There are people in tech fighting every day for the right to have access to the tech industry. They mentor people who want to start speaking. They connect marginalized people with others in the industry who can help secure them jobs or other opportunities. They work to change policy to provide access for more people and to ensure stiffer penalties to those who remove opportunity for their own gain. They work with conferences to increase diversity on stage and in seats. They teach kids as well as give adults a second career. They talk to companies about how they can change their processes and culture to grow and be more inclusive. They talk one on one with people in the community about how to change their language and to empathize with people who have different experiences than they do. They act as role models, teachers, important network connections, sounding boards, confidants, and defenders.
And then you have people who minimize the work that marginalized people do in the industry. They credit "luck" with their success if they aren't crediting having sex with an influential person for it. They take credit for their work. They push back against every battle that is won for equality, opportunity, and safety.
And on top of that, the people they thought they could trust abandon them at the earliest sight of trouble.
Not being given equal opportunity. Not being paid equally. Not being taken seriously as professionals. Not being respected as human beings. Being abused and blamed for the abuse they endure by daring to occupy a space.
All of these things are connected.
When we don't respect someone as an individual or a professional, we can easily go from devaluing someone's work to devaluing them as a person. It allows us to continue to hero worship people who do terrible things to the least able to defend themselves amongst us.
And we let it happen.
Every time someone is physically or sexually assaulted in our spaces and they dare to stand up for themselves, they are told to prove it. Their experiences only become valid when someone within our trusted circles witnesses it. We stand by the abusers instead of by the abused.
Every time someone is dismissed with a racial slur and decides they can't take it one more time and speak out, they are called troublemakers, complainers, and lazy. We tell them they are only in our spaces to "meet quotas" and "be PC".
Every time any marginalized person speaks up about something that affects them and are rightfully angry, we police their words instead of our communities where these problems fester.
We say nothing and are enabling it to happen over and over again. We're telling bystanders that this behavior is acceptable. We tell them that there are no consequences for their actions. We tell them that their right to abuse or oppress someone else takes precedence over someone else's right to purely exist in our spaces.
Don't think we don't notice you looking the other way. We know what you're saying when you say nothing.
Trigger warning for abusive language, harassment, rape threats, violent and graphic imagery.
Today a petition was started to include a "report abuse" button on twitter after a woman received a deluge of rape threats. This topic in general - how we report harassment and abuse in online mediums - is something that I and a number of friends have talked about at length. As someone who has personally received death and rape threats as well as hate speech, harassing comments and emails, and other personal attacks, it's something I think about a lot.
What we do know is that currently the model is broken. It's widely known that abusive, harassing, and threatening behavior happens online. There have been tech conference talks about this, TED talks, articles, blog posts, and so many publicly documented incidents that it's hard to ignore.
With a wider range of people getting on the internet every day, we know that online harassment is on the rise. People have left industries or the internet at a whole. More people have been forced into having "protected" or hidden accounts or using a pseudonym (which many social networks are punishing people for) to, in essence, hide from harassment. Women use genderless or historically-male gendered pseudonyms and avatars to move more safely in online spaces.
It's caused school-aged children as well as adults to commit suicide.
Reporting Abuse Now
Since this conversation was started based on harassment on twitter, let's use them as an example.
On twitter, the only person that can report abuse is the person receiving abuse which is highly problematic. If we take a recent incident as an example: this past March a woman received hundreds of death and rape threats as well as tweets with abusive and harassing language. To avoid having to see that, she shut off her phone and computer and tried as best as possible to avoid seeing them.
In the meantime, the worst amongst these tweets was sent: she was doxxed, a graphic image of her photoshopped to show her bound, gagged, and beheaded. Language threatening and inciting rape, physical and sexual abuse, and murder were included. A number of her friends saw this and took to back channels, trying to find someone who had a connection to a person at Twitter to get it removed as quickly as possible. We contacted friends at twitter who empathized, but told us that, unfortunately, that only the person receiving abuse could report it. This meant that she would have to be exposed to this vile stuff to have it removed.
While this is shocking to a lot of people, this isn't an uncommon situation. I know very few vocal women, people of color, LGBTQ people, or people with disabilities who haven't received rape and death threats, harassing or violent language hurled at them, or worse. When it comes to reporting these things, it can take hours if not longer to get any real kind of response. Sometimes you receive no response or they give you a non-solution.
