Sunday, September 27, 2009

Plus Ça Change, Plus C'est La Même Damned Chose...

I didn't attend LinuxCon this year for a variety of reasons—chief among them being that I'd have had to go straight to Portland from Amsterdam rather than get to visit my home—so I missed out on the talk by Mark Shuttleworth. I did read about it on the geekfeminism blog, however.

Sorry, Mark: explaining this stuff to anyone is hard, not just to "girls". Here we go again, falling into the bad and distancing habit of using women as the archetype of technical non-adeptitude. I do it myself: I've worked hard to break myself of the habit of using my mom or my daughter as someone who something is "easy enough for", with incomplete success. Moshiwake gozaimasen. Ganbarimasu.

Look, it's awfully easy to say bone-headed things: I've done it (and still do it, occasionally) and so have you. What's a lot harder is being able to step back from the knee-jerk need to defend oneself and look at the situation from the point of view of the person who's complaining about it.

(Let me also note that, in fact, not every single complaint of offense may have merit: I do not, personally, feel obligated to apologize to platypus fanciers for saying that platypi are funny-looking, or to creationists who are upset that I'm somehow abridging their freedom of religion by looking askance at mythology being taught as "scientific theory". However, my bar for having offended others is pretty low, "reasonable doubt" that the person's offense might be out-of-line, rather than my own perception of "preponderance of the evidence"...)

The appropriate response at that point is not to counsel the other person that they're wrong to feel offense, but to acknowledge their feelings (which doesn't mean agreeing with them) and to apologize. Not "I'm sorry that you're feeling offended", but "I'm sorry for having offended you", ideally with some actual sincerity. At that point, one is well-advised to rethink the behavior that caused the offense, and to find some more useful substitute behavior for future use.

I've met Mark several times, and I think he's an essentially reasonable guy. I hope, and expect, that he'll respond to Skud in a reasonable way. We'll see.

On a somewhat related note, I was interested to read the minutes of the FSF's "mini-summit" on increasing the participation of women in free software, with a stated mission "to increase women's participation in the free software movement and work to make sexism in person or online unacceptable within our community". Sadly, there's no suggestion among the various "Initiatives" along the lines of "Discourage FSF leaders and representatives from telling jokes in keynotes which portray women as in need of technical assistance of an intrusive and nonconsensual sort, from the sound of things". I'm a little surprised they missed that one, frankly.

I'm likewise fascinated at the performance of Bruce Perens on LWN in the discussion on the "mini-summit" there. Bruce is pretty sure that there's no problem at all, or at least no problem for us to address. Additionally, Bruce's experience as a white-water rafting guide apparently allows him to assure us that the sort of behavior that people are finding upsetting is caused by Asperger's Syndrome, and therefore cannot possibly be fixed, and it's wrong of us to draw attention to it. Interestingly, Bruce has also only encountered one single solitary woman in all his years who knew how to use EMACS. Says Bruce, "What I meant was that there are more women who hold technical jobs than there are women who so love the technology that they will work on it whether they get paid or not. That seems to be an especially male thing." You can't make this stuff up.

I was likewise not at the Boston "Software Freedom Day", but I read on the GeekFeminism wiki that a question regarding the Gran Canaria keynote was put to Mr. Stallman there, and he responded that "The person who brought that up seems to be a troll-like enemy of the free software movement." This was, by the way, the same event at which Mr. Stallman felt it necessary to label Miguel de Icaza "a traitor to the free software movement". (Was there a loyalty oath? I missed that...)

At least I'm in decent company. Maybe Miguel and I can get t-shirts made up or something.


etienne.adam said...

moshiwake, not moshiawake

why use japanese ?

Lefty said...

No particular reason, other than studying it is a regular activity of mine. Thanks for the spelling correction; did you want to discuss the actual issues, or just my language skills?

Tom said...

I knew that when I saw the first posting that you would comment on it.

Feel free to censor this comment ..

Lefty said...


Lefty said...

@Tom, I took the pledge. You should, too.

Seanbot said...

Hey Lefty, at least the community has got your back. We've had some exceptional writers lately pull off some heavy critiscisms of the FSF, sexism in FOSS, etc. Below are some specific posts for your own enjoyment. Perk up, buddy, everything's gonna be okay!

