When Geeks Have Empathy Problems

Over the past few days, I’ve been tipped off to an incident on the Planet Mozilla blog, an aggregator of the personal blogs of Mozilla community members. Mozillans can choose which entries make the feed and which don’t, but non-work-related content is part of the point, to reveal an insight into the actual people driving the process. This makes sense in theory, but I get that it’s a situation waiting for a bit of a “turd in the punchbowl” moment.

And so it goes. The Mozillans that I know are LGBTQ-identified. And I agree with them that a post in this aggregator, voicing opposition to the rights of LGBTQ folk to marry, is hate speech, even if that’s a more severe term than we’re used to hearing in a media climate that insists on giving airtime to “both sides of the argument” under the guise of impartiality, even if one side’s view is odious. In a couple of decades the majority of the population is going to look back on the gay marriage discussion and see opposition to it as unequivocal hate speech, not unlike the majority of us do for those who oppose interracial marriage these days. In the future I have no doubt that people who are defending the folks who are making these statements are going to feel sorry for doing so. But in the meantime they’re making fools of themselves.

I’ve seen enough of these discussions play out on the Internet, given that some guy does something wildly inappropriate at a technical conference (post sexualized content, talk in terms that make female attendees feel marginalized and invisible, sexually assault a fellow attendee, etc.) about once a month. I feel like Geek Feminism doesn’t even keep a comprehensive list of all these “incidents” anymore because they’ve become so common. The nice thing is that a lot of guys are noticing this trend too and getting equally sick of it; regardless, in almost every incident, the predictable surge of geeky individuals steps up and defends the offender in what they think are extremely logical, clever and original terms.

A clear pattern has emerged, and I feel compelled to summarize it briefly instead of ranting about it loudly to my housemate (a form of preaching to the choir that she’s kind of sick of at this point, too.)

Here goes: geeks, technical people, programmers, engineers, etc. – are highly logical individuals, and it’s totally normal to start thinking about ourselves in terms of logical systems, because the way we interact with the world on a daily basis is distinctly different from the rest of the population. I, too, often encounter communities or aspects of pop culture that are totally foreign to me as a result of my logical orientation, although I think this is an experience that isn’t unique to geeky folks; everybody runs into individuals that they just don’t “get”. But here’s the thing a lot of geeky people seem to forget as they bond more and more tightly to their identity as logical individuals: geeks are still, first and foremost, human, and as a result, will still experience human emotions on a regular basis, even if they’re interpreted through a logical filter. In my experience, geeky folks have just as many emotional responses as a non-geeky individual in any given circumstance, but the geeky folks are a lot more likely to be totally clueless about the fact that it’s actually a human emotion that’s driving what seems to them like a highly logical argument.

If someone posts something odious to a news aggregator – that makes people in marginalized groups feel hurt, unsafe, threatened, etc. (note that I omit the word “offense” – it’s abused too often to retain any useful meaning in these discussions) – and you have never been in a marginalized group, or cared deeply for someone in a marginalized group, or felt unsafe at work – then I totally understand why you’re more likely to want to defend the person saying the odious stuff. It’s called empathy. And what you’re doing when you’re defending that person is actually an act of empathy: you realize you’re far more likely to accidentally say something hurtful on a news aggregator (or other public forum) than you are to be the target of that sort of language, and if you were ever to do that, you’d want guys like yourself to be able to understand your perspective. You know what? That’s a totally reasonable, and utterly human, response, and nobody’s going to judge you for that. But it’s also completely inappropriate to share in a larger space and frame as a logical argument. It’s not. It’s empathy polluting a comment feed and for people who are used to seeing this play out over and over, that “original” argument is tired and frankly embarrassing.

Geeks who make these empathic arguments and think they’re contributing something new to the discussion look really, really foolish to those of us who get it. I’d feel sorry for them if they weren’t making me so angry by actively hurting people I care about (and often me, as a female programmer – in the case of “incidents” at tech conferences.)

Let me give an example from my own life. Over the past year I have done some really silly things that have revealed my socioeconomic, white, straight, and cissexual privilege. I have even said some things that have revealed my privilege as a person who has not suffered from domestic abuse. Since certain things aren’t in my range of experiences, it’s totally reasonable for me to be ignorant and occasionally make mistakes. But I do see it as my responsibility to learn from those mistakes when they’re pointed out, and do my best not to make them again. I have no doubt that I’m probably still doing stuff like that all the time, but that the people who I’m accidentally hurting by saying those things just don’t feel comfortable pointing it out. I know this because I can empathize with parallel situations where people have done this to me, in parts of my life where I am not so privileged.

