why we need anti-harassment policies

Yesterday Michael Meeks expressed his distaste at GUADEC’s Attendee’s policy.

I have personally advocated for conferences to adopt anti-harassment guidelines. I am also an advisor to The Ada Initiative, which is involved with this work.

Michael writes:

Fair enough getting aggressive against stalking, groping and such horrors; but encouraging censorship of “offensive” verbal comments related to sexual orientation, religion etc. looks like a persecutors charter in the making. What is offensive ? and to whom ? the fear being that -very- quickly such good aspirations slide from “applied common sense” into a militant denial of a basic right to reasonably critique others’ world-views. Put another way I’m really happy for people to tell me how wrong-headed I am on any number of engaging topics, and to discuss them in an animated and friendly fashion. I loathe a framework that will discourage people from coming and saying: “your Christian faith seems incomprehensibly stupid to me” (for example), or “the crazy English always fall down the stairs”, or whatever.

Here is the relevant section of the attendee’s policy:

Harassment includes offensive verbal comments related to gender, sexual orientation, disability, physical appearance, body size, race, religion, sexual images in public spaces, deliberate intimidation, stalking, following, unauthorized or inappropriate photography or recording, sustained disruption of talks or other events, inappropriate physical contact, and unwelcome sexual attention.

Firstly, if you can’t understand the point of an anti-harassment policy, or you think what’s written is obvious, then the policy probably isn’t there to protect you. Typically, when you are a member of the dominant demographic group in a space, you do not need to be protected in this way. On the other hand, I’ve heard women be told you don’t belong here, that they’re unfuckable or a dyke. I’ve been followed, I’ve had my picture taken repeatedly without my consent, one time including a sleazy remark. My friends have been stalked, photographed discreetly, inappropriately touched and sexually assaulted.

More often than not the attempted defence against this sort of behaviour is I didn’t know. Experience shows that some people do need acceptable and unacceptable behavior spelled out precisely.

Offence is in the ear of the listener (who is not always the recipient of the comment). It’s also important to distinguish the ability to critique from being offensive. Dialogue is negotiated. You can willingly consent to discuss your religion, but you don’t have to accept being verbally abused because of it. The list here indicates the common problem areas across the broad technical community (GUADEC/Desktop Summit is better than most, but not immune). Most of these are also present in various jurisdictions’ anti-discrimination law.

The goal of these policies is to make sure that everyone at the event has a good time. That no one feels like less of a person or has their day ruined because someone else was nasty to them because they’re Muslim, gay, African, obese, partially-deaf or so forth. That no one should ever feel unsafe. The goal is not to stifle discussion or censor fun (if you think hurting people is fun, consider therapy). There are many ways of being funny without putting your audience down.

People should feel comfortable and safe in our community. An anti-harassment policy is a statement that our community makes an effort to be inclusive, friendly and safe for everyone.

For more information, see Conference anti-harassment policy resources on the Geek Feminism wiki.

About Danielle

Danielle is an Australian software engineer, computer scientist and feminist. She doesn't really work on GNOME any more (sadly). Opinions and writing are solely her own and so not represent her employer, the GNOME Foundation, or anyone else but herself.
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47 Responses to why we need anti-harassment policies

  1. My main objection to any such policy is rooted in the fact that I suffer from Tourette’s. I have multiple times been “escorted” off public transportation and been asked to leave venues where such policies are in effects. There is often little tolerance or time given to explain my problem before this happens, furthermore with increasing mentions of police involvement in such incidents at international IT conferences I would also be worried about tarnishing my record.

    I do not wish to potentially be humiliated in such a fashion, I also generally resent being asked to sign a promise to cease being the person I am before attending a conference (such as GUADEC enforces now).

    Luckily I am also uncomfortable socially so I don’t go to many conferences, so it is not a major issue for me but I know that others might in the same situation.

  2. Danielle says:

    @David: The anti-harassment policy is actually in place to protect you as well. The policy also covers disability. If you were unable to explain things, the duty officer could help you explain to anyone who felt affected. Which I feel is a better outcome than a person assuming you’re unpleasant.

    For what it’s worth, the policy isn’t about inappropriate words per se, it’s about protecting people. It’s there to provide a framework to deal with problems and misunderstandings.

    As for police involvement: many issues are resolved with a simple apology. The point of the policy is in part to deal with misunderstandings in a better way than why don’t you just go to the police?

  3. Jeff Walden says:

    If I’m not mistaken, Michael was not actually saying there should not be an anti-harassment policy, nor was he saying none was necessary. He was saying that he objected to some aspects of this particular policy, specifically that “offensive” is a very imprecise word and that it lists too many specific cases rather than lay out general principles which are flexible enough to not chill courteous discussion which might happen visit some touchy topic.

    If your post was designed to rebut something Michael said — I am not sure whether it was or it wasn’t — then it seems to me it’s rebutting a straw man argument he didn’t actually make. If you weren’t doing so, then never mind what I just said. :-) But maybe, perhaps, it’d be worth clarifying you’re continuing on his theme but not responding to him directly.

