When openness is taken as an absolute

Another piece about the (cough) unwelcoming atmosphere for women online. Astra Taylor makes the connection between the libertarian worldview of many techy types and the flourishing of misogyny.

Despite being held up as a paragon of political virtue, evidence suggests that as few as 1.5% of open source programmers are women, a number far lower than the computing profession as a whole. In response, analysts have blamed everything from chauvinism, assumptions of inferiority, and outrageous examples of impropriety (including sexual harassment at conferences where programmers gather) to a lack of women mentors and role models. Yet the advocates of open-source production continue to insist that their culture exemplifies a new and ethical social order ruled by principles of equality, inclusivity, freedom, and democracy.

Unfortunately, it turns out that openness, when taken as an absolute, actually aggravates the gender gap. The peculiar brand of libertarianism in vogue within technology circles means a minority of members — a couple of outspoken misogynists, for example — can disproportionately affect the behavior and mood of the group under the cover of free speech. As Joseph Reagle, author ofGood Faith Collaboration: The Culture of Wikipedia, points out, women are not supposed to complain about their treatment, but if they leave — that is, essentially are driven from — the community, that’s a decision they alone are responsible for.

Yes. That is true. One or two outspoken misogynists can poison the whole damn soup.


  1. A Masked Avenger says

    One or two outspoken misogynists can poison the whole damn soup.

    Damn skippy.

    I think libertarians, who are overwhelmingly male, end up serving misogyny (often unwittingly) because they’re blinded by privilege and mistake legal for moral. They fail to stand up to misogyny, which would be a textbook social sanction, in the mistaken belief that doing so is tantamount to criminalization. Some of them are of course misogynists anyway, but I don’t think they’re disproportionately so compared to any other collection of mostly cis, het, white, non-poor males.

    Some libertarians will tell you that theirs is a philosophy of law, not morality–i.e., that certain actions should not be punished with imprisonment, fines, etc., but that they are still immoral. Misogyny is an example: it’s legal today, and they’d say it shouldn’t be illegal, but that doesn’t make it moral. They’d say some misogynist actions certainly should be illegal, including some that aren’t today: any non-consensual contact, or threat of contact. But expressing a misogynist viewpoint in your own living room, for example, should not.

    Most libertarians, though, seem to think theirs is a theory of morality, and that anything that isn’t criminal is therefore necessarily moral. Or at least, that morally condemning something is equivalent to banning it by force of law. I’ve heard them say, basically, that anything that shouldn’t be criminalized, shouldn’t even be criticized. I suspect this confusion is a major contributor to their failure to shut down “a couple of outspoken misogynists.”

  2. Gordon Willis says

    It’s a guy thing: think of a programmer…it’s a guy, right?

    What’s a gal thing? think of a programmer, it’s not a gal. Think of a gal…she’s in the kitchen, or talking about babies, right? Or she’s complaining absolutely bloody typical yap yap yap Jesus F. Christ.

    You see, women just complain. Why should I take any notice? And of course you all naturally listen to me cos free speech, which they just don’t GET, DO THEY ?

    As Joseph Reagle, author of Good Faith Collaboration: The Culture of Wikipedia, points out, women are not supposed to complain about their treatment, but if they leave — that is, essentially are driven from — the community, that’s a decision they alone are responsible for.

    Obviously. See? They just turn up, god knows why, and they moan and moan and moan and moan, and when people complain they just bugger off. Bloody typical. Bloody typical.

  3. John Horstman says

    @A Masked Avenger #1: Very good point. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had debates go wildly off course because the person I’m debating is mistaking the legal for the moral (or vice versa). The fact that I don’t think a particular norm of behavior should be enforced through the state monopoly on (legal) violence doesn’t mean I don’t think it should be a norm of behavior. Contrarywise, the fact that something is proscribed or prescribed by law doesn’t automatically make it im/moral. The biggest confusion comes about when discussing “rights”, as people sometimes don’t explicitly distinguish between moral rights and legal rights, and the context doesn’t always make the intent clear.

  4. says

    as few as 1.5% of open source programmers are women […] chauvinism, assumptions of inferiority, and outrageous examples of impropriety (including sexual harassment at conferences where programmers gather) to a lack of women mentors and role models

    A shame. really. :/

    This is why I’m glad at least GNOME’s Outreach Program for Women exists. There should be more programs like that, though.

