Saturday, 12 April 2014

Dissent Unheard Of


A Recipe for Effective Silencing

Let’s talk about four techniques used by dominant groups to police people that speak out about inequalities or report abuse, harassment and other misconduct.

The Threat of Being Labeled “Difficult”

The threat of being labeled “difficult” is deterrent enough for most people, but even more so for the marginalized. Decades of steeped gendered and racial stereotyping in the sciences has stolen credibility from women and people of color. Directing focus onto the credibility of marginalized people and away from their valid complaints is made easier when framing non-white and non-male people as being too emotional, too hostile, uninterested, not smart enough, or being better suited to instead pursue gendered or racially stereotyped work.

This allows the privileged the ability to dismiss their own involvement in the problem through statements like, “it’s not that we’re racist, it’s just that children of color aren’t interested in tech.” Mix that with the existing societal stereotypes directed at women, people of color, and LGBTQ people as being “hysterical,” histrionic, melodramatic, overemotional, and argumentative, and they fear how they’ll be viewed if they do speak up. The ingrained beliefs in both meritocracy and that one’s superior rationality can overcome socially ingrained biases make it much easier to casually police detractors who threaten the industry’s utopian ideals.

The People Who Successfully Speak Up Are Punished

When people betray the expected social conventions and succeed in breaking through policing attempts - reporting or publicly speaking out - it becomes more socially acceptable to punish them. The people who speak up are frequently painted as difficult, overdramatic, or fringe. Those that choose to report instances of sexual assault, the use of racial slurs, and workplace intimidation privately often find that they’re forced to provide impossible amounts of evidence or fight back against emotional manipulation. It’s not uncommon for reporters to be met with dismissals or guilt framed in a way to put the burden on the victim. “You’ll get them fired, damage their name, and maybe ruin their career. You’re making a big deal out of nothing. It was a joke.”

While speaking out publicly instead of privately reporting increases the likelihood that something will be done and that you’ll have some supporters, this generally results in much greater backlash. In tech, where harassment and discrimination are normalized into invisibility, it’s seen as a reasonable reaction to attack anyone speaking up against the system. It’s not uncommon to face worse and longer lasting harassment after reporting publicly.

Policing on this scale is sadly very effective: many have chosen to leave the industry entirely rather than suffer through the abuse.

The Aggressor Plays The Hapless Victim

Those that successfully stand up to harmful behavior have the opportunity to shape or establish rules, set their own boundaries, and put people on notice when they are violated.

This comes as a shock at the challenge to those in power, and makes them amplify their shows of dominance. Harassment and threats to intentionally create unsafe or non-inclusive spaces increase. People in positions of power frame themselves as victims of an angry, unreasonable mob. They often state that they would rather quit their positions as conference organizers, open source project maintainers, or startup founders than adjust their behavior or policies. They may intentionally gaslight their victims and supporters in an effort to perpetuate this perception, often employing commonly believed stereotypes. This allows the flipping of their position from aggressor to hapless victim, which isn’t uncommon amongst those in positions of power.

Bystanders learn what happens to those who speak up

All of these lessons are powerful enough that they can be learned second hand. You don’t have to be the direct target of abuse campaigns to realize that defending yourself is often more dangerous than not. Last year, in the wake of multiple women reporting the harassment and sexual assault they experienced at conferences and other community events - some from very prominent members of the industry - I received a dramatic increase in the number of people who privately reported to me. The public conversation had spurred them to want to tell their story, but the overwhelming backlash against them served as an intimidating warning.

Watching this happen, time after time, has a chilling effect on bystanders within the same underprivileged group, as well. Many would-be allies choose to silently distance themselves in an effort to buffer themselves from the fallout. Sometimes, members of marginalized groups elect to go after the route offering the most individual political advantage: condemning the person for speaking up to preserve their non-threatening image, which offers them a guest membership into the club of the privileged.

Commiserating Isn’t Enough

In a space where people feel forced to carefully choose their battles and are afraid of the ramifications of either reporting or speaking up, poor conduct goes vastly under-reported.

How many times does a person abuse another person before they are reported?

How much do victims put up with until they reach their breaking point and either report or leave?

Disturbingly, this is an additional weapon used against the underprivileged - the dismissal of the widespread nature of harassment for lack of statistical proof or recorded incidents. Its far-reaching effects - including an epidemic of attrition - can then also be ignored.

Without people consciously examining the motivations for standing in the way of real progress, this will continue to be an issue. I’ve read studies and books and talked to people, attempting to figure out what causes that “aha!” moment with people - that click that has them starting to see things from different perspectives. It turns out its not as simple as saying to them, "think hard about why you are pushing against this. What exactly are you going to lose?". Ultimately, these defenses have been taught by the culture, regurgitated without much thought over and over. The problem is that these individuals aren’t engaging in the critical debate that makes them dig deep and actually consider the problem set.

Harder still, many people dismiss these conversations outright as something that is non-productive and outside their job description. They may say things like “while you’re complaining, I’ll be over here programming.” For this group of people, it takes someone close to them that they already empathize with to raise their concerns.

If marginalized people continue to be the only voices that are calling out this behavior - especially in professionally dangerous situations - they’ll continue to be punished for it. It is not enough for allies to simply commiserate; they need to recognize that their positions of privilege lend credibility to the valid criticism and they have far less to risk in standing up.

Read Full Article: Dissent Unheard Of

Author / Source:  Ashe Dryden at Model View Culture