Having recently developed an anti-harassment policy, Linux.conf.au had to enforce it last week when a key note presentation included slides depicting bondage and a pig and a duck having sex. Both the organizers and the speaker apologized, and those involved describe both the conference’s actions and the apologies as what should have happened. I don’t question that description, but I can’t help making a few random comments and observations about the incident and some of the discussion surrounding it on the conference mailing list:
- What is somebody thinking when they deliver an unnecessarily sexualized presentation? Even if a conference has no anti-harassment policy, common sense should be enough to make them realize that the result is going to be controversial for reasons that have nothing to do with the talk itself. Do they think it edgy and daring? That any attention is worth having? If so, the motivations strike me as less than professional.
- During the mailing list discussion, most people who supported the policy said that the slides added nothing to the discussion, while those who opposed it said that they made it more effective. Both these responses strike me as intellectually dishonest, because in both opinion is overwhelming critical judgment. Actually, the policy violation and the quality of the talk are two separate issues, although only a few people on either side were capable of making the distinction.
- At least one commenter insisted that bondage was not sexual. Unless I lack imagination, I think that the only way that you can make this statement is by selective literal-mindedness. It’s true that the bondage slides did not depict an act of sex, and that bondage (I’m told) does not always include sex, but nobody else thinks of that range of behavior as anything but sexual in nature.
- The same commenter said that the presentation’s contents was not sexual but “adult.” Aside from the fact that “adult” usually seems to mean “adolescent,” this is an excellent example of what Gregory Bateson called “dormitive explanation” (The reference is to a scene in Moliere in which a doctoral candidate says that opium puts people to sleep because it contains a dormitive principle). In other words, it pretends to explain or make a distinction when all it really does is rename.
- Inevitably, charges of censorship were made during the mailing list discussion, describing the atmosphere as part of “New Salem.” Given the Internet, this argument always seems disingenuous. So one venue prevents you from a form of expression – what does that leave you? A few billion alternatives? People who are organizing and paying for a venue have every right to set the conditions they choose, and anyone who dislikes those conditions is free to go elsewhere. Anyway, the policy only dictates how subject matter is presented, not the subject matter itself.
- Another defense was that what is offensive is subjective. In some cases, that may be true, but I noticed that this defense was made in the abstract. That was probably because the slides themselves were not a borderline case. They were in no way comparable to, for example, a slide showing a relevant female authority that, because of the angle of the shot or the lighting, was more revealing than intended.
If these observations add up to anything, I guess it’s the fact that – surprise! – the topic of anti-harassment policies generates a lot of special pleading and intellectually questionable arguments. If someone hasn’t already, they could easily create an anti-harassment policy bingo card, like the ones developed for anti-feminism or rape. I suspect we’re going to hear a lot more of these types of responses in the coming months.