape accusations".

There is no single definition of a "safe space"; what the phrase means to me is a space where people in marginalized groups never have to worry about being attacked, frozen out, ignored, dismissed, dehumanized, or ostracized for being who they are. A safe space is not necessarily one in which it's permissible for people to express all ideas, since that is incompatible with making marginalized people feel included. However, it should be one in which it is always safe to speak from your own experiences, as opposed to presenting theories or abstractions that undermine other people's experiences. Also, it's not that no one in a safe space will ever be attacked, frozen out, or so on because of who they are -- rather, it's that if this happens, the person can feel confident that other members of the community will take action to say that this is not okay, and in extreme cases, to remove the offender from the community. Safe spaces are spaces that prioritize the needs of people who are being hurt, not the needs of abusers and people engaging in hateful speech.

"What you fail to understand is that the use of hate speech, threats and bullying to terrify and intimidate people into silence or away from certain topics is a far bigger threat to free speech than any legal sanction."-- Ally Fogg in comments on "What Online Harassment Looks Like"

People in the in-group talk about "censorship" as if it involves jackbooted government agents (declining to clarify the connection between this imagery and a community self-regulating and setting standards), but those of us who have ever been in an out-group -- any out-group -- know that the kind of censorship that's really effective is self-censorship. To view censorship as something that's explicitly imposed through an outside agency, rather than enforced from within, is a privilege. I don't know of anyone who's experienced marginalization who doesn't also regularly experience self-censorship. If I object to that seminar speaker activating the belief that to personify something is to make it male (and therefore, that humans are male by default) by referring to packets in the network as "guys", will I be seen as disrupting what's really important, and socially shunned? If I call people out when they use "lame" to describe software that's badly designed, am I going to be sneered at for caring about whether we use language that devalues disabled people or language that supports everyone's ability to participate in the project? If I point out, for the nth time, in a reproductive rights forum that not everybody who can get pregnant is female, will I be laughed at? I censor myself all the time. And just because it's superficially self-imposed doesn't mean I can simply choose not to censor myself. I know that not self-censoring has a social cost. As Lindy West points out, sometimes self-censorship is necessary and responsible and part of creating a welcoming environment. I don't say "that's what she said" every time someone unwittingly uses technical jargon in a way that has a secondary sexual meaning, not even if it would be funny, and no matter how much my inner 11-year-old boy wants to. I used to do that more often, but I've stopped because it's more important to include everybody than to bond with a few people over a silly joke. However, some self-censorship serves a different purpose, which is to accommodate the majority group's desire not to change or be reflective. I know that the cost of refraining from this kind of self-censorship starts out with funny looks, raised eyebrows, sarcastic replies, and belittling, and ultimately ends with social exclusion. I can't afford to pay that cost.

This isn't to say that I never speak up about anything I think is wrong -- it's what I'm doing right now. To rip off a popular metaphor for explaining what it's like to live with a disability (and under the social model of disability, which casts a disability not in terms of a person's inadequacy but in terms of their society's inadequate ability to accommodate them, you could view many marginalizations through a similar lens): Imagine that coping is a finite resource and that you're allotted only so much of it to get through each day; when it runs out, you have to wait until tomorrow to replenish it. To be concrete, let's imagine that you start each day with a fixed number of spoons, and every time you have to do something difficult (whether it's solving a math problem or reminding yourself that you're really human despite what everyone says), you have to lose a spoon in order to return your brain to equilibrium. Not everybody has the same number of spoons: some start every day with just a few, others have so many as to be effectively infinite. Hate speech gives an unqualified right to take away all of someone's spoons before they can get around to doing any useful work other than self-maintenance.

