Log in

No account? Create an account

Previous Entry | Next Entry

Let's talk about social contracts.

Skip this post if you're sick of hearing about Donglegate.

We'll start with a little history. You might have noticed, in the KYM synopsis, a reference to the PyCon Code of Conduct, a document largely derived from boilerplate language originally advanced, systematically, by the Ada Initiative in August 2012. The PyCon code asserts that "all delegates/attendees, speakers, exhibitors, organizers and volunteers at any PyCon event are required to conform to" it, and identifies organisers as the enforcing authority. I'm pretty comfortable with calling that a social contract, voluntarily assented to by the actions of registering for the conference and accepting a badge. Furthermore, during the conference, wearing one's badge serves as an ongoing signifier of one's participation in this social contract. (More on that in a little bit.)

How about terminating the contract? Ejection without refund is a penalty explicitly stated in the PyCon code, so there's one condition under which the contract may be terminated; to the extent that badges serve as a form of access control1, requiring attendees ejected under the code to surrender their badges signifies that their participation in the social contract has been terminated. Presumably, then, an attendee/speaker/exhibitor/volunteer/organiser could also, having voluntarily assented to the contract by registering, also voluntarily withdraw from the contract (symbolically, by handing their badge back to the organisers and leaving).

Keep that last part in mind; it has knock-on effects.

I've gotten into a few discussions on Twitter, which I'll just summarise here but can maybe summarize in a Storify or something if sufficiently incentivised to do so, about the PyCon organisers' efforts to revise the language of the code in the wake of Donglegate. As this year's chair Jesse Noller comments in that thread, "Explicit is better than implicit" -- quoting from the Zen of Python, which (like so many things) probably started as a ha-ha-only-serious bit of humour but has come to be embraced as a sort of normative philosophy for building both Python the language and Python the community. As another commenter in the same thread predicted even earlier, though, "it's inevitably going to be looked on as a gagging provision" -- even though, as Jesse then points out, staff are attempting to clarify the language to better express their already existing, and unchanged by this incident, perspective on the aggregate damage that the "name and shame first" approach readily leads to.

Presumably, opponents of policy change are disappointed to see that PyCon does not take their side in encouraging the name-and-shame-first strategy. But I think it is disingenuous of them to portray the change as a gagging provision. As of the current revision, the policy makes the following changes related to place, time, and manner of speech about violations of the code:

Unlike much of the other language in the code ("Be kind to others. Do not insult or put down other attendees. Behave professionally. Remember that harassment and sexist, racist, or exclusionary jokes are not appropriate for PyCon."), these items are phrased as requests, not requirements. Maybe putting it in RFC-speak will make it a little clearer:

  • You MUST be kind to others.
  • You MUST NOT insult or put down other attendees.
  • PyCon staff SHOULD be your first resource when reporting a PyCon-related incident.
  • You SHOULD NOT disclose public information about the incident until the staff have had sufficient time in which to address the situation.

And, indeed, when we look at the IETF's definitions of these four terms:
1. MUST This word, or the terms "REQUIRED" or "SHALL", mean that the
definition is an absolute requirement of the specification.

2. MUST NOT This phrase, or the phrase "SHALL NOT", mean that the
definition is an absolute prohibition of the specification.

3. SHOULD This word, or the adjective "RECOMMENDED", mean that there
may exist valid reasons in particular circumstances to ignore a
particular item, but the full implications must be understood and
carefully weighed before choosing a different course.

4. SHOULD NOT This phrase, or the phrase "NOT RECOMMENDED" mean that
there may exist valid reasons in particular circumstances when the
particular behavior is acceptable or even useful, but the full
implications should be understood and the case carefully weighed
before implementing any behavior described with this label.
we see that these terms in fact capture Jesse's concerns. There are very valid reasons to take an issue public, but doing so carries with it certain risks, regardless of the validity of one's actions. I think it's reasonable on the part of PyCon to express an organisational opinion on this matter, and given that their opinion as expressed is 1) only a recommendation, and 2) even if followed, delays public disclosure by a matter of hours, I don't find the recommendation particularly chilling with respect to speech in general. I would attend a conference with such a policy; I already live in a country2 that asserts exclusive right to all executive and judicial power, so spending some time in an environment where the agreed-upon authority has put some thought into which conditions of its social contract are optional and which ones aren't is really kind of refreshing.

