Teachable Moments at #CivicMedia

Cross posted from the Civic Media blog.

A panel at the MIT-Knight Civic Media conference was about the Open Web’s Second Chance, and the problems we are facing with growing the open web movement.  The panelists were Mark Surman, Executive Director of the Mozilla Foundation and Seamus Kraft, Executive Director of The OpenGov Foundation.  Mark kicked things off with the story of the open web, how Mozilla was born in 1997 and where he sees the movement today.  Then the conversation turned to Seamus, who was first logging online 17 years ago when Mozilla was founded.

Seamus first went on the Internet in the late ’90’s for two main reasons.  Not as an activist, or as a software developer, but as a young teenage boy both hoping to trade live Grateful Dead and Phish concert recordings…and looking to meet and chat up his preferred gender on AOL Instant Messenger.  Fast forward to today: Seamus became a fighter for the open web in 2011 when he, as a conservative Congressional staffer, saw the impending SOPA and PIPA laws threatening the everyday Internet he had grown to love over the intervening years.  He is someone who dearly loves what the Internet has enabled him to do, exchanging music and knowledge, and connecting with others…and he has dedicated his life to protecting it.  A beautiful story – we need more activists generally, and the more diverse we are in our origins the more vectors we can understand these issues along. So it was pretty rad that he showed up to a conference that is diverse in some ways but not in others to talk about this shared ideal. I love this – it gives us more dimensionality to our ideas when they hold up under different objectives and sources as well as the ones we’re more used to.

But Seamus’ story of discovering the web wasn’t told that way.  The phrase “going online to get girls” kept cropping up during the panel discussion.   Indignation bubbled up on the back channel, and then turned into outrage. When Seamus left the stage, he saw the Twitter Storm, was shocked and aghast at the interpretation, and spent the rest of the day owning up to his mistake and personally apologizing on Twitter…all far away from the conference.  I would have done the same. I am amazed and honored that he returned the next day, and even more so that he’s willing to write this with me.

Seamus here:

“As I sat outside the conference, reading every single Tweet and comment, and soaking in how my non-inclusive language made people feel, it was like getting punched in the stomach…by myself.  It was brutal, searing and embarrassing, all at once.  How could I be so blind with my language?  Had I actually become the Idiot Tech Guy?  I should have known better, and used the language we celebrate as open web activists, instead of what you’ll too often find in the darker corners of the Internet.  Reading the civic media hashtag and all the tweets directed at me, I felt like I had irreparably insulted everyone in the room, everyone watching the webcast and everyone fighting for the open Internet.”

“In telling the story of how I logged on as a young teenage boy, I had allowed myself to use the language of a young teenage boy.  And in trying to share my passion for growing the open web movement, I had accomplished precisely the opposite.  Showing up the next day was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done, but I am so thankful for the kind and amazing people who put aside their justifiable anger, sat down with me on the conference sidelines, and literally helped me become a stronger, more aware and – I pray – more linguistically inclusive person moving forward.  You gave me another chance, a lesson in humility, and some sorely needed hugs that I will never, ever forget.”

Now Willow here, with an exercise in empathy:

I’m reminded of being in New Orleans, and trying to make a point about NOT being an expert – the people who live in the area are experts in their own experience. I said “I’m clearly not from around here, look at me.” As in look at how sunburned I am, I don’t spend time outside or know how to take care of myself when I do. But guess how it was perceived, and how I immediately knew it must have been perceived. I was mortified. The best I could think to do in that moment was turn even redder and say “well, that came out wrong.”

But no one called me out. There was no discussion. And that, I think, sucks even more. What we have in this moment from the Civic Media conference is a chance to learn and teach.

I was more upset about how my community reacted to this than I am at Seamus’ comments. The comments were unwitting, and bumbling, yes. It’s good (I would argue necessary) to call those things out. I honestly feel that if he’d been speaking directly to the audience (not on a panel) he would have seen that immediate feedback from the audience. I’m upset the other panelist and the moderator didn’t call him out on it, gracefully, in the moment. In fact, they may have cued, or at least amplified, it. And I am upset that a community that considers itself open worked itself into a frenzy over such comments — and that I was a part of that.

This is an amazing moment to learn – and certainly not just for Seamus. Here’s the question: If someone well-meaning uses language that triggers response from an esoteric community, how can we inform them in a way that assumes their good faith and alliance? I don’t know of any discipline or approach (including feminism) where I think “don’t come back until you can meet us at our level” is an appropriate response to people who are trying but might stumble. Especially given intersectionality, and that as feminist values start showing up in new arenas (yay!) the people already there don’t understand those nuances yet. How could they?

I’m reminded of how I trained ballet and gymnastics for the better part of a decade and yet had terrible balance. I had no stabilizing muscles because if a movement wasn’t perfect, I was supposed to bail. With parkour, I practiced to fight to stay on a ledge, by whatever wiggling and arm-waving necessary. The imperfections of maintaining footing trumped perfection of form. The thing was, in doing this, I gained enough minor muscle control to start landing things near-perfectly.

