You Don't Get to Choose How Other People Feel


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.


The common thread in most of those answers is that at their core they say "You are wrong to feel that way. Your feelings are incorrect." As you state in the title, you don't get to choose how other people feel, and you don't get to declare what they "should" be.

Feelings CAN'T be incorrect. They are not facts. I wonder if this is a geek thing, to have an internalized expectation that there is right and wrong in our human emotions, like there's right and wrong output from a program.

I think such minimization is a common human habit rather than something specific to geeks. It's displayed by people of all stripes, and can be harmful enough that it's specified in some models of domestic violence:

It is important to ponder the potential outcome of our actions, and to take personal responsibility for when they misfire horribly. We don't have to be dull and lifeless. It would be nice to recognize that other people have feelings despite not being us.

Like Brian said, it doesn't seem to be specific to geeks. It's very human to think that our individual actions and feelings and decisions are logical while those of other people (especially those who disagree!) are irrational and suspect.

By the same token, you don't get to choose how other people speak. Today it's sexuality that is supposed to be verboten. What is it tomorrow?

A world in which any and all non-tech analogies must be eliminated for fear of triggering someone's emotions is not a world I want to live in.

A world in which any and all non-tech analogies must be eliminated for fear of triggering someone's emotions is not a world I want to live in.

Look, it's an occurrence of a slippery slope fallacy I already mentioned in the article!

Why of course by not going out of our way to exclude people, we're forbidding ourselves from discussing anything interesting. It's not just obvious that your freedom of speech must never be questioned, it's required that we allow you to behave like an unsocialized boor.

... or, you know, we could be suggesting that you bother to think about how other people might react to things you say and do, like the reasonable and mature adult we think you are.

Your anticipating an objection doesn't invalidate it.

You know me; I take no joy in causing discomfort for its own sake. But there is no way for me to anticipate what precise line, once crossed, will make people uncomfortable -- generally or specifically.

And there is no reason for me to presume that such discomfort (of whatever strength) should presumptively be taken as the primary valuation of anyone's speech.

I think this is a question to be considered on a case-by-case basis. Only. And always.

I'm not sure who suggested that "could this possibly cause offense by a universal and immutable metric" is a useful (or even possible) standard for judging speech, let alone the primary mechanism of judging speech. If you're looking for such a metric, you won't find it from me.

As for using your best judgment on individual cases, yes. That's why the focus on empathy. I'm suggesting that sexualizing technology is both unnecessary and fraught with peril.

We know each other to be reasonable people, so can we agree that the Reasonable Person Principle applies?

Even a lot of the seemingly Unreasonable Persons are reasonable but have been shaped by a different set of circumstances. Empathy is tricky. I had to take a long class on not being a jerk to figure out how easy it is to be a jerk.

The logical extension of the title is...

"You dont get to choose how other people feel, but you do get to choose how you feel"

So whilst a wise presenter or writer should be mindful of offending the people you want to ingratiate - a person needs to not be be a victim, have thick skin, and make lemonade out of lemons. The ability to bridal our feelings and reactions is what defines our humanity.

If you are offended (which you will be in life), then seek an apology out of genuine concern for the offender not out of malice or revenge.

While I know you to be a reasonable person, I still disagree with you on some things, and this is one of them.

As I read it, your blog post sends the message that we all should self-sensor because it is our responsibility both to anticipate the negative reactions of those we address and always to avoid such reactions. This is a fool's errand.

To be difficult to offend is a virtue that has generally fallen out of favor, much to my chagrin. And a *public* taking of offense is a method of control. It says: "What you have said disturbs me; you have harmed me by exposing me to it. Stop and apologize, or my public fainting spell will mark you as a cad and a scoundrel." For the most part, such offense is not worth taking note of, and should be ignored.

Note that I refer here only to discourse that an audience finds merely distasteful or even disgusting. I'm not discussing intimidation or assault. But I digress.

Who can say ahead of time whether something that out of context might be "offensive" might end up being highly valued *in* context? Can the value of George Carlin's "Seven Words" routine be reduced to its vocabulary list? To do so would be to miss its whole point!

The imposition of *prior* restraint, no matter how gently phrased, is an evil that should not be allowed to take root. Feel free to criticize and even condemn what has been said by anyone, anywhere; any speaker must be prepared to take hir lumps. But do not venture to criticize what has not yet been said.

