Why tech worker resistance is crucial to preventing large-scale human rights abuses in the U.S.

Today I signed the “Never Again” pledge along with hundreds of other tech workers. We pledged to take a variety of concrete actions to stop the U.S. government from using databases to target people for human rights abuses. One of those actions is “We refuse to participate in the creation of databases of identifying information for the United States government to target individuals based on race, religion, or national origin.”

Some people have criticized this pledge as empty because they claim these databases already exist and are available to anyone with the money to buy them. They often back this up with a screenshot from a commercial marketing data broker listing a few hundred thousand phone numbers or emails. They argue that tech workers are just fooling themselves by thinking that their actions as individuals matter now, after these databases have been created.

I believe that the resistance of individual tech workers against the creation and use of databases like this is highly relevant. I’ll briefly summarize my argument, then I’ll tell you my personal experience of working with one of these databases. I will finish up by going into detail about the lessons I learned from that experience.

TL;DR version: Many commercial databases are low quality and barely usable for the purposes of large-scale human rights abuses like mass deportations by race, religion, or national origin. Higher quality databases are expensive to create and update, and tend to be highly protected. Any existing databases require maintenance, support, and tools to keep them up to date and make them usable. All of these things are provided by tech workers. By refusing to do these things, we can materially block, slow down, and frustrate attempts to commit large-scale human rights abuses by the U.S. government.

Now for my personal experience with one of these databases. A few months ago, I volunteered with a political organization. My job was to send text messages to thousands of voters of a particular ethnicity in swing states order to encourage them to vote in the U. S. presidential election. To do this, I used a computer-based tool to send and reply to text messages. The list of phone numbers we sent text messages to was bought from one of the commercial marketing data brokers. The text messages we sent included the purported first name of the person owning the phone number.

The first thing I noticed is that the most common reply we got (after no reply at all) was “I think you have the wrong number.” Many of the people with these phone numbers did not even match the names that we were given to go along with them, and if the people owning them were our target ethnicity and location it was only by accident. I also noticed that a lot of the people we were texting were not of the ethnicity that we were targeting. We had one set of text messages that asked this question explicitly, but people also volunteered this information in their replies (sometimes using abusive Twitter hashtags).

We almost immediately started having problems with the software we were using. Some of the problems were volunteers having difficulty understanding how to use the software, but there were also out-and-out bugs that caused serious problems that couldn’t be fixed by users. The software programmers who wrote the text messaging tools had to make emergency fixes and edit the databases during our volunteer session. We ended up switching software tools entirely at one point. As one of the few tech-savvy volunteers, I spent a lot of time helping other volunteers figure out how to use the software and work around bugs.

This is just one person’s experience working with one database of people by ethnicity, and I’m sure there are better ones out there. But I also have over ten years of experience with data, software, and Murphy’s Law. Here are my beliefs about the role of tech workers in using existing databases of people by race, religion, or national origin:

  1. Many commercial databases are incomplete and error-riddled. These databases leave out a lot of people who should be in them, and include a lot of people who shouldn’t. This is fine if you are sending a mass marketing email, or targeting an Facebook ad. But if you want to send thugs to the doors of every person in that group (and not to people who aren’t in that group), you’ll need to put in a lot of work. Correcting these errors is extremely expensive because it takes human work and intelligence. (For example, the U. S. Census employs hundreds of thousands of temporary workers to create its gargantuan dataset.) It will require the cooperation of many individuals to make these databases usable for the purpose of deportation or other violations of human rights. We can refuse to do that.
  2. Databases of personally identifiable information need to be updated frequently. I’ve moved over a dozen times in my life. The DMV’s record for my address has been wrong more years than it’s been right. Gamergate can’t even get my address and phone number correct when I post it on my company web site. Updating these databases to reflect moves, changes in locations, new phone numbers, changes of religion, marriages, births, deaths, etc. will take ongoing support – from tech workers. We can refuse to do that.
  3. Higher quality databases tend to already have systems in place to make them harder to abuse. For example, the personally identifiable information in the U.S. Census data is protected by federal laws and every person who has access to it has sworn for life to protect the confidentiality of that data. Will that prevent it from being misused? Ha ha, no – but it outlines the importance of individuals refusing to be complicit in human rights abuses. A limited number of people can turn this data over for use by a human rights abusing regime, and they have already thought deeply about their personal responsibility in this situation. They can refuse to do that, and we can stand in solidarity with them.
  4. Databases of millions of people require tech support to use. Even if we had access to a magical database that updated itself with the name, location, ethnicity, religion, and immigration status of every human in the U.S., we would still need tech workers to build and maintain and run the tools to use that data. We would need tech support to help people use the tools. We would need technical writers to document the tools. We can refuse to do that.

