Making conferences and festivals a better place

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Hi there. This is my third and most likely final video regarding the so-called donglegate. In this episode, I will discuss principles for how to let events such as conferences and festivals be friendly and inclusive environments for everyone.

For those who organize or otherwise help to uphold the event, there are three basic points to consider.

First of all, festivals need to have good rules. Rules that cover all kinds of bullshit. Rules that forbid rude and hostile behavior… without having any exceptions that make it permissible to be hostile to people who are being perceived as being rude or hostile themselves, but also without catering to trolling and flamebaiting. Rules that forbid public shaming. Which includes publicly shaming people for doing public shaming.

And also without having any exceptions that make it permissible to be hostile to other participants for belonging to certain categories of people. For example people of color, or white people. Women, men, or people who don’t fit into the male versus female dichotomy. Heterosexuals, bisexuals, homosexuals, or people who who don’t fit into that particular way of categorizing people. And so on. You get the idea.

The idea is to put a lid on overt and covert hostility, so that the conference or festival doesn’t turn into a battlefield – or into a place of silent exclusion that drive people away. People are there to learn, or have fun, or contribute, or all three rolled into one. Not to get subjected to people’s dysfunctional need for supremacy or attention, their need for silencing or for feuding.

As the second basic point, it must be unproblematic to report when the rules are being violated. Or when you think that the rules are being violated. You shouldn’t have to be sure. With unproblematic, I mean that proper channels must be available, safe and meaningful. Channels designed to avoid snowball effects where filing a complaint is likely to ruin the day, or worse yet life, for yourself or for the person you report.

Properly trained staff should be available and easy to reach. The staff must have procedures that handles problems quietly and efficiently. Being reported by someone – who isn’t making a habit of filing malicious reports – should always have consequences, although normally it should be consequences that are not hostile, hurtful or overly disruptive. Having a word with the staff representative should normally be enough. And normally the staff should not have to pick a side. Having a chat about it as reasonably mature human beings is usually enough. But it must also be possible to kick people out, in the few cases where it actually gets necessary.

The staff must dare to get involved. In the debates that followed the so-called donglegate, I was told a horror-story about another conference, where a participant was stabbed with a knife. She reported it to the staff… which said they didn’t want to make a scene. This kind of neglect do happen sometimes, and it severely undermines the authority of the organizers. When they need to take measures, they must do so. In the case of someone getting stabbed, the appropriate measure may be to get the police involved rather than dealing with it personally. But one way or another, the situation must be dealt with. And it must be dealt with by appropriate authorities, not by some individual or group seizing power.

This brings me to the third and final point. The organizers must never allow the event to be usurped by those who would make it their turf and exclude everyone who don’t belong to the categories they prefer or who don’t share the values they prefer. There will always be those who try to make a more public space into the more private turf for their own category of people. By making aggressive bids for power.

Or simply by taking up space in a way that is inappropriate, and is at other people’s expense. People who talk during other people’s speeches need to stop disturbing other people in the audience. Even if they don’t make “jokes” that make some of those other people feel unwelcome. But even more so if they do that, and especially if they might actually be aiming for making a certain group of people feel unwelcome at the event.

As in, cracking jokes at their expense. Or worse, misuse the event as a platform to spread prejudice and bigotry. If you are convinced that quote “niggers and faggots” unquote are inferior, you should of course still be welcome at a conference for computer programmers or whatever… But only as long as you leave your off-topic hostile values and beliefs at home! It is not the time and place to soapbox about how you consider yourself to be of the superior race or whatever.

When it comes to making people feel unwelcome based on race or gender or similar, everybody have the same right. But there are also at least two things to consider. First, is this category of people mainstream or marginalized at the event? Second, is this categorization relevant for the event itself?

At a conference for technology, it shouldn’t matter if you are a man or a woman or something else. It shouldn’t matter what your skin-color or sexual orientation is. Yet, a majority of the attenders are likely to be white heterosexual men. A vast majority, if you count these categorizations separately. This makes it less important to make sure that white heterosexual men as a group are welcome: They are already included, so included that they are in fact the norm and the mainstream.

At such a conference, it is more important to be inclusive to women, people of color and people who don’t conform to heteronormativity. Not because these people would somehow be more important or valuable, or more sensitive. But because they as a group are at risk of being excluded and being made the out-group – in ways that the mainstream and norm never have to risk and may therefore have a hard time understanding in the first place. Having one person pick on you and on everyone else usually hurts less than having a lot of people picking on you and on a few others.

At a conference for nurses, the gender ratio is likely to be inverted. 80% women, instead of 80% men. This event still need to show people of color and sexual minorities the same consideration as a tech conference should. And it also need to show this same consideration for men, as a tech conference should for women. Male nurses are marginalized in their field, so their needs need to be shown some extra consideration. Not because their needs would somehow be more important, but because the needs of the marginalized is more easily overlooked.

An event for women’s issues may have the same gender ratio as a nursing conference, but the context is different. Such an event need to take the same steps to make people of color and sexual minorities feel welcome. Men, however, only need to be treated with basic decent human respect.

