On keynotes and apologies —
I wasn’t going to blog about this, but I’m becoming pretty angry about it now, and I think I might actually have something constructive to say.
Here’s the story: Mark Shuttleworth gave a keynote at LinuxCon, which I attended, in which he said lots of reasonable things and one very unfortunate thing. Paraphrased, he said that if we did a better job at considering our non-technical users and accepting help from expert UI designers, we’d have an easier time “explaining to girls what we actually do”. (By girls, he meant women, not female children.) I’d like to be able to provide a direct transcript when critiquing his words, but the LinuxCon organizers don’t seem to be willing to make the video available for free, so I can’t do that yet. I’ll link to it as soon as it’s available.
Before I get started properly, I want to make it clear that I like and respect Mark Shuttleworth. I regularly use and recommend Ubuntu to other people, and am very glad that he’s doing what he’s doing in the world. There’s no personal animosity or ill will behind this post at all.
It’s actually not just the Ubuntu distribution that I recommend: I’m also hugely impressed by the Ubuntu Code of Conduct, which was a groundbreaking document at the time it was adopted, and made it clear — for the first time — that there is a free software community that is willing to put a stake in the ground and say that it’s not a place for people who want to communicate by disrespecting someone else, or another group. I think the Ubuntu community is one of the most tolerant, welcoming and diverse free software communities we have, and I’m sure that this is a reflection of Mark’s own thoughts on the matter.
So, back to the keynote. Kirrily Robert heard about this statement of Mark’s from Emma Jane Hogbin’s transcript in a conversation on identi.ca, and wrote an e-mail and blog post asking Mark to apologize and clear this up. Sam Varghese now has a blog post attacking Kirrily Robert, because Kirrily based her objection on someone else’s transcript of what was said rather than being there herself.
Well, I was at the keynote too, and was paying attention, and it turns out that even with context applied, someone who talks about “explaining to girls what we actually do” when talking about free software really is saying something sexist, and buying into the noxious stereotype that women can’t be developers or tech-savvy; that they’ll never be a real part of our group, even if a few of them are brave enough to try in the face of other people dismissing their efforts (and Mark certainly isn’t the first to have done that).
This statement actually wasn’t the first exclusionary thing Mark had said in the talk, in my opinion. Earlier he attempted another joke about how when he talks about “releases”, he doesn’t mean “release” as in “happy ending”. The joke didn’t go over very well, and he made a comment about how it must be because we were tired and not listening properly. Actually, I was confused because I already felt pretty sure that he was talking about software, rather than male orgasms and hookers, because that’s supposed to be a safe assumption to make during a technical conference keynote.
So, Sam Varghese can stop claiming that Mark’s statement wasn’t sexist because no-one in the room found it sexist: there’s no doubt in my mind that it was a sexist thing to say, and I was there.
Varghese tries to paint himself as a martyr, saying that he’s “sure he’ll be shouted down too” for denying sexism, but it’s actually extremely, overwhelmingly common to attack the person who points out sexism in free software communities — common enough that Matt Zimmerman, Canonical’s CTO, has an excellent blog post on the subject: Backlash: feminism considered harmful. The backlash is so strong that if Kirrily were just an occasional contributor, I’d be thoroughly unsurprised if the kind of attacks she’s receiving drove her away from free software completely. She’s been in the community for long enough, though, that she’s willing to put effort into calling out sexism even though she’ll be attacked and ridiculed for it by people who think that there’s nothing wrong with the situation. Thanks for not giving up in disgust and leaving us alone to enjoy our 1% participation by women, Kirrily.
Varghese finishes his post with:
“Shuttleworth has many faults, I’m sure, but one has to always assume that a person is innocent until proven guilty. If someone violates that basic rule, which should extend to every human on the planet, then that person is in the wrong.”
Look, we’re not talking about a trial that attempts to judge whether Mark is a good or bad person; we need to move past the idea that someone who said something sexist is “guilty” or deserving of punishment. Kirrily’s letter, after all, didn’t ask Mark to apologize for being a sexist person (which I don’t think that anyone involved actually thinks is true), it just asked for an apology for one sexist thing he said. I don’t know anyone who doesn’t behave in sexist ways sometimes, because it turns out that discarding privilege is really goddamn hard, even when you’re consciously trying to. We need to make it clear that someone who accidentally said something sexist is not “a sexist”, or a bad person, or worthy of our contempt, or deserving of a ruling of innocence or guilt. I do respect Mark, and I still think he said something sexist, and if he apologizes for accidentally saying something sexist and says he’ll try to make amends, that makes everything totally okay with me. We need to be able to admit when we say/do something sexist without it turning into something huge and unmanagable, because it’s something that’s probably going to happen quite a lot.
Matthew Jones also made a post defending Mark and I’d like to reply to that too:
“When Mark said try to explain to girls, he was not talking about women not understanding technology. He was talking about how hard the design work is to do, and that if things were designed poorly or had low usability, he would not know how to explain them to girls (my translation). The tone of his voice suggested sarcastic embarrassment, which implies he would prefer to impress girls.”
I totally agree with the context of Mark’s statement provided, although I don’t at all see how that’s “not talking about women not understanding technology”. The statement is still as exclusionary a statement given this context — the fact that Mark may like to impress women doesn’t excuse that his statement thinks of women as a synonym for “people who don’t understand how software works”! That’s a really destructive phrasing that we should all reject. It’s not hard to substitute “the average person” or just “people who aren’t as interested in computers as we are” and turn the statement from exclusionary-to-women to gender-neutral.
Here are some of the arguments made against asking Mark for an apology in the comments on Kirrily’s blog post:
Mark is a nice guy. I agree! However, when someone (metaphorically, perhaps) steps on someone else’s feet accidentally, you expect them to say “Oops, sorry.” regardless of how nice a person they are; that’s just not relevant to the fact that someone else is hurt and it’s their fault. If they refused to apologize for it, that might change your idea of how nice a person they are, but the fact that they hurt someone unintentionally doesn’t have any bearing on whether they’re a good or bad person in the past or in the future. It’s just a thing they did that they should apologize for.
Mark wasn’t trying to offend people, he was just making a joke. I agree with this too, but making a joke doesn’t stop the words we choose to tell the joke with from having power.
And, perhaps one that I’m expecting to see in the comments on this post:
Hey, you’re not a woman, so you can’t be upset about this. I think that actually helps, in this case. Sam Varghese used a lot of very loaded words like “emotional” and “irrational” in his rejection of Kirrily’s post that I think were an idea of his that she shouldn’t be able to complain about this because she’s a woman. I don’t agree with that restriction, of course, but I’m happy to help remove it from the discussion.
Finally, I want to repeat that for me the real shame here isn’t that Mark said something unfortunate — we can all say something unfortunate when we’re speaking in front of a large crowd for a long time, myself certainly included. What’s a shame is that it doesn’t take a superhuman dose of empathy to give a short and sincere apology for an obviously harmful joke afterwards, yet we don’t have one yet. To make matters worse, it’s the second time in a few months that someone’s implied that women are people who lack technical knowledge during a conference keynote, and it seems to be the second time we aren’t getting any kind of apology for it. We’re left to conclude that the biggest heroes in free software — the people who speak for and about us to the world — don’t care much about whether women feel invited to or excluded from free software, or how they could use their power to affect that.