Twitter, for instance, tells people to just block the offending person or to make your account protected. The former is a non-solution: this person is still able to include your handle in tweets, they can still incite abuse and violence from their followers. The latter puts the punishment on the victim, cutting them off from a larger social experience against their will purely to protect themselves from abuse.
Many, myself included, have stopped reporting all together because so little, if anything, is done that it's more trouble and frustration than it's worth.
Reporting Abuse as a Silencing Tactic
Many social networks have the ability to report abuse somehow. Generally this is a form buried somewhere. You provide "evidence" of abuse and a ticket is created and someone has to read through these all day long. That person is then tasked with making a judgement call of whether or not the incident is abuse.
The issue here is the same issue we have in general society: the people making these rules and judgement calls belong to the same class of people that do the harassing. Since a person within a privileged class doesn't necessarily recognize hate speech as such, it can easily be dismissed.
If Twitter installs a report abuse button, I'd be reported for telling ppl to fuck off for being homophobic, yet homophobes would be fine.
— Alan Hooker (@awhooker) July 27, 2013
Additionally, when a person becomes a very visible target for this kind of behavior and receive an onslaught of attention, what is to keep them from being falsely reported to have their account suspended? This happened under the current system just this past week to a woman speaking out against someone making transphobic/cissexist remarks.
Who determines what is abuse? What about free speech?
This is what most people get worried about. Will something I say be considered abusive? I don't want to lose access to my account!
Violent and abusive behavior is the most obviously wrong to people. Seeing language threatening someone with murder is obvious to most people that it's abuse.
My Indiegogo campaign has been live *2* days. I’ve received 1 death threat, 3 rape threats, various insults about my appearance and worth.
— ashe dryden (@ashedryden) July 25, 2013
But what about hate speech? What about racial slurs or derogatory terms towards groups of people? What about threats to someone's livelihood or professional and social connections? Is that abuse? Do we take the word of the people reporting it or what we have personally or our policies have decided is abuse?
Twitter says "We have found the reported account is currently not in violation of the Twitter Rules at this time" pic.twitter.com/HnJ6gueb3u
— Feminist Frequency (@femfreq) July 28, 2013
On top of that, you can't talk about these issues online without someone (read: tens of people) bringing up the free speech issue. The most common responses include "are you advocating for a reduction in freedom of speech?" and "I don't agree with [rape/death threats], but I will defend their right to say those things!" In the United States, if you walk up to someone and threaten them with bodily harm, you are not protected under the first amendment. What you just did is against the law. Why do we treat this differently on the internet?
Why not go to the police?
Many law enforcement agencies either do not take these types of threats seriously or they simply don't have the resources to act upon them. Additionally, many of the people receiving this treatment don't see justice when these incidents happen in person where threats are assumed to be more likely or imminent, becauses, again, the class of people that are doing the abusing are the same that are supposed to be protecting people from abuse.
Additionally, what happens when the abuser is outside of your police department's jurisdiction? Outside the state? Outside the country? What happens when you can't tell where threats are coming from?
So What is the Solution?
Truthfully, I don't know. Currently the power in the system is so imbalanced that I can honestly say I haven't seen any suggestions brought forward that would even things back out. I think that a stricter set of guidelines for people reviewing abuse is the bare minimum that can be done. And better training on what is abuse especially when it comes to silencing and hate speech is imperative.
Related: The Risk in Speaking Up
The thing that shocks them the most is the fact that I live with wild animals.
I don't mean that I have a pet rabbit that I found along the road and nursed it back to health. I mean wild animals. Ones I didn't invite in. For instance, there's a a family of rats that has burrowed a hole through the insulation in the side of the house and I can hear them hissing and scritching when I try to fall asleep at night. The kitchen is home to a shiny black crow that is happily nesting on top of my refrigerator; I guess it's kinda warm up there and offers the best vantage point. I think the most disconcerting to people, though, is the old raccoon that lives in the one tiny bathroom in my house; I keep the door closed to avoid run-ins with him because he's a bit on the terrifying side.
