Since I started working on Discourse, I spend a lot more time thinking about how software can encourage and nudge people to be more empathetic online. That's why it's especially hard to read articles like this one:
My brother’s 32nd birthday is today. It’s an especially emotional day for his family because he’s not alive for it.
He died of a heroin overdose last February.
This year is even harder than the last. I started weeping at midnight and eventually cried myself to sleep. Today’s symptoms include explosions of sporadic sobbing and an insurmountable feeling of emptiness. My mom posted a gut-wrenching comment on my brother’s Facebook page about the unfairness of it all. Her baby should be here, not gone. “Where is the God that is making us all so sad?” she asked.
In response, someone — a stranger/(I assume) another human being — commented with one word: “Junkie.”
The interaction may seem a bit strange and out of context until you realize that this is the Facebook page of a person who was somewhat famous, who produced the excellent show Parks and Recreation. Not that this forgives the behavior in any way, of course, but it does explain why strangers would wander by and make observations.
There is deep truth in the old idea that people are able to say these things because they are looking at a screen full of words, not directly at the face of the person they're about to say a terrible thing to. That one level of abstraction the Internet allows, typing, which is so immensely powerful in so many other contexts …
“falling in love, breaking into a bank, bringing down the govt…they all look the same right now: they look like typing” @PennyRed#TtW16#k3
As an exercise in empathy, try to imagine reading some of the terrible things people say to each other online to a real person sitting directly in front of you. Or don't imagine, and just watch this video.
I challenge you to watch the entirety of that video. I couldn't do it. This is the second time I've tried, and I had to turn it off not even 2 minutes in because I couldn't take it any more.
And avalanches happen easily online. Anonymity disinhibits people, making some of them more likely to be abusive. Mobs can form quickly: once one abusive comment is posted, others will often pile in, competing to see who can be the most cruel. This abuse can move across platforms at great speed – from Twitter, to Facebook, to blogposts – and it can be viewed on multiple devices – the desktop at work, the mobile phone at home. To the person targeted, it can feel like the perpetrator is everywhere: at home, in the office, on the bus, in the street.
I've only had a little taste of this treatment, once. The sense of being "under siege" – a constant barrage of vitriol and judgment pouring your way every day, every hour – was palpable. It was not pleasant. It absolutely affected my state of mind. Someone remarked in the comments that ultimately it did not matter, because as a white man I could walk away from the whole situation any time. And they were right. I began to appreciate what it would feel like when you can't walk away, when this harassment follows you around everywhere you go online, and you never really know when the next incident will occur, or exactly what shape it will take.
Imagine the feeling of being constantly on edge like that, every day. What happens to your state of mind when walking away isn't an option? It gave me great pause.
I greatly admired the way Stephanie Wittels Wachs actually engaged with the person who left that awful comment. This is a man who had two children of his own, and should be no stranger to the kind of unbearable pain involved in your child's death. And yet he felt the need to post the word "Junkie" in reply to a mother's anguish over losing her child to drug addiction.
Isn’t this what empathy is? Putting myself in someone else’s shoes with the knowledge and awareness that I, too, am human and, therefore, susceptible to this tragedy or any number of tragedies along the way?
Most would simply delete the comment, block the user, and walk away. Totally defensible. But she didn't. She takes the time and effort to attempt to understand this person who is abusing her mother, to reach them, to connect, to practice the very empathy this man appears incapable of.
Tracy’s alleged harassment was hardly the first, Pozner said. There’s a whole network of people who believe the media reported a mass shooting that never happened, he said, that the tragedy was an elaborate hoax designed to increase support for gun control. Pozner said he gets ugly comments often on social media, such as, “Eventually you’ll be tried for your crimes of treason against the people,” “… I won’t be satisfied until the caksets are opened…” and “How much money did you get for faking all of this?”
It's easy to practice empathy when you limit it to people that are easy to empathize with – the downtrodden, the undeserving victims. But it is another matter entirely to empathize with those that hate, harangue, and intentionally make other people's lives miserable. If you can do this, you are a far better person than me. I struggle with it. But my hat is off to you. There's no better way to teach empathy than to practice it, particularly toward those who appear to have none.
