"Got to kick at the darkness 'til it bleeds daylight" -- Bruce Cockburn
I do not equate child abuse with adult social isolation, but to me, the isolation that's a part of the experience of being abused as a kid is similar to the kind of social isolation that adults attempt to impose on one another. They are wildly different in degree, but not, to me, in kind. The objectives behind the abuse differ (somewhat), but the mechanism is, in my opinion, deeply the same. I am not the first person to make this connection, either: for example, Mary Gardiner's post "Harassment and bullying" on geekfeminism.org draws an analogy between childhood bullying, and online harassment of adult women.
The details look different, of course. But they're similar enough that being scoffed at, silenced, or emotionally invalidated by somebody who's higher on a social ladder than you are, as an adult, can be enough to -- perhaps briefly -- take you back to that mental state of being a child and being completely powerless. Especially if you were abused. And also anecdotally, abuse seems to be a common experience for people who are gender or sexual minority members; it's not that the abuse makes you queer or trans, but that being visibly gender-variant (even in ways that may be subtle) as a child makes you a target for abuse. Without even being aware of it at the time, I've had the experience where being shouted down by somebody else, primarily on the basis of their relative social position to mine rather than facts or logic, takes me right back to that state. When you combine that with the cultural abuse that all queer people living in a homophobic society experience all the time as part of the background noise of their lives, you can see how you may not have to do a lot to a queer person to potentially activate the set of responses that abuse survivors have when they experience abuse again.
"I feel that I can't do anything to make the boys feel like they've made us feel right there..." -- Kiese Laymon, "How to Slowly Kill Yourself and Others in America: A Remembrance"
For me, the primary emotion associated with that state is rage. For others, it's fear. In either case, it's a state in which you know that you're completely helpless and feel there's no way to escape. As Kiese Laymon wrote about, what it means to be in an unequal relationship is to have somebody hurt you in a way in which you have no analogous power to hurt them in return. He was writing as a Black man about white men who humiliated him because of his race. There was no corresponding way in which he could humiliate his attackers for being white -- the social infrastructure for bashing back verbally simply does not exist. Just as a child never has the power to hurt a parent in the same way that a parent can hurt a child, men have access to special ways to humiliate women that women cannot turn around against men, and heterosexuals have access to special ways to humiliate queer people. This is because the weapon being used isn't ordinary words: it is a collection of words that evoke and channel an entire society that is poised in hate, contempt, or condescension against the person being attacked.
This is a reason why the experience of being humiliated by someone more powerful than yourself is not the same as the experience of having your own oppressive behavior called out by someone less powerful than yourself. It's true that people can get upset and angry when they are told that their unthinking behavior is causing someone else pain. Even though it seems easier to just say "Sorry, I won't do that again," in the moment, it's easy to get defensive. In college, I got frustrated one night by a dorm party that was keeping me up late and wrote on a blackboard in the main lobby, "Does anyone else think that people who play loud music late at night should be executed in front of a firing squad?" I didn't know what kind of party it was; it turned out that it was organized by the local chapter of the National Society of Black Engineers. Some people interpreted what I'd written as racist. At the time, I thought that my intent should protect me from such an accusation, and resented being accused of racism. Now, of course, I know that intent doesn't matter -- consequences do. So I know how it feels to be called out -- and I know it doesn't feel like being the person on the wrong end of a power dynamic. It doesn't feel the same at all. Feeling defensive is not the same as feeling totally helpless and knowing that you are incapable of ever inspiring the same feeling in the person doing it to you. Parents can be infuriated at their children, and they're not necessarily wrong for that, but when you are the person who has the freedom to walk away and tend to your needs on your own, you simply cannot be hurt by the person who can't in the same way. (In adulthood, of course, the same person can switch between "parent" and "child" roles in different contexts, depending on the setting they're in and how others can perceive them. That's part of what intersectionality means.)