    As far as policies go, in the abstract I think I reluctantly agree they’re something we should have. More rules, and fewer social norms of just being able to get along and recognize what’s too much at any given time, is a sad development in my opinion, one best avoided for sufficiently small and tight-knit groups. Maybe GUADEC and GNOME aren’t (any longer?) such a group, and so rules are simply a regrettable necessity. (I don’t know; aside from using GNOME and reading planet for going on eight years, I am not a particularly active member of the GNOME community.) And the exact contours of any policy would worry me, to be sure, for much the same reasons they seem to worry Michael. But in principle, it’s perhaps probably for the best. So it goes.

  4. Jeff Walden says:

    Er, “might happen to visit”. Sigh, wish I could just edit my previous comment. :-\

  5. Danielle says:

    @Jeff: I don’t believe it does lay out specific cases, but it does layout specific classes of things that we should not discriminate against. A very similar list to what appears in Australian anti-discrimination law, for what it’s worth.

    I am actually happy for people to critique my ideology, my ethics, my vegan diet, my feminism. Michael is also happy for people to critique his religion, although I would find his proposed statement obnoxious if directed at me (N.B. I am an atheist). I do take issue with someone telling me I don’t belong because I’m a woman, anything regarding my appearance, or my sexuality.

    Our goal is to be inclusive, to allow everyone to feel comfortable at our events. This is why we include proscriptions about being offensive, and not just the more heinous stuff.

  6. Meg Ford says:

    I think the basic premise of anti-harrasment policies is that “sufficiently small and tight-knit groups” are not the most desirable model of community. I think the point is to acknowledge that people from certain groups have traditionally been excluded (in this case from the tech community), and to try enforce stopgap measures so that those people can feel comfortable participating.

  7. Jeff Walden says:

    National laws target significantly larger communities than conferences do, with much greater variation in some aspects (and yet less in others). I’m not sure that what laws may say should be relevant to what a conference should say.

    I meant “sufficiently small and tight-knit” in the sense of a community of friends striving for the same thing, a community that happens to be small simply because not enough people have joined it yet — not in the sense of “small and tight-knit” implying exclusionary. It’s very much possible to have small, tight-knit, yet non-exclusionary groups that have nothing close to harassment policies. And I think at some point GNOME probably qualified as such a group (regardless whether it does or does not qualify as one now, as I said I can’t comment on that).

  8. Danielle says:

    @Jeff: I totally think that GNOME is a much better and more accepting group than some. The presence of an anti-harassment policy is not an indictment on the GNOME community (or indeed on any community). Even if we lived in a society where the law was never broken, we would still continue to have laws. They serve to enumerate behaviours we deem acceptable from those we do not.

    One of the biggest advantages of a comprehensive anti-harassment policy is it serves as a message to those not yet part of our community that these are our standards. Which serves to make those who are concerned about potentially feeling unwelcome know that we’re a safe community.

  9. Stuart says:

    With regards to taking photos, I didn’t think that would constitute harassment. Taking someone’s photo in a public venue is perfectly legal (even without asking permission beforehand), and quite the norm at conferences etc. People often like to post them on blogs after the event.

  10. Jeff Walden says:

    That’s a good point about rules serving as notice to outsiders (and potential insiders) looking in, thanks for pointing it out.

  11. Jeff Spaleta says:

    The real test of any of this is what happens when we enter into emotional discourse with other people. Passion can blind us a bit sometimes.

    I think the easy thing most can agree on is that behaviour which is intentionally done to offend, or harrass, threaten or demean is absolutely out of bounds. But until we all get the Google neural implant ( 7 years from now ) we can’t really build useful policy on intent, simply because we can’t know intent. All you can do is build policy around actions and try to mediate salvage problem situations.

    And the hard part of any of this is how to handle the moments when you slide into unintentional offense as the emotion in a particular discussion increases. I’m not talking about the bonehead/forehead slapping “I can’t believe _he_ just said that or showed that in a presentation.” Hint to any guy reading this. Do a run through of your presentation with a woman in the practice audience. Preferibly your mom, your wife, or someone from church or any woman older than you not in your close social circle. Mother-in-laws are great for this. If you can’t do the presentation with a woman of standing in the practise audience without getting an earful.. you shouldn’t be doing the presentation in front of a public audience…protip.

    But I’m not talking about that sort of rehearsed monologue. I’m talking about the unintentional offense that happens in private discussions… the slide from “animated and friendly” into “seriously creepy” or “threatening and hostile” because a discussion took a wrong turn into a sensitive topic area and noone in the discussion has figured out how to operate the brakes or the steering.

    Micheal brings up religion and nationality as topics he’s interested in engaging people on. And that’s cool. But those topics can have a lot of emotional baggage for other people and its not cool to press them on those sorts of topics just because you really really want to talk about it. Not everyone standing in a boxing gym is prepared to be your sparring partner just because you are spoiling for a fight. Some of them just want to look cool jumping rope in a sleeveless sweatshirt and they should be allowed to do that without being suckerpunched with a straight jab to the face. And yes, walking up to someone out of the blue and talking about relgion..is absolutely a metaphoric punch in the face.