I’m not one of the people who seriously believes that the cost of deporting millions of people will deter the Trump administration from doing it (one easy way to reduce costs: don’t deport people humanely). But history tells us that, whether you do it humanely or not, this kind of large-scale human rights abuse requires huge numbers of people working together with the full knowledge that they are committing human rights abuses. Tech workers are a crucial part of this system, and if enough of them refuse to do that work, we can have an impact on history.

In the end though, I believe the indirect effects of this pledge may be even more powerful than the direct effects. Tech workers are notoriously difficult to organize, so when we do act in concert, it’s a newsworthy event. In my experience, tech company executives will pay close attention to any cause powerful enough to get tech workers to pledge solidarity with each other and with the most vulnerable in society.

Radical self-care for activists in the time of Trump

[Content notes: disordered eating, exercise]

Like many of you, I’m struggling to take care of myself in the aftermath of the 2016 U.S. election. My friends and I are having stomach pain, trouble sleeping, difficulty staying focused on work, and many more signs of fear and stress. To add to it, as activists many of us feel a sense of urgency and obligation to act now, to push ourselves to our limits in an attempt to avert the coming disaster. I find myself thinking irrational thoughts, like “Maybe I should start sleeping less so I can write more. Do I really need to keep doing my physical therapy? Why bother keeping tax records when I’m worried about mass deportations?” Then my rational mind points out that it’s hard to write if I’m tired, or in pain, or having my tax returns audited.

This post is a collection of tips and strategies for radical self-care in the time of Trump. It’s radical self-care because taking care of yourself is crucial to being able to resist fascism and injustice. But it’s also radical because the very act of self-care is a rejection of cruelty, injustice, and oppression. We are in the process of creating a world in which we recognize every individual’s right to love and care and respect; we must treat ourselves the way we want others to be treated if we are true to our beliefs.

This post starts out with general considerations and strategy, then gets into specific concrete recommendations you can do today. Some of the advice might accidentally trigger disordered thinking around food; we tried to write it in ways that avoid that, but if this is a concern for you, that section is last in this post and is prefaced by a separate trigger warning. If after you finish this post you’re looking for more self-care tips, try this interactive self-care guide. Thank you to the many people who contributed to this post, David Bacome, Kara Sowles, Molly Wilson, and several anonymous contributors.

General strategy and considerations

Stressful times can bring back old fractures – things like old mental habits you thought you fixed a long time ago, or disordered eating patterns you think you have recovered from. If you have these fractures, it helps to be vigilant for the signs of them coming back, and to take those signs seriously when they happen. Don’t be too hard on yourself for relapsing to old ways under stress, especially if excessive self-criticism is part of the old mental habits you are trying to get out of. The weird thing is that stress from external sources (such as an unjust and terrifying political climate) can be a motivation to get better and to work hard on your self-care. If it helps motivate you, you can tell yourself you need to take good care of yourself so that you can help others. (It happens to be true, too!)

Many of us feel a tension between self-care and activism. Many forms of activism are costly and difficult for some people (e.g., joining in-person protests that could result in violence, or simply making phone calls when you have social anxiety). Situations of fear and urgency about societal-scale problems may activate a pattern of martyr-type thinking that goes something like this: “If I make this huge self-sacrifice and harm myself deeply, the universe will notice and be fair and reward me by fixing the bad thing.” Unfortunately, this rarely works out in the way we hope, and the end result is too often only self-harm and a reduced ability to work for good in the future.

One way out of this trap is to make a conscious search for the kind of activism that works best for you. Here are some starting ideas: engaging political representatives, joining political parties, participating in street protests, joining or forming local organisations, donating money, amplifying news, correcting misinformation, writing, educating family and friends, beginning or continuing an activist career, reaching out to groups targeted by hate, connecting folks in need with resources (like lawyers or funds for documents or hotlines), and providing background support to other people doing these things.

