Social diagnostics

First, a huge thank-you to all the folks who have commented on my post (whether they agree with it or not) and who have followed up on Perlmonks to say "well, I think this might be correct" - or not, as long as it's not about me, but about the topic. I think it's important to talk about what happened, even if no one's mind is directly changed.

I'm afraid that at least one of the participants feels singled out, which was not my intention. I am truly sorry that this person feels attacked. This was totally not what I wanted or was trying to do.

To try to clarify this social thing for folks who normally ignore it or don't see the point, I'm going to invoke an extended metaphor here.

All I wanted to do, to go all technical about it, was to issue a social diagnostic: a warning, not an error message, that said "I think Perkmonks needs to be inclusive, and sexualizing software doesn't do that".

At no time did I want to say or imply anyone was a bad person, nor did I want anyone else to say so (If you did, please follow along here to see what I was really after). Nor did I want to say, "this social interaction, large and small-scale, cannot proceed unless this changes."

That's not what warnings are for. They are meant to inform - to communicate that there were perhaps unintended consequences. They are not telling you "you are a terrible, terrible programmer and should now walk away and start digging ditches". They are meant to say, "you've made a choice that may have consequences other than you planned, and you should consider correcting this," and "when you run this, it may not do exactly what you intend it to do."

I believe, that originally, the impulse was to share something that brought lightness to the original poster's day. It ran on his internal mental architecture and made him smile or laugh. Running on his internal mental processor, there was no diagnostic that said "this may have unintended consequences on other architectures". The idea is to internalize that other architectures exist, and that you may need to adjust code released ostensibly to run on all of them.

It's the difference between getting an OS-X-only diagnostic and saying, "oh, right, I should change that so it runs properly there" and saying "well, you ought to be running a decent OS and then you wouldn't have this problem". Or even saying, "I really don't have a way to make that work on a Mac. I should consider whether that feature should go in to the main release - or if I should release it in a way that Mac users know it's not for them".

We have been guilty, to a certain extent, of dismissing Windows in the Perl community. Having that attitude doesn't make Windows folks say, "my heavens, you're right - I have seen the light and shall abandon this OS and the years of investment in it right away!" Instead, it makes them say, "man, what a bunch of prejudiced, blinkered idiots! Why am I bothering with this?"

A social diagnostic is meant to provide information. You can decide that it's not worth bothering with and ignore it, or take it to heart and try to make a change. Attacking the source of the diagnostic is counter-productive. If you get a warning that you've reused a 'my' variable, you don't say, "well, this verion of Perl is complete garbage, because I want to do that, and therefore it should change to allow me to do so."

You either tell the compiler "I know that I'm doing this and I want to; please turn off that diagnostic here", or you look at the code and say, "Hm, okay, I can change that".

You don't, however, complain "the Perl interpreter isn't accepting and running this perfectly good Python code; there must be something wrong with the compiler that it would tell me that it thinks my program shouldn't run here". You can either fix it so the Perl interpreter can run it, or you go use the Python compiler for that particular bit of code. (If that was too esoteric a parallel: there are places where posting that cartoon wouldn't have offended anyone in that place, and if you want to hang out in those places, I'm not going to say you shouldn't. I may think so, but I don't have the right to tell you where you can go and who you should hang out with. I will tell you if you do something that i dislike; it is up to you to decide if you want to not do it where I can see it - and if you want to keep doing it at all once I've mentioned it.)

There has been quite a bit of black-and-whiting in this discussion: "oh, you obviously think you're perfect and that I'm terrible". As I said on Perlmonks, I screw social things up all the time - even with close friends. Maybe especially with close friends.

I badly hurt a close friend this weekend because I didn't think it through before I said something (not in a gender-related discussion, though). I am totally not saying "I know better about what all women think than you do." Women whom I know and admire - and who are very accepting people, and whose ability to think in a straight line I deeply respect - have said to me, "someone posted this? Seriously?". So I transmit the diagnostic because I'm there, and playing on the lowest difficulty setting and am therefore sufficiently sure of myself in the community that a bad reaction isn't going to make me think, "jeez, do I really belong here at all?".

Again, I'm sorry it got and felt personal. It was never intended to be, beyond saying, "here's a place where by saying, 'whoops, I guess that wasn't as appropriate as I thought', you personally can do something to help Perl's image as a boy's club, and I would admire you a lot for doing so, though I admit I'll be disappointed if you don't."


Well put. You make this community better.

> Women whom I know and admire - and who are very accepting people, and whose ability to think in a straight line I deeply respect - have said to me, "someone posted this? Seriously?"

The interesting thing is ... I can make exactly the same statement about your previous post, because it did come across as something of an "I shall now climb onto my high horse and tell you all you're wrong". I know you just covered that that wasn't intentional; the perspective is important though.

We're starting to enter into a situation where any comment that -might- possibly offend somebody is getting shouted at. This worries me.

It worries me because it makes the cluebatting applied when somebody says something genuinely offensive come across as less of a major event.

