Civil Rights activism isn't all about sit-ins and boycotts. A lot of it is about standing in our lives and saying "No more, never again, will I be treated this way without speaking up."
-- Ragen Chastain


"When debating whether a group is human, 'I see both sides' means you subscribe to the view that they aren't." -- Twitter user ethulhu
What do we tolerate? A flavor of silencing talk that was part of the governance discussions is that we have to tolerate all opinions, even those we don't agree with. No reason is ever given for that. A variant is "well, it wouldn't be good if everybody thought alike, would it?" This is almost exactly what the CEO of Mozilla, Gary Kovacs, said during an all-hands meeting in answer to a question about the code of conduct discussions.

But no one ever asked for everyone to think alike. I think it's telling if an automatic response to "can we please all be considered human, or at least be respectful enough to keep it to ourselves if we don't think other people on our team are people?" is to accuse the questioner of wanting everybody to think alike. There is room for diversity and disagreement about many, many things even if we accept the basic principle that all people are people!

To me, there are more possibilities for how to organize a community than just (1) everybody thinking alike, or (2) accepting (even embracing) intolerance and exclusion. No community tolerates every opinion and every behavior. I'm willing to bet that no person in the world accepts or tolerates every possible opinion, either. Do you tolerate people who openly advocate hurting children or animals for adult humans' pleasure? So universal tolerance of what are euphemistically called "dissenting opinions" is a strawperson. It's an opinion no one really holds. And no one is asking for the opposite, either; it's a bit puzzling why a leader would find it necessary to say that "not everyone should agree on everything" when no one has asked for everyone to agree on everything. Setting a few basic ground rules to make the environment safer for everyone than it would be otherwise is very far away from agreeing on everything. In fact, ground rules are what make it possible for people to disagree and know that they'll still be welcome in the community for it.

It is absurd, to me, that one person wrote in a governance post that he has experienced oppression, and there isn't any at Mozilla, using as an example that he has experienced racism for being white -- not so much that he wrote it, but that he wasn't laughed out of the conversation for it. The tolerance for microaggressions like that, for privilege-denying, and how those sorts of opinions are taken very, very seriously (taken together with the intolerance for almost any minority group member talking frankly and honestly about their experience) would seem ridiculous if it wasn't a behavior pattern that many people learn, and are rewarded for, starting at a very early age. I'm not going to accept that pattern as just a fact of life, a facet of the landscape that can never change. It has to change. It must change, which means people have to change.

It is disingenuous to claim that because Mozilla is a community that includes a wide range of people with a wide range of different opinions, we must tolerate all opinions. It's disingenuous to excuse discursive violence against queer people by saying "We have diversity of opinion". It's disingenuous because, as a community, we will not tolerate some opinions; not all of them directly related to our mission. We would, I hope, not tolerate the opinion that people who live outside North America are uniformly less intelligent than people who live in North America, or that people who are Muslim in Western nations should be put in internment camps. The question is where the line is, not whether there is a line.

Moreover, part of Mozilla's mission is to protect the Web, and I think that understanding the usefulness of the Web for communication between far-flung members of marginalized communities is essential to anyone who values openness and freedom online. To me, part of what it means to protect the open Web is to preserve the freedom that groups have to self-organize online, without needing to seek permission from any centralized authority. What it means to protect open Web standards can get very technical, but I still don't think we should lose sight of the purpose behind protecting open standards, which is to keep a single organization or company from having unchecked power over content on the Web. So if you're going to align yourself with marginalized communities, and to try to keep the Web open, it makes no sense to promote marginalization.

