Related to: The Ambiguity Abyss.
There’s this failure mode that I think can hamstring organizers or leaders in a group that’s dominated by one demographic. Say you’re in a movement that’s dominated by men (I’m certain none of my readers have familiarity with this experience), and you are concerned about the potential for women to be made feel uncomfortable. In fact, you want to pre-empt this and signal that you don’t think it’s acceptable for harassment to occur. It won’t be tolerated, and you’d like both the women and men who get involved in your organization (or meetup group or conference) to know that you care.
So, you enact a zero-tolerance policy.
“[Organizers] has zero tolerance for harassing or inappropriate behavior towards attendees. Behavior that makes our attendees uncomfortable will result in removal from the [conference, group, organization, meetup].”
And I think this is actually not the solution. It might be an anti-solution.
Let’s revisit Bob and Alice. (No actual relation to the Bob and Alice of the last story.)
You’ll notice they’re standing a bit closer than the last time.
This is actually the whole problem.
1. Alice is new to Example Meetup Group*. It’s her first visit. Bob isn’t an established member of the group, but he’s been to a few meetups.
2. Bob is making Alice uncomfortable. He keeps following her places and she’s not sure if it’s because he’s being intentionally overattentive or just doesn’t realize that she keeps turning her back on him because she doesn’t want to interact with him.
3. She’s tried some of the tricks like wandering off to the bathroom and making excuses to change position in seating arrangements. But, each time, it lasts for just a bit and then Bob’s back to joining any conversation she enters and standing right at her shoulder.
4. Alice finds it hard to pluck up the social confidence for meeting people or forming connections with Bob there. Each time she joins a group conversation she’s hyperaware that she’s being perceived as part of a pair: herself and Bob. Her one-on-one conversations are interrupted by Bob butting in to stand next to her. She worries that the other meetup attendees think they have some relationship, friendship or romantic, and that she will be judged not on her own merits, but on the fact that she’s choosing to associate with someone who keeps stepping into private conversations and ignoring social norms.
5. Alice wants the organizers to make it stop so she can make actual friends and not feel like she’s being babysat.
6. But Alice also thinks Bob is effectively harmless, if clingy and totally socially unaware. She doesn’t want him thrown out of the meetup, but she does want this to stop right now and leave her alone.
7. Nor does Alice want to be the girl who caused a fuss on her first day and got that other nice-if-awkward-guy tossed out. That seems a worse social penalty than being the girl who has a shadow.
8. So, Alice doesn’t tell the organizers. Instead, she spends the meetup tense and annoyed.
9. When Alice thinks back on the meetup, she remembers being ‘creeped’ on, and doesn’t know if it’ll happen the next time she attends. The next Tuesday evening, she considers the inconvenience of driving ten miles to go to a group where she still hasn’t made close friends and might have the same Bob problem, and decides that it might just be easier to watch Netflix. Or maybe it’s not even quite so obvious: Alice just doesn’t feel very excited when she sees the meetup notification the next month. She doesn’t have a sense of this being a group of people who could like and appreciate her, because she never got a chance to connect to anyone directly.
So…the group loses Alice.
Okay, so what if Alice had gone to the organizers and explained what was going on?
As I see it, they’d be trapped between two bad options.
Option One: They throw out Bob. They don’t like doing it, but they did say zero-tolerance, and Bob was repeatedly making Alice uncomfortable. They’re pretty sure Bob wasn’t doing so intentionally, but their hand was forced. This might make others in the group deeply upset — they’ve been socially awkward! they didn’t think Bob was trying to make Alice feel bad! They didn’t notice anything wrong! Maybe the organizers lose respect or clout, and when they try to tackle a case of someone intentionally harassing others, they’re seen as having a propensity for being hypersensitive., and it’s that much harder to act. Maybe some of the disgruntled members split off and create their own group, and the original group dies.
Option Two: They hear Alice out, and talk amongst themselves. The organizers don’t want to be seen as hating on the socially awkward, and they have seen Bob at previous meetups, and he seems to be okay. In fact, they’re pretty sure that if they talk to him, things could be resolved. So, that’s what they do. However, they’ve also demonstrated that they’re willing to ignore their own stated rules of zero-tolerance. Maybe this is fine this time, but now the organizers have shown that they’ll ignore their own rules. This doesn’t set a good precedent if the organizers want other people to trust them to act, no matter how high-status the accused person in a complaint is.
Writing a longer, more nuanced policy is tricky, and I’d rather not sugarcoat that. I think pretending it’s easy to ‘just have a conduct policy’ only solidifies the idea that there are bunch of complicated rules you can’t see, and well-meaning people still won’t ever get it right. Here’s one I’ve assisted in writing and the ever-suggested Geek Feminism Wiki template.
*They meet up and talk through bad textbook examples.
Notes: a common response to stories like this (person is being over attentive and not taking hints, you don’t want them there) is to say “Well, what if you were direct?” I’ve done this. Almost every time, the ‘Bob’ in question has been apologetic or upset but amenable to leaving, because as it turns out, most people are wonderful and don’t want others to feel bad. However. More than once someone I thought was harmless-but-failing-to-leave-me-alone has reacted explosively, once putting me in physical danger, once following me while yelling. The second time was in front of a large group of bystanders, none of whom helped me.
The lesson I got from this isn’t “all men can be dangerous” but it was that I can’t always expect being direct to result in a change I want. As a result, when I’m ‘Alice’ I find myself thinking not “I should be direct and hope this is a safe situation” but instead “hmmm, I wonder if he’ll take the next hint?” or “I bet if I went to the bathroom this time, he’ll be distracted when I get back.”