on action and reaction

Posted by: Penny Leach 5 years, 5 months ago


I just read this post on the use of the word "Offense" (and derivatives), and how it is unhelpful when describing interactions between people that result in one or more of the participants feeling "offended".

I won't reiterate the post here, because it's very well written and clear and anyone interested can just go read it there. However, what really fascinates me is the comments that followed.

I generally agree with everything in the article, but while I was reading it, I was thinking that there is still a responsibility on the behalf of the person feeling the reaction, and I thought this was somewhat missing in the post. So I read throught the comments, and I came across one that made me think, "yes! exactly what I felt was missing too". I'm quoting a bit here:

People do need to do a better job of taking responsibility for their actions, this is absolutely true. However, people need to take responsibility for their reactions as well.

[ snip ]

As long as you accept things as being done to you, you will remain the victim, this is true of everyone, male or female. When you cannot separate someone’s action from your reaction, you are enslaved. When you can make that separation, when you can process the situation and then _act_ instead of simply reacting, you become powerful.

I remember recently that I wrote about sexism at the Best of Swiss Web awards. One of the comments was about the minority frame of mind. Quoting again:

In my experience, whenever a minority group feels they are being discriminated against, they tend to adopt the victim frame of mind, and interpret people's actions through that frame of mind.

I think this is a very important point when it comes to dealing with undesirable sexist behaviour. That is not to say that accepting it is easy, it's definitely not. It takes real, tangible effort, to, when in the heat of the moment (the moment in this case, being confronted with behaviour that causes an uncomfortable reaction), to stop and evaluate not only the behaviour, but also the reason you are feeling the reaction, and how you can react in a way that isn't going to exacerbate the problem.

Yes, of course, we as women in open source should not be lumped with having to do this. But the reality is, as others have pointed out, that there are good, and bad, ways of trying to create change. Blindly reacting is the status quo, it's the innate response. Taking the time to cool off, take a few deep breaths, and react to the situation in a positive, change-forming way, that is power.

I don't want to be a victim. I have been in situations that made me see red and react blindly and been unable to stop myself. I have also been in situations where after the fact I realised that my reaction was actually caused by baggage on my behalf, and that the offense I felt was due to that, rather than actually anything that was the fault of the offender. I increasingly try to be in situations where I cool off before I react, and own my reaction. This doesn't mean I do, all of the time, but this is what I aim for.

Back to the post that caused me to write this blog post. So I agreed with one of the comments. I continued reading, thinking there would be interesting follow-on discussion from that. I guess I shouldn't have been, but I was surprised, to see that this person (I didn't assume gender but the following comments made me believe it was from a guy) was completely flamed. Why? He wasn't rude or patronising. People flamed him, and he came back and tried patiently to explain himself again. As far as I can tell, he wasn't blaming the victim (he was accused of this), he was merely saying that in an interaction between two (or more) people where offense is created, it's something that both of them must deal with. Blaming the victim would have been to say, "HTFU and stop overreacting" and I didn't get that from his post at all. So why is this idea (that I support) that owning our reactions is so terrible?


Brenda 5 years, 5 months ago

Victim blaming is stating ways the victim could have behaved differently and thus avoided the incident or made it not a problem.

It doesn't have to be rudely phrased, it's often very polite and well intentioned.

Link | Reply

Penny Leach 5 years, 5 months ago

Sure, at any rate I don't think this particular comment seeks to "avoid the incident" or "make it not a problem" at all, it's pointing out that *both* parties have a responsibility.

Say for example, I made a joke about how much I hate ponies, and your pony had just died. You might be offended, but I would not have done anything to cause offense directly. Rather than you simply being offended and me being the offender at fault (because we can never blame the victim), isn't it also your responsibility to evaluate *why* it caused offense and react accordingly?

This is a trite example, and I'm not meaning to downplay what happened with this couch-db thing. I'm simply saying that in *some* cases where offense happens, the responsibility should be on both parties to own it.

Link | Reply

Mary 5 years, 5 months ago

I think part of the problem is women's experience with the sliding scale. Essentially, no matter how you respond/feel there will be someone who has a suggestion about how you could do it a little bit better.

If you're upset and powerless, someone will say lose the baggage, take hold of your power. If you are confident but angry, someone will say "more flies with honey". If you are confident and neutral, someone will still say "more flies with honey". If you are confident and kind, someone will probably *still* say "more flies with honey" and someone else will use your example to put down another woman and someone else again will start emailing you privately for help with his girlfriend.

So it becomes hard to engage with any argument along the lines of "change yourself" because if you do, there will be one more person at your new destination saying you need to change yourself again. You can never be nice enough, calm enough, strong enough, rational enough and smart enough that you won't get pretty much the same amount of criticism saying you aren't allowed/supposed to/healthy enough to complain yet, you're being too much of a baby about it. And even genuine well-meaning people saying this (as opposed to concern trolls) are part of this problem.

Also, in this specific debate, a lot of people talking have already taking part in quite angry debates where they've argued with more extreme versions of "change yourself", for example, the man over on the O'Reilly Radar who argued that "you slept with someone, that's why you got that patch committed" should be patiently helped through his confusion with a woman careful reciting her resume in response to his reasonable confusion about her qualifications. This last is probably insoluble. Once the wide range of "change yourself" arguments have started up, I don't know how a new one can avoid coming across as part of that chorus.