Try a few different things and pay attention to which forms of activism you believe are effective, and which of the possibly effective things energise and nourish you, as those will be sustainable. Don’t worry about who will do the things that you don’t like; for example, if you are terrified of public speaking, remember that more people want to speak in front of a huge audience than there are audiences who want to listen to them. Or if crowds make you anxious and fearful, don’t join the street protest – plenty of other people feel comforted and happy in a crowd.

In a tough time or an emergency, you may not limit yourself only to sustainable forms of actvism, but you can at least pay attention to what they are for the longer term. Try to avoid criticizing others for choosing different forms of activism, unless the actions they are taking are actively harmful to the overall cause (such as the safety pin movement) or if they are seriously diverting energy and resources away from crucial goals. Diversity of tactics – both in its scholarly sense and in the general sense of many people doing many different things – is key to any successful social movement.

One of the major challenges to self-care is when you are caring for others who are dependent on you: children, or disabled family members, or other folks who depend on you. Carers need to take care of themselves if they want to continue caring for others over the long term, but often the needs of those we are caring for don’t change during times of stress for the carer.

When time and energy is tight, as in a time of crisis, it helps to think explicitly about what non-self care things you can stop doing, and where you can get more help or resources with caring for others. Society has trained us to go straight to self-sacrifice as a solution, especially for carers. Instead, explore a broader array of solutions: are there things you can stop doing without harming yourself? Maybe now is the time to call in the favors you’ve been saving up for when you need them. Are there creative ways to pool time and energy and resources? Fear is the enemy of creativity, and creativity is key to problem-solving. Don’t let your fear lock you into a sub-optimal solution.

Physical health

If you suspect you might have something physically wrong and untreated that’s making you feel bad, take this time of great stress as extra motivation to go to a doctor and work with them on it. Small health annoyances can become big life problems under conditions of stress, so caring for your health should become more of a priority, rather than less. Pay attention to what your body is telling you and don’t ignore important signs because you’re too worried about world events.

Some health problems are not obvious. For example, it’s not uncommon for people to be low in vitamin D without knowing it, which can contribute to feelings of inertia and decision paralysis. If you might be low in vitamin D, B12, iron, or other vitamins and minerals, you can ask a medical professional for a blood test to check. Deficiencies can contribute to mental health difficulties, and they can be relatively simple to improve with food and supplements. (Note: vitamin D, like many other supplements, can be harmful to people with certain rare medical conditions – be thoughtful, do your research, and talk to a medical professional before trying any medical advice.)

For many people, regular physical activity is crucial to health and happiness – and it’s even more important during times of stress. Physical activity can be a good way to reconnect with your body, especially if stress weakens that connection for you. The right activity can also help you reduce stress and anxiety getting in the way of caring for yourself and taking action. Whatever your preferred physical activity is – walking, rock-climbing, deep breathing – keep making it a priority. Some ways you can do this is are: schedule a specific time each day for it, combine it with some other activity (grocery shopping, listening to podcasts, spending time with your family), make plans to do your activity with a friend, or make some kind of commitment (like paying for a nonrefundable class). When your body feels good, it’s easier to make good decisions, get important work done, and care for others.

If you use Twitter, following https://twitter.com/tinycarebot is a good way to get small reminders to check in with and care for your body throughout the day (or for a funny approach, try https://twitter.com/hydratebot). Tons of apps are out there to remind you to stand up, take deep breaths, drink water, stretch, or whatever works for you.

For many people, some kind of physical self-care that resembles grooming is really helpful. This might look like getting a massage, taking a long bath, getting a pedicure, doing your makeup, shaving or clipping a beard, going to the sauna, showering more often than usual, using pretty-smelling bath products, applying lotion, or anything else in that realm. Try not to let yourself feel guilty for doing these things – if they make you feel good and they don’t take an enormous amount of time and energy, it’s worth it. Small acts of self-care can often have outsize returns.

Mental health

One of my irrational thoughts was “I should stop seeing my therapist so often, my mental health isn’t a high priority any more.” This is like saying, “I’m going on a month-long road trip driving through snow and mountains and sand, I should skip oil changes and ignore any engine warning lights during that trip.” Hopefully this sounds ridiculous!

