The fallout from PyCon this year has been dramatic, involving Adria Richards, Alex Reid, SendGrid, PlayHaven, and the PyCon organizers. I wasn't involved in this event at all, so I have no first-hand knowledge of it, but it saddens me greatly. So many things have happened that I wish had not happened.

Improving community is difficult. Getting 2500 people together without friction is impossible. Friction and offense will happen, the question is, what do we do about it? It seems to me there are two mindsets about how to improve a community.

The first mindset is, "Let's get rid of the assholes, and the people that are left will be a great community." I'll call this the shunning model: identify the Bad People, get rid of them, and you will have only Good People left.

The second mindset is, "We're all different, and we're going to make mistakes, so let's be thoughtful and educate each other." I'll call this the educating model: people are imperfect, but basically good, and if we can keep an eye on things and keep communicating, we can all improve.

When I look back at the aftermath of PyCon, I see a number of events that fit into the shunning model, and few that fit into the education model. This to me seems to be the heart of the problem.

We often talk about building an inclusive community, which usually means that women should be as welcome as men. I want it to also mean that people who make mistakes can be kept as members. Clearly, some people will be difficult enough that they won't be welcome, but most people who offend are good people who've made a mistake, not incorrigible assholes. I don't want a One Strike And You're Out community.

Let me tell you about my experiences at PyCon. I had at least three incidents of "community friction" during my time there:

  • Friday at lunch, I sat across the table from a friend of mine. I made a joke that she found mean, and she told me so. I felt terrible, and apologized to her then, and again later when I saw her next.
  • Saturday night, I was at the rowdy event that engendered a formal response from PyCon: a member was ejected and banned from PyCon. I was more than just an observer: I tried to talk to the member about what he had said. I also helped report it to the PyCon organizers.
  • Monday morning, I was having breakfast with a group of people, both friends and new acquaintances, when someone used the word "retarded" to refer to some suboptimal technical detail. I don't like people using "retarded" as humor. I said nothing, but winked across the table to a friend to say, "yup, I heard it, I wish he wouldn't say that, but I'm not saying anything about it."

In incident #1, I was the offender, and I'm really glad I was educated instead of shunned.

In incident #2, I was the offended. The member in question has been banned. I wasn't part of deciding the sanctions, but am glad to see in his blog post that he is thoughtful about what happened.

In incident #3, I was the offended, but did nothing. If I had known the speaker better, I might have said, "I wish you wouldn't use that word that way," but it didn't seem right at the time.

Friction is inevitable. One of the great things about PyCon is that it is right at the boundary between being comfortable with old friends, and meeting new people. There are bound to be incidents. We have to accept that, and try hard to talk to each other to improve things for everyone.

Education is better than shunning.

tagged: , » 20 reactions

Comments

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Doug Hellmann 9:32 PM on 23 Mar 2013

Thoughtful as always, Ned. Thank you.

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Joe 11:15 PM on 23 Mar 2013

"I don't want a One Strike And You're Out community."

But the Code of Conduct leads almost directly to such a zero-tolerance community:

"If a participant engages in behavior that violates this code of conduct, the conference organizers may take any action they deem appropriate, including warning the offender or expulsion from the conference with no refund."

Having such a code also appears to encourage ratting on others, who as you say may have simply slipped, and should probably be given the benefit of the doubt.

As to your "shunning model", the definition or connotation of "shun" does not in general include banishing someone. In my view, "shunning" would mean ostracising the person, i.e., those offended would visibly avoid the shunned person (and it could include some "education" comments so the person becomes aware of why he/she is being shunned), and tell others to do the same.

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Smith 11:32 PM on 23 Mar 2013

I don't think that's what the CoC is saying, unless you assume that the organizers will in all cases deem it appropriate to ban the offender from PyCon for life. Given their decisions so far, which have ranged from a private conversation to a short-term ban from PyCon, it seems highly unlikely they will suddenly start banning everyone. Personally, I have more faith in the organizers of PyCon than that.

I think you are correct that it encourages people to report incidents, but I think that is, on balance, a good thing. If I may draw an analogy to the bullying of children, many years of telling children not to rat on others resulted in unchecked bullying. New initiatives that include intervention by teachers and parents seem to be reducing bullying.

