Confrontation vs Public Shaming at Pycon

March 27, 2013 | By Felicity Cull

Have you heard all about the controversy at Pycon?

Here’s a quick run down, just in case (although I doubt you have missed it); Adria Richards, brand evangelist of SendGrid, engaged in conversation with two men at Pycon. They were discussing various content from the conference, but then the conversation took a turn that Richards did not appreciate; the men started making sexually charged jokes laden with double entrendre, specifically using the words ‘forking’ and ‘dongle’. She disengaged herself from the conversation, seething as the men continued to make their wiggly eyebrows, nudge nudge wink wink say no more jokes. In retaliation, she snapped a picture of them and posted it to twitter, calling for them to be ejected. The conference organisers responded. In the furore that occurred afterwards, one of the men was fired from his job at PlayHaven. Richards was victim to an awful onslaught of online abuse and then lost her job too.

The whole situation is a mess. In her opinion, Richards acted because she wants young women to find the digital space a safe one. In the opinion of the people who spewed their vitriol at her, the comments she took exception to were well above board. Now two people are unemployed and the case for actions towards making tech conferences safe and welcoming for a wide variety of people has taken a hit.

There’s plenty of commentary on the situation but what really struck a chord with me was Todd Wasserman’s op-ed piece for Mashable, in which he mourned the loss of face-to-face interaction being used to resolve issues. He wrote, “This whole case could have been resolved with one real-life conversation.” While Wasserman does take great pains not to support the vile abuse she copped, he also suggests that her actions were a bit narcissistic and that they suggest a growing “penchant for portraying ourselves as public crusaders.” In his opinion, Richards should have confronted the two men directly instead of posting the photo; “Ethically, that is the correct thing to do.”

I keep wondering what I would do in the same situation. Would I find the use of the word dongle or forking so offensive I wanted to have the men ejected from the conference? I don’t really know. What we need to remember is that without a live recording of the exchange there’s no way we can really comment on this sensibly. The comments may seem innocuous but let’s take into account the environment they were said in and that we did not hear any of the verbal cues that Richards was privy to. If any of my male friends said these things at the pub I’d chuckle into my pint. But were they made to make Richards uncomfortable? Were they getting a kick out of pissing her off? Looking at the photo (which you can see here) you can see that they didn’t think they were doing anything wrong. They could tell she was taking the photo and they didn’t look disgruntled nor sheepish. However, as many recent cases show us, just because someone doesn’t think they’re doing the wrong thing doesn’t mean what they’re doing is right.

But, maybe Wasserman has a point. Maybe she should have tackled this in a less passive aggressive manner. But before we get too carried away with this line of thinking about how social media has made us all cowards, I want to share a story.

I’m from the suburbs of Perth, and when I say suburbs I mean way out, in the sticks, last (vaguely) civilised stop before Albany. Once, when I was about 15, I was taking the long train ride into the city, and two rather large and scary looking men got on. Now, this is not an uncommon occurrence where I’m from and it would be unfair to suggest that all big scary looking men from my part of the world actually are scary. However, these guys proved rather quickly that they were indeed to be feared. They commenced a loud discussion about their politics on race, and they were fucked up. I’m not talking about your garden variety Aussie bloke jokes about flied lice (although these jokes are indeed racist and I reckon they are also not okay) what these guys were saying would not have been out of place as a section of dialogue in Romper Stomper. All other conversation on that carriage died. People were shifting in their seats, made uncomfortable by the ranting of these two men. I was incredibly anxious. I kept thinking that if anyone who wasn’t white got on the train that a fight would break out.

Across from me was a girl of about 19 or 20. She was a skinny thing but she had big combat boots on and looked pretty tough. She was looking down, arms crossed. At some point, she got up and went into the next carriage. I was envious that she’d taken herself out of the situation when I was too scared to move. But then, at the next stop, two train guards came into our carriage and escorted the men off the train. There was audible relief. As far as I can tell, what happened was that the girl across from me had got on the safety intercom as soon as she was out of their earshot and got the men removed. I am grateful to this girl. She diffused an ugly situation quietly and without fuss. I’ve never forgotten her.

Now, I know that this is an extreme example. I’m aware that these racists don’t necessarily resemble the guys at Pycon. Hey, for all I know they would have told these guys to shut the hell up; maybe they’re awesome dudes, maybe they really did not mean to cause any offence. I also know that there’s a difference between reporting a potentially violent situation and tweeting a photo of people. I agree that passive aggressive tweeting can sometimes get out of control. Although I’m certain I have indulged in passive aggressive twitter behaviour myself, people who tweet photos of strangers – yes, even if those strangers are wearing tights as pants – have on occasion horrified me.

However, this is my concern; what if we get so bogged down pondering the method of how Richards spoke out that we put people off speaking out in the future. Would I have turned around and said, “Not cool guys”? Maybe. But I didn’t say anything to those guys who were saying worse things than a dongle joke. It’s possible that she did something passive aggressive to avoid a bigger confrontation and she did, before the blow up, diffuse it in a way. Sometimes someone does need to step in and before we attack her methods, shouldn’t we question whether or not these guys would have responded to a discussion and why she wasn’t certain they would? The only way something positive can come out a situation that has left two people unemployed is if we change the discussion’s focus from who was right and who was wrong to ways we can make sure people feel okay with being honest and open about what makes them feel safe in these spaces.