On Politeness, Street Signs, and Codes of Conduct

When I grow up, I want a pink car. Girls like pink.

—Tato (my son, age 4 at the time)

There has been a lot of talk lately about codes of conduct in conferences. I don't have answers to much, but I do have a lot of questions in my head, and some things seem to come to my mind because of that, so I will do a little head dumping, and let's see if clarity appears.

So. The main thing seems to be that the proposed codes of conduct aim at making events inclusive, and more diverse, and welcoming to people who may have felt unwelcome in the past. That these groups involve women should be a call of attention. Women? Women are half the world, and apparently we have been excluding them, whether intentionally or not.

So, in principle, if adopting a code of conduct helps that, I am all for it. Same about gays, lesbians, transexuals, etc. They are not 50% of the world, but they are about 10% of it, so it's a very large amount of people, and adding them to our groups is another easy optimization.

However, it concerns me a bit that these codes of conduct contain language like this:

Harassment includes offensive verbal comments related to gender, sexual orientation, disability, physical appearance, body size, race, religion, sexual images in public spaces, deliberate intimidation, stalking, following, unauthorized or inappropriate photography or recording, sustained disruption of talks or other events, inappropriate physical contact, and unwelcome sexual attention.

Some are completely obvious, people who disrupt the speakers at conferences are to be thrown out, intimidation is abominable, stalking is creepy, etc. But "offensive verbal comments related to [everything]"?

And here, I have to make a small detour and talk about street signs. When I visited London, one thing that called my attention was the language in street signs. Here's an example:


In other countries it would say "No dogs", wouldn't it?

So, why do they have signs like this? It's probably because they are very polite people. Also, it may be because offensive signs are punishable by jail.

I have a completely unfounded suspicion that the politeness came first, and then came the right not to be offended, which ended encoded into law, and now you just have to be polite, or else.

I am quite loudly atheist, yet I only mention it outside this blog if someone mentions his religion. So, for example, if someone says "god asks less and yet he forgives", I may say "that's because he doesn't exist", as a joke. I am now assuming that saying that in a conference with that kind of code of conduct is going to be considered offensive behaviour. And let's say I am ok with that, I can still go for a few hours without offending people. Have not tried it lately, but I am sure I can do it.

And I know that at a private event, like a conference, there is no inherent freedom of speech, because there is the right of admission, and I can just be kicked out without any explanation, and I am also fine with that, because I reserve the right to kick people out of my own home, too.

So, sure, let's keep religion out of it. It has no place in a technical conference one way or another, and in any case, I will wear my invisible pink unicorn shirt as an outward sign of my atheism (it looks just like a gray v-neck t-shirt).

And I am totally fine about not mocking or harassing people because of their gender or sexual preferences. I am old and provincial enough that when two men start kissing next to me, I feel awkward. Luckily, I am enough of an adult that I just think to myself, "dude, you are a provincial prude" and look the other way. After all, I have seen people take exception to me kissing my wife in public, so, live and let live, whatever. I like women, my wife likes men, so I can understand you liking either.

On the other hand, I understand that the mere existence and presence of some people can be offensive to others. I know people who would rather stand for 2 hours than sit next to a transexual. Or would rather get off the bus instead of being there. And I am enough of an old, provincial prude that I understand them. So, offending is not the thing here, because if offending is the thing, then the mere presence of someone can offend others, and that's the exact opposite of what we want. We want them to either not be offended, or be offended and get over it, or be offended and not care.

So, handing out invitations to threesomes to people in hallways is a bit too much (I never invite people to threesomes before the fourth date, it is gauche). Hitting on people in bars at night is probably not too bad, unless it's a constant thing that ruins the night for someone (what do I know, I have never hit on someone or been hit on in a bar. Except by other men. Just my luck!) in which case I expect a group of nice people to form a protective ring around the poor person who is just too attractive? (again, what do I know, I have never been atractive).

The thing we want is politeness. We want to be nice to each other. We want everyone to be as nice as they possibly can to as many people as they can. Specially, we want everyone to be extremely nice to the people they like the least. Because with people you get along with, you can do crazy stuff you can't do with others.

On the other hand, I suspect there is something else here I am missing. Because tolerance and respect is just not my thing. I am all for proselitizing and disrespect, for creative annoyance and pushing people outside their comfort zones. But I try not to do it personally, I try to throw things to the crowd and see what they do with them.

I mean, I have been photographed without my consent. I have even had my shirt scanned without asking permission (ok, I admit having a QR code in a shirt is sort of an implicit agreement), I have been called names, but I know that, in the words of a scifi writer, I live life in the low difficulty setting, because I am a rather healthy white heterosexual male born in middle class with a job, so again, I don't quite know what it's like to be insanely attractive, or gay, or insanely attractive to gays, or anything. I am not harassable. My face protects me. I know others don't have such powerful defenses.

So, while that kind of language does fill me with trepidation, and makes me wonder what kind of community I have been living in, oblivious to all these things I read about lately, I will accept those codes and try to follow them. I have never intentionally broken them, even before they existed (I did once take an inappropriate picture, it was a joke, I only showed it to one person, and I deleted it, and I really am sorry and would not do it again, ok?)

So, I hope to see a lot of people I don't know in the next free software events I attend. Hopefully I will not offend any of them in a bad way. I will not be too brash. I will try to be inclusive. I will try to be nice. But remember. If I am very, very nice to you, it may be because I can't stand you. You're welcome.


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