As a member of the Westboro Baptist Church, in Topeka, Kansas, Phelps-Roper believed that AIDS was a curse sent by God. She believed that all manner of other tragedies—war, natural disaster, mass shootings—were warnings from God to a doomed nation, and that it was her duty to spread the news of His righteous judgments. To protest the increasing acceptance of homosexuality in America, the Westboro Baptist Church picketed the funerals of gay men who died of AIDS and of soldiers killed in Iraq and Afghanistan. Members held signs with slogans like “GOD HATES FAGS” and “THANK GOD FOR DEAD SOLDIERS,” and the outrage that their efforts attracted had turned the small church, which had fewer than a hundred members, into a global symbol of hatred.
First we’ll reframe the problem: the real issue is not Problem Child’s opinions – he can have whatever opinions he wants. The issue is that he’s doing zero emotional labor – he’s not thinking about his audience or his effect on people at all. (Possibly, he’s just really bad at modeling other people’s responses – the outcome is the same whether he lacks the will or lacks the skill.) But to be a good community member, he needs to consider his audience.
True empathy means reaching out and engaging in a loving way with everyone, even those that are hurtful, hateful, or spiteful. But on the Internet, can you do it every day, multiple times a day, across hundreds of people? Is this a reasonable thing to ask? Is it even possible, short of sainthood?
The question remains: why would people post such hateful things?Why would they reply "Junkie" to a mother's anguish? Why would they ask a father of a murdered child to publicly prove his child's death was not a hoax? Why would they tweet "Thank God for AIDS!"?
Unfortunately, I think I know the answer to this question, and you're not going to like it.
I don't like it. I don't want it. But I know.
I have laid some heavy stuff on you in this post, and for that, I apologize. I think the weight of what I'm trying to communicate here requires it. I have to warn you that the next article I'm about to link is far beyond anything I have posted above, maybe even on this blog, ever. It's about the legal quandary presented in the tragic cases of children who died because their parents accidentally left them strapped into carseats, and it won a much deserved pulitzer. It is also one of the most harrowing things I have ever read.
Ed Hickling believes he knows why. Hickling is a clinical psychologist from Albany, N.Y., who has studied the effects of fatal auto accidents on the drivers who survive them. He says these people are often judged with disproportionate harshness by the public, even when it was clearly an accident, and even when it was indisputably not their fault.
Humans, Hickling said, have a fundamental need to create and maintain a narrative for their lives in which the universe is not implacable and heartless, that terrible things do not happen at random, and that catastrophe can be avoided if you are vigilant and responsible.
In hyperthermia cases, he believes, the parents are demonized for much the same reasons. “We are vulnerable, but we don’t want to be reminded of that. We want to believe that the world is understandable and controllable and unthreatening, that if we follow the rules, we’ll be okay. So, when this kind of thing happens to other people, we need to put them in a different category from us. We don’t want to resemble them, and the fact that we might is too terrifying to deal with. So, they have to be monsters.”
This man left the junkie comment because he is afraid. He is afraid his own children could become drug addicts. He is afraid his children, through no fault of his, through no fault of anyone at all, could die at 30. When presented with real, tangible evidence of the pain and grief a mother feels at the drug related death of her own child, and the reality that it could happen to anyone, it became so overwhelming that it was too much for him to bear.
Those "Sandy Hook Truthers" harass the father of a victim because they are afraid. They are afraid their own children could be viciously gunned down in cold blood any day of the week, bullets tearing their way through the bodies of the teachers standing in front of them, desperately trying to protect them from being murdered. They can't do anything to protect their children from this, and in fact there's nothing any of us can do to protect our children from being murdered at random, while at school any day of the week, at the whim of any mentally unstable individual with access to an assault rifle. That's the harsh reality.
When presented with evidence of the crippling pain and grief that parents feel over the loss of their children, due to utter random chance in a world they can't control, they could never control, maybe none of us can ever control, the overwhelming sense of existential dread is simply too much to bear. So they have to be monsters. They must be.
And we will fight these monsters, tooth and nail, raging in our hatred, so we can forget our pain, at least for a while.
After Lyn Balfour’s acquittal, this comment appeared on the Charlottesville News Web site:
“If she had too many things on her mind then she should have kept her legs closed and not had any kids. They should lock her in a car during a hot day and see what happens.”