And now we get back to the part from earlier about terminating contracts: if I go to a conference with a code of conduct, even one with a straight-up gag rule (which, again, I don't think PyCon's is), some code of conduct violation happens, and I'm unhappy with both the resolution and my ability to talk about it under the terms of the social contract, I can withdraw from the social contract. See, organisations can breach terms of contract too. Organisations that breach their contractual obligations sufficiently, or are negligent, can be held liable for this in civil court. Liability and harm are of course closely interrelated; a con staff that, for instance, (warning: extreme example) concealed evidence of a rape and discouraged the victim from contacting police has obviously gone well beyond breach of contract into becoming accomplices to felony conduct. (In a case that extreme, the last thing the victim should have to think about is any perceived sense of obligation to honour a social contract that the organisation long since put into a crosscut shredder and pissed on.)

Had Adria Richards gone to the PyCon staff and been dissatisfied with the outcome, it's questionable whether she would have been able to, say, recoup the cost of admission in a civil breach of contract suit. I'm not sure whether the PyCon code is, even now, worded well enough to hold much water in a civil court; I don't get the impression the Ada Initiative consulted a lawyer when they developed it, though if someone has better information on that, I'll correct that in-place.

But my point is, organisations also have incentives, long established in the civil court system, to hold up their ends of the bargains they've made. A lot of the people I've talked with have raised the question, "Why should we necessarily trust that staff will do a good job of resolving the issue?" And this is the part where I start tearing my hair out -- because the loudest voices shouting this demand are the same ones who demanded that codes of conduct be instituted in the first place. Why even bother asking an organisation to modify its policies on your behalf if you don't trust the organisation enough to use the reporting channels and protocols it established because you asked for them? Isn't that a signaling of trust, of good faith, on the part of the conference organisers that these channels will be used?

These are questions I don't get a lot of answers to on Twitter.

1I didn't have a ticket to PyCon, but had no problem wandering around the public areas, the expo, and the sprints (which are all open to the public). I didn't bother trying to wander into any talks, though I don't think I would have been stopped. Other conferences, e.g. Black Hat, have a strong public/private space distinction (anyone can walk into the Expo, but you will get kicked out if you try to get into talks without a badge); others are tighter still (it's easy to get a free badge to get into the RSA Expo, but you're not even getting into that without one). Tl;dr (too late): "are badges access control" is a question with a different answer for each conference, and "access control to what?" is an important question for each conference to ask when deciding their overall answer. Proceed with context. Infinity welcomes careful drivers.

2Which country? All of them!


( 24 comments — Leave a comment )
Mar. 24th, 2013 11:15 pm (UTC)
You're the first to hit on what I think has been bugging me about this thing. Why demand that a "code of conduct" be in place if you're not going to even give the organizers a chance to enforce it. Going to the online name-and-shame as path of first resort leaves the organizers looking stupid in dealing with the messy aftermath. Even with making revisions to their code of conduct, they have no way of preventing this from happening again.
Mar. 24th, 2013 11:17 pm (UTC)

Don't you think the problem with PyCon---and the Ada Initiative---is simply a representation of the larger move (that I, as one of the intended victims of AI's tactics, will say that they've pushed quite hard in this direction) to make everything in conferences about "zero tolerance policies" that make *sure* that if at all possible, people will be hurt?

It's fine that PyCon *now* states that publicly shaming (executing people's careers) is not OK, but their efforts in this area are poisoned by having started from a known-bad actor's wishes. They should be receiving much more flak for this situation than they have, because by adopting a zero tolerance policy, they encouraged this kind of thing to happen---that is, by telling everyone that "everything any individual person thinks is bad will get the person they dislike thrown out and humiliated," they have encouraged people with petty urges for drama to, well, create drama.