This is more than just a cute metaphor: there's psychological evidence (in the work of Roy Baumeister and others) that self-regulation is a resource that can be depleted. If you think I don't seem terrified or intimidated, well, I don't feel that way most of the time -- but I'm working harder to regulate myself than my heterosexual, cis colleagues have to work, which leaves me with less energy for actual work than I do, which in turn makes me look like I'm less good at working, all because something beyond my control is using up my self-regulation. And I have to worry about whether I'm going to lose my job because of this post, whereas no heterosexual person has ever worried about losing their job because they spoke out about their belief that they deserve dignity as a heterosexual person. Also, it's important to not just consider the reactions of the people in the community, but also look at who isn't in the community. Mozilla's paid engineering staff is about 2% women (based on an informal survey of the internal phone book) -- because it's hard to estimate sexuality statistics, and because it's easier to not be out about one's sexual orientation than to not be out about one's gender (need it be said, trans people do exist, so it is possible to not be out about one's gender), I think that gender balance is at least one proxy of how comfortable out-group people feel being part of a community. And gender balance and sexuality balance are not important in their own right -- they're important because their absence is a sign that we're driving away people who have something to give, for reasons that totally lack merit.

And to be clear, yes, I do think that Gerv engaged in hate speech and that a number of Mozilla community members engaged in hate speech, threats, and bullying, on blogs and in posts on mozilla.governance. You may not see it that way, but every single argument I've seen that this wasn't so was itself fundamentally rooted in hate speech and bullying, rooted as it was in casting any queer person who questions heterosexual superiority as an unreliable narrator of their own reactions and experiences. ("Is it really that bad? Surely it can't hurt as much as you say...") Your free (as in freedom) speech isn't free (as in beer): when that speech belittles people and makes them feel like less than full members of society, as undeserving of a place at the table, someone else pays for it.

Informality, trust, and boundaries


In the governance discussions, several people expressed their desire for Mozilla to be an informal workplace. They said that they wanted to be able to share their personal lives with their colleagues, and know about their colleagues' personal lives. Thus, they did not want Planet content to be limited to technical, Mozilla-related content; they wanted to see personal content as well. And they argued that there was no way to filter out political content that some people might find disturbing without banning all personal content.

The problem is that freedom to share details about one's personal life is always unequally distributed. At a place where I used to work, a colleague whose wife had recently had a baby shared the detail that because his wife's menstrual cycles were always irregular, they didn't know right away that she was pregnant. I wondered how his wife would feel about him discussing the workings of her ovaries with co-workers. Even if she would have been okay with that, I think this illustrates the double standard that heterosexual people experience, compared to the rest of us, when talking about our personal lives. People who have procreative sex (who may not be heterosexual, but who enjoy a strong presumption of such a status unless they actively work to disabuse others of that notion) get a lot of latitude to discuss very personal details about just how they go about making babies, because discussing family and children is usually considered normative and appropriate. Another story, which happened not to me but to somebody I know, involved a workplace where a woman casually mentioned kissing her partner before she left for work one day. A co-worker was so offended by hearing about this that she filed a sexual harassment complaint against the hapless kiss-mentioner. Need it be said that the first woman's partner was female? The standard for what you're allowed to talk about at work is much, much stricter for people in relationships that are perceived as queer. While these two anecdotes don't prove that, you only need to ask queer people about their lived experience to find that we don't feel as free as people with heterosexual privilege feel to talk about our romantic and family lives.

So somebody who says they want an informal workplace really means, unless they qualify it further, that they want to work in a place where people whose lives more or less meet social norms can talk informally about their personal lives. How much you can talk about your relationships depends on how close those relationships are to the norm, which doesn't only silence queer people, but on the whole has a disparately chilling effect on us.

I would, frankly, rather work in a formal workplace where everybody keeps communication on-topic than work in a place where I can't talk about kissing my partner but the guy on my left can effectively talk about fucking his wife. I don't care so much about level of formality, but equality with which that standard applies. It's not so much that anyone makes a deliberate attempt to stop queer people from talking about their personal lives (though sometimes people do, like the woman who filed the sexual harassment complaint), so much that social norms from the outside world govern any particular institution except when they're being actively challenged.

When unaccompanied by social norms that make sure everyone can let their guard down, informality supports exclusion. If somebody doesn't feel comfortable participating in informal workplace culture, they will leave, and find a place that's either accepting of everyone or where the norm is for everyone to separate work life from personal life, rather than where normative people get the privilege of mixing those lives but non-normative people don't.

