Listen or GTFO

It’s Memorial Day as I sit here with my laptop, polishing the last few paragraphs of a post about building presentations on short notice. It’s a fun little bit of technophillia, but here in the final stretch, I’m struck by a simple thought: It doesn’t matter.

I’m a middle-class heterosexual white American guy in the world of open source web development. If someone at a conference, industry event, or networking event is holding the microphone, odds are they look an awful lot like me. My ideas, my perspectives, and my experiences are echoed over and over. When I do speak up, I can take it as a given that I’ll be listened to — even if I’m just speculating about something I have no expertise in.

It’s a good life.

A couple of years ago, I was attending a large open source conference. I’d just finished delivering a presentation and I was on my way to participate in a panel discussion, but I had some time to kill. Confronted with the usual buffet of sessions, I picked the one that was closest: a small roundtable discussion on “Diversity” hosted by an anime-haired lady wearing a Drupal T-shirt.

I think of myself as a feminist, happy to speak out on whatever gender issue is hot on Twitter at the moment. I had some thoughts I was ready to share, and I was looking forward to showing support for a group of people I already believed in. Once I sat down, though, I saw lots of unfamiliar faces — women, minorities, and handicapped members of our community. People I’d never seen keynoting a camp, or featured on a conference schedule, or promoted in the usual circle of bloggers and tweeters and guest-posters I rubbed shoulders with.

Some of the frustrations they discussed were familiar to me: sexual harassment and misogyny was a big problem online, tech circles were unwelcoming to people of color, and the usual statistics about the white-boys-club. But some of the comments were unexpected and frustrating — they made it sound like I was part of the problem.

Sure, some white men. But not all, obviously. As I prepared to jump into the conversation — to help clarify that not all of us were determined to hog the spotlight, that we were excited to help — I did something uncharacteristic.

I shut the fuck up.

I shut the fuck up, and I tried to listen.

Our industry, our culture, has a serious listening problem. Only recently has mainstream coding culture started internalizing the idea that listening to users rather than fellow programmers is important. Instead, too many of us prefer to start from first principles and reason out what some other person really needs. When the moment of truth arrives and our ironclad arguments collide with reality, it’s easy enough to blame the stupid people who just don’t understand what we build.

Despite the best attempts of empathetic, insightful advocates, we still see regular culture clashes and grim power struggles when different disciplines are asked to find common ground.

In one code-centric open source community I participated in, a common lament was the lack of designers willing to contribute their time and experience. Of course, when designers and UX specialists did chime in, they were usually brushed aside. Who were they to criticize what we’d built with the best intentions? Why did they think we weren’t smart enough to build great experiences? If they thought they could do better, why didn’t they learn to program and fix it themselves? Why were they trying to take over?

Defending ourselves is always easier than listening to difficult truths.

Early this weekend, a twenty-two year old man murdered three men and three women. According to the trail of online manifestos, message board posts, and chilling videos he left in his wake, his motivations were simple. He was unlucky in love, he resented the alpha males who hoarded more women than they deserved, and he really hated the women who didn’t give him the sexual attention he felt he deserved.

By his own account, he murdered innocent strangers to punish womankind for withholding his sexual birthright.

It’s a horrifying story, one that’s quickly sparked debates about gun control, mental health care infrastructure, and the deep roots of misogyny grown into our culture’s foundations. Even more horrifying is the response from the women I know: A complete and utter lack of surprise. This, many of them have said, is just the most recent and most visible example of the expectations and violent resentment they’ve always endured.

In the days that followed the shooting, a Twitter hashtag — #YesAllWomen — became an organic flashpoint for their stories. It’s hard reading — the kind of stuff that makes you want to click away to kitten pictures. The kind of stuff that you want to argue away just to avoid processing the sadness of it. The kind of stuff that guys like me — guys who think we understand the world and are used to having the microphone — quickly respond to with a prickly correction: “Not ALL men are like that!”

God forbid those women forget to defend us. It’s a lot easier to complain about unfair generalizations than to look, long and hard, at the stories they share.

Our world is full of enormous structural problems whose solutions seem impossible to imagine, let alone implement. Of course, it’s people like me — articulate, successful white dudes — who often have the luxury of treating these challenges like abstract thought exercises. They’re interesting problems to ponder when we’re not optimizing database performance or building new front-end frameworks.

I joke sometimes that I became a feminist because I enjoy arguing with people who are wrong, and misogynists and bigots are easy targets. It’s usually good for a laugh, but it’s hard to pretend that I have much on the line. When the argument is over, after all, things default back to a world that looks like me — a world that treats me as one of its own to be heard and acknowledged.

Perhaps, just maybe, it’s time for us to quiet down and listen to the people who have to live it.

We may not know all the answers, but we can stop pretending it’s someone else’s problem. We can listen.

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