[I am aware that this is a very complicated subject to discuss and I expected to be asked a lot of questions. For this reason I have written down a pretty long list of disclaimers, which I decided to display at the bottom of the post in order to be able to start with the “real” content here. I’d be thankful if you would read the disclaimers before responding.]
I have wanted to write this post for a while. To be precise, I started considering it after I had a very interesting conversation with a friend at a journalism conference in June 2017. CryptoParty Berlin had just published its brand new Code of Conduct (CoC) and we had a lot of concerns about it. Around the same time, I was pressured into using this CoC at an event I organized. I was not sure how to deal with it.
Over the last months I had a lot of thoughts and conversations about this issue. I don’t believe a CoC is the right solution to help people feel safe at events or in communities. This feeling grew stronger in the last months when I had – once more – to deal with someone that I believe I can call a harasser.
To be clear: I strongly believe that our tech communities can get better at making people feel safe. I believe it is urgent to work on solutions to achieve that goal. But I feel like we can do better than a CoC. We need to do better than a CoC because a CoC is a band aid on a larger problem and it won’t help in the long term.
I decided to write this before 34c3. Quickly after I took this decision Wauland was attacked on twitter for their assembly description where they rejected the idea of CoC (see disclaimers) and I decided to wait and post this after 34c3 in order to avoid participating in an escalation that would make it really hard for CCC to run a peaceful event. Unfortunately things escalated anyway and it feels pretty weird to write and publish this now.
I was hoping that I could avoid making this about 34c3. However in the current context I feel like there is no way around it. I guess that at this point the best I can hope for is that this post will help us move forward with this particular debate as well as the general debate.
The opinions and examples listed below are only a few of the examples I can think of to explain how I feel like CoC are deeply unsatisfying solutions to help people feel safe at events and in communities.
In general, one of the strongest feelings I have when I read a CoC is that it is a kind of checklist of what a community needs to show to the public about themselves in order to be seen as “good people”. Most of the basic points in CoC don’t seem to be considered thoughtfully, but rather seem to be listed as they represent the basic content of a CoC in which people get to show that their communities applies positive standards of fighting racism, sexism, ableism, etc. – almost as if it was impossible for a community to apply such standards without listing them in a CoC.
For example, accessibility is essential (this is something I truly believe in), and most CoC mention this topic. Unfortunately, in many cases it is merely one more point that needs to be added to a checklist that is about “doing the right thing”, without thinking about the implications of such a statement.
Attending a CryptoParty should not require more physical ability than navigating your city does.
That means that the venue and general organization of the event should allow for people in wheelchairs and/or with impaired eye-sight or hearing to participate in it, and use the bathrooms and other facilities of the building.
The CryptoParty CoC is a great example of that. For example, they explicitly mention people with impaired eye-sight. The logical questions to ask in this case are “Can you train people with impaired eye-sight? Do you know anything about using crypto tools in braille or with screen readers?”
Of course, when I asked such questions to people involved in writing this CoC, the answer was no. The result is that a person with impaired eye-sight is welcome to sit at a CryptoParty and not get any useful training. Come over, join us in our wonderfully accessible space and sit in a corner!
Such elements in CoC are not only useless, but also deceptive – they give the impression that people with special needs will see these needs addressed. The sad reality is: That line that made you feel like you’d get something out of the event was nothing else than an useless talking point copied of some checklist that made the organizers of the event feel like they are doing the right thing.
A friend of mine works for a small organization that relies on funding. In order to get grants they were applying for, they had to provide a link to their CoC. As they didn’t have one at the time, they did their best at putting a CoC in place, along with a committee that makes sure that the said CoC is respected – which is obviously an essential part of having a CoC.
While I trust that people at this organization will truly do their best to stick to what their CoC says, she admitted herself, being a member of the committee (the organization is so small that there wasn’t much choice when it came to choosing who would be on the committee), that she doesn’t see herself as a competent person to deal with such a task in an appropriate manner.
Her reasoning was: If someone comes to me, traumatized by harassment, sexual assault or anything similar, what makes me particularly competent to help this person? As a person who is named as one of the people who would deal with such cases, my duty is to be able to help people in very serious situations. I don’t feel like I am qualified for this.
Some problems require qualified people. If having a CoC is in itself something to check off a list in order to get funding, use a space, etc., CoC will be written in order to have a CoC, and not because people want to have one. As a result, people who do not feel competent will have to deal with cases they are not qualified to deal with. Again, where is the benefit from enforcing CoC in such cases? How will that help?