Being an ally is HARD. To me, the important thing is not never messing…which I see as impossible. Even the most linguistically precise shift contexts (intentionally or through context collapse). The important thing is returning to a conversation after a misstep. And it’s on me, as the one being allied with, to make it safe to have those post messup-talks when I think they’ll be useful (and I have the bandwidth, and etc etc). I’m not remotely suggesting not to get mad about something that is horrible, as anger is of course merited a human emotion etc etc. But after anger… then what?

If the point is the understanding, and the respect and equality that comes of that understanding, that means learning. And while there are some great resources out there on feminism, equality, behavior, etc, I assume we all know that there’s a difference between reading a book on how to do something and doing it. While it’s not necessarily on us (women) to teach men what’s going on, people are going to have to learn somewhere. If it’s up to men to learn, and we’re (feminine types) not the ones teaching, it’s probably going to be other men. Which is awesome, but I want to be open to questions and check-ins – “are we doing this right?” because we know the vacuum chamber hasn’t exactly worked out well so far. And this sort of exchange means there will be faux pas. And we need to know how to handle those in a way that encourages the growth of the other person in the process. That is what learning is, after all. It is my prerogative if I want to be a part of those conversations, but I am advocating here that it is worth it and a responsibility, not an obligation.

So how do we do this? How do we call out information in a way that it cannot be ignored which can be quickly addressed or shown that it won’t be? How do you like to have your social faux-pas pointed out? For me, I’d like people to say “HEY! Seriously?” in the moment, assuming good faith, and I’ll either drop everything for that conversation, or sidebar it for later, depending on level of urgency and transgression.

Seamus here:

“Looking back, I would have loved to have had the panel’s language called out while we were still on stage; and as a result, the opportunity to engage in a meaningful conversation and adjust was was being said in real time.  An ‘Excuse me, but could you elaborate on that last comment?  It comes across as rather sexist.’ would have instantly set me straight, as would the ability to have seen the action on the conference hashtag while we were in front of the room.

“I’m not sure exactly how we can translate into real life the instant linguistic feedback loops made possible by the open web and social media.  But I do believe it’s possible.  To me, the definition of ‘ally’ should include having the confidence within our community to call out non-inclusive language from the audience, ensure those on stage truly listen and understand, and help the person who stepped in it – like I did – right their wrong words and grow stronger from what can be a positively painful experience for everyone involved.”

The Fears of Inequality

Written in response to the recent Santa Barbara shootings, mental illness, misogyny, and the debates and #YesAllWomen on Twitter. I focus here on fear, because the bodily harm, harassment, stalking, job insecurity, etc are already focused on at the hashtag. This is an important part of that conversation, and one that is missing, but is by no means meant to be the focus.

Years ago, a difference of opinion severely chilled a friendship with someone with whom I loved arguing. He saw the lack of easy acceptance from women as an emotional violence against men at an equal level to the physical violence enacted upon women by men. I agreed that it was problematic, and the two fed into each other, fueled by culture at large. I absolutely disagreed that it was of equal standing. Fear is a very real thing. Whether it is that someone will laugh at you or someone will kill you, the fear is real. The repercussions and reality lived are what are different.

Men are afraid that women will laugh at them. Women are afraid that men will kill them. – Margaret Atwood

On a lighter note, I really enjoy this short clip from Louis CK about saying yes to dates:

It is vital to make it clear that the objectification of, violence against, etc+preposition, women is absolutely unacceptable, and that continuance is untenable. It is possible, even necessary, in the same moment and breath, to have empathy for the fear experienced by being on the other side of the coin of these atrocities. How dehumanizing it must be to be expected to treat other human beings as objects. And most of the language we have around this phenomena is in Feminism, which is villainized during the propagation of these issues. How can one make use of tools closed off by the simple fact of where and when and with whom they grew up?

These issues are systemic, a positive (not “yay”, but “self-reinforcing”) feedback loop. (Not the only components in this feedback loop, clearly). Until we address the root cause for women being cautious of men – the high likelihood of violence being inflicted upon them – that caution is a legitimate response to a very real threat. We must make our way up Maslow’s Hierarchy of needs – not in series, but in parallel, with a focus on the more dire.

I am not blaming you, as a man, for things like what happened in Santa Barbara. I’m blaming what culture makes men think they have to be in order to be manly. What that means for your alienation because it is unobtainable. What it means for people like me, who happen to have a certain body, for you to strive towards that unobtainable standard through the objectification and devaluation of my self. You are not at fault for where we are as a culture. You are, however, responsible for getting us to a better place than where we are right now.