I think you're overthinking things, Chip.

Would you get up and give a talk at a technology conference filled with references to the attractiveness of actresses before and after elective cosmetic surgery?

If you accidentally made an off the cuff lewd remark while the microphone were on, would you apologize?

I'm not suggesting that you should self censor because someone's offended you (for example) think C++ is an appropriate technology choice. I am suggesting that you consider whether the actions or words you're considering will exclude or offend people unnecessarily.

Since you've ventured to guess my frame of mind, let me return the favor. You are *under*thinking this. You're running on emotion. You're letting white knight emotions run away with your knowledge of history and human nature.

You say you only want people to "consider" the consequences of their words. What makes you think they don't? I think they do, and I think you know they do. Certainly many offensive people are offensive by choice, as you know. So your actual agenda, whether you recognize it or not, is censorship by prior restraint.

To which I say: No chance.

If you accidentally made an off the cuff lewd remark while the microphone were on, would you apologize?

Yes, but more out of reflex than conviction.

Would you get up and give a talk at a technology conference filled with references to the attractiveness of actresses before and after elective cosmetic surgery?

I haven't seen the pictures in question, but it doesn't sound like my style. I personally find mutilation distractingly unpleasant, whether in was pursuit of beauty or for any other reason.

Now that I've answered these questions, I hope you see how irrelevant they are, and will reconsider asking them of others.

True, some people are offensive by choice.

Tell me though--what's the difference between George Carlin demonstrating the absurdity of censorship in a comedy routine in an adults-only comedy club and between someone sexualizing technology in a venue open to people of all ages and backgrounds with the only mutual interest of a specific technology?

Someone who does the latter on purpose we might call a troll. Certainly most of us call it disruptive behavior.

Someone who does the latter on accident we hope will respond reasonably to being called out in a reasonable fashion.

Someone who does the latter, then digs in his heels and says "My right to be offensive and heard is more important than the community's right to welcome the people it wants to welcome!" is, in my view, not acting reasonably.

Frankly I see no problem with expecting people in a community to act with prior and appropriate restraint.

Perl conferences are not academic symposia. Perl culture is a bunch of people who've come to be friends and acquaintances and occasionally enemies. What we need to learn, we can learn online. When we meet, yes we talk tech; but mostly we visit old friends, make new ones, and patch up our occasional(!) differences.

In short: If conferences stayed on topic, we wouldn't need them.

You know this, but in the end, you -- one of our self-appointed press agents -- wish to include the oversensitive by excluding whoever they least like at the moment. You're self-aware enough to realize this is so. And... you're OK with it?! Incredulity competes with grief.

I hope Perl culture can survive this fad of inoffensiveness. I am not optimistic. Purification, once started, never ends.

PS: You really need to look up what "prior restraint" means.

You haven't addressed the unnecessary sexualization of technology. I feel like you're trying to make a general point about the evils of censorship but I'm not interested in something so vague.

Are you suggesting that people who object to that are being "oversensitive"? Should they grow up into the type of moral superiority you prefer? Should they grow thicker skin? (Maybe we should withhold commit access until the requesters provide a couple of really good rape and dead baby jokes.)

(I'm fully aware of the legal definition of prior restraint. Only a solipsist would confuse himself with the US Government, and I'm not a solipsist, so I cheerfully don't care if a solipsist confuses my recommendation to empathize with others with some sort of jackbooted nihil obstat.)

I only recommended looking up prior restraint because you misused the term. As that was intentional, never mind. One need not be a government to exercise it, by the way, but no matter now.

Singling out sexuality is a red herring. I didn't address it specifically; it has no specific relevance.

As for the rest: Sorry if I wasn't clear, but I gave up arguing with you once it became clear that the dystopian future I warned against is what you wanted all along. Enjoy your visions of bowdlerized Perl conferences future. Celebrate, I demand it! And may "Bob" have mercy on your soul.

Singling out sexuality is a red herring.

Specifics are the enemy of the slippery slope!

Enjoy your visions of bowdlerized Perl conferences future.

I rather think there are options other than George Carlin giving a zombie keynote from beyond the grave with a bevy of Tijuana escorts subjecting attendees to random gropings and everyone sitting quietly, heads bowed, in our matching gruel-gray uniforms, chanting some bland mantra.