I am a person who has a lot of internalized self-doubt and lack of confidence. I've gotten better at looking like I'm not one, and sometimes actually believing that I'm not one. But at Mozilla, in the last five months, I'm still worried that I'm making a big deal over nothing. I worry that I don't belong in a serious software project because I'm really some sort of new agey touchy-feely person who's too emotional, has had too much therapy, and should generally go stare at crystals or something. Through my entire life, I have been taught to second-guess myself, that I'm an impostor, and that I don't belong anywhere I would want to be. When other people second-guess me -- when I'm talking about that over which I have sole authority, no less (my own feelings and reactions) -- it doesn't help. And that second-guessing inevitably crosses over into every single aspect of my life.
When people tell me I'm probably wrong about my experiences, the trouble is that I believe them -- automatically, without stopping to reflect on it too much. When people tell me I don't belong, I tend to believe that too, the way I've been trained to do. Undermining my intuitions isn't a fair way to communicate with me. Different people have different levels of vulnerability to being manipulated in that way (and of course, the same person may be more or less vulnerable to it in different contexts), but that difference doesn't mean that a person has less to give and less to say. But when I get undermined enough, I stop wanting to say anything, to give anything. Even if this experience doesn't resonate with you at all, can you at least accept that it's real for me?
If you doubt that the threat of social isolation is real, consider (if you're a heterosexual cis man) whether you would go out in public, in a place where you were likely to run into people you know, wearing a dress or a skirt. (I don't mean a kilt, I mean something like this or this.) Maybe you would -- but if you're the kind of guy who would, you probably get the point already. If you wouldn't though, why not? What do you care what other people think? On a hot day, skirts can be comfortable (and how do you know unless you've tried it?) Try to imagine actually putting on a dress and going out in public. Would you be afraid? What would you be afraid of, if so? (Suppose you were in a neighborhood where you felt that you had nothing to fear as far as physical violence went.) Fear of social consequences influences behavior; sometimes, it stops people from doing things they might otherwise enjoy.
Of course, not all social norms are bad. Some behaviors really are harmful and should be discouraged. But wearing skirts (for people perceived as male), or loving women (for people perceived as female), are behaviors that get repressed to benefit a ruling class, not to prevent harm. (Just how this kind of repression benefits people is beyond the scope of this essay, but I would summarize it by saying that people feel better when they know there's a social level below which they cannot sink.)
You might say, "But I see myself as a person who believes in equality and justice, and I feel ashamed, guilty and humiliated when someone suggests I am not." If this is your reaction, I think it's worth asking yourself how much of your hurt is genuine and how much of it is a defensive attempt to recenter a discussion away from your shortcomings in living out the ideals you believe in. Re-read the section on false equivalences and at least be open to the possibility that being called a bigot once might not actually be as hurtful as getting subtle, hard-to-challenge messages every day that you are less than a person. Ask yourself: "Could I make my accuser feel the way I am feeling right now?" If the feeling you're having is one you do have the power to impose on the person who made you feel that way (for example, if that person enjoys some form of privilege that you could potentially call them on), you are probably not being oppressed.
Tying this back to the specifics of the matter at hand, there are no major companies that are led exclusively by openly queer people, but plenty that are led exclusively by people who are, or who at least are presumed to be, heterosexual. Mozilla is not an exception. Hypothetically, anyone who did say something so outrageously bigoted as to meet the standard set for creating a hostile working environment would probably be welcomed with open arms at ten other companies where the leadership doesn't care as much. There is nothing here at stake for heterosexual people to lose other than face, but everything to lose for queer people.
"we discovered we are both pleasantly furious half of the time
when we're not just toeing the line"
-- Ani DiFranco, "Brief Bus Stop"
(Image from Anti-Oppressive Baby Animals)
I talked about tone arguments in the section on invalidation, but it's worth saying a little bit more. When someone tells me "you're too angry" or "you're being inflammatory", there is no way for me to argue against that, because the implicit meaning of such an utterance is "I am entitled to set the maximum level of anger you're allowed to express", or "I am entitled, by my social standing, to decide which utterances are legitimate expressions of grievances and which are 'too inflammatory', empowering me to ignore the needs of people in the latter group and leave them out in the cold." It's tempting to argue against it, to try to show logically why my anger is justified or why I'm actually being less inflammatory than those who are arguing for the freedom to demean me in my workplace. But that temptation is a trap: once the person in power has decided I'm too angry, they need not engage with anything else I have to say. That's one of the things that make tone arguments manipulation and bullying rather than legitimate discourse: they provide a simulacrum of openness to debate that does not actually admit falsification or even the consideration of a different perspective.