Let me take, as a counterexample, Defcon. Goons are pretty heavily empowered; they serve as judge, jury, and---I've heard tell---executioner if necessary. (Although no one actually dies, being thrown in the pool with all your electronics attached is expensive.) One could create an anti-harassment policy that emphasized actually *talking to people* (remember when people did that) by simply empowering Goons to correct situations; if they see people actually behaving badly (telling a private joke to a friend won't meet that standard), they can step in, and bring the person to account. This doesn't mean eject them from the conference; it means *starting a conversation*. Telling the person they're being an ass---NOT BRANDING THEM WITH A RED CARD, or posting their face on Twitter to your thousands of followers---may well solve the problem; if not, then it's fine to escalate. Slowly. You know, like we used to do.

Saying that "well, *this* stuff is *so* bad we *can't* allow discretion" is the type of behavior we don't tolerate in another area---prosecutors. When we say that what happened to Aaron was evil, remember that is what happens *all the time* when prosecutors don't use what is commonly termed "prosecutorial discretion." (That is, mandatory punishment, e.g., being sent to prison for 35 years. Or being thrown out of the conference with no other option.) That's what groups like AI want to have---mandatory punishments, mandatory sentences, mandatory escalation. The same forces are what have given us seven-year-olds being *expelled* for *throwing a fake grenade on the playground* while playing War with their friends.

Allowing people like Adria (or those who caused the *last* disaster in a similar vein, at BSidesSF) to do this, to have to have this conversation again, lets them win. Because if we only say "we overreacted" after having overreacted, they ALREADY won. Having conference policies that empower the organizers and staff to use their judgment---you know, the same reason we want to go to cons they organize---will help to change the victory for reactionists back to something we can live with. Because we can't keep doing this.

Edited at 2013-03-24 11:19 pm (UTC)
Mar. 24th, 2013 11:28 pm (UTC)
That's part of what frustrated me about the Ada Initiative from the very beginning: their ignorance of existing mechanisms for handling social problems, which Defcon (as a prank-heavy con) has a long history of developing. (And that history includes having to deal with all manner of, e.g., property damage, by way of context for other readers. A bit beyond what the average tech con has to deal with.) CCC does as well; the Angels are an ever-present, well-equipped and well-empowered corps analogous to the Goons. And both Defcon and CCC have been around an order of magnitude (or more) longer than the Ada Initiative. From the very beginning, they acted as if these organisations were a blank slate, which is a foolish, foolish tactical mistake. And also explains the complete tone-deafness.

Since then, I've wondered whether the ignorance was coincidental or willful, but in light of the AI's attempt to suppress Andreas Bogk's response on behalf of 29c3 to the hatchet job that AI did on that conference last December, their general stonewalling of criticism, and their mischaracterisation FUD about the effect of changes like the ones PyCon has proposed, I'm leaning toward willful. If it's not their line, they don't want people spouting it. (And this despite releasing the text under a CC-0 license. The mind, it reels.)

You've probably noticed, incidentally, that BruCON revised their policy to a placeholder that explicitly commits to creating a safe space for speakers as well as attendees, in the wake of the BSidesSF controversy. Wim approached me and Amber Baldet about rewriting the policy, and we've done some initial kicking-ideas-around in our Copious Free Time(tm); Jason Scott encouraged us, and Wim, Amber and I all agree with him, to do that development in as transparent a way as possible. So far we have literally had time for one long phone call where we talked about the values that a putative BruCON policy should come from; I think the next step is going to be to start that discussion in blog form or something like that. Ideas welcome -- and patches, like the material you bring up above.

Edited at 2013-03-24 11:31 pm (UTC)
Mar. 24th, 2013 11:23 pm (UTC)
Nice tags, baby.
Mar. 24th, 2013 11:29 pm (UTC)
In wildly divergent tangent news, this post is 18,040 characters which would have taken you 128.9 tweets.

