17 Aug 2015
Shut up and listen.
Bernie Sanders, the White Progressive Hero Presidential Candidate for 2016, had his Seattle campaign rally disrupted by two African-American women protesting for Black Lives Matter. In front of a restive crowd of white Seattle liberals, they suggested the town is racist. And the lilywhite Seattle progressive crowd turned on them, shouting racial epithets, booing moments of silence for Michael Brown, and reminding everyone that just under that thin veneer of upright left-wing anti-GMO anti-corporate lay the dark, dark heart of a half-millennium of ingrained American racism.
And as someone who has been a Seattleite for two decades (this month), the whole incident hurt. Seattle does have a problem with racism, but it’s not firehoses, dogs, and firebombing. It’s the lasting effect of redlining, the inequity between majority-white and majority minority schools, and the complaining about “black men” driving through their neighborhood on the local chatboard.
A few days after the Seattle rally, the arguing over conference “codes of conduct” flared up again. And at the same time as that piece was published, Katie Kovalcin reported her trouble with a conference failing to protect the harassed.
Women, people of color, and sexual minorities complain they don’t feel safe at conferences and don’t trust conferences with their safety. They are pushing for “codes of conduct” to be standard around the industry. Male conference runners and attendees react by saying codes of conduct won’t work — often while appearing to belittle the very real concerns of a plurality of conference attendees.
But men have opinions, you see. And opinions must be expressed. The Internet is a place created to hold everyone’s hot takes, no matter how scattershot and ill-informed. But Someone Must Say Something About This. Someone Is Wrong On The Internet.
We respond like that Sanders rally crowd, wondering who the hell these people are talking about. A woman demands a safer web, and men freak out because we are safe how dare she say we are not. Someone who finds a Web community biased against people of color, and white folk freak out because but we are not racist stop saying we are racist. Someone asks for a Code of Conduct at a conference, and we freak out because it does not do anything and we’re all adults right? (And did we mention everything was fine until they showed up?)
We shut down. We don’t listen to the complaints. We don’t parse the solution to understand the problem it’s supposed to solve. We don’t think hey, maybe they’re not talking about me as the problem, but me as someone who can be the solution.
Our Weltanschauung within the web industry has stagnated. We’ve hidden from the real concerns of the world — racism, sexism, homophobia, economic inequality — partially because we promoted the Internet as this libertarian wonderland where “everyone is equal,” and partially because we’ve pretended the Internet was built and run by men, mostly white.
But now the world is on the web, and these billions of people are not mostly male, mostly white. And they are asking why women are being harassed for speaking out, why the word “f**got” is used on chatboards as a term of endearment, and why don’t we understand that our beloved “disruption” has economic and social consequences?
The Great Leveller that was supposed to be the Internet became more of a Great Mirror, reflecting back a broken, inequitable society that protects the powerful and predatory. And that Great Mirror reflects back all the heat and light of the powerful and the predatory onto the vulnerable with a painful intensity.
I’m angry. I’m angry that we’re still stuck in this world view. And I’m even angrier that the primary solutions people offer up are Get Off The Internet and Let’s Just Act Like Adults.
Get Off The Internet… well, in a time when 40% of the world's population and over 85% of the US has Internet access, when it’s well-nigh impossible to apply for a job without the Internet in almost every Western country… is this a stupid idea, or the stupidest idea ever?
Let’s Just Act Like Adults… I have been an adult for over 20 years now (in the eyes of federal, state, and local laws). What I’ve learned about adults is they’re assholes. They’re greedy, mean, vindictive, and selfish beasts who couldn’t give one squat about others unless it is in their best interest to give a squat about others. Asking humans to act like adults is meaningless unless there's agreement how an adult acts. We'd be better off telling people to act like kindergartners; at least they don't build websites to harass others.
As designers we’re taught, repeatedly, to listen to the users’ complaints about your work, because they are the voice of someone struggling with what you’ve designed.
We’re taught that when people approach us with a solution, we should talk to them and draw the problem out of them before agreeing with their solution.
We’re taught that when people say rude or negative things to us in critiques, they may be speaking out of their own exasperation and lack of control; it’s not necessarily a comment on us, and we shouldn’t take it personally.
And it’s not just designers; content creators and coders learn the same things, too.
A coworker and I talked about the Sanders rally kerfuffle over lunch. “I wish people would just stop and think before they expressed their opinion,” he said. “Too many people on the Internet just talk without really pausing and thinking it through.”
He’s right. We don’t stop to think, to listen. Instead, it’s straight to the blogs and the Twitters because The World Must Know.
We need to shut up and listen. We need to understand the problem before we try to solve it. We need to remember that we specifically may not be the problem, but we collectively may be. And we need to remember the role we play in this society.
The time for writing and advocating and opinionating will come, but in the meantime, when the vulnerable and disadvantaged speak, we shut up and listen.
No one cares about your opinion. They just want you to listen to their truth.