It’s not about avoiding to offend…

Women in STEM, diversity in the workplace, problematic sexual or racial imagery at tech conferences: Not a week goes by without a discussion along these lines. There’s an aspect to the conversations for which I’d like to have a handy reference, because it often gets lost in the heat of the situation. This post is intended to fill the role.

Here’s a sample situation. Let’s say I’m looking over someone’s presentation slides and I’m seeing a male pronoun where both sexes apply (“the researcher then saves his data on his thumb drive…”), or an image of a female body used merely to create drama. I would point it out and suggest to reformulate or rethink. And often enough, since my interlocutor is more likely to be clueless than a raging misogynist (after all, they’re asking me for advice!), the reaction is embarrassment: “I didn’t know this is offensive,” or even “I didn’t mean to offend you, sorry!”

There are two things I want to say at this juncture. The first is that I’m unlikely to be actually offended. Certainly not about a thoughtless pronoun, and believe me, I’ve seen erotic images before. These days it takes a lot to make me uncomfortable. Sure, it does happen, a few times a year, when some idiocy feels like a punch to the stomach. It would be more frequent if I hung out more in certain corners of the tech world (keyword “gamergate”). But my personal threshold is irrelevant here, and in any event, don’t presume you know someone else’s feelings.

Second, your goal shouldn’t be to avoid offence under all circumstances: it should be to consider what signals you’re setting, and what these signals say about you and the community you’re addressing. Do they say “my peers may be male or female, and my pronoun choice reflects that” and “stereotyping and objectification do not reflect an acceptable way of relating to each other in this community”? Or do they say “people from underrepresented groups will occasionally have to put up with being the butt of jokes or be forgotten in our planning, because we historically didn’t have to think of such trivial matters”?

I would even go so far as to say giving offence is sometimes inevitable. The racist reader of Houstonia Magazine who called in to complain about an ad because he “just can’t go for racial mixing” quite likely feels genuinely offended at the sight of a picture of a mixed-race family. Similarly, the homophobe may feel sincere discomfort at the sight of two men kissing. And I remember discussions during my youth when it was considered quite reasonable for a man to feel uncomfortable about reporting to a female boss, and an unfortunate fact of life that women who want careers would have the extra task of dealing with such obstacles. In all three cases my attitude, and surely not just mine, is to put the onus firmly back onto the racist reader, homophobic neighbour or sexist employee to a) put up with it and b) use it as an opportunity to examine their prejudices and biases.

I’m not making the moral relativist’s argument here: quite on the contrary. Feeling offended at sexist jokes is not equivalent to being offended about women having access to roles of authority. The hurt feelings of the racist don’t have the same weight as as the hurt feelings of a non-white person who has to prove their competence multiple times all over. As for our professional (or recreational) communities, we cannot resolve an ethical problem (equality of opportunity) without making a commitment to a set of values about diversity and inclusiveness, even if it means the traditionalists have to adapt.

The problem I’m interested here is offending someone or making someone uncomfortable merely for not being part of the majority group, in a situation where they could reasonably expect to be free of discomfort and treated with professional courtesy. When I say “ugh, this is really offensive” this is usually what is meant.

You might think I’m stating something that everyone implicitly understands. But I still think it’s important to be clear and precise about the distinction, for a number of reasons.

1. To counter a dismissive “she just takes offence easily”. Sure, some people take offence more easily than others. People vary. Some even take offence based on a misunderstanding. It happens. But it’s irrelevant. A point stands whether the person highlighting it speaks with perfect calm and detachment or with visible pain and anger.

2. Because otherwise the problem may be relegated to an inter-personal matter even though it is about systems and communities. It’s not about avoiding to step on someone’s toes, but about who is made feel welcome and who is being excluded or pushed to the margins.

3. Because the focus on offence seeks simple formulaic solutions to ethical problems. We can’t make our communities inclusive by box-ticking. Removing some symbols of discrimination (such as sexualized images) doesn’t automatically make peers consider each other’s contributions fairly.

4. Because offence and discomfort cut many ways. Already we’re seeing attempts to borrow the language of diversity and inclusion to remove challenging literature from school curricula or material about sex and sexuality from youth sections of libraries, or to justify restrictive dress codes. There is no contradiction between rejecting eroticised images on presentation slides and wanting libraries to offer factual, complete information about the anatomy of human bodies and the biological, social and psychological aspects of sex.

To finish, lest it seem I’m slamming the use “offensive” without further qualification: Even though there’s no right not to be offended, offence and discomfort are still symptoms of a problem. It’s not hypocritical to complain about it. Simply, when examining one’s own values and biases, or when writing, say, a code of conduct for a community, it’s a good idea to figure out what exactly is the kind of inclusiveness and freedom of offence we want to achieve.

Yet another missive from the “misogyny in IT” department

My feeds are buzzing this morning about Electronic Art’s (EA) marketing stunt at Comic-Con for their Dante’s Inferno game, and, given their promo is a Twitter competition, not in a good way. Unsurprisingly, because what EA and its Dante’s Inferno team, complete with Twitter account, have come up with is so mindbogglingly inane and disgraceful that you wonder how such a culture of puerile boorishness could  not only have managed to strive within a major gaming outfit’s corporate structure, but even receive approval for this project: To invite Comic-Con attendees to “commit acts of lust” with a “booth babe”, be photographed in the process, and post the result to Twitter.

Oh, and what does the winner get? “Dinner and a sinful night with two hot girls, limo service and a chestful of booty”. SRSLY.

Alex, a self-described game programmer and feminist, has a good round-up, and the EA invite is also preserved for posterity on Mashable.

From Ars Technica’s report:

I can’t imagine what it’s like to be a booth babe, especially not at a show like Comic Con. You’re being pawed at by huge amounts of sweaty geeks, you have to smile and be pleasant to people who may or may not have showered… it always seems like a hellish existence. What doesn’t help? Having your employer offer a bounty if people sexually harass you.

At Comic Con, if you commit “an act of lust” with an EA booth babe and take a picture, you could win dinner with said babes, as well as a great big pile of prizes related to the upcoming Dante’s Inferno. That’s right, the babes won’t just get the standard behavior and awkward advances—if someone is really obnoxious, they get rewarded for it, and then you get to see them again socially!

Folks, I may occasionally lust after (some) women just as much as the next lesbian, but I very much doubt I’m in EA’s target demographic here, even if I were a gamer. Neither is any straight woman or gay man. Or for that matter the numerous straight male gamers whose wet dream is not to objectify members of the other sex, kept at their beck and call to slobber over. You know, even if you don’t buy into the entire lust-as-sin concept (I don’t), sexual objectification is still despicable and sexual harassment a crime. Most geeks I know — heck, nearly all geeks I’ve ever met — understand that just fine.

EA have issued an awkward non-apology (“We apologize for any confusion and offense that resulted from our choice of wording…”), which, tellingly, was posted as an image on Twitpic, then taken down, at least in some locations, but of course preserved by a friendly netizen on Flickr.

The one good thing about the entire debacle is that is has been an immediate and very public debacle. Still, this year has been remarkably rich in mysogynist incidents, in web application development, F/LOSS, and now gaming. I wonder what is going on here. As a woman working in IT who considers herself a geek, my experience with the 20-35 year old geek crowd has been mostly very positive, and I’ve more than once relished an atmosphere that outspokenly rejects sexism, homophobia, racism and other forms of discrimination as a matter of course. Still, comment threads on geek forums speak a different language too often, and my personal experience has not been without ambiguity. What else do we have to do to make this crap stop?