Saturday, December 20, 2014

This Is What Narrow-Mindedness Looks Like

This past fall, Context held its annual convention.

According to Jim Hines, who has long taken a hard line on harassment at conventions:

From...public information, it seems clear that:

There were multiple complaints of harassment against a Context volunteer.

This volunteer has not disputed the complaints, and has apologized.

After contentious discussion, it was decided to ban this individual from Context for a minimum of five years.

Multiple individuals who were directly involved feel that others on the concomm [convention/conference governing body] and/or board didn’t take the complaints seriously enough.


Nobody can agree on how to spell concom/concomm.

I don’t know enough to second-guess the convention’s decision. I’m troubled by suggestions that banning this individual for five years was punishment for 'being old' or 'social cluelessness.' (And I said as much to [Sharon] Palmer[, who oversaw the Context Consuite and made those suggestions].) These are excuses that have been used far too often as a way to minimize or excuse harassment. A single incident might be attributed to social clumsiness, but intentions don’t necessarily change the outcome, and it’s clear that there were multiple complaints here.

[Emphasis original]

Now, this is all I know about Context, in fact before I saw this post I didn't even know Context existed. I've seen elsewhere on this post that the volunteer talked to people who didn't want to be talked to, made women uncomfortable and showed off a chainmail bikini (presumably not being worn by him or anyone else). And that's all I know.

And that seems to be all Mr. Hines knows.

And on that basis alone he's willing to not only not second-guess but in fact support the decision.

So...any time you talk to someone who didn't want to be talked to, you've harassed them? Without regard to whether you knew, or should have known, that s/he didn't want to be talked to?

And making people uncomfortable...what exactly does that even mean?

Anything down to and including this (scroll down for sappy's comment):

I actually was in an all-male work situation wherein one of the guys /bragged/ about participating in a gang-rape. His justification was ‘she was the daughter of teachers at the school and she shouldn’t have passed out around us’. I got to hear how they dumped her, naked, in her parents’ yard after urinating and defecating on her. And NOT ONE of my male co-workers said ANYTHING except to DEFEND this. This is after I pointed out that /I/ was the daughter of teachers as well and did that mean that the same should be done to me??
And you know what? I got asked not to return to that job because ‘I made the guys feel uncomfortable’.
I left that job, left that field, left those so-called friends and moved 2,000 miles away. Best thing I ever did.
If people are willing to act on this kind of "making people uncomfortable," it's possible that the Context volunteer legitimately did not expect other attendees to be uncomfortable with whatever he was saying and doing.

Guess what? Some people are better able than others to divine that someone doesn't want to talk to them, and/or is feeling uncomfortable.

You know how, once you find out something, it's tough to remember not knowing it? And you mistakenly think you knew it all along? Well, if we're like that with our own past selves, it's a lead pipe cinch we've got trouble understanding how completely different individuals don't know what we know. In fact, it's called the curse of knowledge.

So please understand -- what may be obvious to you may be obscure to others (and vice versa!). Some of us are, yes, socially awkward or even clueless (full-blown Aspie or otherwise).

Yes, Mr. Hines, it's an excuse for some behavior which should otherwise be considered harassing. Whereas, say, sorcery is not. The obvious difference: social awkwardness can be relevant.

Yes, of course it can be abused, just like any other excuse can be abused. For example, bullies, tough guys and criminals sometimes plead self-defense and hope it works. Does that mean we forbid everyone to strike anyone else no matter what, even if they're being attacked and can't escape...or do we carefully examine every claim of self-defense? Abusus non tollit usum.

Once again, Mr. Hines on the record:

A single incident might be attributed to social clumsiness, but intentions don’t necessarily change the outcome, and it’s clear that there were multiple complaints here.

Wow. Where to begin?

If your kid generally did well in math but messed up one or two homework assignments, would you think it more likely he was just careless that time or two, or that he has trouble in general with math? Now what if he more or less consistently failed his math assignments?

Not to mention that one reason why multiple complaints accumulated over the years against this volunteer was that people waited for years to confront the problem.

I understand why people -- perhaps especially women -- may have been reluctant to complain before. Namely, they may not have been sure they'd be believed or even listened to. And they may well have feared retaliation.

(Hopefully, this problem should be short-lived. Context -- not to mention everyone else -- should make clear that all complaints will be fairly investigated and that  complainants will be protected from retaliation to the greatest extent possible. And a bit of mutual communications training -- assisting men to understand more subtle refusals while helping women to give more direct ones -- may help too.)

But it doesn't change the fact that this was still the first time they were holding the volunteer accountable. It seems only fair to treat this as a first offense, show him the errors of his ways and give him a warning and a chance to reform before he gets severely punished.

Finally...has Mr. Hines not heard of Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr.'s famous point about even a dog distinguishing between being stumbled over and being kicked? If you drive -- obeying all the traffic laws -- and someone steps right in front of your car, you can't stop in time and you run over the person, killing her, should you expect to be tried and imprisoned for murder? (Or even vehicular manslaughter, like if you'd been driving drunk or even majorly speeding?) After all, your lack of intent to kill her or even to drive drunk or speed didn't change the outcome.

Not to mention...with offensive behavior the effects are basically emotional. In other words, it's all in the attendees' heads. And I would hope the attendees are open-minded enough to understand that someone can accidentally offend them -- yes, even multiple people on different occasions -- and factor that into how they're affected.

Given this kind of harsh response, I'm not surprised that not everyone in charge was on board.

So...what can we do?
  • Understand that not everyone is like us, and some people in certain kinds of circumstances -- not necessarily of their making -- may miss what seems obvious to us.*

    Of course there's a whole bunch of things that everybody should know. "Should" being the operant term.
  • Understand that people (especially as above) can "make" others uncomfortable without actually having done anything wrong.
  • Don't be so quick to attribute to malice or bad attitude what can better be explained by ignorance or social awkwardness.

    When making this judgment call, let's consider things like whether or not he or she has been previously and specifically warned (especially by us) about the behavior, how sorry he or she seems to be and how willing he or she is to learn how to do better.

    Needless to say, whether he or she should be punished is one thing...whether he or she should be in a role like dealing with the general public or other attendees in general is quite another. For someone who's officially representing us, it may indeed truly not matter whether he or she intends to offend people or just keeps doing it.
  • When holding someone accountable, let's use a versatile approach -- say, varying from "OK, now that you know not to do X, Y and Z any more none of this will happen again, right?" to "Hey, you've been told this before, and/or too many paying customers are offended -- I'm sorry to tell you we can't have you volunteering for us again at least in the near future" to "You seem to be doing this on purpose (especially if you've done this before) -- you're banished entirely for at least the rest of this decade."

    "One size fits all" works much better with clothes than with people.
Basically, let's be a bit more open-minded and helpful with our differences. Think we can manage that?

[*] I'm tempted to suggest: "Let's check our privilege."

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