"The FSF is Getting Desperate":,2026.0.html

"Miguel De Trotsky":,2354.0.html

"Keeping the Cake and Eating It":,2255.0.html

"Most Effective Terror Weapon is...The Workforce":,2122.0.html

"Brainwashing at the FSF":,1935.0.html

"The Heart of Darkness":,1973.0.html


"More Stupidity From Stallman":,1810.0.html

"The Proud Warriors of FOSS":,1881.0.html

So yeah, don't worry. has got your back for exposing the lies. Granted, we're considered a "troll forum" currently, but you're always more than welcome to participate. We keep constant tabs on BoycottNovell, GNU/FSF, and zealots in general.


Anonymous said...

Amsterdam to Portland has nonstop service now? What do they call that, Potland to Potland Express?

Ed Ropple said...


I generally agree with how you approach these topics, but I can't shake the feeling that this one's a little out-there. Not because of who it is; it goes without saying that nobody's beyond reproach. And I'm wary of arbitrary differences-in-degree rather than differences-in-kind. And this does strike me as a difference-in-kind.

I think there are two ways to take what Mr. Shuttleworth said: explaining to girls-as-in-women, or explaining to girls-as-in-somebody-you'd-chat-up-at-a-bar. I have a hard time parsing this as anything other than the latter, and as he's speaking from his own perspective, and as far as I know he's heterosexual, I would assume the people he'd thus be chatting up are--yep--girls.

I don't want to get overly lit'rary because I don't have the tweed jacket and leather patches to do it right, but if I'm reading Mr. Shuttleworth correctly, he's attempting to channel shared experiences to better drive home the point. Not all of an audience is going to share the same experiences, and it's a mark of a good public speaker when they can choose ones that do resonate with the entirety of an audience. Not always doable, of course.

The issue of an apology is a sticky one. I don't think that it's right to twist an apology out for an innocent miscommunication, as what seems to be the case here. But then the question becomes, what's the bar for an innocent miscommunication? Something I think is an innocent miscommunication--this situation, for example--clearly doesn't appear to be an innocent miscommunication to others. The nice thing about an apology is that it doesn't cost you anything, but I do feel that there's something of a hidden cost (in terms of pride, which is something that is not an inherent negative and is something that must be considered whenever dealing with people) that may have unintended, and unfortunate, consequences. Worrying about whether you're going to be called out for a joke is a good way to lose a lot of life from whatever you're talking about. I'm not a big fan of "political correctness" as a pejorative, but if an honest joke (as I think it is) makes your email catch I have a hard time swallowing that.

You seem to recognize this, though, as you note that not all complaints of offense have merit. I have a question for you, though: What leads you to the conclusion that this particular complaint does? What rubric do you think is fair for analyzing the value of a complaint of offense? (Not intended to be a snarky question, just one to dig a little deeper and see if there's a meeting of the minds somewhere in here. :-) )


Lefty said...

Reasonable questions. I'd suggest that offering an apology generally costs nothing, and that refusing to do so pretty much tosses out the possibility of "innocent mistakes".

As I said, we say silly things, sometimes very hurtful things, all day long. Usually, we're not walking around intending to be either silly or hurtful, but we don't usually consider how are words can be taken by others. Not all jokes work well in all situations, and it's a truism for public speakers that you have to be very careful about how you use humor in a public setting.

If you allow it to become an "ego thing", then you're going to dig in your heels and insist that there's nothing to apologize for, increasing the distance even further. However, if you can go so far as to admit that it's possible that someone might have taken it in a way you didn't intend--and clearly, that's possible in the case of Mark's remarks--then you simply have to say, "I honestly didn't intend for it to be taken that way, and I'm sorry for creating confusion or bad feelings. I'll think a little harder about how I try to say what I was trying to in the future."

Ain't that hard. It may sting a bit, but it's good for you: builds character, see?

A part of the issue here is that people are becoming extremely sensitized to the issue, in large part because there have been a number of egregious examples this year, some dealt with better than others: GoGaRuCo, Flashbelt, Stallman's GCDS keynote, etc...