LCA2011, Harassment, etc

The conference LCA 2011 had an anti-harassment policy [1] which was violated by a keynote speech. The speaker and the conference organisers apologised, but of course the matter didn’t end there.

Discussion continued on the lca-chat list (for conference delegates) [2], on the Linux-aus list (for members of Linux Australia – the parent body of the LCA conference) [3], and in some blog posts.

There is also some discussion on an LWN article that is linked from an ITWire article [4].

I think that the policy was reasonable and from all the descriptions it seems to have worked reasonably well. With such things there are always possibilities to tweak things, so probably there will be future policies which are better in some ways, but it seemed to do the job. The way that the LCA organisers handled the situation was appropriate. In the discussion there were some comments with logical failures that I think need further analysis, I’ll summarise them one per paragraph with the heading being a para-phrase of the claim.

Is it Offensive?

A particularly relevant blog post is Skud’s post about avoiding the use of the word “offense” [5]. In the various discussions about the speech in question most of the people who disapprove of the erotic images don’t use the word “offense“, this is presumably due in part to the influence of Skud’s post. This hasn’t stopped people claiming that the debate is about whether the images are offensive, I’m not sure if this is a deliberate straw-man attack or just cluelessness.

The anti-harassment policy does use the word “offensive” in two places, I think that this was a mistake but it doesn’t detract from the overall meaning of the document.

Is it Harassment?

There was some discussion about whether the actions in question were harassment. Wordnet’s definition of harassment includes “the act of tormenting by continued persistent attacks and criticism“. It seems unlikely that any of the people in the audience who objected to the erotic content in the lecture slides had never seen unwanted erotic material before. So I think that it’s worth considering this incident as just another entry in a list of similar incidents that some of the delegates have experienced, and thus as a continuation of persistent attacks – IE harassment. Melissa McEwan’s post about the variety of harassment that she has received from men is worth reading in this regard [6].

I think that a reasonable analogy here is the school bullying campaigns that were experienced by many members of the Linux community when they were younger. School bullying in most cases is not about a small number of extreme incidents, but about a large number of small incidents each of which when considered independently can be rationalised as something that isn’t significant (excusing such incidents independently is what allows bullying to be rife in most schools). In many cases of high school bullying the victim is blamed for supposedly over-reacting after a reaction is compared to some small incident at the end of a long harassment campaign, some of the criticism of the Geek Feminists seems to echo this pattern.

It seems to me that some of the more dismissive comments which demonstrated a lack of regard for the experiences of other people can reasonably be considered as harassment too (which is also something that Melissa McEwan mentions). Note that I am specifically not advocating that the discussion be shut down, merely that the people who claim that it’s only the (supposed) opinion of the majority that matters are part of the problem. However the fact that the apology for the talk received applause from the majority of the audience seems to indicate that the majority is in fact in favor of the anti-harassment policy.

Derald Wing Sue, Ph.D. and David P. Rivera (a doctoral candidate in counseling psychology) have written a couple of interesting short articles about this for Psychology Today. “Bullying and Microaggressions” describes bullying as more than physical violence and also discusses adult bullies [7]. “The Power to Define Reality” describes the way that the experiences of people who lack power can have the reality of their experiences denied [8] – this one really relates to some of the discussions about harassment.

But it’s Legal!

It has been claimed that the legal system works well in Australia and that Australian law should be the only necessary guide to content. A trivial counter-case that was noted in the discussion is the fact that pure sales presentations are not accepted at LCA – and such presentations are certainly legal! There is a good precedent for prohibiting things that are legal as part of the conference speaker agreement.

More generally the legal system changes slowly and still infringes on what many people in our community regard as basic human rights. There is no reason why an Australian conference should have as it’s standards the bare minimum that is required by Australian law.

It was pointed out that workplace social norms translate well between cultures, they are usually more stringent than Australian law requires – and Australian workplace law is a lot more stringent than the laws relating to conferences and other public events. It seems to me that a presentation which would result in a visit from HR if given at the office shouldn’t be regarded as suitable for a conference such as LCA.

But there is a Balance of Men and Women in Erotic Pictures!

The complaints are not about a lack of balance in the erotic material, but it’s presence there at all. Defending the slides on the basis that there was a supposed balance of male and female misses the point that most people just want no erotic material in presentations at conferences.

Also it seems to me that if there are pictures which aren’t offensive then the way to demonstrate this would be to publish them and say “look, they aren’t offensive”. If it takes 600 words in a blog post to justify the use of some images then that alone seems to be evidence that the images were poorly chosen.

But the talk was Effective

Some of the people who have commented on this issue mentioned that they couldn’t remember what was said when the images in question were displayed. When images from the talk are remembered and the main content of the talk isn’t that seems to be a failure of the talk.

When a major sponsor of the conference complains and requests that the talk video never be published that also seems like a major failure of the talk.

I think that the effective talks are ones that educate people and inspire them to do something positive and useful. A talk that inspires a discussion about whether the speaker deserves censure doesn’t seem effective.

There are claims that there is no way the talk could have made the point as well if it wasn’t for the images in question. But I can’t believe that someone who is capable enough to get awarded a keynote speaking position at a conference such as LCA is incapable of finding other images to make the same point.

But Similar Images are on MTV

When people want MTV content they can watch MTV.

Why Can’t we just try Educating Men?

It was claimed that education works in dealing with such issues in corporate environments and sporting clubs. My observation of the corporate environment is that such training must be extremely rare in Australia, the Netherlands, and probably the UK due to the fact that none of my employers have done it. I have heard first-hand reports of “diversity training” from people who work in the US. I expect that the fact that people who fail diversity training in a corporate environment get a meeting with HR is a major factor in it’s effectiveness.

The long email discussions and blog comment threads when these incidents happen could theoretically be used as training. But when you have some men using multiple mailing lists and dozens of posts arguing without appearing to learn it seems clear that they are not about to learn anything no matter what education is offered. It seems to me that you could broadly divide the free software community into two groups, those who want to learn how to do things better (but who are unlikely to make gross errors anyway), and those who won’t learn.

Besides, having a keynote speaker at a major conference apologise should be educational.

But Clueless Nerds Hit on Girls

I don’t know why every discussion about the treatment of women ends up getting a mention of this supposed issue.

But Women Could make False Accusations

In any classification system you have to make some sort of balance between false-positives and false-negatives. If the aim is to get zero false-positives then the incidence of false-negatives will increase. So if the aim was to never ever have a false accusation brought against a man for sexual harassment then the vast majority of real harassment cases would result in no action at all.

I don’t think it’s reasonable to expect that most women who are mistreated should suffer in silence just to reduce the possibility that men might be falsely accused.

The Rape Statistics cited in the discussion may be Inaccurate

There is no possible way of interpreting rape statistics to make it not be a serious problem, now matter how you analyse the available information it happens far too often and has a significant impact on the victim. Also the suggested reinterpretation of the statistics didn’t contradict the claim that it is likely that there are multiple rape victims attending LCA. So interpreting the statistics in a different way to get different numbers doesn’t change anything. Trying to diminish the significance of rape generally doesn’t support any other arguments that you might make.

There are things that you can just discuss for the heck of it and things which should be discussed with care (if at all) to avoid needlessly hurting people. In these sorts of discussions the right thing to do is to avoid debating the numbers as much as possible.

I think that the numbers produced by RAINN [9] are as good as we can get.

But I am very supportive of women in our community

If you spend all your time arguing with women and don’t listen to what they have to say then you really aren’t supporting them.


After publishing this post I’ll email the URL to a few of the men who helped inspire it, I will explain how disappointed I am and how I expect better from them. I encourage others to do the same.