Is exclusion a bad thing? Certainly, excluding people who are unwilling to follow community norms is not a bad thing. In most companies, people who leak confidential information, steal office supplies, or engage in sexual harassment will eventually be excluded, and that's not bad. When I talk about exclusion, though, I mean exclusion based on reasons that are irrelevant to someone's ability to be a good collaborator. I mean exclusion because somebody just doesn't look or sound like what somebody expects a software engineer to be. That kind of exclusion is harmful to a project, because it prioritizes the social comfort of existing project members ahead of the success of the project. You might need that person who doesn't look like any of your friends do in order to get the job done.

To me, avoiding arbitrary exclusion is especially important because open-source collaboration can be and has (for some) been a path to social upward mobility for outsiders. Some people have been able to rise up from a working-class background to a stable career despite lack of formal education and other credentials, because despite their outsider status, they do navigate the barriers. These people might have had a harder time if they'd started by trying to get a corporate job rather than just diving into a project and showing their merit by contributing: corporate jobs are more likely to rely on formal educational credentials that are often more about social class than innate ability and motivation. Even though open-source has been open to some outsiders, I think we could be doing better. Not only do outsiders need open-source, open-source needs outsiders. We don't have all of the luxuries that big corporations with lots of money have, and to make up for that, we can't afford to lose a single dedicated contributor.

Trust and boundaries

One of the most disturbing patterns I saw in the governance discussions was the insistence, from a number of people, that queer people are not allowed to have boundaries. "You cannot express hurt or bewilderment at how you're being treated, because that hurts the feelings of the people who are hurting you. If you feel you're being treated as less than equal, you certainly can't say so, because that hurts the community." (The implicit message is that you are not part of the community.) "You can't fight back when I abuse you verbally, because I mean well and therefore can't possibly really be abusing you. If you hurt, it must be your fault. It certainly can't have anything to do with something I said, so you're on your own."

Of course, these are paraphrases. I'm exercising my freedom to interpret, a freedom I certainly think follows from freedom of speech. As a human over the age of seven, I know that sometimes people lie and more often, people are not honest with themselves about their own intentions. As a person who has thought about social inequality and injustice, I know that when people re-enact oppressive behavior patterns, they are rarely doing so consciously. Rather, they behave in ways they have learned will be rewarded: mostly, through social acceptance. I know that people who respect each other don't insist that the other take everything they say literally. If someone I respect tells me they heard Y in what I said, and I don't think I meant Y, I don't browbeat them with my intent. I don't assume that my intent governs them. I ask why they heard that.

All of the attempts to use the carrot of social approval and stick of social isolation that I described above -- unfair freedom of speech, space-filling hate speech, double standards, false equivalences, tone arguments -- have the effect of denying another person the affordance of boundaries. Sometimes the carrot and stick are very explicit: "If you're so hostile, you'll alienate potential allies." That is to say, if you tell the truth about your life, no one will love or even accept you. Other times it's more subtle. In any case, lots of us can see through it.

"Between a carrot and a stick, there's a jackass." -- anonymous

Naturally, everybody has a different set of boundaries with every person they interact with. The only problem is when one person unilaterally tells you that you're not allowed to set a boundary with them. I think that the argument based on good intentions relates to such bossiness. When somebody expects you to believe that their intentions are good -- and acts indignant when you either ignore that (to focus on the consequences of their actions) or challenge it -- they are essentially behaving as if you owe them trust. I will certainly give a person more benefit of the doubt if I trust them. If a close friend says something that I find hurtful, I'll respond differently than if a stranger on the street yells the same thing. But I get to decide how much I trust you, not you. I don't owe you the benefit of the doubt, and actually, if I'm queer and you have heterosexual privilege, I have very good reasons not to trust you. If that sounds shocking, consider how you decide whether to trust somebody. Do you trust every single person the same amount in the absence of specific knowledge, or does it depend on judgments about how people in those groups have treated you before, especially when it's a group of people who overall have or had power over you (whether it's bosses, doctors, lawyers, landlords, teachers, or what have you)?

