The facts, as we know them:
- A man made what was likely meant to be a lighthearted but offensive joke to his friends while in public at a conference.
- A woman took offense, took a photo of the man in question, posted it on Twitter, and asked conference organizers to talk to the man.
- Conference organizers talked to the man, as was their stated policy.
- The woman posted about the encounter on her blog.
- The man was fired from his job.
- Threats were made against the woman on various blogs, news sites, and social media. Anonymous commenters posted her home address, contact information, as well as violent threats and photoshopped pictures of violent acts. She was forced to away from her home out of fear.
- The man apologized.
- The company the woman worked for suffered a distributed denial of service attack.
- The woman was fired from her job.
(Regular readers here and at Normative Connections who know I normally use the Economist Style Guide and the Chicago Manual of Style will notice that I do not name anyone specific in this post. That is a conscious choice. The specific individuals matter little to the broader problem, and I am tired of laying blame. It is unproductive. Others have written plenty about the nuances of this particular case, I will not be doing so. I have seen this sort of situation happens often to many women and men in almost every field and industry I’ve been a part of, not just technology. The roles of the individuals involved are secondary to the greater problems in society.)
I care little about trying to assign fault or causal responsibility, because there are deep systemic problems at play, the acts by individuals are endemic and secondary to deep societal forces that shape the way individuals act and react. Specific actions are cumulations of the social forces that shape the scenario and those involved. Ideas such as blame, fault, and responsibility overemphasize the role and agency of the individuals involved.
Before I continue, I should clarify what I mean by “responsibility,” for it is a deeply complex and morally loaded term. I am talking about three particular types of responsibility N.A. Vincent’s taxonomy of responsibility concepts1. I do not talk about all of them, but they are useful for thinking about responsibility:
- Virtue responsibility: That persons cares about their duties. (eg a professor who cares about teaching well).
- Role responsibility: That persons, in their role have duties (eg captains must care for the ships under their command).
- Outcome responsibility: Something that happened can be attributed to a person. (eg the empty ice cream container left by a careless roommate)
- Causal responsibility: That something is the impetus for an action (eg a loose screw that caused a bookshelf to fall).
- Capacity responsibility: That someone or something has the ability to do a thing (eg a person who cannot swim is not morally responsible for saving someone who is drowning).
- Liability responsibility: The entity that has ownership of the results of an action (eg landlords have the liability responsibility to keep their buildings safe and in good repair).2
While the woman and the man were the actors in this situation (causally responsible), we should not consider either fully liable nor responsible for the outcomes of their words or actions. I realize this is a controversial thing to say, but I will show below why everyone’s actions are can be see as perfectly rational responses given the community we all live in, and that is the problem.
When society is stacked against you
To start, any reasonable person must acknowledge that there are deep gender, racial, and socio-economic discrepancies in our society. The technology conference where this incident occurred had only a 20% attendance rate from women, but that is actually to be celebrated because that is a tremendously good rate for tech conferences. (Which itself is a major problem, which we need to address.) Women receive discriminatory, threatening, and otherwise offensive remarks from others within our community every day. Women with authority are called derogatory names, dismissed for being "un-womanlike." Many walking down the street are jeered at and suffer treatment as sexual objects, especially if they are wearing revealing clothing. Those who ask for strangers to stop sexist behaviors are often sneered at, hassled, and threatened. Anyone who has been in those situations knows it can be deeply grating, hurtful, and disheartening. All reasonable persons would be frustrated and angered when subjected to that sort of environment.
This is not an issue of being calm or rational; it is about trying to do something you love, something you are good at, and trying to perfect your craft but being constantly pushed aside, passed by, and attacked for being something that is not only out of your control, but irrelevant to your talent and skill. It is easy for those of us in the safety of our office, home, or anonymity of our favorite cafe to make claims about what we would do, what someone else should or should not have done. But we were not there, the situation is completely different when you are in the moment. It is completely different to act in the stressful environment of of a conference, surrounded by strangers. Intentional or not, conscious or not, our society has made itself uninviting and sometimes dangerous for women. Could she have done something different? Yes. But that is not the question at hand. Should she have done something different? I do not know and neither do you. We were not there. We did not think her thoughts, feel what she felt, or hear what she heard. We can not be wholey credible judges of the situation. Anyone who thinks otherwise is mistaken.
