Why anti-harassment policies fail. Grok Trump’s tweets to learn how to fix them.
tl:dr; Anti-harassment rules/‘code of conducts’ are useless and maybe even harmful. Learn to use effective persuasion to help stop harassment: Change ineffective and negative DON’Ts to positive “DO’s”.
For those who don’t know, anti-harassment rules/speech/code of conducts (I will use these terms interchangeably) are set of rules that are supposed to make people behave at tech conferences or at work. In 2018 grown-ups are publicly told avoid anything that “could be considered inappropriate in a professional setting” and “not to sexually harrass each other” (Example of a CoC at Web-Zurich, a web-engineering meetup).
The only way to fulfil these rules is to not speak at all because people might get upset about all kinds of things — hence we should be all silent, which would be absurd.
We have difficult/toxic trolls in the tech community who harass and annoy others. Unfortunately, some people just hate others. I know what I am talking about. Harassment exists and it sucks. Here an e-mail I got just recently from a woman:
I’ve been verbally and sexually harassed, been told I can’t do work on certain projects (backend/database stuff) but I can work in front end projects because I can’t break anything, I’ve been yelled at in front of my peers and my subordinates, you get the idea. This past year was very rough, and I’m trying to take time to find a good company where I can do work, like backend PHP, and not deal with these sorts of issues. If you’ve read about that woman who worked for Uber and her story, that’s totally what it’s like sometimes for women.
Although the harassment issues are huge in the tech community, anti-harassment rules/speech codes are not fixing them. The only thing they do is to make the authors feel better about themselves. They give an illusion “of having done something”. Instead, we should focus on fixing the problem: Toxic individuals, how to spot and get rid of them.
Speech codes are a prime example of the Dictatorship of the Small Minority. Because of some bad apples, all of us have to suffer. You are asking, why speech codes make me mad? Read on!
People died defending freedom of speech and many more were killed because of lack of it (all the dictatorships and tyrannies are based on censorship and fear). Currently, what is happening is the antithesis what American thinkers had in mind initially when they fled intolerant Europe and thought how to form a new country without the oppression they observed back at home.
“Our liberty depends on the freedom of speech and that cannot be limited without being lost.”. — Thomas Jefferson said on 28 January 1786
Read that again. The whole free speech thing is lost if we limit it only a tiny bit. Recently, also influential people who are still alive start to notice that all this sucks massively:
“I realised I felt more comfortable discussing controversial things in Beijing than in San Francisco.” — Sam Altman (Source)
Ten years ago the tech community was not as sick as it is today. During my undergrad studies, this cute thing happend: One morning when I got coffee before a course a female student approached me to ask where to get milk. I answered: “The milk comes from the same tube as the coffee”. She replied: “So it is a male coffee machine, then — haha”. We immediately fell connected over this sexual remark (which would be forbidden under most speech codes) and actually became a couple. I am really sad that this casual encounter might not happen today as her remark would be considered “inappropriate in a professional setting”.
Speech codes strengthen the prejudice of programmers being social cripples
Think for one moment, how new people feel when they encounter the following for the first time: They visit a “tech conference” and before even the keynote began, the audience is lectured onhow not to harass, insult and not to be mean to each other. It is like you are visiting someone at home and they have sings in their courtyard saying: “don’t kill people, don’t steal, don’t harass”. You would probably think, they are nuts. Speech codes make programmer events look to outsiders like it must be a gathering of sociopaths. It increases the prejudice of the insane, socially crippled tech person/programmer and I — as a tech recruiter — don’t think this is how most programmers are.
Speech codes have strange side-effects. At one conference on open source software, a person who just picked up C++ told me he does not dare to ask a talk-related question to this one speaker-woman because he does not want people to think that he is hitting on her. He was really scared that in the worst case he might be thrown out from the event. The speech code presented at the beginning of the event primed him and triggered some kind of neurosis in his brain that lasted for days. This is definitely some rare, extreme case but still it kind of sucks. Instead of focusing on what the conference was about, he had to think constantly on how to avoid getting in trouble.
Confirmation bias: How the mere existence of speech codes lead to their PERCEIVED violation
Speech codes cause damage on a much larger scale. They prime people to look for bad things. It is like a self-fulfilling prophecy. In the 1960s, cognitive psychologists conducted experiments that became later famous as confirmation bias principle: People have a tendency to seek evidence that confirms their existing beliefs.
