I don't know and I don't care: ignorance, apathy, and reactions to exposure of bad behavior.

I've already shared some thoughts (here and here) on the Adria Richards/PyCon jokers case, and have gotten the sense that a lot of people want to have a detailed conversation about naming-and-shaming (or calling attention to a problematic behavior in the hopes that it will be addressed -- the lack of a rhyme obviously makes this more careful description of what I have in mind less catchy) as a tactic.

In this post, I want to consider how ignorance or apathy might influence how we (as individuals or communities) evaluate an instance of someone calling public attention to a microaggression like a particular instance of sexual joking in a professional environment.

It has become quite clear in discussions of Adria Richards and the PyCon jokers that, for any particular joke X, there are people who will disagree about whether it is a sexual joke. (Note that in the actual circumstances, there was agreement between Adria Richards, the PyCon jokers, and the PyCon staff that the jokes in question were inappropriate -- and also significant, if not total, agreement from "mr-hank," who claims to be the PyCon joker who was fired, that some of the jokes in question were sexual.) Let's posit, for the purposes of this discussion, a case where there is no disagreement that the joking in question is sexual.

So, you're with others in a work environment (like audience seating for a presentation at a professional conference). You are in earshot of a sexual joke -- maybe as part of the intended audience of the joke teller, maybe not, but certainly close enough that the joke teller has a reasonable expectation that you may hear the joke correctly (which you do). Do you call the attention of the community to the sexual joking and the people engaging in it?

One reason to point out the microaggression is to address ignorance.

The people engaged in the sexual joking may not realize that they are doing something inappropriate in a professional environment. This lack of knowledge may require a serious commitment -- for example, not to read conference codes of conduct, not to absorb any workplace anti-harassment training -- but I suppose it's not impossible. So, pointing out to individual jokers, "Dude, that's inappropriate!" might reduce the ignorance of those individuals. It might also reduce the ignorance of the silent bystanders also in earshot of the sexual joking.

Drawing attention of the larger community to the particular instance of sexual joking may help dispel the ignorance of that larger community (and of its individual members, including those not in earshot of the joking), establishing the existence of such microaggressions within the community. If members of the community make a habit of pointing out each such microaggression they observe, it can also help the community and its members get good information about the frequency of behavior like sexual joking within the professional environment of the community.

Pointing out the microaggression, in other words, can help the community to know that microaggressions are happening, how frequently they're happening, and who is committing them. The hope is that having good knowledge here is more likely to lead to an effective response to the problem than ignorance would be.

There are other dimensions of ignorance you might want to address -- for example, whether people within the community experience discomfort or harm because of such microaggressions, or what empirical studies show about whether sexual joking in the workplace is harmful regardless of whether members of the community report that they enjoy such joking. Still, the thought here is that identifying facts is the key to fixing the problem.

However, you might not think that ignorance is the problem.

It might be the case that the people telling the sexual jokes are fully aware that sexual joking is inappropriate in a professional environment -- that what they're doing is wrong.

It might be the case that the larger community is fully aware of the existence of microaggressions like sexual joking in their professional environments -- and even fully aware of the frequency of these microaggressions.

In these circumstances, where ignorance is not the problem, is there any good reason to point out the microaggression?

Here, the relevant problem would seem to be apathy.

If the community and its members have good information about the existence of microaggressions like sexual joking in their professional environments, good information about the frequency of such microaggressions, even good information about which of its members are committing these microaggressions and still cannot manage to address the problem of eliminating or at least reducing the microaggressions, you might be pessimistic about the value of pointing out another instance when it happens. Reluctance to use good information as the basis for action suggests that the community doesn't actually care about the well-being of the members of the community who are most hurt by the microaggressions, or doesn't care enough about the harm caused by the microaggressions to put the effort in to doing something about them.

(Those silent bystanders also in earshot of the microaggressions? If they aren't ignorant about what's happening, its inappropriateness, and the harms it can do, they are letting it happen without making any effort to intervene. That's apathy in action.)

But perhaps it is possible, at least some of the time, to shake a community out of its apathy.

Sometimes bringing a microaggression to the community's attention is a way to remind the community that it is not living up to its professed values, or that it is allowing some of its members to be harmed because it won't ask other members to take a bit more effort not to harm them.

Sometimes reporting the microaggressions forces members of a community to reconcile what they say they are committed to with how they actually behave.

Sometimes exposing microaggressions to the view of those outside the community brings external pressure upon the community to reconcile its walk with its talk.

