Why Aren’t Feminists More Calm and Rational? Calling Out Sexism and the Courage of Adria Richards

As the firestorm over the Adria Richards story has only increased, a poem from one of my favorite artists – Alix Olson – keeps reverberating in my head.

Still we’ve tried being patient,
collected, calm, nice
trying praying, tried laying you
paying the price,
we’ve learned to scream
until our throats throbbed
what else do you do
while your cunt’s being robbed …

And I hear you saying
“subtle, sister,
less bite, more bark
you can make your point without leaving such a mark.
subtle, sister,
stop your seething,
I think we got it, I think we’re even:”

It’s a poem about feminism and anger, about why women are so abrasive and so loud and so obnoxious. And its meaning is never more relevant than when we examine the public’s response to Adria Richards.

For those just catching up, Adria Richards is a woman of color who was exhaustified by being surrounded by straight while males in the world of technology who didn’t see any need to recognize that they weren’t in a locker room. These are the kinds of men who like to make jokes about big dongles and forking, consistently going out of their way to make women feel alienated and unwelcome and unsafe in what they perceive to be their space (I’ve just linked to it, but seriously, if you haven’t read A Woman Walks Into a Tech Conference, do it right now.)

Adria turned around and tweeted a photo of the two men at this particular conference, calling them out for their sexist behavior, which also happened to be a violation of the conference’s code of conduct.  One of the men was later fired, and the internet turned against Adria.

dongle

You may be wondering what this means. This means Adria Richards has been subjected to the online trolling masses – the ones who feel that when a woman steps out of her place – a woman of color no less – it’s time to put her back. By force. This means death threats. This means rape threats. This means the most vile, hate-filled, misogynistic material you couldn’t imagine even if tracking it was part of your daily life. Richards has been “called practically every name under the sun. Some Twitter commenters demanded she kill herself.” One posted this photo of Richards tied up and gagged with the caption “Adria Richards when I’m done with her.”

Adria Richards has since been fired by her company and the internet has exploded once again.

Would I have done what Adria did?

Too many people have been phrasing their support for Adria with sentences along these lines: “I wouldn’t have done what Adria did, but she doesn’t deserve death threats.” Or “there are better ways Adria could have handled that, but I still support her.” Or “It would have been more professional for Adria to confront these men and politely ask them to stop, but she shouldn’t have been fired for her actions.” (Deanna Zandt has a great piece over at Forbes about why asking what Adria could have done differently is the wrong question because it focuses on victim-blaming in the same way as critiquing a rape victim’s clothing).

I admit it – at first, I was one of them. I’m fairly certain some of my first comments about the incident were like that. Why?

When I finally realized it, I was ashamed of myself.

The reason we are couching our support for Adria in those terms is because we want to send a message to our listeners. That message is this: “I’m a rational and reasonable person, so I totally understand where you are coming from and why you think she was wrong. But rape threats are still wrong.”

We want you to buy into us, to believe that we aren’t one of those “crazy women” who are burning our bras and marching around with signs that say Death to the Patriarchy! all day, instead of having rational and calm and informed discussion. We want men to take us seriously. We think “maybe if they realize how rational I am, they will hear me better. Maybe if they realize I respect them and I’m being polite, they will listen to what I have to say and actually try to understand.”

Let’s be clear – this method doesn’t work.

Women who stand up for themselves are constantly being told that we’re crazy. That we’re overly emotional and we’re too loud and we’re too obnoxious about our fight for equality. And it’s because of how we approach our fight for equality that we’re constantly being overpowered and shouted down and threatened and assaulted.

And yet the average person still wants to know: why can’t we just tone it down? Why are feminists so angry?

Why aren’t we softer? Why aren’t we calmer? Why aren’t we more subtle?

Simple.

We’re living in a world that hates women. And there is nothing soft, calm, or subtle about it.

A world in which rappers brag about drugging and raping women, magazines feature women solely as ornamental objects, 18 year old boys rape 13 year old girls, 28% of women on U.S. campuses are assaulted, female children are brutally killed to preserve a family’s honor13 year old girls are forced into prostitution, 3 woman a day are murdered in the US by husbands or boyfriends, 33% of women in the military have been sexually assaulted, rape is a weapon of war, 1 in 3 US adolescents is a victim of dating abuse, fashion outlets glamorize sexual violence, women who suggest men not rape receive rape threats . . . oh this list could go on and on and on.

I wouldn’t have done with Adria did. Not because it was the wrong way to handle it, not because her anger wasn’t deserved, not because there were more “effective” ways of handling it.

I wouldn’t have publicly called out these two men for their behavior simply because I would not have had the courage that she did.

Adria Richards

Do People Really Respond Rationally?

I know. You think of yourself as calm and reasonable and rational. We all do. And we often wonder to ourselves, why aren’t more people like us?

But the truth is that people aren’t calm and cool and collected and gracious and polite and reasonable all the time.  And I’ll tell you who especially isn’t like that – men who are confronted with their own sexist behavior.

I know. You think you are like that. You think your friends are like that.  You think your coworkers are like that.

But none of us is as we imagine. William Halaten writes in his New York Times review of the book, The Righteous Mind,

the problem isn’t that people don’t reason. They do reason. The problem is that their arguments aim to support their conclusions, not yours. Reason doesn’t work like a judge or teacher, impartially weighing evidence or guiding us to wisdom. It works more like a lawyer or press secretary, justifying our acts and judgments to others.”