In the Salem witch trials twenty innocent people were executed because of confirmation bias. The whole tragedy started when four adolescent girls had epileptic seizures without an obvious explanation. All it took was one idiot to suggest that witchcraft is the problem. And then everyone’s brain started to filter for witches. If you constantly look for bad things everywhere — guess what? You will find them.
Here an example from personal experience: Once I gave a talk about tech-recruiting to 400 programmers, and I gave some standard advice that a good way to check for cultural fit is to go to for drinks with the team. Most of the listeners understood this remark the way I intended it to be understood. (“Going for drinks” is a figure of speech meaning that you should spend time with the team outside the office.)
One person in my audience decided to go on a witch-hunt. The person got the microphone and suggested that I should avoid using the words “going for drinks” because it would not include people who don’t drink alcohol. Funnily, I myself did not drink alcohol at that time. The same way people in the Salem-witch trials decided to look for witchcraft, this person monitored my talk for possible violations of speech codes and decided to take my words literally.
Lawyers will tell you there is a text of the law (literally the text) and the spirit of the law (the meaning behind it). Instead of looking for the spirit, it is much easier to just follow orders. This is how my parents in the Soviet-Union must have felt: Not being able to say a single word because the KGB-spies were everywhere. The same state I experience now at tech-events: I have to think exactly what I can and can not say, otherwise I risk my career.
Watch me getting bored while being told to not use the word “going for drinks”:
Speech codes are inefficient
Most speech codes are unnecessary as they are describing a generally decent and law-abiding behaviour. Sexual harassment is already against the law. Same for hate speech or propagation of violence. So, why re-state the obvious? A programmer-friend whom I respect deeply (but not for his Social justice warrior’ism) always tells me: “If speech codes are part of the law anyway, then it does not hurt to just repeat it”. Then I answer by reductio ad absurdum: “So, if it doesn’t hurt to repeat something that should be followed, why don’t we repeat the entire law code, or put things like ‘don’t burn down the building’ into the speech code or anything else that might happen — just in case?”
Speech codes are ineffective
Showing the Swastika in Germany is a criminal act. I am doubtful that a true Nazi feels less Nazi’ish if he cannot display the Swastika publicly. Due to being kind of surpressed, he/she is likely to become more exterme in his/her views.
Likewise, “forbidding to use sexual/violent/excluding language” does limit specific words someone uses publicly but the bad intent will find another valve to show its ugly face. Code of conducts even give guidelines to bad apples “which words to avoid” to not be caught. Sure, this theoretically might protect the feelings of some people but what is worst is that toxic people will not be spotted quickly and might stay in the community longer. Bad people will find other ways to hurt others and we all will have a harder time actually fixing the situation: Kick this person out.
If we are supposed to be a community, then we should act as one, and that community consists of individuals taking action as needed for each other immediately. Everything else, including speech codes, are a fake solution for a real problem.
How to fix code of conducts
Your brain does not understand the word “DON’T”. I am a certified NLP practitioner and the first thing you learn in any NLP course is that our brain treats the word “DON’T” as a no-op. The brain remembers the strongest mentioned concepts. So the phrase “please don’t sexually harass each other” might sticky in your subconscious as “please sexually harass each other”. We don’t know to which extend this is the case but if this is even happens a little bit, we are in trouble.
Observe Trump’s recent tweets as an example that he gets it. After being called a dumb idiot, he did not answer: “I am neither dumb nor unstable”. No, he answered “I am a very stable genius!“. This is a very well-engineered statement to persuade you that he is both stable and smart. His haters picked it up and retweeted it within hours after the tweet. CNN and all other media outlets wrote articles that had headlines like this: “Trump’s ‘very stable genius’ tweet shows he isn’t”. What CNN is doing here is helping associate the words “TRUMP” and “Genius” in everyone’s brain forever.
If rules have to exist at all, they should be changed from DON’Ts to DOs. Some speech codes already include both positive and negative rules. I urgue to kick out the “negative” ones. Dear organizers/employers, if you want to dictate rules to others, these two are more than enough:
1. You shall respect the power of words, names, and language. (Language can be a strong weapon, especially computer-people underestimate this.)
