Occasionally in this big wide world, things happen. When things happen, we like to tell each other about it. When you take a bunch of connected events and tell someone about it, you’ve formed a narrative. Narratives are important, because they tell the story! The details of the account that one presents can really shape how others view those events later.
Due to our lived experiences, we often have our own ‘internal narratives.’ You can think of them as pre-packaged ways that we tend to think about a given series of events. Human brains are wonderful pattern-matching machines, and so we see similarities in situations, and then apply the same narrative.
Recently, I was playing around with Unicode and Ruby, and was trying to make some funny class names. I ended up figuring some stuff out, and tweeted this, which at the time of this writing, it has 157 retweets and 48 favorites:
This is valid Ruby:class ಠ_ಠendಠ_ಠ.new
— Steve Klabnik (@steveklabnik) November 17, 2012
This tweet is factually incorrect. Yet, only two people pointed this out to me. Why?
Ruby is kind of a crazy language. That’s what I love about it; it’s got lots of wacky little corners, nooks, and crannies. I’ve also been doing Ruby for a long time, and tweet about it often. So here’s the internal narrative when you see this tweet:
This particular situation fits perfectly into this internal narrative. Hence, a retweet. No checking. Just tweeting.
These narratives can play off of each other really easily. Now that we’ve seen one more way in which Ruby is kinda crazy, we assume that it’s even more crazy in the future. This tweet has reinforced our internal narrative about Ruby’s wackiness.
I’m sure you’re expecting me to say something specific about this situation, but I’m not going to give you what you want. What I do want to do is analyze the narrative of this situation, and see how it compares to actual events.
Josh Susser tweets this:
Nice speaker lineup for @britruby. Except for the 100% white guys part.
— Josh Susser (@joshsusser) November 17, 2012
and James Rosen tweets this:
By what metric is @britruby “one of Europe’s… most diverse Ruby conferences”? Every speaker is a white man.
— James A Rosen (@jamesarosen) November 17, 2012
That’s it. If you examine those Twitter pages, you can see some conversation; both were conducted pretty cordially. Then, BritRuby decides to cancel their conference.
Okay. That’s the situation. Now let’s look at two versions of the narrative. First up, the cancellation announcement. I’m going to excerpt the most important parts, with my commentary afterwards.
We started this conference to build a community within the United Kingdom. Our mission statement was to encourage Ruby developers to unite and create a community, which would allow such to network, exchange ideas and provoke innovation for the future of Ruby. We wanted to encourage jobs and allow companies the opportunity to meet the community and primarily boost the UK developer industry.
We wanted to build a great conference that would help UK Rubyists tremendously.
Our selection process was the content and nothing more. Not the individuals gender, race, age or nationality.
This is trivially disproven, as everyone has biases. But the message is “We only accepted the best speakers, regardless of who they are.”
It’s about community. It’s about helping one another to strive for success and drive budding developers to do the same. We contacted universities in a hope that we would be able to empower young minds and show them what a great language Ruby really is. They are the future.
We are team players.
The Ruby community has been battling with issues of race and gender equality. We at Brit Ruby were well aware of this fundamental and important issue. This was one of the reasons why we encouraged everyone to submit a speaker proposal. Sadly, BritRuby was used as the arena to air these issues on Twitter and this has fundamentally destroyed any chance we had of addressing these issues.
BritRuby was ‘used to air these issues,’ meaning, ‘others had an agenda and took advantage of us to promote it.’
Instead the community should have worked together and allowed us to bring these issues to light at the conference.
These individuals are divisive, and we are inclusive.
How can the community address these issues if every time someone tries they are shot down and accused of such awful things?
The British Ruby team although very small consisted of a diverse mix of nationality and gender.
We cannot be tainted by accusations of monoculture, as we are diverse ourselves.
This was a non-profit conference being run by simple developers.
We were not even trying to make money.
The team has been working so hard in their own time to bring a unique conference to you all. Thank you to those of you that dedicated your time, skills and to their families for putting up with the long hours.
We, nay, you and us together all worked really hard, so you should cut us some slack.
Anyway, so there you go. Same events, different story: We are a collective that was trying to do our best. Outsiders took advantage of us to promote their agenda and divide all of us. Therefore, we’re taking our ball and going home.
Here’s the funniest thing about the cancellation: They don’t give an actual reason. The closest they get is ‘was used as an arena to air these issues’ but they don’t explain why that made them cancel their conference. This narrative attempts to shift the blame from the organizers to the critics. “We wanted to give you this beautiful thing, and we worked hard, but these other people ruined it.”
This particular narrative plays off of a well-known trope when discussing diversity issues: a persecution complex by the majority. Majorities fear losing their power, and often will develop internal narratives that they’re the ones being persecuted. Some good examples of this are the Mens Rights movement and the White Power movement. This is a milder form of that same privilege: the power of a single tweet by the ‘politically correct’ is enough to bring the most powerful of plans grinding to a halt.
Let’s examine a few narratives involved in this gist:
And here it is, brought down by careless words.
“These people don’t actually care about us or our conference.”
Yes, gender equality and racial equality are important. But the team’s motives were to get the best speakers who were able to make it to Manchester.
First of all, “but” is an amazing word. You can’t even imagine the things I’ve heard said after “I’m not racist, but.” This sentence implies two things: an absolution from blame on the part of the conference because hey, they care about equality. Their second statement implies that the best speakers all happened to be white men. The converse of this is that non-whites and/or women are not the best speakers, and the overall message is that including them would degrade the quality of the conference.
Adding a token minority speaker is offensive to that speaker, it says “You’re here because you tick a box - not because you’re skilled.”
Anyone who seeks out women or minorities is only doing it to ‘tick boxes,’ because, as we’ve already established, they clearly are not the best speakers.
Oh, and you’re actually the sexist/racist one if you try to encourage them, because it’s patronizing.
It doesn’t matter who speaks at a conference, as long as they’re capable, interesting and relevant. That’s what matters: content, not style.
We cannot be at fault because we don’t see race or gender. Again, basic psychology trivially disproves this statement.
There are a ton of other micro-narratives that occur in all of these discussions as well. Most of these are a derailing tactic, and straight-up distract from the issue. “Egalitarianism is anti-free speech,” “Feminists and their allies are irrational and hysterical,” “I don’t see race or gender,” “If they were calmer about this, it would have worked out,” “This would be better handled in private,” and many, many more. I’ve seen so many. It’s exhausting. These internal narratives get reinforced by a particular interpretation of a given situation, without examining what actually happened.
Yet we still have conferences that are mostly full of white dudes.
I lost a lot of respect for a lot of people today.