For me, that dynamic reminds me of a parent-child dynamic, since it's reminiscent of the kind of (purported) parenting that I grew up with. There's a double standard, where any violent act on the part of the in-group (whose members take the parental role) is excusable, but not so much as a harsh word on the part of the out-group (the insolent children) is acceptable. There is to be no sassing back. What I saw in the governance discussions was bewilderment at and outright rejection of people feeling like they're being treated like less-than, feeling marginalized, feeling othered, feeling microaggressed at.
Anger is a defense mechanism. We get angry because we're hurt and afraid and it's less vulnerable to be angry in public than to be hurt in public. Consider: since you became an adult, have you ever been powerless? Do people, especially ones you don't know very well, ever do things that take you back to that state where you're five, being told what's right for you, knowing they're wrong, and being totally helpless to do a thing about it? Because that's what it feels like for me when people tell me -- no matter what the veneer of euphemisms and middle-class civility around it -- that my opinions don't count and that I don't matter. That we need to tolerate speech that says I'm less of a person, that I shouldn't be treated equally, that I'm inferior, that I don't deserve the status accorded to people who were socially placed as superior to me long before they could be happy or I could be sad about it. That others have a universal right to hurt me, but I don't even have a right to talk about how I've been hurt (much less hurt people back) -- how can I, when any attempt I make to speak openly gets met with scolding? -- and that furthermore, I must sacrifice my self-respect so that others can have the freedom to degrade me.
For some of us, anger is part of how we maintain our self-respect in the face of those who would prefer that we have none, that we have no boundaries, that a class of people should be maintained who are eternal children who can be used for adults' purposes. For me, it's how I can manage to get up in the morning and participate and do my tiny part to keep the gears of the world turning. For me, to not be angry would be to open myself to the torrent of abuse and contempt that the culture -- both through individuals and through systems -- unleashes on me and my friends every day. And I say this as someone who lives in what has the reputation of being the most queer-friendly geographical region in the world. Nonetheless, I know someone who can't walk down the street in what's supposed to be the most queer-friendly city in the world without strangers passing judgment on how ze's doing gender today. What's it like in the least queer-friendly city in the world? I have no idea, and that's what's terrifying. Do I dare to try to imagine what it would be like if I was also a person of color, if I was visibly disabled, if I'd been coercively assigned male at birth, plus everything else?
When I read Dave Mandelin's post about how he felt when the news about Brendan Eich's donation in support of Proposition 8 resurfaced (an event that I see as deeply related to the events I've discussed here), I was at work. I was useless for the next half an hour or so, because I was reminded vividly about what it would be like if I didn't feel empowered to be angry. To set aside my anger completely would be to accept the possibility that the bigots might be right. The remotest possibility that yes, it's true, it's just rationally, factually true that I should be granted less freedom than other people. To let that seed of doubt come sneaking in. Actually, I wouldn't have to let it in, because it's already there. To stop being angry would be to nurture it. To take on as my own job the work of destroying myself, and save the oppressors the trouble. I'm not going to do it. If they want to destroy me, they're going to have to do it themselves.
I love the way Dave wrote. But I'm not sure if my circumstances allow me to refrain from showing how angry I am, because the alternative is to show how hurt I am, which means thinking about how hurt I am, which I don't usually like to do. I hope you believe me when I say that anger is an essential defense mechanism, without which I'd probably be dead, or psychically dead, but anyway certainly not equipped to write software for forty hours a week. I have to find a way to put distraction at bay before I can think hard about abstract ideas. Some people don't have much distraction in the first place; the rest of us have to manage it somehow, and while anger may not be the best strategy (I'm not sure who gets to decide what the best is), it's a workable one, and when one has to hold down a job so one can eat, "workable" is good enough.
One way in which anger gets policed is the admonishment "don't alienate potential allies". Such a policy is deeply a failure to reward honesty, and in fact, a way of actively discouraging honesty.
