Over the past few days, there have been many responses to — and discussions inspired by — The Dark Side of Geek Feminism and my subsequent blog post about it. I’ve followed along here and there, but mostly laid low and haven’t chimed in much. But I have given the situation — and the animated discussions it inspired — a lot of thought…
A Label by Any Other Name
My first job in IT was in a non-technical role at a tech publishing company. On my first day, the hiring manager told me something about the company’s culture that stuck with me: We always start with the assumption that people have good intentions.
This “good intentions” idea helped set the tone for our pretty positive work environment, and I try to apply it to all areas of my life. Still, every once in a while we’d have some kind of sensitivity training at work, like the day we had a meeting about sexual harassment. The guest speaker explained that if someone feels like they are being sexually harassed, then it’s sexual harassment. I left the meeting with an uneasy feeling as I walked down the hall to my office. I gave Johnny Depp a quick kiss on the cheek before pulling him — well, a poster of him in his naked bubble-bath glory — off my office wall, rolled him up, and tucked him safely into his poster tube. I didn’t think that poster would get me in trouble for sexual harassment, but I figured I’d get a complaint about it eventually. In hindsight, the younger me did some pretty inappropriate office things, so I’m glad I had co-workers who assumed I had good intentions and politely helped get me on track when I needed it. But I digress…
My point is that sexual harassment is hard to define. You can put a label on it, and maybe you can recognize it if it happens to you, but the same incident might not feel like sexual harassment for someone else.
A few years later, I found myself at a different tech publishing company with a lot more geek cred under my tech journalist belt. As I sat back enjoying the entertainment at the 10th anniversary party at Linux Fest North West, a friend asked me what I thought of it. “Finally! Some good entertainment at one of these things,” I said as I ate pizza and watched the professional belly dancers performing on stage. “Really? You aren’t offended?” he asked. I explained to him that I don’t see belly dancing as sexual, maybe because I’ve had several friends who were belly dancers and they performed during dinner hours at local restaurants. And keep in mind that I’m from Kansas, which isn’t recognized for its rich belly dance culture or open-minded people.
The organizers later asked me what I’d thought about the entertainment, and I told them how much I’d enjoyed it, but that several of my friends were uncomfortable and thought it was inappropriate so they should probably skip hiring the dancers for future tech events. The organizers felt horrible about making people uncomfortable and sincerely apologized to a few individuals. Over the years, I’ve gotten to know a few of the LFNW organizers pretty well, and you’d have a hard time finding people as friendly and inviting as they are. No doubt, LFNW has introduced hundreds, perhaps thousands of people to Linux and open source.
And, yes, I do have a point again: What is sexual and inappropriate is hard to define. You can put a label on it, and maybe you can recognize it if you see it, but the same situation might not seem sexual or inappropriate for someone else.
Back to the Nice Girl
Well, as it turns out, I actually met Nice Girl at OSCON last month. I didn’t realize that I knew her when I wrote about her blog post. I do remember meeting her, though, and I do remember taking note of what she was wearing. I thought, “She looks nice.” I don’t remember what she had on; I just remember thinking that she was dressed up more than I was. I had on my shirt with a company logo, “slacks” instead of my usual running shorts I wear at home, and my comfortable, low-heeled dress shoes. It doesn’t take much to be more dressed up than I was – any dress and shoe with a bit of heel will do it. My point? (Yes, I have one!) She didn’t stand out to me as being dressed particularly provocatively or inappropriately. In fact, I can tell you more detail about what her fiance was wearing.
Yesterday a guest blogger responded on the Geek Feminism site to The Dark Side of Geek Feminism post. I also know the guest blogger, Christie, and have nothing but fabulous things to say about her and her contributions to open source. Christie even took home a well-deserved O’Reilly Open Source Award last month. So I hope she — and other readers — assume I have good intentions when they read my response to her response.
Labels, Labels, Everywhere
Christie’s response nicely illustrates one reason I’ve stayed relatively quiet about the “geek feminism” topic these past few years, so I’ll break it down to show why it is hard for the layperson to speak up about “geek feminist” topics.
Often when people try to speak up about geek feminist issues, they are confronted with labels or incidents that have been archived in the Geek Feminism Wiki. Frankly, it feels like typing on eggshells when you approach any topic that could fall under the “geek feminist” label, so I tried to show how these labels and wiki definitions can be — and often are — used. (Christie’s blog post quote are in italics to help avoid too much confusion.)
“The recent post The Dark Side of Geek Feminism, authored by the pseudo-anonymous Nice Girl, and the mostly uncritical responses to it concern me for a couple of reasons.”
Would this response fit into the definition of concern troll? According to the Geek Feminism Wiki, “A concern troll is a person who participates in a debate posing as an actual or potential ally who simply has some concerns they need answered before they will ally themselves with a cause. In reality they are a critic.”