The language we use has unintended consequences
As any good ethnographer knows, intent of the words we use is not always what is heard. We cannot read another’s mind, so we often miss the meaning of what others say, or apply meaning that was not intended. We know some of the man’s words, but we do not know the idioms or colloquialisms he used with his friends and coworkers, nor do we know the intonation he used when he spoke his words, which are just as important as the words used. And that is not all, when it comes to determining intent and meaning. Audience perception matters just as much as author’s intent. Whether or not he meant to offend when he made his remarks, they were received as such, and that is important. The problem is that much of what we do is unconscious, or more aptly: supraconscious. We know what the idioms we use mean to us and our social groups, but do not consciously think about broader connotations. And that can be dangerous and hurtful to people who are finely tuned to particular social triggers.
We need to teach ourselves to be more conscious of the layers of meaning of the things we say and do. Many would call this political correctness. I hate the term. The point is not to avoid doing certain actions, the point is to be aware of ourselves, others in our community and how our actions affect them. The point is to care for others. That is fundamental to being part of a society.
We are shaped by society, but society is poorly shaped.
Our society is terrible at dealing with issues and communication dealing with sex and gender. Parents have difficulty teaching their children the proper terms for their body parts, sometimes making up words, but other times repurposing common words but adding innuendo. Innuendo can be overt, but just as often implied through body language, and intonation (imagine someone saying “I’d fork that repo.” with the intonation of someone saying “I’d tap that ass.”). Popular culture has pushed us along this path. Jokes in popular television and film have simultaneously sexualized everything and dulled us to their use; sometimes ironically, sometimes overtly marketing to certain demographics, other times just repeating what is popular.
We segregate genders far before there is any need to, forcing our children into strict gender roles. Segregating gym classes so they know they are different, try to treat them as equals in other classes (but our teachers–like all humans–are still stuck with their unconscious biases); giving lip service to egalitarianism, but end up practicing anything but. We teach boys that girls and women are different, something alien. It often seems as if we replaced the overt racism and sexism of the last century with a shallow egalitarianism that is without nuance and intellectually empty. And we fail terribly at teaching empathy. We teach our children that they need to be independent beings, to choose their own path and that they are unique and special, telling them to ignore the naysayers, without teaching them how to accept constructive criticism. But independence is a false chimera, we are part of a community. Criticism and feedback are necessary for growth. We prepare our children to be lone wolves when we should be teaching them cooperation, collaboration, and interdependence. That is not to say that teaching people to be independently minded is bad, people do need to learn to think for themselves and not be afraid of going against the grain. But that must be a part of creating whole persons who are a part of their community, not apart from it.
When we teach our children to just ignore criticism, we create unhealthy persons incapable of handling negative feedback. We tell them to hold on to their ideas and that their beliefs should be respected without telling them that they could be wrong. We then fill them popular culture that treats women as sex objects without overtly teaching them otherwise either at home, at school, or in the community. That is what young men are acculturated to. All desire is sexualized. Women are objectified.
What do we do when anonymity is default and exposure to feedback is optional?
We have created a society where there is neither need nor will to make meaningful connections with others outside our immediate social groups. And this is dangerous for the health of our society and culture. Feedback is fundamental to changing deviant behaviors and it works because as social beings, fitting in is a fundamental need. However, other aspects of our society are affecting the efficacy of the usual ways of changing aberrant behaviors: First, we humans are a homophilous lot. We search out communities that share our beliefs and culture, and when we create new communities when we can’t find ones that have already been established. Second, we are mentally limited in the number of meaningful relationships we can have at any time. We are fundamentally incapable of creating the deep connections with everyone we come in contact with, which makes is much harder to develop empathy with those unlike us. Third, we are fundamentally bad at empathizing with those who we have no established relationship with. This is not a failing of moral education but rather a fundamental part of how we operate: things matter more to us when they are personal. Fourth, we are terrible at teaching people how to rationally deal with opposing opinions. We pay lip service to the ideas of respecting opposing viewpoints, but we do nothing to teach people how to think critically, analyze, and resolve differences in opinion. Finally, when an entity finds its way of life threatened, the first reaction always to continue doing what it has been, but harder. This holds true for any entity, from ant colonies to Galápagos Island finches, and individual humans to Rust Belt ore smelters. Rationally, this can seem counterintuitive, but makes sense as an evolutionary technique where oftentimes change leads to instability which can lead to death and extinction.
