My social-media stream veers left, full of progressive voices. I like it that way.
Also, I’m a White Male TechBro Boomer. So that stream is full of vitriolic attacks from smart people that seem aimed at me personally. I get feelings, the kind I’d never share in the moment. But let me try to step back and offer perspective.
“Not all…” · Most of you know the history, but just in case: Back in 2017 the #MeToo conversation exploded into life, Harvey Weinstein’s downfall the proximate cause. It was a horrible, wonderful outburst of shared pain and anger and while we haven’t done away with that particular flavor of abuse, I think #MeToo moved the societal needle in a good direction, at least in some places.
A lot of men got really bent out of shape because they felt themselves innocent, not like Weinstein, and we heard the phrase “not all men”. To which, the crushing rejoinder, in the voices of women, was “All the people who catcalled me, and pawed me, and assaulted me, and backed me into corners, were men. All men!” You could dip into sophistry about parsing the word “all” but that would be dumb. You or I might not be like Harvey, but a lot of men were and are, and so that’s a problem that all men really need to help address. Saying “not all men” sounds like “not my problem”; it’s not helpful and won’t fly.
So if you happen to intersect with any attribute that’s getting flamed, I generally suggest avoiding sentences that start with “Not all…” or “But I never…” Even more strongly, I suggest shutting up and listening. Now on to my own experience.
Whiteness · There’s no gene pool whiter than mine, from around the northern edges of Europe: Ulster, Norway, Scotland. Let’s start with a quote from Samuel P. Huntington (granted, not a good person): “The West won the world not by the superiority of its ideas or values or religion […] but rather by its superiority in applying organized violence. Westerners often forget this fact…”
Huntington was not admirable, not even worth the effort of checking out; but still, that phrase has resonated in my mind since I first read it decades ago.
So we, the white people outside of Europe, often forget that the land we live on — the land I personally am sitting on as I write this — was stolen. The process involved lots of organized violence. My own family’s stolen land was around Ryley, Alberta; beautiful rolling countryside with rich black soil, soft greens in the summer, brutal in the winter. The process of dealing out Indigenous land to white farmers was called “homesteading”. Such a nice warm fuzzy word.
And the white people of the Old World often forget that the transgenerational wealth that made parts of Europe so nice, and keeps them that way, fell in substantial part out of colonialism and slavery, which is to say organized violence against non-white people.
So when people on the Fediverse rage against its Whiteness, and the Whiteness infecting many other sectors of society, let’s grant that you, Dear (white) Reader, did not personally engage in organized violence against non-white people, nor did you personally steal any land.
But that doesn’t mean you’re not enjoying the results of other white people doing those things — I certainly am. It doesn’t mean that trying to right these wrongs is not your problem. And while it may feel unjust for angry people to say things that sound like they’re blaming you personally, yelling “Not all whites…” or “Not my fault!” will not be helpful.
I strongly advise you suck it up and listen. And try to figure out how to be an ally of the people who are angry. If it makes you feel better to tell yourself that it wasn’t you personally, go ahead. But keep it to yourself.
I’ve got no particular expertise in ally-ship, I never feel like I’m doing it right, but I thought 10 Steps to Being an Ally to Marginalized Groups seemed smart and useful.
Are there any shades of nuance? Maybe… “Whiteness” wouldn’t be such a central problem if a certain class of white people didn’t have so much wealth and power, and weren’t so invested in keeping the system the way it is.
That system depends on another class doing shitty jobs for low pay, mostly women and people of color. One of the biggest reduce-racial-injustice policy moves I can think of would be to pay those people more. It’s pretty easy to see how powerful individuals (mostly white) who might not personally be racist are economically invested in the racist status quo.
I’m not denying that white racist cops and managers and bureaucrats hurt people, but I think the .01-percenters for whom society is working great, and who don’t want to change power relationships, hurt more people more. Maybe it’s in poor taste to raise class issues but I can’t help it.
Who’s racist, anyhow? · Are you? I am, a bit. I think anybody who claims they aren’t, at all, is fooling themselves. The human mind is built around a powerful pattern-matching engine; powerful enough to see patterns that aren’t there.
Whether or not the patterns are real, it’s wrong to act on them. Ten years ago I wrote “Xly”, a blog piece saying, essentially, that it’s unethical and stupid to make decisions about individuals based on statistical perceptions about populations; it may be helpful to people struggling with these issues.
Trying never to feel racist is admirable, but a long shot. Trying never to act racist, and instead finding ways to be actively antiracist, is what counts, I think. I’m not here to give advice on how to be antiracist, but I’m pretty sure listening is central, and I’m absolutely certain that shouting “I’m not!”, or claiming to be “color-blind”, is a really bad choice.
Gender · Male, cis and straight, that’s me. Among all these issues, this is the one that hits me hardest, mostly due to my profession’s hideous treatment of women. It is a fact that the people in my work life, decade after decade, were overwhelmingly male.
