Two sad stories, not just one

There are two victims in the “donglegate” story, not one. Employees need protection against arbitrary firing.

Jon Ronson tells the story of “Hank,” who joked about “a really big dongle” and “forking someone’s repo” at a tech conference.

Another conference attendee was offended and complained to the conference organizers, including a photo of “Hank.” As a result, “Hank” lost his job. Ronson thinks this is a sad story, and I agree. So does Christina Hoff Summers, who Tweets:

Man tells innocuous joke to friend at conference. Overheard by aggrieved woman. What happened next is frightening.

And, yes, the story is pretty much as you might guess. In Ronson’s telling, the complainant is a “men’s movement” caricature of the sort of woman who uses “being offended” as a weapon and has no remorse about wrecking someone’s life for an off-color joke.

But – also in Ronson’s telling – the complainant, named Adria Richards, is then the victim of an internet lynch mob. She is subjected not only to insults but to physical threats. She, too, loses her job: the on-line mob takes down her employer’s server, and threatens to keep it down unless she is fired; the employer (not named by Ronson) complies.

And, unlike Hank, who quickly finds a new job (at a place that, conveniently for him, doesn’t employ any women), the complainant is still out of a job, and still subject to digital harassment, two years later.

Ronson skilfully uses language and selects facts to make “Hank” sound like an innocent victim, and Adria Richards like someone who was last seen knitting next to the guillotine. Naturally, Richards (as relayed by Melissa McEwan) tells the story somewhat differently: among other things, she asserts that she protested against the firing of “Hank.” She also, (quite plausibly) accuses Ronson of practicing the bait-and-switch characteristic of low-rent journalism, setting someone up for character assassination by pretending to provide a sympathetic ear.
But put that aside for the moment.

Let’s assume arguendo that Adria Richards is precisely the sort of unsympathetic character Ronson portrays. (Of course, it’s also possible that being fired and then harassed for two years might have somewhat depleted her stock of empathy.) She is also – again, by Ronson’s account – the victim of a crime, and someone who lost a great deal more for complaining about the rude jokes told by “Hank” than Hank did for telling them. But somehow Ronson and Sommers sympathize only with “Hank.” Like millions of battered women and rape victims before her, apparently Adria Richards was asking for it. How is it possible that Ronson, Sommers, and editors of Esquire, and the publishers of Ronson’s book all missed a point which was obvious even to me, based entirely on Ronson’s own account?

After all, I’m squarely in Ronson’s target audience. I’ve been the victim of enough “STFU-you-privileged-white-male” treatment to fully sympathize with someone in the position of “Hank.” My natural response to pompous unsolicited moral advice is a rude gesture; I’ve been known to respond to the two hours of dim-witted “sexual harassment” training the University of California imposes on me every year by asserting I am already expert at sexual harassment and require no further training.

But how morally challenged do you have to be not to sympathize with Adria Richards, the victim not merely of organized intolerance but of a criminal conspiracy involving extortionate threats?

There’s a broader point here, too “Hank” and Richards both lost their jobs, though neither had done anything anywhere close to violating the law, or even raised serious questions about their job performance. That was possible because of the doctrine of “employment at will,” which makes puts every (non-union, non-civil-service, untenured) employee at the complete professional mercy of his or her employer. I think professors and civil servants are somewhat over-protected against being fired for incompetence or shirking. But it seems obvious that the rest of the population is grossly under-protected against the whims – or, in Adria Richards’s case, the mere cowardice – of the kind of people who wind up working in “human resources” departments.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: Markarkleiman-at-gmail.com

40 thoughts on “Two sad stories, not just one”

  1. "the two hours of dim-witted “sexual harassment” the University of California imposes on me every year …"
    I assume this is a Freudian typo for "dim-witted “sexual harassment training”".
    Cheer up, NYU probably has four hours.