I imagine the pain that these parents are going through, reading these words that another human being typed to them, just typed, and something breaks inside me. I can't process it. But rather than pitting ourselves against each other out of fear, recognize that the monster who posted this terrible thing is me. It's you. It's all of us.
The ability to see through the fear and beyond the monster to simply seeyourself is often too terrible for many people to bear. In a world of hard things, it's the hardest there is. And we could sure use each other's help and understanding in the process.
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Humans, Hickling said, have a fundamental need to create and maintain a narrative for their lives in which the universe is not implacable and heartless, that terrible things do not happen at random, and that catastrophe can be avoided if you are vigilant and responsible.
We are vulnerable, but we don’t want to be reminded of that. We want to believe that the world is understandable and controllable and unthreatening, that if we follow the rules, we’ll be okay. So, when this kind of thing happens to other people, we need to put them in a different category from us. We don’t want to resemble them, and the fact that we might is too terrifying to deal with. So, they have to be monsters.
so my brother was telling me about this human resources certification he attended a while ago. in a panel, the panelist asked a bunch of people in attendance, “who here knows if an applicant for a job is right for it in under 60 seconds?”
hands shot up around the room, people smug about their ability to “weed out the riff-raff” when it came to hiring for their fortune 500.
“you should all be fired and probably in jail,” they said, waiting for the whole room to get uncomfortable, then continued, “because the only things you can really learn about a human being in under 60 seconds are all things that are fueled by prejudices and biases covered by american law. so now, i will teach you how to stop being racist, sexist, judgmental assholes and hire people that will better your company of employ.”
Thus begins what might be the most beautiful Craigslist ad ever written — it appeared nine days ago in the Boston area’s “Missed Connections” section. It is indeed a real ad; you can find it right here:
It’s a deeply personal (and apparently nonfictional) account of a brief chance meeting and a life consequently saved.
I am copying it in its entirety here:
[I met you in the rain on the last day of 1972, the same day I resolved to kill myself.
One week prior, at the behest of Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger, I’d flown four B-52 sorties over Hanoi. I dropped forty-eight bombs. How many homes I destroyed, how many lives I ended, I’ll never know. But in the eyes of my superiors, I had served my country honorably, and I was thusly discharged with such distinction.
And so on the morning of that New Year’s Eve, I found myself in a barren studio apartment on Beacon and Hereford with a fifth of Tennessee rye and the pang of shame permeating the recesses of my soul. When the bottle was empty, I made for the door and vowed, upon returning, that I would retrieve the Smith & Wesson Model 15 from the closet and give myself the discharge I deserved.
I walked for hours. I looped around the Fenway before snaking back past Symphony Hall and up to Trinity Church. Then I roamed through the Common, scaled the hill with its golden dome, and meandered into that charming labyrinth divided by Hanover Street. By the time I reached the waterfront, a charcoal sky had opened and a drizzle became a shower. That shower soon gave way to a deluge. While the other pedestrians darted for awnings and lobbies, I trudged into the rain. I suppose I thought, or rather hoped, that it might wash away the patina of guilt that had coagulated around my heart. It didn’t, of course, so I started back to the apartment.
And then I saw you.
You’d taken shelter under the balcony of the Old State House. You were wearing a teal ball gown, which appeared to me both regal and ridiculous. Your brown hair was matted to the right side of your face, and a galaxy of freckles dusted your shoulders. I’d never seen anything so beautiful.
When I joined you under the balcony, you looked at me with your big green eyes, and I could tell that you’d been crying. I asked if you were okay. You said you’d been better. I asked if you’d like to have a cup of coffee. You said only if I would join you. Before I could smile, you snatched my hand and led me on a dash through Downtown Crossing and into Neisner’s.
We sat at the counter of that five and dime and talked like old friends. We laughed as easily as we lamented, and you confessed over pecan pie that you were engaged to a man you didn’t love, a banker from some line of Boston nobility. A Cabot, or maybe a Chaffee. Either way, his parents were hosting a soirée to ring in the New Year, hence the dress.
For my part, I shared more of myself than I could have imagined possible at that time. I didn’t mention Vietnam, but I got the sense that you could see there was a war waging inside me. Still, your eyes offered no pity, and I loved you for it.
