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Thursday, November 7th, 2013 18:44

A friend on twitter asked us to recommend interesting conferences, so I looked through my notes to see what I had. One event that I'd made a note to check out further was KalamazooX. The focus of the event is on "soft skills", so I was kind of surprised when I couldn't find a Code of Conduct on the site. The "What people are saying" section, on the other hand, made me raise an eyebrow:

"I've discovered @kalamazoox is a hidden gem. Today was like a braver, more profane set of dev-oriented TED talks. Lots of passion and humor."

"In a time where organizers are censoring speakers and their content, @mjeaton and @kalamazoox is a bastion of freedom. He is a luminary."

"@mjeaton @kalamazoox believes in the open exchange of ideas, however uncomfortable, and trusts humans to think, collaborate and create."

To be sure, though, I asked the organizers if they had a Code of Conduct via twitter, and got this reply:

@shadowspar We do not have a published code of conduct. Our entire conference is about communication, respect and passion.

I parse this as

We don't feel as though we need a code of conduct, because we have a "culture of respect".

...which reminds me of companies that eschew security audits and policies because they have a "culture of security". How does that usually turn out?

The simple fact is that without supporting directives or a mechanism for feedback, security is defined differently by each person and verified by no one. There is no metric for compliance with a "culture"...

Unfortunately, a "culture of respect" has the same essential problems. Broadly speaking:

  • everyone will have their own idea of what "respect" is, none of which will agree;
  • everyone will assume that their concept of "respect" is the same as everybody else's;
  • attendees won't discuss their definition of "respect" with each other until an incident occurs;
  • nobody will agree on how the intangible principle of "respect" applies to concrete actions; and
  • nobody will enforce it.

A "culture of respect" is too ambiguous to be enforceable. In all but the most egregious cases, any attempt to sanction somebody will lead to a protracted flamewar. The community will argue over what actually took place, whether or not the actions in question are "disrespectful", and if so, to what degree. No matter how damnable the conduct is, the flamewar will continue to rage on over what the right consequences are, and to what extent the good intentions1, good character, and remorse of the offender should excuse them from those consequences. Indeed, when you haven't made clear which behaviours are unacceptable at the outset, you stand a pretty good chance of not having them called out at all.

In my view, a Code of Conduct has two central aims:

  • to set standards & expectations; and
  • to provide enforceable consequences for harmful actions.

Broadly speaking, there are two classes of problematic people -- those who inadvertently cause harm out of ignorance, and those who deliberately cause harm because they are malicious. Shockingly enough, the two major points of the Code of Conduct address these two types of problems.

Setting standards: some people really do not know -- or claim not to know -- what behaviours are unacceptable; what kind of acts will make others feel excluded, maligned, or intimidated. Outlining the boundaries of acceptable conduct clarifies this for them. It heads off issues before they happen. It prevents problems for the well-intentioned.

Enforceable consequences: unfortunately, some people are determined to assault, intimidate, and harass your attendees regardless of what educational measures you take. The Code of Conduct needs to give you the tools to kick these fuckers out of your community. It also needs to let you stop or prevent other degrading, insulting, or unsafe behaviour.

To accomplish both of these things, a Code of Conduct must describe problematic behaviours clearly and with a reasonable degree of comprehensiveness. It must be clear that the list it enumerates is illustrative, not exhaustive. It must have definite consequences that let the organizers deal effectively with problematic people and conduct.

I know that a considerable swath of the community dislikes Codes of Conduct. As best I can tell, they feel as though their freedoms are being restricted by an explicitly stated policy that denounces and repudiates assault, harassment, and demeaning behaviour.

First, I hope you will agree that everything that is in a Code of Conduct is there for a reason, as I've tried to show above.

Second, I hope you will see that a Code of Conduct isn't about preventing conduct that's offensive in the sense of "swearing", or "impolite", or "something people merely dislike". It's meant to deal with behaviour that excludes people; that demeans people; that tells them "you don't belong here; you are lesser-than, not valued, worthless". To paraphrase a co-worker of mine: "Nobody cares if you say 'fuck'. We do care if you call somebody a bitch." Know the difference.

Finally, I hope that instead of seeing a Code of Conduct as onerous legislation, or an instrument of repression, you will come to view it as an attempt to help keep people in the community safe. While it necessarily has a regulatory nature, I also view a Code of Conduct as a statement on behalf of the community -- a statement that says:

  • We don't want you around if you behave like an asshole.
  • For clarity, here is a non-exhaustive list of behaviours that we consider asshole-ish.

If you take objection to this, then what does that say about you?

I don't mean to pick on KalamazooX with all of this -- not at all. My target here is the widely-held view that "we're a nice group of people; we don't need a Code of Conduct". Happily, the first half of that statement is broadly true. Sadly, the second half isn't. Anybody who says "that kind of stuff just doesn't happen here" is sorely mistaken. These things do happen in our communities -- they just may not be visible to the speaker.

I don't pretend that a Code of Conduct solves all of our problems; not by a long shot. And I would love, love, love it if someone could come up with a better solution to the problems I've outlined above. But until then -- until you understand the problems that a Code of Conduct addresses, and come up with something that addresses them as well or better -- please don't slag a Code of Conduct, please don't dispense with a Code of Conduct, and do not for a second pretend that the status quo is acceptable.

Footnotes & further reading:

[1] Genderbitch: Musings of a Trans Chick: Intent! It's Fucking Magic! back^

ETA: Several days after I finished this entry, I found this article on Comic-Con's flimsy Code of Conduct implementation. Rachel Edidin covers some of the same points I do above, but also goes into detail on something I kind of glossed over: namely, why harassment will generally not be called out, reported or addressed without explicit guidelines and clearly assigned responsibilities. Highly recommended.

Friday, November 8th, 2013 10:20 (UTC)
This is a good post and you should feel good.
Friday, November 8th, 2013 23:33 (UTC)