Link | Reply

Brenda 5 years, 5 months ago

I wouldn't say "i hate ponies" in front of someone whom i knew had just lost their pony.

but, in the case of unintentional offense - lets take a real world example: Richard Stallman stands up in front of a large audience, and declares that programmers who haven't used emacs are like women who are virgins and need their virginity forcibly removed.

It's clear he didn't mean to offend (and i'll resort to ad hominien and say you gotta be rather screwed in the head to think that was an okay statement in that situation) - it doesn't matter what he intended. Those who felt either insulted, or even afraid by being in a room where the lauded speaker advocated forcibly removing virginity from women - they don't need to change. They're not the problem. Stallman said something incredibly wrong and he needs to apologise, not for causing for offense, but to apologise for saying something incredibly wrong.

Link | Reply

Penny Leach 5 years, 5 months ago

Brenda I think you and I are picking issues at opposite ends of the scale to focus on, which points to the fact that we have different perspectives.

I totally agree with you about Stallman and I don't think anyone in the audience "needs to change" in that specific case.

However, most of the instances I see every day of "sexism" are things that I totally don't think are worth getting fired up over. This comes back to picking battles, because I think if you get fired up every time someone says something minor, then you're risking the little boy who cried wolf situation, because then everyone who sees you get upset over every comment that could possibly be considered sexist, won't actually listen when the Stallmans of this world say something actually really stupid.

There's also a fine difference between seeing sexism everywhere, and looking for it.

Personally, I want to be a generally happy person, and I can't fight every single battle. I would rather focus on the big ones, and when something small happens, take a breath and count to ten and either react in a way that is likely to make a difference, or just let it go.

Final disclaimer: My original blog post wasn't about the specific case of the couch-db incident. Personally I don't find it offensive, just fucking idiotic, but I definitely don't think anyone who reacted to it "should change" either. Most of the reactions I've seen have been well written, reasonable attempts to explain why it was so idiotic and offensive. At any rate, this blog post was about the more general case I see all the time of "sexist! sexist" being called as a reaction to many things of varying degrees of sexism, which I perosnally consider counterproductive.

Link | Reply

Penny Leach 5 years, 5 months ago

Mary, I'm sure you're right about the sliding scale. I don't think that's specific to sexism though.

Regarding your point about sounding like part of the chorus - I guess that amplifies my point about baggage. If anyone reads what I write and reacts to it angrily or whatever, because they're so fucking sick of being told to change, rather than because they're actually reacting to what I have to say, then yes, they're being human ;) but also exactly playing out the sort of thing I'm talking about.

I am definitely guilty of this as much as the next person, I can think of plenty of examples of when I've been upset about something and reacted badly and then later had to say, "I'm really sorry I overreacted, it's just that I have xyz baggage and it's not really your fault". I'm just trying to consciously change it.

Anyway, none of what I'm writing about is specific to sexism, women, IT, opensource. It's a human condition that people miscommunicate, misunderstand eachother, and when that happens, you can either assume the worst and react, or you can take time to think about it and wonder why you're reacting that way and own your reaction.

Martin pointed me to this http://madduck.net/blog/2006.11.06:madduck-s-law-of-misconstruction/ the other day and I don't agree with that either - if you think that no matter what you say or how careful you are someone will be offended, then that's just giving up as well.

I just think that both sides are responsible in some cases.

And yes, I think there's always room for personal improvement for everyone and every single person should hold themselves accountable, and to a high standard, and try and analyse themselves, be self aware, and try and improve on things they find wanting. Not just women and not just women who have been the victims of an offensive statement :)

Link | Reply

Brenda 5 years, 5 months ago

I don't think we disagree so greatly.
I don't have a great problem with the nudity in the the couch-db example, but do agree it was idiotic to show such things in that setting.

The place where the real ugliness rears it's head, is in the pure vileness directed at those who were brave enough to admit they didn't like it. That's where the worst of the worst come out of the woodwork of our communities.

Link | Reply

Brenda 5 years, 5 months ago

an example of more "everyday" sexism, something that happened to me today:

I turned up at a meeting with a male colleague. Right now i'm 22 weeks pregnant and it's very obvious.

Someone said "oh, and this must be your wife" to my male colleague.

What a strange assumption! I can't work out why someone would assume, in a work context, that i'm "here with my husband" other than some theory that pregnant woman hanging out with a man must be married. (and Who brings their wife to work meetings?)

I'm not upset in the slightest, just amused and bewildered. Would love to find another possible reason for such an assumption. I suspect it was a textbook "Here with my boyfriend" http://geekfeminism.wikia.com/wiki/Here_with_my_boyfriend

Link | Reply

Penny Leach 5 years, 5 months ago

Yeah, we're vehemently agreeing maybe. I guess maybe it's never ok to say, "you're overreacting" directly, although I think sometimes people are. I know that when I get told, "you're overreacting" I see red. That makes me SO angry.

However, sometimes someone has said to me (not in the heat of the moment but afterwards), "When we talk about xyz sometimes I think you get really upset and take it personally and can't have a serious conversation about it anymore, why is that?" that I have to realise I'm coming to whatever conversation with baggage, and that's what is driving my reaction, rather than necessarily the specific instance of what we're talking about.

That's the kind of thing where I personally want to change and I think in the instance of discussing sexism, would be helpful to change, because overreacting/reacting badly/etc alienates people who might otherwise be on our side.

Link | Reply

Penny Leach 5 years, 5 months ago

Haha, that's daft. Really.

Link | Reply

Brenda 5 years, 5 months ago

Mary Gardiner has another angle on offense here:

Link | Reply

New Comment


required (not published)


Recent Tweets

Recent Posts






RSS / Atom