(Many conferences seem to manage to find a reasonable balance between the two. I recommend the Open Source Bridge Conference next year. I'll buy you the beverage of your choice.)

The argument about censorship and the need (or lack thereof) to self-censor is a bit bizarre.

Everyone self-censors to some degree. We don't vocalize every passing thought that comes into our head, and very people will argue that we should.

For example, when you meet an attractive member of your preferred sex for the first time you probably wouldn't say "you're very attractive and I'd like to have sex with you", even though you might be thinking it. (Yes, there are contexts where you *could* say that, but Perl conferences are not one of them.)

So the question is not "should we self-censor" but "to what degree should we self-censor?" I'm not sure what to make of any line of argument which doesn't take this into account.

I also think the focus on whether something offends people is misplaced. We can't entirely predict what will offend people, and sometimes it's okay to say something we know will offend. For example, I might reasonably be offended if someone said "I really don't like your software. I don't think it's well-engineered because of X, Y, and Z." But the fact that I'm offended doesn't mean that the person who said that did anything wrong (although tone and context are everything).

Once someone expresses offense, how do we react? We might not think that the content is offensive, but that's not the point. The thing to consider is whether we want to make our community one which welcomes people who are offended by this particular content.

This is a valid question, because there are things our community endorses that will offend people. We think Perl is great (and we think it sucks). We think dynamic languages are useful. We like modules instead of monoliths. These views might offend some folks, and we don't care.

I think (hope?) we can also agree that we want people who aren't straight white males to feel welcome in the Perl community. If we *do* want such people involved we must question our assumptions about shared values and what consistutes acceptable expression.

But it's okay to not know what might offend someone who's very different from you. We can't always predict other people's responses.

I talked to a woman at YAPC who really disliked Schwern's keynote and said it made her feel *more* of an outsider by raising the very issue of her not being in the majority. She didn't want to talk about "being a woman in the Perl community". This is a totally valid point of view. If I insisted on talking to her about that topic that'd be as bad (worse, really) as the stupid comic that started this thread.

This is actually all really simple. Respect other people's wishes about how they would like to be treated. Don't shove content down their throats that they don't want just because it doesn't bother *you*. When you do something that upsets someone, apologize sincerely. You may decide to forgo future interaction with that person because you can't agree on what's acceptable in coversation. In public forums with many participants, be more restrained so that everyone can enjoy themselves.

You can still be yourself, just not your full unrestrained self all the time. Is this really so very difficult? Is it really necessary to have this argument over and over?

This is a terrific discussion. I feel like I am watching a fencing match between experts. I too think this issue is very important to the community because I was in Madison and I found Michael Schwern's presentation to be so vigorous that it made me uncomfortable and I am concerned about its affect on first-time attendees. His points were very well said and his slides were hilarious and insightful ("On the other hand, the first thing Captain Picard does is to call a meeting").

The concern I have is about the liberal use of the term "reasonable." Literally the word means only that there is some rational basis for a decision, point of view, etc. -- as compared to being arbitrary. But the word also has come to carry a sense of value, as in one hypothetically saying that "your reason is so weak and counterbalanced by other reasons in my opinion that it's unreasonable for you or anyone else to believe it."

Although chromatic makes so many other good points (oh, that I were able to be half as logically convincing), I submit that it's not especially helpful to say that it's "reasonable" for a person to be expected to be empathetic to another person. Awfully courteous, decent, socially helpful, admirable, compassionate, and a whole host of positive reasons -- but one can come up with positive-sounding reasons why one should choose to disregard about another person's subjective response, such as personal integrity, personal liberty, and society's interest in fostering discussion of "controversial" subjects so as to push society "forward." So there are "reasons" going both ways with respect to the expectation of empathy, and if one says it's only "reasonable," that doesn't help me much.

I can get my head around the proposition that one SHOULD NOT sexualize technology because it offends some people, and encouraging/advocating for that result, and being quite passionate about wanting to convince people that such behavior is rude. But I can't agree with the idea that one MUST NOT sexualize technology merely because it probably would offend at least one person in the community and that unanimous shunning of the offender by the community is the only response supported by reason. That feels to me like "political correctness" with all of its attendant shutdown of thought and discussion.

