Backlash: feminism considered harmful
We have a problem in the way that women in free software are regarded and treated. If this is news to you, I encourage you not to take my word for it, but read what women in the community are saying about it. Ask women you know about their experiences.
What I want to discuss here, though, is how people are received when they speak up about this, for example by criticizing sexist behavior they have observed. Often, the problem is denied, the critic themselves is personally attacked, and the victims are blamed. In short, there is a backlash.
In the talk, Stallman incorporated a “joke” which Lefty described thus:
The nadir for me was Richard's explanation of "EMACS virgins" as "women who had not been introduced to EMACS" along with the advice that "relieving them of their virginity" was some sort of sacred duty for members of "The Church of EMACS".
The very first comment (anonymous) denied that Lefty had actually heard what he said he had:
Why do you automatically think of girls and woman when somebody talks about virgins? Richard did not mention the sex of the virgins.
However, many members of the audience (including myself) recall it quite clearly, and I expect a video will be published at some point to provide an objective account of what was said.
The second comment (also anonymous) denied that there is a general problem with how women are regarded in free software, citing female disinterest as the true cause:
This "include women" is all but nonsense. Women is[sic] uninterested - as a group, as you can find exceptions *everywhere* - in programming as men are uninterested at another areas where woman reigns.
Lefty received some support from other commenters, but the backlash went further downhill from there.
One anonymous commenter suggested that women should be actively prevented from participating in open source:
Blah blah blah. This kind of whiny bullshit about unimportant details is exactly why women should be left out in the cold.
Another mocked Lefty for daring to speak out:
Thank goodness a big hairy chested man like you was there to protect any helpless women that were about. [...] In other words grow some balls you silly pseudo feminist
For speaking up, he’s been accused of being a disingenuous “pseudo feminist”. Why? I didn’t see any reason in Lefty’s writings to question the validity of his objection, and the anonymous commenter presumably doesn’t know him personally. Plenty of other people were much more vocally offended by Stallman’s comments on Mono, for example, but they haven’t been accused in this way. What is different about women’s issues which trigger this response?
Another anonymous commenter shares his view that women (as a class) do not deserve to be heard, in this classic finger-pointing exercise:
Respect is a two-way street. I'm tired of hearing the so-called feminists yelling out to sexist claims towards women. You know what? I'll take their complaints seriously when most women stop their openly stereotypical view towards men.
From there, the anonymous comments descend into sexual metaphors:
Lefty, go back to sucking deicaza's cock YOU MUPPET
This led to more overt, but blessedly brief, misogynist hatespeech…
…and calls for Lefty to leave the community for having the audacity to criticize Stallman…
People like you should be ashamed of such behavior and words about other people. Moreover, people like you must quit doing whatever at Open Source.
While these are (almost exclusively) anonymous comments, and there were many others which were more reasonable, this is a pattern of backlash. In this case, it was Lefty taking offense at a single comment in a presentation at a conference which spawned this chain of vitriol. There have been entire presentations which were much worse, and whose critics were also met with rejection and insults. Lefty’s experience is not atypical.
Backlash itself isn’t the root of the problem, of course. It’s just another symptom. What I’m hoping to do is to recognize it for what it is, and question the feelings and beliefs behind it. I want to know how others feel about it. Do you see this happening as well? How does it make you feel?