This is saddening stuff. At a recent Ruby conference (that I’m not going to name because it wasn’t their fault), a speaker (whom I’m not going to name for reasons of taste) had porn-flavored slides in his presentation; people were offended and said so. Some in the Rails community, including its leader, pushed back hard, in a way that offended many more people. If you haven’t been following the story, I think Martin Fowler’s SmutOnRails has a good aggregation of links, and also I agree with most of his commentary. I’m going to add two observations, one link, and some recommendations.

Observation · I’m a technology generalist who attends every flavor of gathering. It’s impossible to avoid noticing that, even by the lopsided standard of high-tech culture, the Ruby and Rails communities are dramatically, painfully short of female members.

At next week’s RailsConf, five of the 100+ speakers are women. It’s unfortunate that this includes none of the featured speakers, but on the other hand, 5% probably exceeds the proportion of women in the audience.

Observation · In this case, the speaker apparently had not meant to stir up trouble. When you find yourself in this situation — you’ve unintentionally given offense — there are a range of reactions available to you:

  1. Apologize.

  2. Ignore the situation.

  3. Become visibly angry at the offended parties because you don’t think they should have been offended.

The people at the center of this affair have so far chosen #3.

Link · A long time ago in this space I published Two Laws of Explanation. I think the principles it espouses are relevant in this context.

Recommendation · We don’t want the online community to adopt a bland homogenized “marketing” voice. Which means it’s sometimes OK to be offensive. I have published several pieces here which I’ve known in advance would deeply offend certain people; in some cases that was the objective and in others I just didn’t care. But if you do this, I think you should know what you’re getting into and be prepared to live with the consequences; no whining.

Smart people give offense in a calculated way and to a good end.

Recommendation · RailsConf is next week in Vegas. I think the organizers and the community should have the courage to bring this issue up, feature it on the center stage, focus on it, and achieve some clarity.

Recommendation · When you offend people but didn’t mean to, you should just fucking well apologize. And do it in an unreserved way, unless you think that offending them is a good thing and will produce a result that you’re in favor of.

[Update:] Commenters point out that the person who originally touched this all off now has apologized. Good on him, but clearly the center of the issue had moved elsewhere.

[Update to the update:] Other commenters characterize his statement as a “non-apology apology”. You be the judge.



Contributions

Comment feed for ongoing:Comments feed

From: Charles Oliver Nutter (Apr 30 2009, at 15:27)

It should be noted that the original presenter has, at least on Twitter, apologized for having given offense. And while I don't support his initial response to the furor, I think he's probably paid his dues. What's more important now is how we move forward from here, and whether we want to continue having insensitive boors as the leaders of (parts of) our community. That part, at least, applies as well to non-Ruby communities as to the Ruby or Rails communities themselves.

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From: Jim (Apr 30 2009, at 15:30)

What's interesting is that Matt has apologized.

http://merbist.com/2009/04/28/on-engendering-strong-reactions/#comment-602

Despite that, many people, including yourself apparently, don't seem to recognize his apology. Maybe it's because he also presented his point of view along with his apology?

I dunno.

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From: Bob Aman (Apr 30 2009, at 16:18)

Society functions because we enforce at least some minimal level of respect for one another, and tech communities are no different.

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From: Mark Menard (Apr 30 2009, at 16:48)

@Jim Because Matt's post was an explanation and in parts a justification, not an unqualified apology.

I'm not even sure his tweet, "I obviously made a mistake. I didn't mean to offend anyone but since I did, I failed," is an apology. It just more of a statement of what's happened. He acknowledges making a mistake, that is wasn't his intention to offend, and that he failed. Where's the apology?

I ask this after I thanked Matt via Twitter for the tweet, and retweeted it, but on further thought it really rang hollow to me. What's wrong with Matt saying, "I'm sorry to those who were offended. What I did was wrong." My theory, and this is just my personal theory, is Matt doesn't think it was wrong. If that's the case I'd rather he just come out and say that. At least we'd know where he sits.

Mark

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From: Alan.Hargreaves@Sun.COM (Apr 30 2009, at 16:53)

Apart from the inappropriateness of the imagery for a technical conference, many of those pictures look rather professionally taken. I do hope he got permission from the copyright owner before using them. Just because you can find an image doesn't give you an automatic right to use it in any way you like.

Thank you to the respondents pointing to his apology. It is a good thing that he made it. It's a shame that it took a public reaction like this, or that it had to happen at all.

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From: dr2chase (Apr 30 2009, at 17:56)

Not knowing squat about the people involved, only looking at the first few slides, and at the apology, perhaps the problem (why people are not paying attention to the apology) is that the slides are completely out of line, and the apology is stale weak beer. An apology is not "I'm sorry that I offended you" -- that's one of those new-style F-U apologies. To steal from Lily Allen, "It's not me, it's you."

A proper apology is "I am sorry, I screwed up badly, I do not know what I was thinking when I put this talk together, and I promise you it will not happen again." Those slides looked career-limiting to me, and they actually could be. The non-apology indicates that this guy really doesn't get it. Why would you hire someone who might expose you to lawsuits down the road, or embarrass you badly in front of a customer?

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From: JulesLt (Apr 30 2009, at 18:20)

At least one of them looked very much like it was taken from an Aubade advert - but despite my ability to identify high-end French lingerie, the point is that regardless of whether Matt's apologised or not, it is important that this story spreads around the wider development community.

(i.e. people are picking on this as an example of a deeper issue, not on one poor guy who made an error of judgement).

On the subject of 'offending people', surely what should be 'offensive' or provocative is the message, not the packaging.

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From: Joe Clark (Apr 30 2009, at 20:03)

If I understand you correctly, you are implying that women presenters would never make this mistake, that having more women in your midst would induce men to make this mistake less often, and that women would always be more offended than men even though there are barely any of them in the group.

