Dissent Unheard Of
Perhaps the scariest part of speaking out is seeing the subtle insinuation of consequence and veiled threats by those you speak against.
I'm moderately well-known for the disagreements I get into on the internet.
I’m working on one of the hardest problems I’ve ever tried to solve as a programmer: the lack of diversity in tech. This means I read a lot of research, sociology, philosophy, and the history of sociopolitical movements. I write often, speak all over the world, and critique current events affecting the inequalities in the industry. I’m one of few visible experts advocating for diversity in our field.
I tell you this so you can understand the contrast between the interactions I have now, and the interactions I had before I focused on diversity work, when I worked full-time as a programmer. It’s an immense difference. In the shift my tactics have changed; I’m far more direct and specific about what needs to change and how. In response, I've had economic opportunities removed, been dismissed as fringe, received hundreds of abusive emails and comments online, experienced death and rape threats, been verbally abused and belittled at tech events, and more.
As someone whose job is to speak up with unpopular opinions in an industry that almost prides itself on its Borg-like monoculture, I have a lot of time to think about these things.
What is it, fundamentally, that they're pushing back against?
For instance, recent conversations about codes of conducts at conferences saw many people arguing that the behavior that policies ban - including abuse and harassment - is blown out of proportion. They did so while ignoring the fact that many of the marginalized people trying to instate policies were the targets of weeks-long harassment, just for advocating for better event policies.
It's interesting, because I don't think of myself as an argumentative person. I’m generally agreeable, but not shy about speaking up for myself or others when I feel harm is actively being done. Amidst these discussions I sometimes stop and think, why is this such an unpopular opinion? Am I out of line here?
I’ve realized that there’s a group of people that react strongly, and use a common set of tactics: attempting to discredit me with gendered slurs, insulting my appearance, making subtle threats to me and my livelihood, DDoSing my site, flooding my inbox with hate mail so bad that I often have a friend screen email for me. They are using these tactics to prevent change, and causing attrition that is then blamed on the very people that are working to prevent it.
And they are almost always the same demographic of people.
Unpacking The Type
Demographic is probably too broad, but there’s definitely a type. Most commonly they’re white, male, and educated, but lack the critical thought processes to consider experiences outside their own. They pride themselves in the idea that they’ve gained their power and success through intellectual prowess and business sense, while being ignorant to or dismissive of systemic injustice. Many of them were bullied as kids for being geeks and believe that makes them incapable of bullying or oppressive behavior. When called out for their bullying or other inappropriate behavior, they may retreat into an argument of self-diagnosed Asperger's, declare that you’re the real bully attempting to publicly shame people, or attempt to remove earned status or identity (“you’re not even a real programmer!”).
Above all, they consider themselves logical and rational, believing that none of their decisions are colored by emotions or unacknowledged biases. Often they’ll criticize small or seemingly inconsequential things as a way of demonstrating their intelligence, avoiding responding with actual substance. They’re fiercely competitive and love to win - a dangerous combination that allows them to justify overt violence and abuse.
Many of the responses this demographic has to discussion of inequality and diversity in tech leverage silencing tactics.
Silencing is an extremely effective tool for creating fear through subtle controlling behavior. With such a dramatic imbalance between the marginalized and those with power, it’s also a pervasive one. These techniques often encourage others of all power levels to engage in policing, to help maintain the dominant class. It’s analogous to the popular kids in high school protecting each other to preserve the social order, the kids who hope they’ll one day be popular joining in, and those that don’t want to be singled out sacrificing each other to avoid being targeted.
Silencing takes two major forms: explicit and implicit. Explicit silencing is more recognizable and read as negative - think verbal threats to safety or professional livelihood - so I’m going to focus on implicit. Implicit silencing is far more common and intentionally designed to be difficult to notice. The aim is to subtly threaten, dismiss, or shame the target in such a way as to make them feel that not only what they’re doing is wrong, but harmful to themselves.
This includes things like tone policing (“you’d convince more people to your side if you didn’t sound so upset and angry”), intentional visible support for abusive people, trolling, criticizing the target’s tactics to be “helpful”, gaslighting, and intimating the reach of their power against marginalized people.
This policing creates an immense social pressure to quietly endure oppressive behavior, for fear of facing greater consequences. Imagine choosing to come out at work and then having a popular coworker make you uncomfortable through subtle jokes or exclusion. Your choices are to report and face potentially greater harassment from their supporters, quietly accept their behavior as your new normal, or to just quit. Or imagine that at a conference a well-known speaker says inappropriate things to you. If you report, having to choose between arguing that this should be taken seriously and they should face consequences for their actions, or having conference organizers dismiss you as oversensitive. Or being assaulted by a maintainer of a project you contribute to, knowing that the community values their participation more than your involvement.
In being intentionally vague, implicit silencing allows the actor plausible deniability while causing more stress for victims. Implicit silencing allows a tighter control of a space without visibly dirtying anyone’s hands; it allows them to quietly manipulate people.
As their marginalized status already puts them in a weaker position, many are unwilling or unable to risk their status, job, or even career where opportunities are so hard won and rumors travel quickly.
A Recipe for Effective Silencing
Let’s talk about four techniques used by dominant groups to police people that speak out about inequalities or report abuse, harassment and other misconduct.
