Have We Forgotten MINASWAN?

by Charles Max Wood on November 20, 2012

I told a lot of people that I was going to stay out of the diversity discussion. However I couldn’t sleep last night because something was bothering me.

One of the memes when I joined the Ruby Community was “MINASWAN.” It means “Matz is nice and so we are nice.” Honestly, I think Matz smiles even when he’s asleep or using the bathroom. Unfortunately, sometimes I wonder if we forget that our community was built on the idea that we are kind and accepting to everyone in our community.

Most of us think about MINASWAN with regards to new programmers or programmers new to the language. I’m afraid sometimes we forget that it applies to everyone in the community.

The ideals of MINASWAN are mutual respect, helpfulness, and acceptance. We do very well with this when dealing with most members of the community because we mostly agree and frankly it’s not that hard.

Where I think we fail at this is when we want to make a point, we’re right, and we let that take precedence over being nice.

Let’s take the current situation with the discussion over diversity. MINASWAN clearly encompasses diversity. It’s doesn’t differentiate based upon sex or race and neither should we. So, in a sense, the folks pushing for more diversity are in fact working for a subset of what MINASWAN means.

The problem is that their response was not always in keeping with MINASWAN. Pointing out the problem so someone can fix it is the lowest level of what MINASWAN means. And only if it’s done in a respectful and accepting way.

I don’t think the initial commentary on BritRuby’s lineup was intended to be disrespectful or mean. However, I’ve found that many things on the internet get interpreted in the harshest way regardless of intent. So, if we’re going to be nice on Twitter, we need to be careful.

What MINASWAN means in the larger sense is: Just as we help “noobs” come into the community, we should help everyone. An all white-male lineup at BritRuby was a consequence of the organizers not knowing how to encourage a diverse speaker base to come speak. If we were to help them like we help new people coming to the community, then the experts in diversifying a conference should have stepped up and offered to make introductions and to show them how to reach out.

Some of the consequences I’m afraid we’ll see are that this will damage our conferences by increasing the risk or perceived risk of putting on a conference. That attendance will be hurt by this same sort of thing happening to their conference resulting in their losing money and effort. Or that they may decide to preemptively call the whole things off.

I also worry that some of the brilliant minority speakers we have in this community will feel that they got to speak because of their sex or race rather than because they were the right PEOPLE for the conference and because they are amazing programmers and great speakers.

If there’s any way we can pull together and be constructive about these issues, we have a responsibility to do it. A total win for the community would be that BritRuby be reinstated and that the organizers get a little help in finding the diversity they lack. An epic win would be that other conferences and community members gain the resources and know-how to promote diversity in their efforts without being afraid that they’ll get punched in the nose for trying to give back.

No one should feel singled out by this. It’s a general feeling that I’ve observed over the last day or so that needed to be addressed.

  • http://twitter.com/mortice Tom Stuart

    I’m very hesitant about leaving this comment, Charles, because I know your intentions are good and I really don’t want to accuse you by implication of derailing the discussion. All the same, it’s worth pointing out that it’s a *very* common derailing tactic in discussions around sexism etc. to talk about the manner in which criticisms are raised. That is, to complain that those wronged by a discriminatory act are not expressing their objections in a rational or constructive manner, or are not giving due attention to the intentions or feelings of those responsible for the act. The very nature of discriminatory behaviour is that it is emotive and will have a greater emotional effect on its victims (and I apologize for the loaded terms, here) than on those accused of it. Hence, to remark that someone pointing out discriminatory behaviour isn’t being a paragon of emotional neutrality or constructive is simultaneously to distract from the important aspect of the conversation, while reinforcing the privilege of those who are unaffected by it and hence unemotional.

    Again, I know you’re not trying to derail the conversation. It’s just worth bearing this in mind. I heartily recommend http://finallyfeminism101.wordpress.com/resources/mirror-derailing-for-dummies/ as a guide to avoiding the kind of language or argument which could be interpreted in this way.

