My “Theory” of Codes of Conduct

Oh, good lord, we’ve got a “thinker” on our hands. Seriously, that’s how he describes himself in the bio for his self-published book about psychopaths (based on his personal experiences rather than psychological research, natch). Only now he’s thinking about codes of conduct.

Is there a problem with thinking? Nope. Is there a problem with this guy thinking? Not in particular. It sounds like he’s even pretty good at it when it comes to software. So what’s the problem?

It’s the same problem that continually happens with people who define themselves as smart or as good thinkers: They forget about GIGO. They come to think of themselves as experts without having done any of the work.

This guy, in true “thinker” fashion, has decided he knows how people who work on codes of conduct theorize and conceptualize them without apparently ever having talked to any of us.

And indeed, I think the mainstream Code of Conduct model is based on false assumptions. The mainstream theory of harassment (let’s call it “Model A”) has these assumptions:

  1. Anyone can be the harasser.
  2. Harassment is a motiveless act.
  3. Outlawing harassment will stop it.

Those are indeed false assumptions. They are also not even close to the premises I’m working from when I talk about codes of conduct. Here are mine. You’ll note some contrasts.

  1. Boundary-violating behavior happens regularly for a variety of reasons.
  2. Societally, we consider the boundaries set by certain groups of people as inherently less valid, meaning those people encounter more boundary-violating behavior.
  3. Much but not all boundary-violating behavior is low-level and well-intentioned but thoughtless.
  4. Some people will use this background of low-level boundary violation as camouflage for greater violations that we call “harassment” (an inclusive term that should not be mistaken to mean only its own mildest form).
  5. These people may show general contempt for everyone’s boundaries, or they may conceptualize certain groups of people as having no rights to autonomy.
  6. Nearly everyone is capable of navigating the basic process of setting and enforcing boundaries.
  7. Setting and enforcing boundaries is work.
  8. Societally, we make certain groups of people work harder to have their boundaries recognized and respected.
  9. Societally, we punish the setting of certain boundaries.
  10. When we gather together for the purposes of work, requiring people to continually set and enforce their boundaries cuts into our collective productivity.
  11. When we gather together for the purposes of fun, requiring people to continually set and enforce their boundaries cuts into their fun by making them work.
  12. A code of conduct that sets out certain boundaries up front reduces the amount of individual work participants need to take on.
  13. A code of conduct that explicitly recognizes boundaries of certain groups reduces the amount of extra work those groups have to do.
  14. Most people will respect the boundaries set out in a code of conduct.
  15. In a situation where boundaries are commonly understood, the few people who are determined to violate boundaries have less cover and stand out more.
  16. In a situation where boundaries are commonly understood, people find it easier to oppose boundary-violating behavior when they see it happen to others.
  17. In a situation where boundaries are commonly understood, people find it easier to oppose boundary-violating behavior when it happens to them.
  18. In a situation where people know that they will not be punished but will be backed up by authority, people find it easier to oppose boundary-violating behavior when it happens to them.
  19. Many people who violate boundaries will not do so if you raise the cost of violations; they are looking for easy prey and few/no consequences.
  20. Codes of conduct will not stop all violations, which is why it is critical that everyone understand what will happen in the case of a violation.
  21. We have no good reason to believe that false reports are remotely common.
  22. False reports do happen.
  23. We have good information from a variety of sources telling us that “zero tolerance” solutions don’t solve these problems.
  24. We have decades of research showing the importance of institutional and community support for victims.
  25. We have decades of research showing that support for victims is not one size fits all.
  26. The stakeholders in a violation report include the person reporting being violated, the person being reported as a violator, organizers, any witnesses, and other community members/attendees.
  27. The interests of all these stakeholders are unlikely to align.
  28. Having a process for navigating these competing interests is critical to doing so ethically.
  29. Receiving training in navigating these competing interests increases the likelihood of doing so successfully.
  30. Understanding the principles behind codes of conduct increases the likelihood of enforcing them successfully.

That is what you get if you actually talk to someone who works on these things instead of just thinking up what we must think. And this is why you need real information instead of just being a “thinker” if you want to present yourself as any kind of expert and not be laughed out of the room.

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My “Theory” of Codes of Conduct
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35 thoughts on “My “Theory” of Codes of Conduct

  1. 2

    This is important. so I want to engage with it seriously, but I have a major exam tomorrow (“Final Exam” doesn’t do it justice when you’re talking about 100% exam-based law-school classes with about 200 pages assigned per week for 13 weeks. Oy.)

