ORGcon – world collisions in practice

So on Saturday I spoke at ORGcon about worlds colliding; about issues in digital rights that are grey areas; where I have skin in the game on both sides of the debate. I argued that we all have such issues – issues where being a digital rights campaigner doesn’t sit quite comfortably with something else in our lives; and that those are the issues where we are in a unique position to really make a difference. I also challenged the digital rights community to become more diverse and more inclusive, because that would bring in more people who ask difficult questions on things that to us sometimes seem a no-brainer and who can help us find solutions that work.
What I didn’t say in my talk is that sometimes, when your worlds collide, it feels very much like you’re fighting a war on two fronts. Yes, you can see both sides of the debate, you can see the potential for pragmatism and compromise, but the more entrenched arguments from both sides can sometimes really wear you down.
Less than an hour after my ORGcon talk, I found my worlds colliding quite spectacularly. Prompted by a question from the audience, closing keynote speaker John Perry Barlow referred to the rape allegations against Julian Assange as “ungentlemanly conduct”. Faced with that, I found myself unable to remain in the room and walked out in protest. One other person challenged Barlow on the remark but their comment went unanswered; several others walked out.
This should go without saying, but in my experience unfortunately it doesn’t: I don’t know whether Julian Assange is guilty of rape and sexual assault. That is for a Swedish court to determine. What I object to is the gross trivialisation of allegations of rape in any context, not just in the Assange case: comments like “It wasn’t rape rape”, “Oh, but she was totally asking for it”, and in yesterday’s case “ungentlemanly conduct” and “He upset two women”. “Upset” and “is alleged to have sexually assaulted and raped” are different things.
Come on guys, do I really have to explain again the endemic nature of violence against women in our society? Do I have to tell you again that one in two women in the UK has experienced rape, sexual assault, domestic violence or stalking? Do I really have to explain the effect persistent trivialisation of the kind we heard from John Perry Barlow has on women’s ability to report and deal with such violence; on our efforts to put a stop to gender-based violence? Really?
When a high-profile speaker at an event I’m attending makes that kind of comment and it goes unchallenged, here’s what I hear. I hear that this is a community that doesn’t value women. I hear that should I ever have a problem in that community, my complaints are likely to be trivialised and dismissed. I hear that I am not welcome.
Which, you may note, is the exact opposite of what I challenged the digital rights community to do.
John Perry Barlow did not go unchallenged. Enough of us – men and women – walked out, tweeted in disgust, or in the case of one person for whom I have boundless admiration, challenged him in the room, that it should be clear that he does not speak for the digital rights community in general. All these people have my deep gratitude and deserve yours too. Within a couple of hours of the incident, the Open Rights Group issued a statement saying it “does not agree with or endorse statements made at ORGCon diminishing the charges against Assange” and that it “supports due process”.
If you are part of the digital rights community and want to do your bit in making it welcoming and inclusive, speaking up about such incidents is a damn good start. If you’re looking in from the outside, wondering if we’re the kind of community you might want to join, know this: No community is perfect, and neither are we. But there are enough of us who will have your back, who are prepared to make you feel welcome, and who are determined to ensure that the digital rights community is as welcoming, diverse and inclusive as possible.
I am one of those people. If you have any concerns, drop me a line, find me at the next event, get in touch.

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