But the number of women is pathetically small and, what’s worse, hasn’t really grown much during my decades in the business. We can’t attract women to join the profession, and when we do, we’re lousy at retaining them.
People like me defined and built this industry, so this one is my personal fault. It’s not a sin of our ancestors, it’s us geeks who have systematically excluded women. It doesn’t matter whether we meant to or not.
I have repeatedly berated conference keynote audiences about the pathetic number of women in the crowd, I’ve been to endless DEI task force meetings (I still have an “Amazon Inclusion Engineer” T-shirt), I’ve bent over backward to hire and promote women. In the rear-view mirror it all looks to have been useless.
[Side trip: These days I hear the right-wingers inveighing against the “woke corporation” and wanting to ban DEI in the public sector. I shake my head, because DEI (in my experience) is so maddeningly ineffective.]
Of course bad male behavior isn’t limited to the technology world; just closest there to me personally.
But anyhow: When people rant about the glass ceiling and mansplaining and reply-guys and gender exclusion and stereotyping, I’m not gonna push back or object or do anything but maybe cry quietly. Boy, do we men ever have a lot of work to do.
Oh yes, of course there’s a class dimension. The key societal changes to make things better for women feature dramatic pay raises in female-dominated and horribly-underpaid professions. This includes raising the pay from zero for a lot of caregiving work. Which is definitely not something society’s (overwhelmingly male) proprietors are interested in.
Tech siblings · I’ve really liked the people I’ve worked with over the years. These days, more of my attention is focused outside the making-Internet-software domain. Which is appropriate and OK. But I miss working with people to build things and fix things. Call me a techbro if you want to, I can’t deny it.
Let me put a stake in the ground: The profession is full of erudite, practical, inclusive people, folks who are genuinely concerned with making the world better. Yeah, it also has its share of bigoted assholes, but the evidence I’ve seen puts the proportion lower than in the population at large.
I’m not saying the increasing societal loathing for the tech biz is unfounded. I saw it closer than most. As recently as 2010, when I started working for Google, Big Tech was still (mostly seen as a Big Benefactor, its leaders as icons of progress. Ten years later, when I rage-quit Amazon, the reaction was an outpouring of warm-hearted solidarity.
I think (you won’t be surprised) the problem isn’t the tech worker bees, it’s the big-money culture. Because big money attracts morally crippled people. There’s the VC-driven winner-take-all growth-hacking buzz of the Bay Aryans, and the world of big finance it feeds into, and neither of those cultures offers rewards for doing the right thing.
Which is to say, it isn’t technologists that are the problem, it’s the tech executives and shareholders.
Is it fair to say that we should have seen it coming? That when we built cool software to vacuum up all the world’s information and make it available for free, that the toxins of Late Capitalism would turn it into a hellscape? That it’s just wrong to put everything everyone has ever said on their immutable permanent record? That uncritically empowering anyone to say anything to anybody leads inexorably to GamerGate and KiwiFarms and slaughtered Rohingya?
Even granting that hindsight is 20/20, I think I have to accept that. Like the Merry Pranksters, we blew it. We blew it. We blew it.
Anyhow, when people flame away at tech, I’ll suck it up and listen, and maybe learn. I will defend the worker bees, though.
Boomer, OK? · Here’s where I’m gonna push back. The “OK, Boomer” crowd can go pound sand. I’ll certainly confess to extreme good luck: I was born in the same year as Bill Gates and Steve Jobs and Tim Berners-Lee; a good year if you wanted to have a good time in tech.
My whole generation’s been lucky, statistically speaking.
But it’s simply immoral to condemn an individual because of their age, even if there are statistically significant things about that age group that you dislike. Just as immoral as dumping on a woman or a Jew or Arab or trans person because of what your internal pattern-recognition engine has convinced you about that group. Don’t do it. And don’t expect me to be polite if you do it around me.
And anyhow, it’s a waste of your time. We’re all getting old and dying and won’t be getting on your nerves much longer. We will yell at you about your shitty tiny-font low-contrast designs. Which you should welcome, because you’ll be where we are now in a decade or three.
And of course I’m going point out that the problem isn’t Boomers, it’s that a lot of the ultra-rich few who are screwing over the many are boomers. The fact that they’re getting old and dying off may be satisfying but doesn’t help, wealth slides smoothly from one generation to the next. There’s now a whole Finance-Biz sector that exists to facilitate this, called the Family Office. The existence of Family Offices is a major bug in our civic structure. AOC, bless her heart, is working on it.
Turn left · In case it isn’t obvious, I think the most useful thing we could do as a society to push back against the White Male TechBro Boomers would be to shift our society’s political direction away from its current Late Stage Reagan-Thatcher Capitalism. Because a core ingredient of intersectional oppression is the imposition of poverty. If you think that smells a little bit class-reductionist, you’re right.
But in the meantime…
Own your privilege · It’s not that hard. And even if it is, privilege made your life easier, so you can do some hard stuff.
Concretely? When you feel attacked, listen don’t yell.