    And just because I might be ready to have a pretty rough and tumble discussion about my faith as a Christian or about my unshakable belief in the manifest destiny of the United States. It doesn’t mean other people are are prepared for me to blithely challenge them to engage me in discussion on those topics or similar ones before I’ve earned their trust to walk them to the edge of absurdity without pushing them into insanity.

    I know I can cross the line. I don’t always pick up the ques that I’m making someone uncomfortable and to steer “non-technical” conversations back to less challenging subjects. I’ve found the best way to apply the brakes when I’m in the process of driving a discussion off the tracks is generally for someone to hand me a snack which i will instinctively put in my mouth and stop talking long enough to eat. That does two things. 1.. it gives the other people stuck in discourse with me a chance to redirect the discussion back on safe ground for everyone. 2… it gives me something else to focus on just long enough to let my mind jump tracks.

    Maybe that’s what conferences need….emergency pocket snacks to hand to people who cross that line unintentionally. Or maybe I just being greedy and I want to sucker people to handing me snacks every 5 minutes or so.

    -jef

  12. Meg Ford says:

    @ Jeff I certainly don’t want to misconstrue your comment. My point is that small communities may not be purposefully exclusionary, but, because they are often built based on the networks of individuals, there may be cultural assumptions that many members of the group share. My personal experience is that having policies in place to deal with issues of insensitivity is necessary even in small groups, so that any member of that group can freely express differences that may fall outside of the range of the group’s culture. My personal opinion is that having a policy in place that encourages people to speak up when they are offended, etc, is better than assuming that there are shared values when there may not be. As I say, this is based on my personal experience overall, not only within GNOME.

  13. Marta says:

    As someone who is starting her journey in the community, I wanted to say something – but Danielle said it first:
    “One of the biggest advantages of a comprehensive anti-harassment policy is it serves as a message to those not yet part of our community that these are our standards. Which serves to make those who are concerned about potentially feeling unwelcome know that we’re a safe community.”

    If you are a minority (or a majority that is under-represented, e.g. women) you are always feeling as a bit insecure. “Is this the right place for me? Can I really join the club?” A policy like that is a big “Yes” that reminds you that people know that not everybody fits in the majority’s stereotype. By the way: not even some members of the majority fit in their stereotype, but that would take this comment to an unbearable length…

  14. Susan Ward says:

    “Offence is in the ear of the listener”

    That concept, I’m afraid, is a snake pit no matter how one looks at it. If I can define something to be offensive merely be being offended by it, or as harassing by simply claiming to find it thus, then coupled with an anti-harassment policy I have an unbeatable weapon allowing me to outlaw any and all speech to my heart’s content.

    Someone tells me he got lucky attending the conference? I’m offended, because according to my deep-rooted beliefs, only God grants fortune, and attributing any circumstance to luck demotes Him.

    Offence might be (actually, definitely is) subjective – but we cannot afford to let the definition of offence and harassment be that whatever is found to be so must in fact be that. Otherwise, we are creating a terrible and stifling new method of harassment against which no policy will help.

  15. Danielle says:

    @Stuart: it’s worth noting that, depending on jurisdiction, the rules are often different in public vs private space (similar to how freedom of expression may be curtailed in private space). Conference venues typically constitute private space.

    By harassing photos I don’t mean the photos most people take. I mean photographers that follow women around and photograph them repeatedly (has happened to me at a Desktop Summit), photographers who say something creepy while photographing women (has happened to me at linux.conf.au), a photographer who was discreetly (surveillance style) photographing a woman during the conference (happened to a friend at linux.conf.au).

    However, separate to that it’s just good manners to ask someone before you take their photo. Some people are very uncomfortable with their photo being put online. Some conferences have begun to institute yes, always and no, never stickers.

  16. INRI says:

    @Marta
    So instead of dealing with the insecurities you expel those that provoke insecurity to the complexed. Women need to act more bravely if they are underrepresented not make the brave more humble.
    I’m a skinny guy … if i were insecure in the company of body builders should i blame them? No i would have an emotional problem that i have to deal with. There is no rational motive to be insecure in the company of body builders in any context other then a fight , and there isn’t any rational motive to be insecure about photos unless you are insecure to be viewed and how are you going to prevent that.

    Don’t go there it’s unhealthy.
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Emotional_insecurity

    Oh and Danielle please visit a shrink .This is the end of my “HARASSMENT” i promise.

  17. Danielle says:

    @INRI: this is not about being uncomfortable in anyone’s presence. This is about people not being unpleasant to other people based on some attribute of their identity.

    In other words: it’s not that we’re insecure in the company of men, it’s that we won’t tolerate shit-headed remarks or inappropriate behaviour.

    ~

    Thank you for your concern, but I already see a shrink, and a therapist.

  18. Ploum says:

    “Typically, when you are a member of the dominant demographic group in a space, you do not need to be protected in this way”

    I belive that, when it comes to religion, Michael is not part of the dominant demographic group in conferences such as FOSDEM and GUADEC where scientific values and atheism are a lot more represented.

    It is fairly usual to make fun about religion which is something I personnaly appreciate and want to support. (being a vigorous atheist myself).

    Now, I think that the point is that we can all attack ideas. But we have to respect the individuals.