If you are already seeing a therapist or mental health counselor of some kind, keep going to them. Tell them what you are feeling and ask for help with coping with stress and fear and anxiety. If you used to go to a therapist but stopped, consider restarting therapy with them. If you’ve been meaning to start therapy but never got around to it, now is a fantastic time to start. If your therapist isn’t helping, consider finding a new therapist. Here are some tips on finding therapists, figuring out how to afford therapy, and managing your relationship with your therapist.

You might also try a cognitive behavioral therapy app (like Moodnotes), an anxiety management app (like SAM), or a meditation app (like Headspace or Insight Timer).

Art is an important way of making sense of the incomprehensible, and of communicating it with others. If you have a creative practice of any kind, you may be surprised by the new meaning and value that it has for you in an uncertain and complicated world; creativity has a way of being both escape and engagement at the same time. You might try revisiting arts you left behind, or assigning yourself a creative routine. That said, don’t punish yourself if you don’t feel like doing anything creative right now.

One simple but highly recommended method is to stop and be aware of what is happening right now, right here, in this exact moment. Don’t think about the future, or things that aren’t right there, just use your senses to fully perceive what is around you for 10 seconds, or 30 seconds, or longer if you are practiced at it. You should feel calmer and more relaxed at the end of this exercise; if not, don’t do it.

Keeping lists of things to do or that you have done may be helpful to ground yourself in reality instead of anxiety. For example, you might start keeping a personal list of what you’ve done to fight oppression. The feeling of “we’re not doing enough” probably won’t go away as long as the problem is still there, but keeping a list, and the act of updating it with each action, can help some people remember they’re taking what concrete steps they can – and can help distract from the feeling of overwhelming powerlessness. If keeping lists makes you stressed and anxious, don’t do it.

Social self-care

Different people react to stress in different ways. Sometimes we reach out to friends and loved ones and strengthen our support system. Sometimes we isolate ourselves and withdraw from our support system. Often isolating ourselves seems like the solution when really it just makes the problem worse. People mistakenly isolate themselves when they are in need for many reasons. One is the idea that you are the source of the problem, and you are hurting other people by bringing the problem to them. Another reason is overemphasis on self-reliance and independence, leading to the idea that asking for help or support is shameful and weak. Whatever the reason, times of stress are often a good time to reach out to your friends and loved ones more, not less.

In this case, many of your friends and loved ones are under stress as well and would welcome hearing from you. Pick which of these things you are most comfortable doing and do one or two per day: texting a friend, emailing a friend, calling a friend, inviting a friend to coffee, inviting a friend to your house, organizing a dinner with friends, organizing a party, offering to help someone else organize a meetup, or saying yes to an invitation you receive.

One thing that can help reduce stress around being around other people is to set some kind of structure around what you talk about or for how long. For example, you can suggest taking a walk for one hour and and agree to talk about politics only during the last 15 minutes. Or you can have a dinner and say that no one can argue about the history of fascism, only share information about what actions they are taking now.

Situational awareness

While for many people at this time it is crucial to keep up with the news for safety reasons, this doesn’t have to mean reading the news at all time. For some, self-care means choosing to catch up on news and politics only during certain times – say, for an hour a day. This can enable you to prepare yourself before you learn about the news, and take care of yourself afterwards. For example, if you use Twitter, you might filter news about the election out of your Twitter stream for most of the day, and then turn that filter off during the set time in which you catch up on that topic. It’s not a perfect system, but it can enable you to skim past that crucial news article when you’re not in the right place for it — knowing you’ll be returning for it the next day. Or you could use a bookmarking service like Pinboard to collect links about upsetting topics to read during the 20 minutes you catch up on the news. Google Alerts are a good way to get a once a day roundup of news stories with certain keywords emailed to you.

You can also ask a trusted person to keep an eye on the news for you. You might ask them to tell you if anything happens that you need to know about – any major events, or anything that’s directly relevant to your safety.