    • http://coderberry.me/ Eric Berry

      A couple of years ago there was a lightening talk about how Pinterest is for men as well. After the lightning talks, it was pointed out to the masses that that specific talk was not appropriate. I understand the concern that we don’t want to offend women or whomever, but the person who gave that talk had no intention of hurting anyone. The things that were said singled him out a ton and if it were me, I would have not wanted to return to a ruby conf ever again.
      What was additionally frustrating was that a talk was given right afterwards by a woman who used more profanity than a drunken sailor. There was no MINASWAN there. I appreciate the concept of MINASWAN and understand it’s importance in the community, but I strongly feel that there are limits. We are all adults and should act respectful, but not be monitored and judged based on our actions as if we are children.

      Just my 2 cents. I don’t mean to offend anyone involved in my comment. I have been holding this in for 2 years.

      • http://twitter.com/benhamill Ben Hamill

        There is a common misconception, here. While being the subject of discrimination is offensive, the actual root of the problem is that discrimination is opression. This post has, IMO, a good explanation of the differences and reasons: http://genderbitch.wordpress.com/2011/04/02/words-offense/

        With that in mind, a woman cussing has nothing to do with this topic. I am honestly baffled by how often I see this idea come up that women shouldn’t cuss or are offended by cussing and they this has something to do with feminism or misogyny. Unless the cussing is in a sentence that expresses a misogynistic viewpoint or is otherwise part of oppression (like delete the cussing and it would still be oppressive), then it’s barely relevant.

        • http://coderberry.me/ Eric Berry

          I apologize. I don’t think I explained my concerns properly. I would have felt the same way if it were a man or a woman who got up afterwards and was intentionally profane. Perhaps I was more aware of it because it was a woman, but it was still offensive and unprofessional. This is just my opinion and I appreciate everyone else’s as well.

          • David Brady

            I was the organizer who stood up and called out the talk as being inappropriate. Thank you for this view on it, Eric. It’s triply interesting to me because 1. The biggest regret I had about the whole thing was that the speaker left after his talk, so I didn’t have the option of engaging him directly and reinforcing to him that we still consider him “our tribe”. 2. Because of this, I wasn’t going to stand up and say anything, even after Josh asked me to. I was sitting next to Angela (the following speaker) and she sighed and said, “It’s fine… I’m used to it. I just… tune it out.” Seeing that resignation firsthand is what made me get up. And most interestingly, 3. I am confident that Angela deliberately chose coarse language in her talk literally to call back and balance my statement a bit. At one point she swore and said “Oops, sorry, I’m a girl, I’m not allowed to use that language,” and people laughed and I think that did a lot to de-escalate the tone a bit.

            Standing up there was one of the most uncomfortable moments of my life. Some people were grateful, some people were offended, and a lot of people were just plain surprised. I think all of those are okay reactions to getting hit with that kind of awareness.

            Of all the criticisms leveled at me later, yours was really the one that still sticks with me. I really do wish I had had the opportunity to address the speaker. It wasn’t about his character or his personal worth or even the intellectual content he brought to the table, but only about specific behavior, and there wasn’t a good way to isolate that without him there.

            Thanks again, man. Much appreciated.

          • http://coderberry.me/ Eric Berry

            David, I can’t tell you how much I appreciate your response here. It really explains a lot to me. I may have been overly sensitive to Angela’s talk due to what was said prior. I guess I must be insensitive to the topic but I didn’t find the Pinterest for Dudes lightning talk as offensive. I realize it was to a lot of people, but my thoughts of it not being offensive very likely led my frustration over the whole thing.

            Josh, regarding what you said about it being about what he said, not why he said it, is rather harsh. If I felt that his talk was at any way intended to be offensive, I would understand the criticism. However, it was my understanding that it wasn’t at all. Perhaps the talk was inappropriate, but I enjoyed it. I thought it was light hearted and with good intentions. The guy enjoys Pinterest and he got me excited about it as well.