    I can say “religion is full of s***” or even “Michael Meeks has some stupid ideas” but not “Michael Meeks is stupid”. The problem is that a lot of people are taking stuffs personnaly. If I say “Religion is a stupid thing”, some people will immediately understand “You are stupid” (which is not what was said).

    “Offence is in the ear of the listener ” ? Wait, then everything can be offensive. I know people that are offensed when they are told that free software are craps. I’ve witnessed people that were ready to put the building on fire because someone said that GNU/Linux is stupid, that Linux alone was enough.

    So, if we have to care about everything that could potentially offense someone, you just stop living.

    Because some people are showing disrespect to some others, we are making rules to ban anyone to say anything in a conference ? If you have been insulted, touched or assaulted, this is a criminal offense and should be regarded as such. It has nothing to do with the conference. In most countries, hate speech are also banned. There are laws for that, no need for a conference policy.

  19. Tom says:

    @Danielle: I am sure most of the people who appear to criticise the policy (Michael and the undersigned included) would stand up for and defend anyone who were ACTUALLY harassed in any way.

    I do not think that anyone (at least not anyone who matters) want harassment to take place, or want anyone to live in fear of being harassed.

    The problem is not with the existence of a harassment policy, but the fact that the one you have is simply very poorly written. It appears to forbid things which are NOT harassment. I am sure that was not your intention, as then you would have called it something more appropriate (“A Political Correctness Policy” for instance).

    Being offensive may constitute harassment, but in the vast majority of cases it does not.

    Take an example: Michael and myself might be having a beer at the pub at the end of the day, where the following exchange takes place. […] M: “Your marriage is against the word of God and had the decision been up to me it would be banned.” T: “I’d be very worried if any such decisions were up to the whims of a grown man who believes in fairy-tales” [… friendly banter continues…]. (NB: I don’t know Michael Meeks, and have no idea about his stance on gay marriage, nor whether he believes in fairy-tales. This was merely an example).

    All that is well and good, neither of us would have been offended. However, you might imagine two third parties (a homosexual and a Christian, say) overhearing the exchange, both getting their nickers in a twist and (having a copy of your policy at hand) reporting both Michael and myself for “offensive verbal comments”.

    Surely, this is not the sort of thing you are trying to achieve with your policy? I, for one, would not be interested in attending a meeting where people are not allowed to articulate whatever they think about me (in a reasonable way, of course).

    I think what your policy is TRYING to say is: “Don’t act like douchebags”. Which would be fine. You just stumbled a bit in the formalisation of the thing. I suggest you accept Michael’s bug report and sort it out, rather than trying to paint him as some monster (which I get the impression that some commenters are doing). I’m sure he is a nice guy.

  20. Danielle says:

    @Ploum:

    “Offence is in the ear of the listener ” ? Wait, then everything can be offensive. I know people that are offensed when they are told that free software are craps. I’ve witnessed people that were ready to put the building on fire because someone said that GNU/Linux is stupid, that Linux alone was enough.

    This is why we enumerate protected classes (attributes). Most of which you’ll notice are aspects of identity not chosen by a person.

    Religion is something you bring up and an exception to the chosen rule. However I believe you can distinguish between wishing to critique an aspect of theology without harassing a person for believing in it.

    If you have been insulted, touched or assaulted, this is a criminal offense and should be regarded as such. It has nothing to do with the conference. In most countries, hate speech are also banned. There are laws for that, no need for a conference policy.

    Yes, in many countries there are laws against this. However not all countries have laws covering all categories. In some countries (admittedly not GUADEC ones) you would not want to report being raped, because you would be imprisoned for having sex out of wedlock. In general though, the police are disinterested unless the accusation is sufficiently heinous, especially if it involves foreigners. This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try to stamp out this behaviour in our communities.

    Also we are culturally diverse community and mistakes and misunderstandings do happen (also see above, the talk about Tourettes). It’s nice to sort these out without having to potentially ruin people’s lives.

    http://geekfeminism.wikia.com/wiki/Conference_anti-harassment/Policy_resources#Reporting_to_Authorities is relevant here.

  21. Danielle says:

    @Tom:

    I do not think that anyone (at least not anyone who matters) want harassment to take place, or want anyone to live in fear of being harassed.

    Unfortunately the mailing list discussion following an incident at linux.conf.au 2011 demonstrated this was untrue.

    It appears to forbid things which are NOT harassment.

    Can you clarify which things?

    As for your example at the pub. It’s worth noting that the conference anti-harassment policy would actually not apply here, because it is not a conference event. However assuming it happened at the conference instead, in your particular example of friendly banter, an apology would probably be appropriate: I’m sorry I offended you, you overheard a private conversation.

    However imagine if you will a discourse where someone said something directly to you that you were offended by. Someone once left a comment on my blog saying telling me I’m going to hell. I have pretty thick skin, but it did not make me feel very nice, even though I don’t believe in hell.

    We should not have to require people to grow thick skin before they want to participate in our community.

    I, for one, would not be interested in attending a meeting where people are not allowed to articulate whatever they think about me (in a reasonable way, of course).

    In a reasonable way is really the key here. If you want to have a robust, consensual discussion on theology, fine. If you want to discuss whether men and women are better at different skills, I’m actually okay with it, if you can back it up with data (you’d better believe I’m going to debate against it). But if someone tells you to can it, or take it somewhere else, then you should do so.