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Ned Batchelder 11:35 PM on 23 Mar 2013

@Joe, I don't see how the CoC leads "almost directly to zero-tolerance." In fact, in the highly-visible case in hand, the staff spoke to the men, the men apologized, and that was it. No expulsion, no ban.

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Nate 2:49 AM on 24 Mar 2013

Ned, very thoughtful. I've been watching it all go down from afar, like most people. Definitely good to hear from someone who was there but not the offender or offendee. I agree, educating is the way to go.

As for the code of conduct... it seems PyCon is just about the only one who didn't overreact to these situations.

Make a dumb joke that offends someone: get a stern talking to
Smoke an illegal substance in the audience: get banned for a couple years

Both reactions seem very appropriate to the infractions.

You have to put banning as a possible response to a first offense, if the offense is bad enough. It just shouldn't be the *only* response... and it's not.

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Julian Berman 3:12 AM on 24 Mar 2013

Find it hard to disagree with any of this. I don't think we need to create a culture where people are afraid of making mistakes.

Some of the ugliest parts of the Adria nonsense at least, which seems like the bigger concern, involved the wrath of the internet and the quick triggers of companies with concerns over their image. Both of those problems are hard to solve, to put it lightly :).

I think when it was first being discussed I was silently puzzled at the existence of the CoC, but I think I appreciate that its existence is an indication that our community is open to self-reflection and improvement, so if we learn one thing from all this it's to keep things in perspective and try to handle things like the Reasonable Adults we all are.

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Marius Gedminas 8:27 AM on 24 Mar 2013

Education is better, in an ideal world. There's evidence that it doesn't always work. Do you think it's reasonable to ask people to keep trying something that appears to be futile?

Remember, your own attempts at educating others may not have given you the same picture.

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Joe 12:56 PM on 24 Mar 2013

@Ned: From what I read on http://pycon.blogspot.com there were two incidents. I do realize that the former was supposedly about an "illicit substance" and not about "inappropriate comments" but if I'm not mistaken, the former is the one to which you linked and it did involve "termie" also making some inappropriate remark. Did he got banned just because of the "substance" or did the remark also play a role, was he reported on both? It's unclear.

Also although perhaps no one got banned only for inappropriate comments in 2013 doesn't mean it won't happen in the future. The policy allows for that.

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Ned Batchelder 2:26 PM on 24 Mar 2013

@Marius, you are right, education doesn't always work. That's not the same as "education never works." It should be the first thing attempted. Look at the event at hand: the men apologized, and all was well. I'm not sure what you are advocating. Should I have been banned from PyCon for offending my friend at Friday's lunch?

@Joe: you are right, in the Saturday night incident the main offense was substance, not speech. And the policy could allow PyCon to ban a member for speech. We have to keep an eye on how PyCon administers sanctions, and if we think they are being heavy-handed, give them feedback. So far everyone seems to agree that the policy has been wielded well.

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F 4:40 PM on 24 Mar 2013

I've got some serious problems with this post.

Some people hurt other people. Some of them know that they are hurting other people but don't care. Some of them don't know that they are hurting other people because they don't care enough about hurting other people that they bother to stop and think whether their actions are hurting someone. Some of them genuinely don't know that their actions are hurting someone.

In no case can this be described as "friction". Friction involves two people not getting along, not one person hurting another.

And describing this as "offending someone" is wrong, too. If person A offends person B, then the problem is that person B is offended, not that person A did something wrong, just like you didn't make a mean joke, you "made a joke that [your friend] found mean". If only person B wouldn't be so thin-skinned everything would be fine!

Now, what I do agree with is that educating people is the best solution.

In no case, however, is it the responsibility of the person who is being hurt to educate the person hurting them. Just like talking about offense, this shifts the blame to the victim: "If you (or the oppressed group you are a member of) had only made a better job educating the person who hurt you this would never have happened!" It also requires the person who has been hurt to engage in a discussion with the person who hurt them where they need to prove to that person's satisfaction that their emotions are valid.

Unsurprisingly, this almost never works.

Your friend obviously trusted you enough to engage in a discussion about your joke with you, knowing that you would not dismiss her emotions. Presumably, she believed that your were legitimately ignorant about the harm your joke might cause, and that you would care about causing said harm, however minor it might be.

