Diverse Discussions

So, there’s another round of gender/race drama going down on teh intarwebs.

It seems that there was a conference, BritRuby, slated to run next year in Manchester, England. Only there was some criticism on Twitter of their all-white-guy lineup. Suddenly, without warning, the organizers canceled the conference. The organizers published an official statement on the conference website, but Sean Handley, one of the organizers, offered a much better and more detailed explanation.

I was unaware of BritRuby until it was canceled. Even if I’d known about it, I couldn’t have participated. So if you think this is a post about BritRuby itself, it’s not. I don’t have an opinion one way or another about BritRuby or their speaker lineup.

But here’s why I do care: because I think it’s deeply unfortunate that anyone is blaming a Twitter conversation about diversity for the cancellation of the conference. That’s absurd. The issue is not whether the Twitterverse has an opinion. The issue is that sponsors pulled out.

Hang on, let’s back up a step.

The official statement on the BritRuby website said, “Sadly, BritRuby was used as the arena to air these issues on Twitter and this has fundamentally destroyed any chance we had of addressing these issues.” And there’s a bunch of Twittering about how people were dogpiling on BritRuby.

Figuring things must have gotten really nasty, I went searching for the smoking gun on Twitter.

I couldn’t find it.

Where were the activist bullies? Where were the accusations of sexism or misogyny? I found none of that. Instead I found expressions of regret:

And offers of help:

Plus some defensiveness:

There were no flame fests, no diatribes. The more I dug, the more it seemed like a relatively mild discussion on Twitter got reflected back and turned around until people who expressed their opinion were being attacked viciously in tweets with words like “Shame on you” and “Disgusting” and “You ruined everything.”

It appeared that the mere question of diversity had a polarizing effect, dividing people into Us v. Them without anyone actually having thrown the first stone.

This is the underlying tragedy: we cannot have a discussion about the issue of diversity in technology without teh intarwebs hitting resonant frequency until something falls apart.

Ultimately, that’s why I care and why I am wading into the fray myself. If we cannot talk about diversity issues openly, we cannot address them. So attempting to shut down discussion of the issue, to shame people into silence, is the same as actively opposing diversity.

If you personally choose not to address diversity issues, that’s fine. Don’t address them. Keep your own silence. But don’t expect that others will ignore the issue just because you want to ignore it. Don’t ask them to be silent.

If you become fed up enough to wade into the general mayhem and express your opinions, do a little research first. Don’t fly off the handle at accusations that someone said something. Find the original quotes. Respond to actual statements, not to incendiary reactions to over-reactions to original statements.

What is at risk here isn’t just a conference. It’s something much bigger: the ability to discuss very real, very personal issues in an open forum.

Update thanks to Laurent Bossavit:

The full list:

Still seems pretty mild to me; not nearly enough to bring down a whole conference all by itself.

But wait, it gets better. Laurent then searched to find the reactions to the original comments. It’s those reactions where folks reframed the original comments using trigger words like “sexism” and “racism.” See Laurent’s link for details.


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8 Responses to Diverse Discussions

  1. Kurt November 19, 2012 at 4:20 am #

    I don’t think this conference itself or its organisers deserves too much harsh criticism. Although I think if any community has such significant issues, and this is not the first time this issue has had to have been discussed in relation to the Ruby community, that a conference cannot attract a single female speaker, then it probably should be cancelled.

    I mean it sticks out like a red thumb these days, especially with sexism being such an important topic. Most conferences I attend have a healthy proportion of female speakers. The fact that a conference line-up these days features not a single one, indicates a serious sickness that needs to be addressed. And I don’t mean the conference or the organisers are explicitly sexist! People seem to think in binary when it comes to this topic. The issue is more subtle than that.

    I know would not want to be associated with an event that couldn’t attract a single female speaker.

    The organisers should look at organising an event explicitly for women instead. They have been quite successful in the past.

  2. Chuck vdL November 19, 2012 at 9:00 pm #

    It makes me wonder if we can ever have effective discussions on polarizing topics via mediums like twitter or even message boards. Is this the fault of the people involved or the medium? Is it due as you pointed out mostly to late joiners who don’t bother to read more than maybe one or two posts/tweets before going off the handle.

    Would the same people be able to have a rational discussion face to face? (at the very least it would seem to prevent a lot of the late joiner over the top type statements)

  3. Matt Casto November 19, 2012 at 11:15 pm #

    Very nice post. Thanks for the research and links.

    I don’t know what to think about this whole thing. As a conference organizer, I am myself concerned about diversity. Although being concerned about people _thinking_ you aren’t diverse shows the problem. Hopefully we can all learn from this incident.

  4. J. B. Rainsberger November 20, 2012 at 2:55 am #

    @Chuck vdL: I have had heated, weeks-long conversations over mailing lists in the past that have nevertheless converged to some part of agreement and some part of agreeing to disagree. In one or two cases, it even ended with my respecting my interlocutor a little more. This happens when we remain calm, stick to the points, give each other some latitude to vent, verify our assumptions by asking questions, and treat the discussion itself with respect. It’s not always civil, but I have found persisting in these arguments to pay off. Most of the time it explodes or fizzles, as one side either jumps into the deep end or succumbs to their frustration and storms off. But when we persist, when we argue like we’re right, but listen like we’re wrong, I have to say, it feels fantastic to reach a destination where we thank each other for remaining and engaged.

    So yes, I think we can do it.

  5. Tony McNamara November 21, 2012 at 2:55 pm #

    What you overlook is the permanent stain accusations make. It’s perfectly rational to believe that most British Ruby geeks are white males. If I was to hold a symposium on rebuilding 1970s muscle cars in Seattle, I’d expect a similar mix. If I was to hold a quilting festival in Detroit, I wouldn’t be surprised if NO white males attended as primary participants… it’s the demographics of the craft and the area.

    But only the former would result in the stain of accusation.

    As a female, perhaps you’re incapable of seeing the damage done by such accusations. Even if refuted, they leave a mark. So we avoid them. If you look back in Seattle news a few years, you will see several cases where bystanders and even security guards in Seattle refused to intervene in beatings because the perpetrators were from a demographic group (including age) that would almost automatically result in a lawsuit and huge personal risk against anyone who even touches them. THAT is the problem.

    We can’t discuss diversity because the risk of the discussion is too high for one side. There’s no safe answer other than supporting “equality of outcomes”, which is inherently racist and sexist, and puts diversity ahead of merit.

  6. Marlena November 22, 2012 at 7:09 am #

    Although I didn’t pay that much attention to what happened with Brit Ruby (too much of real life happening, I guess), I’m glad that you are writing about diversity. What’s even more refreshing is the opinions expressed in most of the comments to your post.

  7. Liz November 22, 2012 at 9:40 pm #

    Thank you so much for taking the time to document what actually happened and what was said, with source material! I think it’s really important for us to be able to move forward and to be able to break these patterns.


  1. On BritRuby | Virtuous Code - November 19, 2012

    […] Hendrickson went looking too, and found only “expressions of regret and offers of help”. (Stop now and read her whole post, it’s […]

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