    However, I do have a quick drop-in comment:

    Much but not all boundary-violating behavior is low-level and well-intentioned but thoughtless.

    I think you’re wrong here. I think it would be better phrased:

    Much but not all boundary-violating behavior is low-level and neutrally-intentioned but thoughtless.

    This is important, because when we actually mean well, if we’re thoughtless about how we go about enacting our good intentions it often results in a more severe boundary violation than neutrally-intentioned behavior. Because neutral intentions don’t justify intense boundary-crossing, but good intentions can (even if good intentions don’t adequately justify intense boundary crossing nearly as often as people think).

    When we’re neutrally intentioned, we’re also rarely very invested. You don’t run up to grab someone (sans consent) in a bear hug when you have neutral intentions. But you just might do this when well intentioned.

    More if I survive tomorrow.

  2. 3

    Crip Dyke, I don’t disagree with any of that. When I say, “well-intentioned”, here, I’m talking about how people would view their own behavior, giving themselves the benefit of the doubt but still not being particularly dishonest about it. But what you’re saying here is interesting and good for people to consider. So please survive, and please add more if you’re up to it.

  3. 4

    To paraphrase Tim Minchin:

    [Creationists] like to say that evolution is ‘just’ a theory. And, you know, it gives me hope, because maybe they’ll think the same about gravity and just… float the fuck away.

    I’d like to think that my definition of “good thinker” is a person who recognises that they know nothing about certain topics, and when queried on said topics, says as much.

  4. 5

    Stephanie, thanks for your post. I’m sorry if my article seemed to criticize the work done by people such as yourself. Your list of premises is exactly accurate, and what I was trying to explain (perhaps to myself, or others who haven’t looked at this from your perspective).

    There is not a single one of your points that I can disagree with, and if you read my article (rather than debunk just the start) you would see I’m not saying anything different.

    The reason I write this stuff down and offer it to the world is not to claim some authority, it is to learn, and be criticized, together. The Model A I explained is (clearly) not how you approach this. It is however how a lot of people in our industry (men, then) imagine you approach it.

    So the real point of my article was not to criticize your work, rather to get discussion on the difference between accidental offense (which seems valuable) and deliberate boundary violation (potentially dangerous).

    My core work, by the way, isn’t writing software, it’s building community, and this distinction comes into play all the time. Most communities tend towards zero-tolerance on errors (and expect contributors to be perfect). The ones I work in try to embrace error as part of collective learning, and have proven to be more resistant to trouble makers.

    So thanks again for hitting me where it hurts. That is the only way to learn. It makes me happy to see you write lines like “Many people who violate boundaries will not do so if you raise the cost of violations; they are looking for easy prey and few/no consequences”.

  5. 9

    This is is a good blog post. I’ll tell you why – I read it yesterday but it stayed in my mind and here I am 24 hours later putting in a response.

    I don’t fully understand the article being critiqued. The author criticises the use of a Code of Conduct, and then finishes off the article by writing, what looks to me, like a Code of Conduct.

    But nevertheless I can understand why he feels pained by your response. Your criticism of the author for engaging in psychology while not being a professional psychologist is patronising and wrong-headed. Lets encourage the autodidacts amongst us, not cut them down at the ankles. People in this industry should be applauded for being multi-disciplinary in their approach – no to coding for codings sake. The work that we do should be interpreted via the political, social and cultural lens in which it sits amongst. Software doesn’t exist in a vacuum.

    In Britain we have saying – play the ball, not the man. Yes, criticism where criticism is due, but lets not belittle the author or maliciously attack their motives.

  6. 11

    Andy, if someone sat down and told you that everyone coding was doing it wrong and they were going to tell you the right way to go about it, then their explanation of how coding was being done wrong demonstrated that they hadn’t talked to anyone who actually codes, you would laugh them out of town. Said laughing them out of town would not be construed as telling people they shouldn’t learn to code.

    There is nothing wrong with autodidacts. There is something wrong when people claim to know more than experts based only on the “auto” without the “didact”.

  7. 12

    Stephanie,

    With all respect, you’ve not criticized anything substantial in my article beyond the initial paragraph, which I fully agree I misstated. Furthermore, the criteria you list are absolutely in line with my own learning.