CryptoParty lists being “intimidating” as something that is unacceptable in their CoC. This is where a CoC can get truly absurd. What does “intimidating” mean? I’ve been told I am intimidating. I am intimidated by people who would never guess that someone thinks that they are. Some people are intimidated by people that belong to the opposite gender – and that works in all directions. Some are intimidated by people who, for reasons that are their own, remind them of their mother, father, ex, a teacher, someone who abused them, etc.
“Intimidating” is one of these extremely vague terms that are defined differently by each person, terms that, when used in a CoC, become an absurd tool that can be used achieve everything and nothing. Everything, because the term is so vague that it can potentially be used to paint anyone as a wrongdoer – this is even more dangerous in a society where I feel like the idea that a person might be innocent is rarely accepted as an option. And nothing, because such terms are too vague to actually help anyone be more safe.
I’d like to come back to a personal experience of mine – it is the experience that triggered my need to write this post. There’s a person, in a community I have been involved with for a long time, that has been acting in a very creepy way around me, and showed behavior that I would call mild stalking. They have been doing it on and off for 2 years, and as a self-proclaimed “SJW”, are very much aware of the concept of CoC, which they support loudly.
I believe that this person honestly cares about feminism and CoC, but that they are unable to be aware of how their own actions are going to far and come over as threatening. They do respect every aspect of a CoC, but refuse to be qualified with those “vague terms” as it is possible to interpret them in so many ways and are, of course, impossible to prove.
How is a CoC helping me here, when CoC offer so many gray zones to play with, when the line between insecurity and harassment is so thin that it is almost impossible to distinguish one from another?
While such things as clear physical or psychological abuse happen, I believe that most issues in our communities don’t come from so-called “predators”, which is a picture that is used a lot by people who want to justify the need for a CoC. Most problems that I have been confronted with myself and when helping other people are not about predators. They are about insecure people who cross boundaries, either because are unaware of the fact that their actions cross boundaries, or because they trick themselves in thinking that what they are doing is ok, while being aware of boundaries – this is the case in my story, for example. These people are not predators as such, but people who need help and education.
Learning from experiences
A few years ago, CryptoParty experienced problems related to flirting with someone who attended a CryptoParty. While respectful flirting can be very unproblematic, in this particular case it was a rather large issue that caused a lot of trouble inside of a local CryptoParty group. As a result, when CryptoParty wrote their CoC years later, they added a paragraph about this topic in it:
Don’t Hit On The Students!
First of all, something that is bad in one case doesn’t need to be bad in every situation. While a lot of things can be said about flirting in the context of a student/teacher relationship (which is not the main topic of this text, so I’ll pass on this discussion here), I am not sure that making a dogma out of everything that went wrong once is the right thing to do to keep our communities from becoming sterile places where all freedoms are removed in order to avoid any possible mistake.
But also (and this is my main issue with such points) CoC are a reaction to things that went bad, and an attempt to fix these issues. While some issues pictured in a CoC represent recurring problems that most people are aware of (like physical abuse, for example), other are a list of things that happened in the past, and will not prevent different issues from coming up in the future. Most problems in communities are unique, even if they can present similarities. CoC are mostly one step behind the actual problems that appear in communities, and therefore are useless in most cases.
Recent debates about enforcing CoC at European events and in European communities have been started by a rather small group of people. Interestingly, many people I have talked to have expressed the opinion that this situation smacks of imperialism – and I believe this is a true issue.
To simplify, in this case, I would define imperialism as: Assuming that your culture is superior and that therefore everyone needs to adopt it. Imperialism comes with self-righteousness and therefore people who show imperialist behavior will use all methods available to them and not give up: It’s a war and you fight it until you win. Whoever resists has to fight off their attempts all the time. There is no open space for a discussion about other options – it is as if there was only one solution, and this solution was proven right, to all community and minority-related problems.
Of course, once a single solution is presented as the ultimate solution, and when there is no other solution on the table, everyone who doesn’t adopt that one solution is socially pressured into adopting it. The idea that refusing to have a CoC means that people don’t care about creating safe environments for everyone is wrong.
This is exactly what is happening here. People are trying to force organizations like CCC, or events I am involved with, at a smaller scale (I cannot talk for other events I don’t know anything about), to adopt a CoC because they feel like it works for them, and therefore everyone should adopt a CoC regardless of the own culture of each community. Enforcing a CoC is a deeply wrong approach when it comes to solve a problem that can be defined and solved in various ways across cultures.
Even worse: It is extremely hard to start a debate about such a topic when so many people who want to help are scared to express their opinion – when I told a very diverse crowd of people about my intention to write this post, most answers I got were about expressing fear of publicly stating the ideas I am writing about here, or similar ideas.
