An Object Lesson in Conduct Enforcement

Full disclosure: I am acquainted with both Samantha Quinones and Matthew Trask. I have spoken at conferences with Samantha and attended her talks. Note that this post is about how codes of conduct and social expectations are selectively enforced, not about the behavior of any particular individual. If you take this post as an attack on anyone in specific then you are simultaneously “wrong” and “missing the point.”

Over the weekend, a “Concerned PHP User” wrote in to the FIG to remark on the election of Samantha Quinones as a FIG secretary:

Especially in light of the recent Code Of Conduct discussions in PHP I find this selection very disheartening. Samantha was recently outed as saying some pretty offensive things to a fellow PHP conference-goer (http://matthewtrask.net/blog/My-Time-At-SunshinePHP/). She said to this first-time conference attendee: “fuck this guy” and “you need to fuck off back to the Shire”. Matthew is short, so this was a clear insult to his height, not to mention very rude. If a code of conduct was in place in PHP as it should be I can’t help but think Samantha would have at least needed a temporary ban.

Please take these concerns into consideration. In my honest opinion, the insulting of the conference goer alone (and that just within the past month!) is enough to disqualify Samantha from this position.

(You should read Matthew Trask’s full blog post, and Samantha’s reply in the comments there.)

The replies to Concerned PHP User are universally of the form “Samantha is my friend, and I know personally she didn’t mean anything by it; this happened after the conference, so the Code of Conduct didn’t apply; and besides, she apologized, so that should be the end of it.” Here is a representative sample:

Chuck Burgess:

the comments on the linked-to post indicate they have publicly reconciled their altercation without friction.

Chris Tankersley:

looking at the blog post it seems that she immediately apologized and Matthew accepted the apology, and they both agreed to start over fresh. … I think that’s the best result you can possibly get when there is friction.

To be clear, these are all good people with good intentions. But would all these defenders of Samantha be so forgiving if a man of similar community standing had said similarly derogatory things to a woman who was a first-time conference attendee?

  • Would they not see this as somehow indicative that the man had a toxic personality, was misogynist/prejudiced/bigoted/privileged, or that the behavior was a symptom of a larger structural issue of some sort?

  • Would the apology have become a starting point (instead of an ending point) leading to further demands that the man continue to prostrate himself before the mob of public opinion?

  • Would they not have cried out that “this is what keeps women from attending conferences!” and demanded further action against the man?

  • Would there not have been concerned emails sent to the man’s employer, asking if that’s really the kind of person they wanted representing their company, one who would be so rude and dismissive to a fellow community member, especially a woman?

I opine that if the event were effectively identical, but with the sexes switched, there would be a very different discussion going on now. If the roles had been reversed, an apology would not have been sufficent. If a man of Samantha’s standing had said the exact same things to a woman who was a newcomer to the conference, there’s no way the issue would be left at that. It would be taken as yet another sign of the privilege that men have in the PHP community, that they think they can treat a woman that way. He’d have been vilified, shamed, hounded, and otherwise had his life made miserable on Twitter and elsewhere. Someone would have called his employer and asked if that was really the kind of person they want representing their company.

To be clear, I am not calling for Samantha to be fired, denied a position, or otherwise have her life made miserable. I am pointing out that allowances are being made based on who the offender and offended are.

This goes back to something I’ve been saying about Social-Justice-derived Codes of Conduct in general, and the proposed Code of Conduct for PHP in specific, for a long time now: the “rules” apply differently to different people, especially depending on who is doing the enforcing. Some rule-breakers will be forgiven their transgressions, and others will be prosecuted as much as possible, merely by fact of who they are and what they represent. My shorthand for that attitude is “That’s just Joe being Joe!” – Joe’s actions, when performed by George, will result in banishment for George and forgiveness for Joe. There’s always some reason that Joe can be forgiven that will never apply to George.

So either you are in favor of all people treating others with equal respect and dignity at all times, under a Code of Conduct or otherwise, or you are in favor of some people being more equal than others and being given allowances based on who they are and what narrative they fit. If you would have punished a man for Samantha’s behavior, you should punish Samantha too; if you do not punish Samantha for her behavior this time, you should not punish anyone else in the future for any behavior resembling hers.


Finally, a side note. One commenter in the PHP-FIG thread opined: “If a code of conduct was in place, for PHP internals, then that code of conduct would have no bearing here. It is entirely a different organisation.”

There is plenty of reason to believe that it would apply here, and at any time PHP community members gather together or speak with each other, regardless of location or channel.

Further, if PHP as-a-project ever adopts a Code of Conduct, that code will metastasize (through voluntary action or otherwise) across the entire PHP community. PHP user groups, projects, conferences, etc., will adopt it merely because it is “The PHP Code Of Conduct.”

So don’t believe for a moment that a PHP-project-level Code of Conduct won’t be applied to you in some fashion. It will. Prepare yourself accordingly, and speak out against it if you can.

UPDATE: Some quotes removed at the request of the quoted persons, who have since deleted their comments on the FIG thread.

