So, Last week sucked.
If you’re not familiar with the events surrounding the horrendous harrasment and attacks on Adria Richards you can catch up here.
Although this post is inspired by those recent events, I don’t want to talk just about Adria.
I want to talk about empathy:
The intellectual identification with or vicarious experiencing of the feelings, thoughts, or attitudes of another.
For people with power, privilege, or both, empathy is often a luxury. If you have it, it’s certainly nice for the people around you, but you can get ahead just fine without it.
For people with less power and privilege, empathy can be a matter of survival. As a minority1, you spend significant time and energy learning the ways of the dominant culture. By necessity, we need to understand the motivations of that culture in order to fit in2 and have any hope of achieving the same goals that others take for granted.
One of the things I adore about President Obama is that he has empathy. He cries a lot. I have exactly zero memories of any other president from my adult life crying on camera, even when talking about the most horrific things. Obama seems to understand at a gut level that the decisions he makes affect real people. More importantly, he cares about those people. When tragic things happen, he is genuinely upset because he has empathy for people, including people he will never meet.
Contrast this with Rob Portman, a Republican senator from Ohio, who recently reversed his long-held stance against gay marriage because his son came out to him. Portman gives this rational for his change of heart:
Knowing that my son is gay prompted me to consider the issue from another perspective: that of a dad who wants all three of his kids to lead happy, meaningful lives with the people they love, a blessing Jane and I have shared for 26 years.
Dan Treadway hits the nail on the head with his response in the Huffington Post:
Rob Portman is a good father for changing his view on this issue so that he may support the rights of his son. But the fact that he was only able to feel empathy for the plight of gay people in this country — a plight that he for decades actively contributed to based on his voting record — only after the issue directly affected him, is definitive proof that he is an unfit politician.
People who can only have empathy for those they know and care deeply about, suffer from a failure of imagination. When those people have the power to make decisions that affect an entire office, conference, or country full of people, the results can be disastrous.
Eventually one of these Republican congressmen is going to find out his daughter is a woman, and then we're all set.
— Anil Dash (@anildash) March 15, 2013
What I kept coming back to, as I read story after story after post after article last week about the attacks on Adria, is the lack of empathy. I’m not talking about the inevitable trolls who resort to threats, intimidation and DDOS cyber bullying. I don’t have any hope for people like that.
But there are plenty of seemingly reasonable people who never the less, have resorted to spouting the same platitudes and tropes that minorities have been hearing for eternity. It was almost three days before I saw a post that didn’t resort to deconstructing whether Adria handled things the ‘right’ way, as if that mattered in the face of the backlash she received and the larger issue–which is that this loop has been playing itself out for a long, long, time without actually getting any better.
The fact that some people want to nitpick about the specifics of this or that incident, without understanding the larger context in which these redundancies play out, is a luxury of privilege. However, if you’re on the receiving end of injustice day after week, after year, it’s nearly impossible not to be aware of the systemic nature of the problem.
What Have I Gotten Myself Into?
In the scheme of things, I’m fairly new to the tech industry. And yes, I knew I was entering a boys club when I walked through the door. But last week, as I tried to focus on the actual coding I’m being paid to do, many threads of my brain were taken up trying to process the fact that I’ve entered a field where my safety could be at risk just from objecting to offensive behavior.
Just…sit and ponder that for a moment.
Fire fighters. Police officers. Secret service agents guarding the President of the United States. People who enlist in the armed forces. Cirque du Soliel performers.
These are people who might have a reasonable concern for their safety due to their career choices.
People who type on computers for a living should not fear for their safety because of the industry they work in.
In addition to worrying about that disturbing and unfathomable fact, I still have to deal with the people who keep saying they’re ‘on my side,’ but then reveal pretty standard ignorances about the realities of privilege, power and how that plays out when minorities speak up about injustices.
- Why can’t you just deal with people directly?
- Why can’t we just handle this privately?
- Why are you so angry?
- We’re Not All Like That, you know.
Oh OK. We just need to ask politely?
Also, all that energy used making sure my communication never makes tech peers uncomfortable: energy not spent coding. #IAskedPolitely
— addie b. pains (@demew) March 22, 2013
Melissa McEwan created the #IAskedPolitely hashtag on Twitter to show just how well that strategy works. (Hint: it doesn’t). It was a matter of hours before the trolls found the hashtag and helped prove the point even further.
But those were trolls, you might be thinking. Surely you can still try to have a rational discussion with the NALTs right? Let’s look at some examples.
Exhibit A: With Friends Like These…
Here’s a storify, that exemplifies some of the backlash that comes from even the ‘well meaning’ people:
Yes, women have the potential for violence. Alexander’s obsession with having this fact acknowledged in this particular conversation is neither supportive nor helpful. I could be out kicking every man I encounter in the nuts right now on general principal instead of writing this blog post. BUT I’M NOT.3 The fact is that women are harmed by men in far greater numbers than the reverse.
1 out of every 6 American women has been the victim of an attempted or completed rape in her lifetime. Among all victims, about nine out of ten are female.4
9 out of 10
Nine out of Ten.
Excuse me if I don’t have any room for your 10% right now. How ’bout you guys get your act together and when it’s only 1 out of 20 women who get assaulted at some point, then we can get back to your problems. BUT GIVE US A MINUTE.
A Quick Psychology Detour
Availability is a cognitive heuristic in which a decision maker relies upon knowledge that is readily available rather than examine other alternatives or procedures.