When you expect me to believe you when you talk about what your intent is, you're demanding more trust from me than I'm prepared to give you. That's problematic because many of us have been abused by people who acted entitled to our trust in the exact same way, and because it's abusive on its own. We may rightly take your sense of entitlement as a sign that if we keep interacting with you, you'll feel entitled to a whole lot more.

The way out, for the more privileged person in the interaction, is to show their good intent by communicating it clearly in what they say, as well as demonstrating it in their actions. If your intent is good, you should never have to explain that it was -- except in the context of a close relationship built on mutual respect and trust.

Hidden Inequality II: Setting the Agenda

It helps me not at all to know that others are unhappy; there is nothing possessive about my unhappiness.... Rather, my personal concern is with identifying the specifics of my pain. What causes it, what sustains it, what interferes with my ability to be most fully and most productively myself. My unhhappiness, whether alone or among many, makes me inefficient. It makes me hide myself. -- Patricia Williams, "Crimes Without Passion"

A comment on Dave Mandelin's blog expressed the sentiment that Mozillans dealing with issues of homophobia and derailing speech were lucky to have such problems, because there were many people in the world who were poor and would prefer to be software engineers making six figures. Indeed, it's a common derailing strategy to suggest that there are bigger problems in the world than the one that the person you're attacking is speaking out against. Derailing for Dummies refers to the strategy as "Don't You Have More Important Issues to Think About", and the Geek Feminism wiki calls it "Many Bad Things in the World". I think it's important to recognize that the "many bad things in the world" derail is a pattern, because that means we don't have to treat it as a new, unique and special argument every time someone brings it up. Rather, seeing it as a pattern lets us recognize that it's not so much an argument as a tool for bullying.

There are certainly bigger problems in the world than this one. In fact, most of us as individuals have bigger problems in our lives than this one. Perhaps we're dealing with illness, financial hardship, relationship problems. Unlike those problems, this one is solvable and approachable.

Nerds love to say "the perfect is the enemy of the good", and in fact, that's one refutation of the "many bad things in the world" derail. The derail is a derail because in setting up a "perfect" solution that's preferred -- the identification of the most important problem in the world, and a concerted effort to solve it at the expense of all others -- speech is silenced and action is stymied that could actually be part of a good solution. The perfect solution is impossible, because there is no "most important" problem, and big problems are difficult problems. In both social justice and engineering, good solutions that are practical are preferable to perfect ones that can't be implemented.

Also, people who are in equal relationships with each other don't use "many bad things in the world" on each other. Suppose your friend complained to you that she missed the bus today, had to wait half an hour for the next one, and got in trouble for being late to work. If you cared about her, you wouldn't tell her that it's wrong for her to complain about this misfortune because kids are going hungry somewhere. Lecturing someone about how their problems aren't really that bad is how you show that you believe you are superior in the relationship, that you're someone's boss, cop, or parent. To invoke "many bad things in the world" is not to add to the discussion, but rather, to assert dominance: to assert that you believe yourself to be entitled to set the agenda for overcoming oppression, unilaterally, without even considering what agenda the people being oppressed might like to set.

Finally, I feel confident to speak out about the problems that make my life more difficult, that limit my freedom, partially because of my friends. Out of all of my friends, the ones who have lived the hardest lives, who have survived things I can't imagine coming out on the other side of intact, are also the ones who are most supportive of me talking about my struggles and naming them as struggles, as examples of everyday oppression.

Cultural abuse

The term "cultural abuse" refers to the constant, low-level abuse that LGBT people, women, people of color, disabled people, and people in a number of other marginalized groups experience when we are told our realities aren't valid and the way we see the world isn't real: for example, "you are not the gender you say you are"; "you may believe you and your partner or partners love each other, but in truth, your love isn't as real as the love that I, a heterosexual person, enjoy." Unlike the usual conception of "abuse", which is perpetrated by an individual (usually assumed to be an evil or sick individual) against another individual, cultural abuse consists of the cumulative effect of a set of messages that are spread by people who would not normally be recognized as bad or broken.