    What's the theory behind repeating the course every year? University teachers are assumed to have memory deficits or are just generically slow learners? Armies assume that what a grunt (Br.E: squaddie) learns in boot camp stays learnt. Or is it that the party line is updated on an annual cycle, as in Stalin's Russia?

    Hear, hear on your central point. Lazy neoliberals note correctly that unions distort labour markets through featherbedding and undue job protection, and jump falsely to the conclusion that destroying them will bring about an efficient Nirvana. They ignore that employment is inherently an asymmetry of power and information. Stiglitz' and Akerlof's "efficiency wages" theory rests on one asymmetry on labour's side – employers don't know whether new hires will be conscientious, so instead of hiring they will pay bonuses and overtime to induce their better existing workers to work more, so equilibrium wages will be higher than market clearing ones and unemployment is inevitable. (I've tried to point out here the corollary that working hours will also be longer than optimal.)

    But there are larger asymmetries on the employer's side. Job applicants don't know much about the competence of top management, the honesty of the pension fund, or whether their immediate supervisors will be decent or sadists. They are also buying pigs in pokes. Unions are imperfect, but they do redress the imbalance in a crude way. Galbraith's "countervailing power" stands up well.

    1. "What's the theory behind repeating the course every year?"

      To avoid liability when harassment occurs.

  2. as a public school teacher in texas i go through similarly repetitive trainings each year. there is, in fact, a set of 10 training videos with follow-up tests which require 16 hours to complete on topics such as blood-borne pathogens, school bus evacuation and safety, bullying prevention, and filing child protective services complaints. i have seen some of these videos for 12 consecutive years. at one time the district used our staff development time to do these trainings but for the last 4 years we have been required to do them on our own time.

    the paternalism with which teachers are treated in texas can reach remarkable lengths. in one district i taught in, the principals were required to sit us all down before we left for christmas break to remind us that it would be 6 weeks before we got paid again and that we should remember to budget our money so that it would last that extra two weeks. at that time we received paper paychecks and we could not get it until we had sat through the meeting. i went through that the three years i taught there.

  3. It's difficult for me to gin up a lot of sympathy for Richards. As far as I can tell, she still has no awareness of why what she did was wrong and she's offered no apology beyond being sorry that "Hank" was fired.

    In all the other cases that I've read about of "internet shaming gone wild", from the "white people don't get AIDs" tweet to the Arlington cemetery photo to our friend "Hank", there's some understanding what their core transgression was, even if the reaction to it was ridiculously disproportionate. Maybe I'm missing it, but I don't see that from Richards.

    And, more to the point, Richards is the only one of that group who should have expected what she did would cause some kind of reaction. When you have 9000+ Twitter followers and you work in public relations, you can't argue that you had no idea your message would go beyond a small circle of friends. She clearly was expecting a big reaction, although obviously not the one she got.

    1. Richards honestly reported something that really happened to her. Why do you think that she had a responsibility to keep this man''s unprofessional behavior a secret? I don't understand what you think she did wrong.

    2. Sorry to blunt here, but who gives a rat's patootie about your deficit in empathy? That's between you and your therapist.
      Richards was the victim of an organized criminal attack, amounting to felony "extortion from interstate commerce" under the Hobbs Act.
      Last time I checked, victims of crime were not required to be moral exemplars to have their rights vindicated by the state, and supported by all decent citizens.

      1. Mark,

        You are right about the crime attack and moral exemplars and so on.

        But just as crime victims need not be moral exemplars to be entitled to protection and decent treatment, so too do they not get a moral pass on their own behavior. Sending tweets to 9000 people was inexcusable – in my mind more so than the jokes. If she wanted to tell them to shut up, fine. If she wanted to complain to the conference managers, fine. But what she did? Not fine.

        1. Why? Why did she have a responsibility to keep quite about his unprofessional conduct?

          1. Because publicly shaming two guys (including a photo of them) for telling juvenile sexist jokes to each other in loud voices, when less extreme solutions (such as reporting them directly to the conference organizers) were easily available and hadn't yet been tried, was a disproportionate response to their infraction.