Even our personal life experiences tell us this. People do not like to be wrong. We prize rationality and reason (not coincidentally, I think, traits normally associated more with men than women), and scorn emotions and gut feelings and instinctive reaction.  And so even when we do things because of our emotions or our feelings, we convince ourselves that we are being rational. We convince ourselves that if someone interacting with us had done something a little bit differently, we would have reacted entirely differently, too.

Except life isn’t like that. I’ve even written blog posts in the past about how to calmly and rationally approach well-intentioned men about their sexism (yes, I’m kind of embarrassed about that now). But it doesn’t work.  We see this a lot in the judgement of rape victims – people who say “if she had just said “no” more clearly or more politely, I’m sure he would have stopped.” The men who were called out by Adria make the same claim – “if only she had nicely asked us to stop, we would have!”

Oh please.  Just like the rest of us, men don’t like to be wrong. Men don’t like to be denied their place of power and privilege. Don’t tell me that these two men who made Adria Richards feel unwelcome and unsafe in a public space deserve to have been spoken to politely, or asked nicely. The idea that they would have politely smiled and apologized and gone about their way is a fantasy.

It’s fiction. It’s the same people who tell me that I don’t need to hollaback! at street harassers. If I just approach them and ask them nicely not to do that, they’ll stop.

Know what? They don’t. I’ve tried. We all have. It’s not working. Men who are making jokes like that do  not deserve the courtesy of respectful, polite discourse. Men who violate women’s space do not deserve the courtesy of respectful, polite discourse. Men who try to control what happens to my body do not deserve the courtesy of respectful, polite discourse.

Not every man who makes a mistake is a sexist misogynistic jerk who deserves to be publicly called out. But please don’t call yourself a feminist or an ally if you don’t want to trust women to know the difference.

We do. We know the difference between a man who compliments us on the street and a man who is sexually harassing us. We know the difference between a man who uses a word that unintentionally offends us and a man who is embracing his privilege and actively making the world an unsafe place for women.

If Adria Richards says she knew she had to speak up because these men were clearly hiding behind deindividualization in order to make their jokes, then I trust her. If Adria Richards says she thought about it and gut-checked it and considered the code of conduct in place at this conference, then I trust her. If Adria Richards says she was going to let the whole thing go on because she was just too weary to deal with it, but that a photo of a young girl who had participated in the Young Coders workshop inspired her to take action, then I trust her. If Adria Richards says the best way to have addressed this issue was to call out their behavior, then I trust her.

So should you.

If these two men just made an honest mistake, if they really didn’t mean anything by it and truly are “good hearted” people who meant no harm and want to learn from their mistakes, then help me out here. WHERE ARE THEY?

Where is their outrage at the way Adria has been treated? Where is their public statement saying “as we’ve said, we wish she’d brought this to our attention first, but the most unfortunate thing is that she didn’t feel safe doing so. Adria didn’t feel comfortable doing so. And now it’s clear why. Adria would have had no way of knowing that we would have been accepting of her critique or request. She would have had no way of knowing that we aren’t like everyone else who has treated her with such hate and disrespect.  The fact that she didn’t feel safe is explained entirely just by seeing the vicious attacks on her, and we publicly condemn those who are attacking her.”

Where’s that statement from these poor victimized guys who totally are good people???

Adria Richards didn’t do what any of us would have done. Instead, she did what needed to be done.

Alix Olson’s poem ends by bringing to mind what is obvious to everyone who is fighting for gender equality. To everyone who has ever tried to combat rampant sexism and blatant misogyny with courtesy or respect. Anyone who has ever been told it would be better to just be more . . . subtle.

Subtle like a penis pounding its target?
Subtle like your hissing from across the street?

Subtle like the binding on my sisters’ feet?
Subtle like her belly raped with his semen,
draped in his fuck, funny,
doesn’t seem even.

See, sometimes anger’s subtle, stocked in metaphor
full of finesse and dressed in allure
Yes, sometimes anger’s subtle, less rage than sad
leaking slow through spigots you didn’t know you had.
and sometimes it’s just

fuck you.
fuck you.
you see, and to me,

That’s poetry too.

Patriarchy isn’t subtle.

Unsafe spaces for women isn’t subtle.

Misogyny and sexism aren’t subtle.

This time, Adria Richards decided that she wasn’t going to be subtle either.

*Addendum: For those who are concerned about her health and well-being, I have it confirmed that Adria is safe. She released a public statement yesterday, which you can read here. I know that you’ll be as impressed with her courage and grace as I am.

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2 Responses to Why Aren’t Feminists More Calm and Rational? Calling Out Sexism and the Courage of Adria Richards

  1. Erin Hill says:

    So glad you wrote about this! I am just now catching up. My big question is about her company. It appears they let her go because they were receiving backlash and it was negatively impacting their business and the lives of their employees. They say how she publicly handled the situation “crossed the line”. But HONESTLY, would anything have been done if she didn’t handle it with a public audience who would demand the men to be held responsible for their actions?

    If you read the PlayHaven’s statement on the man who was fired, it appears the company did a thorough investigation and it was NOT just this one instance that led to his termination. http://blog.playhaven.com/addressing-pycon/. Yet it is this ONE instance that led to Aria Richards termination.

    If haters cause that much damage and a company folds under its pressures, what’s next? I wish that SendGrid would have kept her on and fought against the people illegally harassing them. What kind of message does it send to others who witness hate crimes or are associated with the victims? http://blog.sendgrid.com/a-difficult-situation/

  2. Pingback: Why Aren’t Feminists More Calm and Rational? Calling Out Sexism and the Courage of Adria Richards | Fem2pt0

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