Mar. 24th, 2013 11:43 pm (UTC)
Probably more, since I try to break at word boundaries and things like that.
Mar. 25th, 2013 03:34 am (UTC)
(Deleted comment)
Mar. 24th, 2013 11:58 pm (UTC)
Ohai! Welcome to what's left of the salon. Let's see who else chimes in.
Mar. 25th, 2013 12:11 am (UTC)
Your footnotes are lovely. And you second to last paragraph gets to the heart of the matter. Protocols are to be used, and of course, if that doesn't work out later... well, then it doesn't work out... and either side can abandon.

Why does massive drama (seem to) follow every conference? And then gain such momentum? I know this is a distortion of what conferences are, but as someone who'd like to go to some... it makes me a little nervous. Still, looking forward to DefCon. =)
Mar. 25th, 2013 12:24 am (UTC)
At the moment, "generate sexism drama over tech conferences and use it to fuel donation drives / corporate sponsorships" is the business model of the Ada Initiative, referenced above.
Mar. 25th, 2013 12:59 am (UTC)
Part of me wants to believe that it is actually a 100% cynical move based on observed trends. That would actually be much more interesting than 100% sincerity, wouldn't it?
Mar. 25th, 2013 01:03 am (UTC)
I have a lot of cynicism about that group, not all of it stemming from publicly observable trends, but the observable data line up pretty well with the pattern described above.
Mar. 25th, 2013 01:04 am (UTC)
I may have not been clear: I would like to believe that *their* motivations are cynical; it wasn't a statement about your evaluation of them.
Mar. 25th, 2013 01:09 am (UTC)
Thanks. I figure being upfront about bias is important when talking about these kinds of things.

Conversations often seem to rapidly turn toward the cognitively-dissonant end when motivation comes up. On the one hand, appeal to motive can be an informal fallacy; on the other, motive is absolutely taken into account in the judicial system, and to the extent that people like to appeal to that as a model, or care about rigor, it can be hard to talk about what constitutes evidence of a cynical motive without being shouted down for bad argumentation.
Mar. 25th, 2013 01:21 pm (UTC)
It's amazing how immature both parties are, that people need to grow up and suck it up. There's one thing that this wasn't was going by the rules that were laid out as attendees. That the parties involved showed the typical juvenile behavior regardless of gender. I've noticed that the more that technology has advanced the less our morality and mentality has not followed like wise, sadly.

If anything they need to both be kicked to the curb and banned for while. I get where Ms. Richards is coming from. However, when she shows poor taste at making a sexual TSA joke, how is she really any different then the two dweebs that make sexual innuendos? If anything it shows that she's just as capable of being vulgar commentary and is a hypocrite in her actions about harassing TSA employees at their jobs. She's lucky the TSA doesn't come knock on her door with a legal action follow up from the local state police as a response. If anything it just shows that people who're often the loudest complainers about something often themselves have something hypocritical about themselves.

Mar. 25th, 2013 09:31 pm (UTC)
Actually, the guy who made the dongle joke was pretty apologetic about the whole thing and was one of the people trying to keep things civil in the original discussion, in spite of having been fired. Conversely, Adria Richards is known to have a history of drama-generation without sufficient cause, speech policing, and horrible non-sexist behavior.

Then there's Ada Initiative, I don't have anything more substantial to go on here than Meredith's deep loathing - but then again, that's enough for me. I would love to hear more of the original story there, but the bad ideas inherent in the policy changes that AI has demanded seem to be indicative.

Personally, I think it would be nice if the tech community just went ahead and cast out AI, Richards, and their Ilk, then spend the effort working up some better protection for attendees without them. However, noone ever wants to start a formal witch-hunt if you call it that.
Mar. 25th, 2013 10:41 pm (UTC)
If he apologized then she should accept it. Then again I've noticed that social media has created more social media drama queens (gender neutral here). That they live on making "noise" over the slightest insult or worry; it's like social media has now extended the "high school drama" into the global world.

It's one of the reasons "I hate people" in general because they extend stupid childish drama into the world. Social media should be used for moral and political change for the "betterment" of society. Instead it spends more time being like ancient Egypt- Writing on others Walls and Worshiping Cats. I do get involved in social change and vote/re-blog important issues.

But most of the time I feel like the butt end of the joke of "The old rabbi at the Buraq Wall."