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14 thoughts on “An Object Lesson in Conduct Enforcement

  1. Hi Paul,

    I’ve read a lot about the CoC and your disagreement with it, and I think you are both right and wrong at the same time.

    A lot of people talk about Social Justice, privilege, and equality. The part of the discussion that seems to be missed is equity. You appear to believe that everyone should be treated equally, and by treating anyone as “special” makes it unfair against those that are doing the right things. Which is true, I believe. But, equality isn’t the whole story.

    Treating everyone equally assumes that everyone has the same opportunities and the same starting point. Which is blatantly and obviously incorrect. Giving someone the same opportunities without also giving them the same starting point is unfair (and privileged).

    As I understand it, a CoC is intended to level the playing field, in regards to how everyone treats everyone else. That’s equity. Then the equality can win and what you want will happen.

    Ignoring the starting points means that equality can never work as intended. Can’t see the ball game over the fence if the short kids are given the same size box as the taller kids.

    • > Treating everyone equally assumes that everyone has the same opportunities and the same starting point.

      OK, I can work with that metaphor. In this particular case, Samantha is the one “further ahead” given her rightfully-earned status in the community, and Matt is the one at the starting line. Do you believe that’s a “level playing field” in this case?

      • And here’s another part of the Social Justice stuff that isn’t well understood by many – intersectionality.

        Having privilege in one area (the conference membership) does not change the lack of privilege in other areas (mainly non-male).

        And I think your example of changing the genders will obviously change that balance, and thus the reaction.

        Choosing which game to play (ie. what the “level field” is) is a privilege that you (and I) have. Choosing to play the same game as the less privileged, or, even better, not playing at all and being the water boy, is what Social Justice really is about.

        • When I read that explanation, I see you saying: “It counts when Social Justice adherents want it to, and doesn’t count when they don’t; we are the ones who determine that, not you.” It strikes me as the opposite of a “code” that applies equally to all; instead, it protects some at the expense of others. That means it is not fundamentally about equality, but about seizing power.

          • I’m not sure how you can read what I said as saying that.

            Putting words in my mouth doesn’t change the meaning of what I said, and by doing so reflects more your beliefs/opinions.

            If you want everyone (yourself included) to be treated equally, then helping everyone have the same starting place is the only way to achieve that. Whether you call that Social Justice or just being a decent human being is up to you.

        • Wait. Are you telling us some people managed to create a full academic field only as an excuse to bully people?

          Because what you explain about intersectionnality really read like a way to say “I have a class advantage but I can still be an asshole to you because I have a gender / ability / skin color disavantage”

  2. the whole secretary thing is.. ridiculous.

    1) the whole role seems artificial, and mostly a picture on how political (and how little pragmatic) the fig has become.

    2) if such role is created, then it should be done by one of the fig members, and not someone who is not fulfilling membership requirements.

  3. As Cameron Junge rightly pointed out, you’re assuming in this article that both parties – in the case of your specific example; men and women – both come from a level playing field, and this simply is not true.

    As a result of this inequality – sticking with the example – women who occasionally stray outside of what’s deemed “socially acceptable” will occasionally be given a free-pass providing the transgression “wasn’t that bad”.
    This exception is real, historical, and until we have full equality between the sexes there will always be some give and take in that area. This is really not a point of contention, unless the post was more about Feminism rather than CoCs.
    I could also point out that this particular dispute seems to be a misunderstanding (as I’m reading into it) that was meant to be humorous rather than insulting, but that’s besides the point of the article.

    I feel your statement of “So either you are in favor of all people treating others with equal respect and dignity at all times, under a Code of Conduct or otherwise, or you are in favor of some people being more equal than others and being given allowances based on who they are and what narrative they fit.” muddies two distinct areas of a CoC: Rules and Punishment.

    The rules, much like the law, about what is and is not acceptable behaviour (sexism, racism, generally being a massive asshole) should apply across the board to all parties without exception.

    On the opposite site, the evaluation, punishment and outcomes from the exercise of those rules should remain in the domain of the project and its leaders. Much like a regular first-world justice system, there’s the need for judgement and knowledge of all the facts before acting on them, rather than – as you see with “Concerned PHP User” and the whole Opal ordeal – a brief passing observation of a Social Justice concern, followed by pitchforks and torches, demanding a particular punishment “or else..!”

    It’s absolutely possible for a rule in the CoC to apply to a situation, but no punishment being warranted in that specific instance. You can liken this to a Discharge in the real-world of law, or settling a dispute out-of-court.
    In the specific example provided, Chris Tankersley rightly points out that the issue was resolved externally and privately, and it was also the best possible outcome – even without a CoC.

    Jurisdiction of where these rules apply must be well defined; “if you’re not wearing the companies label at the time, the company does not give a shit.” is what most people would expect. This provides clear, defined, and contractual line about where the CoCs concerns start and end in most cases.