If I did one of these things in a public forum – like on a blog, or at a conference – and it became a subject for public discussion – I, too, would have the impulse that a lot of people in these situations do, which is to defend my inherent goodness as a person. Because my emotional response when being told that I’ve messed up – by, or in front of, individuals that I’d like to think highly of me – is to try to convince them to keep thinking highly of me. Denial and defensiveness is a pretty instinctive first response. But I really try to move past that, and swallow the discomfort and shame I’m feeling, and do the right thing, which is to acknowledge the hurt I’ve caused. And honestly? A sincere acknowledgement – and taking the simple steps to amend the wrong – kills the controversy almost immediately. Unfortunately, when that happens, it doesn’t cause nearly as much attention as the trainwreck that occurs when people give in to their impulses instead and dig in their heels. Then people flock to the trainwreck, respond with empathy, don’t realize they’re responding with empathy, and the disaster grows. It’s a headache, but like most individuals sucked into these situations, I nonetheless can’t look away.

Honestly, it’s encouraging to see that geeky individuals feel such strong amounts of empathy and compassion. What saddens me is how many of them have no clue that they feel such emotions – all the time! What a great capacity for positive change and collaboration we’re completely misusing. Emotions can be incredibly powerful in tandem with logical thinking, when used mindfully.

That said, as a person who has felt some degree of threat (i.e. stereotype threat) at the workplace as a default status, but has also felt legitimately unsafe in rare contexts, it’s completely unacceptable to defend an individual who is making members of a community feel unsafe and unwelcome in that community. This is my empathy speaking up here: as a person who has felt unsafe in the workplace and in communities, I am well aware of the intense pain that these defenses are causing. It is so much worse, and so much more debilitating, than the discomfort of brief embarrassment or shame from making a mistake. Please, stop. This sort of pain keeps brilliant, capable people from doing their jobs. And if you really care about the strength of a community on its technical merits, you’ll want everybody to feel safe and welcome above all else, even if it means coping with the discomfort of feeling chagrined once in awhile.

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28 Responses to When Geeks Have Empathy Problems

  1. Gavin Sharp says:

    I agree with your point about being in the position of “never [having] been in a marginalized group”. I’m in this position myself, with the debate in question, and I find it important to recognize that.

    What bothers me is conflating “defending the person who made the statement” with “arguing against the people attacking the person who made the statement”. The former implies endorsing the statement, when the people doing the latter might actually disagree with or not have a strong position on the actual statement. They’re just oblivious to the statement’s importance or relevance (because they can’t relate, for the reasons you mention). In that case, other things (like logical inconsistency or perceived hyperbole in the attacks against the poster) seem relatively more important, and worthy of debate.

    • addie says:

      When people express hurt, the appropriate response is to stop and listen to them, even if you don’t understand or relate to their experience. If you were feeling hurt, wouldn’t you want to be treated with the same courtesy? The entire idea of arguing with someone who is saying that they feel unsafe, hurt, and unwelcome due to the actions of another is part of the problem here. As is viewing people responding to that hurt by working to defend themselves from further hurt as an “attack”.

      I don’t argue with people in marginalized groups when they tell me that someone has behaved inappropriately. I take them seriously. Having received that treatment (someone treating my lived experience as a matter that is up for debate, like it’s an abstract concept) in the past, it’s incredibly insulting.

      • Gavin Sharp says:

        I don’t think that arguing against someone who feels hurt is a great idea, and I don’t recommend people do it. But not everyone understands those sensitivities, and in a large community you’re going to have people who do it anyways. Framing your arguments in a way that avoids encouraging them to argue with you is just a pragmatic way of avoiding additional confrontation. It sucks that it’s ever necessary to have to be careful in framing arguments, and this is particularly true for people who feel hurt, but I think it’s just a reality of life (one that we can and should try to change – but I doubt it will ever go away).

