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Political Correctness, Sensitivity, and Censorship in the Information Age


So anyone who knows me knows that I hate censorship in any form.  I'm the guy that wears the "I Read Banned Books" shirt, and considers it to be a required reading list (yeah I'm still working my way through it myself).

So you can imagine I was just a little bit miffed when I found out that @violetblue's talk at BSides SF was apparently cancelled because it offended someone's delicate sensibilities (particularly since they can't have possibly known the content of said talk as it HADN'T BEEN GIVEN YET). I was even a little miffed at @BSidesSF for basically caving to PC-Pressure (unjustly as it turns out, so I'm glad I didn't lay into them), but I just quietly commented on the WTFery of such censorship and moved on...
...until tonight when I read @violetblue's blog post on what went down.

I beg of you, please go read that blog post before you read mine. Violet Blue took the time to compose a sound, well-reasoned retort to the folks that quashed her talk. What I'm presenting here is a seething ball of anti-censorship politically-incorrect fuck-the-world unmitigated rage.
Update: Please also read The Ada Initiative's side of the story as well (thanks to Rob for pointing it out, I didn't find it in my 30 seconds of Googling). The Ada Initiative has done some very good things, and they do raise many valid points. I don't think censorship was (or is) their intent, it's just an unfortunate side effect of cultural hypersensitivity surrounding certain issues...


I fully expect this blog entry will piss some people off.  Frankly I don't care. Try not to get any wharrgarbl on me if you feel the need to respond. 



My friends and followers (and possibly soon to be ex-friends and un-followers?), what happened here is GODDAMN BULL-MOTHERFUCKING-SHIT.

Seriously folks: Welcome to the world. I get that rape is an awful thing. I get that some (probably even many) rape survivors have massive PTSD, but to say that because a talk might trigger someone it should be banned does NOTHING to address the real problems that may have caused someone to be a victim of rape. In fact as Violet Blue points out by quashing discussion they may well be perpetuating the very problems that are traumatizing people.
Talks that openly and honestly discuss things like "This is what GHB is. Some people use it to get you all dumbed-down and compliant so they can do things to you that you probably wouldn't consent to normally" are a positive thing, and I take a dim view of anyone who tries to shut that kind of open discussion down.

SO, in the spirit of open and honest discussion, let me get a few things off my chest:

First, to the faux-feminists screaming and clutching pearls about "rape culture": Get. Over. Yourselves.

The whole term "rape culture" offends MY delicate sensibilities - mainly because I've had some wackos say I'm apparently promoting it (last time I checked my position on rape was that it's a bad thing, and... yup, just checked with my PR department again - my official position is still "Consensual sex Good, Rape Bad.")

I get that it might offend someone when I say "My cell phone bill is ass-rape", and I try to be sensitive about such things, but frankly folks your right to be comfortable ceases when you infringe upon my right to free speech.
For the record I also call things "gay" or say that they "suck" (in the sense of being bad) - sometimes in impolite company I even clarify "sucks in the bad nasty sharp pointy teeth on your dick way". I also routinely refer to myself as "the world's worst faggot" for not conforming to the many gay stereotypes (including the one about not using "gay" in a derogatory way).

In this wonderful world of pluralism there will be many things that offend you. I DESPISE the word "nigger", find it profoundly offensive (even when used by black folks), and go so far as to ask people not to use it in my presence. When people don't respect that request I absent myself from their presence (in other words: I choose to avoid the things and people that offend me).

To head off the "Oh my god you're a fucking mysogynist, you hate women, raaaaar wharrgarbl rage rage rage":
I pick on the faux-feminists (note: distinct from REAL feminists) because all they do is scream and howl and bloviate, desperate to restrict the speech of anyone with whom they disagree and throwing around terms like "rape culture" to demean and debase anyone who does not kowtow to their personal ideology.
In my view these people are as bad as the gay rights folks that blow a gasket over chick-fil-a. They make a great deal of noise about things that are of trivial importance, taking attention away from real problems. If you want my respect let's have an intelligent conversation about the real problems underlying what you call "rape culture", like victim blaming, under-reporting, and the appalling number of rapes that go unsolved or unprosecuted. In fact let's talk about how to solve those problems instead of just wringing our hands over them!

That brings us to "Second": If you don't like something, simply avoid it.

There are, believe it or not, a few things that actually DO offend me. I avoid them, and I avoid people that revel in them.
What I DO NOT do is tell other people what they can and can not discuss. My personal hang-ups, triggers, and sensitivities do not give me the right to impose restrictions on others.

In the case of the cancelled B-Sides talk that prompted this little tirade the Ada Initiative pitched a hissy and succeeded in their objective of censoring a talk. Great job there - so instead of an empowering discussion of the dangers of date-rape drugs (as part of a larger "sex and drugs" talk which I can only assume was chock full of interesting information), and possibly offering the hugely under-represented community of women in technology/infosec/hacking an audience and opportunity to give voice to these serious issues you slapped a big red X over the whole thing.

Violet Blue said it almost perfectly and I am shamelessly borrowing and tweaking some of her words below

These people are not furthering their cause, they are not making the world a better place by finding solutions, and they are not challenging harmful behaviors by shutting down any conversation that they do not like.  This comes from a type of thinking where if I disagree with you, then I am your enemy.

The whole notion of shutting down something you disagree with is abhorrent to me. I am one of those most ardent defenders of free speech who does not just parrot the phrase I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it - I truly and ferverently believe in those words, as I believe the only way to change people's minds and improve a bad situation is to have a good argument.

And that brings us to "Third", or "Finally": Working for change doesn't mean shouting down those you disagree with.

