Too Busy For Words - the PaulWay Blog

Mon 6th Dec, 2010

Excuses, Excuses

Valerie Aurora recently posted an awesome article on LWN about sexual harassment and gender attacks at open-source conferences. I highly recommend everyone read the Geek Feminism wiki's Conference Anti-Harassment Policy template-like-thing; it's not just about women, it's about making sure no-one gets excluded or picked on.

Sadly, of course, these things get derailed - one of the classic tactics for people who secretly want to keep the bias is to make excuses or side-track the issue into meaningless debates on other topics. This month's "think of the children" topic is autism-spectrum disorder sufferers. Apparently, they're functional enough to come to conferences, commit code, and handle complex social and personal interactions in email, but they're to be forgiven for making sexual attacks on women because they can't do any of that personal and social interaction stuff. Naturally, the debate is heading off into exactly what, exactly who, how much and in which direction, all about men and nothing about women.

What's actually censoring me off is that I think the whole autism thing is hugely overblown. And personally I think it's actually an attempt to marginalise a bunch of people. Think about it this way: people that have an obsession with order, dislike the messy complications of socialising and come up with rules and systems for their lives they are called obsessive-compulsive, Aspergers sufferers and so forth and are treated as defective; but people that have an obsession with intuition and unexplainable powers, dislike the restrictions of science and logic, and come up with fanciful or imaginary explanations for common phenomena are called artistic, spiritual or religious and are treated as inspiring examples to us all. What's wrong with this picture?

Yes, as the book "The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time" shows, some people have very strange reactions and hard to deal with problems. As it also tries to explain, these aren't just weird ideas picked out of nowhere; they're 'logical', but in a way that other people find irrelevant. Why is Christopher's idea of hating the colours yellow and brown so wrong, when his father's irrational actions would be seen by some to be just 'natural' protectiveness? The book never labels Christopher's condition, although the cover (added by the publishers without the author's consent) occasionally names it specifically.

The other clue to me that autism is an artificial label is that it is a 'spectrum' disorder. This means that there are a variety of different manifestations of the disorder and a spectrum of levels from mild to severe. Does this not mean that everyone could exhibit some level of autism, and we just classify some of it as 'normal'? It would be possible, I believe, to come up with a set of questions which would show that most of the population suffered from some kind of autism. Where does the 'a-social' level begin? How much of any one trait must one show in order to be labelled autistic? Because these are so arbitrary, it means that it has just become a useful label for those that consider themselves 'normal' to classify other people as 'not normal'.

And what about those people who can't 'do' logic? Who seem incapable of explaining their actions other than by 'it felt right'? Who don't think the rules apply to them? Who want to break the rules (whether the rules are road speed limits or societal conventions) because 'they're there to be broken'? Who ignore their own doctors', psychologists' and family's advice because it doesn't suit them? Who tell groups of people that trust them that unless the group believes a particular book they're going to be eternally tortured and punished? Who think that it's OK to kill doctors who carry out operations that their religious beliefs disagree with? Are these people OK just because they're able to have a nice social conversation?

I'm not getting away from geek feminism or harassment here: I'm trying to demonstrate that autism is just being used here as a label to hide behind. Funnily enough none of the people who have actually carried out these attacks or showed pornographic pictures at conferences say "well, I am autistic, so that's why". And many of the people who are most vehement in condemning these sexist attacks are identifying themselves as having some form of autism spectrum disorder. The real culprit is mysoginists, and the real answer is to have a code of conduct in plain sight that says what is right and what is wrong.

It is worth mentioning that I think that the real underlying problem here is that a bunch of guys are afraid that the things they've been doing which they see as perfectly innocent may be categorised as harassment and may lead to them being ejected from their favourite conference. Most of those things are probably fairly harmless - thinking certain people are attractive or watching pornography in private, for example. Some of the behaviours, though, are harmful to others (and to themselves) and these do need to be corrected. Generally I'd say what stays in your own mind is no harm to anyone else. But generally there's no reason to comment about anyone else's gender or preferences at a conference, any more than there is a need to make fun of someone else's hair colour or naivety. Having had one incident at a conference which made me feel extremely humiliated, I don't think that there should be any reason to make anyone else feel uncomfortable about who and how they are.

And I also think it worth saying that in general I think people at LCA and OSDC, the main conferences I've attended, have been positive, open, frank, forgiving, and reasonable. The best moment I've had was when I was wearing the "one in ten" T-shirt and a big guy walked directly up to me (somewhat confrontingly) and said "that's a great T-shirt, where can I get one!" :-) I hope I've never been directly or indirectly insulting to anyone, and I think that generally the conferences have a very positive and supporting attitude. Arjen's formation of Blue Hackers at OSDC 2008 is an example of how inclusive and supporting these groups can be for people who find it difficult to deal with some things.

And if someone comes up with a T-shirt of the Backup Project flyer I'll take twelve! (But please make it in black - I can't wear the "one in ten" T-shirt because it doesn't suit my colour scheme... :-)

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