When the response to expressing your anger is tone arguments, and more generally, a form of scolding that implies your anger is the problem and ignores what caused it, you learn lessons from this. Some of us learn those lessons very early. One of them is that if you talk about your pain, you'll be ignored, rejected or mocked. Ultimately, this leads to learned helplessness: because you learn that the consequences of talking about your pain are potentially as bad as the pain itself, you stop talking. As a result, nobody has to censor you in order to silence your voice: you silence yourself. When I say "you silence yourself", I don't mean that you are exercising any agency. I mean that you have been coerced into silencing yourself: I don't mean physical coercion, either. For those of us who survive abuse, the threat of physical violence early in life as a punishment for exercising agency instills programming that remains forever, long after the threat of physical danger is gone. Once that programming is there, the threat of banishment or social exclusion can re-invoke it easily. For both those of us who grew up with abuse at home and those who only endure the cultural abuse that goes along with being in a gender and sexual minority, we know that fitting in to any group that isn't primarily composed of other people with our life experiences is tenuous. We are held to higher standards of behavior and we could be exiled for the slightest offense. Thus, we silence ourselves under duress, and we can't just choose not to do it -- we know what the consequences would be.
Anger, of course, is in the eye of the beholder. I've been accused of being "angry" when I was feeling perfectly calm, and the more likely explanation for the perception of anger was the emotional conflict that a person is likely to feel when confronted with the tension between the oppressive values they've been trained to live out, and the inner voice of conscience that suggests that something might be wrong and the "angry" person really might have a point. Besides this, though, regarding an expression of anger as a problem, rather than looking at the cause of the anger to see whether that is the real problem, is unproductive. It's logically vacuous and shifts blame from the aggressor to the aggrieved without requiring any justification for doing so: it's what Samuel Delany called "turning the logical arrows around inside verbal structures to render them empirically empty" in a passage I quoted earlier. Whenever you see someone charging that a less-powerful person's reaction to harm is the problem, rather than the harm that was done, I suggest exercising extra skepticism.
When a person with a higher social standing focuses on anger rather than the cause, they are also showing that they don't care about the feelings of those who they perceive as social inferiors: not only do they dismiss another person's reaction as mere "anger" without a cause, they imply that despite their disregard for my feelings, I need to protect theirs (by being less angry). Writ small, this is abuse; writ large, this is the process by which a group of people convinces, and then reminds, another group that they are inferior.
At the time when the discussions on mozilla.governance were going on, I thought to myself, over and over, "Why am I talking -- or even thinking -- about this? Shouldn't I get back to work?" Because real work means making and building things that advance the mission of my company. It doesn't mean thinking about processes that are making some of my colleagues less able to... well, make and build things that advance the mission. That doesn't make much sense, does it? And if I was off the clock, I thought to myself, "Instead of talking or thinking about this, oughtn't I do things that would refresh myself so I could be a more effective engineer when I go back to work, instead, like petting my cats or sitting in a hot tub?" But it didn't feel like I had a choice. It would pop up again, like a Whac-a-mole game. It's not, after all, like I can just choose to live in a world where other people aren't invalidating me -- though they can just choose to stop doing it.
Another reply from the inner concern troll that all of us survivors of domestic and/or cultural abuse have was: "But it's just the Internet! You shouldn't care!" Organizations like Mozilla exist to defend the Internet, and that means the Internet is worth defending. Nobody excuses using a telephone to harass someone with "it's just the telephone!" That "it's just the Internet!" is a popular refrain to all kinds of bad behavior when it's conducted online is mostly an artifact of how we relate to new technology (and partly to do with how communicating on the Internet is disproportionately important to the very groups that tend to be victimized by online discourse).
