All This Over a Dongle?!

As usual, someone is wrong on the Internet, and I just can’t help myself. Many will already be familiar with the incident at PyCon this week. During a talk, two men were talking to themselves, and a woman overheard it. She took offense to what they said, got the attention of convention staff, and had them talked to by staff. Because she used Twitter, and posted a photo of them, it led to one of the men getting fired from his job, presumably to avoid blowback on his company. The men spoke about two things that the woman took offense to. The first was a series of jokes about a “dongle“, and using the term in a sexual manner. The second was a series of jokes about “forking“. After the incident, everyone posted their stories to their blogs or somewhere public. According to one of the men, he admits that the dongle jokes may have been inappropriate, but clarifies that the forking jokes were not sexual at all.

There are several aspects of this saga that bother me, and I am not the only one. While I will start on the PyCon incident, this article will end on a bigger theme, and drag another recent incident into the mix to demonstrate what many see as a pattern of females being overly aggressive on wanting not only equality, but rights above and beyond the rest of us. That is the part that should bother you too. If you have read enough about the PyCon incident, I encourage you to skip down to the “Other, Ongoing Issue” below.

There are a lot of people adding to the discussion, especially on Twitter. In my casual brief search, I ran across two replies to the incident that show many are giving this topic serious thought. As with most things, the topic of sexism, feminism, and all things between is murky to say the least. I offer my opinion as someone who believes in a women’s right not to be sexually harassed, who believes that any rational person doesn’t need special programs or slogans to remind themselves not to do bad things to woman, but more importantly, someone who believes that it is a two-way street. While a woman should be not harassed just for being a woman, men should not be made to feel uncomfortable and second guess every word they speak on the off chance it might offend a woman, especially one who admits to having “triggers”. More on that later.

The woman in question is Adria Richards (@AdriaRichards on twitter), a self-described “blogger, video content creator, technology mentor” who is currently a “developer evangelist” at SendGrid (@SendGrid on Twitter). Until tonight, I had never heard of her, so my exposure to her is only based on skimming her Twitter feed, reading a couple of her blogs, and the other commentary mentioning her that I read while reading up on the incident. Her blog post outlining her side of the story about the PyCon incident is what led to me to write this though. In the process, I found a tie-in to another incident that bothered me, that is very similar to this one.

I read her blog to get her perspective on what happened, because everything is about perspective. Like one of the men saying the dongle jokes were inappropriate, but the forking jokes were actually complimentary and not sexual, it is important to get both sides. However, Richards’ comments about what happened disgusted me. Below are some quotes from her blog:

That would have been fine until the guy next to him… began making sexual forking jokes

Given that he admitted to inappropriate dongle jokes, I tend to believe him when he said that Richards took the forking jokes out of context, and read into them. I also seriously doubt the first jokes “were fine”, and suspect that Richards took offense to those and wouldn’t let it stand either way. Her complaints to PyCon via Twitter could have been the end of this, but after posting their picture and making accusations that now seem partially unfounded, it spiraled out of control.

I know I don’t have to be a hero in every situation.

This is perhaps one of the most disgusting, egotistical, and narcissistic comments I have read in some time. It is only compounded further when you read on. Richards isn’t a hero for overhearing an inappropriate joke that offended her, and ultimately complaining in such a way to getting someone fired. She isn’t a hero at all, and this comment suggesting she can be the hero of every situation is absurd.

I saw a photo on main stage of a little girl who had been in the Young Coders workshop. I realized I had to do something or she would never have the chance to learn and love programming because the ass clowns behind me would make it impossible for her to do so.

This is where Richards really goes off the deep end. Two people in a large crowd (picture courtesy of Richards) say something inappropriate, and it will somehow make a little girl pictured on stage to never have the chance to learn and love programming? Worse, Richards claims that the little girl couldn’t do all that because the two “assclowns” behind her would “make it impossible for her” to learn a programming language? That is textbook libel. Oh, and purely ignorant.

Accountability was important. These guys sitting right behind me felt safe in the crowd. I got that and realized that being anonymous was fueling their behaviour.

