Too Busy For Words - the PaulWay Blog

Tue 20th Nov, 2012

There's no solution

There's no 'once again' or 'recently' about this; it's not like it's crept up on us. There are the people, like myself and most of the women I know, that keep on asking for women to be treated equally and fairly. There are the other people, poking their heads up from time to time, who seem to come up with all these reasons why the reasons why we should treat people equally and fairly are wrong, or biased, or silly, or being made too much of, or finding problems with some of the reasons, or just endlessly debating why any of this should be talked about at all. The battleground I'm particularly thinking of is within the Free Open Source Software community, but it applies everywhere.

Tom Morris recently observed that it comes down to privilege: the people who don't have to worry about being taken seriously and don't get sexually harrassed at conferences don't know what all the fuss is about. They don't see the lovely invisible glow that surrounds them, coming mainly from their background - they're white males from the middle and upper classes. Tom points out that they - we - like to tell ourselves that really we had it tough, and really we're here because of our hard hacker cred, but actually we only got that because we got the computers, and that's more to do with being white and male and having parents that could afford computers and going to schools that had computers. Let's face it, if your elder brother kicks you off the computer every chance he gets, you're not going to get much of a chance to use one no matter who you are.

I think you can see this, also, in the variants of the Four Yorkshiremen Sketch that one almost inevitably hears when a group of geeks get together. A sample dialogue goes something like:

Etc. etc. etc. The point of this is partly one-upmanship, to try and establish who's worked on the more esoteric platform, but the subtext (like that of the original sketch) is that it was pure skill and hard work that got us to be where we are. Yet look at the situations these people talk about, and all of them indicate access to a computer - that's not something that just happened, those people were lucky to have parents or a school that had the equipment and be granted access to the machine. That, Gentlemen, is privilege.

One thing that I recently learned - in perhaps a bit more blunt way than I really wanted - is that sometimes even when you can see a solution to a problem, it still won't actually get solved. In the FOSS community we have a tendency to try and solve every problem: it's almost inevitable that given a group of hackers and suboptimal situation - trying to work out the cost per person at a restaurant, or waiting a long time for a change of lights at an intersection, or seating people at a theatre - a "friendly" discussion will ensue on how to "solve" this "problem". Any slight problem - from not getting a T-shirt that fits correctly for one's body type to not being able to watch a video when one wants - becomes something that must be solved. And when that solution is not enacted by those in the power to do so, it is seen as some kind of malicious assault on not just oneself but the whole principle of efficiency and reason, Hanlon's Razor not withstanding.

There is one fundamental problem with this view: it is utterly wrong.

It is another day's labour to talk about the problems that this behaviour causes. To relate it to the problems of fairness and equality, it is, I believe, a mistake to see these as problems one can "solve" in the same sense that one solves a problem with software by submitting a bug report, a patch, or working with the maintainers. And I'm not talking about solving social problems with technical solutions (although some have proposed them).

Put simply, the problems we have with a lack of fairness and equality, particularly in gender, are only solved by a long, hard, tedious process of gradually educating people, by trying to right individual wrongs over and over again, of continually trying to make people aware of the problem they are so determined to ignore. There's no magic fix. This, or any other blog post, will not make everything work. No cunning argument or cogent example or impeccable logic will convert everyone. It's a long, boring, degrading process - but the alternative is to see equality and fairness eroded away over time.

And, worse, there are people who will never concede that there is a problem, who are mysoginst bastards, who will always assert that they're being perfectly reasonable even when being completely sexist. There are people who we cannot change, and who expect that we must change. And we have to accept and allow those people to be a part of our community. We can, as Matt Garrett has, choose who we personally want to associate with, but in my view that makes us a little less tolerant and a little more like the people we hate in the process.

So we must continue to support women - to support all the groups that are ill-treated or neglected by the communities in which we play. We must keep on patiently reasoning with people who object to whatever encroaches on their sense of entitlement. We must keep writing the anti-harrassment policies, and keep on enforcing them. We must persevere to make the world a better place.

I'd also add that we need to remember that the opinions that a person may have do not summarise them completely. As Rusty says, just because you're a great coder doesn't mean you're not a crackpot. Likewise, just because someone is a crackpot - or expresses views we disagree with - doesn't mean they don't write good code. (And sometimes someone we agree wholeheartedly with at a deep philosophical level also writes crap code, but that's another story). We don't even necessarily have to agree with all the other people who are similarly disposed to want more equality and fairness. We all play our own parts, in whatever ways we can and for whatever causes we believe in.

These are tough problems, and there aren't easy solutions; but we can't let that lack of easy solutions put us off trying to make it better.

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