Thursday, March 21, 2013

Off With Their Heads: The PyCon Incident and Our Society

Fair warning: If you've come here looking for a quick validation of your arguments for or against Adria Richards, you can go on elsewhere. I'm not interested in "winning a debate" here. Also, I'm a white male, so if you think that makes me unfit to have any opinion on this topic, I also invite you to move on. Still here? Good, let's have a civilized conversation.

If you're part of the software development industry and have looked at the social media over the past two days, you'll have heard of Adria Richards and what happened at PyCon. Just in case you haven't, though, here's the short version: two guys working for some of the sponsors were sitting within the earshot of Adria and making crass jokes involving "forking the repos" and "big dongles". I invite you to read Adria's blog post about it before going on.

Right off the bat, let me tell you that I'm not writing this post to condemn either these guys or Adria. Like I implied at the top, I don't see things black and white here and I think that too many people currently participating in the conversation -- including Adria -- are looking at this as a battle to win. This is something that bothers me a lot and I think something needs to be done about it. Before we get to that part, though, we need to discuss the incident a bit.

What Happened?

The first I heard of this incident was this very morning, when I looked at Hacker News front page and noticed that there was a story that had over 900 points and more than 800 comments. It was a link to a Pastebin text that paints what turned out to be a rather one-sided picture. My first reaction was outrage: just one paragraph into the text, my imagination conjured a vivid scene of two guys talking in a hallway and someone sneaking up on them to take a photo. I instantly developed a strong dislike for Adria and had to fight that dislike all the time while I was looking for more information. There's still a part of me that wants to hate Adria and I say that to illustrate the importance of not acting out on your first impression.

Here's the thing you need to keep as first and foremost in your mind whenever you stumble upon a situation like this: you don't know enough. I don't know what the words of the joke were. I don't know if their joke had anything to do with what was being discussed on stage or not. I don't know if the guy that got fired had a stellar record within his company or was considered problematic. Those are just some examples of things the vast majority of us don't know even now.

So let's start by sticking to what we do know:
  • If you're at a convention, you represent your company and your actions can reflect on it.
  • If you're sitting together with a bunch of people arranged in rows of seats, your expectation of privacy drops rapidly.
  • It is not acceptable to ruin someone else's experience for them with your conversation. It's like talking in a movie theater.
All in all, it was definitely not okay for the guys in question to do what they did and neither Adria nor anyone in her position should be expected to tolerate it. For the record, I also agree that just talking to the guys directly would most likely been ineffective. I've seen people deflect the complaint too often to keep believing that this approach works.

That said, things turned ugly on more than one level and this is what I want to discuss here.

Off With Their Heads!

If you look at Adria's Twitter stream and at some of the blog posts around, you'll notice something interesting: people have taken sides and are arguing against the other side. It's like we've dug two huge trenches and people in each are now taking potshots at the other trench.

Let's take a step back and look at the outcome of the incident, without foaming at the mouth. One good thing is that the PyCon Code of Conduct got upheld and it's been made clear once again that those aren't just words. Another good thing is that unacceptable behavior, got punished.

On the other hand, one undeniably bad thing that happened is that a person lost a job. I say "a person", because it should not matter whether it was a man or a woman or what their skin color is. I agree wholeheartedly with Avdi Grimm when he says:
We need space between "you're fine" and "you're fired".
Did the guy from PyCon deserve to be fired for his jokes? It depends on a number of factors: whether his joke was downright sexist or just immature, whether he was fired just for that or he had other problems at work, and so on. If we assume -- as most people seem to -- that his jokes were merely immature and that he was fired only for that, then I would argue that such a drastic disciplinary measure was out of proportion.

Another bad thing that happened is that a huge controversy has been made out of this and the rift between men and women in tech -- a ridiculous rift that shouldn't exist in the first place -- has likely been made wider.

