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August 2016
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Why we don’t speak up

Oh, Internet. There is never a shortage of anonymous cowards willing to say horrible things in secret. And this is not good for discourse, because only some of us get to receive emails like this on a regular basis:

I think the most accurate conclusion that can be drawn from all this complaining of late is that women actually are inferior.

I know that, because you have a vagina, you probably have lots of dudes tripping over themselves to tell you how great you are! But, to the rest of us who do not play that game, you just look dumb.

I received this email and I took a few deep breaths. I recognized that I was feeling shame. Time to unpack that feeling! Among many other reasons, I am feeling shame because we aren’t supposed to say the word “vagina.” That is one of the words I (and you, and all of us) have been conditioned to feel shame around, because we view women’s bodies as shameful. This leads to the kind of thinking that classified “pregnancy” under the heading of “disease” in the Dewey Decimal system. [1] More personally in my own life, it leads to a society where some of us can’t really get medical care because we have medical issues concerning parts of our bodies that everyone is trained not to acknowledge. So when this anonymous coward sent me this nice little message, one of the things he’s trying to do here is re-assert the patriarchy. It’s a dog whistle to the conditioning he knows I’ve received. I feel sorry for the women in his life, I’m sure he finds lots of little ways of letting them know how valueless he believes them to be.

Many people get harassed on the internet, but for some of us it carries extra baggage or vulnerability. It is one of the very real reasons why many women (and queers, and ethnic minorities, and any kind of “othered” group, especially one whose members have been conditioned by violence) sometimes fear to speak up when they witness unacceptable behavior. I have reached a point in my life when I am done accepting it quietly. The consequences of ignoring this kind of behavior are too high. The Workplace Bullying Institute has a great summary of some of the effects of bullying. I am convinced, and they show some compelling evidence, that bullying is a form of violence. This is what happens to an employee who experiences regular workplace bullying:

  • You feel like throwing up the night before the start of your work week
  • Your frustrated family demands that you to stop obsessing about work at home
  • Your doctor asks what could be causing your skyrocketing blood pressure and recent health problems, and tells you to change jobs
  • You feel too ashamed of being controlled by another person at work to tell your spouse or partner
  • All your paid time off is used for “mental health breaks” from the misery
  • Days off are spent exhausted and lifeless, your desire to do anything is gone
  • Your favorite activities and fun with family are no longer appealing or enjoyable
  • You begin to believe that you provoked the workplace cruelty

I want more diversity in the open culture movement, and I do not want the people we recruit to feel like that. Those of us who are here already, please join me in making your harassment public, when it is safe for you to do so, so that we can have a more useful community-wide dialogue on the issue.

[1] See The Power to Name by Hope Olson for many other examples of how library classification systems have repeated societal biases


Comment from Roy Tennant
Time: February 27, 2013, 12:38 am

OMG. What a troll! I agree that anonymity is the death of civil discourse. However, I’m still utterly amazed at what people will say once they feel anonymous. I mean, srsly?

Comment from Maria
Time: February 27, 2013, 2:19 am

Big applause! Thank you for speaking up. cheers, maria

Comment from Jon Gorman
Time: February 27, 2013, 8:55 am

Ugh, what odious, churlish comments to have to read. Wish I knew what to say. About all I can say is that you’re awesome and it deeply bothers me that you have to waste any mental and emotional energy on such trolls. :(.

Comment from Tara Robertson
Time: February 28, 2013, 11:47 am

Wow. That email is really unacceptable. I’m sorry you received such a hateful email.


I don’t have anything profound to say. Let me know if there’s anything I can do to support you, now or in the future. Like someone said on Twitter I’ve got your back.

Comment from David
Time: February 28, 2013, 9:16 pm

Wow, thanks for speaking up. I was listening to an interview with Rebecca Watson on the drive home last night [1] that was similarly eye opening.

How anonymous was the email? Any chance of extracting an IP address to track down the sender? It would be nice to name and shame, and let him suffer the social consequences without his anonymity.


Comment from Sonia Lyris
Time: March 2, 2013, 4:40 pm

Kudos to for being so open about your reactions to this email. Your transparency about shame changes the conversation, and helps us all — not just women — see what the conversation is really about. Thank you for speaking up.

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