            You made a great point though that it is far too easy to respond harshly when criticized. I have done that in the past and had to make sure all of my comments here have been as nice and friendly as possible because I don’t have any hard feelings to anyone. I just want to make sure we have some compassion for people who say something that might be taken the wrong way, when they didn’t mean it to be taken that way. Anyone who knows me knows that I do that all the time. However, as you said as well, I always want to know if and when I offend someone so I can apologize and correct my actions for the future.

            I have great respect for you both and appreciate your commitment to the community. David, you know I hold you in the highest regards. We still need to pair sometime bro!

          • joshsusser

            Eric, I don’t understand why reacting to someone’s actions is harsher than reacting to what you imagine their motivations are. I try to give people the benefit of the doubt and assume their intentions are good until shown otherwise. Responding to bad behavior as an unintentional mistake seems less harsh than assuming malice. Or do you think that good intentions mean you don’t have to be accountable for your actions, or don’t want feedback that your actions are not in alignment with your intentions? (That is not a rhetorical question.)

          • http://coderberry.me/ Eric Berry

            It’s my opinion that the reprimand for the talk was not called for. Had he intended offense, it would have been called for.

          • joshsusser

            I guess we have a fundamental difference of opinion on that. I learned growing up that now and then we have make mistakes or have accidents, and we have to be responsible for what we did. If you rear-end someone’s car, you pay for the damage, even if you didn’t mean to do it. If you accidentally knock someone over on the sidewalk, you apologize and offer them a hand getting up. And that’s assuming no ill intent. If I thought someone was doing a talk like that intentionally to hurt people, my reaction would be much greater.

          • http://coderberry.me/ Eric Berry

            Ugh.. seriously? I don’t even know how to reply to this because of the ridiculous parallel to taking responsibility to accidents.

            If I get up and say something that might offend some people that I wasn’t aware I offended, I don’t believe the correct response is for someone else to get up and publicly chastise that person. This has nothing to do with the responsibility of the individual who has made offense. I’m not sure what the guy did after hearing about this incident but I am certain he had no idea he offended anyone.

          • joshsusser

            I’m not trying to dig a rathole here, but I do want to respond to that.

            “unfortunately those that are most offended are the most insistent on being correct.” Maybe that is because the people who are being hurt are the ones who care most about stopping the hurt. You may be able to easily ignore the effects of a talk that denigrates women or minorities, but others cannot, and so we have to take a stand over these issues. It’s not that our difference is neither good nor bad – it’s that you think it’s fine to dismiss the issue, but for others dealing with it is unavoidable. Fixing it is crucial to their ability to participate in the community.

          • http://coderberry.me/ Eric Berry

            I agree. I apologize for that remark. I was irritated and let it show in my response.

          • joshsusser

            Apology accepted. Peace!

          • Peter Jaros

            > The biggest regret I had about the whole thing was that the speaker left after his talk, so I didn’t have the option of engaging him directly and reinforcing to him that we still consider him “our tribe”.

            That’s huge.  Even if you missed the opportunity, it means a lot to me to hear you think of it and express regret.

            In another community I’m part of, someone once said some very painful things at a very inappropriate time.  The things she said were said out of love and a desire to share with the community, but they were hurtful to many people.  As a community, we were able to separate the mistake from the person; to express that what she did was not okay, and still embrace her as one of us.

            That act is one of the hardest and most powerful acts of community I’ve ever witnessed, and in the future I hope we do manage it in this one.  And if we fail, I hope we can forgive ourselves and try again.

      • joshsusser

        Hey Eric. The Pinterest for Dudes lightning talk was at MWRC in March 2012, which was 8 months ago, not 2 years ago. I don’t mean to quibble about that because it’s not really the point, but I think it’s worth correcting if people are trying to understand timelines and context. And I was the person who first spoke up and asked the conference organizers to apologize for and disclaim the talk. I was going to discuss it with the speaker and ask him to apologize, but he literally left the conference immediately after his lightning talk and I didn’t have the chance.

