Creating safe and inclusive spaces within geek and hacker culture is something I struggle with fairly frequently. See, for instance, this from last June. I believe those of us involved in similar endeavours need to talk about it openly and frequently: to each other to share best practice, to event organisers to ask them for support, and to our geek and hacker communities in general to achieve a cultural shift. The !!Con team reflected powerfully on their experiences and failings. Below is an equally powerful piece from my friend Drcable around similar themes. I would like to thank Drcable for sharing their thoughts and ask all of you to continue this conversation.
(Drcable is a cyborg who just wants to be left alone. Unfortunately, society sucks and is the most interesting problem to solve, so they ended up a designer and activist)
Over the last summer, I volunteered with the safer spaces team of a European hacker camp, trying to prevent and deal with any incidents that could arise from putting approximately 1000 mostly white, mostly men in a field.
We expected incidents. We tried to prevent them. Broadly, we were successful. There was one incident which I would class as preventable without the need for a massive cultural shift, and several other incidents which, while absolutely not acceptable, would have been unpreventable given current society, without significantly changing the nature of the event.
Most of my experiences of safer spaces work involve more radical, explicitly feminist events, at which the norms of behavior are significantly different to those of the broader patriarchal, racist, and generally oppressive, society. Hacker camps are not – for all their talk of “disruption” and “freedom” – like this. They are a place for white dudes to fly quadcopters and shout about text editors over 8-bit live coded music.
The camp had a safer spaces policy that is pretty typical for the tech world- cribbed off and credited to the geek feminism wiki, worded to not cause a fuss but still be useful. The camp did not have centrally organized areas, meetings, or workshops for oppressed groups. It did not have a policy of banning people from the camp who had caused disruption at other events.
Any place which does not explicitly filter for feminist engagement, or by experience of oppression, is going to reproduce patriarchal biases. Sometimes this filtering happens by self selection- advertise yourself as a feminist event, among a feminist social circle, and you’re going to get people engaged with feminism attending. Sometimes it is explicit: put up a “no cis people” sign, and you’re going to dramatically reduce, if not remove, the number of transphobic incidents.
Of course, filtering, of either type, is never enough. “Engaged with feminism” can easily fill your event with racists, homophobes and transphobes. “No cis people” is well documented to produce racist and indeed transmisogynist spaces.
Filtering will produce awareness of certain biases among your attendees. However, it is impossible to produce awareness and full understanding of all biases, because it is impossible to experience every form of oppression. People have unique experiences and can be blinkered to others’ experience of the same oppression.
Hacker camps do not filter, because unless you want there to be twenty people rather than a thousand camped in your field, then there’s little point. Hacker camps, when they provide the slightest nod to people other than white men, use safer spaces policies.
Safer spaces policies are there not to prevent the reproduction of all patriarchal biases, but to prevent their manifestation in violence- verbal, mental or physical. They’re there to lower the cost of participation for people from oppressed groups from “I’m going to get slurs shouted at me all day” to “I’m going to feel slightly out of place”.
Of course, they also have a second purpose – they are a form of fliter, a message saying “we’re not actively violent towards oppressed groups and if you are then you’re not welcome”. How effective this is depends on how well the policy is publicised. If it’s on the front page, impossible to miss when you buy your ticket, then it’s a more effective filter.
Safer spaces policies are not going to be 100% effective at removing acts of violence. Because your selection of society inevitably reproduces some of society’s oppressive biases, given enough opportunities for an incident, there is going to be one.
That is my take on most of the incidents that were reported to us, post event . These incidents where casual misogyny of the kind that is usual under patriarchal societies. They would have been impossible to predict, and without significantly more filtering, were likely to happen. This does not mean that they should have happened, or that we should not learn from them or use them to educate people about what can happen in future. These were not “minor” issues. They are not an acceptable cost of doing business, but they are an expected one.
There was one incident that was preventable. Vinay Gupta had proposed a talk, and it was accepted, and made it past light vetting by the organizers.
Vinay is known, at least among women and other oppressed groups in technology and political circles for his misogyny, transphobia and racism. However he had never, to the organizers’ knowledge, done this from the stage. So obviously it was a great idea to give him this opportunity.