        • addie says:

          This is called the “tone argument”, and if you’ve been engaging in this discussion with others, they may have said the same thing to you: http://geekfeminism.wikia.com/wiki/Tone_argument

          My stake in this situation is far lower than my peers, so I can more readily engage with you on this: I’d like to argue that the language that Tim and others have employed is effective in communicating how serious this is precisely because their language is severe. I say this as a person who has experienced verbal abuse and harassment at the workplace, and has experienced the workplace as an extremely unsafe environment. The feeling of being unsafe in a community in which having a productive relationship with your co-workers is a requirement of the job – it’s the requirement of basically any job – is absolutely terrifying and debilitating. It is one of the worst feelings I have ever had in my life, and I am hyper-vigilant in making sure it never happens to me again. I, too, if I sensed even a potential threat to my safety (and that is really what has gone on here; people have revealed themselves as potential threats because they have failed to respond appropriately to a serious situation; what if something more severe happened later on?) would use the strongest language possible in communicating what a big deal this was to me.

          Communicating that you feel hurt to others and receiving the feedback that you’ve hurt others is an inherently difficult task, something that nobody finds particularly easy. People who are the most vulnerable to being hurt are going to have more practice than the rest of us at this exercise, and I’d argue they’ve learned to communicate that pretty damn effectively. Those of us who can’t empathise are just doing a pretty terrible job of listening.

          • Gavin Sharp says:

            Sorry, I guess my previous comment was made in the context of my blog post, which you might not have read (it’s on Planet Mozilla now). I don’t think it’s productive to argue about whose fault it is that people are misunderstanding each other (the listener or the arguer). It’s possible for both the arguer and the listener to adjust their behavior to improve communication. It may very well be that you think it’s unfair to suggest that the arguer make tone adjustments (particularly when they are arguing because they feel victimized), but “fairness” is very subjective, and in practice not everyone will agree (or understand) your assessment.

          • addie says:

            The words you’ve been choosing in your comments have been consistently revealing in the way you’re framing this, which is as an argument.

            If someone hits you, even by accident, it hurts, and the appropriate response by basically anybody in that situation is to try to stop the hurt, although they may employ different methods of trying to do so. Some people would say “stop hurting me.” Others might actually hit back.

            I don’t see anything about that exchange which implies an argument. There is no discussion happening. Instead, it’s a transaction. Someone does something hurtful. Someone else either does something hurtful back, or tries to stop the hurt using language or other means. They’re trying to avoid stopping the hurt by distancing themselves from the threat.

            Honestly, I have no issue with people employing whatever means to communicate “stop hurting me” they want, as long as they don’t hurt others back, and that’s not happening here.

            Now, you can have an argument about what happened if you’re a bystander – but I think it’s clear to me that Tim and others are not bystanders. They’re saying “stop hurting me”. Interpreting “stop hurting me” as an argument instead of a statement reveals exactly your stake in this situation, which honestly isn’t very high. Nor is mine. The stakes for LGBTQ people are incredibly high. It’s disingenuous to treat everybody like they have an equal amount to lose here.

          • Gavin Sharp says:

            For the people arguing about tone, it is an argument. That’s just what it is to them, and it’s really difficult to get them to realize it can be anything bigger. It’s *precisely because* people don’t have the same amount at stake that there are misunderstandings. So I think their behavior should be described at worst as ignorant (missing the important point, being oblivious to pain, etc.), rather than malicious (“defending abuse”).

          • addie says:

            It’s not malicious, certainly, but intent is not magic. People who engage in this behavior are marking themselves as “untrustworthy”, i.e., if someone were to engage in malicious behavior, these individuals can no longer be trusted as reliable sources for aid. In other words, “I wouldn’t ask you for help if I were in serious trouble.” And if you work somewhere where a bunch of people have just revealed themselves as untrustworthy, that’s a scary situation to be in.

            As for it being difficult to get people to realize it’s not an argument, the only people truly responsible for improving the skills of terrible listeners are terrible listeners.

        • I don’t accept that oppression is just a fact of life that will never go away; accepting that makes it a self-fulfilling prophecy. I have the right to fight back when I’m attacked, without being shamed for making the people who hurt me feel bad about hurting me. It’s sad that some people don’t respect that right, but I’m going to go ahead and keep exercising it anyway. Their lack of respect reflects poorly on them, not on me. And their lack of respect is driven by their political interest in occupying a privileged place in the status hierarchy (which necessarily requires subordinating others), *not* by my tone. Blaming my tone is disingenuous.

