Last Wednesday, Elia Schito tweeted from his personal account, apparently referring to gender reassignment surgery:
Earlier this month, Curtis Yarvin, also known as Mencius Moldbug, submitted a talk proposal about Urbit for the Strangeloop conference. The subject matter is entirely germane to the conference, and Yarvin is a qualified expert on the matter. However, Yarvin is also a very vocal, neo-fascist (he describes himself as a neoreactionary). His politics were brought to the attention of Strangeloop organizer Alex Miller, with protests and threats to withdraw from participation in the conference. In response, Miller rescinded Yarvin's invitation to speak.
Brendan Eich. Tim Hunt. The sword of Damocles falls at the will of the mob.
These mob-like reactions of righteous indignation in the tech world are but a microcosm of a greater cultural trend. In April, a family-owned pizzeria in small-town Indiana is approached by a local TV reporter to ask their opinion on Indiana's recently passed Religious Freedom Restoration Act, a law whose detractors insist was crafted to allow businesses to discriminate against gay clientele. An owner of the pizzeria says that as a Christian she would have to decline to cater a gay wedding, but she promised that no customer would be turned away from the counter on the basis of their orientation. The internet mob focused on the refusal to cater a gay wedding (never mind that they'd never been approached to cater any wedding at all, let alone one between gay people) and went to town excoriating the family and their pizzeria on Yelp, Twitter, and other media, complete with threats against their lives and their property. As they became national pariahs, they shuttered their business.
To be clear, I do not and cannot endorse the comments or actions of Schito, Yarvin, Eich, Hunt, the O'Conners who owned the pizzeria, or any of the targets of ire - to the contrary, I think their viewpoints are all misguided. I identify as a feminist and a libertarian, and I vocally defend the rights of self-identification, self-determination, and equal opportunity under the law for all. I'm a man of faith - but I do not know a God who would say that following your heart and mind to be your truest to self could ever be unholy, or that what adults with informed consent choose to share with one another could be morally wrong. This is not some ill-conceived defense of the divisive voices' right to free speech; this is an inquiry into this cultural reflex of mass shaming.
Shaming the outgroup into compliance not a new phenomenon, and in fact it's fundamental to human social psychology. In pre-agrarian tribal cultures, when but a million humans lived worldwide and co-habitated in anarchic, communal, voluntary associations of no more than 150 each, shame and ostracism were the only means of ensuring order. A person who did not contribute to the tribe or who victimized another member ultimately faced expulsion, which to a hunter/gatherer meant death. With tribes so small, anonymity was impossible, and everybody had a face, a name, and a story. We had shame as a stick for compliance, but we also had intimacy and interdependence to ensure compassion and empathy in its application.
But with our departure from tribal living into neolithic, agrarian society, our social constructs rearranged, but our psychology remained the same. We retained the use of shaming to punish the defiance of the outgroup, but without that intimacy and interdependence, our compassion and empathy faded. Absent these, our shaming knows no temperament, our interest in the truth or justice becomes secondary, and the public spectacle of shaming becomes a form of entertainment of its own. It surges through our veins like a chemical high: righteous and powerful, even if we don't notice the descent into gleeful brutality. Benjamin Rush, signer of the Declaration of Independence, noted, "Ignominy is universally acknowledged to be a worse punishment than death. It would seem strange that ignominy should ever have been adopted as a milder punishment than death, did we not know that the human mind seldom arrives at truth upon any subject till it has first reached the extremity of error."
Cities and mass living systems brought with them anonymity. Committing crime no longer meant putting a name, a face, and a story to one's victims, and so crime took off. The ostracism of shame for social deviations were localized, and anonymity gave a person the ability to restart his or her existence in a space free from the stain of mistakes past. In the last 20 years though, that ability to escape and restart has been whittled away by the Internet and its never-ending memory.
In March, Monica Lewinsky gave a moving TED talk about the culture of shaming the Internet has rekindled, in which describes herself as "patient zero of losing a personal reputation on a global scale almost instantaneously," as the scandal bearing her name was first broken by the Drudge Report in possibly the first, largest instance of an internet journalism outpost beating the traditional media to a scoop. She opines: "Public shaming as a blood sport has to stop, and it's time for an intervention on the Internet and in our culture… We need to return to a long-held value of compassion -- compassion and empathy. Online, we've got a compassion deficit, an empathy crisis."
In our calmer and more reflective states, it's hard to deny that she's correct. Livelihoods have been destroyed over Internet shaming, and lives have literally been lost through suicides best described as being humiliated to death.