Engaging people who have already decided that they do not care about hurting other people in such a discussion would be futile however, and potentially dangerous. Women get assaulted in bars for the crime of politely rejecting a man's advances. Reprimanding, for example, a stranger who has already demonstrated that he doesn't mind hurting women is clearly a much more risky proposition.

* * *

You believe that "most people who offend are good people who've made a mistake", but I don't agree with this. Yes, as I've said before, some people genuinely don't know that their actions are hurting someone. Someone who grew up in a healthy home, for example, might never really think about the fact that the people they are talking to might not have been so lucky, and might thus not realize that they could hurt someone by jokingly referring to some minor disappointment as a "childhood trauma".

Almost no one, however, can legitimately claim that they have never been exposed to the idea that, for example, women are people, or that sexual humor is inappropriate in professional contexts. As a case in point, the men who were involved in the forking and dongles incident presumably wouldn't make jokes about big dongles in front of their parents or at job a interview, so they must know that this isn't generally considered appropriate behavior. The fact that they made these jokes anyhow means that, at best, they believed that the laddish social norms they might consider par of the course for casual all-male communities necessarily applied to the conference.

Such an assumption, however, must be based on dismissing female participation in technology as nonexistent or unimportant, and such a dismissal cannot possibly be attributable to genuine ignorance about the existence of female programmers, and thus cannot be some innocent mistake.

The problem, therefore, isn't lack of education, it's conflicting education. Programmers are taught that the programming community needs to be inclusive of female programmers, but they are also taught that programming is a boy's club, that sexual and sexist humor is funny and courageous and manly, that women's concerns can be safely dismissed, and that inconveniencing men in any way, no matter how slightly, is much worse than hurting women. Since the second set of messages is far louder and more prevalent than the first message, programmers -- just like anyone else -- are likely to adopt a system of belief that incorporates many of the elements from that set.

That doesn't mean that such people are worthless human beings the programming community needs to get rid off, of course. The root of the problem are the toxic cultural norms these programmers are exposed to, after all, and it is impossible to be unaffected by -- or to completely rid oneself of -- the cultural norms one is exposed to. People who don't mind hurting others cannot possibly be described as "good people who make mistakes", either, even if that what their environment encourages them to do. Philosophical discussions about free will and predetermination aside, people can and should generally be held responsible for their actions.

So, while educating people is the best solution, it isn't enough to educate the people who have already hurt someone after the fact, even if this is done by convention staff rather than the person who has been hurt. No one will change their system of belief because some convention staffer gave them a brief lecture about appropriate behavior. And even if every single instance of hurtful behavior is reported, and if every single offender is warned and changes their behavior for the duration of the conference, that still means that several thousand men each get a free shot to hurt a woman, which is more than enough to make the conference feel unsafe for just about any woman who might be attending.

* * *

To affect real change, the idea that female programmers are welcome in the programming community, and that behaving in a manner that is exclusionary or hurtful to female programmers will not be tolerated, must therefore be spread in public, and it must be loud and prevalent enough to drown out the idea that the opposite is true.

Proclaiming loudly that certain behavior will not be tolerated by the community is completely pointless, however, unless that is actually true. Therefore, there must be real, tangible consequences for engaging in such behavior. Again, I'm not arguing that offenders should be run out of the community. An admission of wrongdoing, a sincere apology, a good-faith effort to undo any harm the behavior may have caused, and a firm promise that the offender has learned from the incident should return all but the most severe offenders to good standing in the community.

The community must be willing to shun any member who refuses to be educated and to make the necessary amends, though. Everything else clearly signals that the community doesn't in fact care about the offender's behavior.

Also, this means that incidents where a member of the community behaves in a manner contrary to the community standards must be acknowledged by the community and not swept under the rug. The issue must be made public, and must receive public criticism. If a community is not willing to acknowledged violations of its standards, it does not actually have any standards. Even if the offender is privately reprimanded, they will perceive this not as a reprimand from the community, but rather as a reprimand from some tight-assed busybody who does not in fact speak for the community as a whole. The problem, once more, becomes the person who complains about having been hurt, not the person who hurt them. People will cease to complain because they don't believe they will be taken seriously, and will be backed by the community. The community will start to believe that there isn't really a problem, and that all those admonitions about inclusiveness and codes of conduct are just pointless exaggeration and can be safely ignored, just like all those ridiculous warnings in the manuals of consumer electronics products that no one ever reads. Programmers are too smart to be sexist, after all!