    In the specific case of “Concerned”, they can stick it up their blow hole, as it’s got nothing to do with them and was resolved privately. A third party being offended on behalf of someone else does not a warrantable punishment make.
    Samantha wasn’t “outed” as anything other than having an abrasive and rude sense of humor which was entirely misunderstood.
    The situation would be markedly different if the comments has been of a racist nature, hopefully understandably so, and would have required a different public response and/or punishment.

    In actuality, the omission of a Code of Conduct leaves Samantha more open to persecution in this instance then if one had existed, with defined jurisdictional parameters.

    This was most obvious for Opal, where a lack of a Code of Conduct left them open to a tirade of Social Justice accusations, leaving the opinions of the contributors and the project muddy, and enabling SJWs to rally against them and their project, creating a toxic cloud which encompassed everything.
    As much as they wanted to remain impartial, their perceived indifference to the issues only made matters worse.

    The actions of “Concerned” exemplify the MO of most SJW vigilante approach to dealing with perceived offences, but this is also another important part of where a Code of Conduct could instead provide protections, rather than persecutions.

    Your claim “There is plenty of reason to believe that it would apply here, and at any time PHP community members gather together or speak with each other, regardless of location or channel.” feels fairly spurious, but it does highlight a necessity for the “word of law” to always pass through human ears before being applied.

    Indeed, your observations about the incident with Roberto Rosario actually highlight a serious issue; where CoCs are used as a weapon and a minority can abuse their enabled position to falsely claim they have been wronged.
    As with most workplaces, these kinds of claims often take a long time to be resolved, but it is another point where those applying judgement do indeed need to use their judgement. Someone who just comes out of left field and shouts “racist” while pointing a finger at a well-known contributor will probably not gain much traction. Similarly, the presence of a CoC could help curtail this particular brand of SJW shit flinging.

    With all this said, a CoC is only a baseline and not an absolute. If you go running around a muslim community burning korans in your free time, you can probably expect backlash from any organisation outside of their regular CoC.
    Just because you have a CoC does not require you to relinquish your rights as a project owner, and you can still expect people to exercise their own common sense and know when you need to cut ties with someone who is utterly toxic, and alternately provide shelter for someone who is being wrongfully persecuted.

    It is for these reasons that I feel your argument of “any other codes of conduct originating in Social Justice, are to be opposed out of hand” actually disenfranchises people, leaving them wide open to the current normal of SJW vigilantes, blackmailing and smearing everything and everyone connected to a perceived transgressor.

    A Code of Conduct, where it outlines provisions for punishments, needs to provide protections for both parties, ideally with limited jurisdiction and scope so as not to be used as a weapon.

    Besides, a shitty organisation which folds to the will of a Social Justice Pitchfork Mob will be a shitty organisation which folds to the will of a Social Justice Pitchfork Mob with or without any Code of Conduct.

  4. Were the genders reversed in the PHP community and the *exact* same thing would have happened, I can tell you from experience as president of PHPWomen there would have been nothing more than that blogpost and the comments in it, which was a sincere public apology, and some private conversations with the offended to make sure they’re really fine, while it now gets blown out of proportion, and used as a topic without the offender or the offended really approving of all the spotlight, BECAUSE this is such a rare case.

    I don’t know where you get the idea that there would have been another case, and I would love to discuss this further, because as someone caring about everyone’s comfort in the PHP community, it is a bit disconcerting that you believe a man would not have been treated equally.

    Hugs,
    Michelle

  5. Using examples of CoC violations that happened at SunshinePHP, the roles were reversed.

    Men put their hands on women. A man solicited massages from women. They were not kicked out of the conference. They were given probably more benefit of the doubt than some of them deserved. None of them have been trotted out beyond that blog post.

    No shaming happened to those men.

    • Hi Emily,

      My understanding is that the in-conference COC reported incidents were handled in the context of the conference; i.e., shaming and punishment happened within that context. Since the subject of this post was an outside-conference incident, not under the conference COC, and reported online, the context for this incident is somewhat different. With that in mind, I think my hypothetical gender-reversal example stands as a reasonable counter-factual for consideration.

      Further, I am told through the grapevine that one man is alleged to be responsible for two in-conference reported incidents. As described to me, those incidents sound like they could be criminal cases. As such, I am led to understand (again through the grapevine) that his employer has terminated him, and that other punitive actions have been levied and/or are pending against him. If that’s all true, I think it’s fair to say that he has been shamed, indeed punished, pretty thoroughly. (I was not there, and have only heard second-hand talk, so I cannot give any better report than that.)

  6. I agree with you that there is a double standard here: I doubt that a man
    would have been treated so leniently.

    I can give you another example of double standards, from the world of
    JavaScript. The npm code of conduct, available at https://archive.is/XhEQx,
    says: “Avoid using offensive or harassing package names […] that might
    detract from a friendly, safe, and welcoming environment for all”. Despite
    this, the packages `mansplain’ (see http://archive.is/OcqOE) and `misandry’
    (see https://archive.is/Eyqpx) have been created by an npm employee.

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