After an hour or so, I excused myself to use the restroom. I remember consulting my reflection in the mirror. Wondering if I should kiss you, if I should tell you what I’d done from the cockpit of that bomber a week before, if I should return to the Smith & Wesson that waited for me. I decided, ultimately, that I was unworthy of the resuscitation this stranger in the teal ball gown had given me, and to turn my back on such sweet serendipity would be the real disgrace.
On the way back to the counter, my heart thumped in my chest like an angry judge’s gavel, and a future — our future — flickered in my mind. But when I reached the stools, you were gone. No phone number. No note. Nothing.
As strangely as our union had begun, so too had it ended. I was devastated. I went back to Neisner’s every day for a year, but I never saw you again. Ironically, the torture of your abandonment seemed to swallow my self-loathing, and the prospect of suicide was suddenly less appealing than the prospect of discovering what had happened in that restaurant. The truth is I never really stopped wondering.
I’m an old man now, and only recently did I recount this story to someone for the first time, a friend from the VFW. He suggested I look for you on Facebook. I told him I didn’t know anything about Facebook, and all I knew about you was your first name and that you had lived in Boston once. And even if by some miracle I happened upon your profile, I’m not sure I would recognize you. Time is cruel that way.
This same friend has a particularly sentimental daughter. She’s the one who led me here to Craigslist and these Missed Connections. But as I cast this virtual coin into the wishing well of the cosmos, it occurs to me, after a million what-ifs and a lifetime of lost sleep, that our connection wasn’t missed at all.
You see, in these intervening forty-two years I’ve lived a good life. I’ve loved a good woman. I’ve raised a good man. I’ve seen the world. And I’ve forgiven myself. And you were the source of all of it. You breathed your spirit into my lungs one rainy afternoon, and you can’t possibly imagine my gratitude.]
I have hard days, too. My wife passed four years ago. My son, the year after. I cry a lot. Sometimes from the loneliness, sometimes I don’t know why. Sometimes I can still smell the smoke over Hanoi. And then, a few dozen times a year, I’ll receive a gift. The sky will glower, and the clouds will hide the sun, and the rain will begin to fall. And I’ll remember.
So wherever you’ve been, wherever you are, and wherever you’re going, know this: you’re with me still.]
California is facing a punishing fourth year of drought. Temperatures in Southern California soared to record-high levels over the weekend, approaching 100 degrees in some places. Reservoirs are low. Landscapes are parched and blighted with fields of dead or dormant orange trees.
The apocalyptic scenario needs to be leavened with some basic facts.
California has plenty of water…just not enough to satisfy every possible use of water that people can imagine when the price is close to zero. As David Zetland points out in anexcellent interview with Russ Roberts, people in San Diego county use around 150 gallons of water a day. Meanwhile in Sydney Australia, with a roughly comparable climate and standard of living, people use about half that amount. Trust me, no one in Sydney is going thirsty.
So how much are people in San Diego paying for their daily use of 150 gallons of water? About 78 cents. As Matt Kahn puts it:
Where in the Constitution does it say that the people of California have the right to pay .5 cents per gallon of water?
Water is such a small share of most people’s budgets that it could double in price and the effect on income would still be low. Moreover, we don’t even have to increase the price of water for residential or industrial uses. As The Economist points out:
Agriculture accounts for 80% of water consumption in California, for example, but only 2% of economic activity.
What that means is that if agriculture used 12.5% less water we could increase the amount available for everyresidential and industrial use by 50%–grow those lawns, fill those swimming pools, manufacture those chips!–and the cost would be minimal even if we simply shut down 12.5% of all farms.
Moreover, we don’t have to shut down that many farms, we just have to shut down the least valuable farms and use water more efficiently. If you think water is cheap for San Diego residents it’s much cheaper for farmers. Again from The Economist:
Farmers flood the land to grow rice, alfalfa and other thirsty crops….If water were priced properly, it is a safe bet that they would waste far less of it, and the effects of California’s drought—its worst in recorded history—would not be so severe.
According to data from the state Department of Water Resources, 43 percent of California farmland in 2010 used some form of gravity irrigation, an imprecise method that uses relatively large amounts of fresh water and represents a big opportunity for water conservation.
“I’m going to fallow two acres of my land immediately,” said Geoffrey C. Galloway, who has a citrus grove on his ranch near Porterville, in the Central Valley. “Depending on how the season goes, we may let another four go.”