Richards then goes on a real stretch, suggesting that their activity was the result of Deindividuation. Apparently, in all of her reading on psychology, she missed the bit on Occam’s razor. Two guys talking to themselves, likely thought they were being quiet enough, and got overheard. It really can be that simple. Instead, Richards wants to prop this incident up and make it seem like they intentionally carried on like this, feeling like their actions were “safe” or “immune” from reaction. I side with Occam.

There is something about crushing a little kid’s dream that gets me really angry.

Me too. Except, neither of those men crushed a little kid’s dream. Richards is talking about a picture of a kid on a projector. Suggesting they shattered anyone’s dreams is absolutely ludicrous, and shows this entire matter has an agenda.

Yesterday the future of programming was on the line and I made myself heard.

Because the picture of a kid wasn’t enough, now the future of programming was on the line. I am at a loss for words, except one that keeps coming to mind. Idiot. The crap Richards spews in this blog is worthy of disgusting politics, and nothing else. Top it all off with a subsequent Tweet, and to me it seems like she has delusions of grandeur. This entire ordeal, from her side, screams of a desperate attempt to better justify her overreaction.

adria-tweet2

If you stop for a minute and picture the situation, you should quickly realize that Richards’ portrayal of what happened is egotistical, overblown, and completely out of line. What really prompted all of this? Was it really a dongle joke, which has been around for over two decades, and even used in mainstream advertisements in a sexual manner? Is Richards’ frantically typing out an email to this site, the advertiser, and anyone else to get it yanked because it too is offensive? Or is there a more rational explanation, specific to Richards?

Because of my experiences growing up, I have triggers. This means that I’m always scanning for danger; for situations that seem like something from the past that could hurt me. When I recognize something that matches, I can overreact and feel intense fear, anger or anxiety.

That is a quote from Richards’ blog, titled “Success Against The Odds: Filling My Technology Knapsack From Scratch” and published on February 6, 2013, a month and a half before the PyCon incident. Richards clearly has an awful past, and she not only endured it, but she ‘beat’ it. Rather than letting her past dictate her future, she overcame it and became a successful person in technology. However, like she said, she has triggers that may cause her to overreact due to anxiety. Based on everything I have read, I think that is exactly what happened today. I am more sure of it when I skim her Twitter feed and see the following Tweet, just days before this incident:

adria-tweet1

The person she made this joke to tries to defend her comments after someone points out the hypocrisy of it. What he fails to see is that her joke between two people, in a public forum, was “overheard” (read) by many others. The two men at PyCon were talking among themselves, and someone overheard it. One of these situations isn’t magically more appropriate than the other.

While Richards may be offended at a dongle or forking joke, I am offended that any one person, male or female, has the power to get two people ejected from a conference, and one of them fired from his job, all based on their perception of an overheard conversation. Apparently, Richards’ company SendGrid ultimately decided to steer clear as well, as they announced she had been terminated today (statement on their site). That will undoubtedly cast enough gas on this fire to keep it going for a few more days.

The Other, Ongoing Issue

The PyCon incident follows on the heels of another incident a few weeks ago. Richards’ invocation of the PyCon Code of Conduct as justification to have the men removed actually provides the tie-in. At the bottom:

This Code of Conduct was forked from the example policy from the Geek Feminism wiki, created by the Ada Initiative and other volunteers. which is under a Creative Commons Zero license.

If you aren’t familiar with the Ada Initiative (@AdaInitiative on Twitter), it is a “non-profit organization supporting women in open technology and culture”. It is important to remember that both Richards and the Ada Initiative feel that women are under-represented in technology (true), and want to help facilitate women gaining growth in the field. That is what makes the following story from weeks ago more baffling.

The cliff notes: A woman named Violet Blue, an accomplished writer and sex educator, was to speak at BSidesSF. She was to give the exact same talk she gave at BSidesLV in 2012, a talk titled “sex +/- drugs: known vulns and exploits“. The content was not only public to some degree, but the abstract was clear on the content. Despite that, Valerie Aurora from the Ada Initiative lodged a complaint with BSidesSF staff, claiming that if Blue gave the talk and if it contained reference to rape, it may trigger her in a negative way. Blue’s talk had educational information about the drugs behind date rape, how to be better informed, so that such situations could be avoided. As Blue describes the talk, it is about harm reduction.