Some people may call this "public shaming", and you might consider this shunning behavior rather than education behavior, but it strikes me as the least severe possible consequence of inappropriate behavior that harms a community as a whole.

* * *

We as a society like to place the blame on the victim rather than the perpetrator. People who complain about racism are creating racial tension, but racists aren't. Rape victims shouldn't have dressed that way, shouldn't have been drunk, shouldn't have invited someone they thought was a friend into their apartments, or shouldn't have gone outside. And, yes, people who complain about sexism in the programming community are dividing the community, and are keeping women away.

In this case, the problem was that Adria Richards wasn't polite enough. ("If you aren't quiet and polite enough that I can safely ignore your grievances, I can safely ignore your grievances because you've been rude to me!") The problem was that she used Twitter to ask the conversion staff for help rather than leave the talk she was attending to find a staff member, because she clearly didn't have the right to listen to that talk in peace, whereas the perpetrators had an absolute right not to be publicly called out for their public behavior.

(At least some of the PyCon staff appears to think so, too, since their Twitter response was to ask her to leave the talk and come to the staff room in order to, I dunno, repeat what she just tweeted? And they amended their code of conduct to specifically condemn "public shaming" (although this has since been undone).)

In a similar vein, your post completely ignores the fact that Adria Richards has been run out of the community, has been called every name under the sun, has received countless rape and death threads, has been fired from her job, and might not be able to find other employment since any prospective employer is likely to suffer DDoS attacks in retaliation, and focuses instead on the woes of hypothetical (but presumably male) community members who might hypothetically be shunned because of they hypothetically may make some innocent mistake.

The comments then begin to worry about the code of conduct encouraging people to report violations (because, clearly, hypothetical people being inconvenienced by being reported for behavior that doesn't really merit a report is worse than real people being afraid to report real problems because they think they will be ignored), and that people might start worrying whether they are hurting someone (which would clearly be worse that actually hurting someone).

I've been reading your blog for a while, and from what I've read so far I'm willing to believe that you are, in fact, a good person who made a mistake (I wouldn't have spent all day writing this damn message otherwise), and I'm extending this assumptions to the commenters I've mentioned above, so this is not your (or their) fault, but right now I'm ashamed and angry that the fact that I'm programming Python makes me, in some minor way, a part of the Python community.

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Steve Holden 7:20 PM on 24 Mar 2013

@F: I doubt that many members of the Python community are at all happy that Adria Richards' appointment was terminated as a result of the backlash of this episode. Although the first incident related to someone who had apparently been making inappropriate comments as well, those aren't the reason he was asked to leave.

You seem to feel that by extension nobody will ever be asked to leave because of what they say: this is certainly not the case. Sanctions have to be proportional to the offense. Illegal activities are clearly a threat to everyone at the conference, and to the conference itself.

The fact that Adria Richards has been "run out of the community" is relatively little to do with PyCon (the institution) and much more to do with the hostile responses of many people who were neither present at PyCon nor members of the Python community. It is depressing that so much unthinking sexism is still around in the 21st century, but berating PyCon for its genuine efforts to improve diversity of all kinds isn't going to help.

You suggest that PyCon is changing its code of conduct - this is true, but not for this year. It's like code: you run tests, see what happens, and then try to make the code more robust in the light of your testing experiences. So I don't think it's appropriate to imply that there must have been faults with it. The code of conduct worked pretty well (and it's difficult to know exactly how else the PyCon organizers should have responded when approached by tweet). Could you have handled it better?

Of much more concern to me is that the Python world can be seen as smug and self-satisfied because we like to feel we are working hard at these problems. The evidence suggests there is still a lot of exercise of unthinking privilege and inappropriate behavior towards the opposite sex in the Python world, and so we have to remain determined to highlight inappropriate behaviors. As far as I know the PyCon organizers continue their stand against exclusionary and harassing behaviors of all kinds.

I'm sorry you feel that your membership of the Python community is somehow tainted by this incident. If you think that Adria Richards' behavior was appropriate in all ways then we will have to agree to disagree. But PyCon had to respond to the complaint they received, and they did so effectively within the scope of the Code of Conduct. The "inconvenience" to Adria Richards isn't down to any actions taken by the conference, but due to the (over?)reactions of third parties. The same applies to person whose job was allegedly terminated after their ejection.

