Twitter’s tech hives were abuzz once again with the telltale sound of moral indignation. For many it’s just too tempting to pile on, but here at the ol’ 451 we prefer to put our money where our mouth is instead, and help re-platform those who are the subject of a vindictive scorched earth policy.
Besides, dear reader, if all that drama still elicits more than mild disinterest from you at this point, you haven’t been paying attention. All of this has happened before, and for the foreseeable future, it will happen again. The vast majority knows this and prefers to stay out.
Nevertheless, even an incurable cynic like myself has to acknowledge when there are actual new developments in the escalation of outrage. From simple demands for “diversity,” to degrading “harassment,” to now dangerous “violence,” the social justice brigade has shown that nothing is ever enough. Lucky for them, few people of import have ever bothered to follow up on their hyperbolic claims.
All of this means that the double standards have been happily piling up into a rather delectable crescendo of cosmic irony. This time the problem was that a diversity-expert-approved double-blind-with-cherry-on-top anonymized speaker selection process resulted in a conference speaker of such unorthodox views — in their spare time mind you — that the resulting diversity was simply too much for polite and virtuous techies to stomach.
How did we get from there to here? “It’s not my job to educate you,” no, it’s my privilege.
Let’s begin by not flinching and taking a look at Geek Feminism Wiki’s own Timeline of Incidents. This brief, incomplete and mostly wrong History of Sexism in Geek Communities opens rather shamelessly.
It starts with a bullet point informing us that Walter Breen, a fan at a fantasy convention in 1963, was excluded after he was “judged (correctly) to pose a threat to children.” Exactly what this has to do with sexism is left to the imagination, but the implied connection between men and pedophilia is presumably considered obvious. Upon clicking the link, you will discover at the very end, as little more than a footnote, that his wife, fantasy author Marion Zimmer Bradley, “abused her own children.” Even more clicking will finally lead you to a real source, where you can discover the actual unvarnished truth, as recounted by her own daughter:
“Walter was a serial rapist with many, many, many victims (I named 22 to the cops) but Marion was far, far worse. She was cruel and violent, as well as completely out of her mind sexually. I am not her only victim, nor were her only victims girls.”
Right away you can discover the tell-tale signs of the propagandist, with a heavy dose of double standards. These are the same third wave feminists who routinely complain that accomplished women are still made to live in the shadow of their less-notable husbands. Yet they hold up the abuse of children by a male fan as the first notable example of sexism among geeks, while burying and downplaying the more abhorrent abuses perpetrated by his wife, an actual published author in the community.
Balance or objectivity is nowhere to be found and it’s not a particularly unique instance.
The second listed incident is that of Lena Söderberg, Playboy’s Miss November 1972. She became the unofficial First Lady of the Internet when a cropped scan of her centerfold (left) became a common test image in image processing research, at a time when digital imagery was scarce. By her own accounts, Ms. Söderberg is very happy with this and spoke at a notable imaging science conference as a guest of honor in 1997. She never expressed regret at taking part in the original photo shoot. The image remains in use in part because it’s simply a good test image.
Once again there’s a double standard: feminists who abhor “slut shaming,” who champion a woman’s freedom to do with her body as she pleases, hold up an erotic model as an example of sexism when her image is used tastefully in their scientific pursuits.
Next up is Custer’s Revenge, a laughable 8-bit pixelated “rape simulation game” from 1982 on the Atari 2600. The threat can be dispelled quickly with one screenshot:
Then there’s a reference to an old Usenet flamewar, casually followed by a link to the Montréal École Polytechnique massacre by Marc Lépine in 1989, a psychopath who killed 14 women. We enter the 90s with A Rape in Cyberspace, a longwinded tale of “virtual rape” in a text-based online dungeon crawler.
So let’s recap. The honest reader is taken on a whirlwind tour that, in just the first few bullet points, casually mixes genuine-but-misrepresented child abuse and brutal-but-isolated massacre with harmless cultural and personal spats on the burgeoning internet. With some Playboy skin on the side. If this doesn’t set off your objectivity alarms, I have a bridge to sell you.
