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Harassment is Toxic

Thu May 10 01:45:00 2012

Harassment is toxic

As a community, and I mean by this as a wider geek community, we've been talking a lot recently about harassment.

This is important, but the context is also important, and so is the etymology and so is our conceptual model.

So let's shake this down and make a point or three.

Harassers are toxic

The term harassment is generally used to mean repeated unpleasant behaviour.

So, the simplest variation of the use of this term is somebody who's nasty to people on a regular basis, generally in an intimidatory way - and if it's not obvious how this can come about, please do consider male versus female put downs or jock versus nerd put downs - and, basically, is an unpleasant human being who one might consider a full time asshole.

My favourite example of this would be an old regular of a channel I ended up taking over the gardening of who thought discussing his sex life on channel was a good idea (and bear in mind that this was a technical forum, not a social one) but also had a completely, epically, appallingly condescending attitude towards women ... and he wondered why he had such awful luck. The moment when he said "I like fat girls - more cushion for the pushin'" and I realised that he really wasn't being ironic was the moment when he exited that forum sideways with my boot embedded so far into his rectum that he could taste my shoelaces, and I can't say I've ever regretted it for a moment.

Basically, these people are horrific, and obviously so, and a clear and obvious candidate for revocation of their access privileges to whatever forum we're discussing (and honestly of their breathing privileges, but apparently making Soylent Asshole is illegal, sadly).

Now, here's the more subtle and unpleasant variant.

Harassment as a cultural problem

Right. Subtle and unpleasant. Like a silent fart in a small room.

The term harassment is generally used to mean repeated unpleasant behaviour.

Herein lies the problem - if you have a cultural problem, then actually any given person misbehaving may be doing so only once, which means they aren't a harasser. However, if that pattern of misbehaviour re-occurs, the person on the receiving end may feel harassed in spite of the fact that the people doing it have each only been an asshole once.

Consider, for example, the young nerd who gets stupid names shouted at them by many of their classmates, who gets tripped up in the corridor by anybody who gets an opportunity. None of these people believe they're malicious, and none of them are really doing it that often, so to call them harassers would be unfair - but the nerd in question is definitely going to feel harassed because to them it's happening again and again and again.

So when somebody says they're being harassed, consider this as a possiblity - and consider that you have a culture that's harassing this person, even if any given individual isn't. Also consider that even if you're doing pretty well in terms of organising stuff, if they've been treated horribly on a repeated basis in apparently similar communities, they are still going to feel harassed.

So what do you do about this?

Easy: Decide if the person instigating is being an asshole, and if they are then deal with them appropriately.

Then tell the person that this space is different and ask them to judge it on its own merits and demerits; an authentic plea for such will usually work quite well.

On harassment as a term

This is where we hit a problem though; people will often get defensive when being told they're involved in harassment, especially when the person on the receiving end has genuine reasons to feel harassed but the person being an asshole at this particular moment is actually acting out of character, or at least unusually badly for them (example: me before I finish my first coffee).

Which is why, while it's important to have a model (or, if you're a corporate HR department rather than a group of human beings, a written policy) for dealing with both individually instigated systematic harassment and culturally permitted systematic harassment, this simply isn't enough, and often produces unconstructive conversations where the fact that a particular piece of behaviour was wrong isn't in question but whether it counts as harassment is under debate.

So, simple answer: Don't use that word. A harasser is somebody who is repeatedly, unconstructively, an asshole. Deal with them on those terms. If somebody feels harassed, that's likely because people have been repeatedly, unconstructively, an asshole to them. So deal with each instance of being an asshole as its own instance; a clear, visible and positive response to misbehaviour will rapidly give the person on the receiving end an idea that this is an aberration, will not be tolerated, and that they can report it and have something done about it.

To summarise

Harassment on the giving end is repeated assholery. Harassment on the receiving end is also repeated assholery.

So take off, and nuke the asshole from orbit. Not only is it the only way to be sure, it sends a crystal clear message to everybody else that YOU DO NOT DO THIS IN OUR COMMUNITY.

And it's that message that will shift the cultural norms until one day I don't have to write these bloody blog posts and can get on with teaching people how to be better, happier programmers, and can get on with writing and giving away code.

Wouldn't that be so much more fun?

To the idea of that day, and may we get there together. Cheers!

-- mst, out