  22. Marta says:

    @INRI: I believe that Danielle has already answered you.

    By the way: “go visit a shrink” could be taken as an ableist insult. Please be careful.

  23. Tom says:

    @Danielle:

    Thanks for clarifying where the policy would apply (but as you noted it is easy enough to adapt the example).

    Firstly, I’m saddened to hear that there are people who promote harassment (if that is the case, I have not read the mailinglist discussion in question). That said, I think when you fight harassment, you run a real risk of alienating potential allies by going too far in what you attempt to ban. I consider myself a potential ally, and I’m left with the impression that I would rather not have a harassment policy at all, rather than get an overly broad one (and then end up being attacked if I ever dare question it).

    Actually, I think you risk more than just people opposing harassment policies. I am starting to see opposition to “* Women”/”The Ada Initiative”/”geek feminism” and in particular open source projects embracing/associating themselves with these groups. The reason being that we are worried about having these sorts of policies showed down our throat, and if we don’t like it, we will be attacked, misrepresented and publicly shamed.

    Can you clarify which things [are not harassment]?

    I attempted to give an example in my last post. I.e., what is offensive to some might not be offensive to others, and the level of offensiveness allowed in a semi-private conversation should surely be higher than what is allowed as part of a key-note address.

    Furthermore, even if we agree that a certain statement in a given situation is offensive, being offensive is not (in itself) a huge problem. Being rude, unpleasant, mean, or perhaps simply socially inept, does not (in itself) constitute harassment. Would the world be a better place if people don’t do these things? Sure. Are they at the same level as “stalking” or “unwanted physical contact”? No. Do we want to “legislate them away”? I would hope not.

    Just to be clear: all the examples I have seen about what sort of offensive comments people fear (being told they don’t belong, or worse) I would consider harassment. However, the policy covers so much more than that.

    To offend, annoy or anger should be allowed. To cause real emotional pain should definitely not.

    The former we all do all the time, the latter most of us would never dream of doing, and be profusely sorry for if we ever accidentally did. Your policy covers both. I imagine the backlash comes from those of us who feel we have done nothing wrong, yet our behavior is being banned.

  24. ebassi says:

    @Tom: “I imagine the backlash comes from those of us who feel we have done nothing wrong, yet our behavior is being banned.” — if you did something that resulted in you being banned, then you definitely did something wrong. “To offend, annoy or anger should be allowed.” — no, it really shouldn’t.

  25. Susan Ward says:

    @Danielle:
    This is why we enumerate protected classes (attributes)

    Same problem again. Why is physical appearance in the list of “protected classes” while favorite ice cream flavor is not? By including some but not (of course not!) all subjects about which there could be disagreement (and thus conflict, offence taking, harassment), you are doing the very thing you are so desperately trying to prevent – you are discriminating.

    Lawmakers all over the world are victims to the same fallacy. A case from Germany of last year comes to mind: A woman had been fired on the grounds (as stated by her employer) that she was an “Ossi” (derogatory term for a person from the former German Democratic Republic/Eastern Germany). She went to court, attempting to sue her way back into employment based on the fact that she was being discriminated against based on her belonging to a minority, but lost – not because the judges disagreed with the idea that she had been a victim of discrimination, but because Eastern Germans are not listed on the official table of minorities, thus making it impossible to actually invoke the relevant law.

    The bottom line is, not all cases can be covered/listed, so rather than listing an incomplete, discriminating subset of them we are sure better off listing none. I agree with @Ploum that in civilized countries, there are already laws in place that establish basically the same rules (with the aforementioned faults) that your policy tries to secure. No need for additional nannying here.

  26. Conrad says:

    Hi Danielle,

    I wholeheartedly agree with the way you defend an anti-harassment policy that protects oppressed minorities. It is a very disheartening experience to see how many people in FLOSS never bothered to think about sexism, racism and class issues and their roles in them.

    However, when mixing religion and nationality on the one hand and gender and race on the other you make the political mistake of mixing progressive with reactionary agendas.
    Michael Meeks sees quite correctly that (some?) religions and certainly all nationalisms can’t rightly be considered ‘minority’ and can’t therefore claim protection of an anti-harrasment policy. In fact, real anti-harassment policies would have to state “that no nationalistic or religious views will be tolerated”, because both of these discourses embrace harassment of those non-comformant with them.
    That – bye the way – is in my opinion what Michael Meeks means when he says

    Those [rules] would proscribe those genuinely awful things that are within the range of plausibility and are not acceptable, without accidentally forbidding normal, robust, wide-ranging discourse over say fourty or fifty shades of grey.

  27. Taryn Fox says:

    I consider myself a potential ally, and I’m left with the impression that I would rather not have a harassment policy at all

    “Let me have what I want or you get no cookie.”

    we are worried about having these sorts of policies showed down our throat, and if we don’t like it, we will be attacked, misrepresented and publicly shamed

    “Let us continue to attack, misrepresent, and publicly shame others without being called on it or forced to conront what we’re doing.”

    all the examples I have seen about what sort of offensive comments people fear (being told they don’t belong, or worse) I would consider harassment. However, the policy covers so much more than that

    “I don’t get why weaker persons need protections of any kind.”