The safer spaces team was convened very close to the event (approximately one month prior) and had not been involved in talk selection.
We discovered he had been involved because I was going through the program, and noticed his name. It was a 100% fluke, outside any protocol. After much debate, we decided that there was less chance of an incident occurring if we chose to let his talk continue, though we were clear that he should not have been invited in the first place. While this decision may seem counter-intuitive, and with hindsight was incorrect, the main factor influencing this was the fact that he is known for taking call outs badly and loudly, often responding with slurs and (verbal and/or mental) violence.
This decision, along with the recommendation that someone from the safer spaces team attend the talk and be ready to deal with any incident, was passed on to the organizing team and they accepted it, and the criticism that he should not have been invited.
Before the talk, I identified myself to the stage crew, warned them that he had a reputation, and said that we might need to deal with an incident from stage. The stage crew were aware of parts of his reputation, but had not been briefed by the organizing team . We agreed to be ready to cut his mic if things went bad.
[cn next paragraph: descriptions of rape apologism and anti-semitism/nazi and fascist references]
During the talk, he made references to a “nerd reich” or “nuclear powered american reich”, along with describing being charged a lot of money by your plumber as “being raped by your plumber”.
The decision was made by me (as a member of the safer spaces team) not to ask for his mic to be cut – a disturbance on this scale would have done more damage than good. My call, if you were there then feel free to disagree with it, and discuss it with me if you really want to.
I requested, coming up on the end of his talk, that an apology be made from the stage team. This was instantly accepted by the team and the moment he left the stage, someone went up and issued an apology for “inappropriate language”.
Were I giving the apology, it would specifically have called out his rape apologism and anti-semitism. Later on, at a meeting with the organising team, it was made clear that he will not speak at the same event again. Overall, the response to the incident was satisfactory.
It is however clear to me that we should not have allowed him on stage. He had a history and we made a bad call, partially in the hope that it would all go away. We should have dealt with it before he had the chance to do damage.
However, the reaction of the camp to not allowing a well known speaker and activist on stage would not have been pretty. The camp was not a feminist event, and decisions like that would have triggered days of mailing list outrage, twitter rants, and on-site tension.
The culture of the camp was not in a place where such a decision would have been considered normal, and we allowed that culture to affect the process. The system we’re operating within will always affect our decisions, however we didn’t make sure that there was a sufficient separation between the culture of the camp and the conduct of the organizers. This did damage to vulnerable attendees.
This separation is precisely the reason we have formal policies and separate teams. There are complex reasons why this separation fails, from lack of support from the organising team to activists not having the energy or mental health to deal with the demands (self care and the pressures of safer spaces are another post, and a long one).
At the end of the day, we must always consider our vulnerable attendees first and any other concerns, those of the team and of optics, for example, must be held back for a later date.
I must end this section with a warning: Vinay Gupta is not a person who can be trusted to speak at your event. He is a well known misogynist, anti-semite, transphobe and rape apologist. By giving him a platform you are exposing vulnerable members of your audience to possible violence and sending a message that you do not care about us. You cannot do this and claim to be a safe space.
There were other failures in the safer spaces team. We were all white(passing). Our disabilities were few, and mild (we were also tasked with dealing with access). We were small, and did not have resources to dedicate to education of the attendees, which may have prevented some of the other incidents. These are, to my mind, problems of hacker culture. A safer spaces team is never going to be as well resourced as it will at a comparable feminist event, and even feminist events muck up, as wiscon showed us.
A safer spaces team will never succeed 100%. There will always be failures as long as the current societal norms are oppressive. Whether it’s the white guy with dreads who you just can’t get the org team to kick out, or the transphobe who shoots a nasty look at your friend, you’re never going to eradicate oppression in a weekend within one person, let alone a thousand.
Broadly, I think that the team did a good job. We can learn from our mistakes and you can learn from them.
We had no reported incidents during the event, several were reported later, and dealt with.
We had not requested this, through the organizing team had flagged him as a possible incident on their own during vetting.