“Without question, it is a person’s decision whether or not to name their abuser. There are plenty of good reasons for not doing so. However, it’s clear that the author is withholding such information not to protect herself, but in order to protect potential abusers and derailers…”
Abusers and derailers are pretty strong labels for a person who probably had good intentions when speaking directly with someone about women’s participation and appearance at tech events. The couple of incidents I’ve had during my years in IT wouldn’t fall under abusive in my book, or warrant a report to an event organizer. In both cases, I politely, respectfully disagreed face-to-face with the other people, and to be honest, I actually like them both to this day. I won’t call them out publicly because I would like to continue having a decent professional relationship with them. So you won’t see me naming names or slapping labels on the self-proclaimed geek feminists, no matter how well-known or active they are in the geek feminist community.
Also (forgive me for not fully understanding all the labels defined on the GF Wiki), isn’t the idea that Nice Girl should name the people she encountered at OSCON actually derailment? The GF Wiki links to Derailing for Dummies, which — besides being an entertaining read — helped explain derailing to me: “The best part is, you don’t even have to be a white, heterosexual, cisgendered, cissexual, upper-class male to enjoy the full benefits of derailing conversation! Nope, you can utilise the lesser-recognised tactic of Horizontal Hostility to make sure that, despite being a member of a Marginalised Group™ yourself, you can exercise a privilege another Marginalised Group™ doesn’t have in order not to heed their experience!”
I’m new at this derailment thing, but I think the entry Unless You Can Prove Your Experience Is Widespread I Won’t Believe It tackles the problem you might have with The Dark Side of Geek Feminism post, which you say, “… attacks all of geek feminism based on the actions of a few unnamed individuals. I find this problematic because there is no certification for being a geek feminist.”
According to this kind of derailment, “You’ve successfully got them in a catch-22: we’ve already established experience is not a monolith and just because people come from the same Marginalised Group™ does not mean they will all have the same thoughts and feelings and experiences. Yet with this one you can make it an essential proviso of your agreement that they have to PROVE what they’re claiming is definitively representative of a majority of their group of people.”
“Another aspect of the post to consider is use of the term ‘lynch mob’ … and the author’s response to being called out on its inappropriateness. “
Derailing, according to the Geek Feminism Wiki: “Typically, derailing will instead centre the needs of the relatively privileged group and ask the activist to reframe the conversations or actions around members of that group.” Note that the definition says “ask the activist,” which assumes that Nice Girl is acting as a feminist activist rather than a woman sharing her recent experience in a blog post on her personal blog. My take on this is that it’s her blog, and she can derail if she wants to.
“What this tells me is that the author clearly doesn’t understand intersectionality and how it relates to privilege. For me, this kind of understanding, or at least the willingness to achieve it, is a prerequisite for engaging in feminist dialog in the first place.”
Luckily, Derailing for Dummies also explains this response in the You’re Not Being Intellectual Enough/You’re Being Overly Intellectual section: “Even though the conversation taking place is reflective of or about real life circumstances and situations for human beings, you must be careful to first insist on placing it within an academic framework. If the Marginalised Person™ involved is speaking in vernacular and placing too much emphasis on Lived Experience©, you must swiftly impress that you cannot consider it a proper ‘debate’ unless theory and philosophy play a key component, complete with big words normally not found outside of academic papers.”
“Which leads me to wonder, is the author really engaging in a feminist dialog, or is she promoting an anti-feminist agenda?”
I’m glad you brought this up. According to the You Have An Agenda section on the Derailing for Dummies page: “A close relative of the tactic used above, use this one in a similar fashion, implying that the Marginalised Person could never be speaking from a position of integrity or with pure intent because they have ‘an agenda’.”
In addition to providing definitions to almost any label that can be used to invalidate responses to the “geek feminist” movement, pages in the Geek Feminism Wiki act as a geek version of the scarlet letter. For example, one of the responses to Jono Bacon’s Facebook link to my blog post included, “Guess I understand how you got your own page on Geek Feminism…”.
This is obviously meant as a dig, as if warranting an entire page means Jono is a really-bad-sexist-pig-dog type of person.
Raise your hand if you think Jono has helped increase diversity in open source [both my hands are raised]. But the only content you’ll find on his “page” on the Geek Feminism Wiki are references to incidents that someone determined to be sexist. Jono and I are in agreement that people tend to focus on negative incidents and not on the positive. I’m not just referring to open source or tech communities when I say “people.” Watch your evening news (if you can stomach it, which I can’t) and you’ll see a bunch of stories about tragedies, some coverage of pop star and political gossip or other non-news, and little or no coverage of positive news. Depressing.
Jono’s efforts to focus on positive incidents, projects, and people earns him the tone argument label in the Geek Feminism Wiki: “A tone argument is an argument used in discussions, sometimes by Concern trolls and sometimes as a Derailment, in which it is suggested that feminists would be more successful if only they expressed themselves in a more pleasant tone.”
So there you have it. My response to the responses. Excuse my derailment, or concern trolling, or tone argument. Maybe I’m a feminist but…
You’ll note that my comments are closed. The thing is, I’ve already spent more time on the “geek feminist” topic than I should have this week. I don’t want to “educate” myself by reading up on any more of the labels listed in the GF Wiki. If that means you think I see it in my “interest not to be educated”, then so be it. I see it as “I’m a journalist, which means I’m way behind on some deadlines.”