    To offend, annoy or anger should be allowed. To cause real emotional pain should definitely not.

    The former we all do all the time, the latter most of us would never dream of doing

    “If someone is hurt by something I said, it’s their fault because I would never intend to hurt anyone. Just offend, annoy, or anger them, when they have to deal with this crap on a daily basis, have PTSD triggers from it, and came here to fucking hack.”

  28. Anonymous says:

    @ebassi: Without commenting on the broader issue (other than to say I think anti-harassment policies seems like a net win to me), I’d suggest being careful with arguments that boil down to “the people enforcing the policy are always right and perfect”. It certainly seems likely that someone formally warned or removed from a conference did something wrong, but I’d hesitate to always assume that implication by default without knowing any of the details.

  29. Rūdolfs says:

    I am surprised we are even having this conversation. In my brief experience in the GNOME community I’ve noticed that a lot of care is taken to make everyone feel welcomed, and this is the reason I am a free software convert. The point of the policy is to remind what can make people feel unwelcome and intimidated. Regrettably some here think along the lines of “harassment is what bad people do; I am not a bad person, therefore anything I do cannot be harassment”.

    For some weird reason there seems to be a preconception that in case of harassment the offending party will be kicked out of the community with disgrace. More likely, if there is a borderline case (e.g., making fun of someone’s beliefs, not a physical attack), the organizers will spend 5 minutes explaining why such behaviour is not cool, and ask them to apologise. If that is something that will put Tom or Michael off, and thus any anti-harassment policy should be abolished, we have far more serious problems.

    A quick guideline for not harassing people — if you are [verbally] attacking someone about/making fun of their [anything], you are doing it wrong. Even if it something trivial like vim vs. emacs. If you have established that the other party is totally fine with aggressive tone, then exceptions can be made. But if you are a) the only one having fun, b) the only one “attacking” (the other party is only rebutting your points, if saying anything at all), or c) in control (and the other party is desperate) — then you have really messed it up and an apology should be the next thing you say, right after stating that you meant no harm. If you did mean harm or you do not feel sorry that your actions made someone feel bad, you have failed as a human being.

    A note of caution — if you are not a part of any minority and have suffered no harassment, then most likely you won’t notice when you are doing it.

    As for saying “I am sorry”. For some it is like saying “I am a bad person and deserve to to take full responsibility for what has happened” (this is why governments try to avoid apologies at all costs). But in this case it is more like saying “sorry” after stepping on someone’s foot — you acknowledge that a) harm has been done, b) you regret it, and c) you did not mean it to happen.

  30. Danielle says:

    @Susan: the question of whether to enumerate protected attributes or not has had some discussion in the geek feminist community. There are some who feel that by enumerating attributes, we are artificially limiting ourselves against things that might come up in the future.

    I personally believe that enumerating attributes sends a message to people joining our community about what we deem to be acceptable behaviour, it also provides a baseline for those enforcing the policy.

    I agree with @Ploum that in civilized countries, there are already laws in place that establish basically the same rules (with the aforementioned faults) that your policy tries to secure.

    These are actually really inconsistent. They usually cover some set of gender, gender history/identity, race, ethnicity, age, sexual orientation, religion, marital status, physical appearance. In Australia for instance there are idiosyncrasies between states as to what is and isn’t covered. In the United States, sexual orientation isn’t protected everywhere. See my previous comment about why using the law is not always best.

    With your East German example. I would personally consider that to go against the spirit of the anti-harassment policy. It is something about a person they didn’t choose, a core part of their identity.

    I think comparing physical appearance/body size to favourite ice cream flavour is a pretty flimsy argument. A friend of mine was on the bus yesterday and someone leaned across to her and said quite frankly, if I were as fat as you, I’d just kill myself. Imagine how that made her feel. I don’t think criticism of your favourite flavour compares.

  31. Danielle says:

    @Tom:

    I attempted to give an example in my last post. I.e., what is offensive to some might not be offensive to others, and the level of offensiveness allowed in a semi-private conversation should surely be higher than what is allowed as part of a key-note address.

    As in all things, context is important. Trust me when I say I am highly inappropriate while in a group of my friends. I have told just about every lesbian joke there is and I am fond of several pejorative terms for lesbian.

    If someone overheard our joking and was upset by it, I would apologise to them. And indeed I have. Similarly I’ve told people I don’t think you should use that word around me, it doesn’t make me feel comfortable. In all things, we are humans who are navigating the complex boundaries between public and private space, between the professional and the personal.

    To offend, annoy or anger should be allowed.

    I’m not interested in granting a carte blanc for people to be unpleasant. As Taryn says, people have come to this conference to hack code and talk about software. Why should we expect them to put up with offensive crap?

    Rūdolfs has said this quite well above:

    A quick guideline for not harassing people — if you are [verbally] attacking someone about/making fun of their [anything], you are doing it wrong. Even if it something trivial like vim vs. emacs. If you have established that the other party is totally fine with aggressive tone, then exceptions can be made. But if you are a) the only one having fun, b) the only one “attacking” (the other party is only rebutting your points, if saying anything at all), or c) in control (and the other party is desperate) — then you have really messed it up and an apology should be the next thing you say, right after stating that you meant no harm. If you did mean harm or you do not feel sorry that your actions made someone feel bad, you have failed as a human being.

