January 2014 Archives

About putting up with harassment, and why we shouldn't

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There are very few things that make me feel this way now, but at the moment, I feel profoundly sad and disempowered. There's a discussion happening on the mailing list associated with a meeting I attend every year. Or at least, I've attended four out of the last five meetings. I've attended when I've been invited and felt welcome. And when I've hoped it would be a good experience. The discussion is about whether or not we should adopt a code of conduct for our upcoming meeting. There's some funding that's contingent on having a code of conduct. But aside from that, many members of the community feel (quite rightly, in my book), that having a code of conduct is important all on its own, even if there's not money attached to it. The conversation could be so simple. We need a code of conduct. Yes. Let's look at some existing ones. Instead, it's turned into a small minority trolling, trying to argue that a code of conduct is not only unnecessary, but is trampling their rights.

Let's be clear: I have been harassed twice at this meeting. I have had men yell at me and use me as a stand-in for all of the injustices they perceive women level against them. It's not a nice feeling. And that harassment happened the first year that I otherwise felt really welcome. I was invited by the organizers. I arrived a couple of days before the event started. I got to participate in all kinds of great things and meet amazing people. On the whole, it was a pretty good meeting for me that year. But that doesn't detract from how powerful the harassment was. I have been harassed since, in other places that should be safe. In all of these circumstances, I have had no real recourse. Generally, I'm a pretty strong person. I stand up for myself, I believe in my own worth, and I am more than capable of both fighting back and mobilizing support. These are traits that I've had to learn in order to exist and do work in F/LOSS communities. I have had to learn to have a thick skin and ignore things like people insulting me or suggesting that I should die (both have happened). I have had to learn to put up with men (always men, it seems) shouting in my face.

Not everyone should have to learn to put up with these things. These are not things that should be admissable in the course of daily life. These are not behaviours we should go to the walls to protect in the name of free speech and liberty. The last time I was harassed, I gave my own back. I calmly argued against my aggressor. I was in a crowded coffee shop on a university campus. He was yelling at me loudly. He went on for some time. I tried to stay rational and to meet his arguments. He was yelling at me because I'd said "Excuse me, but you were standing a little too close for my comfort when we were in line." He took this comment as an excuse to give me a tirade about how privileged women in university are, and how they assume sexual harassment at the smallest incident. I didn't. I just didn't like him stepping on my foot. I wanted to politely tell him so, in case he simply hadn't noticed. It didn't go well, clearly. No one intervened. No one paid attention. I was entirely on my own in a crowded coffee shop full of students. I walked back to my office, feeling angry. And when I sat down, that anger dissolved into tears. It's not easy to have someone verbally assault you in public. It's worse to have no recourse. I didn't know his name, and it's a big university. There was nothing I could do.

What distresses me about the mailing list discussion that started out this post is that there are people (like the man who verbally assaulted me in the coffee shop) who believe that the things they do aren't harmful. In F/LOSS communities, people bring up free speech as a means of protecting aggressors. They assume that a code of conduct will somehow make them less free. Unfortunately, the lack of a code of conduct makes many other people less free. I have learned to put up with or fight back against a hell of a lot in the five years I've been actively involved with F/LOSS. Not every new entrant to a community should have to do that. An interested newcomer should be able to discover the community without harassment or assault. There should be some recourse available to those who are on the receiving end of harassment. It should not be okay to tell people that they are lesser, that they don't belong, that they are deserving of hatred and bile.

I've never actually committed to writing before the fact that I was harrassed at a meeting I still attend. Or that I was verbally assaulted at the university where I study and work. Now I have. But the one thing I can't bring myself to do is participate in the mailing list discussion. I wish I could. I want to. But it scares me that the discussion is all in the abstract right now. No one has come out and said "I have been harrassed at our meeting." I worry that in an environment where safety and protection are being written off as unnecessary, an admission that I've been harrassed will not be well received. It will instead be the beginning of a potentially long and painful discussion, replete with ad hominem attacks, straw men and victim blaming. So here we are. The best I can do right now, short of exposing myself to more of the same.