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Sunday, April 21, 2013

Quality and Quantity in Exclusionary Language

Recently, I had yet another discussion following the exactly same lines. Someone points out a childish, sex-related joke. Someone calls it sexist. Half a dozen people get mightily upset because that’s just a joke, and not sexist.

Now it would be easy to dismiss this as the usual privileged male talk that it partly indeed is. But that’s not going to change anything, and more importantly, it misses something crucial. Namely, that those people do have a point.

They do have a point because, while some of the objectification plays into a culture where women are not seen as people of their own agency, in general talking about sex and our bodies should not be a problem. A woman’s breasts are beautiful, a man’s penis is great (see what I did there?), and we should love our bodies and cherish them. In that sense, one joking reference to “big boobs” or a humorous ambiguous use of the hilarious word “dongle” should really be ok. Sex and our bodies are wonderful, and we should not shy away from talking about that.

And that is indeed just what many people see when they hear someone complain about those jokes. A single incident that is maybe a bit childish, maybe a bit over the top, maybe a bit out of place at a professional conference, but in the end, harmless.

Quantity, not Quality

But that is not what other people see. Many places related to tech culture have recurring and repeating cases of a type of locker room humor that can get highly annoying. This creates an atmosphere where the present people are all assumed to be heterosexual men, with their specific preferences and ideas. Women, gay men and transsexuals are simply not present in the mind of most participants in those jokes as members of the community around them.

This creates an in-group and an out-group, and in the end, greatly diminishes the diversity of our culture. I do not want to be a part of such a limited culture.

Again, this is not the fault of any single joke or incident. If that joke had been the only one ever, probably no one would notice. But jokes and comments do not happen in a vacuum, and when talking about such acts, we need to take the environment into account. And that environment in the tech culture, sadly, is quite full of such issues.

But for members of these communities, this atmosphere is hardly noticeable. It has become normal, a background noise they do not think much about. Especially for heterosexual men, it’s difficult to see the problem. After all, they are still in the “in-group”. So anyone bringing up any such incident will be seen as overreacting, because they do only see this individual incident in isolation. And so the person to bring the topic up will be told to “lighten up” with the best intentions. But that completely misses out on the actual issue.

Dealing With Quantity

The only way to deal with this atmosphere is to deal with the repeating incidents. As we can not impose an artificial limit on the total quantity of such incidents, the option we have left is to reduce the amount by trying to avoid most instances in the first place.

This can be annoying at times. But it’s the only way to create an environment where we do not implicitly exclude diversity.

Even more annoying, this is not simply an issue about any single venue. The prevalence of locker room humor in the tech industry has tainted us all. Even if a single chat room is usually free of such humor, it’s still important to make the point that this is deliberate and that the chat room indeed is different from what people might have experienced elsewhere.


A recurring problem in discussions about exclusionary language and behavior online is a miscommunication about why a particular incident is bad. Some people will see the incident in complete isolation and be confused about where the problem is, while others will see the incident in a context of recurring offenses and wonder why anyone would defend such acts.

It’s important that we both realize and also communicate that this context exists, and that the context is the problem. From there on, we can try and improve the atmosphere.