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On Politeness, Street Signs, and Codes of Conduct

When I grow up, I want a pink car. Girls like pink.

—Ta­to (my son, age 4 at the time)

There has been a lot of talk late­ly about codes of con­duct in con­fer­ences. I don't have an­swers to much, but I do have a lot of ques­tions in my head, and some things seem to come to my mind be­cause of that, so I will do a lit­tle head dump­ing, and let's see if clar­i­ty ap­pears.

So. The main thing seems to be that the pro­posed codes of con­duct aim at mak­ing events in­clu­sive, and more di­verse, and wel­com­ing to peo­ple who may have felt un­wel­come in the past. That these groups in­volve wom­en should be a call of at­ten­tion. Wom­en? Wom­en are half the world, and ap­par­ent­ly we have been ex­clud­ing them, whether in­ten­tion­al­ly or not.

So, in prin­ci­ple, if adopt­ing a code of con­duct helps that, I am all for it. Same about gays, les­bian­s, tran­sex­u­al­s, etc. They are not 50% of the world, but they are about 10% of it, so it's a very large amount of peo­ple, and adding them to our groups is an­oth­er easy op­ti­miza­tion.

How­ev­er, it con­cerns me a bit that these codes of con­duct con­tain lan­guage like this:

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.

Some are com­plete­ly ob­vi­ous, peo­ple who dis­rupt the speak­ers at con­fer­ences are to be thrown out, in­tim­i­da­tion is abom­inable, stalk­ing is creep­y, etc. But "of­fen­sive ver­bal com­ments re­lat­ed to [ev­ery­thing]"?

And here, I have to make a small de­tour and talk about street sign­s. When I vis­it­ed Lon­don, one thing that called my at­ten­tion was the lan­guage in street sign­s. Here's an ex­am­ple:

In oth­er coun­tries it would say "No dogs", would­n't it?

So, why do they have signs like this? It's prob­a­bly be­cause they are very po­lite peo­ple. Al­so, it may be be­cause of­fen­sive signs are pun­ish­able by jail.

I have a com­plete­ly un­found­ed sus­pi­cion that the po­lite­ness came first, and then came the right not to be of­fend­ed, which end­ed en­cod­ed in­to law, and now you just have to be po­lite, or else.

I am quite loud­ly athe­ist, yet I on­ly men­tion it out­side this blog if some­one men­tions his re­li­gion. So, for ex­am­ple, if some­one says "god asks less and yet he for­gives", I may say "that's be­cause he does­n't ex­ist", as a joke. I am now as­sum­ing that say­ing that in a con­fer­ence with that kind of code of con­duct is go­ing to be con­sid­ered of­fen­sive be­hav­iour. And let's say I am ok with that, I can still go for a few hours with­out of­fend­ing peo­ple. Have not tried it late­ly, but I am sure I can do it.

And I know that at a pri­vate even­t, like a con­fer­ence, there is no in­her­ent free­dom of speech, be­cause there is the right of ad­mis­sion, and I can just be kicked out with­out any ex­pla­na­tion, and I am al­so fine with that, be­cause I re­serve the right to kick peo­ple out of my own home, too.

So, sure, let's keep re­li­gion out of it. It has no place in a tech­ni­cal con­fer­ence one way or an­oth­er, and in any case, I will wear my in­vis­i­ble pink uni­corn shirt as an out­ward sign of my athe­ism (it looks just like a gray v-­neck t-shirt).

And I am to­tal­ly fine about not mock­ing or ha­rass­ing peo­ple be­cause of their gen­der or sex­u­al pref­er­ences. I am old and pro­vin­cial enough that when two men start kiss­ing next to me, I feel awk­ward. Luck­i­ly, I am enough of an adult that I just think to my­self, "dude, you are a pro­vin­cial prude" and look the oth­er way. Af­ter al­l, I have seen peo­ple take ex­cep­tion to me kiss­ing my wife in pub­lic, so, live and let live, what­ev­er. I like wom­en, my wife likes men, so I can un­der­stand you lik­ing ei­ther.

