Thursday, March 29, 2007

Kathy Sierra Isn't Being Stalked

There's a fascinating and disturbing alternate take in Violet Blue's column for the SF Gate.

If I understand it correctly, this interpretation is that Kathy's not being stalked by an individual sexually repressed lunatic, but harassed by a group of men, and further, that these men are not expressing sexual intentions in a violent way, but expressing violent intentions in a sexual way.

To quote from the column, "we're not talking about a lack of social skills, we're talking about a desire to destroy." It's persecution, online mob violence, with the purpose of keeping a class system intact. It's as evil as evil gets.

Violet compares Kathy's harassment not to Jodie Foster's experience with the demented stalker who tried to kill Ronald Reagan, as I did the other day, but to a "sex-murder" of a transgendered teenager. I don't know what "sex-murder" exactly means, and I don't want to know, but even though the details are fuzzy, the picture is clear. Her point is that the sexual nature of the attacks isn't an expression of actual sexuality, but of gender politics. It's as much a deliberate intimidation tactic discouraging other women as it is any kind of thing involving Kathy specifically. Since high-tech is generally seen as a masculine thing, her attackers are enforcing some kind of gender barrier they feel she's violating. Like "How dare a woman write a blog that is better than anything I'll ever do in my life? Doesn't she know her place?" That kind of thing.

That doesn't jibe naturally and intuitively with my experience, but as a white male with an excellent education, if that jibed naturally and intuitively with my experience, that would be pretty weird. It does, unfortunately, resonate absolutely and incontrovertibly with what I understand of psychology, sociology, fundamental tribal behavior built into every human, and especially class structures. What I'm saying is, it feels weird, but I'm almost certain she's right.

There's actually some good news in this. Individual stalkers tend to be very single-minded and unrealistic, owing to the fact that psychosis and realism are such polar opposites. However, if this is a group of harassers hell-bent on intimidating women and keeping women out of high-tech, there's a much smaller chance of them attacking Kathy personally and physically. In fact if they're harassers rather than stalkers, attacking her physically would be less productive for them than continuing the online harassment, since the online harassment is more public, and more intimidating to women in general. Online harassment is a lot less effort to go to, so women generalizing it out and considering themselves potential targets also is more likely.

Obviously, however, this "good news" is a pretty fucking mixed blessing. I think everybody should be glad that Violet's analysis indicates Kathy will probably be safe, physically, but Kathy's comments that she might never post again take on an entirely different tone in this context. It means that even though Kathy's safe, the evil bastards are winning anyway.

It really hammers home the need for a solution, and I think the solution is to de-geekify technology. Kathy's books defy the perception of what teaching high-tech is about, and yet they're more effective at teaching technical topics than books matching that perception. The people doing this to Kathy are obviously invested in that perception, if Violet's argument holds water -- and I believe it does -- so if we destroy that perception, we draw fire away from Kathy, and from women in general, at the same time as we reduce the attackers' power.

So the good news is we have a solution, and the bad news is it requires transforming an entire worldwide culture. So again we have a very mixed blessing on our hands.

A more immediate solution is to find these assholes, put them in jail, and make sure none of them ever gets hired doing any god damn thing even remotely related to technology. And to make sure Kathy keeps posting. If I was O'Reilly, I'd offer her kung-fu bodyguards at the next conference.

Seriously. Show those motherfuckers we aren't tolerating that shit. The picture's about right, but there's something missing.

There we go.

There's one other thing in that Violet Blue link, by the way. Violet says this situation is a situation confronting every woman out there who has a blog, and I absolutely believe her. She also says that neither she nor a friend of hers, both of whom have had experiences similar to Kathy's, ever made a big deal about it in their blogs or posted about being terrified. The weird thing is, she almost sounds macho about it:

The question is, Do we women need to portray ourselves as victims to garner support when men threaten to defile our corpses if we gain notoriety?

I'm not a woman, so I'm way out of my depth here, but for what it's worth, that sounds to me like a false dichotomy. There's portraying yourself as a victim, and there's not saying a single word, and these things are miles apart from each other. I don't know what the middle ground is, but I'm sure it exists. Tolerating that kind of thing in silence, accepting it as normal, that's not good for anyone.

Finally, although this is totally self-aggrandizing, there is something you can do about this. Link to my blog! Send lots of people here. The more people realize what this is really about, the better the chance that women will shrug it off like Violet, but tell people about it like Kathy.


  1. > It really hammers home the need for a solution, and I think the solution is to de-geekify technology.

    "Geek" has for a long time been a positive word among the intellectual. I don't think turning it back into a negative word and then launching a campaign against "geeks" is a good way to go about solving the problem.

  2. This is how your "excellent education" prepared you to respond to the Kathy thing? Do you seriously think a post containing an image of a gun and using profanity-soaked verbal abuses is going to help anything?

    And Kung Fu?!? How old are you?

  3. @anon -- if you think that's profanity-soaked, you might have lived a more sheltered life than I have.

    I'm not a second amendment nut, but there's a time and place for everything, and the time and place for shooting people is when those people are harrassing minorities with death threats. Persecuting people for their gender is totally inappropriate, and, in the case of death threats, criminal. This is in fact why cops have guns in the first place.

    I'm 33. My kung fu is weak but I've seen people with amazing kung fu, and if you don't take kung fu seriously, you are so impoverished I could never help you. Martial arts really are arts.

    @ben -- I think the geek thing has gone too far. Apart from anything else, you can look at social skills as a technological problem. It's a skill set like anything else. It's not even that hard to learn. The part of geek culture which encourages eccentricity is a wonderful thing, but the antisocial components are very unhealthy.

