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 September 5, 2012.
This post is cross-posted to Tim’s blog on dreamwidth.org.
“Most women fight wars on two fronts, one for whatever the putative topic is and one simply for the right to speak, to have ideas, to be acknowledged to be in possession of facts and truths, to have value, to be a human being. ” — Rebecca Solnit, “Men who explain things”
A Problem with Equality
In March 2012, Gerv Markham, who works for the Mozilla Corporation dealing with issues of community and governance, ignited a controversy about what kinds of content Mozilla tolerates on its Web properties. That debate opened the broader question of whether the Mozilla Corporation should have a code of conduct for its employees, as well as whether the Mozilla project as a whole should have a single code of conduct for its employees and volunteers. An internal — but world-readable — discussion on Mozilla’s online discussion group, mozilla.governance, ensued, examining the nature and desirability of community standards for inclusion.
That was about as neutral and objective as I’m going to be in this essay. In what follows, I analyze the controversies of March and April, while sharing a hefty quantity of my own feelings and opinions about them. These opinions are my own and solely my own. While I’m an employee of the Mozilla Corporation, in what follows, I am speaking only for myself. I’m not writing from the perspective of someone who has formal education in political and social analysis; the only authority I claim to have is on my own lived experiences. Thus, I don’t have citations at hand for every idea; moreover, much of what I am saying here has been said before, by people who make it their calling to interrogate sexism, homophobia, racism, and other social structures of domination. I’m writing for an audience of people who think critically, reflect openly, and draw their own conclusions.
In what follows and in the subsidiary links, I’ll frequently use the sociological concepts of power and privilege. If you don’t feel familiar with notions of power and privilege as they play out in everyday life and interaction between people, or if you don’t understand how the same person can have power over others in one situation and be powerless in another, I’ve written a brief primer about these concepts.
Planet Mozilla (“Planet” from here on) is a blog aggregator that aggregates the blogs of people in the Mozilla community — both paid Mozilla Corporation employees, and community volunteers — who choose to maintain blogs and include themselves in the Planet newsfeed. The sidebar states: “The content here is unfiltered and uncensored, and represents the views of individual community members.” Glancing at Planet, most content is related to Mozilla projects, but some personal posts from community members, about non-Mozilla-related topics, appear — some people syndicate their entire blogs to Planet, while others only syndicate posts that have a particular tag (or keep completely separate technical and personal blogs). For example, I syndicate my work-related posts on my Dreamwidth blog to Planet Mozilla Research (not part of the main Planet) by tagging only those posts with the tag “research”. My posts about politics or what my cats are doing don’t show up.
I look at Planet sometimes, but don’t read it every day. Some Mozilla employees, however, are required by their managers to read it regularly, in order to stay abreast of what’s going on in the community.
On March 6 while I was getting off Caltrain to go to work and reading email on my phone, I saw an email on the Homozilla (internal Mozilla LGBTQ and ally group) mailing list about the fact that a post from Gerv Markham [Content note for homophobia and advocacy of legislative violence in post and some comments], a Mozilla employee who works remotely from the UK, had written a blog post encouraging people to sign a petition distributed by the Coalition for Marriage, a homophobic hate group, that would endorse the legal codification of marriage in the UK as “the voluntary union for life of one man and one woman to the exclusion of all others”. This post appeared on Gerv’s personal blog, but as per his settings, all of his personal blog posts were at the time syndicated to Planet. Thus, without him taking explicit action, a post encouraging people to support social inequality and discrimination against a group into which many Mozilla contributors fall appeared on a Mozilla Web property.
I’ve only been at Mozilla for a year and a half, so I don’t have too much context, but people who have been at Mozilla longer have said that the discussions that resulted were the most intense of any of the debates that have occurred about what content is acceptable on Planet. A number of Mozillans, both people who are out as LGBTQ and people who are allies, wrote blog posts or tweeted saying that it was wrong for a Mozilla Web property to be used to spread hate, and that we needed to set a clearer standard for what content is acceptable either on Planet specifically, or on mozilla.com and mozilla.org domains in general. I think most or all of the people in this category would agree with what the person who posted the first Homozilla email said: “Gerv is entirely entitled to have his opinions on gay marriage, but I absolutely do not want to see them in Planet Mozilla, just as I don’t expect to see pro gay marriage posts there or posts about the upcoming US election.” Another Homozilla member wrote, “Even at work, we’re not free from being reminded that some say we’re different, not normal, and not worthy of the same rights as everyone else”, which is something that I agree with and that I’ll attempt to explain and flesh out in much of the remainder of this post.