Having a good argument (as opposed to just shouting and carrying on) is an art form.  The Greeks and Romans called it debating - a true debate where smart people discuss ideas, problems, and solutions, ultimately leading to constructive growth on all sides of an issue.
Today we have lost that ability: People scream and carry on about how "the other side" is bad/evil/wrong/coming-to-get-you-and-kill-your-kittens, and engage in theatrics rather than solution building.

The end result is that excellent opportunities for discussion, education, and growth are squandered (as happened in this case), and we as a society are diminished.  

Now since I just got through bitching about people who bloviate and clutch their pearls but don't actually work for solutions it would be wrong of me to just leave my little self-indulgent rant here and not talk about what I think we SHOULD be doing as a society/culture/whatever-you-want-to-call-us.  So if any of you actually give a flying fuck what I think after I just went ahead and alienated you all in the preceeding three graphs, here's my recipe for peace, love, and all that good hippy-dippy shit:

Engage with those with whom you disagree.

You think that a talk that includes discussion of "date rape drugs" is a terrible thing?
Swallow your offense and sit through it.  If you still dislike what you've heard catch the author on the side and have a rational discussion of what bothered you, why, and how things could be improved.

Hate "the N-Word"?
Buttonhole your friends who use it and discuss why it offends you.

Wierded out when you call something "gay" in front of the only homosexual in the group?
Don't assume you're deep-throating your shoe (and try not to look so surprised when I say I really don't care).

Don't like the underrepresentation of women in in some area?
Hit up those talks at your favorite conference addressing the issue, ask how you can help, and maybe change some of the less-than-welcoming behaviors you see in yourself.



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Stephen Belcher on :

*I can feel where you're coming from, and the indignation that results from this talk being silenced. It's primarily so frustrating because, as you and @violetblue pointed out, suppressing the talk hurt exactly the people their program was designed to protect/promote. The hypocrisy and short-sightedness are less than endearing, even when made with the best intentions. The road to hell and all that.

I will take issue with one of your points, however; and it seems you would too, if you laid out two of your arguments side-by-side: that, if you don't like something, you should just ignore it and go somewhere else to avoid it. The problem is that, as time and familiarity and ease with something "bad" goes on, the line between talk and action becomes more and more narrow. And in an echo chamber where the idea that those things are bad is never even brought up - when everyone who hates it has left - it just gets worse. And you say, in your final point, if your friends do something awful, then challenge them on why they think it's ok. You yourself, in not so few words, say not to avoid things just for discomfort.

Also, I lied. Sort of. I have a little bit of an issue with another point: the dismissive attitude that people who mention "rape culture" should just get over themselves. It may be that I've unjustly tied your feelings of the term itself, or the people who say it, to your feelings about the idea, but it feels like you discount the possibility that such a thing even exists. There's power in words and in ideas that can worm its way into the roots of a person's psyche. If you think there's not, just ask the average Republican what percentage of the country doesn't work and simply collects welfare cause they love free rides on us rich folks. Then, ask an average man how often women cry "rape" just for attention or to screw over a guy just to be a bitch. At some point, we've got to approach the idea that, perhaps, we are in fact somehow responsible for thinning that line between talk and action through being part of the echo chamber, and not that there are just some men born rapists and there's nothing you can ever do about it cause it'd mean censoring yourself (and that's terrible).

I believe we should be able to say whatever we choose, even if someone else thinks it heinous. But I think what we choose to say, and be okay with other people saying, is not just a right but an important responsibility. Sometimes people asking you to tone down your language is just being a Deputy Downer, but sometimes it's just reminding you that you have a human responsibility to those around you whenever you choose one verbal idiom over another. The line's waiting.

mikeg on :

*Regarding the term "rape culture", I certainly don't want to give the impression that I'm discounting the existence of a Rape Problem (a term I infinitely prefer) - I take issue with the term "Rape Culture" (and with the people who promulgate that term) because to my ears it's drama-inducing hyperbole, and the folks who I see using the term most frequently are also the ones who seem inclined to use the Rape Problem as a platform as opposed to looking for real solutions.

As for avoiding things we find unpleasant versus confronting them and engaging with them constructively, I will freely admit these are contradictory statements on the surface. The way I reconcile them is in how you engage with those you disagree with.
Those who elect to promote censorship are not being constructive in my opinion - If the only thing they have to say about speech they don't like is that it shouldn't exist that's a perfectly valid opinion and they can deny it existence in their little world (by avoidance).
Those who engage constructively with the folks they disagree with avoid the echo chamber problem you describe by forcing people to think about their ideas, and that is how you effect a change in the world. (Of course there are some people who are simply intractable - you're not going to convince Hitler to stop hating the Jews - at some point you just say "This person is an intractable asshole, and I refuse to associate with them", and explain to those you do associate with why you made that decision.)

Rob on :

*Of note: Ada Iniative's response to Violet Blue's post.

mikeg on :

*Thanks for pointing that out - I've edited it into the main entry for new readers as it deserves just as much consideration as VioletBlue's side of things.

I do want to be clear that I don't generally stick Ada Initiative in the "Faux-Feminists" box (I'm only peripherally familiar with them and am not really qualified to pass judgment - They do seem a little huggy-feely-PC for my personal taste, but they also seem more interested in Real Solutions than hand-wringing).

What I do take issue with in this particular case is how the Ada Initiative folks handled their concerns.
In their post on the issue they say _We aren’t sure what we should have done differently to have a better outcome._ -- my suggestion is simple: _They could have contacted the person giving the talk and determined if the content of the talk was truly offensive._

Even from their description, what happened here was judging a book by its cover (a talk by its title in this case). None of us can know for sure, but my gut tells me that if Valerie and VioletBlue had communicated directly this whole thing would have turned out differently and nobody would be talking about it...

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