2. You shall let other living beings live. (Have respect towards others; this includes being tollerant to others who use a different code-editor etc.)
Motivating people with “things they want” is much more present in Asian religions like Buddhism (the goal is “enlightenment”). Scaring people with guilt (“Jesus died for our sins”) and fear (“You will go to hell”) is a bad thing we “in the West” have obtained from Christianity. (The two rules above are actually taken from the ten commandments but turned into positive language.)
This reads “Om mani peme hung” — A Tibetian Buddhist Mantra to invoke compassion towards all living beings.
Also, note how I only wrote two rules whereas common speech codes include at least ten. The set of all possible good behaviors is much smaller than the set of possible violations and bad behaviors.
Forcing people into thinking of all possible things that could go wrong leaves room for infinite improvement. Facebook has 71 gender options and someone was paid to come up and implement them. It is a common consulting business model. There is little money to be made with just saying a simple, effective thing like “Hey you, you just behave or we sue you” and a lot of money to be made with adding complex, new research findings/rules/eyewash (see via Positiva vs. via Negativa).
Consultants cannot make money from removing; they only benefit from adding. — Nassim Nicholas Taleb 2011
Human problems in general and harassment problems in particular are very complex. If you want to count them, this set is probably uncountably infinite. You can not solve that with written rules, because this set is only countably infinite (you are supposed to understand this if you have a degree in computer science or math).
To solve harassment, we have to work from the highest meta-level possible and apply decent human behaviour coming from within. Also, we have to agree on a quick way to remove “bad apples” from the crowd on a case-by-case basis.
An algorithm to STOP toxic people
If you think this is too weak and abstract, here a bit more practical help: Let’s say someone says a weird thing directed at someone else. Our instinct is perhaps to do nothing. What if we just ask: “Hey, did you just intend to insult that person?” (we do this in a calm and polite way). Now there are three things that could happen and all of them are good:
1. The target doesn’t feel insulted at all.
2. The target does feel insulted but the source didn’t mean it like that, so the source explains what was meant and the tension dissipates.
3. The target feels insulted and the source did indeed mean it that way and you have exposed it.
Notice, this is the opposite of Political Correctness. Be bold, say things. Especially things that seem awkward. If you see something bad happening, you do something instead of leaving it to the ‘law’. Don’t wait for magical Code of Conduct to descend from heaven and fix it (because it won’t) and unlike the organizers at conferences/employers, you are there, you are capable of understanding the nuances of the situation and you can act. Of course, there are situations where it is impossible to interfere directly. Like, if someone is being beaten up, it might be more safe to call 911, but please don’t call the police, if someone accidentally says “she/her” instead of using “the right” gender-pronoun. If it disturbs you, please correct the person kindly on the spot. Yes, this takes extra effort, but life is never fair.
I assume something like speech codes have to be there for legal reasons because organizers/employers need to protect themselves against potential legal problems (people suing for being harassed).
People who introduced speech codes surely did so with the best intentions in mind to protect the ones who were being attacked. Yet, it is questionable if that really is the best we can do. Here a summary:
- Speech codes make the tech community look childish to outsiders and lead to people erring on the side of silence although they might want to say something valuable.
- I suggest a purely positive approach of being mindful about our language and intent. Speech codes should be changed from DON’Ts to DO’s to avoid witch-hunts.
- We should exclude “toxic people” instantly on an individual, case-by-case basis, but not institutionalize a which-hunt.
Increase personal responsibility. Be an adult, shape your community, help others. If you see something, simply name things/ask questions. This is how healthy groups work. Let’s do this in 2018.
If you are a software engineer, or if you can refer one, shoot me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org. I will go with you for drinks and match you with cool tech jobs in Zurich, Munich and New York! Our assessments will be based solely on your skills as an engineer*.
*(Not how I am using the positive form and say the same thing as in: ‘We assess you regardless of your age, race, gender, gender identity, national origin, religion, physical or mental disability, medical condition, pregnancy, marital status or sexual orientation’ …. crap did I forget something/someone!? Am I using the right words?! Recently, this “problem” spilled over from the tech-community to social media and was picked up by the pop-culture such as Family Guy:
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