“There are situations in which people assess the frequency of a class or the probability of an event by the ease with which instances or occurrences can be brought to mind.5
As women, we are constantly doing calculations that aren’t even always conscious but that are designed to keep us safe. That means keeping a sharp eye out when you’re walking alone with possible assailants nearby. It means keeping an eye on your drink at the bar so no one slips something into it. It means saying ‘no’ to certain requests for help from men because it might be a trap to get you alone and harm you. It might mean skipping the conference after party because there’s a high chance of being the target of unwanted attention.
We don’t do this because ALL men are dangerous. We do it because it’s so very easy to call to mind the last time we or someone we knew had to deal with some sexist bullshit and there’s no way to tell where the next attack is going to come from.
But it’s a rare man who understands that this is what women have to live with every day, or can remotely imagine what a toll it takes on us, even after it’s been explained to him.
Exhibit B: I’m On Your Side…Except
@erat I’d love to talk with you about that in a longer format forum.
— Kronda (@kronda) March 24, 2013
Oh well, I guess that’s it then. He’s on my side, but since he’s right and she’s wrong, CASE CLOSED FOLKS!6
Honestly, I have no idea who the woman is who spurred the original tweet, and I don’t agree that categorically declaring all white men assholes is helpful either.7
But what privileged folks need to understand is that getting angry enough to categorically declare that you are SO DONE with an entire group of people doesn’t happen in a vacuum. I can easily imagine what might have driven that woman to the point of rage where she would write off an entire gender because I’ve been there.
Also? Declaring your support while also declaring that support conditional, isn’t really supportive.
What you’re really saying is, I support you:
- As long as you don’t make me uncomfortable.
- As long as I don’t have to deal with your anger
- As long as I don’t have to feel guilty about things people in $mygroup have done to you
Obama vs Portman Styles of Empathy
If a man’s girlfriend or wife was raped, (not by him, I’m sad to have to clarify), then he would most likely be understanding if his partner was reluctant to have sex with him for a while, even though he did nothing wrong. Why? Because he would have high personal level of empathy for someone he cared about.
That is the Rob Portman model of empathy. The circle is very small.
If you want to be a good ally to anyone in a less privileged group than you and you happen to reside in the upper echelons of the privilege circle (i.e. straight, white, cis male), then you’ll need to up your empathy game towards the Obama scale.
Saying ‘I’m on your side’ is all good and well, but it doesn’t mean I feel supported if your behavior doesn’t back up your words. When I encounter people who seem to mean well but obviously don’t get it, and aren’t willing to listen, I silently relegate them to the ‘well meaning, but can’t be trusted’ category, and remember to set my shields a little higher next time I encounter them.
If you want to be a good ally, a good place to start would be actually listening to people who have a different experience than you, and trying to imagine how it might be to go through the world on something besides the lowest difficulty setting. Men, if you have women you care about in your life who haven’t yet clued you in on the myriad of bullshit that we deal with every day, there might be a reason for that.
If you don’t have women close enough to ask, or those women no longer trust you well, guess what, you’re on the Internet! There are plenty of stories out there from people of every stripe. All you need is a willingness to put down your defenses for a little while and take them in.
- Bold Ideas Uttered Publicly: Christie has one of the best explanations I’ve seen of the dynamics that played out during and after Pycon.
- Death By 1000 Paper Cuts
- How Adria Richards Spoke For Me
- And Then This Happened
- Ism 101: You Are Not The Victim Here
- If Only We Could Talk About Abusing Women Like We Do Abusing Cats
- 9-year Old Girl Aspires to Make RPG, Gets Death Threats
- The Onion Tweets That Quvenzhané Wallis Is the C-Word
- A White Boy’s Observations of Sexism and the Adria Richards Fiasco
- If I Admit That ‘Hating Men’ Is a Thing, Will You Stop Turning It Into a Self-Fulfilling Prophecy?
Is that enough links? Is it OK to be angry yet?
Are you mad ’cause your whole group looks bad because of the ‘few bad apples’? Well guess what? GOOD. YOU SHOULD BE PISSED. IT’S ABOUT FUCKING TIME. NOW STOP WHINING ABOUT HOW GOOD YOU ARE AND START MAKING YOURSELF USEFUL.
I Read This Whole Blog Post and All I Got Was a Bunch of CAPS
If you want to know what a good ally looks like, check out these awesome men:
And most importantly, stop putting the onus on less privileged people to absolve you of your guilt. We can’t afford to go around giving you the benefit of the doubt.
1. Though I may use a single term like ‘women’ to illustrate a point, you can apply the logic to any marginalized group: people of color, queer people, women, transgender people, deaf, differently abled, etc. (Back)
2. I went to a meetup once for lesbians of color and didn’t feel comfortable in the group. I gave up on ‘fitting in’ a long way back. If you’ve nodded your head while reading this, you’re probably my people. Welcome! (Back)
3. At least not yet. Keep up this fuckery though and I might snap someday (Back)
6. This entire blog post was originally in all caps. Editing, FTW! You’re welcome. (Back)
7. That doesn’t mean there aren’t days when I feel sick and tired of (white people, men, stupid people) as a group. I just have enough sense not to rant about it publicly…most of the time. (Back)
Comments: I’ll probably post a formal comment policy at some point, but people who need a lot of rules to tell them how to be polite won’t listen anyway. If you already know how, then behave as you would as a guest in someone’s home.
If all else fails, follow Wheaton’s Law.
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This post is part of the thread: Tech Journey – an ongoing story on this site. View the thread timeline for more context on this post.