        The way I see it, the intentions of the speaker are not really the issue; the effect of his actions are. If his intentions were not to denigrate or alienate women, then he should be receptive to feedback that people saw his talk as doing just that, and should incorporate that feedback when he speaks again, maybe even apologize. If he didn’t care about those effects of his talk and just wanted to crack some jokes without regard to who he hurt, then he probably shouldn’t be speaking at a professional conference. Either way, it’s about what he said, not why he said it.

        But to Chuck’s point and MINASWAN, I agree that feedback should be delivered as respectfully as possible. I’ve learned that part of that is respect for people having different points of view, and that you can’t force them to suddenly see things your way. But you can keep talking to them and show them that other people can have different perspectives from their own, and hope they eventually come around. Being respectful is a key part of keeping people engaged in the conversation.

        However, I always keep in mind that the point of a public debate is not to convince your opponent of the validity of your position, it is to convince the audience. And, if enough people see your position is right, that can eventually show your opponent that maybe they should reconsider their position. People rarely change their own beliefs unless confronted by strong evidence to the contrary, and even then it’s a bit of a miracle.

        Last bit about this incident and MINASWAN… As someone who spoke up criticizing the Pinterest For Dudes talk, I got a HUGE amount of negative crap thrown my way, just as I did when I spoke up about BritRuby’s lack of diversity. I got told I don’t get to have an opinion on diversity because I’m a white dude (my minority status as a gay man is usually overlooked, FWIW), that people will care about the issue only if women complain, that I’m ruining people’s fun, that I should shut up and get over it, that I’m an elitist snob, that I am the one being sexist/racist for caring about anything beyond some abstract measure of merit, and a lot worse that doesn’t bear repeating. This parallels what happened around BritRuby – some originally mild criticism resulted in defensive accusations of slander and witch hunts (which never happened). My point: it’s very easy to see criticism as a personal attack and respond with a counter-attack, which is not nice at all. Avoiding that escalating spiral is really hard, and finger-pointing doesn’t help. Counting to 10 does help, as does responding to what was actually said, not what you think was behind what was said. MINASWAN definitely helps – if you assume someone’s intentions are good, it’s much easier to talk and sort things out.

        I’m glad you brought this up. Thanks for engaging in the conversation.

  • David Brady

    Tom–Thank you for this comment. I’m not trying to derail that conversation at all. There is a separate conversation here, about kindness and lost teaching moments, and right now I feel like it’s easy to make them mutually exclusive / very hard NOT to make them so. Thank you again. –David

  • strabd

    David,

    I agree MINASWAN is a fundamental part of who the Ruby community is. The community surrounding Ruby has been incredibly generous and welcoming, and I would have given up on learning webdev if it weren’t for the people in this community encouraging me.

    However, I respectfully disagree with some of your points. I saw several offers from organizers of other conferences to help BritRuby do better, before the conference was canceled. Notably @ashedryden:twitter [said](https://twitter.com/ashedryden/status/269903104030420993), “ I’m sure we could hook you up with people who’d be interested in helping be a part of organizing and would help drive diversity.” Also, no one wants tokenism, and several blog posts have pointed out the simple solution to avoid it, a blind call for papers. This along with inviting a more diverse set of speakers initially can create a more diverse lineup of speakers at a conference.

  • pate

    Nicely writ.  MINASWAN is an important part of our Ruby culture, and one that I think we need to work at to keep.

  • http://twitter.com/dmoulton David Moulton

    Something I have not seen or heard discussed was the lightning talk at this past RubyConf by the employee from MrSkin. To be honest, I don’t remember much about the talk, other than I found a couple of the slides, especially the final slide, to be offensive. I’d be interested to hear other opinions of that.

    • David Brady

       Hi David. Look one thread up. :-) –David

Previous post:

Next post: