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When Overreaction is Legitimate

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I’ve been passively following this story for the past couple of days in my copious spare time.  The setting is a tech conference during a keynote address in Santa Clara, CA. In the audience are a female techie, Adria Richards, with something of a public profile, sitting front of a couple male techies, which itself isn’t so unusual. The gender distribution at such events is somewhat asymmetrical, putting it mildly. The picture embedded in the story linked above is illustrative. The male techies were allegedly making sexual jokes of the sort that aren’t funny once most of us have graduated from junior high. The female techie had listened silently to this running commentary for a while, then reached a breaking point. She turned around, snapped a picture, and tweeted both the picture and the context.

The usual vile online backlash kicked off featuring the typical repertoire of death and rape threats. One of the male techies got sacked, and not long after so too did Adria Richards.

Most online debate has focused on proportionate response. Richards over-reacted. The two sackings were greater overreactions. I’m inclined to believe that the jokes were offensive, but likewise that this was not the intention of the two male techies, nor that they were even self aware enough to understand how their comments could have been received in a mixed gender audience. A typical observation is that Adria Richards should have simply had a few quiet words with the guys, perhaps a kinder, gentler version of “shut the fuck up”, and not gone nuclear by publicly outing them to her >12K twitter followers. In an ideal, perhaps naive world, the guys would have stopped their running dialogue, seen the error of their ways, and left the conference as changed, better men. Nobody would have been fired, reputations would not have been tarnished, and rainbows and unicorns would proliferate.

However, how many such quiet words have been exchanged in how many public settings, and what aggregate effect have all these isolated admonishments had on the culture, not only of the tech industry, but on society writ large? Perhaps some, but not enough to prevent these episodes from continuing. When observed in isolation, Richards overreacted. The guys were offensive and unprofessional, but as they violated a social norm, so too did she. However, they also had no reasonable expectation of privacy. A few quiet words wouldn’t have changed their attitude, but it probably would have ended the running dialogue, but also might have resulted in a confrontation. Nothing would have changed save for one isolated episode.

I gave a couple of lectures last week on protest politics. When the usual, acceptable methods of working within a democratic system fail to result in a change or policy desired by a significant segment of the population, (both progressive and conservative), one has to work outside of the system, through legal or extra legal means. The short term goal is to bring attention to the issue, and hopefully move public opinion in your direction.

The nuclear option adopted by Richards has brought some degree of attention to this issue that otherwise would have remained invisible. In isolation, tweeting the picture was a disproportionate response to mildly unprofessional behavior. However, it’s not difficult to imagine the sense of frustration that Richards must have felt. Operating within the system, in this case within acceptable social norms of behavior via a quiet conversation, isn’t working. Bringing greater attention to the episode via, yes, the dramatic, is potentially more effective in the long run.

Of course, it also comes with unforeseen consequences.

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