Another excellent week at linux.conf.au last week. It was particularly impressive in the light of all the flooding in Brisbane; 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 Signals" keynote.
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 Policy.
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 being depicted.
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'.
People respond 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 perfectly.
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 real issues.
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 do have.