Most people are pretty surprised by this. I mean, I seem like a pretty average person. Nothing super remarkable about me from the outside. I work most days, run errands, sing Beyonce songs louder than most people around me would like. It's only once people start to hang around me that they realize that there is something a little off about me.
Quite a few of you were surprised to find that I even lived in your neighborhood. Some of you have even remarked that you haven't seen me around before and didn't realize that a person like me would either choose or (even be able) to live there.
I moved into the neighborhood late in the game, so my house cost a good deal more than yours even though ours are similar. Truth be told, you may think I live in the very same house: it's single story and painted white some years ago, as evidenced by the chips that reveal the pale yellow beneath it. It's got a handful of small, drafty windows and one of them overlooks the tiny strip of grass that people in cities wishfully call "front yards". Sometimes in the summer the roof leaks, but all-in-all it's not a terrible place to live.The inside has everything you'd expect from an old house like this: a living room that is awkwardly shaped by modern standards, yellowing linoleum on the floor of a kitchen that is a few decades past renovating, a boring square bedroom painted the expected off-white, and a bathroom that solves all of the problems you require out of a bathroom. Sounds pretty familiar, I'd assume.
It's funny, because people will overhear me casually mention the small forest of animals sharing my house and they'll think one of three things:
1. There is no way you live with wild animals. Oh, I do. I've lived with them for a while actually. Do you wanna come by and see? You should ask my buddy Jason: he took pictures of them the last time he came over to watch Doctor Who.
2. That must be amazing! You're like a real-life Snow White! Do blue birds braid your hair in the morning? Nooot quite. I mean, it sometimes has its inadvertant perks, like the fact that the crow takes care of any bugs that might make it into the kitchen. Considering the fact that anything with more than six legs really creeps me out, that's nice I guess?
3. That is fucking awful, why don't you move or call animal control? How do you live? I tried the whole animal control thing. Two guys just out of college came and removed the rats. They couldn't get anywhere near the raccoon to remove him (I call him Samuel L Jackson because he is a pretty bad ass dude) and the crow hid itself so well that they couldn't find it. After a week the rats were back and angry. Plus I was out $350 and had to replace some of the siding on the house. Unfortunately all of the other houses in the areas I want to live are inhabited (seriously, I am waiting on people to just die at this point so I can hope to move) so there is nowhere to move. I either live here, or I have to move pretty far away and uproot my life. That just isn't an option right now.
And "how do I live"? That's a good question. I think the most amazing thing about my situation is that not too long after moving in, I kind of... got used to it. I learned quickly to not leave food out on the counter or the crow would get it (I lost many a loaf of bread in that war, let me tell you). The rats you can mostly ignore, but it's pretty disconcerting to anyone who I'd invite to spend the night. Imagine trying to explain that one to a potential date. "So, before we, uh, go back to my place I need to tell you a thing. And I promise I'm not a serial killer. Wait, where are you going?"
And the raccoon? I basically dealt with that by quarantining it to the bathroom. Before you ask, I have no idea what it eats in there. I mean, raccoons supposedly eat everything, so I don't even want to speculate (because ew). The bathroom is the smallest room in my house and I use it the least frequently, so for the most part it's easy to ignore. I can avoid the bathroom to a certain degree: using the bathroom at work or in a restaurant before I come home, not drinking as much water once I am home. The only time I have to worry about it is when I shower. Thanks to wikipedia, I learned that raccoons are mostly nocturnal, so I only shower in the morning. The toilet, which he sleeps behind, is on the opposite wall of the shower so I can avoid close contact in general. After a few scary incidents in the shower that we don't need to go into, I decided to always have a very thick bathrobe handy for quick escapes. By this point in time he only bothers me every couple days. The awkward part is maybe what you'd expect; thanks to poor planning or the occassional visit from the period fairy, I may sometimes have to actually use the bathroom.
Like, to pee.
Now, if you've never tried to use a toilet in a small bathroom in the middle of the night when an angry old racoon is hiding somewhere just out of sight, it's probably hard to imagine. And if said raccoon has attacked you in the past and made you run screaming soggy and naked out of the bathroom as if you were in a horror movie, you can imagine the amount of anxiety I have about using this room in my house at all. As I'm also of the variety that has to actually sit on the toilet to use it, this creates some challenges. Let's just say that the entire process entails wearing specialized sports equipment repurposed as raccoon armor (thanks, Goodwill!). It's not pretty and it's certainly not convenient to deal with at 3am when you're woken up by a full bladder and your new bedmate wants to know why you're putting on shin guards.