    But the outcry on reddit and Phoronix when it was announced that the GNOME Foundation had a temporary cash flow problem. People yelling that the GNOME Foundation was wasting their money on that “useless” program and how they’re using donations to push their political agenda. There were even personal attacks against Karen M. Sandler, who initiated that program a few years ago and led it until moving on to the Software Freedom Conservancy earlier this month. And there’s people claiming that she “jumped ship” or was “pushed off”.

    If those people had read the announcement, they would have seen that the actual issue was quite simpler: The GNOME Foundation doesn’t even pay most of the interns of the outreach program. Instead, the money comes from other companies, like Red Hat and Google. Unfortunately, some companies didn’t pay in a timely manner with the intern’s contract, so the GNOME Foundation had to front the money for a time. Apart from that, the outreach program seems to be ticking along rather nicely and growing.

    As for Karen Sandler, while I don’t know her personally, I am following a podcast (“Free as in Freedom”) she does with Conservancy’s President Bradley M. Kuhn; and occasionally lurking in the related IRC channel; and read Bradley’s blog. And from what I gather, it looks to me like she was rather “pulled” by Bradley, than “pushed” from the GNOME Foundation. She has been a pro-bono attorneys for Conservancy for years and she’s friends with Bradley, who has complained about his high workload in the past.

    All this fuss about nothing, the “you got politics in my programming” (really, this is the Free Software, it was political from the beginning), the “she looks like a fat ugly feminist”, the “women just choose to not contribute”, the “don’t waste money on this sexist outreach”… It’s really frustrating. 🙁

  5. says

    I look at these odd but distinct intersections that seem to keep coming up: programmer/libertarian, techie/misogynist, engineer/creationist, and wonder if they’re in part the same phenomenon. Some Dunning-Kruger thing, in part…

    … I mean, honestly, I’ve been paid to write code (and design hardware, on and off) quite some years now, so I think I can say this: computers, in a lot of ways, they’re really _not_ particularly complicated things. Sure, yes, billions of transistors per CPU, dozens of registers per core, more cores per chip every year, and it all sounds impressive, but the great thing about the things is they’re _built_ to do _exactly_ what you say, and, excepting unregulated voltage spikes and occasional errant cosmic rays, they can indeed be pretty much counted upon to do just that (it’s just, frequently, what you told them to do wasn’t quite what you thought it was). And they’re very knowable things, too–there’s tools and debuggers and so on…

    … so between that whole ‘built to be predictable’ and ‘built to be knowable’ thing, I wonder if part of the trouble is: programmers maybe have a harder time than you might expect grasping that most of the world really isn’t like that. You can’t put a debugger on your brain and find some fencepost error that renders your picture of what it’s like to be a woman in your industry dead wrong. Hell, you can’t even _know_ most of your brain; there’s hardly even a connected display, let alone a debugger. Thing could be doing just about anything; you’ve no damned idea, really, how many registers it even has, let alone what’s in them right now.

    But you probably think you do. Because you tell people you write code, and they’re all impressed. You keep hearing: programmer. Must be smart…

    … and you actually probably are, in your fashion. So like that creationist engineer, you figure, if it looks like that to you, you’re smart, so that’s probably how it is, and never mind these far less clever ‘experts’ who actually make this subject their profession, _I’m_ smarter than smart, me, so I should know.

    And you figure things should be simpler, people say what they mean, so on. Computers are like that. So why is it people themselves have no idea why they’re doing what they’re doing, most of the time? And when you think about it, Libertarianism is kind of a keep it simple philosophy, too–a naively simple approach, even. Let’s just try to avoid laws altogether; let’s not clutter of the code with cruft. That should work better, right? I mean, geez, look at the manuals for the laws you got now. Get on that, legislators; we’ve got your solution right here; trust us, we’re told we’re smart…

    And I dunno. Conjecture upon conjecture, but there’s this whole meritocracy mythos; code being relatively simple and predictable, you can do a lot of very nicely concrete assessments of what works better for what and how much–we call this performance testing. So why can’t that work with humans? And isn’t it obvious that those who make more deserve it, because what else would make sense? Simple, remember?

