On feeling less safe

Over at Hoyden About Town, Wildly Parenthetical considers Tackling Misogyny: Procedures or Social Sanctions?:

But more interesting has been the discussion about formal and informal mechanisms for dealing with sexual harassment. There are lots of reasons that formal mechanisms don’t work for lots of people… So we have the suggestion of informal “shunning’. Some have, with more and less hyperbole, suggested that without the formality of systems of justice and the “certainty’ they’re meant to bring, individuals could wind up excluded on heresay; this is the “OMG WITCHHUNT!’ objection. And others have pointed out that social sanctions are applied to all kinds of behaviours that are disapproved of in our society, and why should this particular behaviour be any different? I am pretty much with the latter group, although I understand those who think that we should be putting our energies towards fixing the formal systems rather than developing shun-lists…

I left a comment that I want to re-post here, since it captures neatly a lot of my more negative feelings about discussions around anti-harassment policies and such, which a lot of people in the geek community consider informal since geeks themselves will enforce them.

My response (very slightly edited here) was as follows:

I am a fan of social sanctions in an ideal world. There tend to be two problems with introducing it in practice:

  1. Some people at either the level of instinct or the level of rational analysis find it almost impossible to distinguish from bullying (see the Geek Social Fallacies, especially #1) and refuse to participate or actively attempt to defend the person sanctioned or decide to sanction the sanctioners, causing a lot of internal community conflict.
  2. It often turns out (at least in communities that I’m a part of) that not as many people are opposed to sexual harassment as one might hope. So a substantial fraction of participants oppose social sanctions or vow to not enforce them because it turns out they like sexual harassment just fine.

Option 2 is always a really distressing conversation to have in a community you felt safe in; you seldom feel safe after it turns out that a loud minority feel that sexual harassment is the effective/normal/desirable (at least, but not exclusively) heterosexual mating strategy.

How is everyone else feeling about the geek community after whatever their latest local round of feminist discussion was? I’m far from entirely negative, but there are definitely whole new places I don’t feel safe from harassment and indeed assault now.

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About Mary

Mary is a women in tech activist, a programmer, a writer, and a sometime computational linguist. She writes at puzzling.org. Her previous projects include co-founding the Ada Initiative and major contributions to the Geek Feminism blog. She's @me_gardiner on Twitter.

16 thoughts on “On feeling less safe

  1. Azkyroth

    Having actually had the experience of being excluded/bullied based on hearsay and just being visibly different, I’m extremely suspicious of making this a normalized strategy.

    1. Mary Post author

      In favour of what strategy?

      That isn’t intended to put words in your mouth, I’m genuinely curious. A couple of assumptions I tend to make are:
      (1) sexual harassment is itself a form of bullying
      (2) bullying should be responded to

      So, if you are willing to explain, what responses do you favour to sexual harassment? Institutional rather than social ones? (Do you consider anti-harassment policies institutional or social or both?) Or some third option?

      1. 2ndnin


        As I see it you are going to have three major problems with making shunning or even a formal disapproval process go through.

        1) Harassment is subjective: While it is useful to talk online about how people feel in response to actions it is very difficult to implement a rule that takes individual subjective realities into account. While (largely due to the common shared social fabric) we can agree that some things are inherently harassment some will fall onto the border of what people consider acceptable. As an example amongst groups of male geek friends ‘slagging’ matches or ridicule are accepted ‘positive’ attitudes while a similar attitude around female geek friends who are not ‘one of the guys’ will tend to be seen as unacceptable (Mf not Fm). This will tend to make a consensus of harassment quite broad.

        2) Shunning is bullying: Simply you are deciding to exclude someone on a local level without authority. This plays into the trope of GSF#1 yet many of us have felt this. Often we do have to work with people we do not like however we get along with them in the professional area because we have no other choice. Shunning as a personal exercise is generally acceptable (‘we do not wish to hang about with you sorry’), as a professional it is simply discourteous, and if we end up excluding people totally or letting them form small groups they reinforce their own tendencies. You won’t stop the harassment by shunning unless the whole community does it, rather you will segregate the community into an us and them mentality where it becomes far worse.

        3) We are not a cohesive community: Even amongst feminism there are great divides between individual feminists, trying to make a whole community of people who believe they are in a meritocracy disavow someone who is socially not acceptable but through ‘merit’ deserves to be listened to is going to be hard. Again most geeks have felt excluded at some time or other so doing it to others deliberately especially when there are no other groups to go to is hard for many of us.

        1. sheenyglass

          Shunning is not bullying. Shunning is a form of social coercion. Bullying is coercion with an abusive purpose. Although shunning and bullying may overlap, they are not identical. Coercion is a legitimate social response in the right contexts, such as the imprisonment of individuals convicted of crimes. Shunning is a legitimate form of coercion when used by a group to, for example, protect its constituent members from harm, such as the harm caused by sexual harassment. No one is obligated to socialize with anyone else.