This resurgence of this culture of shaming does, however, have a new and curious dimension, which calls such an easy conclusion like Lewinsky's into doubt: historically, the machinery of shaming into compliance has been directed by the privileged to ostracize and coerce the compliance of the underprivileged. The finger was predominantly wagged by white, straight, cis males, and its target was predominantly women, people of color, LGBTQ identifying individuals, and when used it was just as terribly oppressive as it was effective at coercing the outgroup into hiding the behaviors deemed as deviant. But as awareness of privilege takes root, as the historically underprivileged gain support in self-definition and empowerment, and as progressive social ideas of liberty in identification and association gain popularity, the weapon of shame to enforce conformity of thought can just as easily be effectively wielded against the historically oppressive toward the end of greater tolerance and empowerment of these historical outgroups.
The result is something of a paradox: creating tolerance and inclusivity by means of intolerance and ostracism. Is this sort of shaming just when used for some purposes versus others? As software developers and as open-source projects, in all of our quest for diversity, how much tolerance do we allow for dissenting opinions on matters unrelated to engineering, particularly when we know that as human beings, those biases enter our engineering judgement and our interactions subconsciously and outside of our control?
To reiterate, I believe very strongly in equality of opportunity for all, self-identification and self-determination for all, regardless of the identification, regardless of the personal dimension. I believe diversity in the community makes for better teams, better code, and better ideas. But I'm a tech leader through the code I write, the teams I lead, the developers I teach, and the professional talks I give - I'm not where I am due to my overwhelming authority on matters of gender, culture, or sexual justice. I don't yet have an answer to my questions, and in fact, as we're all in the course of rewriting our cultural norms and expectations in our communities, I'm not sure anybody can claim to have the answers. It's a conversation still taking place.
To whom can this righteous indignation be directed justly to exclusion? Who decides and how? How about religion? - and religion is a case where the aggressed upon can likewise be the aggressor from another point of view. Elia Schito's faith no doubt informs his pro-life viewpoints and potentially the offending viewpoints on transgendered people. However, I also noticed the Arabic letter nun (ن) in his Twitter profile, which has been adopted by Christians as a sign of solidarity with the Iraqi Christians whose homes have been branded by the Islamic State with the letter much as a Judenstern was used by the Germans - would Schito be supported were he to call out a contributor to an open-source project who privately voiced political support for the Islamic State? As a Jew myself, would I find support in excoriating a French developer who reflected positively upon the murder of 4 Jews last January in a kosher supermarket in Paris, or would any published thoughts of mine on Israel and her actions be cause to lobby my employer for my termination on behalf of Palestinians who felt unwelcome contributing to projects I took part in? Are politics fair game for this selective outrage? If neo-fascism like Yarvin's is fair game, what about other popularly distasteful political ideologies? Libertarianism? Neoconservatism? Is pro-life or pro-choice the inclusive stance on reproductive issues? Would a Cuban whose grandparents were summarily executed by Ché Guevara be supported for demanding exclusion of a developer who used Ché's likeness as their Twitter avatar? Is that any different than a Southerner who insists the Confederate flag is a symbol of states' rights and not of racism?
Despite all of my uncertainty, there is one conclusion I find myself drawn to: reacting to objectionable or passively exclusionary speech or ideologies with actively exclusionary campaigns of indignation to effect the collective shaming and ostracism of the offender ultimately feels unjust, unproductive, and harmful to our communities. I have compassion and empathy for the transgendered developers like Ehmke who felt Schito's comments disrespected their identities and their right to self-identify - I can (literally) only imagine the crushing burden of living one's daily existence in a society that denies the nature of that existence. I also have compassion and empathy for Schito whose life will be disrupted and whose contributions to a open source software will be limited due to his ideologies - he, too, is a human being, with a family that loves him for who he is. And I don't think compassion and empathy for both are incompatible feelings.
There's a danger I see in the term "social justice warrior" that is the same danger in "the war on drugs" or "the war on terror," and that is the warrior mindset. For a warrior, there must be an enemy. For the warrior to win, the enemy must be defeated and destroyed. For there to be a winner, the must be a loser. For the same reasons terming drugs or terror as a "war" can drive us to dehumanize others and describe them as mere collateral damage for the greater good, social justice in a warrior's mindset can only be a retributive and punitive justice. The social justice I want doesn't require anybody lose for everybody to win.
I don't think I can agree with the opal.rb maintainer meh that Schito's comments were harmless and had no effect on the inclusivity of the opal.rb community, because clearly there was harm. I don't think I can agree with Ehmke that the community is best served by exiling Schito either. And I don't think that a mob shaming a person for their beliefs or words has ever actually changed minds or strengthened a community. What that middle road looks like is something we all as developers concerned with inclusivity and opportunity must talk about together as a community.
That's going to mean using compassion and empathy to remember the humanity of those with whom we disagree, and actually having conversations with people who have distasteful and objectionable opinions but who in good faith want the same thing we all do: to make the best software we can together that empowers everybody to do amazing things. Sometimes it will mean parting ways with a colleague whose behavior is ultimately destructive to that effort. But if that parting of ways happens, I hope it's one decided upon with compassion and empathy for each others' humanity, without the pitchforks and torches at the ready.Share on Twitter Share on Facebook