There may be a place for shunning, but I really don't see how that can be institutionalized. As such I don't see how you can make it an effective and organized response to harassing behavior, though it is entirely appropriate for individuals. What if PyCon requires that people shun someone, and some people refuse. Should they also be disciplined?

Apparently not everyone is entirely delighted by everything I do, and I can normally live with that. If I learn that I have helped to create an uncomfortable environment for someone else I'd like to fix that - even nine months after the event. Shunning me probably isn't going to help, as it will tend to make me more defensive of my opinions and actions.

In so far as someone's removal from a group removes their immediate ability to negatively affect that group then it might be helpful. But it doesn't seem that the vast outpourings of sexism and hate that this incident has triggered from both sides primarily come from Python community members, and they occurred over the Internet and not in person at the conference so its hard to know how to have much effect on them. We still have a long way to go, but it feels to me like we aren't getting enough credit for some very visible attempts to improve our conference atmosphere.

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Eric Larson 9:39 PM on 24 Mar 2013

While many found the public aspect of "donglegate" a problem, I believe it is an opportunity for the community to be educated. Some teachers manage to communicate by unorthodox methods, and a photo on twitter is what I'd describe as unorthodox. As a community member, there have been moments where I felt comfortable to say something or act in a "risque" fashion. As it is clear there are those that will not tolerate even small mistakes, I'm going to take care to edit my behavior accordingly. We should all make an effort to learn from the mistakes others have made and be wary of secretly shunning in the guise of education.

On a personal level, I'm glad that we have women in our community that are brave enough to face the wrath of the internet over a small comment. It is extreme and very arguably over the top, but I believe we all will think twice before making seemingly harmless comments. I'd also hope that we've learned our lesson regarding public exposure of small issues. There is an obvious lesson that it is better to be bold and communicate to the offender when you are offended. There is now awareness that we should accept critiques and apologize when we've made a mistake.

In other words, we broke some eggs, but hopefully we've created an excellent omelet!

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Ned Batchelder 11:00 PM on 24 Mar 2013

@F, thanks for the thoughtful comments. I'll respond to excerpts. I hope I've captured your sentiments.

In no case, however, is it the responsibility of the person who is being hurt to educate the person hurting them.

I didn't mean to imply that the hurt person had to do the educating. Others have also thought I meant that, so I was unclear, sorry.

Unsurprisingly, [education] almost never works.

I don't know how you've decided that education almost never works. A word from the PyCon staff seems to have worked with the jokers in this instance.

Engaging people who have already decided that they do not care about hurting other people in such a discussion would be futile however, and potentially dangerous.

Again, I don't know how you've decided when people don't care about hurting other people. It seems to me that you are jumping to conclusions. I'm optimistic about people. Perhaps you are not.

You believe that "most people who offend are good people who've made a mistake", but I don't agree with this.

What would be your approach then? That if person A hurts someone, that is proof that they are Bad People and we should discard them? It seems to me that the incidents I've described are clear data points on my side of the argument. You haven't presented any incidents, so I'm not sure what you are thinking of.

No one will change their system of belief because some convention staffer gave them a brief lecture about appropriate behavior.

Again, I think we have stories before us that you are ignoring.

An admission of wrongdoing, a sincere apology, a good-faith effort to undo any harm the behavior may have caused, and a firm promise that the offender has learned from the incident should return all but the most severe offenders to good standing in the community.

I don't understand how this meshes with your earlier statements, so there's something I'm not understanding.

The community must be willing to shun any member who refuses to be educated and to make the necessary amends, though.

I agree.

Also, this means that incidents where a member of the community behaves in a manner contrary to the community standards must be acknowledged by the community and not swept under the rug.

Are you claiming that somehow this incident was swept under the rug? PyCon has official blog posts about two incidents that happened during the conference.

Even if the offender is privately reprimanded, they will perceive this not as a reprimand from the community, but rather as a reprimand from some tight-assed busybody who does not in fact speak for the community as a whole.

Have you read the post by the offender? https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=5398681 It seems like PyCon's response did exactly what we want it to do.

In a similar vein, your post completely ignores the fact that Adria Richards has been run out of the community, has been called every name under the sun, has received countless rape and death threads, has been fired from her job, and might not be able to find other employment since any prospective employer is likely to suffer DDoS attacks in retaliation, and focuses instead on the woes of hypothetical (but presumably male) community members who might hypothetically be shunned because of they hypothetically may make some innocent mistake.