The rest of the wiki isn’t much better. Anyone who uses it as a guideline for the reality on the ground will come out of it sorely misinformed.
For example, if you wish to read about the notorious “Gittip crisis” of 2014, Geek Feminism Wiki’s page is the top Google result. It states plainly that a commenter on HackerNews considered the crowdfunding service “‘a joke dominated by professional victims’ because women use it,” the final insult in a long build-up of gender-targeted harassment that made female users of the site feel unsafe. Sexism! Except the comment in question makes no reference to women and instead criticizes behavior: “demonizing men” while claiming to “promote empathy and equality,” and “soliciting funds for personal lawsuits” under the guise of “sustainable crowdfunding.”
Nevertheless, when Gittip founder Chad Whitacre replied to it, it was taken as proof of the company’s misogyny in a giant game of telephone and used to browbeat them into submission by tech feminism’s enfant terrible herself, Shanley Kane. They eventually changed their name to Gratipay, presumably to escape their ruined reputation.
This history-written-by-the-victors is how feminists broach the topic of “Geek Feminism” and expect to get taken seriously. Not surprisingly, they routinely get away with it, because the fear of being labelled a sexist, racist or pedophile without recourse, indexed by Google in perpetuity, is enough to deter all but the most determined counter-activists.
What the timeline really shows, once you put on the They Live sunglasses, is that the wiki-feminists have built up an intimidating track record in and around the tech community. Armed with the weapon of public shame, they’ve been immensely successful, in particular targeting conferences as points of pressure.
Conferences are innately vulnerable events: organizers pool together a large budget from sponsors, must pay for a venue and catering, cover travel and accommodation for speakers, produce promotional materials and swag, and so on. Whether a large or small event, it’s a very daunting prospect to have to foot the bill due to lack of attendance, or worse, a sponsorship pull-out, especially for enthusiast organizers.
So when a British Ruby conference was shamed on Twitter in 2012 for having an all-white-male line-up, it took less than a week for the event to be cancelled altogether. The reason cited was explicitly financial:
“…these discussions became more than one person’s opinion and more a global debate, which increased our financial and legal risk margins beyond an acceptable level, thus becoming the fundamental reason as to why I chose to cancel the conference.”
The white male line up happened despite sincere intentions to recruit a diverse roster:
“Gender equality and racial equality are important. But the team’s motives were to get the best speakers who were able to make it to Manchester. Turns out, a lot of the prominent Rubyists are white guys and all of the ones who said they’d like to come were, indeed, white guys.”
The lesson was obvious and sent a strong signal to other organizers: your intentions don’t matter and apologies are insufficient. Either you ensure the presence of visible minority speakers, regardless of industry demographics, or suffer the consequences. Many events adopted an anonymized speaker selection process as a result and explicitly went out of their way to seek more female and minority representation.
This targeting wasn’t just limited to the events. Individual speakers became subject to scrutiny too and the motivations weren’t always so clear cut. As was the case with Violetblue at the Security BSides conference, also in 2012.
Even though it features a female speaker, the subject of the talk was deemed controversial: sex +/- drugs, vulnerabilities and exploits. The talk was cancelled based on the concerns of an Ada Initiative representative, fearing it would trigger rape survivors in the audience. This wasn’t just a difference of opinion from a concerned attendee, because as the organizer recounted:
“They told me they’ll make it into a bigger problem if you do your talk.”
The Ada Initiative was a female advocacy group that, for years, has proclaimed to fight harassment at conferences, mainly by encouraging conferences to adopt an anti-harassment policy. They boasted their actions “made conferences safer for everyone,” an assumption they never bothered to measure or verify, and which is easily refuted by examining its effects.
The language of this policy is dubious at best, lumping in every possible offense together as harassment, and offering no method of appeal for the accused. This is, unsurprisingly, supported by linking to the timeline of incidents on the Geek Feminism wiki.