Which part did I get wrong?

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From: John Cowan (Apr 30 2009, at 20:37)

I agree with the commenters who say this is a non-apology apology, indeed a classic one. Quoth Wikipedia in the article of that name:

"An example of a non-apology apology would be to say 'I'm sorry if you were offended by my remarks' to someone who has been offended. This does not admit that there was anything wrong with the remarks made, and it subtly insinuates that the person taking offense was excessively thin-skinned or irrational in taking offense at the remarks in the first place."

Just so.

Joe Clark: I suspect that a woman would not, indeed, make *this* mistake, which is not to say that women don't make mistakes. And I do think (and history backs me up here) that having different kinds of people around does tend to make "unintentional offense", tee-hee, less likely to happen. G.B. Shaw pointed this out as long ago as 1901: having a female alderman in Dublin made it possible to raise and pass a motion for public toilets for women that had been literally laughed off the year before.

Your third point I disagree with: plenty of men are mighty offended by all this crap.

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From: Pete (May 01 2009, at 06:10)

I'm glad this topic surfaced and that the Ruby community has overwhelmingly done the correct thing. At a RubyConf two years ago, I unfortunately had to sit within a colony of attendees who were more interested in IM'ing each other, mostly on the subject of the appearance of the few female conference attendees. Mostly filthy dialog, if you could imagine. I'm not blaming RubyConf, by the way. But ask yourself, for any given event, if you would bring along your daughter. My answer was an emphatic "no way" for that RubyConf.

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From: len (May 01 2009, at 06:20)

So now the twits have to learn how to apologize from their web elders?

It's a crock.

One of the images is from the comic "The Watchmen". In the recent movie campaign of the same name, the producers deliberately altered the images of the blue man for the TV promotions so a) they would air and b) audiences would not know the movie was soft porn, therefore, the opening box would be bigger because it would include families thinking they were coming to Spiderman with violence and language and not know about the nudity and sex. Anyone who complained was shouted down that they should have read the comic first.

Right.

Last week an article in CNet discussed Tim O'Reilly's Foo Camp playing Werewolf, a variation of Mafia, a game described as vital to the Silicon Valley culture where cooperative lieing is a 'critical social skill'. Of course, "it's just a game and the emergent behaviors are so interesting".

Right.

If you folks haven't figured out the web culture is less than honest, less than mature and capable of senseless vitriol, that it feeds on rage, because of the perception left by its elders for the millenials to absorb that this is "how to win", then a few racy pictures and pissed off women aren't much to complain about. I looked at the slide show. Suggestive? Yes. Provocative? Hardly. There is very little there that doesn't show up 20 times a week in mainstream and cable television.

If The Watchmen is the rage and Werewolf is appropriate for O'Reilly, then frankly, the guy who made that presentation has nothing to apologize for. This is the culture you've made, wanted and celebrated for almost two decades.

Reverse the image. For that group sex scene where a man is the object of affection, substitute a woman and see who's ire gets raised next time.

As for how to apologize, don't. Take the May West attitude: "Those who are offended easily should be offended more often." From what I see, they will get lots of opportunities to practice.

Tim, you have no case.

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From: anonymous (May 01 2009, at 09:40)

I would suggest that recommendation 3 would be better if it allowed for some judgement more precise that just whether you think offending someone is a good thing is a particular case:

When you offend people but didn’t mean to, you should just fucking well apologize. And do it in an unreserved way, unless you think that offending them is a good thing and will produce a result that you’re in favor of.

For example if I were to eat a ham sandwich at a professional lunch that might offend a committed Vegan. I don't particularly think that offending such a person is a good thing, but neither would I be willing to apologize for such an act. There are many things we may do in a professional context which may offend people with particular sensibilities; in some cases we may wish to offend them because we believe their sensibilities are problematic; in other cases we may not care if we offend them because their sensibilities are (in our judgement) not worthy of note, but harmless.

Thus I would suggest that there is always in such cases as this a judgement call as to whether the people offended have a reasonable expectation not to be subjected to the behavior in question.

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From: Ryan Cousineau (May 01 2009, at 12:16)

I'm only chiming in to point out that acknowledging a personal failure is much more important than apologizing for it.

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From: ColinToal (May 01 2009, at 12:56)

I think folks who make unfunny (nevermind offensive) jokes should have to really apologize. Not 'I'm sorry you didn't laugh' apologize - but 'I'm sorry that I'm not funny' apologize.

Also - Its a bit pathetic to spend time rationalizing and documenting your cool, edgy, R-rated-ness to the world. It comes across as contrived, ego-serving insecuity. I really don't care what you think of yourself - I just care that the software works.

No one in the software development trade is Bono or 50 cent. The sooner we can all get over that (and ourselves) the better it will be for everyone.

This is enough to make me stay focused on Java and to avoid putting the effort into learning RoR. Maybe that is the intent - to keep folks like me from becoming involved.

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From: Simon Brocklehurst (May 03 2009, at 03:17)

Clearly, putting that content in the slides was an error of judgement. That's not even in question. Anyone with half a brain should have realized that some people would feel uncomfortable with, and be offended by, slides like these. It's not acceptable. But - come on... "porn" or "porn-flavored"? Hardly.

I've looked at the presentation on-line. I assume it's the same presentation that was given at the conference. I saw nothing that could be reasonably be described as pornography. For example, mainstream media uses images that are stronger than these every day - including at times and in places where children will see the images.

So, why the exaggeration? Why the desire to make this into something it's not?

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From: Robert Young (May 22 2009, at 18:15)

Modulo a couple ambiguous ones, none of these comments were by females. Hmm.

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