Maybe this distinction isn't very important unless it were in the context of a formal resolution by a committee or other institutional source of power in the community, such as the group that takes on responsibility for running a YAPC. I could agree with a resolution that the sexualizing of technology is very much discouraged and unwelcome, but it would make my skin crawl to see a resolution that such behavior, once judged offensive by the majority vote of the committee, will result in the person being punished (e.g., the person will not be allowed to speak at another conference).

I can see the argument that "reasonable" and "reason" have close connotations. I use the term "reasonable person" in what I believe the same way the Reasonable Person Principle does: to explain how a typical member of the community would behave in a situation which posed a threat of harm through action or inaction.

You can find that definition in discussions of common law systems; it's a term often used to explain how a jury might judge the actions of an individual, for example.

I myself favor personally Kant's Categorical Imperative, which roughly asks "What are the consequences if everyone did what I'm considering doing?" but I'm not going to put that onus on anyone else.

You and Chip are very much right that codifying this guideline into a single governing principle which could be applied mechanically would have chilling (and hopefully unintended) consequences, but I don't know that anyone's suggested such a thing were possible or desirable! Similarly no one's saying "don't think $x" or "don't say $y".

Instead the principles are "treat other people with respect, even if you disagree" and "conduct yourself as if the community is larger than you and other people just like you" and "own the consequences of your actions". If you decide that saying or doing something outside of community norms is necessary, you have that right—but do own up to your actions and, by all means, don't tell other people that they have no right to their own reactions.

(Especially as a way to evade responsibility for your own actions.)

I agree with everything Dave ( above) said.

It's sad and frustrating that whenever a woman (or other "outsider") tells they didn't/don't want to work in technology generally or open source specifically (anymore) because of, basically, the jerks and crummy culture that I don't have a better truthful answer than "yup, I can't disagree".

> we all should self-sensor because it is our responsibility both to anticipate the negative reactions of those we address and always to avoid such reactions

Well... when it's off-topic or nonessential to the entire community and something that's offended someone before, yes, you should probably self-censor.

Right? Why risk ruining a RoR mailing list because you like dick jokes or quoting Rand Paul newsletters when you can make a subreddit for that stuff in like 10 seconds and totally free?

when it's off-topic or nonessential to the entire community and something that's offended someone before, yes, you should probably self-censor

Only code and words specifically about code are on topic. Everything elsefun about a convention is off-topic. So that's no excuse.

Dave's comment "The thing to consider is whether we want to make our community one which welcomes people who are offended by this particular content." is the most valuable comment I've read in this thread if not the entire history of this issue. It gets to the heart of why we should discuss this at all.

Asking people to consider others' feelings and act thoughtfully isn't particularly helpful. Everyone's already doing that as much as they're going to. The ones who are behaving like jerks either have standards that say they're already being considerate or they don't care anyway. Trying to argue for some kind of objective standard that would produce the desired results without any ambiguity is a fool's errand when we're talking about morals rather than code. One side wants to prevent harassment by groping or slides with sexual content. Another side thinks the first side's solution is going to result in a joyless chilling of harmless free speech. And never the twain shall meet.

Where the rubber meets the road is in the community's decisions about what standards it wants to adopt. Then it can censure people who fall outside those standards, whether those people agree or not. We can reduce the doubt about what the community standards are by talking about them in discussions like this. That, ultimately, is the only useful place this discussion can end up; in deciding what kind of conduct is unacceptable in this community and what we will do about it.

Dave gives us the touchstone for making those decisions: will the result in the inclusion of people we want in our community? On the one hand, people like my late father, who would be 105, could cause offense to some people without realizing it; he didn't mean to offend racially, it was just due to the way he was raised. But that doesn't mean the people who were offended had no right to be offended just because he didn't mean it. On the other hand, sure, there are some people who make a hobby out of taking offense at innocuous statements and enjoy torquing politically sensitive people to see how many knots they can tie them up in. Heck, if we declared anything not about code off-limits then every decent keynote speech would be banned. But Dave's touchstone gives us a simple litmus test that bypasses any need to divine motivation: Do we want the participation of the people who have been offended and may otherwise leave? That's the star to steer by.

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This page contains a single entry by chromatic published on August 29, 2012 9:56 AM.

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