In the persistent and recurring debate over rudeness, harassment, and other exclusionary events in technical circles, there's always that one persnickety little argument. You know the one.
You shouldn't feel offended. That's just silly.
Yet Another Bad Example
Take, for example, a cartoon comparing the Moose object system to elective breast enhancement surgery and the attractiveness of an actress before and after such surgery. (Hmm, it's even less amusing when I describe it that way.)
As you might rightly imagine, several people winced at yet another incident of the sexualization of something that's not sexual at all.
As you might sadly expect, the responses to that incident were attempts to wave away any disagreement by dismissing the possibility anyone might feel any justified offense or exclusion or discomfort.
If you're playing derailment bingo, grab an extra card.
This isn't difficult, my friends. It's actually very simple.
The Unnecessary Sexualization of Technology
People have sex. Yes, everyone understands that. Most of us in the world of technology are adults, or at least have gone through puberty. Everyone understands that too.
Yet when I as a heterosexual adult male go to a conference or a user group meeting or participate in a mailing list or a web forum or an IRC channel devoted to technology, I have no desire to talk about sex. Even though at least 90% of the other participants are likely straight adult males like me, the purpose of the group has nothing to do with sex or sexuality.
Now imagine that you're not in that 90% group and you want to talk about technology, but you have to wade through discussions of things that are completely unrelated, sensitive, and which continually point out to you that you are very different from that group. Constantly.
Imagine going to an event where your nametag says "I don't belong" and every conversation you try to have starts with the other person saying "Hi! You don't belong here! How are you today?"
(I went to a charity auction earlier this year where the bids started at multiple thousands of dollars for packages like a week's vacation on a private island and a chartered flight to one of the world's top golf spots. They had a wine wall where some bottles cost more than my suit. I left before dessert. I didn't belong.)
If you try to justify the sexualization of technology with "It's just a joke" or "It's a beautiful, normal part of human existence" or "Lighten up", you're behaving rudely. Please stop.
If you're thinking of complaining "But this means we can't talk about other things we like, like Dr. Who or comic books! Why are you censoring us? How boring it would be to talk about technology alone all the time!" then you're committing the slippery slope fallacy and demonstrating a false equivalence fallacy. Please instead discuss things like a rational adult with listening and reasoning skills.
Only I Get to Define "Offensiveness"
If telling other people they don't belong isn't bad enough, my favorite exhibit of bad behavior is telling people their feelings don't matter because only you get to decide what they can find offensive or exclusionary or mean-spirited or inappropriate.
This happens in many ways. (This list is not exhaustive.)
- "But I asked a (insert token member of the group you supposedly "offended" here) and they said it was okay.
- "It's just a joke, lighten up."
- "You're misunderstanding the joke."
- "You don't have a sense of humor."
- "There's no logical reason for you to feel offended."
- "You're making too big a deal out of this."
- "You're making (insert the group you supposedly "offended" here) out to be humorless prigs, all too ready to jump on honest, good-hearted, handsome people like me, and you're shrill and probably no fun to hang out with in person too."
- "I'm not as bad as (Hitler). Get some perspective."
- "(Insert some other bad thing here which you perceive to be a bigger problem) is a bigger problem in the world. Why don't you solve that first?"
- "Everyone I know in person says I'm not (insert some epithet), therefore I can never exhibit this bad behavior you ascribe to me. Thus it never happened. QED."
- "Everyone's offended by something, so if we always sought to avoid offense, we'd never do anything. Therefore doing anything is going to offend, so you really need to get over it."
- "Everyone else is stupid except me. Everyone else is an unenlightened boor except me. Bow down before your cultural and moral superior."
- "If you interpreted it that way, it's your mind with the problem. Takes one to know one."
- "You're the only one complaining. Silence implies consent. Therefore it's not really a big deal!"
- "(Insert some group underrepresented in the community) don't like (the focus of the community) anyway. So what's the problem?"
- "You're acting like a patronizing nanny, and we reasonable adults should be able to have a conversation without some humorless scold like you coming around to nag us all the time! Who are you to tell us how you feel?"
- "Talking about this only makes the (insert community) community look bad! Why are you airing our dirty laundry? You're just doing this to get attention!"
In effect, what you are saying is "I refuse to take responsibility for what I said or did, and I'm going to place the blame on you the audience for how you feel about it. I believe I am a good person, and I can't reconcile the idea that I might have done something wrong, so my cognitive dissonance will instead claim that everyone else in the world is wrong, if necessary, just to save face."
You're better off saying "I didn't mean to cause any offense," but even that is a weak apology, because it's not your intention that decides how other people will react. Yes, you get some credit for not telling other people how to feel, but it's still a weak response.
The proper response is "I'm sorry. I didn't think about how other people might take this. I don't want to exclude other people unnecessarily, so I'll be more cautious about what I say and do in the future."
That's what a reasonable adult would do when caught in a mistake. That's how to defuse an honest mistake and not turn yourself into a pariah.
(Yes, I assume you're a reasonable and thoughtful adult. You're capable of empathizing with other people even if they're not exactly the same as you. Even if you have self-diagnosed yourself with some sort of social interaction disorder, I expect you to live up to this standard.)
The Bottom Line
No one's saying "Don't have fun" or "Be bland and non-offensive." (I shouldn't have to write this, but I know some of you are still sliding down that slippery slope argument. Stop it.)
What we are saying is this: not everyone is like you. Not everyone likes what you like. Not everyone grew up the same way you grew up. Not everyone had the same opportunities or skills or goals or education or experiences you did, so think about what you say and do and how it might affect other people before you say or do it.
If you make a mistake (everyone makes mistakes), at least make honest mistakes, and then own up to them quickly and honestly.
That's it. That's not too onerous a burden for intelligent, capable, mature adults. It's just empathy after all.