Food stuff

[TRIGGER WARNING: Food-related advice below]

If you are reacting to stress by losing your appetite, it’s a good idea not to skip meals entirely. You don’t have to eat as much as you usually do – set some kind of achievable goal (like “half this bagel” or “one apple”) and let yourself stop after that. Look for tasty, nutrient dense foods that are easy to eat and make your stomach feel calm – this might look like smoothies, nuts or nut butters, hard-boiled eggs, bacon, chocolate, cheese, coconut, avocados, dried fruit, broth, etc. Keep easy to eat, easy to prepare foods around and available so you can take advantage of the times when you are hungry.

If you’ve internalized a lot of training (including training yourself) to only eat the “right” healthy foods, this can be unhelpful at times when you’ve lost your appetite and are low on calories (and possibly low on blood sugar). Eating a bit of anything that seems appealing to you (even if you ordinarily consider it not your preferred food to eat frequently or over the long-term) can help you bootstrap yourself back to your preferred eating style. This might not work for you depending on your eating habits, but in general this is a good time to be kind and forgiving of yourself.

If grocery shopping is overwhelming, consider a grocery delivery option. Consider stocking your freezer with appealing, easily-microwaved frozen foods, for times when it’s important to eat, but you don’t want to cook, order or shop. For example, supermarkets carry frozen vegetables that you can steam, in the bag, in the microwave. Trader Joe’s, if there’s one near you, is a haven of frozen, microwavable treats. If it helps, you can stock your freezer like you’re setting in for a long winter – so you know you’ll always have something to eat on hand.

Hopefully this gives you some more ideas for how to practice self-care during the months and years ahead. We’re in this for the long-term – learning to take care of yourself now will pay back today and for years to come.

A post-election guide to changing hearts and minds

I just published a guide to changing the hearts and minds of lukewarm Trump supporters over at the amazing Captain Awkward advice blog. I took what I learned from teaching the Ally Skills Workshop and turned it into a step-by-step process for changing people’s minds effectively: identifying where you have the most influence, choosing who to spend time, finding shared values, and using compassion and vulnerability on your part to help the listener develop their compassion towards those who need it most. Here’s the introduction:

Many of us are grappling with how to use our skills and influence to resist the upcoming Trump administration and the hatred and violence that it inspires. As Captain Awkward readers, we’ve been practicing setting boundaries, standing up for our values, and making it awkward for the right person. We are uniquely prepared for a crucial part of the next few months or years: changing the minds of people who support the Trump administration, and standing up to the abusers they are empowering. This post teaches scripts and techniques to do these two tasks, along with the theory behind them. It’s for people living in the U.S., but it may be useful to people living elsewhere as well.

And now I will give you some strange advice: Read the comments on that post! Captain Awkward is a case study (along with Metafilter) in how positive and useful a comments section can be if you have a strong code of conduct and enforce it. Enjoy the unfamiliar sensation of reading the comments and enjoying them!

If you have read my last two blog posts, you know I’m not hopeful for the future of human rights in the United States (and around the world). I don’t believe that changing the minds of wavering Trump supporters will be anything like enough to prevent fascism and kleptocracy. However, I think any other effort will fail unless we drastically lower the percentage of U.S. voters who support Trump. That’s why I licensed that guide CC BY-SA – please feel free to copy, modify, and redistribute it without charge as long as you credit the authors.

If you like what you see on Captain Awkward, please consider joining me and becoming a monthly donor (or chipping in a few bucks now). Their work is crucial to the task we have before us.

Spreadsheet of signs of fascism

Several people have asked me to share the spreadsheet I mentioned in my previous post, the one I am using to track signs that the U.S. is governed by a fascist regime. Feel free to copy it and make your own modifications – it is licensed CC BY-SA 4.0 Valerie Aurora. Here is the current snapshot:

Obviously this is an incomplete list. I’ll be adding new things to it as new and more creative ways of being a fascist are thought up in Trump Tower.

I made this spreadsheet because I’m afraid I will normalize brutal and inhuman behavior, and wake up one day to find I am trapped in a cruel fascist regime – or worse, actively collaborating in it.

It is true that before November 8, brutality and violence were already a central part of the U.S. government and culture, and many people were already living daily in fear for their freedom and lives. What we lost on November 8 is the reasonable expectation that we could fix this kind of injustice through peaceful political change, in the style of the civil rights movement or the fight for marriage equality. Maybe our democratic institutions will survive the next four years, but I don’t feel hopeful.

2017-01-21: Update here.

