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A few thoughts on the aftermath of a linux.conf.au 2011 keynote

During the final keynote of linux.conf.au 2011, Mark Pesce used some images in his slides which breached speaker guidelines and conference policy. Linux Australia and the lca2011 team responded quickly, announcing an apology at the next available whole-of-conference plenary event.

As incidents like this go, it wasn’t a big deal. Although it did distract everyone from the message of Mark’s talk. Hopefully a lesson learned.

The problem was what happened next… here are some thoughts about the aftermath which I originally sent to the attendees’ mailing list.

A few thoughts on the aftermath

  • The response to the keynote was not “blown out of proportion”. There was a breach of policy and an apology was offered by Linux Australia (LA) and the linux.conf.au 2010 team (LCA). The speaker also offered his apology. Done.
  • No “censure” was made, despite the unfortunate subject of an early reaction on the conference attendees’ mailing list, and wilful mischaracterisation by a single, ambulance-chasing opinion writer. Consider that neither LA or LCA have publicly criticised the speaker.
  • We’ve heard some reasonable, well-stated criticism aimed at improving future events and experiences.
  • We’ve seen a fair amount of silly, predictable, confected outrage on the attendees’ mailing list, with debate about censorship, “sexual images” and so on. Here’s an easy answer to those contributors: It’s not your call. Linux Australia and the conference team define the parameters for linux.conf.au, ran the show, and took responsibility for what happened.
  • There has been a small but vocal group who have chosen to debate more general issues, such as how real or prevalent harassment might be. I do hope these people — particularly the more prominent members of our community engaging in it — receive a short, sharp talking-to from their less Neanderthal friends.

What’s next

  • There will be a shit-fight over whether or not the video of the keynote should be published. If it is published, LA/LCA will be criticised for promoting the breach or being complicit in it. If it is not, LA/LCA will be criticised for censorship. Both of these conclusions are bullshit, but I’m sure there’ll be someone willing to give them a red hot go. Either way: It’s not your call. I hope everyone can imagine the range of problems this situation might pose for LA/LCA (including venue, sponsor and hosting considerations), but we entrust them with the responsibility for doing so, and self-righteous indignation won’t help. Those concerned about a gap in the historical record will be relieved to know that Mark has published his slides and an essay based on the talk to his blog: Smoke Signals.
  • We don’t want future events to end on a sour note due to continued haranguing over an issue like this on the mailing list, so there are some bugs to fix.

My suggestions

  • Dump the anti-harassment policy. Apologies to the authors, but it’s badly written (both the lca2011 and Geek Feminism Wiki versions) and unhelpful as an expression of policy or communication, both of which are important. It’s well worth including in references though (as the 2010 team did by mentioning LinuxChix in their T&Cs).
  • Although the lca2011 team adopted Andrew and Susanne’s T&Cs, they were still relegated to the “registration” section of the website, and largely forgotten. This is the right document for policy, and it already very capably expresses the pointy/policy end of the principles LA has adopted. It should be more visible.
  • Pia suggested a Code of Conduct. That’s a great way to adopt a communications document to go with the existing policy (T&Cs), and we already know that Codes of Conduct have found success in other communities. The trick is to ensure it is clearly understood to be a statement of principles, not a policy document.
  • The guidelines provided to speakers regarding slides were already crystal clear: “Please be aware, and ensure your Co-Presenters are aware, of the Terms and Conditions to ensure that Presenters’ material and behaviour is appropriate for the LCA2011 audience, that includes keeping slide-decks G-rated.”

If only “Be excellent to each other” would suffice.

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  1. We’ve got an anti-harassment policy for WordCamp Melbourne this year, and whilst I don’t have an issue with the policy itself, I think the problem with the policy for us so far has been the fact that it’s an “anti-harassment policy”. That turns heads.

    Personally, I think that an anti-harassment policy isn’t user-friendly and I agree with your/Pia’s sentiment that it should be a “Code of Conduct”.

    I think, in our case, a Code of Conduct would be much better suited for what we’re doing as it doesn’t *beg* for anything and all it has really caused for us is a bit more drama that we didn’t need. Although, mind you, it through a bit of feedback I was personally given in a private setting.

    If I was to do it again, I would write a Code of Conduct addressing common issues with WordCamps and events in Australia and include a link to said code in our footer, make a mention of it in the initial event announcement post, and make that our terms and conditions. I would also address the procedure with a violation of the said code to avoid any shit-fights that might occur.

    • If I was to do it again, I would write a Code of Conduct…

      That’s exactly the problem the anti-harassment policy had: Not Invented Here syndrome. Don’t write it yourself, steal from the best! e.g. the Ubuntu Code of Conduct, which I had a small hand in authoring, is licensed for wide adoption.

  2. I suppose the idea of a “harassment policy” came form the perception that socially clueless male nerds would endlessly hound any females that turned up. If that was the aim, it’s certainly worked as a strategy. I’m constantly amazed at the number women now involved in the FLOSS community, and it’s testament to a few amazing, hard working women and men who’ve helped break down the barriers and encourage more women to come along and get involved.

    But is showing smut in slides harassment? Well I’m sure some might see it that way, but really it’s just about not being an arsehole. Some people will be offended by it, so what’s to gain at a technical conference by having smut in talks?

    Sure, there might be ways that it can be funny, but if the organisers have to choose between (potentially) funny and not offending people (and sponsors, hosts etc), it only makes sense for them to come down on the side of not offending. And geeks have a bad record when it comes to sexually-based “funny”, so it’s easier to just say “keep it clean”.

    Those who know me will know I’m anything but pro censorship or a prude, but it’s the “fire in a crowded theatre” line, all over again. Feel free to run yourself a smutty humour technical conference.

    • Yes, the word “harassment” in the title of the adopted policy was cause for some confusion, angst and thoughtlessly offensive commentary… and the T&Cs were already very clear on that point anyway!

      (By the way, I wouldn’t suggest that Mark’s slides were “smutty”, but they were in breach.)

    • > what’s to gain at a technical conference by having smut in talks?

      What’s to gain from it is a huge amount of attention and controversy. Any publicity is good publicity. Mildly breaking the rules, sparking argument and – hopefully – getting one’s talk censored results in a huge influx of attention. Even without the controversy, any advertiser can tell you that smut sells, perhaps especially among computer geeks.

      If you genuinely want to reduce the attention given to the ‘smutty talk’ (or anything you think is undesirable), the best thing is not to talk about it at all; anything else is counter-productive. Censorship is absolutely counter-productive: it almost always sparks a reaction and draws more attention.

      • You can draw “attention and controversy” without “smut”. In fact, this very case demonstrates why it’s better to do so: Practically none of the discussion provoked by Mark’s talk had anything to do with his message.

        (By the way, “censorship” is not at all relevant in this case, and the “any publicity is good publicity” line is complete bullshit. Always has been.)

      • I would also note that doing nothing (“the best thing is not to talk about it at all”) in a situation such as this is foolish. It’s not a promotional issue, and as soon as you view it in that light you start making egregiously dumb mistakes.

      • I’m very glad the kind of people who don’t understand the problem are exactly the kind of people who don’t organize conferences and don’t stand for elected office within our community’s organizations. And the reverse, obviously.