Posts from Al Billings [Content note for homophobic derailing in some of the comments, but not in the post itself], Graydon Hoare, and Christie Koehler [Content note for derailing in some comments] soon after March 6 describe why many of us found the presence of Gerv’s post on Planet objectionable and why some of us feel that it illustrates the need for community conduct standards at Mozilla. I’ll avoid repeating what they already said very well. I wrote an initial reaction as well on the 6th.
The same day, the Planet Mozilla Module Team (made up of both Mozilla staff and volunteers) published a response [Content note for derailing in both post and comments] to the concerns raised by people like Al, Graydon, Christie, and myself, as well as to a letter from Homozilla people that was sent privately, and possibly to other private communication. The line of reasoning in this response is an old one: speech like Gerv’s must be allowed because of a social-libertarian commitment to freedom of speech, which is assumed to be part of Mozilla’s mission. Somehow, this means that Planet Mozilla must be a forum even for content not related to the project, so long as one project member wants to use the megaphone for that purpose.
Through private communication, it became clear to me that the Mozilla HR department and legal team do not see any legal liability on their part to allowing unrestricted (more later about whether it’s really unrestricted) free speech on a mozilla.org Web site. As far as I can tell, they do not believe that speech that helps construct the inferiority of a particular social group creates a hostile working environment for employees, because they believe that nobody is required to read Planet as part of their job responsibilities. However, that belief is simply incorrect: some people are required to read it. And they do not appear to believe that such speech damages Mozilla’s reputation, because they believe it is clear that Planet, as its disclaimer said, “represents the views of individual community members” and not of the Mozilla Corporation or Foundation as a whole.
User interface design principles suggest that the guiding principle for an interface should not be how its developers prescriptively think its users should understand the interface, but rather, how its users will understand the interface, even if those users’ understanding is incorrect or naïve. The idea is that if the user comes to a wrong conclusion from looking at the interface, that’s the responsibility of the interface designers — they should have made the interface less confusing — rather than the user’s fault. That’s because computers should be tools for people rather than people serving computers.
Likewise, if people outside Mozilla read Planet and assume that the opinions there are representative of or endorsed by the company or the community, the answer to that is not to say they’re wrong, but to either make the user interface of the site clearer (not everyone will read a disclaimer in small text away from the main flow of the page), or simply avoid including content that could go against the company’s values or damage its reputation. At least in this sense, the customer is always right.
Separately, I’ve written about my personal views on the issue of same-sex marriage (the term I prefer is “universal marriage”) and why I find opposition to universal marriage to be baffling and incoherent, for those who wish to appreciate what someone who is simultaneously regarded as more than one sex and gender by government agencies might think about restricting marriage by sex or gender. Otherwise, there’s so much that’s already been said about universal marriage that I don’t feel the need to say more. Anyway, this post is about general patterns that occur in discussions about many different forms of social power imbalances, and not primarily about the specifics of homophobia or heterosexism.
The conversations that happened as a result of Gerv’s post and of the response from the Planet Mozilla Module Team eventually led Mitchell Baker, the chair of Mozilla, to initiate a
thread [Content note for more or less every kind of psychologically/emotionally abusive comment directed at minority groups that’s possible, not in the original post, but in the replies] on the open mozilla.governance mailing list/newsgroup. In the unstructured discussion that followed, I saw some comments that were far beyond the level of harmfulness and hurtfulness that I would expect from colleagues. I read a number of open Internet fora, and some of these comments were worse than I would routinely expect from those fora.
In the rest of this essay, I won’t talk much about Gerv’s original post. I don’t mean to make him into the bad guy. I am less concerned about individuals and their opinions or decisions than about systems and processes, and I’m going to talk about how underlying, external systems of oppression — systems that Mozilla did not invent, that predate its existence by centuries — were nevertheless replicated inside Mozilla during the community discussions that followed. Again, my choice of the word “oppression” is quite deliberate, to emphasize the real, damaging nature of being treated with unequal respect and dignity. Being oppressed as queer people corrodes our self-esteem and limits our life chances. It also stops us from contributing all that we can to whatever endeavors our talents and desires would normally allow for.
