Neil Kandalgaonkar

hacker, maker of things

Shame tactics

My friend Ari Lacenski just wrote a short piece on some tactics she saw developing in the reaction to sexism in the tech industry. Go read it - “Shaming, Doxxing, and Making Culture”, but if you’re impatient, the conclusion is:

I see that at least three Double Union participants believe that shaming and doxxing are good ways to get men to work with, sympathize with, and value women. I dissent, and believe that culture can only really be changed with kindness.

First of all, I want to recognize how much courage it takes to dissent with fellow dissenters, on principle, and in public. I had a similar test in my past, and I didn’t do so well. And maybe that incident will be illuminating for people who think that having a shame-fest is going to bring about change.

In the early 90s, I used to be heavily involved in student newspapers. In Canada, student newspapers at the time often had a left-wing radical bent, and the annual conference even more so. While the agenda was dominated by green-haired smash-the-staters from big urban universities, the membership also included small papers from rural colleges, barely more than high school newsletters.

Committees to accomplish various tasks are convened on the spot, and that year I served on the Membership Committee. For the most part, this committee is just about helping papers onboard with the organization, ensure their dues are paid up, that sort of thing. However, this was also period where institutions of all kinds were trying to be more sensitive to sexism. In our case, this included codes about how member papers should act, and being a sexist organization was potentially a reason for expulsion from the organization.

This was a small committee - maybe four or five people. When one of us discovered that she could strike a blow for feminism this way, something in her changed. Even in the course of doing other business, she would bring up potentially questionable editorial content, and start to imply that their membership was at stake. Generally the delegates were apologetic, and said they would deal with the problem. At this point, for the rest of us on the committee, we realized she was making this a personal mission, but it within the bounds of what we were supposed to do.

But then it started to take a turn for the worse. I found her sitting with stacks of newspapers from all the member papers, going through every page to find something that was sexist or homophobic or otherwise non-progressive. I remember her eyes being slightly bugged out as she was hunched over on the floor.

When it came time to present the committee’s report about the membership status of various papers to the entire plenary, she volunteered. Not eager to engage in this fairly boring activity, I went off to concentrate on other things.

Later that day I heard what had happened; she had turned that session into a kind of Stalinist trial of various member papers. She had particularly picked out those smaller, rural student newspapers, who were more mainstream in their culture. Sometimes the issues she found were of genuine concern, but I remember one case vividly - an editorial cartoon depicting a diver and a shark - where she went after them because the diver was depicted with a stereotypical Barbie-style hourglass shape. They had one delegate at this conference, and my fellow committee member reduced her to tears in front of the entire plenary.

At this point I showed up to our session, aghast at what was going on, and trying to show by my visible non-participation that I wasn’t cool with any of this. But I didn’t do anything concrete to stop it. It was one of the low points of the conference and I felt like everyone was a bit scarred by it. I’m certain that it caused some members to drop out of the organization.

Now there will be some people who will take my example to mean that all official standards of conduct inevitably lead to witch-hunts and persecution. That is not the case. What went wrong here was that one person took advantage of a particular moment in history, where people were perhaps overcorrecting for past sexism, and likely to grant more leeway.

An institution should be more immune to trends like that. And that’s where we failed. There wasn’t a clear process to decide, in private, whether one organization or another was really problematic, before taking it to the larger plenary. Or if there was, the other committee members, including myself, failed in that respect.

Instead it became about making a public case about someone, from incidents which might not have been representative. Empowering one vigilante to act as the conscience of the group, and then bullying everyone else into either going along with it, or having to say they were okay with sexism.

So, bringing this back to the present: while I support calling out sexist and other behavior whenever it happens, it should be something that everyone does, on their own personal authority. I would caution against making any special events or institutions which tried to influence the tech industry primarily through shaming, or worse, doxxing. There are people who richly deserve such treatment (and worse). But you will soon find that the shaming platform will itself become a kind of power, and the general problem of sexism in tech will shield such a group from criticism, at least among their progressive peers. Ultimately I suspect such a group would do more harm than good.