There is no need to go out of one’s way to make men feel included at a conference for women. Unlike the female programmer at the programmer conference or the male nurse at the nurse conference, the man at the women’s conference is merely a guest. He is not really part of the crowd that the event is for, and should keep that in mind.

The same is true for heterosexuals of any gender, at a strictly homosexual event. However, when it comes to Pride Festivals, they are not strictly homosexual events, and have not been for a long time. These days, the Pride Festivals exist for a wide range of minorities of gender and sexuality identity and expression.

While heterosexual men as a group is not part of the target audience, a lot of heterosexual men are indeed part of the target audience – for one reason or another. I’m talking about Sweden here. There’s a lot of variation from country to country. Here in Sweden, we finished the big debate about trans people over a decade ago, and sort of finished the big debate about BDSM and fetishism last year. There are still some people who don’t understand including those particular minorities, or are against it – hence the “sort of”. Internationally, lot of countries don’t include BDSM in their Pride Festivals yet. Some don’t even include trans people and bisexuals.

Speaking of pride festivals, I would like to return to the issue of groups trying to usurp an event. At the Swedish Pride Festivals, we have had problem with anarchists or whatever, trying to harass the policemen and soldiers who participate in the festival. For example, a speech in Gothenburg 2012 was ruined when some activist who decided to disrupt the event wasn’t handled properly.

Should certain organizations, in this case the police and the military, be allowed to participate in pride festivals? Well, that’s a choice for the organizers, who by the way are an NGO with fully democratic procedures. It is not a choice for self-appointed dictators to make. And no, defining yourself as fighting for a good cause does not automatically make your behavior democratic or in any way honorable.

When people try to coerce others through being disruptive and verbally abusive, they often invoke some grand and glorious principle. Such as their right to feel safe, or their right to free speech.

Lets take two cases that has been constructed as a matter of the right to feeling safe versus the right to free speech. One is the one I just mentioned. The disrupter actually had the audacity to first go to a speech officially announced to be held by the police… And then complain that she don’t feel safe when there are policemen in the room, arguing that the people holding the speech should therefore be forced to leave the room. Extreme misuse of that concept, if I ever saw one.

A key issue here is how you view the principle that you always have the right to your own experience. Reasonable people regard this principle to be a one of the truths that needs to be taken into consideration. If you instead elevate it to be the one and only truth, then we are all welcome to your world of destructive bullshit.

Not only does it become okay to seek people out for the purpose of complaining that you are not comfortable in their presence. It also becomes a logical strategy for self-defense that you make haste to accuse them. If they feel unsafe in your presence as well, then whoever complains first is the one who everyone is obliged to side with. Right?

Does the police force have a right to hold speeches at the pride festival? Is that a matter of freedom of speech? No, of course not. Just like the rest of us, the police has a right to send in an application for holding a speech at the festival. If they don’t like that, or don’t get their application approved, they can hold their own festival or press conference or whatever. That’s their freedom of speech.

In this case, the police did get their application approved. Stopping them from holding their speech thus do becomes a violent act against freedom of speech. Not only against the police’s freedom of speech, but also against the very festival’s freedom of speech.

The other case I would like to bring up is the so-called “elevatorgate”. Just like “donglegate”, a horde of angry men at the Internet went berserk because a single woman at a conference behaved in a way that was not to their liking.

At 4am, a woman says she is tired and need to sleep. One of the men follow her into the elevator, and politely ask her to come with him to his hotel room instead. She declines, and afterward she politely but publicly mentions that she personally don’t appreciate that kind of behavior. She don’t want to be hit on, at least not cornered in an elevator by a stranger at 4am, when she just said that she need to sleep.

Cue a horde of men who never even met her, but consider her preferences to be their business anyway. Hear some of them roar: “How dare she say that she don’t like it when guys hit on her! Alone in an elevator at 4am or whatever… I have a right to hit on her whenever and wherever I want to, whether she likes it or not. And I have a right to think that she enjoys it, no mtter how she really feel. While she, on the other hand, do not have any right to express herself. If she opens her mouth, I’ll bring down hell on earth. That ought to teach that little female her place. And shame on you if you don’t like my crusade. Because that proves you are a feminist. Which is evil, because misogyny is only a myth. I am a man who has never seen any misogyny, which proves that it doesn’t exist.”

Meh. When talking about the woman in the elevator or the woman at the tech conference… The part I find the most pathetic is the people who did not only call her a narcissist who is simply desperate for attention… but who called her that, while chanting her name back and forth over the entire Internet. Hey, if you consider someone to be a troll… then don’t feed the troll. If you consider someone to be a narcissistic attention-whore, don’t contribute to making her famous. Yes, yes, I know that of the people I’m advising to not feed the trolls, many ARE trolls. Trolls who in some cases have a very creepy undertone of “But she wanted it! She was asking for it! They’re all asking for it all the time!” But there’s also a lot of honest people out there.

As for the true meaning of freedom of speech, it’s an interesting topic. So is the whole thing about havin a right to feel safe and not be stepped upon. I will return to these topics in the future. For now, I have talked long enough.

Live long and prosper

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