Actions I have taken to prepare for the Trump administration

It’s been about 116 hours since I realized that Trump won the United States presidential election. I’ve spent that time having sober discussions with friends and loved ones, reading the news, reading opinion pieces, reading history, making spreadsheets, and double-checking my thought process.

This morning the news broke that Trump made the first post-election announcement confirming he will make mass deportations, outlining exactly which people he will deport and saying that he will make a “determination” about which other people he will deport after that. No one can dismiss this as “election talk” or campaign promises he will renege on when he gets into often.

Just in case you aren’t already deeply frightened by this news: Historically mass deportations are a very strong predictor of mass deaths: mass deportations are difficult to execute because other countries don’t want your refugees, so you put them in camps, which get full, and then you start killing the people in the camps. Mass deportations also require a volunteer paramilitary force that very quickly erodes the rule of law and human rights.

At this point I feel an obligation to let people I care about know what actions I am taking to prepare for the Trump administration. I’m not here to convince anyone, I’m just giving you this information and you can make your own decisions based on how much you trust my judgement. But first here is some relevant information about me that many of my friends don’t know.

I spent about seven years feeling suicidally depressed and anxious, due to side effects of undiagnosed Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome. During that time, I developed a set of checks and tests for my decision-making process to avoid making bad decisions out of anxiety or fear. I was pretty successful in this process: I did not commit suicide, I successfully co-founded and grew a non-profit, I worked full-time, I kept strong relationships with friends and family, and I made good financial decisions – all while a voice was telling me that death was the sensible, reasonable, obvious solution. (I haven’t been suicidal or depressed for about three years now.)

I am using these same checks and tests right now, so I don’t think I’m being alarmist or acting unreasonably. I also don’t have a history of overreacting to elections: e.g., I have never in my life joked even once about moving to Canada if $POLITICIAN won. That is, I don’t have a history of “crying wolf” about election results.

Without further ado, here are the things I have already done:

  • Asked my loved ones to install Signal (and all of them did)
  • Started collecting information on my emigration options from friends
  • Made a spreadsheet listing signs helping me decide whether the fascist regime is coming or not, with weights (UPDATED TO ADD: I’ve now published the spreadsheet)
  • Made an agreement with a loved one about exactly what signs will mean it’s time to leave the U.S.
  • Made an appointment to talk to my immigration (emigration?) lawyer this week
  • Called my loved ones and made sure they either had passports or promised to get them this week (and offered them money to expedite)
  • Checked to see how long it will take to cash out my 401(k) (it’s already in money market funds or I would have moved it to that too)
  • Advised a loved one to go ahead with that house sale they were planning for later in 2017
  • Made lists of the most influential progressive people I know and thought about ways to connect them with each other to take action
  • Started designing an Ally Skills Workshop targeted at privileged folks (mostly white people) talking to “reachable” Trump supporters

While putting together this list, I was also struck by how many things I did months or years ago that people are recommending today. I’ve been acting as though my phone conversations were recorded by the NSA for a couple of years now. I’ve been using Signal for several months. I think twice about what I write in email. I set up a recurring donation to the ACLU in July 2016, and one for Planned Parenthood in July 2014. I donated to political campaigns 4 times as much during this election cycle as any previous one, and volunteered as well for the first time.

My basic feeling at this point is that, yes, what I’m doing is going to be costly if my beliefs about the future are too pessimistic. But I’ll be thrilled if, e.g., I spend $20,000 getting ready for a fascist government and it turns out I was wrong. Hurray! I will be thrilled to come back to this post and edit it and say, “Hahaha! Remember when we were all worried about mass deportations in the U.S.? Boy I feel stupid for falling for that!” I want that to happen. I just don’t see any clear path to that future at this point.

What I do during the next week depends on the political news. I have given up trying to predict what happens. As many people have pointed out, one of the techniques used by fascist regimes is to overwhelm people’s mental processing capacity with contradictory, confusing, and frightening information to stop people from effectively resisting or escaping. So many of my friends have stopped watching the news since the election because it makes them feel too horrible. THIS IS INTENTIONAL. Please stay aware and safe. I love you.

