Systems and individuals

One problem in talking about incidents like the Planet Mozilla incident is that many people often misinterpret attempts to understand and analyze broad social patterns as they manifest themselves in a specific incident. They see these attempts as attempts to demonize specific individuals, and either dismiss them as "personal attacks" or argue that there is nothing to be done because individuals will always behave chaotically. In truth, just as reasoning systematically about physical objects and mathematical patterns is the only way to solve a specific problem in science or engineering, reasoning about social processes in the large is the only way to understand a specific incident of interaction.

Shifting our focus from individuals to systems affects the questions we ask. In my opinion, if we ask "how do we respond as a community to incidents that hurt the community?", our community has much better chances than if we ask "do we have individual people in the community who do hurtful things?" It might indeed be best to address individuals who repeatedly and willfully do harm by casting them out -- but exile isn't always the right line of response. Most harm is not willful, because we are all affected by repeated social messaging that makes it easy to hurt people and hard to stand up against violence. I use the words "systematic" and "structural" a lot to emphasize that stray people doing something aberrant are not what I'm concerned with. I'm concerned with how communities respond and the patterns that emerge when they do so.

In hir essay "the 'safe space vs. inclusive space' trade-off", Susan Werner wrote about how communities tend to blame abuse on outsiders or individuals on the fringe when it's actually most likely to be perpetrated by the most popular and well-connected people in the community:

...the people most likely to hurt you are those who are popular and well-settled within the community, and communities built on exclusion have surprisingly little accountability for harmful and oppressive actions within the space.

I found a great deal of the discussion on mozilla.governance to be abusive. I won't attempt to provide any sort of comprehensive summary of the governance discussions, as that would require re-reading them, something that I don't feel very psychologically equipped to do. Rather, I'll give my unstructured impressions of a very unstructured discussion. A number of people (including me) described how they felt about both the original incident, and about the reactions from people in the Mozilla community to proposals for a code of conduct or that we otherwise declare we don't tolerate hateful statements in work spaces. The backlash we received was characterized by a number of patterns; I already suggested an analogy between these conversation patterns and design patterns in software. Some of the patterns I noticed were: false equivalences, tone arguments, double standards, hidden inequalities, and boundary violation. In another section, I explore each of these patterns in more detail.

Some of these patterns are already catalogued at web sites like Derailing for Dummies and the Geek Feminism Wiki's list of silencing tactics. Nevertheless, I think it's worthwhile to explore them in detail in the context of a specific incident. Like design patterns in programming, these patterns (for arguments instead of code) are reusable templates that can be instantiated in a wide range of different situations to serve different purposes.

We carry the design patterns from our underlying cultures of origin into the places where we live and work. That geek culture generally, or Mozilla specifically, didn't invent racism, sexism or homophobia does not excuse those people in turn who benefit from each of them from taking steps that are specific to each organization to make sure that the organization does not, itself, recreate them. As I explained in my discussion of what "oppression" means, homophobia, and other structural oppressions, are usually not the result of conscious, intentional action. They arise from a failure to interrogate the beliefs with which we were brought up and that still permeate the cultures we live in. (I feel pretty safe saying that these patterns are common to cultures that have been influenced by Anglo-American culture.)

"But how do I benefit from that?" Like the fish asking "what the hell is water?", people who enjoy heterosexual privilege often don't understand the many unearned privileges that accrue from having the world assume that you're heterosexual. It's an unfortunate truth that one way to elevate one's own status is to compare oneself to others in a way that doesn't flatter the others.

In the interest of steering the focus away from individuals and onto social structures, I'm not going to cite or quote specific posts. Instead, I'm going to analyze the overall patterns that I observed in the discussions, as listed above. These patterns did not originate at Mozilla or at any place like it; problems of inegalitarian communication are not unique to Mozilla or to software companies in general. Nevertheless, global problems have to be addressed locally. I know that I run the risk of appearing to be vague, abstract or unsubstantiated. But the alternative is for me to feel like I'm taking the role of a prosecuting attorney, which is not the role I'd like to assume in writing this. My interest is in asking how we can make active effort not to act out the harmful habits that we grew up with, and be more supportive of each other; not to focus on the negative or on the actions of specific individuals.

Go back or read about emotional invalidation
Last modified: Wed Sep 5 00:48:01 PDT 2012