Nearly everyone is out for blood. Some people are viciously reveling in the fact that one of the guys lost his job, while others are furiously demanding an apology from Adria and SendGrid.

It's like we fell down the rabbit hole and everyone is either the Queen of Hearts, screaming "off with their heads", or a part of her army of card soldiers.

It's too easy for things to spiral out of control and out of proportion and I find it worrying that, in our society, you can cause a social media avalanche with one tweet and set loose a mob on someone. Regardless of whether you feel righteous about it, you should step back and consider all the possible consequences before committing to an extreme action.

Punishment, Fear and Empathy

Trigger Warning: this section makes references to a high-profile rape case, so you might want to skip to the notice that says "End Trigger Warning".

Events at PyCon are really just a reflection of our society's attitude in general. One recent example that illustrates this attitude is the Steubenville rape case. In case you're not familiar with it, go Google it, because I'm not going to describe any details here. What I do want to focus on was the way certain media comments were handled.

CNN reporter Poppy Harlow made the following comment about the case:
It was incredibly emotional, incredibly difficult even for an outsider like me to watch what happened as these two young men that had such promising futures -- star football players, very good students -- we literally watched as, they believe, their life fell apart.
The public reaction was one of outrage. Again, my first reaction was similar. However, I later stumbled upon an honest and humble questioning of this reaction by a writer I admire greatly and that made me stop and try to think more critically.

There is no question whatsoever that these two youths deserve their punishment. I believe there's no defense or justification of their acts. That doesn't mean that the situation isn't tragic, not only for the rape victim, but also for them. These are two people that could have had a much better future, if only we, as a society, could have detected early the flaws in their upbringing and corrected them. It really is tragic to see all three lives damaged so profoundly. That's why we call certain things tragedies: the net outcome is negative.

Yet the society at large seems to value only the punishment and no one is allowed a modicum of human compassion and empathy for the bigger picture.

End Trigger Warning

The problem with the PyCon incident and with our society in general is that we manifest disproportional care about punishments. It's certainly necessary to punish inappropriate behavior, but is it enough?

As a father of a six year old kid, I can emphatically claim that it isn't. Believe me, it's a mistake I made earlier and the result was that my son was afraid of me. When he said so, my heart nearly broke. I've been careful ever since not to repeat the same mistake.

Another thing I had to learn was that not every offense deserves the same punishment. If your kid peed his pants because he didn't want to pause the damn video game, it's not the same thing as throwing a temper tantrum because you told him he can't play before he does his homework.

You cannot solve a behavioral problem by simply punishing the bad behavior and stopping there. You need to look at the bigger picture and you need empathy. Fear is a poor problem-solving tool.

I applaud Adria Richards for not tolerating unacceptable behavior and standing up to it, instead. I also disagree with her methods and believe there were better ways of dealing with things.

Most of all, I strongly feel that, instead of glorifying the outcome of the PyCon incident, we should focus and keep looking for ways to change our culture, so that the history doesn't repeat itself. 

UPDATE #1 (2013-03-21, 15:02 CLST): Continuing the trend of punishment-oriented overreaction, it appears that SendGrid has decided to fire Adria Richards. I am still hoping that they were simply hacked and that this is false information spread by the misogynist mob of script kiddies, but that hope is fading fast. I've never been more depressed about people illustrating my point for me.

UPDATE #2 (2013-03-21, 19:29 CLST): SendGrid has just posted an official explanation of their decision. While I still disagree with two people losing their jobs over this whole situation, I wholeheartedly agree with SendGrid's statement that Adria's "actions have strongly divided the same community she was supposed to unite".


Chris said...

A very level-headed and calm analysis of the situation. Thank you.

Jaki Levy said...

dude - this is a great overview of what happened and a nice top level perspective - thanks for posting this.

it's really a shame people got fired over this. let's hope people learn to be more direct and communicate with each other in person before posting publicly to social media sites and churning up the rumor mill.

from one dude to another - thank you.