It's looking to me like calling attention to a microaggression -- sometimes attention of individuals committing it, sometimes attention of the community as a whole, sometimes the attention of those outside the community who might put pressure on the community and its members -- has promise as a tactic to dispel ignorance, or apathy, or both.

In the case that microaggressions are recognized as actually harmful, what's the positive argument against exposing them?

15 responses so far

  • Kris says:

    What defines a microaggression? Are there nano or even pico-aggressions? Is saying the word "Fuck" when one is upset at an inanimate object a microaggression? I work in a lab and sometimes when an experiment does not work I say "Fuck" audibly. I do not do this frequently. Only when It feels like a reflex maybe once a month if that. Others in the lab also say things like this both men and women. I work in a happy work environment I am not in fear of loosing my job for saying things like "Fuck" and I don't think anyone should. Fuck is of course a sexual word. But it does not specify a gender it could refer to any combination of creatures or sexes in the act of copulation. Do you think there should be words people just can't say?

    • Janet D. Stemwedel says:

      Given that "microaggression" has a sociological definition, I take it that what counts as a microaggression in a particular environment is an empirical question.

      In the absence of a carefully designed and conducted empirical study on an environment like one's own in the relevant respects, listening to what those around you tell you about how particular language affects them (or, indeed, asking others about their experience) is better than extrapolating from the single datum of one's own experience.

      The words themselves are not the issue. Their impact on others is.

    • P.D. says:

      Since the post presumes a case where there is genuinely sexual content, there is something disingenuous about your example.

      You say, "Fuck is of course a sexual word" but it is not clear to me that it is. It has that etymology, of course, but it functions in the case you describe as just an exclamation. Saying "Fuck!" when the experiment does not go well has no more connection to sex than saying "Crap!" in the same context has a connection to bowel movements.

      • So you say. I have seen people that think the word perpetuates rape culture, and who definitely don't want it in their workplace, even as a simple one-word expletive.

        If you go by Janet's criteria, that it should be based on the perception of the people surrounding you, then it doesn't matter whether you or I think it is not inherently sexual; if we work with a woman who finds it always sexual and always offensive, we should take her perception into account, whether we consider it accurate or not.

  • Isabel says:

    I would not use the term microaggression in this case, because as you point out it takes effort at this stage to "not know" what kind of behavior is inappropriate. As I mentioned in the other thread, guys like this are signalling actual aggression. They are saying, in effect, "I don't give a shit if it bothers people."

    It also brings out trolls like Kris, who pretend to be worried about saying "fuck" once a month when he drops something on his foot.

    With all the rights we are losing, why is the right to make loud dongle jokes at a work function while surrounded by strangers, i.e. to act like a boor without repercussions from the boss, so fucking important to people?

    • Janet D. Stemwedel says:


      Since I know Kris in real life, I'm pretty sure he's not trolling.

      • Isabel says:

        Okay, well sorry, but- really? It's like complaining that people can no longer compliment each other, or a man can't even hold a door open for a woman. Maybe P.D. said it better; it's disingenuous.

        How is it that so many (most??) people do not understand that this is inappropriate? When it has been part of training and codes of conduct for years? Or has it??

        Then, if as you yourself said in the OP, people must be making an effort not to be educated, why show them any sympathy as so many are doing now? I honestly don't get it.

        • Kris says:

          Thanks for your feedback @Janet. I asked a series of questions to reflect on my own behavior and try to modify it in light of what happened at PyCon.

          The vitriol projected by men at Astrid for her tweet makes me sick and really sheds light on the dark corners of the internet where the trolls lurk, sulk, and high five each other talking about how much they hate group X.

          What Astrid tweeted was "awareness raising." a chance for people to reflect on their own actions, and comments.

          Above is the first comment I have ever made on this blog. I got here through a link Janet posted on Twitter. The first response from anyone other than Janet called me "disingenuous" the second called me a troll. Talk about feeling unwelcome.
          Like most comment sections I have tried to engage the conversation immediately turned away from discussion of ideas and into ad hominem attacks. I think I am done with this form of idea exchange. I much prefer the Google hangout context. I think conversations are much more genuine when a person has to put their own face behind their words.

          • Kris says:

            I just realized I got Adria Richards name wrong above. Apologies.