The Threat of Being Labeled “Difficult”
The threat of being labeled “difficult” is deterrent enough for most people, but even more so for the marginalized. Decades of steeped gendered and racial stereotyping in the sciences has stolen credibility from women and people of color. Directing focus onto the credibility of marginalized people and away from their valid complaints is made easier when framing non-white and non-male people as being too emotional, too hostile, uninterested, not smart enough, or being better suited to instead pursue gendered or racially stereotyped work.
This allows the privileged the ability to dismiss their own involvement in the problem through statements like, “it’s not that we’re racist, it’s just that children of color aren’t interested in tech.” Mix that with the existing societal stereotypes directed at women, people of color, and LGBTQ people as being “hysterical,” histrionic, melodramatic, overemotional, and argumentative, and they fear how they’ll be viewed if they do speak up. The ingrained beliefs in both meritocracy and that one’s superior rationality can overcome socially ingrained biases make it much easier to casually police detractors who threaten the industry’s utopian ideals.
The People Who Successfully Speak Up Are Punished
When people betray the expected social conventions and succeed in breaking through policing attempts - reporting or publicly speaking out - it becomes more socially acceptable to punish them. The people who speak up are frequently painted as difficult, overdramatic, or fringe. Those that choose to report instances of sexual assault, the use of racial slurs, and workplace intimidation privately often find that they’re forced to provide impossible amounts of evidence or fight back against emotional manipulation. It’s not uncommon for reporters to be met with dismissals or guilt framed in a way to put the burden on the victim. “You’ll get them fired, damage their name, and maybe ruin their career. You’re making a big deal out of nothing. It was a joke.”
While speaking out publicly instead of privately reporting increases the likelihood that something will be done and that you’ll have some supporters, this generally results in much greater backlash. In tech, where harassment and discrimination are normalized into invisibility, it’s seen as a reasonable reaction to attack anyone speaking up against the system. It’s not uncommon to face worse and longer lasting harassment after reporting publicly.
Policing on this scale is sadly very effective: many have chosen to leave the industry entirely rather than suffer through the abuse.
The Aggressor Plays The Hapless Victim
Those that successfully stand up to harmful behavior have the opportunity to shape or establish rules, set their own boundaries, and put people on notice when they are violated.
This comes as a shock at the challenge to those in power, and makes them amplify their shows of dominance. Harassment and threats to intentionally create unsafe or non-inclusive spaces increase. People in positions of power frame themselves as victims of an angry, unreasonable mob. They often state that they would rather quit their positions as conference organizers, open source project maintainers, or startup founders than adjust their behavior or policies. They may intentionally gaslight their victims and supporters in an effort to perpetuate this perception, often employing commonly believed stereotypes. This allows the flipping of their position from aggressor to hapless victim, which isn’t uncommon amongst those in positions of power.
Bystanders learn what happens to those who speak up
All of these lessons are powerful enough that they can be learned second hand. You don’t have to be the direct target of abuse campaigns to realize that defending yourself is often more dangerous than not. Last year, in the wake of multiple women reporting the harassment and sexual assault they experienced at conferences and other community events - some from very prominent members of the industry - I received a dramatic increase in the number of people who privately reported to me. The public conversation had spurred them to want to tell their story, but the overwhelming backlash against them served as an intimidating warning.
Watching this happen, time after time, has a chilling effect on bystanders within the same underprivileged group, as well. Many would-be allies choose to silently distance themselves in an effort to buffer themselves from the fallout. Sometimes, members of marginalized groups elect to go after the route offering the most individual political advantage: condemning the person for speaking up to preserve their non-threatening image, which offers them a guest membership into the club of the privileged.
Commiserating Isn’t Enough
In a space where people feel forced to carefully choose their battles and are afraid of the ramifications of either reporting or speaking up, poor conduct goes vastly under-reported.
How many times does a person abuse another person before they are reported?
How much do victims put up with until they reach their breaking point and either report or leave?
Disturbingly, this is an additional weapon used against the underprivileged - the dismissal of the widespread nature of harassment for lack of statistical proof or recorded incidents. Its far-reaching effects - including an epidemic of attrition - can then also be ignored.
Without people consciously examining the motivations for standing in the way of real progress, this will continue to be an issue. I’ve read studies and books and talked to people, attempting to figure out what causes that “aha!” moment with people - that click that has them starting to see things from different perspectives. It turns out its not as simple as saying to them, "think hard about why you are pushing against this. What exactly are you going to lose?". Ultimately, these defenses have been taught by the culture, regurgitated without much thought over and over. The problem is that these individuals aren’t engaging in the critical debate that makes them dig deep and actually consider the problem set.
Harder still, many people dismiss these conversations outright as something that is non-productive and outside their job description. They may say things like “while you’re complaining, I’ll be over here programming.” For this group of people, it takes someone close to them that they already empathize with to raise their concerns.
If marginalized people continue to be the only voices that are calling out this behavior - especially in professionally dangerous situations - they’ll continue to be punished for it. It is not enough for allies to simply commiserate; they need to recognize that their positions of privilege lend credibility to the valid criticism and they have far less to risk in standing up.