George Sodini, Montreal, Debian

In cereta’s words, “Oh yes, I’m going there.”

Trigger warning.

After George Sodini went on a misogynist shooting spree, killing three women, a lot of people were making comparisons to the Virginia Tech or Columbine shootings. But among women in the tech world, the comparison I most often heard was the Montreal Massacre.

Most people outside of Canada (and/or geek feminism) have never heard of it. Here’s what happened: in 1989 at École Polytechnique, an engineering school in Montreal, Quebec. Marc Lépine walked into an engineering classroom with an automatic rifle, separated the men from the women, proclaimed that he was “fighting feminism”, and shot all nine women, killing six. Moving on, he started shooting people in the hallways and cafeteria. In all, he killed 14 women and then himself.

In Canada, the anniversary of this event is a National Day of Remembrance and Action on Violence Against Women. This year is the 20th anniversary.

Lépine, like Sodini, hated women and blamed them for his problems, so he killed them. And they aren’t alone. In fact, they sound a lot like that guy who used to post to the Debian mailing lists (source):

Yea you’ve become a developer… and have done nearly nothing except shill your feminist shit and try to turn debian into a woman’s project (you are succeeding, men are leaving debian because of you and your ilk, worthless bitch).

I pray that God takes you and all your supporters from this earth soon.

You are a developer because so many vocal men support feminism (no matter how many divorces they suffer through). You are not a developer on your own merit. Those who are against you do not dare speak up because they know that anti-feminist men are thrown out of debian.

I am praying for your death and the death of your supporters.

What you have done to debian should not go unpunished, your dislike of men (that chip can be seen from space) and wish to raise women up to be “strong and powerful” and take men’s work (debian and other free software projects) away from them should earn you a death sentance. Debian cannot survive when men leave it.

I pray you find your way into a feminist unfriendly country one day. God willing, you will die.

Happily the feminist-unfriendly countries are immigrating to you. Remeber the netherlands? Feminists die there.

Since I gave my keynote at OSCON (which mentioned the above in passing) I’ve had people say, “Death threats? Really? Well, you can’t take trolls too seriously,” and “I’m sure it’s just an isolated incident.”

I’ve also had people ask me why we still need feminism — don’t we have equality now? I’ve had people say that attempts at making the open source community safe and welcome will “ruin open source” and that we’re trying to impose a thought police on a culture that wants to be free — free to make death threats, I guess. And at CLS, in a roundtable discussion on griefers and trolls, I asked whether anyone had ideas for how to deal with death threats online, and people just shrugged; law enforcement doesn’t take them seriously, and the only recommendation anyone could give was to put the mailing list or blog comments on moderation.

But what if you don’t control the forum where the threats occur? George Sodini had his own blog. Kathy Sierra‘s attackers were posting on other blogs. And why should it be our responsibility anyway? “Just moderate your mailing list/blog comments” sounds to me like “if you walk home alone you’re asking for it.” How did vile, murderous, misogyny come to be the responsibility of anyone except the perpetrator?

I heard a great quote, which Google tells me comes from Gavin DeBecker’s book, “The Gift of Fear”:

At core, men are afraid women will laugh at them, while at core, women are afraid men will kill them.

I know some people will roll their eyes at that and think it’s overblown. Others will probably say that living in a state of fear is counter-productive, and we should just tough up and ignore it if we want to eg. take engineering classes, participate in free and open source software projects, or just go about our daily lives.

No. The correct reaction to a death threat — whether specific or general — is fear. The correct action for resolving that fear is to remove the death threats.

We need to come down like a ton of bricks on anyone making those threats, online or off. And we need to stop pretending that people who say those kinds of scary-ass things are all “harmless trolls”. If George Sodini’s taught us nothing else, he’s taught us that.

6 thoughts on “George Sodini, Montreal, Debian

  1. Terri

    My local wise group hosted a presentation by Dick Bourgeois, who wrote Elsie The Engineer, a really interesting book about a pioneering airplane engineer in Canada. He mentioned something interesting re: the Montreal massacre. Apparently following the massacre, the number of women in engineering actually went up (I forget if that was across canada or just montreal). He cited a few reasons, including a lot of education programmes, scholarships that sprung up in the wake of the massacre. But one that interested me was his assertion that it could have been just because, with all the press, as horrible as it was, at least all these new women knew engineering was a possible career.

    So it could be said that Lepine, as well as failing as a human being, failed to actually keep women out of engineering, and in fact had an effect opposite to what he said he wanted.

    Incidentally, there is a recent movie out about the massacre, for those who might be interested. I haven’t seen it, but the reviews I heard said it was a pretty raw retelling, without a whole lot of explanation or anything.

    1. Skud Post author

      Terri, that’s pretty interesting about the increased numbers after the massacre. Funny how these things can have unexpected consequences! I don’t think we can go recommending it as a technique to encourage women in the field though :P

      Not surprised to hear there’s a movie, what with this being an anniversary year and all. 8/10 stars on IMDB? Wow.

  2. Kathy Sierra

    The more we tolerate online abuse, harassment, and threats… the harder it is to know whether to take any of it seriously. The potentially *real* threats become indistinguishable from the, “Oh, it’s just a silly troll.”

    Logical risk assessment becomes difficult when you’re getting targeted, specific harassment. While the odds that it’s a *real* threat are probably ridiculously low, the result of being wrong is potentially catastrophic. And even if you don’t take it seriously, there it always is… nagging away at the edge of your consciousness… “Yeah, but what IF it’s not “just a troll?”