    Let’s stick to material issues, not the wrapping. Here’s one thing I wrote in my book (Ch4): “Cults use arbitrary, inconsistent rules. Healthy communities need consistent, pragmatic rules. ”

    This is my core tenet, learned at great cost by trial and error over many years. So, my mistake is to not treat others’ work with due respect. I’m sorry. Now perhaps you can grant me the same respect, and take a look at some of the actual meat of my article.

    For instance, the obligation of organizers to protect their guests if they offer alcohol. As I wrote, “Bad actors are pragmatic, and driven by clear calculations of opportunity versus risk. So the solution is to remove the incentives and opportunities for misbehavior, and raise the risks of exposure. Then, bad actors will adapt and self-select. Either they will behave, or they will go elsewhere.”

    I enjoy being criticized, and am always grateful to learn.

  8. 13

    Andy,

    I did not criticize the use of COCs. I’m fully aware of the need for COCs. What I was trying to address in my article was the defensive reaction of so many people, which anyone seeing a COC discussion immediately sees. Emotional, argumentative, even abusive behavior on lists when discussing how to create safe spaces… I can’t be the only person to wonder where this conflict and try to address it.

    My theory (which no-one is discussing, as we’re lost again in defensive conflicts) is that COCs are presented (even if not designed) as regulation of the many (my model A). Whereas what they must be (and Stephanie and myself and presumably many others agree on this) is protection of the many against the few.

    I don’t have any need to rewrite COCs, however there is clearly a gap between what Stephanie writes and what many in tech still understand. Attacking me for speaking of this gap is pointless. Blaming people for not understanding the need for COCs is pointless.

    Thanks.

  9. 14

    If you are looking for education, there are years of work available on this topic. Some of it is mine. Because it’s happened in very internet-connected communities, and because some great people believe in documentation, much of this work is available online. Start here. Read the links. Read the links in the links. All this has been collected specifically because educating people on codes of conduct is also work that cuts into our productivity and fun.

    As for alcohol, I have a number of thoughts on how it interacts with events of various types. I’m not particularly interested in collecting them on demand because you wrote something broad and naive on the topic while claiming expertise, any more than you would when that self-proclaimed code expert showed up on your doorstep.

    Unless, that is, you’re looking to pay me to consult on specifics for one of your organizations or events. If you are, let me know, and we can talk rates.

  10. 15

    You send me to a feminist site that immediately scopes harassment in terms of gender. Do you not see the problem here? No matter how good the research, when it treats half the population as potential criminals and the other half as potential targets, it’s going to cause arguments.

    The work is good, bravo. Yet it is blinkered, and dripping in assumptions of innocent and guilt. Where is the discussion of male on male harassment, which forms the vast majority at tech events? Are you not even concerned about that? If you are, why silence. And if not, how can you seriously claim to address harassment when you ignore so much of the data?

    Here’s advice you don’t need to pay for. It’s free. Look at all harassment, not just sexual or ethnic or class-based harassment. Stop confusing the means and the ends. Offense is mostly innocent (and both sides win by having some friction). Much harassment is smooth and charming, yet ends badly. It is often extremely hard to see. Collecting male-on-female sexual harassment and then designing COCs around that will not work. You can make it work for a while, it will not sustain. At the very least the argument will wear you out, for no benefit.

    I really liked the summary of criteria you posted. So good. It gives me hope this won’t continue in another decade of misguided divisionism.

    Thanks for replying, and I don’t take your insults to heart. You have a crowd to please. 🙂

  11. 16

    Bullshit. Nice try, but still bullshit. And the reason why it’s bullshit is embedded right there in those principles you liked right up until I told you I wasn’t going to hold your hand for free.

    You’re not going to do the work to learn. You just want to be recognized as an expert.

  12. 17

    Hmm. That last sentence of the first paragraph in comment 12 sounds right out of anti-feminist playbook, that popular straw man of ‘treating half the population as criminals’. The codes I see are pretty gender neutral, though discussions around them focus on women being harassed by men because it’s women bringing up, and trying to solve, the problem. So, yeah, it waves a big red flag right from the start.

  13. 18

    For free? Stephanie, I’ve worked in open source for years, and not-for-profits for years. I don’t do this for profit. And even if I did, your sales pitch seems to consist of insults. It doesn’t come across as professional. I assume you’re playing to your audience. I’m not a good foil, however, you can do better. There are people who actually work against you.