A reporter goes to Israel to cover the fighting. She is looking for something emotional and positive and of human interest.
In Jerusalem, she heard about an old Jew who had been going to the Wailing Wall to pray, twice a day, every day, for a long, long time. So she went to check it out. She goes to the Wailing Wall and there he is!

So she watches him pray and after about 45 minutes, when he turns to leave, she approaches him for an interview.
"Rebecca Smith, CNN News. Sir, how long have you been coming to the Wall and praying?"
"For about 50 years."
"What do you pray for?"
"For peace between the Jews and the Arabs. For all the hatred to stop. For our children to grow up in safety and friendship."
"How do you feel after doing this for 50 years?"
"Like I'm talking to a fucking wall."

Mar. 26th, 2013 12:05 am (UTC)
For the tiny bit it's worth, might I suggest "social media drama mongers" instead? One, it gives the self-same mongers one less gendered noun to rail against. Two, it makes "drama' sound like a particularly low-status fish being sold by a grubby woman near the docks.

Other than that, love the analogy to ancient Egypt.
Mar. 26th, 2013 12:23 am (UTC)
I've similarly become fond of drama junkies for the same reason. Or, if "drama" is seized upon as being gendered (had that one lobbed at me recently), "outrage junkies".

But, thinking about it a little more ... it's the outrage that's the fix, drama is what's being peddled. Because that's how one becomes the Blog of Record in a world of outrage addicts looking for the next hit of anger -- being the go-to source for all the drama that's fit to print.

I like it. Nice distinction.
Mar. 26th, 2013 03:21 am (UTC)
"Outrage junkies" is not a bad term, though it sounds like it better describes the intended audience for these actions. "Outrage monger/peddler" would be a nice description. You mentioned taking this to blogspace at some point, think you could work with this?

I've been trying to figure out what's got me ticked off here, and I think that I may have it. "Outrage mongering" and the expansive/predictive/precriptive social policies that have gone with it in this case may be an unidentified form of predatory social awkwardness. As I work things through in my head, it seems more and more like a different version of that push to drive away the other, especially citing violations in behavior, while excusing it on your own "team" seems as strong with this crowd (along with the tumblr Social Justice / trans*-advocacy community) as it does with any hypothetical group of "neckbeards" who snicker at women while villifying them.

I've got to do more thinking on this, but it's time for a basic sanity check on the principle. Am I nuts?
Mar. 29th, 2013 02:26 am (UTC)
The other night I got to kicking around ideas with some friends, and we came up with a concept for a youtube series: Socially Awkward Penguin Theatre. Short, funny dramatizations of uncomfortable social situations, navigated successfully. Doing that without veering off into after-school special territory is going to be hard, though.
Jun. 16th, 2013 10:34 pm (UTC)
Unpack "predatory social awkwardness" for me? The "push to drive away the other" part makes sense; would you say that there's a sort of behavioural-shibboleth game going on? It seems to me that there is, and one in which the game-initiator reserves the right to move the goalposts wherever they please.
Jun. 17th, 2013 01:03 am (UTC)
Predatory social awkwardness is a general term for behaviors based on a sense of entitlement to certain treatments without the forthrightfulness to claim it directly - it's mostly awkward in terms of US socialization and wrong in terms of US mores. I kinda threw the term together to refer to the class of people who have a very hard time working out other people's internal states and dealing with differing ethical systems. It's been a few months since I wrote this, though. I don't entirely remember my state of mind at the time.

I probably chose "social awkardness" because it reminded me of the kinds of us/them behavior seen from insular social groups in fandom and geekdom. Which, when you look at the history (that I didn't have in March) makes sense - Social Justice on the internet really is nothing more than a very pushy fandom that originated on LJ.
Mar. 28th, 2013 01:36 am (UTC)
How do they define 'being kind to others'? Because if it's one of the 'zero tolerance policies', I think they'll have trouble from people who, due to either differing cultural standards or simple ignorance, harm the feelings of others entirely by accident, because they don't even know the effects.
( 24 comments — Leave a comment )

Latest Month

July 2015


Powered by LiveJournal.com
Designed by Tiffany Chow