            However, just because I think Richards did something wrong doesn't mean I agree with Chuchumbra, at all. The response to Richards was wildly disproportionate and wildly misogynistic. Nothing Richards did at all excuses what happened to her.

          2. I think the public shaming lies in the overreaction to the tweet – not the tweet itself.

          3. Kind of like, "The damage to the house came from the fire that swept through it, not the gasoline that was poured in the hallways."

          4. Excuse me. I didn't say she had a responsibility to keep quiet about it.

            Telling them to shut up is not keeping quiet. Complaining to conference managers is not keping quiet.

            Tweeting about it to 9000 people, including the photographs, is an irresponsible overreaction. Why? because it was likely to produce very bad, disproportionately bad, consequences for Hank. On top of that, it was unnecessary as a way to stop the behavior. It was simply punitive.

            Look. The complaint against Hank here is that he inappropriately put his grievance in a public forum which had very bad consequences for Richards. Well, isn't that what Richards did? She inappropriately put her complaint in a public forum, with very bad consequences for Hank.

          5. Hank had every right to air his grievance in a public forum!!! I don't hold him responsible for Richards getting fired or receiving threats. The complaint is against the people who cyber-attacked Richards and her employer, and with her employers for giving in to their demands (and his employer for over reacting).

            Don't provoke abusers or you're responsible for the abuse they unleash is victim blaming BS.

          6. I don't think it was inappropriate for Hank to put his grievance in a public forum!!! He had every right to do that – and the sympathy it garnered it is probably why he was able to find a job and bounce back so quickly.

            The problem here is not with the public airing of grievances, or even, as Amp suggests above "public shaming". If this had not been blown out of all proportion, the spectrum of responses to Richards', tweet would run on a spectrum from approximately "overreact much Richards?" to "grow up Hank" – and them moving on and forgetting all about it.

            I don't hold Hank responsible for provoking the flying monkeys to cyber-attack Richards employer, getting her fired with no other job in sight still two years later. I blame the abusers, the weakness of Richards' employer and generalized sexism in the tech industry.

            I don't blame Richards for the fact that Hank was fired and out of a job for a couple of, no doubt very stressful, weeks. I blame his employer.

          7. I don't think it was appropriate to post his grievance in that particular forum with Richards' name. This is especially so if he was familiar with the kinds of behavior those readers are prone to. I doubt that naming Richards was the key to his getting a new job.

            I don't think it was appropriate for Richards to tweet out the photographs. I can't say she was responsible for the firing, but I also think that nothing good could come of it and she should have realized that.

            If she or Hank wanted to discuss the issues publicly they could certainly do so without indentifying the other. It was legal, of course, but irresponsible and thoughtless in both cases.

  4. Two more stories for your collection! Curt Schilling figured out who two of the trolls making noxious remarks about his daughter were and got them fired/suspended: http://usatodayhss.com/2015/curt-schilling-lashes….

    I would somewhat criticize Sommers’ remark “Man tells innocuous joke …” and would re-write it as “Man tells mildly noxious joke to”. We are doing poorly at having a proportionate response to events like this. Even if Adria Richards is a humorless scold, the right response for HR at her firm is – you’ve roiled the waters for us, and distracted people from our product. Please don’t do it again. Same from “Hank”‘s HR person. As for the guys speculating about crude acts with Gabby Schilling, a suspension by their employers for couple-three months. Try and find a way to encourage better behavior and damp things down, rather than inflame.

  5. I think you've made an error in your account of the story – she didn't "complain to conference organizers;" she tweeted that photo and his remark to the world at large. That's a substantial difference in behaviour. Had she just quietly complained to organizers, who might have spoken to Hank equally quietly, or had she – gasp! – directly addressed him in the moment explaining her feelings, they would have quietly gone their separate ways EVEN THOUGH she overreacted.

