On diversity, and whether it's worth the trouble
Let me try to put this in terms that might be of interest to your average guy programmer: So let’s say you have a girlfriend, and from time to time you say something that upsets her, when that wasn’t even what you intended. This is a bit of a sitcom cliche, but I dare say that life is gendered enough that this sort of thing happens a lot in the real world too. There are basically three ways you can deal with this:
1. You can say “what’s the big deal”, and not try to change at all, and try to convince her that she’s being oversensitive or uptight or she’s overreacting or whatever. You’ll probably get further with this tactic without actually using the words “oversensitive” or “uptight” or “overreacting” in the conversation. This might work a few times in the short term, but if you do it a lot, it’s not inconceivable that one day she’ll say to herself “he doesn’t care about my feelings” and break up with you.
2. You can say “bitch, you crazy” and break up with her. Always an option, and some differences are genuinely irreconcilable.
3. You can say “wow, I didn’t realize you felt that way”, and try to have a genuine discussion about what you intended by what you said, and how she reacted, and how you can find some sort of middle-ground with your desire to say whatever comes to mind and her desire to not have her feelings hurt by her boyfriend.
This third option can be unbelievably time-consuming, so why would you go to the trouble? Ideally, it’s not because she’s screaming “apologize or I’m leaving right now”. Ideally, it’s because you give a shit about her, and recognize that her needs and emotions matter. And that since you aren’t dating your clone, her needs and emotions will sometimes differ from yours, and then you’ll both have to do some work to bridge those gaps. People are different, but we still have to work to get along. This shit ain’t new: Read up on the Tower of Babel if you don’t believe me.
So, back to the pr0n incident: _why’s recent post, A Selection Of Thoughts From Actual Women, jibes with my own, limited sample set of the female programmers I know personally. A few women think the talk was nothing and we should move on, but most of them seem to have reactions that range from irritation to outrage. To me, if the mean reaction of female open source programmers to something is drastically different than the mean reaction of male open source programmers, that’s worth discussing.
As time goes on, this becomes less about Matt and his talk, and more about how the community as a whole deals with it. I don’t find Matt’s recent apology entirely satisfying, but I don’t even think it’s as important as how the rest of us are reacting to it.
There are a number of people who don’t think this incident is a big deal, and that we should just be done with the topic and move on. Some of these are people I consider friends, and I imagine many of these people are probably pretty cool to women in their personal lives. But I can’t help but feel like many of these people are taking the first strategy. They want to move on because the extensive conversation that some of us are having consumes a lot of time and energy, and they want to spend their time and energy on other things. This is an understandable and common reaction, but I think it’s not very effective in the long term if you care about the health of the community. Now, maybe you don’t care that strongly about the health of the community, which is fair I suppose, but if you were that sort of person you’d probably be absent from the discussions on blogs or mailing lists or Twitter in the first place.
The second strategy seems to be hinted at by those people who are using words like “overreaction” or “uptight” or “self-appointed moral crusaders”—there isn’t a lot of attempt to find common ground when you use words like that. (To be fair, many people on many sides have been excessively heated about it, and I hope that the heat fades but the discussion stays.) But if you’re going to say that, I wish you’d have the candor to actually say “if you’re the sort of person who finds this unwelcoming, and that makes you less involved in the Ruby scene, that’s fine, I won’t miss you.”
Me, I’d prefer the third approach, which is where people first honor other people’s expression of emotions, and then try to find common ground. There are people who are trying to do that now. This is all just talk in a community that values code, but guess what? Sometimes talk is valuable.
You know why I’d prefer that third approach? Because I’ve met a number of female Ruby programmers, and I’m glad to have met them. And I want them to come to the same Ruby events I go to or help host, and I want them to hang in the same IRC channels I hang out in, and I want them to enjoy themselves just as much as I enjoy myself. Because I want them to stick around, and because I want the next non-typical Ruby programmer who shows up to feel just a little bit more comfortable for that incremental increase in diversity.
Now, you could make the case that there are plenty of people in the Ruby world as it is, and if I were hard-pressed I don’t know that I could say that the female Ruby programmers I’ve met are concretely more awesome than the male Ruby programmers I’ve met, or that they’ve given me any specific insights that a male programmer would not have been able to, or anything specific like that. There are people who make arguments for the general value of having diverse perspectives in a community, and that diversity on many axes matters for that reason. I like that idea in general, but that’s not why I care about women in the Ruby scene.
I guess my motivation is far more selfish and subjective. I don’t want to spend a lot of my time in a scene that’s only guys or only straight people or only white people (or maybe in my case, only Asian people). This isn’t really a grand point about justice or oppression or whatnot: I just would like to go to conferences to share my passion for coding with other people, and not feel like I’m walking into a ghetto. Open source communities might actually be the least diverse communities I’ve ever spent time in, and I wish that would change. Life’s more fun when there are more women around, just like it’s more fun when there are more black people around or gay people around or whatnot. Is it more work? Absolutely. But what’s the point of living in the world if you’re not going to try to learn about all of it?
Now, obviously, my cultural priorities are my own and they’re pretty obvious to anyone who knows me. I’m a Korean who grew up in the Midwest, and I live in NYC on the same block as Latinos, Koreans, a half-Jordanian girl from Kansas, an Indian girl from Texas, and my next-door neighbors who are Eastern European in some way I can’t quite identify. I can imagine that there are others in the scene who don’t prioritize diversity so highly as a quality-of-life issue the way I do. I’d like to say I respect that difference of opinion. But to be honest, I actually find it pretty baffling.