On the oth­er hand, I un­der­stand that the mere ex­is­tence and pres­ence of some peo­ple can be of­fen­sive to oth­er­s. I know peo­ple who would rather stand for 2 hours than sit next to a tran­sex­u­al. Or would rather get off the bus in­stead of be­ing there. And I am enough of an old, pro­vin­cial prude that I un­der­stand them. So, of­fend­ing is not the thing here, be­cause if of­fend­ing is the thing, then the mere pres­ence of some­one can of­fend oth­er­s, and that's the ex­act op­po­site of what we wan­t. We want them to ei­ther not be of­fend­ed, or be of­fend­ed and get over it, or be of­fend­ed and not care.

So, hand­ing out in­vi­ta­tions to three­somes to peo­ple in hall­ways is a bit too much (I nev­er in­vite peo­ple to three­somes be­fore the fourth date, it is gauche). Hit­ting on peo­ple in bars at night is prob­a­bly not too bad, un­less it's a con­stant thing that ru­ins the night for some­one (what do I know, I have nev­er hit on some­one or been hit on in a bar. Ex­cept by oth­er men. Just my luck­!) in which case I ex­pect a group of nice peo­ple to form a pro­tec­tive ring around the poor per­son who is just too at­trac­tive? (a­gain, what do I know, I have nev­er been atrac­tive).

The thing we want is po­lite­ness. We want to be nice to each oth­er. We want ev­ery­one to be as nice as they pos­si­bly can to as many peo­ple as they can. Spe­cial­ly, we want ev­ery­one to be ex­treme­ly nice to the peo­ple they like the least. Be­cause with peo­ple you get along with, you can do crazy stuff you can't do with oth­er­s.

On the oth­er hand, I sus­pect there is some­thing else here I am miss­ing. Be­cause tol­er­ance and re­spect is just not my thing. I am all for pros­eli­tiz­ing and dis­re­spec­t, for cre­ative an­noy­ance and push­ing peo­ple out­side their com­fort zones. But I try not to do it per­son­al­ly, I try to throw things to the crowd and see what they do with them.

I mean, I have been pho­tographed with­out my con­sen­t. I have even had my shirt scanned with­out ask­ing per­mis­sion (ok, I ad­mit hav­ing a QR code in a shirt is sort of an im­plic­it agree­men­t), I have been called names, but I know that, in the words of a sci­fi writer, I live life in the low dif­fi­cul­ty set­ting, be­cause I am a rather healthy white het­ero­sex­u­al male born in mid­dle class with a job, so again, I don't quite know what it's like to be in­sane­ly at­trac­tive, or gay, or in­sane­ly at­trac­tive to gays, or any­thing. I am not ha­rass­able. My face pro­tects me. I know oth­ers don't have such pow­er­ful de­fens­es.

So, while that kind of lan­guage does fill me with trep­i­da­tion, and makes me won­der what kind of com­mu­ni­ty I have been liv­ing in, obliv­i­ous to all these things I read about late­ly, I will ac­cept those codes and try to fol­low them. I have nev­er in­ten­tion­al­ly bro­ken them, even be­fore they ex­ist­ed (I did once take an in­ap­pro­pri­ate pic­ture, it was a joke, I on­ly showed it to one per­son, and I delet­ed it, and I re­al­ly am sor­ry and would not do it again, ok?)

So, I hope to see a lot of peo­ple I don't know in the next free soft­ware events I at­tend. Hope­ful­ly I will not of­fend any of them in a bad way. I will not be too brash. I will try to be in­clu­sive. I will try to be nice. But re­mem­ber. If I am very, very nice to you, it may be be­cause I can't stand you. You're wel­come.

bwmaister / 2012-06-22 04:14:

So, since I've been reading about this, and I think I know where you're coming from, and since you seem honestly curious about why people would do this, I'm going to try and answer. I normally ignore these kinds of posts.

The point of these policies is encouraging women (and other oppressed people) to attend large events that they would normally not attend. It is to provide them with a safe space (defined here: ).

The point is that women, in every culture, worldwide, are dismissed when they have complaints. It is easy, everywhere, for men to make women *extremely* uncomfortable with no repercussions to the men. Not "oh I'm a christian in a room full of atheists" uncomfortable. That's the kind of uncomfortable where you might feel like an idiot if you say the wrong thing. That's the same kind of uncomfortable that Astrophysicists feel at Cosmology conferences: you're out of your element and you're scared that people are going to make fun of you, or think less of you.

