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Re-post: When Geeks Have Empathy Problems

During December and January, Geek Feminism is republishing some of our 2012 posts for the benefit of new and existing readers. This post originally appeared on March 11, 2012.

This post originally appeared on Addie’s blog.

Over the past few days, I’ve been tipped off to an incident on the Planet Mozilla blog, an aggregator of the personal blogs of Mozilla community members. Mozillans can choose which entries make the feed and which don’t, but non-work-related content is part of the point, to reveal an insight into the actual people driving the process. This makes sense in theory, but I get that it’s a situation waiting for a bit of a “turd in the punchbowl” moment.

And so it goes. The Mozillans that I know are LGBTQ-identified. And I agree with them that a post in this aggregator, voicing opposition to the rights of LGBTQ folk to marry, is hate speech, even if that’s a more severe term than we’re used to hearing in a media climate that insists on giving airtime to “both sides of the argument” under the guise of impartiality, even if one side’s view is odious. In a couple of decades the majority of the population is going to look back on the gay marriage discussion and see opposition to it as unequivocal hate speech, not unlike the majority of us do for those who oppose interracial marriage these days. In the future I have no doubt that people who are defending the folks who are making these statements are going to feel sorry for doing so. But in the meantime they’re making fools of themselves.

I’ve seen enough of these discussions play out on the Internet, given that some guy does something wildly inappropriate at a technical conference (post sexualized content, talk in terms that make female attendees feel marginalized and invisible, sexually assault a fellow attendee, etc.) about once a month. I feel like Geek Feminism doesn’t even keep a comprehensive list of all these “incidents” anymore because they’ve become so common. The nice thing is that a lot of guys are noticing this trend too and getting equally sick of it; regardless, in almost every incident, the predictable surge of geeky individuals steps up and defends the offender in what they think are extremely logical, clever and original terms.

A clear pattern has emerged, and I feel compelled to summarize it briefly instead of ranting about it loudly to my housemate (a form of preaching to the choir that she’s kind of sick of at this point, too.)

Here goes: geeks, technical people, programmers, engineers, etc. – are highly logical individuals, and it’s totally normal to start thinking about ourselves in terms of logical systems, because the way we interact with the world on a daily basis is distinctly different from the rest of the population. I, too, often encounter communities or aspects of pop culture that are totally foreign to me as a result of my logical orientation, although I think this is an experience that isn’t unique to geeky folks; everybody runs into individuals that they just don’t “get”. But here’s the thing a lot of geeky people seem to forget as they bond more and more tightly to their identity as logical individuals: geeks are still, first and foremost, human, and as a result, will still experience human emotions on a regular basis, even if they’re interpreted through a logical filter. In my experience, geeky folks have just as many emotional responses as a non-geeky individual in any given circumstance, but the geeky folks are a lot more likely to be totally clueless about the fact that it’s actually a human emotion that’s driving what seems to them like a highly logical argument.

If someone posts something odious to a news aggregator – that makes people in marginalized groups feel hurt, unsafe, threatened, etc. (note that I omit the word “offense” – it’s abused too often to retain any useful meaning in these discussions) – and you have never been in a marginalized group, or cared deeply for someone in a marginalized group, or felt unsafe at work – then I totally understand why you’re more likely to want to defend the person saying the odious stuff. It’s called empathy. And what you’re doing when you’re defending that person is actually an act of empathy: you realize you’re far more likely to accidentally say something hurtful on a news aggregator (or other public forum) than you are to be the target of that sort of language, and if you were ever to do that, you’d want guys like yourself to be able to understand your perspective. You know what? That’s a totally reasonable, and utterly human, response, and nobody’s going to judge you for that. But it’s also completely inappropriate to share in a larger space and frame as a logical argument. It’s not. It’s empathy polluting a comment feed and for people who are used to seeing this play out over and over, that “original” argument is tired and frankly embarrassing.

Geeks who make these empathic arguments and think they’re contributing something new to the discussion look really, really foolish to those of us who get it. I’d feel sorry for them if they weren’t making me so angry by actively hurting people I care about (and often me, as a female programmer – in the case of “incidents” at tech conferences.)

Let me give an example from my own life. Over the past year I have done some really silly things that have revealed my socioeconomic, white, straight, and cissexual privilege. I have even said some things that have revealed my privilege as a person who has not suffered from domestic abuse. Since certain things aren’t in my range of experiences, it’s totally reasonable for me to be ignorant and occasionally make mistakes. But I do see it as my responsibility to learn from those mistakes when they’re pointed out, and do my best not to make them again. I have no doubt that I’m probably still doing stuff like that all the time, but that the people who I’m accidentally hurting by saying those things just don’t feel comfortable pointing it out. I know this because I can empathize with parallel situations where people have done this to me, in parts of my life where I am not so privileged.

If I did one of these things in a public forum – like on a blog, or at a conference – and it became a subject for public discussion – I, too, would have the impulse that a lot of people in these situations do, which is to defend my inherent goodness as a person. Because my emotional response when being told that I’ve messed up – by, or in front of, individuals that I’d like to think highly of me – is to try to convince them to keep thinking highly of me. Denial and defensiveness is a pretty instinctive first response. But I really try to move past that, and swallow the discomfort and shame I’m feeling, and do the right thing, which is to acknowledge the hurt I’ve caused. And honestly? A sincere acknowledgement – and taking the simple steps to amend the wrong – kills the controversy almost immediately. Unfortunately, when that happens, it doesn’t cause nearly as much attention as the trainwreck that occurs when people give in to their impulses instead and dig in their heels. Then people flock to the trainwreck, respond with empathy, don’t realize they’re responding with empathy, and the disaster grows. It’s a headache, but like most individuals sucked into these situations, I nonetheless can’t look away.

Honestly, it’s encouraging to see that geeky individuals feel such strong amounts of empathy and compassion. What saddens me is how many of them have no clue that they feel such emotions – all the time! What a great capacity for positive change and collaboration we’re completely misusing. Emotions can be incredibly powerful in tandem with logical thinking, when used mindfully.

That said, as a person who has felt some degree of threat (i.e. stereotype threat) at the workplace as a default status, but has also felt legitimately unsafe in rare contexts, it’s completely unacceptable to defend an individual who is making members of a community feel unsafe and unwelcome in that community. This is my empathy speaking up here: as a person who has felt unsafe in the workplace and in communities, I am well aware of the intense pain that these defenses are causing. It is so much worse, and so much more debilitating, than the discomfort of brief embarrassment or shame from making a mistake. Please, stop. This sort of pain keeps brilliant, capable people from doing their jobs. And if you really care about the strength of a community on its technical merits, you’ll want everybody to feel safe and welcome above all else, even if it means coping with the discomfort of feeling chagrined once in awhile.

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