    I would say in 99% of cases, an apology is all that is required (assuming they learnt from their mistake and refrained from doing it again). There are relatively few cases where something more drastic is required.

  32. Tom says:

    @Taryn Fox:

    “Let me have what I want or you get no cookie.”

    No. I really want you to have what you want. However, I see some flaws in what you asked for, and suggested that if you have another look, maybe there is a way that you can have exactly what you want AND all the people opposing you will turn around to support you. Really, my comments only meant to help.

    “Let us continue to attack, misrepresent, and publicly shame others without being called on it or forced to conront what we’re doing.”

    I really hope I have done no such thing. If I did, please call me on it and I will correct my statements and appologise for them. (Note, that in this particular message, you certainly seem to be misrepresenting my sentiments, and your overall tone is rather aggressive, so I think you are giving a good example of why people might hesitate to engage with these issues).

    “I don’t get why weaker persons need protections of any kind.”

    This is exactly the opposite of what I wrote. I DO understand that people need protection. Furthermore, I agree with ALL the example that you and others have given of harassment. However, I still don’t agree with the phrasing of the policy. Feel free to continue ignoring this point, I will eventually get bored and go away. I don’t think it will do you any favors in the long-run though.

    “If someone is hurt by something I said, it’s their fault because I would never intend to hurt anyone. Just offend, annoy, or anger them, when they have to deal with this crap on a daily basis, have PTSD triggers from it, and came here to fucking hack.”

    Again, this is exactly the opposite of what I intended to express. If I DO hurt someone, then I WILL BE very sorry. It will have been my fault and I will very sincerely apologise for it.

    However, to the best of my knowledge I have not yet done this to anyone, and I think I am (like most people) perfectly able to distinguish between merely pissing someone off (which I do on a regular basis) and harassing them (which I don’t think I have ever done).

  33. MrEricSir says:

    If someone’s stalking or harassing you, it’s probably because (as you mention) there’s something wrong upstairs. Wouldn’t that make any potential harasser except from this policy?

  34. Danielle says:

    @MrEricSir: You’re suggesting that it’s a disability. My experience is that’s not the case, the people who act inappropriately are normal, neurotypical people who do know right from wrong. They simply chose not to act appropriately.

    Sometimes these people make excuses: I was drunk, it was the vicodin, etc. But quite frankly, if this is happening repeatedly, don’t drink if it’s going to make you act that way.

    People have suggested they struggle because they’re non-neurotypical (i.e. self-diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome). The resources have some stuff on this.

  35. MrEricSir says:

    We may be thinking of different scenarios, which seems to be a deficiency with this policy; it makes no distinction between a racy joke and severely disturbed behavior. Of course there’s many things people shouldn’t do to one another, but “stalking” and “offensive comments” are worlds apart. Putting them on the same list raises an eyebrow, to say the least.

    There’s holes in the enforcement side as well, since criteria for judging the policy hasn’t been made explicit. Worst case scenario is the policy is used to discriminate against the people it was supposed to protect.

    Anyway, it seems clear from this thread that people want their voices heard on this topic. It’s a shame these decisions were made behind closed doors without community input.

  36. Danielle says:

    @MrEricSir: obviously one is much worse than another, but they both constitute harassment.

    It depends what you mean by a racy joke. Do you mean a sexy joke, one that contains colourful language, or a sexist/racist/homophobic joke?

    I am beginning to wonder if some of the problem stems from an assumed puritan definition of the phrase offensive language, i.e. the assumption that it includes colourful language or swearing. Which is not the aim of this policy.

  37. Dave Neary says:

    Hi,

    To most commenters above, I’d just like to point out that the policy, in referring to “offensive verbal comments related to gender, sexual orientation, disability, physical appearance, body size, race, religion” basically (apart from physical appearance and body size) applies to things about which it is illegal to discriminate, at least in the EU. And while offensive verbal comments may or may not count as discriminatory behaviour, I think it’s appropriate for a policy to err on the side of helping protect attendees from potentially illegal behaviour.

    Also, behind the policy there is a person at the conference responsible for applying the policy, and there are conference attendees who will (as was pointed out by a number of you) decide for themselves what is and is not offensive.

    Don’t get too wrapped up in the theory of some hypothetical ultra-sensitive community member who will take offense at a reference to “gay Paris” or “the black sheep” or “nice hat” or whatever. The rule is simple: don’t deliberately make others feel uncomfortable. If you make others feel uncomfortable, and they point out to you what you’re doing that’s making them feel uncomfortable, then stop. And consider apologising for making them feel uncomfortable (since I assume that it won’t have been deliberate on your part).

    There are no Thought Police. But it is absolutely reasonable to try to create an environment where we’re defending ourselves against assholes.

    Dave.

  38. Stuart N says:

    Hurray for anti-harassment policies. Hurray for listening to people who are offended – no matter how slight or trivial that offence might appear to others. Hurray for keeping it simple – “I am offended and your actions / words were inappropriate” is about as simple as it can be.