    And yes, she overreacted, to the point where I think you are wrong in saying that neither had done anything "anywhere close to violating the law," and also wrong in seeing her as equally victimized. She victimized him, full stop, and in my non-expert opinion stepped well outside some legal boundaries concerning freedom of speech, right to privacy, or defamation. This doesn't excuse what was said to her on-line, and it doesn't justify her getting fired. It DOES mean that she needs to take responsibility for what she did, and since she appears incapable of doing that, I can't say I'm surprised to hear that she's not employed again.

    As for family background, wow – but unfortunately not relevant. Indeed, I don't think she checked Hank's family background before crucifying him. She simply judged his behaviour. And that is what the world is doing to her. The world is reacting wrongly, I hasten to emphasize, but not surprisingly.

    1. Richards tweeted about something that actually happened. "Hank" acknowledges that he made the comments in question. How is that "defamation"? This is not a privacy issue. He was in a public place. Heck, up skirt photos have been found to be legal because courts found women have no expectation of privacy beneath our skirts when out in public. Her tweet was clearly protected first amendment speech.

      The thing that made this go viral was the determination of MRAs to punish Richards for getting annoyed and saying something about it loudly. If they hadn't overreacted, no one would have been fired. And while we're at it, why aren't we blaming the people who actually made the decision to do the firing?

      ETA – actually, rereading the McEwan article, Richards' time line is different from "Hank's". She claims that "Hank" was fired before this all went viral and that it did not go viral because of her tweet, but because he posted about being fired to a message board. Those are probably things which can be checked.

      1. Her tweet was clearly protected first amendment speech.

        Yes. So was Hank's post. So what exactly is the complaint here?

      2. Her tweet was clearly protected first amendment speech.</quote>

        Can you develop that point a little bit? I'm struggling to see the relevance of the First Amendment here to anything Hank or Richards did. This is the first time I've heard the First Amendment invoked in a discussion of this incident and I'm curious about why you thought it was important to do that.

        1. It was invoked in the first post in this sub-thread, by Karin, specifically:

          "And yes, she overreacted, to the point where I think you are wrong in saying that neither had done anything "anywhere close to violating the law," and also wrong in seeing her as equally victimized. She victimized him, full stop, and in my non-expert opinion stepped well outside some legal boundaries concerning freedom of speech, right to privacy, or defamation."

          And, as I said above, I don't think Hank's post wasn't protected speech. I don't even think it was problematic. I haven't seen anyone here suggest that his post was the problem. Some of the reaction to Hank's post, which he is not responsible for, included acts and threats which are not protected speech.

    2. One of the points I recall from the original blowup was that "complain to the conference organizers" was in this case (as in many others) something of an empty option: there apparently wasn't anyone on the conference staff to complain to. Security? Well, if you don't actually feel physically unsafe, it's not security's problem. Program committee? They're not presenters, and they're not asking inappropriate questions of presenters. Local arrangements? They're not caterers or exhibitors or subcontractors. Conference chair? Yeah, right.

  6. Should I be glad that I am so out of it that I don't know what a dongle or a repo is? (I assume "forking" is slang for the other f-word?)(You know what, don't tell me.)

    I would just say, the problem is putting this kind of private squabble on the Internet. If a coworker does something wrong, the boss or the HR should take care of it. I don't see the need for internet hordes, on either side of the argument. Now, at some point, going to court may be necessary. But raking people over in public seems disproportionate if there is no actual tort, which in the beginning, I think there was not.

    Then again, I've never heard of any of these people. Lotta people with time on their hands.

    1. A "dongle" in this context is most likely a piece of hardware that contains user authentication credentials. You attach it to a machine to enable operations that require authentication.

      A "repo" is a collection of files. To "fork" a repo is to take a snapshot of that body of files in a particular state, which snapshot then forms the basis for a set of changes that you develop and possibly submit.