Feeling safe

Rather than suppressing all disagreement, I would like a safe environment. Feeling emotionally safe is something that most people seem to take for granted if they've never, or rarely, had the experience of feeling unsafe. Part of it is about feeling like you can trust the people around you -- that most of the time, people will act in a way that confirms your trust rather than betraying it. In a professional context, I'm not talking about the kind of trust that's like knowing your roommate won't kill you in your sleep, or knowing your bank won't steal your money (as long as you don't use Wells Fargo). I am talking about the kind of trust that involves knowing you'll receive the benefit of the doubt, knowing others will ask what you mean instead of jumping to conclusions about it, expecting that others will care about your intent, and expecting that if someone does or says something that's hurtful to you, that even if it wasn't intended, they will listen to you when you say you were hurt, and make amends. I'm also talking about the expectation that what you say will be taken seriously and that others won't ignore or reject you for no good reason. If you're a professional working in a group of other professionals who mostly look like you, I'm willing to bet that you've always expected that these things are true, expected them so deeply that you're not even aware that you expect them. Some of us can't take it for granted. And we would like to.

Since the status quo is that people in minority groups largely do not feel safe in their working environments, and people in majority groups do, giving people in minority groups reason to feel safe takes active effort. Without effort, the status quo perpetuates itself. That effort will, in part, involve challenging feelings of entitlement on the part of majority-group members to keep the environment unsafe for people in the minority. Perhaps these majority-group members fear that if they had to compete with minorities, they'd be unable to show themselves to be good enough. Perhaps having to work with women, or queer people, threatens their beliefs about the appropriate social place for such people (as pertains to women, it's exhibited by the jokes nerds love about "getting in the kitchen and making me a sandwich"). Perhaps they just feel more comfortable when they're around people like themselves. It only matters so much in the end -- what's important is ending exclusion by making everyone feel safe, not just the most privileged class.

If you're gay and you do feel perfectly safe at work, that doesn't negate the experience of those who don't. Perhaps you just have fewer intersecting oppressions to deal with, and have more energy left over to forgive the trespasses of the majority group. Perhaps you're not visibly gender-non-conforming, which is the basis of a large portion of the harassment that queer people have to deal with in public. Perhaps you work at a company, or a department within a larger company, that's especially affirming. Or perhaps your personal, innate virtue makes you very good at brushing it off and not taking it personally. It doesn't really matter which one it is, because there shouldn't be a double standard under which queer people are required to be excellent at not taking things personally in order to get a job, but hetero people are allowed to work even if they're not good at not taking things personally at all. The standard should be the same for everyone. That's what equality means.

Codes of Conduct

In the governance discussions, some of us were asking for something very simple: to adopt a code of conduct, a simple statement that says that at Mozilla, we don't attack or abuse people in vulnerable groups by virtue of their membership in those groups. Moreover, that would also say that we also don't tolerate it when other members of our community engage in such attacks. The details of the code of conduct are less important to me here than the question of whether to adopt one at all. And surprisingly to me, it was very difficult for many members of the Mozilla community to accept the need for such a statement. To me, accepting the need for such a statement amounts to accepting that fairness and equality matter, no matter who is being treated unfairly or unequally. No exceptions.

Although Mozilla did eventually adopt something like a code of conduct, but not called a "code of conduct" -- the Community Participation Guidelines -- I still think it's worth asking why the acceptance of a code of conduct was so controversial.

We live in a world where by default, any organization, informal or formal, will treat some people unfairly and unequally unless they make an effort not to. This is not a new or unique insight: in the context of 1970s feminist activism, Jo Freeman wrote an essay called "The Tyranny of Structurelessness", in which she examined how unstructured social organizations do not naturally achieve democracy and lack of hierarchy: rather, informal hierarchies emerge, which are much harder to challenge due to their informality. Reading this essay reminded me a lot of Mozilla; when people in the mozilla.governance discussions described how they wanted Mozilla to be run, it seemed to me like they were aspiring to a tyranny of structurelessness in which leaders have much more control because, if questioned, their power can be denied outright.

I might interject again: what does any of this have to do with writing open-source software? What does perpetuating abuse have to do with protecting the Internet? I don't see what creating social structures that let people abuse each other has to do with producing an awesome Web browser. Preventing abuse does not happen by itself, because almost everyone (even the most consciously open-minded, enlightened people) brings into the organization a whole lifetime of programming about how to be an abuser; how to enable abusers by tolerating abuse silently; or both. Preventing abuse requires active effort, and adopting a written code of conduct is one form of such effort. The alternative -- doing nothing -- is not a neutral choice. Doing nothing means, inevitably, that the organization will perpetuate abuse.

Of course, writing a code of conduct doesn't guarantee that individuals in the organization will live by it. But since people do not necessarily know how to behave in a non-abusive way on their own -- this is understandable, because we live in an abuse culture -- having written guidelines is a way to help them learn and grow. By creating and then living by a code of conduct, people in an organization can try to be the kind of organization that refrains from duplicating the outside world's hierarchies and power dynamics -- the kind of organization that supports people rather than tearing them down.

So why were some people so passionately opposed to a code of conduct, any code of conduct? I think one reason is that making oppressive comments can be a form of bonding among in-group members. To take an example not related to the issue at hand, white people often cling to what they claim is their "right" to make racist jokes; rather than deciding to make jokes that don't hurt and marginalize people, they claim that the right answer is for people of color to become less offended. (The song "Everyone's a Little Bit Racist" from the musical "Avenue Q" expresses this point of view, and I'm sorry to say that when I was 23, I thought it had a valid point.) These jokes are rarely very funny, as well. So why do white people cling so hard to the prerogative to make them? Well, I think one reason is that they serve as a reminder of who is white -- they can be an entry pass into the in-group. Perhaps sometimes even people of color can glean a minor degree of conditional privilege if they're willing to laugh along with jokes at their own expense. The telling of a racist joke marks a space as white people's territory: not everyone who's present might be white, but if racist jokes are tolerated, it's clear who has the upper hand and who gets to set the standards of what's tolerated. The same goes for a sexist joke: sexual innuendo and misogynist jokes -- which, again, are often not very funny either -- serve to remind any women who are present that this is a space that is not safe for them. One function of sexist jokes is that of male bonding: these jokes are certainly told when men believe no women are present, as well as when women are present. Some men cherish this particular form of homosocial interaction, and react badly when asked to modify their behavior for the benefit of women, who they may consider their social lessers.

The Mozilla discussions began with someone expressing a political opinion, not a joke, but much of the "free speech"-flavored discussion that followed seemed to be mainly about in-group members' desire to use jokes and opinions as a way of marking a particular space as theirs. Make no mistake about it: someone who wants the right to demean you, whether they're demeaning you by expressing what seems to be a nuanced political view (which just so happens to be the view that your government should subordinate you), or in a less sophisticated way, is someone who wants to be able to dominate you.

So if you believe that a code of conduct is an attempt to "shut down discussions", then you are right. That is to say, if a discussion is about whether I'm as good as you, or about whether Alice is as good as Bob, or Ted is as good as Carol, then yes, I'd like to shut down that discussion. It ought to be a given that each person's innate worth and dignity is non-negotiable. One of the ways we can connect "ought to be" with "is" is by stating our values clearly: by writing a code of conduct.

There's a problem with using a democratic process to decide on whether a minority should have rights or not: the nature of a majority is that the people in it tend to enjoy having power over the minority, and aren't likely to voluntarily give up the privilege of telling the minority that they're less valid and less human. In fact, I don't know of any situation in history where a majority voluntarily gave up power over a vulnerable minority -- not unless the majority was under a great deal of duress, as with the civil rights and women's rights movements of the twentieth century. Like those groups, those of us in gender and sexual minorities are in an ongoing struggle for rights -- the heterosexual majority isn't exactly ceding their right to feel special (e.g., by making marriage something that's just for themselves) without a struggle, without a fight.

So I don't think it's appropriate for the majority to decide whether a minority should have rights or power. Of course, "rights" is not quite the correct word here; participating in any particular community is a privilege, not a right. The real question is about equality, which is not primarily about protecting the individual rights of any community members, but about making the community stronger and better. (Though saying that people have the right to be treated equally is a perfectly good way to describe what equality looks like in practice.) And equality is such a fundamental value that it ought not to be put up to a majority vote -- after all, inequality is what's in the majority group members' interests.