    We all have our line somewhere. I was never the least bit worried over the drive-by, occasional nasty anonymous commenter, no matter how sexual, or violent the comment. It takes only a few seconds to just type something into a box. But I discovered my personal line when one (or more) posters were taking the time to create images, photo montages, cutting-and-pasting from my words, etc. In other words, when someone was obviously targeting ME personally and spending time and energy and skills to do it. And while online threats are clearly NOT the same as something in “real life”, the question remains… how/when do you know for sure?

    I’ve received more and worse threats from going public about it than what I originally experienced that caused me to write about it in the first place. I am taking a risk just by making this comment. Fortunately, I believe those responsible have moved on.

    It has taken me nearly two years to undo some of the retaliation damage that was created by my going public — most especially the widespread circulation (impossible to remove from the web) of a fabricated “bio” about me that–most importantly–contained my REAL home address, REAL social security number, and even some bits of real medical data, interspersed with totally false stories about — what else — sexual exploits (including “she spent time as a prostitute”, etc.) along with a call to action for people to send things to my home that would “express how you feel about her”. Many, many people — including more than a few tech feminists — stated that I brought that on myself by going public. I received extremely harsh criticism from all sides for speaking out about it in a post.

    There is most certainly a “rule” that says you DO NOT under any circumstances “whine” or –far worse– express fear over something that happens online. If this happened to one of my daughters, I would urge them STRONGLY to never speak out publicly about it. I continue to (occasionally) make comments because in my case, it’s too late — I already made the mistake of going public. For the record, I made a post about what happened because I believed that in my greatest moment of fear/concern, it was the single best way to get to the bottom of who was responsible–the ONLY way to fully assess the “reality” of the threats, and something local law enforcement is utterly unprepared to deal with (a whole different topic… and a sad one). I’d hoped my readers would help figure it out, and I did this ONLY after having tried communicating with two of the people responsible for the blogs where it was occurring (and getting no help — just more reasons to be concerned about what was happening).

    I have been criticized most severely for having named the names of the people behind the blogs where it happened. They were viewed as “innocent victims” of the angry mob that emerged after I posted publicly, although all of them made posts actively encouraging the behavior (and continued to do so even after the posts were removed). Whether we share any responsibility for those we deliberately support, encourage, and incite, though, is another topic.

    While it makes me very sad that this kind of thing continues, I’m very encouraged that FAR more sites today are willing to moderate comments, and the outraged cries of “free speech!!” that previously accompanied any attempt at moderation have been falling away to a more rational, reasonable view that the online world will not be destroyed if personal attack/abusive comments are modified or removed.

    Such a tricky and frightening and emotional topic. You’re brave for posting about it.

    1. Liz Henry

      Kathy, thanks for your thoughtful post. I do agree with you that the repercussions of speaking up are often worse than the original thing to speak up about. To me that means more of us have to do it, we have a social duty to do it, to make it less rare, to share the risk. I’ve spoken up and not spoken up, about online and offline harassment, and I do prefer the risk of some actual attack to the soul-destroying effects of being silenced over my entire lifetime. Everyone has to make their own decision how much they can risk and how much energy to put into things like that and I do respect other women’s choices about how to handle it. But, I still want to make the case strongly that we *have* to speak up and, crucially, back each other up, if we want anything to change.

      I too found that images had a more powerful impact on me than words did, though I’m a writer and a very text based thinker. The images and things like the hoaxes you mention are hard to point out. If we point out how damaging they are, then we show a vulnerability. If we don’t point it out, then we can’t fight it. So it is a “naming the problem” problem and we are in a double bind. How best to fight it? No idea, but shutting up doesn’t appeal to me…

      And I have to add that motherhood is used as an extra hammer to shut women up. If we have children then we are warned over and over that we also risk repercussions or effects of various kinds on our children. Therefore, any woman who is a mother is under extra pressure both not to be visible online, and not to point out or protest against harassment. I reject that reasoning too.

      1. osschik

        A few years ago a demeaning photoshopped image of me was posted on a site owned by an open source project I contributed to. I asked for it to be removed but the male developers thought it, “all in good fun”. The next images were porn, with my avatar superimposed. My physical appearance became the target of more, “jokes”. When these images were finally removed, my male counterparts publicly stated that as I “could not see the joke” and “had taken offense” people had better be careful about having fun.
        Messages were then posted stating that a good would restore my sense of humor. My private email address was posted online with a request that people tell me “what women are good for”. That’s when the death, rape & mutilation threats started. A member of this so-called community tracked down my home address and phone number and distributed these. The threats kept coming for almost 18 months.

        What had started as one misguided man’s sexist stand had developed into a “this community would not be falling apart if osschik wasn’t here” and, “women don’t belong in open source” diatribe. All the women left.
        I’ve had comments that if I had kept my mouth shut & laughed along with the boys, that this would never have happened. If I ask if they would be prepared to have sexual imagery of their wives, girlfriends, mothers, daughters left on the project site, along with accompanying lewd feedback, some have changed their position but most have responded along the lines that if a woman wants to be part of a man’s world she has to have a thick skin. Some even said they had shown the images to their wives and that their wives had found them funny.
        Kathy paid a high price for bringing awareness. She’s right – its still happening. I’m anonymous here but even so I am scared that posting this may stir things up again. I still jump whenever the phone rings, I still shake when I open my email. I still hide. I also still contribute to open source software development but as anonymously as possible.
        Women may have a social obligation to speak out, but if anyone does they had better be prepared for the consequences. I wasn’t.

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