          • Gavin Sharp says:

            You have every right to fight back, but you don’t have any guarantee that your fighting will be perceived as just or reasonable. My point is really just that you should try maximize your behavior’s likelihood to be considered reasonable, if you want to maximize its influence. I realize that conceptually this can be incredibly difficult if you’re a member of a minority that has fundamental disagreements with a majority, and that I might seem ignorant to that reality in making the point.

          • I don’t see a Reply button to Gavin’s last comment for some reason, but this is in reply to “you should try maximize your behavior’s likelihood to be considered reasonable, if you want to maximize its influence.”

            The thing is, we (and I mean those of us who are in multiple marginalized groups) have thought about doing that before. We have collectively noticed a pattern where no matter how reasonable we act, no matter how polite and meek we are, how moderate we make our demands, we’re still told — over and over — that our tone is wrong and we really ought to be more polite if we want anybody to listen to us.

            Some of us have decided that so far, there’s enough evidence to conclude that actually, some people are simply determined not to listen to us — because it’s not in their self-interest to listen and empathize with people lower than themselves in the privilege lattice — and being polite in the hopes of persuading such people is self-sabotage, like an abused child who hopes that being nice will make their parents stop hitting. Using firm, assertive language *does* help us organize each other and cognitively liberate each other. And when I talk about oppression, that is what I try to do.

            Even though it was a couple of decades ago, Martin Luther King, Jr. observed some of these same patterns and his words on the subject in “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” hold up pretty well:

            I must make two honest confessions to you, my Christian and Jewish brothers. First, I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action”; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a “more convenient season.” Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.

            (Emphasis added.) I recommend reading the whole essay.

          • addie says:

            Here’s the risk you run in workplaces if you try to take the approach that a claim of inappropriate behavior against a protected class is “unreasonable”:

            A couple years ago, my employer tried to punish me for issues related to a disability I have. I told him that the disciplinary action was inappropriate because he was essentially disciplining a symptom of my disability. He essentially told me that my response was unreasonable (and actually sent me home early as a further disciplinary measure).

            My lawyer did not, and that changed his tune.

          • Gavin Sharp says:

            Thanks, I’ll add it to my reading list. I can understand “shallow understanding [...] is more frustrating”, and your point about it not being in moderates’ “self-interest to listen and empathize with people lower than themselves in the privilege lattice” is well taken. I’m still not convinced that the aggression/reasonability tradeoff you’re making in this particular case is the right one, but I can understand it being a conscious one, and anyways – who am I to judge it, really?

  2. drs says:

    “and you have never been in a marginalized group”

    Seems to me that most American geeks have been in a marginalized group — possibly including assault, humiliation, and friendlessness — by virtue of being geeks in typical American schools. Not saying it’s as bad as being black/gay/female, but they don’t spend their whole lives on top of the privilege pyramid either. Not sure what the implications of this are: “geeks have been marginalized, so should be able to sympathize better!” or “geeks respond differently to the experience, so empathy arguments won’t work as expected.”

      • addie says:

        Also a fair response. I’m feeling far more agreeable today than I’d normally be.

        • I’d have a lot more patience for the idea that geeks constitute an oppressed group if I hadn’t seen so much viciousness from white het cis male geeks directed towards everybody else as soon as those geeks graduate from high school and achieve a position of relative prestige and power.

          • addie says:

            Totally fair. I was careful (in my other response) to acknowledge the original comment as an opportunity to mention intersectionality and oppression olympics (I’ve gotten into pattern-matching mode after reading the Mozilla thread), but I don’t actually see white cis male geeks as an oppressed group. Obviously that’s been discussed at length elsewhere, like Geek Feminism.

            I want to show compassion for the experiences of anybody who has experienced childhood trauma. But, as you’ve mentioned, the topic usually comes up while someone is actively participating in viciousness, i.e. “I can be awful to you because people were awful to me as a kid.” In the case of this comment, and only using the context provided in the comment itself, the observation was certainly naive but not mean-spirited, like it usually is when I see the “a lot of geeky people were bullied as kids” comment.

            That said, in the case of naive comments, I certainly have my days where “No.” is what I’d say instead.

          • drs says:

            Israel oppresses the Palestinians, therefore Jews weren’t persecuted?