The term "abuse" is appropriate because both cultural abuse and the more personal, direct kind make their recipients feel like they're less of a person, less valid, less worthy; changing these feelings of unworthiness uses up a great deal of energy. The existence of cultural abuse profoundly alters the dynamics between people in groups targeted for abuse, and people in groups that abuse, and makes ordinary give-and-take much more difficult, as everything acquires additional meaning given the underlying context of abuse.

The Microaggressions Web site is a great resource for understanding what "cultural abuse" means. It's a collection of usually-brief stories about being treated as subordinate on the basis of race, gender, sexual orientation, ability, class, or other characteristics that form axes of oppression. Many individual stories are not exactly tragic on their own, but seeing them presented in a seemingly-never-ending grid helps with understanding the cumulative effect of such slights.

Arguments from authority

Arguing from authority often seems to be valued over arguing from direct experience; the greater the number of intersecting privileged groups a person is part of, the more effective their arguments from authority are. Many of the invalidation tactics I've described in this section are essentially about arguing from authority: they don't work because they are good arguments, or because they are based on logic or facts, but rather, because the speaker is someone who is granted authority by their audience. It's not that anyone consciously assesses a speaker and has the internal dialogue, "well, he's a white man, he must know what he's talking about" -- rather, in the aggregate, people are socialized from a young age to attribute authority to people in privileged groups, and this training is reinforced throughout life by means of social rewards for respecting authority, and social punishments for challenging it. For example, a tone argument is essentially an argument from authority: it has no content except for the speaker's assertion that they have the authority to decide how angry the less-privileged person they're addressing is allowed to be. Double standards are about authority as well: some people have the authority to require more exacting behavioral standards from others than they apply to themselves. Authorities are allowed to tell people without authority that they're not allowed to have boundaries, but the reverse doesn't work.

Whenever you're not sure whether what you're hearing is based on logic or merely forms part of a power struggle, ask yourself: What makes this person qualified to say what they're saying? If they're speaking only for themselves and relating what they have experienced, then they are qualified to speak (at least about their lived experience). If they are speaking for an entire group -- perhaps a group they're not part of! -- it's more likely that they're arguing from authority.

Nerds claim to use scientific modes of knowledge, and to reject arguments from authority -- but they argue from authority all the time. Whenever someone says "you should grow a thicker skin", that's an argument from authority. Nerds claim that the communities and companies they form are "meritocracies", but the assertion that any organization whose demographics don't resemble the underlying society is a meritocracy is also a statement from authority. It entails the belief that if a project is only 2% women, the reason that all those other women aren't there is that they're just not good enough. Proof is rarely offered for this belief -- only the supposed "common sense" that everybody knows women don't want to, or aren't good at programming. What gets ignored is women's self-reports of being actively harassed and driven out when they try to get involved in tech communities. The willful refusal to address their lived experiences, and to assert that projects like Mozilla are meritocracies, is fundamentally about assuming the authority to decide who does and doesn't have merit.

Why silencing is effective

'There are antisexist decisions to be made. And they require tremendous energy and self-scrutiny, as well as moral stamina in the face of the basic embarrassment campaign which is the tactic of those assured of their politically superior position. ("Don't you think you're being rather silly offering your pain as evidence that something I do so automatically and easily is wrong? Why, I bet it doesn't hurt half as much as you say. Perhaps it only hurts because you're struggling...?" This sort of political mystification, turning the logical arrows around inside verbal structures to render them empirically empty, and therefore useless ["It hurts because you don't like it", rather than "You don't like it because it hurts."] is just another version of the "my slave/my master" game.)' -- Samuel R. Delany, "Shadows"
The various types of emotional invalidation I've described are what I think of as patterns for abuse. When I'm feeling bold, I call them simply "abuse". But there are many kinds of abuse, differentiated by -- among other things -- the amount of power and control the abuser can exert over the person or people being abused. One of the reasons why childhood abuse is so damaging is that the abuser typically has the power to completely isolate the victim. Between adults in a romantic relationship, abuse can be just as all-encompassing. When we're talking about something like large-scale, cultural abuse of queer people as a whole by people with heterosexual privilege as a whole, the larger group simply doesn't have the same kind of power to isolate and control the smaller group. So if you want to think of emotional invalidation as behavior that follows an abusive pattern, rather than as abuse, that's fine. But the effect is still the same: to legitimize all kinds of abuse, to make abusive behavior normal and expected. And, to do the real and immediate harm that comes from impressing upon a person that their thoughts aren't worthy and their inner reality isn't real.

