Talking & Listening about Conduct

I’ve written previously about why I think codes of conduct are important, and how we made one for SRCCON, and I’ve linked there to some of my favorite resources on the subject.

I’m so heartened by the many voices raised this week—of speakers and organizers, but most importantly of conference attendees—who have written and tweeted that they value codes of conduct and the broader mechanisms of support and care that are required to give them weight. Others in our industry have expressed their skepticism about codes of conduct, for a variety of reasons and in a variety of registers. Those wishing to follow a blow-by-blow of debate will have little trouble finding reading material. I’ll concentrate instead on a few points that have become clearer in my mind since I initially wrote about our SRCCON code.

The first is that it’s difficult to overemphasize the work that must underpin any public statement about anti-harassment, inclusivity, and safety work. To me, as an organizer, speaker, or attendee, a code of conduct (or “behavior guidelines” or “anti-harassment policy” or whatever you prefer to call it) is necessary but not sufficient. Public communication about care, inclusion, and safety is a much-needed first step, but it must be supported by far-reaching work behind the scenes. (My colleague Jared Spool’s long essay on Medium touches on the complexity of some of these preparations, and though I disagree with some of his conclusions, I’m very happy to see him writing publicly about it.) We need to do the work, and to talk about it—if we do the work in silence, we’re asking attendees to simply trust that we’ll care for their well-being, and I don’t think the tech industry has earned that expectation of trust. To borrow from St. Augustine’s definition of a sacrament, a code of conduct should be an outward and visible sign of an inward and invisible grace.

Several colleagues have expressed concerns that emphasizing public statements might allow someone to develop a sort of Potemkin code of conduct, one that lacks the necessary underpinnings, and thus trick people into feeling safe when they shouldn’t. In practice, I find that rhetoric is usually remarkably revealing. Some codes of conduct read to me as sincere documents, the product of a larger labor of care; others feel grudging, cursory, disdainful, or even alarming. As an attendee, I rely on many signals to decide which events to attend or speak at: the organizers’ reputations, my conversations with people who’ve previously attended, the tone and content of public and individual communications. To me, a public statement about inclusion and safety is a necessary part of that—and the more that statement evinces thoughtfulness, planning, and care, the more likely I am to trust its authors.

But beyond my own desires as an attendee, there’s another thing on my mind, at the end of this very weird year.

As people who make things on the internet, we work along a continuum of giving our readers and users what they ask for, versus what we’ve come to believe they need. In my own work, I find that the right path involves asking careful questions, then listening very hard to the answers. And especially when it comes to issues of inclusion and safety, I believe that those who have been vulnerable or marginalized understand their situations and needs better than anyone else.

In the last months and weeks, many women, people of color, LGBT folks, and others underrepresented in tech have stepped forward to say that this work—the work of designing safe and inclusive events, and of communicating clearly about it—is valuable to them, and that it helps them decide where and when to contribute their time and energy. Here’s a single excerpt from the wonderfully sprawling conversation:

A lot of people I am committed to including in our events and communities are telling us quite clearly what they want and what they need.

I believe them.