    I would challenge anyone, including Meeks, to reproduce and defend anything they personally have ever said / written that would be “censored” by this policy.

  39. Thanks for putting in time and energy on this, Danielle. And thanks to everyone who works on increasing inclusiveness and empathy in open source.

  40. ocrete says:

    I’m annoyed that religion is in that list. The other choices in there are things that one can’t change (one can’t decide to not be disabled anymore, etc), but religion is a choice. Will we be prevented from criticizing republicans or microsofties next? If someone believes that he can deny someone else the right to be married the person he loves because of some moronic belief in a stupid book, I think we should be free to criticize them without restraints!

  41. Marta says:

    ocrete: I would say that religion is only partly a choice: I believe that belief in a God (or more than one God, or in no God) is an innate trait. The way one then expresses this belief is, I think, more conscious and “chosen” – albeit not completely.

    So: I think that we should be able to criticise other people’s beliefs – but not without some restraints (basic politeness, just to say one).

    (Full disclosure: Christian here, and pro-equal-marriage also because of that “Christian” part.)

  42. Nick Istre says:

    @ocrete You are free to criticize anybody. Heck, I like to argue with and cirticize Republicans and Christians myself. But if I’m going to a tech conference, run in a private venue, such talk is highly out-of-place. I’m not going there to discuss politics or religion, and I really doubt that others are either. In fact, I’d rather ahve Republicans and Christians be comfortable to attend said conference and, yes, restrict what I say and do while at the conference. And in fact, that is such a slight restriction that I’ve never thought of it as such before.

    As a former libertarian, I’ve often heard of the phrase “My fist stops where your nose starts”. But, generally, people are highly nervous around someone who’s randomly swinging fists around near others. And if you’re at a venue that does not at all involve random fist swinging, just swinging your fists around just because there’s no policy against it will get people nervous enough to just not bother to go to said conference. Even if those fists never actually connect to any noses (or any other person’s body part).

    And I think I took that analogy quite far enough…

    Anyway, I’m glad such policies are in place. Just because they are “common sense” rules of behaviors to me at a venue attended by different types of people with a common interest doesn’t mean others don’t seem to (or even refuse to) understand why they are in place. If you feel that these policies for a private venue would feel too much like walking on egg shells, and saying “sorry” when you inadvertently harass or offend someone is just too hard, then you’re better off just not going. And if you’re that anti-social, why would you go to a conference where other people are going to anyways? :p

  43. Marcel says:

    When I first read the quoted section of the attendee’s policy I had the impression that this reads too much like some legal text like a license agreement and wanted to propose to replace this with a welcoming, inclusive text, followed by a remark that any behaviour against this inclusive atmosphere is not tolerated. Well, then I followed the link to the full policy and found out that this is exactly what the very first paragraph is about :-)

    I think that all in all this policy is well-written and the intent is very clear and very importantly has an overall positive attitude, instead of simply being a “the following things are forbidden” list.

    I don’t quite get all the criticism and why a tech conference should be the place to express your dislike of other beliefs, be they “moronic” or not.

  44. Craig says:

    You can’t disband a clique with sterile bureaucracy or myopic feminism. There’s a reason these communities foster such behaviour. You’re much more likely to make a difference if you work on fixing the root cause instead of imposing rules on people. Otherwise you’ll be like one woman going to a frat party (of geeks) and suggesting they clear away the kegs and grow up.

    There’s a negative attitude towards geeks in the west that makes these creatures so insecure and cliquey. It’s probably hard for extrovert westerners to believe, but being introvert/geeky in places like East Asia is not only acceptable but the norm. Perhaps it had something to do with the fact they never had a silly feminist movement to invent all kinds of rules and regulations for no reason other than they felt like “making a difference”?

  45. Jeff Walden says:

    Nick:

    “But if I’m going to a tech conference, run in a private venue, such talk is highly out-of-place. I’m not going there to discuss politics or religion, and I really doubt that others are either.”

    If I’m at a conference, I’ll talk to whomever I run into, about whatever happens to come up. Generally that’s purely technical matters. But sometimes it’s not, as when you reach topics like why people work on particular projects, say, or they happen to mention family support for what they do, or perhaps when discussing opinions on free software philosophy, or when discussing adoption of Linux or of their project by local government, or many other such cases. It might just be an offhand reference in the middle of the discussion, or it might be something deeper, depending on the question being discussed. There’s generally (as a matter of my personal preferences, I think basically always for me) going to be a “hook” of some sort to move from technical matters to the non-technical. But the non-technical can come up in perfectly natural ways. And perhaps, once started, people will be curious to better understand those underlying motivations. Not always, but sometimes. This doesn’t seem like “random fist swinging” to me, just how conversation naturally progresses sometimes.

    You may not be uncommon in wanting to avoid these matters entirely. But I think the other sort, who bring up these other topics from time to time as the conversation to them appears to warrant it, are also not uncommon.

  46. How about not criticizing anything listed in policy but appreciating what you like to heighten your favorite side!
    Following the policy can be as simple as instead of being anti- , become pro-

    That’s always healthy! Cheers! Happy hacking!

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