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.