This came to a head most famously in the tech community’s own GateGate, when developer relationship evangelist Adria Richards shamed a developer sitting behind her. He’d made a dongle joke to the fellow next to him, which she’d misunderstood, so she irrevocably posted his picture to Twitter. She justified it by citing the same Code of Conduct she’d just ignored, and compared herself to Joan of Arc while the press sang her praises.
Years later, Richards continues to ride the diversity train as an expert, banking her notoriety for all it’s worth and playing her Woman of Color identity card. The nameless shamed developer who lost his job over a misunderstanding was tossed into the Oubliette of White Male Privilege, little more than a warm body for her to step over into the limelight.
Looking back, the nature and origin of the echo chamber becomes ever more obvious, as do the motivations for perpetuating it. The Ada Initiative didn’t just get to wield power over hundreds of conferences based on manufactured drama or incidents blown out of proportion, they did so with sponsorship money from the same tech companies they were threatening, accusing them of harboring the mythical brogrammers. Kane and Richards weren’t unwitting victims, they were attention seekers whose every action magnified their perceived victimhood, increasing the flow of opportunity in a sector they had nothing to contribute to.
With the example set, similar groups and consultants popped up elsewhere, all vying for a piece of the lucrative tech pie. The same names tend to reoccur, as do the double standards and drama. Shanley Kane, now “CEO” of intersectional tech publication Model View Culture, wrote her own co-founder out of the site’s history and tried to incite a witch hunt on Linus Torvalds himself. The Ada Initiative’s Valerie Aurora in turn helped found Double Union, a “welcoming” feminist hackerspace open only to women. Donate pls, it’s about equality.
As Meredith called it, it’s little more than a protection racket, roping in the gullible and well-meaning, exploiting their sense of decency for the personal gain and fame of the few.
Yet “harassment” was not the final stage in the lifecycle of this demented butterfly. Without significant pushback, emboldened by the media and supported by the increasingly soft-padded climate of Western Academia, the hyperbole simply continued, while the white, male and hetero guilt was piled on. Even that wasn’t enough.
If words are “harassment” regardless of intent, it doesn’t take long for words to become “violence” itself. The trigger warning, once seen as a necessary shield against harmful ideas, is no longer sufficient. Merely becoming aware of a counter-opinion becomes unacceptable. Some react to it as if it was inflicted upon them in pure malice, as a warning of worse things to come.
This is where the double standards once again rear their heads. Once the so-called perps are labelled as bigots, harassers and thugs, it provides an easy rationalization: do unto others as they have done to you, even if your perception of what they’ve done is wildly off base. For you are Right and Just, and they are the Out-Group.
We’ve seen it in the non-stop demonization of internet culture by the press, who can blast a message to an audience of hundreds of thousands easily, yet cry foul when this power is questioned or reflected back. We see it in the incessant refusal to stop taking the personal slights of attention seekers seriously, while ignoring their fraudulent moneymaking schemes or mob-riling of their own. We’ve also seen it in the way people react to the lossy nature of online debate, wishing to engage in the public sphere while wanting protection from the messy consequences thereof. With an entire corpus of cherry picked stats and misrepresented incidents to draw from, the meme of victimhood has become self-propagating. It offers great rewards to those who wield it, while convincing them they are only acting in self-defense. Everything has become political, or so they claim.
The same people who gleefully mobbed and shamed when they stood to benefit suddenly found those tactics abhorrent when they became the subject of it. The same celebrities who paid endless lip service to the cause of equality found themselves excommunicated regardless, as ever more radical stances became necessary to remain in favor. The latest: gay men aren’t really in need of representation, they are not oppressed, haven’t you heard?
It’s a game where the only winning move is not to play. The spiral of radicalization continues, fueled by outrage and ever more bite-size misinformation. In the Kingdom of the Blind, the One-Eyed Man is King, especially when you poke everyone else’s eyes out.