      These terms generally aren't slang for anything. The whole delicate "you know what, don't tell me" thing is maybe a bit overdone.

      1. They aren't slang, but "dongle" often gets a "heh heh heh" or an eye-roll or something, usually as much at the silliness of calling it a dongle (I mean, really) as at its phallocicity (or whatever the word for its essential nature is). It's the sort of word about which any joke is automatically lame, and thus any humor derived from it is either laughter at the user for being a tool or laughter with the user for having strong irony-fu.

      2. Based upon this, I'm having trouble understanding what was offensive, sexist, or unprofessional about the comments in the first place.

        1. The "big dongle" part is a pretty common double entendre, both because of the first four letters of "dongle" (and its similarity to "dangle") and because of the typical shape of one. Pretty typical juvenile humor and definitely unprofessional.

          The "fork a guy's repo" is different. What is odd is that you normally don't use the phrase with respect to a person. You would "fork gcc" (the GNU C Compiler) or "fork emacs" (a popular editor). You wouldn't talk about about "forking Richard Stallman's repo" (Richard Stallman being the original author of both pieces of software). That said, while this may have been intended as innuendo, e.g. sexual flattery (at least according to Jon Ronson's reporting), unlike the dongle part this one involves way too much inside baseball to pick out a meaning. Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.

          Still, why do reputable conferences step on such incidents that may be idiotic, but ultimately not particularly harmful behavior? Because, well, "principiis obsta". If you don't nip these things in the bud, you run the risk of tolerance being misunderstood as encouragement by some and things spiraling out of control. There are plenty of conferences that are such cesspits that I would be unwilling to attend them. And there've been incidents of sexual assault at the worst ones (DefCon, I'm looking at you).

          That said, my opinion on what Adria Richards did is pretty much in agreement with what Ampersand said above. She unnecessarily escalated a situation that PyCon not only showed it could control, but which PyCon also had pretty clearly indicated they would not tolerate, so she could be pretty confident that it would be handled if she reported it to conference staff. Worse, she does have history of doing this. Of course, none of this excuses the misogynistic garbage that was piled on her as a result (people who try to excuse rape and death threats make me ill).

        2. Ditto. I'm still lost! Oh well. Someone copied someone's set of files … and used a mildly spicy noun … that was as far as I got…

          As many of us apparently agree though, this much seems clear — it is better to try to deal with things face to face, as soon as possible. Also, good management requires vertebrae. That must be why it is so rare.

      3. I knew what a dongle is, having attached one to a computer at some point. Is its origin not as a variation of "dangle?"

        Surely "repo" is slang, as it is in its other meanings, at least one of which must be more common than "a collection of files." And why "fork," instead of, say, "copy?"

        1. "Repo" is shorthand for repository. In software development, the files that make up a software project are stored in repositories that are managed by change control software. The repository contains a history of all changes made to each file and a snapshot (a copy) of the project at any point in time can be obtained. So the project's progress can be viewed as a timeline. In addition, you can get a snapshot at a given point and make changes to those files. This is called forking because it creates a fork it the repository's timeline.

          1. First explanation written so that a non-techie like me could understand it. It makes Adria's rabid dog reaction sound even more like someone with a mental illness crying out for help.

  7. Back when I was teaching labor economics regularly (about 12 years ago, and before I retired), I used to suggest that one way to look at (some parts) of labor relations in the 20th century was as a slow reining in of the employment at will doctrine. The last few years suggest that, in some ways, we are moving back in the other direction (e.g., "right-to-work" laws–we need a better shorthand for that; broader attacks on many forms of employment security; the move to contingent/contract workers…).

    1. Why not call it what it is? Not "Right to Work", but "Fire at Will". Or "Fire for Nothing".

  8. So. Am I the only one who finds it … oh-so-annoying … to have to click on the triangle to see the replies?

    Is it me? Am I the problem here? Go ahead, I can take it.

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