It worries me because we seem to be confusing tasteless, creepy and offensive - all can be bad ... but then again, in the right context/group, all those adjectives can be applied to things that people would find really quite funny.

I think the important thing is the point that any given piece of interaction exists as much in its interpretation by those hearing/reading/observing it as in the initial transmission, and that you have to think hard about not just who you're directing it to but who else is going to encounter the transmission anyway, and whether you care what they think. I have a blog post or two which starts with "this is a rant, you have been warned" - I don't really much care about anybody who reads on and then gets upset that I use the F word after that, but I do care that they have a chance to close the window before they see that).

To expand on this: While there's plenty of discussion about how stupid sexual content can bother people, there's very little thought of how a negative reaction to it can bother the very people we're trying to protect.

Oh, look, "protect". There's your problem. It can easily come across as "Poor little women of tech can't stand up for themselves so we big white men have to do it for them". How condescending, even if we didn't mean to do that.

Of course, there's an easy solution here.

This sort of pointless sexualisation and crappy failed attempts at humour is already gross and unpleasant and inappropriate for its context in and of itself.

Therefore, you're entirely entitled to get annoyed, offended and even angry as imply a member of homo sapiens, on your own behalf.

You can do so while agreeing with people of different skin colours, cultures, first languages, sex and/or gender about why it's gross - but agree because you agree, not because the poor little weak minority needs your protection. That's just going to replace one problem with another more insipid one and we as a community/culture/species/whatever have got quite enough problems to solve already.

-- mst, out

@Matt: How would you suppose we should go about calling out potential offensive or alienating behavior in our culture? As male specimen of the human race (that's me, you and Joe) we will never be able to fully understand how it feels to visit such a space as the Perl community where white males are found in abundance.

Listening to the folks that might be offended or turned away by such content and relying what we gathered is all we can do. Nothing of Joes original post felt patronizing to me (disclaimer: I might be wrong and also I have only read the posts not the comments) and the OP here is way more accommodating that I would have managed to be. If one has an evidenced opinion that marginalized people are grossed out by some behavior you witnessed, you have to speak up on behalf of them.

To exemplify: just imagine, what backlash a woman that was offended by that post might have gotten if she dared to speak up. The last few months of the interaction in THIS community have given me high hopes that she might have been listened to and her input would have been heeded. BUT: given what I have experienced in other communities, this is not a given -- especially not on the Internet. I've seen women calling out offensive behavior in somewhat mild language that had to face a barrage of rape and death threats afterwards just for this.

I'm not saying the Perl community would be like that, not at all, but keep in mind that everyones mode of interaction is heavily influenced by previous interactions with the wider world around him/her. And calling out sexism IS sanctioned against by the wider world.

Your call to only point out gross behavior if you are grossed out by it on a personal level, and not because you emphazise with the group at the butt of that joke, just places the burden of keeping our community "clean" on that (already marginalized) group. In my opinion, that's not a good idea if you want to build an inclusive community.

I might be going of on a wild goose chase here, but maybe your idea that women feel patronized by calling out inappropriate publications from within our community might be coming from women that already are part of our community (or women you know personally instead of from this somewhat professional setting, which might indeed be an even greater filter ;). This is a simple selection bias. No one that feels comfortable with our current mode of operation would speak out against it -- why should they? Folks that won't join up have no stake in the betterment of this community, so why should they speak up either?

tl;dr: If you want to advance a community, you should listen to those not already part of it and rely the feedback to the in-group. How else should change be facilitated?

Finally, watching from the sidelines: the way the Perl community has handled this particular incident has given me back hope for (the internet-connected part of) humanity. What I have seen here has made me proud of being a very minor part of this edge of the internetz. Thanks to all of you that have spoken up and made their voice and concerns heard. Seriously: thanks!

P.S: evidence for most of the claims on social interaction I have made will be made available on request. Digging through the resources I have available to reference the particular studies regarding the point at hand would easily have taken another two hours of time I don't really have right know, but this topic is important enough for me that I would gladly sacrifice them if it might help.

It is funny you used perl as the base for your metaphor. I would like to extend it a little further with these questions:

  • Do you believe it is acceptable to change perl to have warnings enabled by default without an explicit request? By extension do you believe it is acceptable to issue warnings across the board[1] of our rather diverse and very darkpan-like community?
  • Do you believe that p5p has a clear and complete information of what most Perl users actually want[2], and use that info to advance the Perl language? By extension do you believe you and many other "guardians of hospitality" actually know which of our deficiencies[3] are lamented by the excluded demographics[4], and hence can make the authoritative claim of what needs to be done to advance the community?
  • (ok, this one does not extend the metaphor anymore) - how come any time this topic comes up it is predominantly white males that discuss these issues? Perhaps we are doing it repeatedly in the wrong places?