  4. Seriously, next time you wonder why a pointy-haired idiot gets all the money and the genius hacker gets the shaft, the answer is easy. Social skills. Geeks should learn social skills. I understand if you want to spend more time writing code than learning social skills, but you should at least have a decent speaking voice and the ability to smile. It's not rocket science.

  5. I agree with you on attempting to learn how to speak and smile in a way that doesn't freak people out.

    I don't think that's enough to be good at interacting with non-geeks, though. In Paul Graham's essay "Why Nerds are Unpopular" (the first chapter of Hackers & Painters) he says that in order to be popular one has to compete with the popular people, and that means always being on duty as a conformist.

    I think in today's American culture our intelligence sets us apart, and it's very hard to overcome. This is less true in some parts of the country than others.

    I don't think geeks can change the situation by being less geeky. I think it's anti-intellectuals that are to blame. It's anti-intellectualism we should fight against, not geekiness.

  6. I love the Graham essay. The thing is, though, one of the most popular people in my high school was going off-campus to a local college for his math classes every day. We had AP Math, but he had already done AP Math by sophomore or junior year.

    I know that's atypical, but it happened. He kind of makes a good role model, I think. Choosing between having brains and having friends isn't really necessary, it's a false dichotomy. Paul Graham himself certainly has a geeky air, but he also stands up in front of very large groups of people and tells jokes. Download a video or a podcast of one of his presentations and you'll see this is the case. There's a humor and a charisma to his delivery. Humor, charisma, and public speaking -- social skills.

    And to bring things back to the main topic of the post, there's a huge difference between being socially awkward and actively antisocial.

    Also, that false dichotomy is actually incredibly toxic. When I was in high school, I hated math classes. Then I saw how math was taught at St. John's College and became very good at math. They started by talking about the ideas involved, and only went to equations to demonstrate those ideas. I went there for a visit in my junior of high school and it literally changed my life. By senior year I was reading weird grad-school texts on fractional dimensionality.

    The way math is taught in this country is painfully backwards. It's not so much that math is hard as it is that math teachers are sadistic. Other cultures which use the ideas first, equations second model tend to have much, much better math literacy in their populations, and math literacy is important.

    Teaching the ideas before the equations is what I'm talking about when I say de-geekifying technology would be a good idea, and I absolutely believe it. The austere, monastic approach to math in schools has a lot to do with the similar culture of high-tech in the workplace. Fix one, fix the other. If we find a way to get rid of this false dichotomy of social skills vs. brains, we won't have to deal with people joking about rape.

    Rape isn't generally considered funny. George Carlin was able to make rape funny -- "think of Elmer Fudd getting raped by Porky Pig! why do you think they call him Porky?" -- but George Carlin is George Carlin. And even George Carlin only made rape funny in the context of a sketch about how to make **anything** funny. The guys harassing Kathy Sierra are not a group of George Carlins. Consequently, their jokes about rape aren't particularly funny.

  7. "I'm 33. My kung fu is weak but I've seen people with amazing kung fu, and if you don't take kung fu seriously, you are so impoverished I could never help you. Martial arts really are arts."

    Usually guys give up thinking they can be a superhero around 25--good luck with that. Kung Fu is a bunch of guys ripping off impressionable geeks/nerds/dorks who obtain a false sense of security by wearing pajamas and believing they have chi power. If that's your thing, enjoy it. Contrast this with real athletes that really fight: boxers, wrestlers, muey thai, mixed martial arts knuckleheads, etc.

  8. Thanks for the reply. I think most hackers want to learn social skills, but once they learn them, they tend to use them mostly to talk to other hackers. When Paul Graham speaks, he uses a vocabulary that most of the U. S. population doesn't understand.

    In the CRM system I'm working on at my day job I would love to be able to use the words "union" and "intersection" in the search page, but I had to settle for something much more verbose. When I'm in a group of hackers, I don't have this problem, and I can use the more direct language. When a non-hacker walks in while we're talking, the foreign language can seem uninviting to them. I can explain it to them, but some will already feel discouraged. It sucks, but this has happened to me many times. It's pretty sad that in this country most people don't know what those words mean, and it's hard for me not to feel frustrated when trying to communicate with average Americans.

    I agree that the large social divide between geeks and non-geeks is due partly to geeks lacking basic social skills, and partly to non-geeks knowing very little about math and science (and, by extension, everything else including teaching and graphic design).

    I think it would be a good idea to get this point out (and with it the misperception that one can't be good at both hacking and social skills), but to simply say that we need to get geekiness out of the technology field is more likely to result in managers having brilliant hackers spend lots of time talking to customers on the phone more than it is going to solve the root problem.

    Also, I wouldn't call it a false dichotomy -- merely an exaggerated one. Hacking doesn't lend itself to social skills the same way that teaching, singing in a choir, and playing sports do. If someone wants to solve a really big problem, they've got to spend a lot of time working on it. Giving a presentation about what you're working on is a good way both to practice social skills, and to take a step back and get a closer look at the problem. But someone who gives a presentation every day, like a teacher, will learn these skills at a much faster rate.

  9. Kung Fu is a bunch of guys ripping off impressionable geeks/nerds/dorks who obtain a false sense of security by wearing pajamas and believing they have chi power.

    That was funny as hell. (I disagree, but it was still funny.)

  10. "I don't know what the middle ground is, but I'm sure it exists."

    Talk about it. As matter of fact. You don't have to be triumphant or victimized to bring it up.

    I've seen this kind of behavior crop up in other places, and the only thing geeky about this incident is how fast and far the news spread. It's tempting to blame it on geek social skills and on sexual repression, but I doubt if those are more than just vehicles of expressions. At the root this is just means to an end, violance intent on retaining self-image and pecking order.

  11. "I hope that people will continue talking, and with less rage on either side of the issue and more productive ideas for what to do going forward."

    Kathy Sierra in a blogpost today.


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