Also when such discussions happen I encourage men to vote in favor of the positions advocated by women. Writing a message that addresses points in the debate can be difficult and if the debate is rapid then you may find that every point that you might make has been made by someone else. But in that case just posting to agree with the women can really mean a lot.

10 comments to LCA2011, Harassment, etc

  • Tuttle

    I think it is important to address these topics every time there is a case of harassment. Thank you for the detailed answers.

  • etbe

    Tuttle: I agree that it’s important to address the issues and I’m glad you like my answers. But really my answers aren’t detailed. Every one of those questions could have been answered by an entire essay and if I did enough web searching then for each one I could probably find a published essay answering a similar question.

    My aim here is to just summarise the issues. I may write some longer essays about some of the issues or provide links to other answers in future blog posts. This will depend on the responses of the men who I contacted by email. When I started writing this I was focussed on addressing general issues (which is useful and necessary), but by the end I was focusing on how I can convince the men I know.

  • Carl

    I’m sorry but I am disappointed in your post and expect more of you. Thought you should know.

  • etbe

    Carl: If you have any serious suggestions for improvement then let me know.

    But if you are just aiming for laughs then I think that this issue really hasn’t got people in the mood for comedy.

  • Richard Degelder


    I just read your comments that appeared in Planet Debian about the
    LCA2011 speaker controversy. It reminds me so much of why I make an
    effort read your comments.

    I was not at LCA2011 and so am not about to say anything of the
    initial issues that prompted the comment and I have not read any of
    the ongoing commentary about the issue either. But I must admit that
    I very rarely find your comments to not be carefully thought out and
    well presented. You are consistent with your views and opinions and
    they are, in my opinion at least, pretty much correct.

    This is to thank you for presenting an issue that is important not
    only to the technical community, and to the Linux community in this
    case, but to society on a whole. You are correct that there should
    not be a double standard to which women should have to comply in order
    to be accepted. Women have the same value within society as men and
    should not be treated differently just because of their gender. Men
    are going to have to accept that some behavior is totally unacceptable
    and cannot be tolerated. And men must also stand up, in front of
    other men, with that attitude.

    We cannot talk of encouraging more women within the computer, or any
    male dominated, industry and at the same time continue to treat women
    badly. And we cannot have women being a greater part of society on
    the whole while we continue to push them to the margins. And while
    women are doing their part to become better integrated within the
    social fabric it also is going to take men to support it.

    I wish you success with your comments and offer my support, and thanks, to you.


  • etbe

    Richard, thanks for your support.

    I believe that women in our community feel that they aren’t supported by men, this is understandable given the small number of men who are seen to be supporting women in some of these disputes. Comments such as yours show that they do have support.

  • Thank you Russell.
    Thank you.
    This is an exceptional blog post, and one I shall indeed be pointing to in future.
    “There are things that you can just discuss for the heck of it and things which should be discussed with care (if at all) to avoid needlessly hurting people.”
    I particularly like this statement. It reminds me of the largely academic thread on luv-talk about rape – and the approval some members gave to the “she deserved it” argument. Whilst most rejected the misogynistic viewpoints expressed, the ongoing discussion was dismissive of real grievances, needless and hurtful.
    I think your analogy with bullying is excellent. Was that your own? Or does it echo reading you’ve done elsewhere.
    Again, I thank you.

  • etbe

    Donna: I’m glad you liked it.

    As for my high school experience, one of my friends called that school “The Prison Camp”, but it was a lot less unpleasant for him than it was for me.

  • Wow. Thank you for reading over this thread and responding point-by-point with concise, straightforward answers. I’m bookmarking this for future reference.

  • etbe

    Valerie: I’m glad you like it.

    Donna: My first answer to you went off-track. While high school was very unpleasant for me that’s not relevant to this post. The fact is that a large portion of the Linux community had bad experiences at school. I hope that using an analogy of school bullying will help some men understand these things better as they can relate it to unpleasant experiences in their own lives and those of their friends.