    I still like the principles and they are totally familiar. The wiki is fine, full of detail, skewed and biased, yet accurate. No argument with that.

    And I’m learning a lot from this discussion, especially where that emotion and anger that pervades this topic comes from. Thanks for that.

  14. 19

    Pieter, I suppose that if you learn nothing else from this discussion except that your pretensions to expertise where you have none and seek none are annoying, some value has still been served.

  15. 20

    You send me to a feminist site that immediately scopes harassment in terms of gender. Do you not see the problem here?

    The problem is that you have a problem with feminist sites?

  16. 22

    There are people who actually work against you.

    And the obstacles they throw up in the path to liberation are so much easier to deal with than people who mistake themselves, out of incompetence and/or ignorance, for effective allies.

  17. 24

    Oh, right. I glossed over that “people who work against you” line.

    Pieter, those people have failed. Codes of conduct have been nearly universally adopted in the communities in which I pushed them.

  18. 25

    John-Henry, I said, *potential* criminals explicitly, please don’t distort my words. Yes, the COCs we see are generally neutral. And yes the discussions have this gender biased focus. Yet what happens when men try to bring up and solve the problem? We’re accused of arrogance, ignorance, failure to do our homework, etc. How dare you, is the response. This is *our* territory.

    Well. Let’s say, for argument, that my original article was concerned solely with male-on-male harassment. Intimidation, bullying, etc. Dealing with this has been a core concern of my work for at least a decade. My territory. I know this stuff.

    Now, is this essentially different from harassment that uses sexism, racism, or other tools?

    All I’m saying (and Stephanie’s article seems to confirm this) is that all harassment has the same underlying social dynamics. You have bad actors, and they like to break the rules and gain power over others. It is not a gender issue, any more than child abuse is a gender issue. It is about power.

    To make COCs work broadly for everyone, you need all the data, and you fundamentally have to speak to the whole audience in terms of *their* problems, not just yours. And since the problems are the same, if rephrased slightly, this is doable.

  19. 27

    Stephanie, I don’t know if only men do that. Certainly it is a common trait. Yet you’re showing it here. You don’t know my work, you have no idea what I’m an expert in, yet you repeat this “you know nothing and want to learn nothing” like a mantra.

    Well, I need to put my kids to bed. It’s been fun, this thread. Perhaps till another time.

  20. 28

    The “people who work against you” line is… how should I put this?

    It always reads as a threat to me, sometimes overt, sometimes veiled.

    Perhaps if Pieter was less invested in acting like a straw Vulcan (as suggested by the line about “anger and emotion pervading this topic”–what other emotions WOULD pervade the topic of humans routinely violating one another?), he would have realized that. If he had realized that, perhaps his communication would have been more effective at conveying that he’s a friendly, not a disguised hostile.

    I mean… it would beggar comprehension to imagine that people like Stephanie, who put themselves out there specifically as fighters/warriors/activists for Cause X are unaware that “there are people who work against you.” If they were indeed unaware of those people, then why on earth would they be, you know, fighting against those same people?

    When Pieter (and others of his ideological ilk) remind us that we do indeed have enemies, the only only message I receive, and have ever received, is this: “There are people who fight against you… and I could just as easily throw in my lot with them instead of you.”

  21. 29

    Yes, the COCs we see are generally neutral. And yes [sic] the discussions have this gender biased focus.

    Because harassment is a gendered phenomenon. There’s no “and yet.” If you’re talking about harassment you must talk about gender. Somehow. Perhaps in passing, but you will most likely be remiss if you leave it out of the conversation entirely.

    Yet what happens when men try to bring up and solve the problem? We’re accused of arrogance, ignorance, failure to do our homework, etc. How dare you, is the response. This is *our* territory.

    You say this as if the men who have been called these terrible terrible things haven’t been arrogant, haven’t been ignorant, have done their homework, and haven’t invaded anyone’s territory in order to reveal all of this. Who is this “we” you’re talking about anyway? You have a mouse in your pocket? Anti-feminists been whispering in your ear? Can you think of a specific man you can think of who didn’t invade anyone’s territory, did his homework, and was unjustly labeled arrogant and ignorant? If not, consider the possibility that your emotions have gotten the better of your analytical ability on this subject.