    (And, of course, we do make a bit more, generally, than a lot of people. And a lot of us probably do have some bullying, back in our backgrounds, and here we are at six figures, and naturally that thought, that”s flattering, very reassuring, even. Of _course_ you worked for this, of _course_ if you got up from having your nose bloodied on the school playground to start your own startup you deserved it. What, women are saying there are barriers to entering our profession? Can’t be. I was a human punching bag in high school, and _I_ made it…. And never mind that these things just aren’t the same things, just don’t work the same way; again, how complicated can this be? We were expecting some six line shell script; how could this damned social norms thing turn out to be some real-time monstrosity with six billion lines of code?)

    Conjecture, yes. ( And apologies if it seems all a little too simple, on reflection. Occupational hazard.)

  6. freemage says

    A Masked Avenger: Of course, privilege also comes to the fore in how they draw that line. For the in-group, they’ll angrily decry any consequence as if it were a criminal punishment (and not just any punishment, oh, no–the terms “witch hunt” and “lynching” are almost sure to arise in these discussions). This arises directly from the empathy they have for their in-group; they can imagine what it would be like to, say, come back from a conference to discover that a sexist comment you made has been posted to Twitter with your photo, and your boss thinks that you should be finding opportunities elsewhere.

    But when looking at a member of an out-group, they revert to the “freedom of speech does not mean freedom of consequences” rule; at a bare minimum, this is the mindset that lies behind concern trolling, which is a demand that not only do you only say things that the “concerned” individual agree with, but that you do it in a way they find suitably polite, lest you suffer the consequence of losing their support (or, more weasel-like, “the support of other people who don’t feel comfortable with your anger”).

  7. Dunc says

    so between that whole ‘built to be predictable’ and ‘built to be knowable’ thing, I wonder if part of the trouble is: programmers maybe have a harder time than you might expect grasping that most of the world really isn’t like that.

    Yup. Hell, for many of us, that’s exactly why we were attracted to programming in the first place. People are confusing and complicated and unpredictable, and they’ve got all these weird undocumented rules that nobody will (or even can) explain to you, but everybody seems to expect you to understand. So we turned to programming for an escape from that. And now we’ve ended up with decent jobs and some measure of influence, and we’re trying to turn the whole world into a simplistic abstraction. (For certain rhetorical values of “we”, obviously.)

    really, this is the Free Software, it was political from the beginning

    Oh hell yes. Exactly.

    Also, is anybody else having trouble with the idea of a bunch of libertarians trying to rebuild the world to match their ideals, and then screaming about other people getting their politics everywhere? Do they honestly not realise that libertarianism is a political ideology? I guess it’s one of those irregular verbs: “I understand the world as it really is, you have opinions, they have a political ideology”…

    Oh, and I’ll just leave this here.

  8. brucegee1962 says

    There’s another problem that I think applies specifcally to libertarians of the atheist persuasion, and even some non-libertarian atheists. I think that many of these people have a severe allergy towards even using the word “morality” as it applies to behavior. When they tossed out God, they figured morality was just the bathwater that went out with the baby. So they only talk about what should be legal or illegal, because they really believe that’s the only standard by which behavior should be judged.

    Maybe the rest of us should try reaching out to them by replacing the term morality with something else: “pro-social group enforced societal norms” or somthing.

  9. M can help you with that. says

    johnthedrunkard @ 9 —

    Unsocialized, aspergerish teenage boys read Ayn Rand and never recover.

    Other unsocialized, aspergerish teenage boys read Ayn Rand but still end up as queer feminist socialist FtB readers. I think a lot of the credit in my case at least has to go to having a progressive, queer- and feminist-positive environment filled with people able to give nudges in the right direction rather than surrounding myself with Randroid assholes as the only accepting social group; “unsocialized” is relative, and can be adjusted for if the right conditions are there.

    It might be a bit harder when the offenders aren’t teenagers, but are instead grown-ass men who should know better. And who, more often than not as far as I can tell, are completely neurotypical but have built up a social club that tells them they’re morally superior for being insufferable assholes. (…and whose social club has pretty much taken over the field.)

  10. medivh says


    Aspie here. Fuck you for using me as an insult. Next time you decide to use a class of humans as an insult, instead go dunk your head in a bucket. Everyone will be better off for it.


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