It's dangerous to talk like this. Outside some very specific social circles, it's not cool to talk about oppression, or privilege, or more generally to suggest that anything might be fundamentally wrong with your way of life -- with the power dynamics between adults and children, men and women, people who feel comfortable within the gender binary and those who don't, white people and people of color, people who have wealth and people who depend on wages. That's why it takes very, very few words to have a powerful silencing effect when those words invoke the messages most of us have learned and internalized deeply: that, beneath the superficial ways in which we may pay homage to diversity and tolerance, some people are just fundamentally inferior to others, in ways that can't be changed through any act of individual agency. For many people, it takes a lot of effort to put aside the messaging of inferiority long enough to just get through a working day. And it takes almost no effort at all, on someone else's part, to remind us of just where we belong in this system. To put us in our place.

One way in which in-group members put out-group members in their place is by shifting the focus from harm done by the in-group, to the out-group's reaction to that harm. A constructive response is to accept that the problem is somebody using company resources to promote structural violence. It would also be constructive to accept that a code of conduct is helpful for ensuring that the project loses no one's contributions because the contributor was the wrong kind of person. What happened in many of the posts on mozilla.governance was a derailing response: a response that said that the real problem was the out-group's reaction to being hurt and attacked.

The power to silence is the power to derail: to shift a discussion (even a brief one) of the role of inequality in limiting marginalized people's lives into a discussion of how people who enjoy the most privileged positions in society actually suffer by virtue of their privileged positions. Such a rhetorical sleight of hand only works because people who enjoy such positions are accorded a higher level of social trust than people who do not. You can silence people without literally preventing them from talking: all you have to do is suggest that they are unreliable narrators of their own lives, and be in a position that will induce others to believe your suggestion.

What's so funny about dignity and respect?

In a way, it's odd for me to focus on the question of why we as queer people want respect: both for ourselves, and for the people who are absent because they avoid what otherwise would be rewarding jobs where they would have much to offer, due to the absence of that respect. My focus suggests that what's strange, and what needs explaining, is the behavior and desires of the out-group.

Why not examine the behaviors and desires of the in-group? Why do some people care so much about having the privilege of being able to use their employers' resources to promote the subordination of people in vulnerable groups? Why are they so invested in believing that they are really in the vulnerable group, despite all the privileges they enjoy? Why do they care about what they see as their right to make bigoted remarks at work, to use sexual jokes and innuendo to mark work spaces as unsafe for women, to proselytize for a religion?

If I tried to answer these questions any more than I already have, I would probably be accused of mind-reading; of presuming to know what's in my social superiors' minds without them explicitly telling me -- in other words, of not knowing my place. So I won't go into it. But I will suggest that it might be beneficial to reframe the questions in this way, and rather than treating the question of why people want respect as a difficult one, interrogating why some people feel entitled to use their workplaces in all kinds of ways that don't seem at all related to advancing the missions of their employers.

Why silencing, derailing, and hate speech are dehumanizing

We try to pick our battles strategically, but it is stressful and ultimately soul-destroying to have to work so hard to ignore so much--to constantly be forced to show benevolence in the face of rude and dehumanizing treatment. -- Tami, ibid
To me, emotional invalidation, as I've outlined it in this section, is a form of dehumanizing. When somebody tells me that I should be happy, and stop complaining, because no one is killing or beating me for being a queer man, and no one is openly calling me a faggot, it's dehumanizing. It's dehumanizing because it implies that I don't deserve a full place at the table -- I don't deserve to receive the same respect that upper-middle-class het white cis able-bodied men receive -- because it implies I ought to be satisfied with a very low standard for how I'm treated by other people. When people use their social power to shut down any attempt on my part to express dissatisfaction with this set of low expectations that is imposed on me, that's also dehumanizing. It's what Samuel R. Delany referred to as an "embarrassment campaign" in a passage I've already quoted. It's an attempt to use guilt and shame -- "how could you be so ungrateful?" -- rather than logic and compassion to address my grievances.