          As a practical matter however, I do not think shunning will be enacted unless the harasser lacks social capital. If shunning is not enacted, the victim may suffer for suggesting it. A friend of mine was sexually assaulted by his friend, a very popular member of our college class. He decided not to press charges and, instead, requested that mutual friends cease contact with the perpetrator until he (the attacker) received mental health treatment. A few of us did, although we tended to be those who were close with the victim and casually acquainted with the assailant. Most did not–including one of the victim’s closest friends and a previous victim of his predations!–and some people have even referred to this request as being irrational. The result is that my friend was effectively ostracized, because he no longer wanted to take part in social functions at which his attacker would be present.

    2. John

      I’m with Azkyroth on this one, having been shunned systematically when I was a student, as a result of a misunderstanding. I can say from first-hand experience (fortunately a long time ago now) that simple shunning is both dangerous (I very nearly committed suicide because of it; I’m sure some actually do go through with this) and completely ineffective (no-one told me how my actions had been interpreted, so I didn’t have a clue of what I’d done wrong, so there was no way it could lead to me correcting it). Also, I was certainly never asked for my side of what had happened; which would have sorted the whole thing out in about two sentences.

      For those wondering quite what kind of action I’m referring to: I’d misjudged that it was alright to give a goodbye hug at the end of term to one of my female classmates, who had given goodbye hugs to many others in the group; I was the class’s needy misfit (probably aspie) and she assumed it was an attack and shot back in horror. So the shunning, start from her and spreading widely — she was a popular person — naturally came across as being for what I was (interpreted by a young, naive and lonely me as meaning subhuman and unfit to tread this earth) rather than for what I’d done, which was exactly the same as what the rest of that social group had done.

      So, if you do think it’s appropriate to shun someone, at least make sure that someone has explained to them what it’s all about — you may think it’s obvious to them, but it may not be; they may, for example, be as clueless about social interactions as I was back then. And if the person shunned does commit suicide,or end up institutionalized, while I’m sure that those who arranged the shunning will just say “Ah well, he must have been mentally ill anyway”, I would say that they have had a major contributory effect.

  2. Catherine

    First, I don’t think that formal and informal approaches are incompatible, and having both available provides the best range of options.

    While formal approaches have their problems, the major problem I see with informal approaches is that harrassees are usually low-power, minority members within the group. Therefore, the natural human tendency to try to avoid unsafe situations leads to choosing self-exclusion–which means that the harrassment has worked exactly as intended.

    It’s only when the overall group is already “healthy,” by which I mean that the dominant culture is one of safety and non-harassment, that it is the harassers who wind up getting excluded or learning to behave better. But that is also the kind of group in which formal sanctions will work best, often because those in charge will even work proactively, not tolerating harassing behavior when they notice it, not waiting until a complaint is filed.

    When the dominant culture is not “healthy,” harassees will end up excluded by the divide-and-conquer methods unless they band together to gain strength and power. But at that point, their actions automatically become formal, even if not official.

    Therefore, I am (gently) questioning whether the dichotomy formal vs. informal is well describing these mechanisms. I would see informal approaches as being what every individual naturally does in response to harassment: try to avoid it. Whenever that happens, whoever has the least power ends up pushed out (or changing). But there are official organized approaches and unofficial organized approaches. And I really think that the choice between the two is less about the method itself than it is about the culture of who is official. In a group where those in charge are really trying to combat harassment, then official channels will be easier to use and work better–but will also be resorted to less often, because informal approaches will work better. But when those in charge are not fully committed to helping, then an unofficial group will probably be necessary in order to fight back.

  3. Dorothea Salo

    There may be a piece missing from this strategy discussion: namely, doing something about the voiceless exit that many harassed people exercise.

    As discussed above by Catherine, in unhealthy environments (which most geek environments do seem to be, still) the commonest response by someone being harassed is to pick up and leave. I’ve done it. I know plenty of others who have done it. I daresay many people reading this comment have done it.

    Voiceless exit weakens both formal and informal approaches to harassment, leaving fewer people who care enough to employ either option. Moreover, since individuals belonging to often-harassed classes are often perceived as less-desirable or less-able participants, there can be a cadre among the remaining group that (vocally or not) approves the driving-out, which obviously doesn’t help either.

    So I would argue that one missing bit here is being conscious of diversity, and vocal about lack of same. The message may need to be “if your geek group isn’t diverse? chances are, your geek group, knowingly or not, has put up barriers to diversity. knock ’em down.”

  4. Vera

    I couldn’t find the ‘reply’ link on sheenyglasses comment. Perhaps there is a limit to comment nesting or my browser?

    At any rate, shunning in the workplace is most definitely considered bullying in some Australian law – my state at least, if not nationally. I’d reference but my resources are at work!

    1. Mary Post author

      There’s a nesting limit. You can reply to the parent comment to try and keep them close together if you like (no need to do so for this comment).