I also want to highlight a specific problem I have with the "dismissing Windows" comment. You could claim this if things didn't actually work. As far as I am concerned[5] things work exceptionally well *despite* $ENV{RUNNING_IN_HELL}. This dissonance raises an interesting question:

  • Given we are in the context of an ultimately-technical[6] community, is it more important to optimize for inclusivity, or for efficiency in solving actual *technical* problems? I will rephrase this question just to make it clearer: If you are in a situation where you can choose only one of the following options (as is very very very often the case) - which one do you think benefits a Win32 user more:
    • Solving the users problem while possibly bashing the pool of hate that are some basics of their platform
    • Politely saving the user a reminder that their OS of choice sucks balls from a Unix-like or even POSIX-like worldview.

There were many calls to look at the issues at hand pragmatically - why don't we actually try to do that?


[1] Yes I am aware you only meant perlmonks... and of course other sites that are "official faces" of perl... like possibly and possibly IRC... and of course any YAPC and/or workshop... Slippery slope much?

[2] Spoiler - they don't because there isn't much input. Interestingly if there was considerable input, there currently is no infrastructure to deal with it (the amount of people employed by anyone to work on perl5 exclusively is in the single digits).

[3] Same problem as in [2] - I am not saying we are equipped to deal with actual complaints when they start coming in, far from it. And this is a massive problem as it discourages complaints. However you keep taking your own perceptions of how someone else may feel as genuine complaints.

[4] And yes, there definitely is an excluded demographic, nobody is denying that[7]. I for one would love to be able to see a more diverse crowd when I go to a conference. But to paraphrase mst - what you are doing here are not the horses you are looking for

[5] I sadly have to deal with several Win32 machines at work. Perl does an *unbelivably good job* at hiding this sad fact from me most of the time

[6] By ultimately-technical I mean that unlike many other fields we have an extremely well defined line between correct and incorrect (really we can only be rivaled by mathematicians). Hence in the context of a demographic which spends most of their workday separating correctness from incorrectness, it is wishful thinking to expect the same people to discount their occupational side-effect of black-and-white vision

[7] Well... maybe someone is. There are lunatics that deny evolution as well - should we care? :)

Regarding patronizing/protecting:

Like I have mentioned elsewhere: we recently had a discussion in our german perl forum. It was about something that is typical for the german language (male and female job titles, a problem that does not exist in the english language).
The discussion seemed very aggressive to me - from the direction of the guys (and the anonymous trolls who didn't want to tell their gender).
More or less regularly we two female moderators are criticized, and usually in this criticism the gender is emphasized, and usually a concrete reason for criticism is missing. If the forum was moderated the same way mainly by guys, I'm pretty sure a lot of criticism didn't happen, and none would emphasize that fact that the moderators are male. We are even criticized for splitting an offtopic subthread to its own thread (we also have tree structured threads).

After a longer discussion my fellow moderator was harassed by email and telephone.

I'm telling that because, when talking about patronizing, please don't forget that some are really just afraid to complain because they might get mobbed.
Yes, one should not patronize a minority by, for example, establishing rules against discrimination without actually asking the minority.
But "they can speak up for themselves" is not always true, and "you should not speak up for them" neither.

When I read Joe's perlmonks post, it was actually nice for me to see - somebody cares.

Swillert wrote:
> How would you suppose we should go about calling out potential offensive or alienating behavior in our culture?

By calling it out for being offensive and/or alienating.

As Joe said - "I didn't, and don't, want to see it either." Neither do I.

If you believe that members of a particular group are being offended by something but you aren't ... first look into yourself and ask why you aren't offended too.

Disliking gross sexualisation because gross sexualisation is horrible works out well, it just requires us to stop and think and realise that it's horrible in its own right, not just because teh wimminz might not like it.

Any time somebody says "lighten up", it's time to darken down - because enlightenment only goes to show just how deep the shadows go.

> I might be going of on a wild goose chase here, but maybe your idea that women feel patronized by calling out inappropriate publications from within our community might be coming from women that already are part of our community

This isn't an idea. This is a concrete "I have heard from a number of upset people."

I don't want to offend and alienate people who -might- join our community.

I also don't want to upset and patronise the people who already did.

Just because they're currently on the inside doesn't mean they won't walk away if we don't take their feelings into account as well.

Tinita wrote:
> More or less regularly we two female moderators are criticized, and usually in this criticism the gender is emphasized, and usually a concrete reason for criticism is missing.

I see that a lot. I find it utterly offensive because I find any attempt to use any aspect of somebody that isn't relevant to the argument as if it was relevant to be offensive.

I wrote On Not Being A Problem to highlight this - and to remind us that there's a whole laundry list of ways to make an ad hominem attack and none of them are acceptable.

I'm not saying "don't fight back when somebody's being offensive." I'm saying "fight back because they're being offensive" - rather than "fight back because somebody else might be offended."

The difference is subtle, but to me extremely important - it moves the judgement of offensive from third person hearsay to something I can directly argue.

This provides a much clearer basis from which to define why it's offensive and how to avoid being so in future - and a firm basis on which moderators can issue technical penalties and peers can issue social penalties if the bad behaviour continues.

-- mst, out

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About Joe McMahon

user-pic Blogging about Perl, wandering off into compatibility issues with other things, like Python and Django.