I’ll end this post with a plea to read the sections on mass deportations in Hannah Arendt’s “Eichmann in Jerusalem.” Especially compare the actions of Denmark versus Romania and the enormous difference even a small amount of principled resistance made in saving lives. This is the most memorable passage from the book for me (emphasis mine):

Politically and psychologically, the most interesting aspect of this incident is perhaps the role played by the German authorities in Denmark, their obvious sabotage of orders from Berlin. It is the only case we know of in which the Nazis met with open native resistance, and the result seems to have been that those exposed to it changed their minds. They themselves apparently no longer looked upon the extermination of a whole people as a matter of course. They had met resistances based on principle, and their “toughness” had melted like butter in the sun, they had even been able to show a few timid beginnings of genuine courage. That the ideal of “toughness,” except, perhaps, for a few half-demented brutes, was nothing but a myth of self-deception, concealing a ruthless desire for conformity at any price, was clearly revealed at the Nuremberg Trials, where the defendants accused and betrayed each other and assured the world that they “had always been against it” or claimed, as Eichmann was to do, that their best qualities had been “abused” by their superiors.

I challenge you: be the principled resistor that makes the “ruthless toughness” of the Trump regime melt like butter in the sun.

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!

Why I won’t be attending Systems We Love

Systems We Love is a one day event in San Francisco to talk excitedly about systems computing. When I first heard about it, I was thrilled! I love systems so much that I moved from New Mexico to the Bay Area when I was 23 years old purely so that I could talk to more people about them. I’m the author of the Kernel Hacker’s Bookshelf series, in which I enthusiastically described operating systems research papers I loved in the hopes that systems programmers would implement them. The program committee of Systems We Love includes many people I respect and enjoy being around. And the event is so close to me that I could walk to it.

So why I am not going to Systems We Love? Why am I warning my friends to think twice before attending? And why am I writing a blog post warning other people about attending Systems We Love?

The answer is that I am afraid that Bryan Cantrill, the lead organizer of Systems We Love, will say cruel and humiliating things to people who attend. Here’s why I’m worried about that.

I worked with Bryan in the Solaris operating systems group at Sun from 2002 to 2004. We didn’t work on the same projects, but I often talked to him at the weekly Monday night Solaris kernel dinner at Osteria in Palo Alto, participated in the same mailing lists as him, and stopped by his office to ask him questions every week or two. Even 14 years ago, Bryan was one of the best systems programmers, writers, and speakers I have ever met. I admired him and learned a lot from him. At the same time, I was relieved when I left Sun because I knew I’d never have to work with Bryan again.

Here’s one way to put it: to me, Bryan Cantrill is the opposite of another person I admire in operating systems (whom I will leave unnamed). This person makes me feel excited and welcome and safe to talk about and explore operating systems. I’ve never seen them shame or insult or put down anyone. They enthusiastically and openly talk about learning new systems concepts, even when other people think they should already know them. By doing this, they show others that it’s safe to admit that they don’t know something, which is the first step to learning new things. They are helping create the kind of culture I want in systems programming – the kind of culture promoted by Papers We Love, which Bryan cites as the inspiration for Systems We Love.

By contrast, when I’m talking to Bryan I feel afraid, cautious, and fearful. Over the years I worked with Bryan, I watched him shame and insult hundreds of people, in public and in private, over email and in person, in papers and talks. Bryan is no Linus Torvalds – Bryan’s insults are usually subtle, insinuating, and beautifully phrased, whereas Linus’ insults tend towards the crude and direct. Even as you are blushing in shame from what Bryan just said about you, you are also admiring his vocabulary, cadence, and command of classical allusion. When I talked to Bryan about any topic, I felt like I was engaging in combat with a much stronger foe who only wanted to win, not help me learn. I always had the nagging fear that I probably wouldn’t even know how cleverly he had insulted me until hours later. I’m sure other people had more positive experiences with Bryan, but my experience matches that of many others. In summary, Bryan is supporting the status quo of the existing culture of systems programming, which is a culture of combat, humiliation, and domination.