…Last year, at least 400,000 acres went unplanted, and farmers reported losses of $2.2 billion, said Mr. Wenger, the head of the farm bureau, who owns a farm in Modesto. “This year we could see easily 50 percent more,” he said. “We are probably going to be looking at well over a million acres.”
California has approximately 25 million acres of farmland. And while our bodily fluids might be precious not every acre of farmland is. A few less acres of farmland producing low value crops in return for a lot more water is a very acceptable tradeoff.
The politics around water in California is insane and toxic. Traveling through central CA will show you "Congress created Dust Bowl" signs everywhere, put up by farmers annoyed that they have to pay anything for piping water into an arid climate.
That's the way it currently is. But is that the way it should be? I remember noticing that the workforce of the maternity ward at the hospital where our children were born was incredibly female dominated. Is there something inherently wrong with fields that naturally skew heavily male or female?
Consider this list of the most male and female dominated occupations in the Netherlands from 2004. It notes that:
In higher and academic level positions, men and women are more often represented equally. This pattern of employment has hardly changed over the last years.
Is programming a higher and academic level occupation? I'm not so sure, given that I've compared programmers to auto mechanics and plumbers in the past. And you'll notice squarely where those occupations are on the above graphs. There's nothing wrong with being an auto mechanic or a plumber (or a programmer, for that matter), but is there anything about those particular fields that demands, in the name of social justice, that there must be 50% male plumbers and 50% female plumbers?
For a counterpoint, I'll now turn it over to my friend Sara J. Chipps. She not only openly welcomes my stupid questions, she tries her best to educate me with empathy and compassion. That's why I love her.
Many people I meet ask me a variant of the question “I understand we want more women in technology, but why?” It’s a great question, and not at all something we should be offended by. Often men are afraid to ask questions like this for fear there will be backlash, and I think that fear can lead to stifling an important conversation.
Frankly, the Internet is thriving without women building it, why should that change? Three reasons:
1) Diversity leads to better products and results
As illustrated in this Cornell study along with many others, diversity improves performance, morale, and end product. More women engineers means building a better internet, and improving software that can service society as a whole. Building a better Internet is why I started doing software development in the first place. I think we can all agree this is of utmost importance.
2) The Internet is the largest recording of human history ever built
Right now the architecture for that platform is being built disproportionally by white and asian males. You’ve heard the phrase “he who writes history makes history”? We don’t yet know how this will affect future generations.
How can architecture be decidedly male? I like to refer to the anecdotal story of the Apple Store glass stairs. While visually appealing, there was one unforeseen consequence to their design: the large groups of strange men that spend hours each day standing under them looking up. As a woman, the first time I saw them I thought “thank god I’m not wearing a skirt today.” Such considerations were not taken in designing these stairs. I think it’s probable, if not easily predictable, that in a few years we will see such holes in the design of the web.
3) Women in 10 years need to be able to provide for themselves, and their families
Now, this reason is purely selfish on the part of women, but we all have mothers, and sisters, so I hope we can relate.
This year there are 6 million information technology jobs in the US, up from 628,600 in 1987 and 1.34 million in 1997. Right now jobs in technology have half the unemployment rate of the rest of the workforce. There is no sign this will change anytime soon. If growth continues at the current rate, it will not be long until women will not be able to sustain themselves if not involved in a technical field.
We have to start educating young girls about this now, or they may ultimately become the poorest demographic among us.
These are good reasons. I'm particularly fond of #1. Diversity in social perspectives is hugely valuable when building social software intended for, y'know, human beings of all genders, like Discourse and Stack Exchange. Also, I get really, really tired of all the aggressive mansplaining in software development. Yes, even my own. Sometimes it would be good to get some ladysplaining all mixed up in there for variety.
I suppose any effort to encourage more women to become software engineers should ideally start in childhood.
Dolls? Pshaw. In our household, every child, male or female, is issued a regulation iPad at birth. You know, the best, most complex toy there is: a computer. And, shocker, I'm kind of weird about it – I religiously refer to it as a computer, never as an iPad. Never. Not once. Not gonna happen in my house. Branding is for marketing weasels. So the twin girls will run around, frantically calling out for their so-called "'puter", and it puts a grin on my face every time. (And when anything isn't here, Maisie has gotten in the habit of saying "dada chargin'". Where's the milk, Maisie? "dada chargin'".)