Abuses of power

Geek culture will tolerate any viciousness that isn't based on big muscles, any misogyny that doesn't follow the "jock gets the cheerleader" narrative, any homophobia and transphobia that isn't conducted by social superiors. -- Julian Morrison

One reason why I'm not thrilled by the new set of community participation guidelines is that they don't address the issue of abuses of power. The guidelines could explain what it means to abuse one's social power, give examples of it, and present clear consequences for abusers. The reason why Mozilla has an interest in preventing community members from abusing their power is that when a community member abuses their power to mock, tease, torment, or belittle other people, that does nothing positive for the organization. It does not advance the mission of the organization or further any of its work. Instead, it hurts the community: it drives away contributors and damages the community's reputation.

As written, the guidelines could be read as intended to prevent reverse racism or misandry -- two ideas that lack semantic content. What's missing from a statement that says that people are welcome regardless of "varied age, culture, ethnicity, gender, gender-identity, language, race, sexual orientation, geographical location and religious views" is that white people have more power to exclude Black people than Black people do to exclude white people; men have more power to exclude women than women have to exclude men; and people with heterosexual privilege have more power to exclude queer people than the reverse. A set of guidelines that doesn't acknowledge differences in power is one that will reinforce those differences in power. For example, the guidelines do nothing to prevent (in a real-life example I mentioned earlier) a straight woman from claiming her rights are being violated because a lesbian co-worker casually mentioned her female partner; or hypothetically, to prevent a white man from claiming his rights are being violated because a Black co-worker expressed frustration about dealing with racist white people.

Whose community is it, anyway?

Those young people who reenact the oppression on others as they were taught by the kyriarchy are doing so not out of ignorance. They do it to maintain systems of dominance, privilege, and status. -- Monica Maldonado, "Day of Silence"
The question that I ask myself when I re-read the mozilla.governance discussions is: why do some people want so much to own this world? Personally, I don't want to control the world, or a community. I want to collaborate and cooperate, and I advocate systems of accountability that make it easier to collaborate and cooperate and less likely that people will hurt and abuse each other; hurt and abuse are things that get in the way of people working together harmoniously. I think the blogger Restructure! got to the heart of the matter when she wrote (emphasis author's):
Typical male geeks argue that to be a geek is to be masculine by interpreting the scientific, mathematical, and technological achievements of overwhelmingly male persons as definitive proof that science, math, and technology are inherently male and define maleness. Such male geeks typically argue that there are innate differences between male and female brains that make success in science, math, and technology exclusive to men. Thus, arguments and studies that suggest otherwise are perceived as a direct attack on the masculinity and male identity of male geeks. According this male geek worldview, if women are equally capable in science, math, and technology, then male geeks lose their claim on masculinity and become low-status, beta, and "effeminate" males once again, because there would be nothing left to separate male geeks from women. Thus, male geeks---much more than non-geek men---tend to be emotionally and socially invested in maintaining the idea women's brains are hardwired against understanding science, math, and technology to the same extent as men.

I hope the typical male geek isn't really that misogynist, but given my lived experiences, I fear that it is so, so in this passage I'll use the term "typical male geek" to describe the type of person described by Restructure! (without implying that all male geeks fit the description). The fear and insecurity she describes above is, I think, at the heart of the disputes at Mozilla. Typical male geeks (of whom there are many among our numbers, as in any large open-source project) need to exclude women and queer people -- both of whom are groups perceived as not doing masculinity correctly -- from geek communities. The presence of many competent women and queer people would be a threat to their masculinity and thus their very identity as a person (as a patriarchal and cisnormative social order encourages cis men to feel that they would not be people if they didn't do masculinity correctly). Thus, a few women are tolerable so long as they say the same kinds of things that a hetero man would say; a few queer people are tolerable so long as they're not too visible as queer. But having to accept that software isn't just for men (and the same for science and math) would take away the last hook that typical male geeks have left to hang their masculinity on.

