Rules for conferences


Hi there. Lately, a lot of people has explained to the world what “really” happened at the PyCon conference the other week. Each of us has constructed their own scenario for the whole mess.

The vast majority of us was not there. We have simply presented the case as we have envisioned it. Based upon what we have read and heard from various sources. Each of us told the story we found most likely and to the point, with focus on whatever aspects we found most relevant to our own views and interests.

By now, there are hundreds of different versions of what happened. Lots of storytelling going on. I guess the seats where the PyCon audience were sitting will live on forever in mythology. Just like a certain elevator.

My own scenario was a rather bland one. Person A this, person B that. Very little adjectives and judgments. That’s because I wanted to divert people’s concern away from the whole outrage. And instead towards pondering how cases like this are handled in general. I find that more productive than whether or not anyone involved in this particular case deserves to be called heroic or evil or mentally disturbed, or any of the many things that everyone involved in the incident has been publicly called over these last few days.

Today, I’m going to bring up two other scenarios. I’m picking the ones told by TJ Kirk and PZ Myers. Also known as The Amazing Atheist and Pharyngula, respectively. You’ll find the links below. Two very different stories, both being about a woman complaining about a joke between two men.

In the story told by TJ Kirk, the woman who complained had all kinds of hostile intent. In sharp contrast to her vileness, the guys who made a joke about dongles most certainly didn’t mean any harm whatsoever.

In the story told by PZ Myers, the woman who complained had only the best intentions. The guy who joked about dongles was not outright evil. Not like his adversary in the Kirk version of the story. However, in the Myers version, he and his friend are still the bad guy side of the story. They were not only rude and obnoxious, but also quote “TRYING to assert their dudely privilege” – end quote, my emphasis.

In other words, Myers describe the two guys as actively and deliberately taking hostile action towards the women of the conference. Although he does so in much softer and much more reasonable words than what I have seen from any of the guys who instead paint the woman as being the villain.

TJ Kirk and PZ Myers are not telepaths. I mean, I don’t believe that they are. More importantly, I don’t believe that they mistake themselves for having such suprpowers. And I don’t believe that they are trying to trick anyone else into believing that they do. No, these men are not truly claiming to be able to read the minds of the man who made the joke and the woman who complained. Instead, they are simply telling a story. A story expressing how they view the situation. Their view as outsiders, who as far as I know did not attend the conference – much less witness the incident in person.

Each version has a key story element that the other version leaves out completely.

In the Myers story, the guy told his sexualized joke not only loudly enough to be obnoxious in itself, but also perfectly timed to be hurtful. The Kirk story leaves out the timing, focusing on the joke being sexualized. Kirk makes a big deal about the woman having made her own sexualized jokes in the past. Kirk thus present he case as being an issue of women allowing themselves to make sexualized jokes, but not allowing men the same amusement.

The Myers story, however, does not focus this part of the story on the joker being a man. Instead, it focuses on the joker being a man who rather loudly tells a sexualized joke… “during a presentation that was about women coders”. Timing does affect the connotations a lot. This detail is not included in the Kirk story, letting the joker off the hook for a detail that looks quite bad on him.

On the other hand, the Myers story has it that the complainer tweeted the jokers picture to the organizers. This description makes it look like a private message. The Kirk story tells us something completely different: He portray he as broadcasting what basically amounts to “Hey everyone! Look at this guy! He’s an idiot! This is what a bad guy looks like, here’s his photo”… to an audience consisting not only of her own 13.000 followers but also everyone who was reading the official #PyCon hashtag.

Not including retweets or people forwarding the picture elsewhere. Including the complainer herself, posting the picture on her blog later. This detail is not included in the Myers story, letting the complainer off the hook for a detail that looks quite bad on her.

I don’t care whether or not Kirk and Myers hadn’t heard about these details, or left them out on purpose. It’s not their job to be impartial. And their real interest is hardly with the individual case anyway. Lets go back to their storytelling and to what they are really telling us.

Myers is telling us that a person who calmly send a complaint to the staff at a conference should not be criticized for that. Much less hated. Every conference participant has every right and reason to politely stand up against any other participant perceived as belittling other participants or breaking the rules. In many cases, it is even an admirable action, which helps making the conference a better place.

Kirk, on the other hand, is telling us that it is not cool to work up an outrage in order to draw attention to yourself. It is not cool to narcissistically believe that everything revolves around you. And it is not cool to publicly humiliate some random guy, even IF you have a valid reason to be angry at him or to have a very low opinion of him as a person.

These are messages I would never make a choice between. Instead, I wholeheartedly agree with both of them. To what extent each message applies to a certain incident at a certain conference, that is none of my business. And none of yours. What is our business… What should be the business of you and me and everyone else… is how these two messages are handled in the future. Each messages has applied to many cases in the past, and will apply to many cases in the future.

There will always be people who are rude, obnoxious, disrespectful and so on. They need to be handled, no matter whether they intended to behave badly or not. In fact, all humans make mistakes sometimes, and sometimes need to be called out on their bullshit. No exceptions.

There will also always be people who use loopholes in rules and social conventions to get away with harming and terrorizing other people. There will always be people who, given the chance, elevate themselves to being a self-appointed police, judge, jury and executioner. All rolled into one. There will always be people who see the world as revolving around them – as individuals, or as whatever collective they identify with.

Those who organize conferences need to listen to stories such as the ones told by PZ Myers and TJ Kirk: Realizing that both kinds of cases do happen… and are likely to eventually happen at the very conference they are organizing. The rules need to cover both kinds of bullshit.

As for PyCon, they are doing just that. They already had rules against the sort of behavior the heroine of Myers story complained about, and they are now also adding rules against the kind of public shaming described by TJ Kirk. Good work, PyCon.

Speaking as someone who has held speeches at several pride festivals over the years, I would like to add that I am STRONGLY opposed to the practice of filming or photographing “enemies”. As well as other antics popular among extremist groups of various kinds. Taking a photo to show the conference staff is one thing. Taking a photo to broadcast for public shaming is something completely different.

If we accept that kind of behavior from someone who does it for a cause we consider to be good… then we leave ourselves with very weak arguments when this same tactic is used in the name of causes that we are not so fond of. In the case of pride festivals, this tactic of using the smartphone camera as a weapon is most notably used by neo-nazis, christian fundamentalists, and other kinds of right-wing extremist groups. Normalizing such behavior would be good for those groups. And bad for everyone who want to enjoy the actual conference or festival, rather than the circus or battlefield some would have it turn into.

That’s all I have to say for now.
Live long and prosper.


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