    Well. Let’s say, for argument,

    Ugh.

    that my original article was concerned solely with male-on-male harassment. Intimidation, bullying, etc. Dealing with this has been a core concern of my work for at least a decade. My territory. I know this stuff.

    Now, is this essentially different from harassment that uses sexism, racism, or other tools?

    Yes.

    All I’m saying (and Stephanie’s article seems to confirm this) is that all harassment has the same underlying social dynamics.

    You’re presupposing that this premise is correct. Harassment between men has some of the same features as harassment of women by men, but to say it has “the same underlying social dynamics” is absolutely false. If it weren’t why would you bother specifying, even in a hypothetical world that doesn’t exist, that you specialize in harassment among men, which is a distinct thing from inter-gender harassment? Again, basic logic fail.

    You have bad actors, and they like to break the rules and gain power over others. It is not a gender issue, any more than child abuse is a gender issue. It is about power.

    This sentence only makes sense if you accept the utterly ridiculous premise that the social construction of either gender or childhood/adulthood has nothing to do with power. Another logic fail.

    To make COCs work broadly for everyone, you need all the data, and you fundamentally have to speak to the whole audience in terms of *their* problems, not just yours. And since the problems are the same, if rephrased slightly, this is doable.

    You are the one who appears to be lacking relevant data here, so you need to reverse roles and start seeking advice rather than trying to dole it out.

  22. 30

    You don’t know my work, you have no idea what I’m an expert in, yet you repeat this “you know nothing and want to learn nothing” like a mantra.

    Well, no, actually. You may be projecting here. When I was pointed to your post, I looked you up and looked into your background. I figured out where you actually have some expertise and some of the kinds of successes that rely on expertise. I also read part of your book on psychopaths before any interactions with you here.

    Both in that book and in your post, I attended to the sources you listed for your information (personal experience in both cases). Both in that book and in your post, you were writing on topics where I have background on what expert opinion actually looks like. When it came to your post, I am one of the experts. In neither case did what you wrote:

    1) Look like any of the information that comes from experts
    2) Engage or show familiarity with existing expertise on the topic
    3) Consistently rise above vague pronouncements on the topic
    4) Be other than laughably wrong when specific were invoked

    Then I saw how you reacted to actual expertise on your post. You vacillated between agreement and disagreement with my list in a way that demonstrated that you didn’t really take the time to think about it or its implications. Then you dismissed an entire wiki’s worth of information as biased without engaging with it (later backtracking somewhat). None of this behavior is the behavior of someone trying to learn from material. It is, however, the behavior of someone flailing to maintain their reputation for expertise when challenged on it. (Again, this is a topic on which I’ve developed some degree of expertise.)

    As for why I’m repeating that point, it has nothing to do with it being a mantra. It has to do with the fact that you keep trying to change the subject–to how I should educate you, to whether I’m being professional about a situation in which I determined a long time ago that you weren’t going to pay me, to how my criticism of your particular blog post is somehow suddenly an attack on all men who try to talk about harassment. The point of my post was that your claim of expertise without having done the work was wrong and harmful. I’m not particularly interested in being deflected from that point before you understand it.

  23. 32

    Stephanie,
    You haven’t stated actual errors in his theory.
    Maybe, you were too tired to mention errors, or you wanted to be paid before talking about specific errors he made.
    But, it is a bad manner to insult people with words like bullshit and so on, and attacking a person without actually telling him what he got wrong is worse.

    You should elaborate on specific errors he made.

  24. 33

    crocket, my list contains multiple areas of disagreement with his theory. I simply found it more useful to put forward a relatively comprehensive positive model instead of nitpicking a poor one.

    As for “bullshit”, it’s a technical term in argumentation. You can read up on it if you like. If you do, you’ll understand why taking apart bullshit on a point-by-point basis does little more than waste time.

  25. 34

    Wow, that rapidly went downhill.

    Harassment is a power dynamic? Hm. And this aligns in what ways with classes of people with less power how? Oh my, i wouldn’t know.

    No, there is not Platonic Ideal harassment that makes for the best core COC. You have to follow specific types of harassment and the privilege from which they stem, and address them, hopefully protecting those with the least power first. Dude on dude harassment can exhibit features from all of these. The fact that there are large all dude environments where dude on dude harassment is such a concern is a concern and a symptom in itself. It’s not a place to derive and effective COC (or social theories) for more representative environments.

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