So we have a group that claims to support women in technology and culture, arbitrarily stopping a talk designed to educate and protect women, because it “might” have content that “triggers” her. One might wonder that if Aurora truly knew (or believed) it had such content, why not just avoid the talk? You may also wonder why Aurora made such unfounded claims, when the talk was already public, and the content of it is already out there and easy to verify. Of course, Aurora did not approach Blue to talk about it, just like Richards did not confront the inappropriate jokers. Violet Blue gives a detailed account from her perspective, and Aurora gives a detailed account from her perspective along with a “TRIGGER WARNING: RAPE” at the top. Note that the guide to giving such talks that the Ada Initiative touts, mentions rape, without the same trigger warning. Without consistency, your personal agenda shows.

The Ada blog goes on in an attempt to justify their actions by claiming that such talks are appropriate for their conference (AdaCamp), but not other conferences. A small group of feminists have taken it upon themselves to influence and dictate what happens at conferences, even at the risk of working against their own stated goals. While I do not have references, and I haven’t searched them out, several people have come to me in my role as a maintainer of the Errata project and asked about adding the Ada Initiative, saying that the Violet Blue incident was the tip of the iceberg.

The result of this overly aggressive behavior and self-important moral policing only has the opposite effect. Rather than improving the the industry for women and enabling them to better move forward, more people are left with the wrong impression. Richards and Ada do not come off as heroes of the feminist movement; instead, they come off as petty and over-sensitive. That remark has nothing to do with gender either. The Internet is a cesspool at times, and we are frequently subjected to a variety of ideas and pictures that are likely to offend most. Our friends warn us to have thick skin, especially if you choose to engage in certain places (e.g. Twitter, 4chan). Many joke that a DSL modem should come with a warning label about the perils of the Internet. To brave it, we all have to keep our sensitivity in check, lest we live miserable lives constantly subjected to random 1’s and 0’s that upset us at every turn.

My message to any activist, regardless of your cause. Pushing for equality is a good thing, and I support that. However, when you push so hard so as to tip the scales in your favor, you are alienating yourselves to the masses that you just struggled to educate and influence. Sometimes part of a battle is knowing when to avoid a fight, and doing so strategically. Showing up to a conference, seeking out a talk that might offend you, and pushing for it to be cancelled shows you do not understand that.

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28 thoughts on “All This Over a Dongle?!

  1. “This Code of Conduct was forked from the example policy from the Geek Feminism wiki, created by the Ada Initiative and other volunteers. which is under a Creative Commons Zero license. ”

    So the code of conduct used to eject these guys explicitly uses the word “forked” as its direct link to Ada and yet “forked” was what got them tossed. How ironic is that?

  2. For a pissed off squirrel, you are remarkably both eloquent and cogent. This whole situation is absurd, but at least Adria has reaped what she has sown.

  3. Sometimes there seems to be little difference between the religious right and the feminist left, in that they both seem to love going out of their way to find things to get offended by and make excessive fusses about to provoke extreme overreactions. They only differ in exactly what they’re offended by, and sometimes it’s even the same thing (like when the two extremes collaborate on some anti-porn ordinance somewhere).

  4. Thanks, that was a nice read even though white on black text killed my already bad and all the time detoriating eyes.

  5. I know you see this as a tempest in a teapot, and you’re right that Adria Richards seems to have an overinflated sense of her own importance, but try reading this account of PyCon, written by a man, in which he points out that one of his female colleagues was constantly harassed and treated as a sexual object:
    http://ivory.idyll.org/blog/pycon-2013-and-codes-of-conduct.html

    “I came to PyCon with two women colleagues, one of whom was harassed nearly constantly by men, albeit on a low level. Both of them are friendly people who are willing to engage at both a personal and a technical level with others, and apparently that signals to some that they can now feel free to comment on “hotness”, proposition them, and otherwise act like 14 year old guys. As one friend said, (paraphrased) “I’d be more flattered that they seem to want to sleep with me, if they’d indicated any interest in me as a human being — you know, asked me why I was at PyCon, what I did, what I worked on, what I thought about things. But they didn’t.””