This is what I mean when I call out friends and strangers about discounting the fear felt by all parties in this mess. The fear is shared, but different. The fear is real. Do not discount the fear, or demean people for feeling it – because the fear is legitimate. Hold people accountable for their actions. Address the causes of their fear, in a way that holds all people as whole.

It is because I love you, that I fight to diminish your power over me. When we are equal, we can freely love each other as we are.


I run into the problem a lot that one of my favorite folders in TheOldReader is my NSFW one. It contains images of beautiful tattoos on beautiful bodies of all kinds, of intimate exchanges, of expressions of gender and love. But it’s labeled “NSFW” because I can’t load it in airports or coworking spaces or .. most anywhere, really. But that also transfers pretty clearly into how I filter myself for professional situations. I have ranted about this before. But this particular day prompted a tiny rant on Twitter about how much it sucks to have to constantly keep parts of my personality under wraps. There were a myriad of responses.

The general trends of feedback were as follows: female-bodied and queer folk affirm through response or favorites. Some folk suggest a division of presentation (public/private). And some say “what’s the big deal with expressing such things?” I would like to lovingly point out that the people in this last category are cis gents, whom I adore and with whom I am friends (hey, I have plenty of friends (and lovers) who are straight!).

Given that I work with all sort of populations from all sorts of backgrounds, my appearance and expressions have been carefully shaped in some ways. I no longer sport my mohawk. I tend to wear long pants rather than stompy boots and fishnets. My tattoos and piercings are easily covered. This is not so much an issue of subculture, this is much more an issue of how sexuality and respectability tend to be mutually exclusive. Which is to say: if I were to act and dress as I like, I would be sexualized, and therefore viewed as less competent. Which is a funny trade-off, as in especially technical communities, competence is seen as sexy. But the moment you enter one sphere, the other attribute goes away (for most people) (the link is about promoting sexualization to obscure the competence). Welcome to one of the tightropes which must be walked by the simple act of being female bodied. (But I don’t do that! you might say. Well, it’s not just about you. It’s about a long line of actions and incidents which by necessity make me wary of any sexuality-respect-shaped exchange. Both of those links have a trigger warning, and are more severe than what I’m personally speaking of, but they do get the point across.)

I say this because the idea of “just be awesome, and everything will work out!” is a privileged viewpoint. It’s something that can be said when you play on the easiest setting. Here is the thing – I have jeopardized jobs, missed opportunities, and lost friendships because I thought my competence was more relevant than my attractiveness (whatever the level of either of those). (I have also jeopardized jobs, missed opportunities, and lost friendships for other reasons. I am not scaping the goat here, as it were). For most of my life, and to some degree still, what is (or is not) between my legs has meant passing up those opportunities meant I might not get another such opportunity. This is not a “screw that person, something better will come along!” life. Now that I live in the enchanted world of people who “get it”, this is less of a problem. We can share dark humor, stories about compersion, and analysis of queer theory. But the path to here was long, and that’s from a privileged white girl.

From “Said the Pot to the Kettle” by Margaret Killjoy

It’s hard to talk about these things in public, because respect for me goes down, and therefore respect for what I do. We do not see individuals as many-faceted beings (something I think is deeply tied to our idealization of geniuses rather than polymaths), and so if I talk about gay rights or safe words, that is suddenly what I am to the exclusion of all else. I’m supposed to “pick my battles.” Which brings us to the second sort of response, which is to divide profiles. Now, I do have a snark twitter account, which very few people have access to. That is where I am snarky, which is something I don’t want other people to see. Unwavering optimism tempered by experience is what I think is most effective in public discourse (at least for the things I like to do), and so I keep my “really? seriously?” things to myself.

In contrast, my sexuality is a big part of my personality, and I would like it to be ok to share that. One of the reasons I find sexuality in general so fascinating is because it is the most basic part of being an organism (ANY organism), but is the most socially constructed for humans (the link as but one recent striking example). In general, I am wary of fracturing identity online, because I feel it’s important to stick your neck out (again, privilege talking) to make it safer for others to fully express themselves. (Caveats here about pseudonymity, activism, finding a new self, etc etc etc inserted here). Only by presenting ourselves respectfully as multi-faceted creatures, and calling bullshit when such a thing is not treated as the norm, can we build this better future.

So while I would really, really like to be able to crack a joke about Jesus dying on the cross because he forgot the safe word to a group of educators, humanitarians, and military folk, it’s just not going to be the case. It’s considered inappropriate coming from me. Which sucks, because Ye Olde Boys Club still can, if they want. What I have decided on, while writing this entry, is that it is worthwhile for me to be more outspoken so that it is easier for the people who come after me. But maybe I’m only saying that because I’m sitting in San Francisco right now, and it seems so easy. And I hope that my competence and ability to execute now fully trump whatever does or doesn’t happen between my bits and other people’s bits. And as in the links I’ve included here, I’d prefer people go after me than after someone else. I like the fight.