      It would be interesting to see those references, when you have them to hand!

      1. Vera

        Australia is currently taking public submissions to propose a national model workplace health and safety act, guidelines and codes of practice. If you’re interested there’s more at the Safe Work Australia website along with the public submissions. Essentially we don’t currently have nationally consistent laws.

        Australia doesn’t have laws against bullying as such, but laws about workplace health and safety. Australian employers are required to be proactive in providing safe and healthy workplaces and so can be acted against for condoning, ignoring or not noticing bullying behaviour.

        SafeWork South Australia has a definition relevant to the discussion and it is pretty much the one I have received in all the workplace health and safety training I’ve had.

        According to the Employee Ombudsman’s office, the most commonly reported forms of workplace bullying include constant verbal abuse, “nit picking’, threats, sarcasm, unjustified criticisms, threats of dismissal or other punishment for no reason, the sabotaging of a person’s work, deliberately withholding important information and ostracising people from social networks etc.

        If our problem is with bad management then the effort of change should be to management behaviour as difficult as that is, not to create another problem. Shunning at a group level is toxic behaviour and no good will come of it.

    2. sheenyglass

      Me too! Just to clarify, I think shunning can be bullying, but that it is not always bullying. Is all social isolation and/or exclusion considered bullying in Australian law? Or does the shunning have to be tied to something else? To me, bullying requires an element of intent to harm, but that is just my opinion, and not legally binding in any jurisdiction.

      1. Vera

        I can’t answer comprehensively without checking as this might be one of those things that only apply in one state rather than nationally, but afaik it’s got to do with workplace behaviour: consistently excluding a colleague/employee is bullying. The example we used is that if pretty much all staff went to lunch or had the opportunity to go to lunch together regularly and one person is never invited: bullying.

      2. 2ndnin

        Doesn’t an intent to remove enforce social isolation and / or exclusion on someone count as harm? Within things like the prison system we consider one of the worst punishments to be solitary confinement.

        As I said, doing this sort of thing in an environment where there is other support seems acceptable however doing so when there is no other support or it is a professional environment seems very very damaging. While no one should be forced to accept someone else as company it seems that shunning someone such that they have no one is a cruel punishment.

  5. Mary Post author

    If possible I’d be interested in this in the context of anti-harassment policies. These can be interpreted as:
    (a) institutional, because they are written, there is forewarning, and there is s
    (b) social, because they are an alternative framework to legal avenues

    They definitely result in exclusion in some cases: you may be asked to leave an event which can be shaming and isolating. How does this strike people? Because some criticism of the policy* is that “it’s too shaming, it’s too painful, it’s social isolation, all you need to do is explain and people will stop the bad thing they are doing*”

    * On the whole I think well-received.
    ** Definitely not universally true!

    1. John

      I think that being asked to leave an event (e.g. a conference), and being excluded from something ongoing (e.g.a club) are very different matters. By “in the context of anti-harassment policies” are you mostly referring to the ones recently publicized here?

      I think a wide range of tactfulness is possible, particularly for ongoing groups but perhaps a bit less so (because of time constraints) for a conference… for a club / society, it can be set up as “please leave the current meeting, and the committee will get in contact with you before next month’s / week’s meeting”, but for a conference, lasting, say, for a weekend, you really need to deal with things in real time, and the people needed for doing this will already be intensely busy for that weekend.

      I think the policies mentioned are well-written; perhaps they could be accompanied by a similarly well-written framework for a document to be handed to someone who is being asked to leave a conference? Here’s my attempt at a sketchy first draft:

      You have been asked to leave this event because something you have done has caused considerable distress to another attendee (or attendees), and because the duration of the event does not allow us enough time to resolve the matter in any other way while being confident of preventing further distress.
      Please understand that we are not passing a judgement on you as a person, nor are we ignoring the fact that you will also have positive contributions to make to our community. This is simply a matter of making the conference comfortable for others.
      We are not treating you as less important than other people; we are asking you to leave because you took the active role in this incident. If you were to remain here, it is likely that the person(s) who you have upset would leave (and possibly be deterred from attending further conferences), and as it was not their action that caused the upset, it is not fair that they should leave rather than you. (In either case, you would not have an opportunity to repeat the action, and if that action is what you are looking for in attending the conference, there would be no point in you staying.)
      We hope that you will work to understand what has happened, and learn from it, so that you can attend, benefit from, and contribute to, future conferences without such unfortunate occurrences.

      Another possibility (which would be harder work) would be to say “You may stay here if you agree to be always in the sight of a committee member (or some other trusted delegate), otherwise you will have to leave” — might that be sufficient deterrent?

  6. Dorothea Salo

    Re the questions at the end of the post: I never feel safe in geek environments. Haven’t for years.

    (Physically safe, yes, usually; I’m middle-aged and horsefaced, also physically imposing. But I always expect the worst, behavior-wise-speaking. Online and off-.)

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