          • Janet D. Stemwedel says:

            @ Kris,

            I apologize that the dynamic of the commenting here has not been comfortable for you. I suspect that at least part of the issue is that some of us are not coming to this issue "fresh" -- the detailed examination of every wrong thing Adria Richards purportedly did (and denial that women's bad experience with asking politely) is following on the heels of the detailed examination of every wrong thing the Steubenville rape victim purportedly did, and this stuff is ongoing (though in less obvious ways when there's not a big news story at the focus). It's exhausting. It's doubly exhausting when people we had trusted do it (and they do, with heartbreaking regularity). So when someone comes in looking for the logical extension of an analysis to a situation that looks pretty far removed from it, some of the people with battle fatigue are going to wonder if the real aim is to find a way to say, "But see, based on what you said about my case, there is absolutely no reason that woman should have had a problem with that other case." Lather, rinse, repeat.

            It's the repeat part that's killing us here.

  • Jim Thomerson says:

    A late friend and colleague often commented that he enjoyed saying outrageous things. He said, with no intention to do harm, an inappropriate comment to a female colleague (no recollection of what it was). I took him aside and told him she was involved in filing a sexual harassment suit at her former institution. He did not know this, and was chagrined that his inappropriate comment might have distressed her. I also explained to him that outrageous and inappropriate were not synonyms. He did much better after that.

  • Kris says:

    "But see, based on what you said about my case, there is absolutely no reason that woman should have had a problem with that other case."

    I did not say this nor was I trying to use my comment as bait to get anyone to say this. I am sorry that it came across that way.

    I think Adria indeed had good reason to be offended. As anyone has the right to be offended or, on the other hand, take pleasure from what other people say or do. I can get offended at comments but that does not mean the offending person should be fired or that I should be fired if I bring up the offending comment to my boss. We as a network of thinking people should be able to handle conversations like these without them spiraling out of control.

    I am going to take issue with the series of comparisons made in this thread. I originally wanted to know the difference between saying a sexual word - "Fuck" and making a sexual joke about "Dongles and Forking Repos" (both of which I had to look up to even understand the tech-laden entendres). Janet you then brought in discussion of an actual rape. I would argue that bringing the horrific Steubenville rape into the context of Donglegate grossly exaggerates the significance of Donglegate and is an offensive comparison.

    • Janet D. Stemwedel says:

      @ Kris,

      None of these incidents happens in isolation. They are all part of a broader context -- and for women, part of that context is knowing that whatever bad thing happens to you, on any scale, you can count on either being told that it wasn't bad, or that what you did is what brought it upon you.

      Being able to see the threats against Adria Richards as completely separate from the treatment of the Steubenville rape victim is a function of having very different experiences with which to update your Bayesian priors than I do.

  • Isabel says:


    I am sorry I attacked you, and for the tone of my responses here.

    This is just very frustrating for me, because as I mentioned in the previous thread (see links above) some years ago I dealt with this every day in a very male-dominated industry, and gave the example of having to regularly visit work areas where guys were listening to Howard Stern. I would put this in the same category as the dongle joking. It not about which specific jokes anybody personally finds offensive. It was not at all hypocritical for Adria to have also made jokes about penises, as some have insisted, any more than it was for me to have occasionally listened to the Howard Stern show. And swearing, around adults, because something didn't work is simply totally unrelated to what we are discussing. Just bringing it up seems to trivialize the situation.

    Since I left that industry (late 1990's) we have come a long way in understanding why these situations create a hostile environment. Are you saying that you have never had any workplace training in this respect? I had assumed most people had by this point in time.

  • Kris says:

    Thanks for the kind reply.
    I've worked with guys who listen to chauvinist radio and as a person who grew up with mostly sisters I find that kind of radio gratingly offensive and something people should listen to in their car or at home NOT at work. I've also worked with people who liked listening to Rush Limbaugh at work. I was so annoyed I asked them to turn it off or change the station which they did and we moved on.

    I did not mean to trivialize the conversation. I apologize for not talking about the Ardia Richards case exclusively. In my opinion I think the initial actions , both the dongle jokes and tweeting them to the PyCon audience were both trivial acts. However, the triviality ceased when real internet trolls came out in force and made rape threats and a myriad other vitriolic slurs directed at Adria. That kind of nasty herd behavior is something we've seen over and over on the internet that is just gross and I do not know how to reign it in. I agree it is frustrating and hard to overcome. I was trying to say that perhaps partaking in internet conversation with more of our real life avatars (faces, voices, and so on) will help curtail the nastiness internet anonymity sometimes breeds.

    As far as my workplace training. I have had the standard training at both schools I have worked at professionally. I don't recall either prohibiting the use of profanity. I was asking not from a sense of legality but of ethics. On the internet there is a liberal sense of language but I was wondering how people felt about it in the work place. perhaps you are right that this was the wrong place to ask this question. But I admire Janet and her blog and I had that thought after reading this post so I commented. Long story but that is how I came to make the initial comment.