Off Ramp Ahead

tar pit bubblesIt’s been an interesting few days.  Not bad; there’s no tale of woe to tell.  It’s more that things that  have been churning in my mind are starting to bubble to the surface. And there have been some interesting events going on (the Minnesota Twins are fun to watch again, for instance).

Also, yesterday I (electronically) submitted the “paperwork” to officially kick off the retirement process.  My last day of work will be June 28, (2π Day and my mom’s birthday!) There’s a hell of a pay cut coming up due to this early retirement, but that won’t be a real issue for a while. It’s not something I’ll need to consider until at least next year.

I warn you now: I have no idea what this post is going to be about!

Adria Richards 1As I was driving home tonight from my soon-to-be former employer, I was pondering a blog post I read while pretending to work. It involves a recent brouhaha kicked off by Adria Richards.

Ms Richards was at PyCon (a convention for Python users (the wonderful programming language, not the snakes or British comedy troupe (although in fact named after the Monty))). At this convention, during a presentation, she happened to overhear and join in a conversation with two men seated behind her.

After she turned back to the presentation, she heard one of them making crude, frat-boy sexual innuendo jokes based on the technology of “dongles” and “forking”.  I’m sure you can figure out approximately what was said. Importantly, apparently nothing was directed at Ms Richards. It was “just” men being childish assholes.

Adria Richards 2Ms Richards decided that this was a battle worth fighting, and as her weapon she chose to send a Twit to her followers, including a photo she’d snapped.  She also sent a text to the convention runners.  The immediate result was that the men were removed from the convention.

The long-term result is that… wait for it… one of the men was fired from his job… and so was Ms Richards!  One commenter speculated that the reason she was fired was to avoid corporate liability.  It’s possible to read the Twit as a form of harassment or assault, and therefore possible the fired guy might sue. (To be clear: I’m not saying that’s reasonable. Our legal system frequently isn’t.)

It may be a case of too much negative publicity, right or wrong.

I don’t know the players or the details, so my opinion is uninformed, and I don’t really want to open this up to a major discussion about the case.  The internet is already seriously inflamed about it.  The math blog I was reading suffered a DoS attack, apparently because someone was offended by the post or comments.

Adria Richards TweetMy uninformed take, for what little it’s worth, is that using a Twit was probably not a proportional response.  Taking it public like that seems an awfully large club (the hitting with kind, not the joining kind).

On the other hand, terrorism exists when a seriously disadvantaged group with no power in the conversation feels the need to work for their point of view.  I am not equating this in any way with terrorism.  What I mean to point out is that a disadvantaged group may need some kind of disproportionate response to have any effect at all. Few listen to the disenfranchised.

And sadly, here in 2013, women are still in many, many ways a disenfranchised group.  The sexual bias in society is pervasive and often times subtle.  Even those of us who pride ourselves on our egalitarianism can fall prey to it.  Studies have shown, for example, that teachers of both genders tend to call on boys more than girls.  And most—if not all—professional women can speak to how hard it can be to have their voices heard.

Woman in a male worldIt is well-known that the technology and science fields can be especially male-biased.  (Some of that may be due to geek nerds who’ve never been properly socialized with women.)

I can understand the desire to use the biggest and best club available. At the same time, the resulting firestorm (and firings) does seem to suggest that social media may not have been the ideal choice.  On the other hand, it did drive a lot of conversation, and perhaps something good, or even just awareness, may come from that.

So I have seriously mixed feelings. In the end, not really knowing what happened, I find I have no real opinion.  I suspect that both parties suffered something of an error in judgement.  What interests me more is the fallout.

This seems, once again, to highlight the power and peril of social media.  And it isn’t just social media itself. It’s the sheer volume of people connected that I think changes the equation.

gender equalityFor example, just about anyone can sell something these days if you work hard enough.  In a country with 300+ million, if you can get 0.01% (one-hundredth of one percent) of the population to buy it, that’s 30,000 units sold!

When something catches the attention of the social media denizens, the result can be a tsunami.  At least until they get bored and move on to the next outrage. (Trust me: in two or three weeks Ms Richards will fade into the obscurity from which she sprang and this will all be forgotten. It does, in some sense, make a mockery of the actual issue.)

What I found fascinating was the polarization of views and the almost complete inability of just about everyone involved to have a balanced view.  We’ve badly lost our ability to see nuance.  People who dared to suggest that maybe a Twit wasn’t the ideal response were shoved into the corner of tarring Ms Richards and compared to those who blame the victim in rapes (and I have no little trepidation about including her name in the tags…any foaming at the mouth responses will be deleted with extreme prejudice and without comment (because I’m the only one that gets to foam at the mouth here (my blog, my rules))).

Head Up AssAnd I gotta be honest. This just all fuels the fire that’s burned in me for 40 years. It once again seems to confirm that people are, generally speaking, stupid beyond comprehension.  This is a topic that is near and dear to my heart, and one that I shall return to anon.  (And let me be perfectly clear: I’m not talking about education, although that’s a problem, too. I’m talking about the inability to think and reason clearly.  A lack of education is fixable; stupidity generally isn’t unless you catch it very early.)

The other thing that this connects to for me has to do with the popular topic of bullying, of saying mean or inappropriate things.

Let me frame this by asking a question that’s been bugging me: When did we become so fucking sensitive about words?

bullying 1

This is not the same…

There’s a commercial that bothers me.  It features a number of children holding signs.  Most of them say something like, “I get mean texts.”

But one of them reads, “I have bruises.”

Are we really to the point of equating mean words with physical abuse of children?  Have we completely lost our minds? What happened to the old childhood rhyme: “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.”

Now that I have that off my chest, let me backpedal just a little.  Words do have power. Words can hurt (but they won’t break your bones). Words can even be terribly destructive (consider the power of a false rumor or accusation).

bullying 2

…as this!

It’s a tricky line to walk. Whether it’s the ignorant frat-boy remarks of some jackass sitting behind you or the childish taunts of a schoolmate, there seems to need to be some proportionate response.  We revere the concept of free speech in this country… but apparently only so long as we aren’t too offended.

I wish I lived in a world where, when someone says something stupid, everyone else goes, “Well, that was really stupid!” and then moves on.

Instead, we seem to have become a  heavy-handed, overly sensitive, knee-jerk (emphasis on jerk) group of nitwits incapable of nuanced thought or reasoned response.

Is it any wonder I think so many of you are too stupid to be allowed to run around unsupervised?

About Wyrd Smythe

The canonical fool on the hill watching the sunset and the rotation of the planet and thinking what he imagines are large thoughts. View all posts by Wyrd Smythe

28 responses to “Off Ramp Ahead

  • heysugarsugar

    That was a fantastic post. Great to see you here 🙂 xx

  • Michelle at The Green Study

    You had me until the last sentence. As one of the unsupervised stupid minions (since statistically I would fall into the “most” category), I hadn’t heard or read about the Adria Richards story. Behavior on all sides seems silly and ridiculous. But the word “dongles” makes me laugh every time.

    • Wyrd Smythe

      Well, sorry, you’re totally not in the “most” category on this one. But you are right about that last sentence; that’s probably the rage talking. Plus maybe the Barrel of Wine; Barrel of Sewage phenomenon. A little bit of crap does go a long way.

      I learned about Adria Richards the same way… by reading a blog post. It’s almost funny how that’s become a form of news. And “dongles” is a funny word… one can imagine how irresistible it would be to a childish mind. (And I’ve certainly made plenty of “forking around” jokes (albeit non-sexual ones).) All-in-all, it makes me wonder if—the reality of gender issues in the workplace not withstanding—this particular case might have been an over-reaction. But, not knowing the players or having been there, who can say.

    • Wyrd Smythe

      Changed the last line… better now?

      • Michelle at The Green Study

        It’s all a matter of degree, isn’t it? Since I often have a sophomoric sense of humor, I probably relate more to the men in this story than the woman (especially since Twitter is such an inane tool). Gender issue or personality defect? Sometimes it is hard to tell. People see what they are looking for – whether it be instances of human stupidity or rampant misogyny.

      • Wyrd Smythe

        Good point; very, very true! I do try to use intent as one yardstick for taking offense at something. Whatever was actually said, it seems clear it was not about, or directed at, Ms Richards. One might consider that it raises the general level of gender aggression, certainly not a good thing, and certainly something deserving some sort of correction, but the response may have been somewhat disproportionate.

        (I would opine that stupidity is usually a bit more apparent and easier to judge than misogyny. This case is an example. The dongle and forking jokes were pretty obviously stupid in that public setting. But determining whether they were misogynist is trickier.)

  • Alex Autin

    Were Ms Richards a woman of intelligence and grace she could have turned and reminded the men that they were at a public event and their comments were being overheard. End of problem. (Though I do have to question just how thin skinned this woman is.) Instead she hid behind a Twitter account, rallying up her cyber troops in an attempt to humiliate these men to whom she gave no chance to either apologize, correct their behavior, or defend themselves. Very cowardly, and not at all the actions of a strong person. And though she choose the battlefield herself, the massively public forum of Twitter, she then cried foul-play when the tables were turned and she became the target of tweets volleyed against her and her actions.

    The real ‘outrage’ here is that someone lost their job for exchanging a few bad jokes with a friend, jokes which may have been sexual in nature, but in no way sexist. As for Ms Richards’ lost job, well – if you’re a PR rep for a company who’s business involves the privacy of outbound electronic messages, you might want to exhibit more savvy then to take pictures of potential clients, without permission, and then use them in an attempt at public humiliation. And did she really then compare herself to Joan of Arc? That’s just…funny.

    • Wyrd Smythe

      An excellent analysis; it reflects what my uninformed gut suggests. I totally agree it’s the fallout that was interesting and alarming. The power of social media seems to be one of those two-edged swords… it can aid a revolution of the oppressed, but it can also be one hell of a club. I wonder sometimes if people who are deeply embedded in social media may forget (or perhaps find too convenient) that power. What’s that line about sleeping dragons?

      I have to say that the more I think about this (and you mentioned some nice details), the more I lean away from her behavior. (The Joan of Arc thing was… odd! I guess we should be glad she’s not hearing voices.) One thing I found interesting was the reflexive, unqualified (and in some cases, foaming at the mouth rabid) support she’s received. That math blog (a fave of mine) rarely sees so many comments on a single article, and it was striking how many men were on the rabid support side.

      I’m late for work; gotta go! Thanks for dropping by and commenting!

      • Alex Autin

        Please allow me to clarify that I, in no way, advocate that one should ‘sit there and take it’ in order to preserve one’s employment. I do not. My point here is that Ms Richards defined the battle, defined the battlefield, defined the rules of engagement, and subsequently got her ass handed to her in the very public forum she stirred up. The idea that she should be given a pass on her actions, a slap on the wrist from her employers, based on her being a woman is an extremely sexist notion which further serves to preserve the ‘be careful what you say, there’s a woman in the room’ mentality which women have long fought to remove.

      • Wyrd Smythe

        Absolutely (I hope I haven’t given the impression otherwise)! One possible response is to remove yourself, to change your seat. I’ve never cared for even that idea. On the flip side, not everyone is graceful and capable of reasonable public conflict with strangers. While directly confronting the men behind her is one of the better options, it’s not an option that everyone can pull off successfully or would be comfortable doing.

        Even being willing to confront a stranger in public can have an unexpected result. I once confronted a loudly talking woman during a movie (T3, if I recall correctly), and she really went off on me. I ended up having to go get the theater manager, and he threw her out.

        One of the things she did do seems, to me, the best solution: she sent a text to the conference people, and they addressed the matter. I think that, ultimately, if you have an issue with someone at a public event, especially in these reactionary times, it’s often wiser to let the people managing the event deal with the situation.

      • Wyrd Smythe

        re your comment about reverse-sexism, the author of that math blog described a work situation where he became aware a female co-worker wasn’t being heard in meetings. So in the next meeting, when what she said was ignored, he “helped” out by turning the meeting’s attention to what she’d said. After the meeting she tore him a new one, in part because he’d done that unasked, but more because it was still a case of a male voice being heard.

        I’ve long been aware of how hard it is for women to be heard in the workplace. I’ve been astonished in meetings watching it happen. I’m guilty of also trying to help, although I think what I do is a lot more subtle. I play off my known severe hearing loss and interrupt the male conversation with, “Wait, I’m sorry, I didn’t catch what X said. Could you repeat that for me, please?”

        It’s apparently been effective. I still only have one.

  • dianasschwenk

    I hadn’t heard of this at all until now and I have a twitter account! Well written Smitty. I do agree that we are becoming to sensitive and too politically correct and unfortunately we protect our kids too much now, so that in the future they just may fall to pieces if someone says anything that’s not a compliment.

    • Wyrd Smythe

      Thank you, Lady Di!

      Very good point about the consequences of over-protection! I’ve been taking an informal poll on the topic of the new idea of “scoreless sports” for children under 10. The idea is to have them play the game without keeping score. It’s similar to the idea of all participants getting a “Participant” trophy in a race (no winner, no loser). A former manager of mine (one of the rare good ones) mentioned that we’re starting to see employees who’ve been raised in that context (of “everyone is a winner; everyone succeeds”), and in many cases they seem to expect to be CEO in a short time while putting in very little effort.

      I’ve long believed that one reason men negotiate certain kinds of conflict more readily than women is due to their experience in playing sports. As fierce and aggressive as the competition on the field may be, after the game it’s beers for everyone. Sports provide an early training in the idea that there is an “afterwards” in any conflict and in the idea of winners and losers and what it takes to be a winner (effort!). I think removing those components from our early training is a mistake.

      In particular, I think it’s a huge mistake to decouple the ideas of effort and success. If your early training suggests success comes without much effort, the real world is going to be one hell of a shock!

  • wakemenow

    This is probably the most balanced and decent account I’ve read thus far on the subject of what went down at Pycon. Lots of emotion flaring on both sides of the aisle out here on the internet.

    Personally, I have no trouble turning around and telling a guy to pipe down, and I’m frequently confused by the reluctance of other women to directly confront people they take issue with. Then those same women get upset and act like no one is listening to their point of view or caring about their feelings, as if we all were somehow supposed to sense their discomfort (telepathically, I presume). I’m about as dense as petrified wood when it comes to picking up on subtle hints tossed out by womenfolk, so once it’s become obvious to me they’re generally already riled up and pitching a fit, and I wish it didn’t have to come to that.

    Sometimes I think what stresses women out most isn’t just being direct and straightforward so much as worrying about coming across like a bitch in the process. But then when you go behind people’s backs and take passive-aggressive action rather than be upfront, it’s nearly guaranteed you’ll come across as a bigger bitch in the end. *shrugs* Difference in psychologies, yes, and different social expectations for women than men, and I think we all can be quicker to judge the “mouthy” woman for speaking her piece. But oh well, still better to go ahead and risk that than to take covert action behind people’s backs and expose them publicly (especially for relatively minor infractions) without first providing them the opportunity to know that they’re being offensive. I think what weirds a lot of us out about Ms. Richards’ actions is that she responded to a level 2 or 3 offense with level 8 or 9 retaliation, over mere words not directed at her nor intended for her to hear that honestly didn’t strike me as worthy losing one’s job over. It’s like she played the role of social gestapo, going the route of a snitch than that of a reasonable individual capable of navigating potholes she encounters. And as for these men’s behavior causing her to “snap” — all I can think is she’s obviously not been around too many men then. Because Beavis and Butthead humor comes with the territory, annoying as it sometimes is, but snap-worthy? Eh. Better to just regard them as idiots and carry on. But that’s just my $.02.

    • Wyrd Smythe

      Thank you and nice to see you again. It’s been a while. The weird thing is I was thinking just last week I should drop by your blog and find out how your new project is going. Synchronicity strikes again!

      I think you summed it up. A level 8 or 9 response to a level 2 or 3 offense. And weirdly, I suspect that even a guy would be considered at least somewhat weasel-like for not directly confronting the offenders. We do expect (or at least hold in high regard) people to meet challenges head-on and who deal with their own problems on their own. But not everyone has the moxie to confront strangers in public, and with so much anger (and guns) floating around these days, you can never be sure a public confrontation won’t escalate to Def Con 1 levels. (Years ago I almost got into a bar fight because I moved a guy’s beer that he’d set down directly in front of me. I just edged it over nicely.)

      So it can be difficult to know what to do. The text message to the organizers seems the ideal response. Or speaking to someone. And you’re right that a woman’s actions are likely seen through a different lens than a man’s. I wonder if that will ever change completely.

      It’s possible Ms Richard’s reaction was more based on something going on in her life, a bad day or something. What I find so fascinating is how the combination of scale and social media have created a minefield. Certain sorts of errors in judgement can have highly amplified consequences. We find yet another powerful tool that people need to be smart about using safely.

      • wakemenow

        Nice to see you again too. 🙂 I still drop by occasionally to read your blog, and hope to do more of that going forward.

        Besides posting links to sites, I wouldn’t know what else to do with Twitter. But stories like that definitely bring it home that digital technology has the power to change our lives. Privacy is fast becoming a luxury, and what we put out on the internet has the potential of taking on a life all unto itself, one that we may never live down if we’re seriously unlucky. Hmm. Makes me wish I’d reconsider drinking so much beer while trotting around the internet, commenting as I go. And how dumb would it be to held publicly accountable for drunk blogging? 😛

        At the rate people are going, we’ll eventually suck all the fun right out of playing online.

      • Wyrd Smythe

        Much as I hate what it represents, Twitter has good value in some contexts. It combines the best of text messaging (short messages) with the broadcast ability of the web. The subscriber model (“following”) plus hash tag filtering make it an awesome communications mechanism… for certain things. It’s main use as a network of trivial and trivial, nearly random, thought bubbles just highlights how ephemeral and shallow we can roll.

        Cell phones: same thing. Awesome tool for communications, especially emergency and remote occasions. And having cameras so prevalent and handy is—and will continue to be—a social revolution. There’s a line that runs from Rodney King to Adria Richards. It’s getting harder for injustice to go unnoticed. And we use them mainly to chatter away about what we had for lunch. Sometimes we take pictures of what we had for lunch. Because we can? Because it was there? (I guess that works for mountains.)

        Generations that come after us see privacy differently (they have to). I know people who are quite comfortable living large amounts of their lives online. And there is a connectedness shared by many that’s rather mind-boggling to me. (Again that Yin-Yang of powerful tool and trivial use; the microscope used as a paperweight, the telescope used for peeking in the neighbor’s windows.) Maybe what changes is our perception of how people behave. There seems growing acceptance of social media mistakes (I heard Anthony Weiner is running for Mayor of NYC). We’ve always been pretty forgiving, when you come down to it. Maybe that will extend to social media.

        I’ve been around long enough to see something happen many times, small scale and large. A new thing is fresh and a bit wild, even uncertain, at first. But the more popular it becomes, the more settled and mainstream it becomes. There’s a long list of examples: Rock, Punk Rock, Rap, the Wild, Wild West, the World Wide Web (the internet before the web), many good restaurants, some bands, some actors, some book series, some TV shows,… Like I said, a long list. And it usually does take the fun out of it.

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