But this guilt doesn't arise from something I've truly done wrong -- for me, and for so many other people in subordinate classes, it arises from something akin to gaslighting. Gaslighting is a form of psychological abuse that relies on undermining another person's perceptions of reality and convincing them that their reactions to abuse aren't because of the abuse, but rather, because they're unreasonable or irrational. When you tell someone they're just being too sensitive and should grow a thicker skin, that's gaslighting, because you're telling them that they can't rely on their own internal perception of what is painful or hurtful. Being gaslighted makes me feel like I'm being melodramatic when I name psychological abuse for what it is. But people are still people no matter whether we're at work or not, and we bring the same training and programming that we learned from our families and from the larger culture we're in into anything we do. Too much has been written about the role of work, and working relationships, on people's emotional well-being for me to really think that the real problem is that we're taking it too seriously.
A thought came to me in my prison cell, and it was this: that to men women are not human beings like themselves. Some men think we are superhuman; they put us on pedestals; they revere us; they think we are too fine and too delicate to come down into the hurly-burly of life. Other men think us sub-human; they think we are a strange species unfortunately having to exist for the perpetuation of the race. They think that we are fit for drudgery, but that in some strange way our minds are not like theirs, our love for great things is not like theirs, and so we are sort of sub-human species.
We are neither superhuman nor are we subhuman. We are just human beings like yourselves.
When we were patient, when we believed in argument and persuasion, they said, 'You don't really want it because, if you did, you would do something unmistakable to show you were determined to have it.' And then when we did something unmistakable they said, 'You are behaving so badly that you show you are not fit for it.'
Now, gentlemen, in your heart of hearts you do not believe that. You know perfectly well that there never was a thing worth having that was not worth fighting for. You know perfectly well that if the situation were reversed, if you had no constitutional rights and we had all of them, if you had the duty of paying and obeying and trying to look as pleasant, and we were the proud citizens who could decide our fate and yours, because we knew what was good for you better than you knew yourselves, you know perfectly well that you wouldn't stand it for a single day, and you would be perfectly justified in rebelling against such intolerable conditions. -- Emmeline Pankhurst
"The bar for being a woman in tech is the ability to say "Fuck you."'-- Andromeda Yelton
These two quotes are about how women have had to learn to show anger in their struggle to achieve legitimacy; I think at least to some extent, the same process applies to queer people. Queer people do have a choice that many women lack, which is the choice to pretend to be a member of the in-group. Some queer people can successfully pass as hetero. This is not a choice that anyone should have to make in order to succeed, but it's there. But the option doesn't exist for all queer people. What unites the struggles of women and of queer people is the way in which the patriarchy acts to spread hatred and fear of any gender identity or expression that doesn't conform to cisheteronormative masculinity. In other words, because queer people are women (and thus face the same oppression that heterosexual women do, plus added oppression for failing to conform to prescribed gender roles for women: possibly simply for voicing affinity for other women, possibly also for doing femininity in a way that's "wrong" according to patriarchy, or rejecting femininity); or because queer people are men (and thus are judged inherently falling short of patriarchal masculinity in that queer men may refuse to participate in a system in which men own women as property, and may even be in relationships that a cisheteronormative observer will see as a man owning another man, or being owned -- not that queer men see their own relationships this way); or because they're not men or women, and thus are subject to oppression for being genderqueer; the struggles of women to achieve self-determination and to be full participants in a professional community will always overlap with the struggles of queer people to do the same. At least, they will overlap until there is no longer any struggle at all; until all professional communities fully embrace and accept women and queer people and trans people as full participants.
"If you have come here to help me, you are wasting your time.
But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together." -- Aboriginal activists' group, Queensland, Australia, 1970s
"Why are we having this discussion at all?" Some people just couldn't see what this entire discussion had to do with work. What does it have to do with work if Mozilla, if the software industry, if the free and open-source culture movement, excludes people based on not whether they can contribute, but rather, a personal trait that has nothing, nothing to do with merit? Well, the simplest reason is that there aren't very many people with the technical skills that a company like Mozilla needs, and Mozilla simply can't afford to throw talent away for no good reason. As far as I can tell, being queer is a neutral characteristic in a workplace. It neither helps nor harms the work that's being done (except perhaps if the workplace is a queer rights organization). Ostracizing queer people is a negative characteristic, because it drives away good contributors and creates no value to compensate for it. So it would seem better for the organization, to me, to drive away people who want to have their freedom to bully people at work protected, than for it to drive away people who are vulnerable to bullying.