This is unfair.

The presence of hate speech and invalidation in my community has the effect of excluding people. Some people just find it too unpleasant, and leave. Others are subjected to a process of proving that they have the right to be there. When an environment is hostile towards queer people, women, people of color, or any other minority group, the effect is that a higher standard of competence exists for people in these groups: when it's clear that there is existing prejudice and hostility towards your group, you'd better be 50% better than everybody else to make up for the ambient belief that you're not good enough.

When you feel you have to prove your right to be there before you've done anything at all, that has a chilling effect. It makes you less willing to take risks and admit weaknesses, and thus less able to learn and strengthen your skills.

Setting community standards about hate speech is not about crushing disagreement. It's about maintaining fairness. It's not about stifling opposing points of view. It's about ensuring that nobody has to be afraid to express their point of view because the cost of expressing lived experience is social devaluation, and feeling undermined until you eventually quit in search of a place that's more affirming. Even without any of the emotional invalidation that accompanied it, hearing the point of view that you -- you personally -- should not be able to get married has the effect of making you feel like an outsider, someone who doesn't deserve to be there, someone who has to do superhuman feats just to be taken seriously as a person. This is how it works when somebody with a higher social status than your own says that you don't deserve equal treatment. And when I say this, I'm speaking from lived experience, not from authority; I am not willing to entertain arguments from authority that I'm wrong about my own experience.

Recall the quotation from Rebecca Solnit at the beginning, about how part of being human is to have other humans acknowledge you as "in possesssion of facts and truths". How can you simultaneously speak out -- with your words or with money -- against someone's entrance into the basic human family of people who are allowed to seek recognition from the government that their relationships are real; and also acknowledge that person as in possession of facts and truths? If you disbelieve someone when they say that they love their partner, how can you believe what they say about continuations or visitor patterns? If you consider yourself better than someone else, so much better than you're empowered to judge the kind of sex they have as rendering them below a very, very basic level of respect and recognition as a person, how can you collaborate with them and take their ideas about engineering seriously? Treating someone as an equal fellow human being is incompatible with considering yourself the boss, police officer or god of their personal life. Taking it on oneself to judge the worthiness of another's sex life, of another's intimate relationship about which you know almost nothing, is not something you do to someone you see as a fellow human being, as a member of your tribe.

Telling somebody that they need to tolerate it, to respect others' freedom of speech, when someone else is doing all of the above to them, is not something you to do someone you see as a fellow human being either.

A legal aside

While it isn't my goal to write about the legal aspects of workplace harassment in this essay -- that can be covered better by other people -- I want to point out that in the US, hostile workplace environment law can proscribe both religious proselytizing and political speech if such speech has the effect of creating a hostile environment. In 'What Speech Does "Hostile Work Environment" Harassment Law Restrict?' (published in the Georgetown Law Journal), law professor Eugene Volokh wrote:

Note what the definition [of harassment] does not require. It does not require that the speech consist of obscenity or fighting words or threats or other constitutionally unprotected statements. It does not require that the speech be profanity or pornography, which some have considered "low value." Under the definition, it is eminently possible for political, religious, or social commentary, or "legitimate" art, to be punished.

"David Duke for President" posters, after all, might well be quite offensive to many reasonable people based on their race, religion, or national origin, and may create a hostile environment; likewise for confederate insignia. This would be even more true of bigoted or insensitive remarks about minority or female political candidates. Many reasonable people might view strident denunciations of Catholicism, whether political or religious, as creating a hostile environment for devout Catholics, or criticisms of feminism as creating a hostile environment for women.