Christian and Astrophysicists don't have to deal with "tits or GTFO" every day that they're on the internet. Unless they're women.

So, if you're a con organizer you have basically two options: either be silent and tacitly accept that the culture is correct and that you do not want the smart women at your event.

Or else you scream as loudly as possible that if a woman complains about a man with an upskirt camera ( ) *something will be done.*

You do this by having a strong anti-harassment policy, and telling every attendee "hey, look, we have a *strong* anti-harassment policy, don't fuck with us, and don't fuck with women. You don't want to be on our bad side."

You make it clear that no matter how screwed up society is, everyone important in your community is on the side of women. That your community will always, at first push, treat women as *people* who deserve to be able to attend events without getting harassed.

Posts like this one say that you don't understand where women (LGBTQ, etc) are coming from, or that you disagree with the principle of inclusiveness. This one sounds honest enough, to me, a man, that I'm willing to give you the benefit of the doubt and *not* take this as part of the never-ending stream of "but women aren't actually oppressed" BS that exists on the internet.

But only barely.

It is posts like this one, posts that say that women are over-reacting, or that cons are over-reacting, that tell women that they are not welcome.

Roberto Alsina / 2012-06-22 10:31:

If you read this, and come up with me being against the principle of inclusiveness, then I must have done a very poor job of writing it. Specially the parts about me being *for* the principle of inclusiveness, and the parts where I said I agree with the codes of conduct being put in place, and about me trying really hard to follow them and curb my instinct to be an equal opportunity annoying person.

May I point out that you are using the word "fuck" in comments, which is offensive and then delete your post? No I will not because I don't give a fuck about you using the word fuck, but suppose now the next reader comes here and says "hey, quodlibetor has offended me, he used a word he's not supposed to use, please delete his comment!". That's what happens with "strong" policies. Don't worry, I don't have one, and therefore you are welcome to say fuck.

Does that mean you are against inclusiveness? That you are *for* offensive language? That you like offending people's sensitivities about seeing the word fuck in something they may have found innocently in a technical site? I don't think it does. I think you were trying to be *for* those things, you just expressed yourself in an way that is offensive to some.

If I were organizing an event and someone reported the case of an upskirtcam, I would kick that person with the camera out of the event (metaphorically, I am not much into kicking people literally these last 25 years or so).

Do I say in this post that women are overreacting? Hell no. I wish people had no need for thick skins, and I understand that women do get harassed, and I wish it did not happen, which is why I am *for* these codes of conduct, and not just about women, as I thought I had made clear and probably did not.

Do you know what the second most popular story on my blog ever was? It was an extremely insulting post about how those who are against inclusive marriage. It was a list of their usual arguments with explanations about how those arguments make those who use them look like idiots. I am pretty happy about it, it was, as I said *extremely* insulting. I still think it was insulting in the name of freedom and inclusion, and I still think that was a good thing.

Just like your comment here seems (to me) to be at the same time insulting, condescending and at the same time I like it because it is insulting and condescending for a good cause. I tried to write a post that was not insulting, and was for a good cause. I failed. I will try to clarify as needed.

bwmaister / 2012-06-22 11:51:

I appreciate your response and, while I was trying to be insulting (to the effects of your post), I was trying to *not* be insulting to you, or condescending at all. That's what I get for writing on the internet.

I do think that your response misses the point that I was trying to make, reasonable since I ranted instead of expressed myself.

Most importantly: I am glad that you are pro sexual-harassment policy. That does not come across to me in your post, and it changes what you're saying--in my mind--from "why are the organizers trying to keep us from having a good time?" to "We really need to be careful when we handle things so that we don't become a culture that can't handle comedians."

Another point: I think that the fundamental logical error that you made in your post was the line ""offensive verbal comments related to [everything]"...

Which, upon re-reading the original policy, is actually a good point: "gender, sexual
orientation, disability, physical appearance, body size, race, religion." One of these things is not like the other. The first six things that the the policy requires us to avoid being offensive about are all physical. The last is a set of beliefs. Beliefs don't change unless you talk about them, physical characteristics don't change.