And if you're going to tell me that the solution to bullying is not for the bullies to stop bullying, but for me to get used to it? That I shouldn't feel excluded, shunned, ostracized, devalued, objectified, or dehumanized when someone circulates a petition that reduces the entirety of who I am to what some people believe I do with my genitals? You might not agree with me, but where it steps over the line into manipulation is when you tell me I shouldn't feel that way. I get to decide how I feel; you get to decide what to do about that. Likewise, you get to decide how you feel and I get to decide what to do about it.
If some people fail to respect others' prerogative to decide for themselves how they feel, then one person or group is effectively able to shut down a conversation. That's not collaborative, and in a work environment, the ability for one person to shut down a discussion because that person is powerful is something that actively interferes with maintaining a functional and productive work environment.
But I think there are bigger reasons than the mere talent pool why this is important. Is this discussion an isolated incident? Does Mozilla have a culture of emotional invalidation? I can't answer that, for two reasons: I haven't been part of it for very long. And, the subgroup within Mozilla that I work in -- the Rust Project -- has a code of conduct. So I don't have the perspective that would allow me to judge how aberrant this incident is, whether people are normally better at self-regulating.
The governance discussions make me worry that Mozilla does have such a culture. It wouldn't be unique to Mozilla, or any organization, if it did; but some problems must be solved locally even if they have to be recognized globally to be recognizable at all.
If there is a culture of emotional invalidation, it has an effect beyond side-channel political discussions. In an environment where it's accepted and tolerated to throw your verbal weight around, technical decisions get made that way too. When you're supposed to be doing science and engineering, it's not effective when decisions get made based on who can yell the loudest, or who has the highest social status. The meekest people could have the best ideas. Not always, of course; you just never know. As a music teacher told me once, "what you practice is what you perform." What people do in discussions that are ostensibly off-topic reflects who they are and what they do when they're doing their primary work. A habit that's reinforced in one place will pop up in another. If you have permission to tell someone else "your feelings don't matter", you have permission to dismiss someone else's opinion about a technical issue because you are louder rather than because they are wrong. "Louder" could be literal or it could be about having more social credibility. When that sort of thing is going on, people can't do the best job they possibly can. Ideas get adopted or rejected based on the social status level of their champions, not based on the ideas' merit.
Nerds like to use the word "meritocracy", but calling your project or your community a meritocracy doesn't make it one. Even in the most egalitarian environment, no decision gets made based purely on the merits of the pros and cons. No person advances or fails to advance based solely on their technical competence. Some people are just annoying, and the most competent person in the world becomes a liability when they make it impossible for twenty other people to exercise their full talents. I thought that if open source software was about anything, it was about the idea that advancements are made through harmonious collaboration between many people making small contributions, not by rock star ninjas. And anyway, how can a meritocracy look so different from the world from which it's drawn? We would expect merit to be more or less evenly distributed across the population, not wildly unbalanced along social axes that have much more to do with politics than innate talent (whatever that might mean). Why would the arbitrary categories that the prejudices of the day determine that people fall into reflect the distribution of talent in a specialized subject?
Calling a company like Mozilla a meritocracy means saying that the overwhelming whiteness and maleness (among other traits) of the engineering contributors is because people of color and women just aren't good enough to be here. Even strictly considering how people already in the organization advance, rather than who gets in the door, "meritocracy" is a word that shuts down any talk about the role of relationships and social structures. I got my job because I was an intern first, which happened because I saw a LiveJournal post from someone I knew online through a couple different friends, and met once, and I would have never known about the internship otherwise because while anyone was welcome to apply, like many research job postings, you had to be networked with certain people to know about it at all. Is that meritocratic?
As the Microaggressions Web site shows, many, many minor, casual insults can add up to subordination. Subordination has no place in a technical community. It doesn't matter whether there's just a little bit of it or a lot. For people who already experience constant subordination, a little bit more of it might be the last straw. Plus, subordinating other people doesn't serve any legitimate purpose in a workplace or in a project. All it does is give people in privileged classes an unfair advantage, and make the overall outcome worse by excluding people in non-privileged classes who could make good contributions (and would be less likely to exclude others).