Why firebrands are necessary in the fight for equality

Now that the initial wave of discussion about the sexual assault of Justine is over with, there is now a discussion about the discussion occurring. I was talking with one of my coworkers, someone I have a huge amount of respect for, and he felt that the conversation was by and large a waste because of the high levels of vitriol present. So was the conversation useful or not? I say yes.

There are a lot of competing factors at play, but it ultimately comes down to whether or not this discussion will move the ball forward on equality in the tech community. It's easy to say that all of the vitriol, and there was an ample abundance of vitriol on display, will just cause each side to become entrenched. Many people have said exactly this, but is that actually will happen? It's actually pretty unlikely, based on historical evidence from other communities. If I just look at the gaming and skeptic communities, I can point out two key events off the top of my head that demonstrate that this is patently not true.

The first is what is colloquially known as "ElevatorGate." For an in-depth chronology of the controversy, check out this blog post. The quick version is:

  1. Rebecca Watson was at a skeptical conference two years ago, and while heading up to her room (alone) she was accosted by a drunk male attendee in an elevator, who was the only other person in the elevator. He tried to get her to go with her back to his room, but she declined. Thankfully that was the end of it, but it nonetheless creeped her out (rightfully so, being hit on by a drunk stranger in an elevator with no way of escaping is up there on the creepy scale)
  2. Rebecca Watson posts a video on Skepchick in which she recounts the experience, and recommends "guys, don't do that." Sensible advice.
  3. This generated some conversation about the greater issue of misogyny in the skeptical community, but honestly not very much.
  4. Rebecca Watson, at another conference called out some related remarks by another (white cis-gendered straight male) blogger that were rather sexist. Being a firebrand, she didn't beat around the bush and addressed it succinctly and directly.
  5. One of the biggest flame-wars I've ever seen ensued.

Speaking of flame wars, my next example is, Anita Sarkeesian. For full details, read this article. The quick version:

  1. Anita Sarkeesian wants to create a series of videos discussing the problems with how women are depicted in video games (and there are numerous problems with how women are depicted in video games)
  2. She starts a Kickstarter campaign to help fund the development and marketing of these videos
  3. Massive numbers of threats of sexual assault and death are hurled at Anita Sarkeesian. This is before the videos have even been released.
  4. Part 1, part 2, and part 3 of "Tropes vs Women" are released (and are really excellent). The abuse gets worse and worse, leading to the single largest flame-war on the internet I have ever seen

These two events are really important in the progress in the skeptic and gaming communities towards equality. Before these events, the discussion of equality wasn't taking place in the limelight. These discussions aren't pleasant, and unless it affects someone directly or it can't otherwise be ignored, it tends to be ignored and indeed was ignored.

Before ElevatorGate, I have to admit that I turned a blind eye to misogyny and sexism in the communities. It took a massive shit-storm to get me and the rest of the skeptic community to pay attention. Now, in a post-ElevatorGate world, equality is a serious topic in the skeptic community and something I'm very passionate about. The history of the gaming community follows the same path, by and large, as the skeptic community. A few people were talking about equality before Anita Sarkeesian began working on her videos, but it wasn't mainstream by a long shot. Now equality is a mainstream topic.

Let me be clear though, I am not saying that equality is a solved problem. Equality is still a very long way off in both of these communities, and in society at large. Rather, I feel like these events have begun to steer these communities towards the right direction.

So what about the flame-war over the last few days in the dev community? Was all of the vitriol a waste? I certainly hope not, and I really don't think so. For all of the shit that's happened, there is the potential for this to turn into a galvanizing event like ElevatorGate, and the discussions of gender equality in the tech world could break out and become mainstream. Oh, and for some perspective, this flame-war was much smaller than ElevatorGate, which was much smaller than the flame-war around Anita Sarkeesian.

Firebrands are a necessary part of social justice movements. I had the chance to talk with one of the directors at the Secular Student Alliance on Wednesday, and he described the role of firebrands and diplomats very well. Firebrands are the ones that work at the edge to define the boundaries of the movement, fighting on the front lines so to speak, and the diplomats are the ones that work within the boundaries to strengthen the movement.

All of this is to say that we absolutely need firebrands like Shanley Kane, Ashe Dryden, and even Isaac Schlueter. But we also need diplomats like Chris Williams and, yes, Justine Arreche. The former tears down walls so that the latter can build something great.

Just to further illustrate the magnitude of the problems we face, and to show that the CodeMash event is not an isolated incident, here are some stores that have popped up in my Twitter feed in the last two days alone:

And then there is Fat, Ugly, or Slutty, which regularly catalogs and ridicules offensive things sent to women gamers.

This is a deeply entrenched problem, but it's one that I think we can do something about. What people have to recognize, though, is that we need a wide variety of peoples and methodologies in order to make a difference. So to the people who say that firebrands should calm down: guys, don't do that. Don't engage in a tone argument. Firebrands are necessary for diplomats to be effective and indeed necessary for achieving equality.

We are already beginning to see some good progress because of the flame-war. Ruby Berlin wrote an absolutely fantastic response to the controversy, which probably wouldn't have happened otherwise. Chris Williams, who organizes the amazing JSConfUS conference, has also issued a good response. Isaac Schlueter also has a really good post on the complications on always having to sit down and explain feminism 101. These responses would not all exist if it had not been for the flame-war, and the actions of the vitriolic and vocal on the side of equality.

P.S. Scientific American has apologized for their mistakes with Danielle Lee, and they seem to be sincere.