            Much to my (leftwing Jewish) mother’s disappointment (about Israel), being a victim doesn’t necessarily make one more virtuous or empathetic or wiser. It just makes one a victim. One can be a sexist bullied nerd, an exploited poor white who holds fast to being superior to blacks, a homophobic or classist feminist, a transphobic gay rights advocate, a black who sees no analogy between gay marriage and interracial marriage rights, etc.

          • addie says:

            Is there some phantom commenter here that you seem to be arguing with? Your response doesn’t align with any of the content here.

    • addie says:

      Indeed, many people have experiences which align them with some form of marginalization; the term for “people can have privilege in some areas and be marginalized in others” is known as intersectionality: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Intersectionality

      I agree that the past negative experiences of geeks introduce the possibility for an effective empathy exercise if they are willing to engage in it. But many people – not just geeks, but in other groups with a history of hurt in their lives as well – aren’t able to skillfully deal with the co-existence of their pain and the pain of others, and indulge in hurtful quests to protect the validity of their own experience, even though it may not have been at question.

      Geek Feminism likes to refer to this unskillful response as “Oppression Olympics”. As a person who has been bullied at the workplace – on several different occasions – I can totally empathize with geeky individuals who have been bullied at any time in their lives. It’s awful. And I have never once employed that experience to justify doubting the legitimacy of others’ hurt, when they experience it, as some geeky folks unfortunately do.

      • Boris says:

        addie, that runs both ways, unfortunately. I see plenty of people who have been bullied because they’re female or non-white who claim that a white male can never be bullied in the workplace. Things like public blog posts making fun of the way other employees of the company dress, say, or the way they talk, are dismissed as just “good fun”. And everyone is OK with that, because the target of the bullying is not an “oppressed group”. Which starts begging the question of exactly what constitutes an “oppressed group”. It sounds like you think the above behavior is OK, in your response to Tim above… I really hope I’m just misreading, but even if I am I’ve had plenty of people tell me to my face they think it’s ok, precisely using Oppression Olympics arguments…

        • Boris says:

          And on further thought….

          I think for me the key to all of this is the “this hurts, stop hurting me” characterization of the situation. I think that it’s far too easy for people to lose sight of that, as you say, and the more you think of people as groups instead of individuals the easier it is to lose sight of it. For me, the key is to think of people as _people_ as opposed to members of a this group or that group, precisely because most people are memebers of multiple groups at once.

          From that viewpoint, telling someone who is hurting that their hurt matters less because they “deserve” it due to belonging to some group (whether that group be women, men, straight, gay, old, young, whatever) seems completely uncalled for. So does telling them that they’re just too uneducated to understand why their hurt matters less. And yet we as a society do this all the time. We’ve done it and are doing it on the basis of race, we’ve done it and are doing it to children, we’ve done it and are doing it based on pretty much any group affiliation we can think of.

          And yet I don’t see us really trying to teach children to really focus on people as individuals and try to understand how we are all alike instead of trying to put everyone into neat groups. And that’s unfortunate, because as long as that continues the problems you point out can’t disappear….

          • Majority-on-minority violence (verbal or otherwise) is different from majority-on-majority or minority-on-minority violence in the same way that hitting someone with a baseball bat is different from hitting someone with a pillow.

        • addie says:

          I think your follow-up comment indicates that I clearly don’t endorse the viewpoint you outline in the initial viewpoint, and no reading of my comments should have revealed that. There’s a difference between validating the hurt and past experiences of others and recognizing vulnerable groups as just so due to an extended history of systemic oppression. Everybody can be treated terribly; but you have to be especially mindful and compassionate towards people in vulnerable groups precisely because they are far more likely to be treated terribly and have the rest of the population not take their grievances seriously.

          As a person who has been bullied in the workplace for reasons that had nothing to do with my protected class status, I can promise you that I have no tolerance for workplace bullying, and would never imply otherwise.

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  4. Cliff Wells says:

    First off, this article was excellent and gives me plenty of food for thought.

    However, I feel the commentary has dropped the discourse down considerably (although I found further, unexpected, enlightenment as a result).

    [Addie edit: I've left out the rest of Cliff's commentary because it tone-polices Tim and accuses him of engaging in bullying tactics. I realize Cliff put some thought into his feedback but I can promise Tim has heard all of it before, and does not need to hear it again, so I have removed it.]

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