For all reasons listed above I refuse to believe that a CoC if the best solution we have to solve those problems. I want to believe we can do better, that we can protect people who need protection in more efficient ways. It is extremely hard to gather people to build great things when a community is put under constant pressure to adopt a model to change things without considering all possible options. I do not believe this will stop any time soon, but I believe that being aware of these dynamics can help us think clearly about what we want to do.
I would like, before I end this text, to express an opinion that seems to be pretty unpopular in some circles: I’d like to thank CCC for their efforts when it comes to making me feel safe at their events. Don’t get me wrong, I am not saying that CCC’s approach is perfect, and I think lots of things can be made better in terms of making sure people who attend CCC feel safe. However I believe it is deeply dishonest to pretend that CCC doesn’t care, doesn’t put efforts in such issues, or even worse, “hates women”. With the awareness team and a text that can be read as a form of CoC, they have built bases on which we can build solid structures to make as many people as possible feel safe. Claiming the opposite is extremely unfair, even more when we do not know the details about specific events – or only one version of them. Also, I would like to thank those who put the signs stating our rights in the bathrooms at CCC – I feel like this example is much more useful and positive than a typical CoC.
There is no safe space…
…And I don’t believe that a CoC will change that. Worse, a CoC gives some people the feeling that community issues have been solved and makes them stop seeing needs for improvement.
Having a document you don’t truly believe in on your website because people expect you to will not make your community or space safe. Having a checklist that shows that you care about topics people expect you to care about will not make your community or space safe. Establishing a list of things that make some people feel uncomfortable about, mostly in vague terms because you can’t even really define these things, and because they are different for everyone, will not make your community or space safe. Pretending that a list will change things will not make your community or space safe. Enforcing a solution when better ones could be built will not make your community or space safe. More than believing in the utopia of a safe space, I hope that we can come up with solutions to help everyone deal with problems, and support all people in need of help.
We are all triggered by different things. A CoC cannot list and even less predict everyone’s weak spots, trigger words, gestures and situations, or everyone’s very own fears. While I am thankful for everyone’s attempt to protect people from bad or horrible experiences (and that includes me, as a woman in tech), a CoC can’t be the best solution we come up with. If a CoC works for you, that’s fine and I respect it – please respect that it doesn’t work in all cases, and let us build better solutions that will actually help as many people as possible feel safe in our communities.
This is not a rant – it is a call for action: Let’s gather, let’s build the structures we need to make all people feel safe and respected in our communities.
Want to talk?
I hope we can all agree that Twitter is not the best place to have this discussion. For now I have set up an email to gather ideas, experiences, etc. I hope to be able to gather a group of people who want to work on these issues and set up communication channels or physical meetings to build a future where we actually help people feel safe. Drop me an email – let’s discuss how we want to move forward! [Note: e-mail not active anymore, please check my contact page.]
- For context: I am a queer woman. Before joining the tech community I have been active professionally and personally in queer feminist communities.
- I find it sad that I feel like I have to say something like that, but I as expect the question: Yes, I have been a victim of harassment and sexual assault, as well as psychological and physical violence – although I hate using the term “victim”. I will therefore not accept any of the “you don’t know what you are talking about” discourse. And I hope that we will soon be at a point where people don’t have to put their traumatic experiences on display in order to be heard.
- Although I have used the CryptoParty CoC a lot as an example, please don’t forget that it is no more than an example among a lot of similar CoC. This text is not intended as an attack against CryptoParty – while I believe that their CoC is particularly bad they are just following other organizations and communities that make similar mistakes.
- None of the experiences I describe here are closely or remotely related to @ioerror or the Tor Project. I want to improve the general situation, let’s not get stuck in this particular discussion. Not everything I say has to be put in the context of this one thing that happened.
- As some of you know I have been freelancing for the Wau Holland Foundation. I was not involved in any way with their assembly at 34c3 and I do not endorse their first assembly description. As I have told them directly I wish they would have published their second description in the first place, as it makes their goal much clearer. I am happy to see that this incident led to discussions between different parties and hope this effort will not be abandoned after 34c3.
- My hope is to be able to discuss this topic with a broad set of people in order to move forward in the direction of peace. However, if you have been involved in making insulting comments about me of my close friends online or offline I will probably have a hard time talking to you directly. If this is the case, please be patient with me – I have been hurt and I am working on getting over these feelings. Give me some time and please, don’t refrain from engaging in a dialogue with the community.
- I have decided to not name any people or spaces the stories I describe are related to. If you know who I am talking about, please don’t publish their name or any information that would help finding out who they are.
- Although I don’t believe CoC are a good solution to help fix problems I have and will always do my best to respect existing CoC of workplaces, events or other groups I am involved with and I am thankful for your attempt to make our places and communities safer.
- If you have experienced harassing, assault or anything similar and this post triggers you, I am sorry. This is not my intention.