Why it matters
First of all, I am writing about the Mozilla community as a member of the community. I am as much a member of the community as anyone else who is involved in Mozilla’s projects, and I belong here as much as any other Mozillan does. If you want to ask me why I don’t just go somewhere else, the answer is because this is my community too, and I like it here. Out of all of the parts of the world that I could choose to focus on changing, I choose to focus on the community of people who work on software — and specifically in that part of the community that happens to employ me — because it is home to me, and I don’t have another home. If you’re still wondering why I bother or what my stake in it is, here you go.
In the discussions on mozilla.governance and on various blogs, many people claimed (implicitly or explicitly) that there was a tension between protecting free speech and protecting people in minority groups. They claimed that there was a tension between the right of people in minority groups to feel safe and comfortable in a space, and the right of people in majority groups to say what they want.
I challenge the precept that this tension is difficult to resolve. In part, I think the apparent tension arises from the logical fallacy that doing nothing is the neutral choice. Actually, adopting a laissez-faire “free speech” policy in an organization is to take a political position: it means taking the position that existing power dynamics from the larger society will and must recreate themselves in your organization. To do nothing is to let bullies be bullies, because bullies always bully when they get the chance to and when there are no checks and balances against bullying.
So in reality, the choice isn’t between taking a laissez-faire, neutral position; and adopting a code of conduct that excludes some form of speech. The central conflict is:
Shall we implicitly exclude people in socially stigmatized minority groups, or shall we explicitly exclude people who cannot or will not behave with respect?
Another way of asking this question is to ask “In a conflict between abusers and people who are being abused, should we side with the abusers or the victims?”
To some people, the language of “oppression”, “abuse”, and “victims” may seem harsh or strident. To some people, speech that proclaims the inferiority of a particular social group may seem like “only words”, words that are only as hurtful as the recipient chooses to let them be. I disagree, and have written a number of subsidiary essays to explain why. Together, they add up to a lot of words, but I hope that after reading them, most people will at least be able to understand why I see the choice between excluding minorities and excluding people who choose not to behave with respect as the central choice here, even if they disagree with my conclusions.
That one form of exclusion (tolerance of disparaging remarks about minorities) is implicit and the other form (formal codes of conduct) is explicit doesn’t make the implicit kind of exclusion any less real. You may believe that you, personally, don’t exclude anyone, and that you never do anything to exclude people who are socially stigmatized. Even if you don’t intend to exclude people, you may still be engaging in behavior that has the effect of excluding people, and you’re still responsible for the consequences of your actions even if you don’t intend those consequences.
There is no neutral choice. No matter what position the leadership takes, someone will be excluded. If this is unclear, please keep reading. If what I’m writing makes you feel guilty or defensive, please take a moment to step back and think about why.
What I’ve just written may raise a number of questions for some people. I’ve tried to anticipate, and answer, some of those those questions.
- “Why are you talking about power so much? I don’t have power over you.” Power and privilege operate in ways that often make people who have power unaware that they have it.
- “How can I be engaging in behavior that oppresses or excludes? I would never intend to do that, after all; have you ever seen me treating an LGBT person badly?” Understanding how systematic patterns of behavior act themselves out through individuals may help answer that.
- “Don’t you think it’s rather harsh, describing your pain as ‘oppression’? Isn’t that a word that refers to things happening in a far-off country or in the distant past?” Here’s what “oppression” means to me, and why I don’t see any satisfactory synonyms for it.
- “Is it really that bad, what happened? Can’t you just ignore it and not let it have power over you? After all, no one meant harm, and anyway, if you’re so angry, how do you expect anyone to listen to what you’re saying?” These questions are a form of emotional invalidation, an insidious set of learned social behaviors that have the effect of making people in oppressed groups question their own understanding of reality in order to silence discussion of abuse.
- “No, really, is it that bad?” Well, yes, it is; for me, being told I’m inferior is painful, and I’ve tried to explain what that’s like.
- “So what should we do about it?” I don’t have a single answer, but here are some possible solutions.
- “What does all of this have to do with Mozilla’s mission? And why are you being so critical?” My conclusions might answer that.
Everything I’ve written in the linked-to posts is an attempt to clarify some aspect of the single question above, about explicit versus implicit exclusion.
It may appear that we’re stuck excluding some people one way or the other, and if exclusion is always bad — if the badness of intolerance means we must also tolerate intolerance itself — isn’t there no way out?