If any one individual's membership in the Mozilla community -- and thus, success at work, if they are a Mozilla employee -- would be enhanced by participating in Planet Mozilla and/or mozilla.governance, then both of these spaces have to be considered part of the workplace, and thus in the scope of "hostile environment" law. And while not all Mozillans are in the US, as a global company, we would expect that requiring or even encouraging American employees to be exposed to speech that violates the worker protection laws of the country where they work would be unlawful.

Invalidation: summarizing

To sum up, when someone says "you're just being oversensitive" or "grow a thicker skin", they're not communicating a differing opinion from yours; they're communicating nothing at all other than a reminder that they are in a higher social position than you, and they get to decide where your boundaries are. Not you. That's emotional invalidation, because it's a use of social power to remind you that your feelings, your perspective are less valid, less important, less worthy of being heard than those of somebody in the in-group. And social power, while often manifested through words, has consequences that go beyond words: like keeping you out of the places where you might be able to earn a decent living, to get the training necessary to be accepted into such places, and (since everybody needs and deserves more than just basic necessities) keeping you out of the places where you might find social, emotional, spiritual, or sexual connections with other people.

People who have this power benefit from having it. They benefit from having to face less competition for resources that they believe to be scarce. They benefit from not having to put in the work necessary to deal with change and to adapt to the presence of people different from themselves. And they benefit from trusting in the knowledge that there is always a level below which they cannot, personally, sink. Men find comfort in knowing they will never be women (and people who are queer or gender-variant, or both, pose a perceived threat to that comfort). White people find comfort in knowing they will never be Black. If you don't think you're one of those men, or one of those white people, imagine how much reparations you'd want to be paid if you were to be involuntarily turned into someone who's always perceived as a woman (if you're male) or as Black (if you're white). (This suggestion is from Andrew Hacker's book Two Nations.) One of the ways in which people defend their power is by invalidating people who challenge the rightness and justice of the order that gives them that power. Invalidation means saying, explicitly or subtly, "Your experience isn't real. You must be lying, or at least confused. Or paranoid, or just exaggerating. Surely it can't be as bad as that. You're really making a big deal over nothing, aren't you? Why don't you get back to focusing on the issues that really matter." It means letting people know that their ideas are unwanted and won't be heard. That their feelings won't be taken into consideration, so why waste time expressing them? Smile, nod, and be nice. Shame is a powerful tool, and especially in circles that value logic and rationality highly, insinuating that someone is being irrational is a very effective threat. If you believe that people are going to make you feel ashamed if you talk, eventually, you're just going to stop talking. Everybody has a different breaking point there, but I would venture that anybody who is at all perceptive of other people's reactions to their own behavior has a breaking point. It's just that only some people ever get close to theirs.

Need it still be said, at Mozilla, we are not unique. Many debates are happening online -- both in tech communities and in areas of pop culture that people take to define geekiness, like webcomics and video games -- about the role of women, queer people, and people in other marginalized minorities in those communities. For example, Anita Sarkeesian received rape threats and death threats merely for having the temerity to start a project examining how video games represent women. To my knowledge, no one at Mozilla has received rape threats or death threats for speaking out in support of respect and dignity for queer community members -- only threats of exclusion from the community. To me, that is not an excuse to declare victory -- an absence of death threats isn't my standard for a healthy community. I see what happened at Mozilla this year, and what happened to Anita Sarkeesian, as two points along a continuum. The common element is that when people challenge communities based on exclusion, they are met with a violent response from those in the community who would prefer to continue excluding people, perhaps because they fear that their place in the community -- or the value of being in the community -- would be endangered if just anyone could comfortably be in it. Of course, some of the efforts going on in other communities do end well: here's one example from a gaming community where a forum moderator stood up for taking inclusion seriously and treating supposed jokes and throwaway comments with the weight that they deserve. I hope that the same thing can happen at Mozilla.

I return to the quotation from Eric Berndt: so-called "debate" that denies some people their full dignity and humanity should not be confused with, or passed off as, healthy debate. It is not intolerant of disagreement if we insist on an environment that affirms and empowers all voices, not just the loudest and strongest voices.

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Last modified: Wed Sep 5 08:35:06 PDT 2012