Another excellent week at linux.conf.au last week. It was
particularly impressive in the light of all the flooding in
the organisers pulled off a miracle in making it all work
without any serious hitches.
There were many excellent presentations, one of which was
Mark Pesce's "Smoke
Mark's presentation used emotive language and imagery, and
an apology was subsequently offered from the organisers for
the fact that it apparently violated the conference's Anti-Harassment
The video should soon be available at http://linuxconfau.blip.tv/
and I would recommend that anyone who has not seen it should
take the time to view it. His message is very compelling.
Much discussion has ensued. Some people feel that the
censure was appropriate and necessary, while others feel
that it was not — (Russell Stuart's "Some
Anti-Harassment Policies considered harmful" post
being an example of the latter that is well worth reading.
Having taken part in that discussion with an open mind, and
having ceded some points during the debate, I still feel
quite strongly that Mark's presentation was SPOT ON;
that no apology was necessary and that he should not have
been criticised for it.
In his presentation, Mark used emotionally-charged language
and images to give his presentation the impact it needed;
the impact which made it a good presentation.
However, I felt that he did so with extreme care and tact,
and did not "cross the line" at any point.
I'm aware that even his repeated use of the word
'fuck' could easily be interpreted as 'offensive
sexual language', which the policy states is 'not
appropriate for any conference venue'.
But having a policy is one thing; applying it with common
sense and judgement is another. I don't think anyone has
really objected to Mark's language in the context of
his talk, even though we might have objected if people had
just been shouting 'fuck' in the hallways all week.
That would be the same technical violation of the
policy, but in a different context, and
different judgement would be applied.
I am pleased to see that Mark was offered no censure on the
basis of his language, despite the fact that
technically it was a violation of the policy. We cannot
simply have policy for policy's sake, and apply it without
any form of common sense — and without any reference to the
principles and goals behind the policy. For one
thing, any such policy would have to be spelled out in
mind-numbing detail with foresight of any situation which
may possibly arise — and that would make the policy document
completely unreadable and unimplementable even if it
were possible to write it in the first place.
On the more contentious topic of the images that Mark
displayed during his presentation… yes, he used
emotionally-charged pictures to give his presentation impact
— any good presenter should do that, rather than just giving
a dry reading out of bullet points from slides. But to me,
Mark's presentation seemed to have been prepared with an
extreme amount of care and tact to avoid being
inappropriate or giving offence.
This apparent care manifested itself in a number of ways.
For example, there were a pair of similar images used
to highlight masochism — one with a man being dominated and
one with a woman. In that, there was a perfect
balance between the sexes. The only real distinction
is that in the image where a woman was being dominated had a
lot less flesh on show, which seemed specifically to
avoid the possibility that it could be interpreted as a
'sexual' image. It certainly wasn't 'titillating' in any
way. The images were not particularly graphic; just a light
humorous representation of masochism to add colour to his
presentation and reinforce his point. These were images
which would have been acceptable on broadcast television.
Mark's presentation was not demeaning to any set of people,
did not portray any set of people as sexual objects, did not
marginalise or reinforce negative stereotypes of any set of
people. As such it did not fall under the major
raison d'être of the Anti-Harassment Policy.
There is, perhaps, a slightly valid concern that the images
could have acted as an emotional 'trigger' in the relatively
unlikely case there there was someone in the room who had
suffered abuse in a form similar to the scenes were were
Yet even in this respect, Mark's choice of imagery seems to
have been well-chosen to avoid problems. The 'top' in the image where the woman is
being dominated is also a woman, not a man — thus
distinguishing the scene clearly from what is presumably the
most common form of such abuse.
And although it's been described as an image of a woman
"being choked", that's not really true either — the
item that's being held is actually under her chin and
not even that close to her throat; the image is not
even depicting strangulation in play. And it
is clearly play;
the lady in the foreground of that image doesn't even seem
to be displaying any kind of pain or fear. Looking at that
photo, I'm willing to bet that they haven't even agreed in
advance on a 'safe word'.
highly to emotion in what they see, so regardless
of the arrangement of people and items, the
expression on the faces of the participants is
extremely relevant. The image which Mark used portrays a
scene in which the participants all seem content, and
thus seems fairly unlikely to have the 'trigger' effect that
would potentially be a concern.
Obviously, the likelihood of it being such a 'trigger' is
not zero. But then again, if you happened to choose a
background colour for your slides which matches the colour
of the room I was abused in, and I suddenly see that colour
spread all over the projected screen in front of me,
then that the probability of that being a 'trigger'
is not zero either. We aren't striving for a
zero probability. We strive for a reasonable balance
between the likelihood of really upsetting someone, and the
need to really reach our audience and have them
feel for the subject we're talking about.
In my opinion, Mark's presentation struck that balance
I am increasingly concerned that our society is becoming a
"New Salem", in which accusations of witchcraft have been
replaced a cry of "you have made me feel upset". When
faced with such an
accusation there is no defence or denial which can possibly
achieve anything but to confirm your evilness and make the
situation worse for yourself.
There was even one person who tried to shut down the
rational discussion of whether Mark's censure was a suitable
application of the policy and was really in line with what
the policy set out to achieve. He seemed to be trying to use
the same cry to invoke a form of Godwin's Law by saying
"I feel upset when I hear people talk against the
policy", and claiming that the dialogue was "only
serving to make people feel threatened, hurt and upset".
I was shocked and dismayed to hear such idiocy — this is
not a kindergarten; this is the real world. If you
can't handle a polite and rational discussion, SEEK HELP. Do
not project your issues onto normal human beings and demand
that censor their perfectly reasonable discussion simply in
order to pander to your emotional issues.
There are certainly issues in our community, and very
unacceptable behaviour happens at conferences. But Mark's
presentation was not an example of that. To criticise
him and apologise on his behalf is unhelpful and
counterproductive, and those who do so are squandering their
credibility which could more usefully be used on
We desperately need to stop being so oversensitive and
obnoxious about non-issues like Mark's presentation, if we
are to stand a chance of achieving community consensus and
actually doing something about the very real issues we