I reject that premise. To exclude people based on who they are — based on qualities that either cannot be changed or that there is no good reason for them to change, such as gender, sexuality, race, ability, age, shape, and so on — is to exclude needlessly, to harm the community by excluding people who would otherwise contribute to it. To exclude people based on what they do — engaging in anti-social behavior — is fair. It says that anyone can be part of this community as long as they’re willing to observe community standards; to do what’s best for the community; to play fair. If my employment agreement says that I must protect confidential information and trade secrets, and that I will use company resources wisely, I don’t see that as an unfair limitation on my rights. I see it as something I’m being asked to do to maintain a healthy community. I think the same should go for a request to behave in a way that’s inclusive and welcoming. Expressing speech at work that is racist, sexist, homophobic, ableist, or that otherwise maligns an entire group of people based on identity rather than based on behavior hurts the company and project as a whole, by making it harder for some people to contribute. (If you see being queer as a matter of behavior that any individual can give up without fundamentally compromising who they are, and are not willing to trust the lived experience of many queer people when they say it’s no more possible for them to become heterosexual than to become a redwood tree, I suppose I have nothing more to say to you.)
I’m disappointed that some Mozillans objected to other people’s objections to being demeaned in the workplace. I understood their arguments as essentially saying they felt that being asked not to be an asshole was a violation of their rights. I’m disappointed that some of my colleagues would respond to a request to stop hurting people by asserting that they have the right to hurt people.
I’m also disappointed that Mozilla leaders entertained the “free speech” argument. The majority must not determine minority rights — that never ends well for minorities, and in fact, it doesn’t end well for the entire group, because the community needs minority members’ contributions. That’s why it’s so important for leaders to take a stance in favor of inclusion. I didn’t see the leaders do that — instead, I saw them fumble about whether it was more important to them to include everyone who’s capable of contributing to the project respectfully, or to protect the freedoms of the minority that claims it’s their right to abuse others. Mozilla can retain its commitment to the free exchange of ideas while also declining to be a forum for ideas that attack people in vulnerable groups. This decision would violate no one’s freedom of speech, as everyone is free to say anything that’s legal in their home country when they are not at work or using their employer’s computing and networking resources. The fundamental flaw in the “free speech” argument is the supposition that freedom of speech means freedom from having to face the consequences of one’s speech. It does not.
Leaders have to make a choice about who to exclude. Including everyone is not an option: every community excludes people who harm the community and do not respond to requests to stop doing so. The question, then, is who in the community merits protection from harm. I think the answer to that question should be “everyone”, not just the people who conform most closely to social norms about gender and sexuality.
We can exclude people based on who they are, or we can exclude people based on what they do. I prefer a community built on norms for healthy behavior, one that has a mechanism — to be used as a last resort — for excluding people who repeatedly violate those norms. I think such a a community is better and safer for me to work productively in than one that is built on a hierarchy in which a smaller sub-group rules, and excludes others capriciously, for no reason other than being different. If your response is that a community like Mozilla doesn’t need the contributions of people in minority groups, I guess there’s no way I can persuade you otherwise, but I would wonder why you think we can afford to turn people away for reasons unrelated to their technical and collaborative ability. I think that protecting the open Web is a job that requires the help of everyone who’s willing to commit to it.
I think we can do better, and moving forward, I hope that we do better. I hope that the community participation guidelines serve to make Mozilla a more inclusive community and that in the future, dialogue will be less about people defending their privileges and more about people listening to the experiences of those who are unlike themselves. Ultimately, even though I know some of the intellectual reasons why, I still don’t get why we can’t build great open-source software and protect the Web while also setting standards for ourselves about how we treat each other while we’re doing it.
I thank Gwen Cadogàn, Ellie Collier, Jessamyn Fairfield, Graydon Hoare, Carolyn Hogg, Christie Koehler, Lindsey Kuper, Sheree Schrager and Alley Stoughton for reading drafts of this essay and providing useful feedback. Several other people also gave valuable feedback who did not grant permission for me to thank them by name; my gratitude to them is no less. I also thank Juli Mallett for originally drawing my attention to “Letter from a Birmingham Jail”. Inclusion on this list does not necessarily imply agreement with or endorsement of any point of view in this set of essays. All of the opinions contained in it are solely my own.