People admire and sometimes hero-worship Bryan because he’s a brilliant technologist, an excellent communicator, and a consummate entertainer. But all that brilliance, sparkle, and wit are often used in the service of mocking and humiliating other people. We often laugh and are entertained by what Bryan says, but most of the time we are laughing at another person, or at a person by proxy through their work. I think we rationalize taking part in this kind of cruelty by saying that the target “deserves” it because they made a short-sighted design decision, or wrote buggy code, or accidentally made themselves appear ridiculous. I argue that no one deserves to be humiliated or laughed at for making an honest mistake, or learning in public, or doing the best they could with the resources they had. And if that means that people like Bryan have to learn how to be entertaining without humiliating people, I’m totally fine with that.

I stopped working with Bryan in 2004, which was 12 years ago. It’s fair to wonder if Bryan has had a change of heart since then. As far as I can tell, the answer is no. I remember speaking to Bryan in 2010 and 2011 and it was déjà vu all over again. The first time, I had just co-founded a non-profit for women in open technology and culture, and I was astonished when Bryan delivered a monologue to me on the “right” way to get more women involved in computing. The second time I was trying to catch up with a colleague I hadn’t seen in a while and Bryan was invited along. Bryan dominated the conversation and the two of us the entire evening, despite my best efforts. I tried one more time about a month ago: I sent Bryan a private message on Twitter telling him honestly and truthfully what my experience of working with him was like, and asking if he’d had a change of heart since then. His reply: “I don’t know what you’re referring to, and I don’t feel my position on this has meaningfully changed — though I am certainly older and wiser.” Then he told me to google something he’d written about women in computing.

But you don’t have to trust my word on what Bryan is like today. The blog post Bryan wrote announcing Systems We Love sounds exactly like the Bryan I knew: erudite, witty, self-praising, and full of elegant insults directed at a broad swathe of people. He gaily recounts the time he gave a highly critical keynote speech at USENIX, bashfully links to a video praising him at a Papers We Love event, elegantly puts down most of the existing operating systems research community, and does it all while using the words “ancillary,” “verve,” and “quadrennial.” Once you know the underlying structure – a layer cake of vituperation and braggadocio, frosted with eloquence – you can see the same pattern in most of his writing and talks.

So when I heard about Systems We Love, my first thought was, “Maybe I can go but just avoid talking to Bryan and leave the room when he is speaking.” Then I thought, “I should warn my friends who are going.” Then I realized that my friends are relatively confident and successful in this field, but the people I should be worried about are the ones just getting started. Based on the reputation of Papers We Love and the members of the Systems We Love program committee, they probably fully expect to be treated respectfully and kindly. I’m old and scarred and know what to expect when Bryan talks, and my stomach roils at the thought of attending this event. How much worse would it be for someone new and open and totally unprepared?

Bryan is a better programmer than I am. Bryan is a better systems architect than I am. Bryan is a better writer and speaker than I am. The one area I feel confident that I know more about than Bryan is increasing diversity in computing. And I am certain that the environment that Bryan creates and fosters is more likely to discourage and drive off women of all races, people of color, queer and trans folks, and other people from underrepresented groups. We’re already standing closer to the exit; for many of us, it doesn’t take much to make us slip quietly out the door and never return.

I’m guessing that Bryan will respond to me saying that he humiliates, dominates, and insults people by trying to humiliate, dominate, and insult me. I’m not sure if he’ll criticize my programming ability, my taste in operating systems, or my work on increasing diversity in tech. Maybe he’ll criticize me for humiliating, dominating, and insulting people myself – and I’ll admit, I did my fair share of that when I was trying to emulate leaders in my field such as Bryan Cantrill and Linus Torvalds. It’s gone now, but for years there was a quote from me on a friend’s web site, something like: “I’m an elitist jerk, I fit right in at Sun.” It took me years to detox and unlearn those habits and I hope I’m a kinder, more considerate person now.

Even if Bryan doesn’t attack me, people who like the current unpleasant culture of systems programming will. I thought long and hard about the friendships, business opportunities, and social capital I would lose over this blog post. I thought about getting harassed and threatened on social media. I thought about a week of cringing whenever I check my email. Then I thought about the people who might attend Systems We Love: young folks, new developers, a trans woman at her first computing event since coming out – people who are looking for a friendly and supportive place to talk about systems at the beginning of their careers. I thought about them being deeply hurt and possibly discouraged for life from a field that gave me so much joy.

Come at me, Bryan.

Note: comments are now closed on this post. You can read and possibly comment on the follow-up post, When is naming abuse itself abusive?