Physical attributes are commonly used to marginalize groups of people: the first six groups in that list are regularly attacked. The last group is not. The first six describe groups that, to varying degrees, are under-represented, probably *because* they are regularly "attacked". The last group is not.

But, that's in my communities. Perhaps whichever con's policy you're reading has had some serious problems with religion-bashing, in which case: bully for them.

So, just to be clear: your post came across, to me, as being anti-protection of regularly attacked and marginalized groups in order to defend your right to free speech. I didn't like that.

Roberto Alsina / 2012-06-22 14:22:

Ok, so what happened is that you read a post containing things like "If adopting a code of conduct helps [diversity], I am all for it.", decided that it didn't meet your standard of enlightenment, and responded by dropping some fuckbombs in the comments in my blog, with the intention to be insulting (but not to me! (offensive to whom, then?)), and all this is supposed to show that you are *for* diversity and respect.

I officially give up, the world is too difficult, I will go shopping instead.

bwmaister / 2012-06-22 15:10:

You say "in principle, If adopting a code of conduct helps [diversity], I am all for it". That "in principle" says that you're about to say "but this is going too far." Which you *almost*, but don't quite, do. You *do* spend a lot of time talking about how limiting offensiveness can be harmful, and, since I misread the original policy, I thought you were explicitly talking about offending women.

The overall intent of the blog confused me, obviously, since I thought you were saying something that you weren't. I didn't comment because you "didn't meet my standards of enlightenment," I commented because what I thought you were saying harms communities that I care about, and I respect you so I wanted to at least share my opinion.

Yes, I cursed in your comments. I was angry at the state of the world, and expressing what I thought was an appropriate response to it. In my mind cursing--especially in a medium where it's shocking and a little unpleasant--is an appropriate way to show that you don't approve of something as terrible as our culture. The only people I intended to offend were misogynists.

Roberto Alsina / 2012-06-22 15:19:

We must have different understandings of what "in principle" means, which may be my mistake because I am not a native english speaker. I used it in the meaning I saw in the dictionary of "with regard to fundamentals although not concerning details", meaning I was about to nitpick something I generally agree with.

So, maybe it was a misunderstanding. But yet, your reaction was to assume you knew what I was saying, and then go on the offensive telling me "Posts like this one say that you [...] disagree with the principle of inclusiveness" and that I "barely" am not saying "women aren't actually oppressed BS".

You are lucky that I am very, very, very hard to offend.

And no, dropping "fuck" in comments in random sites doesn't only offend misogynists. It offends those who are offended by foul language, (among which I am not included, luckily). Looks like you still need to work on that tolerance thing.

bwmaister / 2012-06-22 15:33:

Yes, well, that's what happens with misunderstandings. I still think that your post lends itself to misunderstanding.

I didn't "assume [I] knew what you were [saying]", I read your post and responded to it. You didn't write as clearly as you could have, I didn't read as clearly as I could have.

I certainly didn't assume that you were innocent, but that's because we live in a society of the guilty.

Tshepang Lekhonkhobe / 2012-06-22 23:37:

Your comment on astrophysics and cosmology caught my attention. Why would the cosmo guys sneer at the astros? Do they feel their field is superior?

kent37 / 2012-06-22 11:41:

Hi Roberto,

Like you, I am a white, hetero, well-paid male who feels a little uncomfortable with men kissing in public. If you want to see the world from the point of view of someone female, gay, trans, of color - someone who lives life on the high difficulty setting - I strongly recommend reading for a while. It has opened my eyes.

Roberto Alsina / 2012-06-22 14:23:


Santiago Cabezas / 2012-06-22 23:42:

Yo soy de los que hacen chistes, a veces desubicados y a veces no, y que después tienen que andar tapando agujeros a la voz de "¿EN SERIO me estás diciendo que ESO te ofendió?.

La gente hace mucho barullo manifestando su ofensa, pero hace realmente poco para llevar la ofensa a un plano que no les moleste. No se si soy claro.

Como diría mi viejo, "si te molesta una boludez, es porque tenés el culo sucio."

O como Linus Torvalds puso, de forma muy inteligente: "I like offending people, because people who get offended deserve to be offended."

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