The canonical origin story for a geek is the kid who's quiet, a loner, bullied in school, ignored by girls, and not good at sports. In other words, he (and it's always a boy) lacks the attributes that hegemonic Western masculinity is defined around: physical and sexual prowess, physical strength and power. As Restructure! writes, the typical male geek seeks to redefine and reclaim masculinity by substituting the things he is good at (science, math, and programming) for his weaknesses. This origin story isn't true for every geek -- not all geeks are male, not all geeks are heterosexual, and plenty of geeks are extroverted, popular, and good at sports. But the geek myth remains, and many geeks use the pretext of having been bullied in school to excuse their bullying of people in minority groups.

While Restructure!'s theory about why some men are so possessive about the geek community is just a theory, I find it a pretty compelling one to explain why the community is so dominated by heterosexual men. It's not necessarily true that heterosexual men are responsible for most or all of the achievements (we know about Ada Lovelace, Grace Hopper, and many more less-often-praised women; we know about Alan Turing, Peter Landin, Eric Allman, and a litany of other queer people in computer science and open source) -- but it is true that they control the discourse. If male domination were merely a historical accident, an artifact of women's historical exclusion from education (particularly technical education), we would expect to see the problem solving itself. But often it feels like male domination is getting even more entrenched. Remember that 2 percent number for women employed in engineering at Mozilla?

Typical male geeks feel that in order to be men, they need to have a freedom that women -- and queer people, who are also considered not-quite-men according to them -- can't have: in this particular case, the freedom to prove oneself as a good hacker. Allowing women and queer people in the community would make that freedom less valuable to them, and since they tend to lack other ways to reinforce their masculinity, they hurt technological progress by standing in the way of women and queer people who could potentially be good hackers too.

As a society, we need to find healthier ways for men, women, and everybody else to express their genders that don't involve putting people down and harming the progress of science and technology by excluding people who could contribute to it. On a smaller scale, I think we need to start being more honest about why typical male geeks resist integrating their communities. And that starts with those typical male geeks being more honest with themselves.

Dealing with imperfection

Be usefully flawed instead of perfectly useless. -- LiveJournal user sanguinity, comment on the Debunking White community

Technical people are used to being corrected, and used to not taking it personally. "RTFM" is an initialism that many nerds rally around; "LMGTFY" is a more recent version. While there are valid criticisms to be made about the culture of hazing newcomers that the acronym "RTFM" embodies, I'll just note that it's a broadly accepted philosophy in geek cultures that it's best to try to help yourself before asking others to help you. Being called on your privilege -- being told that you're unaware of the privilege you have -- is a little bit like being told to RTFM, except there's no single "manual", only the body of experience of people in less privileged groups (which, as a general rule, is available for your perusal for free on the Web and at your local library).

It's not a mainstream point of view to complain about having been the victim of an "ad hominem attack" when someone tells you to RTFM. (By the way, the term "ad hominem attack" doesn't just mean "attack" -- it specifically means telling someone their entire argument is invalid because of some irrelevant personal characteristic of theirs. Real ad hominem attacks are logically fallacious because somebody having a negative personal characteristic doesn't make everything they say logically false. Many of the things that get called "ad hominem attacks" are simply valid criticisms.) Despite that, it is mainstream for people with privilege to complain that they're being attacked when someone points out... that the privileged person is attacking them, likely without knowing it.

When someone tells you to RTFM, you know that's not a personal attack -- it just means you need to listen and learn. Likewise, when someone asks you to check your privilege, it means that it's time for you to put aside the authority granted to you by society, and listen to people who speak from lived experience. Nobody is born knowing everything and nobody is perfect; what redeems us is the ability to listen and learn. Instead of accusing people less privileged than yourself of doing an "ad hominem attack", you can instead listen for the truth in what they say, even if the way in which they're saying it hurts you. Does it hurt because they're being mean, or does it hurt because it hurts to be asked not to dominate people anymore, even if you were unaware that that's what you were doing?

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Last modified: Wed Sep 5 00:26:35 PDT 2012