But not everyone has the luxury of spawning their own processes and starting from boot. (You really should, though. It will kick your ass.)
What can you do?
If you're reading this, there's about an 80% chance that you're a man. So after you give me the secret man club handshake, let's talk about what we men can do, right now, today, to make programming more welcoming to women.
No feigning surprise. "I can't believe you don't know what the stack is!"
No well-actuallys. "Well, actually, you can do that without a regular expression."
No back seat driving. Don't intermittently lob advice across the room.
No subtle sexism via public debate.
Does any of this sound familiar? Because it should. Oh God does this sound familar. Just read the whole set of Hacker School guidelines and recognize your natural tendencies, and try to rein them in. That's all I'm proposing.
Well, actually, I'll be proposing a few more things.
This is why I loved the support groups so much, if people thought you were dying, they gave you their full attention. If this might be the last time they saw you, they really saw you. Everything else about their checkbook balance and radio songs and messy hair went out the window. You had their full attention. People listened instead of just waiting for their turn to speak. And when they spoke, they weren't just telling you a story. When the two of you talked, you were building something, and afterward you were both different than before.
Guilty as charged.
My wife is a scientist, and she complains about this happening a lot at her work. I don't even think this one is about sexism, it's about basic respect. What does respect mean? Well, a bunch of things, but let's start with openly listening to people and giving them our full attention when they talk to us – rather than just waiting for our turn to speak.
Let's shut up and listen quietly with the same thoughtfulness that we wish others would listen to us. We'll get our turn. We always do, don't we?
If you see bad behavior from other men, speak up.
It's not other people's job to make sure that everyone enjoys a safe, respectful, civil environment at work and online.
It's my job. It's your job. It is our job.
There is no mythical men's club where it is OK to be a jerk to women. If you see any behavior that gives you pause, behavior that makes you wonder "is that OK?", behavior that you'd be uncomfortable with directed toward your sister, your wife, your daughter – speak up. Honestly, as one man to another. And if that doesn't work for whatever reason, escalate.
Don't attempt romantic relationships at work.
Do you run a company? Institute a no-dating rule as policy. Yeah, I know, you can't truly enforce it, but it should still be the official company policy. And whether the place where you work has this policy or not, you should have it on a personal level.
I'm sorry I have to be that guy who dumps on true love, but let's be honest: the odds of any random office romance working out are pretty slim. And when it doesn't, how will you handle showing up to work every day and seeing this person? Will there be Capulet vs Montague drama? Let's be honest, the women usually get the rough end of this deal, too, because men aren't good at handling the inevitable rejection.
Just don't do it. Have all the romantic relationships you want outside work, but don't bring it to work.
No drinking at work events.
I think it is very, very unwise for companies to have a culture associated with drinking and the lowered inhibitions that come with drinking. I've heard some terrifyingly awful stories that I don't even want to link to here. Men, plus women, plus alcohol is a great recipe for college. That's about all I remember from college, in fact. But as a safe work environment for women? Not so much.
If you want to drink, be my guest. Drink. You're a grown up. I'm not the boss of you. Just don't drink in a situation or event that is officially connected with work in any way. That should absolutely be your personal and company policy – no exceptions.
There you have it. Five relatively simple things you, I, and all other working male programmers can do to help encourage a better environment for men and women in software plumbing. I mean engineering.
So let's get to it.
(I haven't listed anything here about mentoring. That's because I am a terrible mentor. But please do feel free to mention good resources, like Girl Develop It, that encourage mentoring of female software engineers by people that are actually good at it, in the comments.)
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Maybe it's just me, but reading this, then the Medium article, the only thing "ripped off" is the title and general idea that equality is a responsibility for the mens too. The rules recommendations are all different except for "speak up if you see/hear anything questionable". Sure he adds his usual SEO linking to every blog he's ever done and the expected self-promotion of Stack Exchange and Discourse, but hey, it's his blog.
Aha. Additional context helps. Saying "ripped off" or "plagiarized" is inaccurate beyond the title, as the words within are typical Jeff Atwood. Agreed that the execution of the post makes Jeff hypocritical, and the autism tangent is way too much, "See! It's *supposed* to be like this!"