    At many tech conventions, this is the atmosphere that women are operating in, where a large segment of the population sees them less as humans and more as dehumanized sexual targets. It’s an atmosphere of hostility. It’s about much more than a dongle, it’s about the cultural dehumanization of women and the way this practice is accepted by a large segment of the tech and gamer communities. I don’t even go to tech events any more because of this, it’s too creepy. I encourage you to think about what it’s like to have your intelligence and free will CONSTANTLY in question because you had the misfortune to be born with your gonads on the inside.

  6. ECB: And based on that, I would say that deserves more attention from PyCon, attendees, and the community at large. There is a big difference between direct harassment, and someone overhearing something that may or may not be offensive depending on context, history, or triggers. As the blog says, “In the end, the latter two incidents are completely overshadowed by the first, though.” I agree with that.

  7. I agree with your take on #donglegate. I’m a woman in technology and I find many things Richards said extremely offensive.

    Having said that, when I heard about BSidesSF talk brouhaha, I thought it seemed like a completely inappropriate topic for a technical conference and unlike some others I didn’t think it was “silencing women” to disallow it, nor do I think it would be particularly welcoming to women if it had been allowed (frankly, I’d rather see woman speaker talk about on-topic material given the conference topic). So regardless of how silly or bogus the reason someone objected to it was, the fact remains that it was likely an inappropriate topic even if it had already been given in the past.

    I guess I agree with you about the negative effect of some type of activism, but it’s particularly baffling when someone takes such a position in presence of a much more relevant reason to object to a particular topic one finds objectionable.

  8. Asya: One thing that came up after the BSidesSF ordeal was that each BSides dictates their own content. While it started as a split from a technical conference (BlackHat), many of them have diversified speaking topics over the last few years. While they largely remain a tech conference, fringe topics and some talks that are ‘out there’ have been given. Many people took offense that the Ada Initiative tried to dictate content at a conference they do not run. If any of us tried to dictate content at AdaCamp, can you imagine the hell that would ensue? =)

  9. Asya I’ve been to BSides conferences that had talks on conservationism, conspiracy theories, and aikido. BSides is a whole different animal, and Violet Blue’s talk wouldn’t have been accepted as a talk had it not been in line with the organizers’ vision for the event.

  10. Thank you! One of the best articles I’ve read on the matter. I was particularly intrigued by the Ada Initiative material near the end. It reminds me of certain “feminist” (I realize there are different stripes of feminism) challenges of “safety campaigns” present new college students with information on what women can do to reduce their risk of being sexually assaulted, including “date rape,” with the over-arching complaint that the REAL campaign should be along the lines of “Attention ALL Men: DON’T RAPE!” – as if exercising intelligence in situations not completely within one’s control is some sort of “rape-apologism”. Tumblr feminists seem particularly fond of this line of activism (I was going to write “reasoning,” but that doesn’t quite fit this particular situation). Cheers!

  11. Great article.

    That story about PHPness was particularly interesting. Here is a short quote from the article (written by a woman…):

    “Telling us to adapt our behavior or not speak about sex because it makes men uncomfortable is not the answer.”

    Two way street eh?

  12. I believe you mean “Richards and Aurora” in that last paragraph, rather than “Richards and Ada.” Great article otherwise, though. Hey Valerie, we’re still waiting on your filesystem to, you know, be a safe system for files…

  13. Was told that an article about this made it page 1, above the fold, in the Denver Post. It was described to be as being “kind of negative toward Richards”. At the time of this comment, it isn’t on their web site.

  14. “Because of my experiences growing up, I have triggers. This means that I’m always scanning for danger; for situations that seem like something from the past that could hurt me. When I recognize something that matches, I can overreact and feel intense fear, anger or anxiety.”

    Has she considered seeking professional help? That type of paranoia can’t be good for anyone.

  15. Dear God, is the witch hunt over? Have we pinned the scarlet letter B enough times on her fellas? The more wounded guy rants I see on this topic, the more it’s clear to me that the brotherhood feels threatened. At least you all are on red alert now for professional women in earshot ready to record you in the act, haha!

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