When is naming abuse itself abusive?

Thanks to everyone who read my previous post about why I’m not attending Systems We Love, and especially to all those who shared their own experiences that led them to the same decision. I’m going to follow Charles’ Rules of Argument and reply one time, and then I’m going back to doing things I enjoy.

People asked me a lot of specific questions about this post: Why did you name Bryan Cantrill when many people in the systems community are abusive? Why didn’t you talk to Bryan privately first? Aren’t you insulting Bryan when you criticize him for being insulting? In my opinion, all of these questions all boil down to the same basic question: Even if it everything you said in your post was true, was your post also a form of abuse?

My answer is simple: No. The rest of this post is a general discussion about when you should name specific people and describe their abusive behavior in public, with this specific case as the example.

Maybe in some cases a post saying “some people are behaving badly in our community, please stop” works. It captures an important point, which is that bad behavior doesn’t happen in isolation – it takes a community of people to enable it. I’ve never personally seen the “some people” kind of post work, and I have several times seen it backfire: the very people who were being called out sometimes latch on to the post and say, “Yeah! This sucks! All you other people doing this need to stop!” Then they use this call to action as a weapon against people they disagree with for other reasons.

In this specific case, Bryan has done exactly this in the past, once vowing to fire any employee rejecting a patch on the principle that pronouns should be gendered. I agree with the argument that this vow was more about establishing Bryan’s dominance over others than demonstrating his devotion to supporting women in the workplace. In this case, the potential downside of vagueposting was much greater than any potential upside.

In some cases, talking to someone privately about their abusive behavior will work. It depends on what their values are, how close your relationship is, and how willing they are to engage in self-reflection. In this specific case, I did approach Bryan privately about his behavior as a co-worker about a month ago, and he completely dismissed my experience. Based on that and my prior years of experience as his co-worker, I did not think that approaching him privately would have any positive effect.

Sometimes talking privately to someone’s peers or colleagues or management will work. In this specific case, Bryan’s behavior is so public and striking that his colleagues and management at Joyent are already fully aware of his behavior; anything I had to say would have no effect. Since this is a conference, I considered talking to the program committee. Unfortunately, I don’t know anyone on the Systems We Love program committee well enough to expect them to work with me against the wishes of the person who created the conference, is a VP at the company hosting the event, and has significant influence over their future career. I warned one committee member and they told me I was the second person to warn them about working with Bryan. Their plan was to just avoid working closely with Bryan. In this case, there was no one with influence over Bryan that I could talk to privately.

Sometimes calling someone out for abusive behavior can be done in a way that is itself abusive. For example, if the response is out of proportion to the original offense, that can be abusive (see again Bryan’s vow to fire a person over one relatively minor act and the discussion on proportionality in “Is Shame Necessary?“). Sometimes we shame an abusive person not for their actual behavior, but for unrelated things that reinforce inequality. For example, body-shaming Donald Trump reinforces the idea that it’s okay to body-shame a wide variety of people (trans men, people who aren’t the “right” size or shape, older folks, all women, etc.). It’s really important to think carefully about exactly how you are calling someone out and whether it will reinforce existing structures of oppression.

In this specific case, my goal with the original post was to clearly and honestly describe Bryan’s actual behavior (insults, humiliation, dominance, all wrapped in beautiful language) and the effect it had on me and others. I did so without calling him names, speculating on his motivations, or diagnosing him with any disorders. I was equally straightforward about Bryan’s positive qualities and the admiration many people have for him, including myself. If describing someone’s behavior clearly, accurately, and in good faith comes across as an insult, it’s because that behavior is not admirable. In general, I agree with Jennifer Jacquet’s argument in the book “Is Shame Necessary?” that, used properly, public shaming can be an act of nonviolent resistance in pursuit of justice.

Naming and accurately describing abusive behavior is necessary and powerful at the same time that it makes many people feel uncomfortable. Here’s a quote (by permission) from a message sent to me about a different but similar situation:

[…] Your post was like a shining light, suddenly offering a gasp of hope. It clearly articulated exactly the trouble with these elite programmers that seem to thrive off of burying and insulting the people around them either directly or by proxy through peoples’ [sic] work. I’ve long wanted to paint and share a portrait of this problematic behavior, but could never figure out how to articulate this. Your post puts into words what I have been struggling with for some time now.”

Being uncomfortable is not in and of itself a sign that you are doing something wrong. I encourage people to think about what makes you uncomfortable about naming and describing abusive behavior, or seeing other people do it. Is it compassion for the person engaging in abusive behavior? Then I ask you to apply that compassion to the targets of abuse. Is it fear of further abuse by the person being called out? Then I urge you to support people taking action to end that abuse. Is it desire for a lack of overt conflict – a “negative peace“? Then I suggest you raise your sights and aim for a positive peace that includes justice and consideration for all. Is it fear that the wrong person will be accidentally targeted? Then I invite you to reflect on the enormous risk and backlash faced by people do this kind of naming and describing. And then I invite you to worry more about the people who are remaining silent when speaking up would benefit us all.

I appreciate everyone who spoke up about their own similar experiences with Bryan Cantrill and the wider culture of systems programming, whether they did it publicly under their own name, publicly but anonymously, or privately. Whichever way you chose to share your experiences, it was brave. I hope it makes it easier for you to speak up the next time you see injustice.

I am personally ending my commentary on this issue (unless some major change is announced, but I don’t expect that). I will keep comments open on this post and approve anything that isn’t outright abusive, but I won’t be replying to them. Thank you for reading and commenting!

8 thoughts on “When is naming abuse itself abusive?

  1. Hi Valerie,

    I commented anonymously on your previous post and you pointed me to this one. I appreciate the follow-up, this addresses most of what I was wondering about. At the end of the day, I don’t agree with your philosophy on how to handle these things, but that’s fine. To me this is similar to wanting to throw out the principle of burden of proof, it would surely convict more criminals, and bring justice to more victims, but it is just not worth it (IMHO).

    For the record, I don’t feel I suffer from any sort of anxiety, but thank you for your concern in case it came across that way. I’m simply observing that anyone who subscribes to the sort of philosophy that you do with regards to public shaming poses a (small, but real) danger to anyone who choose to interact with you under their real name. So I don’t. Simple as that :)

  2. Good piece, thank you for writing this.

    I fully agree with “I’ve never personally seen the “some people” kind of post work, and I have several times seen it backfire..”

    “Unfortunately, I don’t know anyone on the Systems We Love program committee well enough to expect them to work with me against the wishes of the person” I hope the public message will reach them and I hope someone will contact you. Not so much to work against any one person, but to come together and improve the culture for everyone.

  3. Thanks again for bringing this issue to light.

    I also want to apologize for being pretty close to belittling Cantrill’s behavior in the comment I made in the previous post, under the same alias. I feel I was wrong to compare Cantrill to Jake Appelbaum, in an apologetic way.

    That’s an inappropriate comparison, given that both seem to have used not entirely dissimilar tactics to deal with entire organisations. My original comment: https://blog.valerieaurora.org/2016/10/22/why-i-wont-be-attending-systems-we-love/#comment-4632

    My intention was to muse publicly on ranting culture and “nerd rage”, from a place if introspection. That sort of thing is something I sort of feel I need to do, although, I recognize it as pretty childish at least, even if I work hard not to use oppressive language.

    Dunno, I just feel I have a lot to do with regards to dealing with aggression in a written form. I love ranting to unload. I love listening to ranting and clever verbal acrobatics. On the other hand, I don’t want to humiliate and silence other people by making them not feel welcome.

    I’ve been waking up to this by realizing that my way of writing and talking, although not directed at anyone, may have contributed to a friend of mine not really talking about her craft, even though she’s progressing fast as a systems architect at a big consulting company.

    So, I want to acknowledge that, based on other commenters, and your expansion of the subject, Cantrill clearly has personal issues and an abusive managerial style that goes beyond some need for verbal acrobatics to unload.

    And for the record: If people around Cantrill, or anyone, respond to criticism by “pretending not to hear”, his level of mind gaming others has passed way into super creepy cult of personality, too. Like, how can anyone live in denial with facts like these on the table?

    This is the sort of shit can take down companies too, because of a culture of fear and inability to renew.

    I really think the industry owes itself the ability to force types like Cantrill and Torvalds to grow up if they want to be brilliant technologists.

    I’m not a complete ding-a-ling on this subject personally.

    After all, it was reading Walter Isaacson’s Steve Jobs biography that made me realize I needed to seek help to finally deal with the (diagnosed) Borderline Personality Disorder of a person close to me. This is not a joke, I’m afraid.

  4. I feel like the comments here are a bit of an echo-chamber of approval. Let me provide a counterpoint. To me, this whole saga reads like petty revenge on a rude colleague you had issues with in the past. We all have to cope with this sort of thing at some point in our careers. Reading your post and the tone of your responses to criticism, I’m quite sure that I wouldn’t want to work with either you or Cantrill.

    Also, using the word “abuse” for your personal grievance absolutely trivialises a serious issue. Even granting everything you’ve described, in no sense whatsoever does anything in these posts cross the threshold to abuse. This is inflammatory, and makes you sound like a cry-bully. Reading back through your blog archive, it seems that a substantial part of your output consists of trying to whip up mobs about some perceived persecution or other.

  5. I appreciate this & your original post.

    Public social pressure applied to shitty people and organizations is a valid form of non-violent protest and I applaud your courage in doing this under your own name. It’s important to have reputational “skin in the game” to increase the strength of your message and get it across.

    Ignore the idiots, you’ve done a Good Thing.

    P.S. Thanks for the book recommendation.

  6. Girlfriend, you need to lighten the fuck up.

    You have nothing nomore to do with this sorry ass dude, and he has nothing to do with you. End of story.

    There be greater, realer, tragedies in this world that you need to align your entitlement with.

  7. This is the best kind of feedback, congruent and candid. Very useful for me personally to reflect on times when I try to assert dominance instead of trying to help the people I care about, especially my family. Thank you for sharing; your writing and ideas help me grow and give me tools to help me check myself – bravo!

    1. Thanks for the heartfelt advice here. A man was fired due to retaliating against my reporting him to management, and I’ve struggled with whether I should share my story to my coworkers. This brings me clarity.

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