In many ways, the Internet is a great connector, it allows people who would otherwise never meet to connect and make meaningful connections. However, it is not good at exposing us to ideas that differ from our own if we do not wish to be exposed to them. It is easy as ever for people to stay within their own echo chambers if they wish (for example, the anti-vaccination bloggers on Huffington Post).
Put all these together and it is easy to see how trolls exist online without reprisal. We raise our children in a culture that objectifies women. We have stuck them in a monolithic culture that does not value empathy for those with very different life experiences. We have generations who were never taught to properly interact with women or other cultures beyond “treat everyone like humans” (which is infinitely more complicated than it seems). We tell our children that they are supposed to go their own way, ignore naysayers and be free to reject the predominant culture, but do not teach them the value of community. We give people free reign to find others like themselves, with no need to be exposed to reasonable outside influence. Leaving everyone without the emotional or intellectual tools to address opposing views rationally or maturely.
Since we are anonymous by default on the Internet, the traditional methods for normalization and bringing people back to conform with the majority’ norms are lost. Exposure to negative feedback is optional, so it is no surprise that when people we our worldview challenged, we either just ignore them or lash out without any need to face the consequences of our actions.
Of course, the inability to treat others as beings worthy of empathy is not unique to our culture. It is a problem for all peoples. We take special care for those we have relationships with and make those that we consider enemies as Other. We do not consider them as one of Us: Barbarians, savages, Liberals, Feminazi. Not one of us, less than. Not worthy of consideration or care. And the Internet has worsened this effect.
Trolls can attack public figures online with few worries about repercussions, post violent threats, take down associated company websites at a whim. They can be callous without regard for dignity, morals, or anyone outside their own community for petty reasons. This behavior damages our community, it pushes much need and often underrepresented voices out of our communities. And these are problems no individual can tackle alone, no single group. Combined with technological anonymity, these people cannot be stopped without massive changes to how we run our communities and deep cultural changes in what we teach our young and what we value within our society.
Simple solutions are rarely the right ones
It is easy to blame the two companies for acting incorrectly. It is easy to say they were wrong to fire their employees over what is essentially a minor dispute that was resolved quickly, and it would be correct to say so, but not very useful. Did they consider the employees the cause of the problems or catalysts? Neither would be true, as I discussed already, these situations happen often due to deep societal ills. The particulars involved are not as much actors as they are leaves being blown about in the wind of complex social problems. Did they see the employees as mired in controversy and therefore distractions to their core businesses? Perhaps true, but not ethically grounds for removal, and that is a problem. We need companies to stop seeing themselves as merely ways to make money and provide services, but rather to see themselves as members of our community. And this is a radical shift in our social psyche, but I think a necessary one. Without our communities, none of us would be here. Without our communities, everything else companies and social groups do are without meaning.
But that is an oversimplifcation of the problem. After all, one of the companies was suffering from a distributed denial of service attack that was specifically aimed to pressure the company to remove their employee. The problem was not merely causing a distraction, it was affecting their ability to operate and threatening services that others depended on. In cases like this, where the costs of public ills are privatized, there are no good solutions.
There is no simple solution
So what should have they done? That is a hard question. Could they have placed their employees on administrative leave until everything blew over? Maybe. It is hard to tell what can satisfy angry mobs of unthinking people. When you are faced with a bad situation that needs immediate attention, you do your best with the hand you were dealt to the best of your ability. (I am not trying to excuse their actions, I am merely explaining the deep complexities of the problem.) To me, any sort of disciplinary action seems out of place. The original problem was solved quickly, and to the satisfaction of all the original people involved.
This can happen to anyone. To lay all the (liability) responsibility on only those directly involved misses the larger problem. Two companies and a handful of conference organizers can not solve socially institutionalized sexism. The (role) responsibility belongs to no person or group alone, it belongs to all of us, together. The problems of discrimination, trolling, and the lack of empathy needs generational solutions: we need to change our behaviors, the way we think how we communicate, raise the next generation to be more empathetic and care about the community. It only takes one bad person to damage the community.
How do we fix this? How do we teach others to be more empathetic? I wish I knew. Everything I have studied leads me to think that some people cannot be changed, and that leaves me despondent. But we must do something because the alternative is unacceptable and unsustainable. To be human is to be social. We need to work together, acknowledge that we are a part of communities, of societies, and we are all connected to each other.