Sorry, but you have been inferring things I did not say. In fact, I'm not focusing only on the male woes. When I say I don't like shunning behavior, I am including the tweeted photo, but also the two firings, and all the invective. I don't think Adria chose the best path, but I don't think she should have suffered as she did. It's disgraceful that people can't talk about an event without hurling epithets.

I've been reading your blog for a while, and from what I've read so far I'm willing to believe that you are, in fact, a good person who made a mistake (I wouldn't have spent all day writing this damn message otherwise), and I'm extending this assumptions to the commenters I've mentioned above, so this is not your (or their) fault, but right now I'm ashamed and angry that the fact that I'm programming Python makes me, in some minor way, a part of the Python community.

I don't think you should blame the Python community for the debacle this has become. If this had stayed within the Python community, I believe it would have come out very differently. The fact that people on the wide internet blew it up into a firestorm doesn't mean you should be ashamed to be part of the Python community.

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Josh 11:31 PM on 24 Mar 2013

I find the education that needs to happen is more "meta" than what's been discussed here. When someone communicates that you're being offensive, you must honestly try to empathize with the person, and to understand their point of view. This is like Ned's example 1. Some people shut down defensively instead, because looking at oneself critically is uncomfortable.

I also think Adria Richards should not be criticized for tweeting out the photo. Politely lodged complaints on this kind of topic have a long history of being politely ignored. Yes, PyCon is different but you can hardly blame someone for reaching a breaking point. To me even discussing whether the tweet was appropriate is a big distractor from the real issue.

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Kevin Edwards 8:56 PM on 25 Mar 2013

Well said, Ned. More than choosing education over shunning, and in the vein of locally handling situations, you exemplify tolerance in your incident #3, which I believe is key to mixing fun and serious effectively.

Incident #1 has a chilling effect, leading you to feel on guard and hesitant to make a joke for fear of offending someone. This will result in less humor of all kinds.

In incident #2, it sounds like people were very tolerant, but the offense was repeated and excessive enough to warrant the consequences. With a line this far out there (an hour of bad heckling warranting censure and smoking marijuana in the conference room warranting expulsion), these consequences actually make it more enjoyable and welcoming to most people.

I suppose the CoC could describe the recommended escalation starting with "try to deal with it yourself, first, privately" but since PyCon handled it all fine, focusing on the CoC to fix this in the future seems like the red herring of wishful thinking.

Hypersensitivity is so often rewarded in our culture that I've wondered what counteracts that tendency. The Adria incident may or may not end up promoting tolerance, but it does provide a fascinating and complex counterpoint of mutually assured destruction from hypersensitivity and public appeals.

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Michelle 7:31 PM on 26 Mar 2013

Great post, Ned! I sincerely hope I didn't chill your jovial nature, as @Kevin Edwards fears. ;)

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Kevin Edwards 9:17 PM on 26 Mar 2013

:) I'd imagine that your sincere encouragement, even at the risk of being unintentionally offended again, surely helps, @Michelle. Well done.

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David Boudreau 3:48 AM on 28 Mar 2013

Very well said Ned- #3 is that huge test of smooth tact, timing, and political kung-fu of choosing your battles to bring it all full-circle in actual practice. Much easier to say than do, even in hindsight. I hope I at least make #3 easy for people to do even when they don't feel like it.

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Dan Dunn 4:43 PM on 30 Mar 2013

Sage as always Ned. I was planning about asking what you thought about this all at dinner - now I need a new topic.

My thoughts were less deep but compatible with yours. It seems to me that a lot of people over-reacted, on virtually every side. More measured responses would have effected positive change without all the collateral damage that we've seen.

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michael 12:04 PM on 1 May 2013

I wasn't there, but two thoughts occur. One is that when folks from all over the country get together, they come from quite different local cultures, and I am always reminded about how politically correct (or just correct?) we are in the Northeast versus the rest of the country.

The second is that if the comment was enough to offend, it should be enough to have you take the guy aside at an opportune moments and say something to the effect of "hey, that word has negative connotations that you may not realize, and here's why".

Overall though, I'm sad to see something like PyCon be so contentious.

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