You probably wouldn't want to be my roomate, but a number of acquaintances have definitely used my house as a fantasy tourist destination just so they have a shocking story to tell their friends. I've been unlucky enough to be around when they are doing a dramatic retelling of some random story I've told them and made it into something particularly dangeresque. I won't lie, I kind of cringe. My life has become some sort of weird oddity that people want all of the gory details on, but at the same time they'd never venture a foot in my house.
Not only that, but the people who are my direct neighbors have actually called the city to try to have my house condemned because they think I enjoy living with potentially rabies-infected animals and are giving the neighborhood a bad name. I've tried to reason with them a number of times. I've told them that there's not anything I can do about it. Trust me, I've tried. I've explained that having me thrown out of the neighborhood would mean that no one would shovel all of the sidewalks they conveniently "forget" to shovel before they go into work in the winter. I remind them that not only would I have nowhere to live, but their property values would decrease if a condemned house sat, slowly rotting on a lot in the center of their neighborhood. And you know, I kind of like living in this neighborhood. I've been here long enough that I don't know where I'd even want to go.
The past few months I've been struggling with how to relate the situation that marginalized people in tech live with every day to people in the dominant majority. I realized that a winding story of Carroll-esque proportions may fit the bill.
My goal has always been to educate and to create empathy; the more people who recognize what is going on, the more people we will have to fight against this problem. The way that many of us go through life every day in this industry is not what we chose, but what we have to deal with and struggle to overcome. They aren't always heinous roadblocks, but they definitely make our lives more difficult in a lot of ways.
For those of you who didn't have to do any literary criticism in high school, here are some Clif's Notes:
- The house symbolizes the belief that we all experience the same victories and struggles. People expect that their experiences are the same as yours and can't imagine anything outside of what they themselves can observe.
- The neighborhood represents the vocal members of the community who would rather not hear about systemic injustice, but worry about how it effects them. This can also include members of the marginalized group they are being vocal against (for instance, a woman can do this to another woman) for generally one of two reasons: 1. they have never personally experienced what a person coming forward has. They may want to believe that this could never happen to them. 2. they are one of the lucky few who have perservered through those experiences and don't want anyone to rock the boat for them. This can be described as a "fuck you, got mine", or being "one of the guys". It's difficult to not empathize with the latter reasoning because it is definitely a coping and survival mechanism.
- The crow represents the people who are a nuisance, but provide some other value in a way that makes them hard to criticize. This can include people who are famous in the community or well-regarded in a company, but are also known for their destructive or dangerous behavior. Speaking out against them usually means others will chime in to remind you of all the "good" they provide you, and that you should be grateful.
- The rats are less vocal people who quietly detract from any progress made. They subtly taint and ruin the atmosphere. These people make up the majority of the negative people in our communities. They only have real power as a large group that are able to infect others with their behavior. You can educate against this and hopefully create some empathetic allies, but this is tenuous. Many relapse (though hopefully not permanently), and if they don't there is someone else to take their place. This creates a lot of frustration.
- The raccoon represents the blatant harassers, especially those that have a high standing in the community. They are tip-toed around and any altercation between yourself and them will result in people reminding you that you knew what you were in for, that this is their nature, the way they've always been, and they won't be changing.
- The entertained, yet horrified onlookers are just that. People who are fascinated by the car crash, but can never themselves imagine being in one. The stories of people being harassed, discriminated against, or worse are just that to them - stories; they don't feel like tangible things that require action. A large portion of these people are journalists or prolific bloggers who are seeking attention through drama.
As a privileged person, can you have wild animals in your house? Certainly, but the chances of such are far less likely. This is the difference between building a house and an animal happening to wander in and a house being built where the walls enclose Bambi's neighborhood. Most marginalized people know that they will have to deal with wild animals and find creative ways to work around them, but many eventually realize they can't deal with living with that kind of stress and move to a place with hopefully fewer creatures.