A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away, at a technology conference which most software developers had never heard of, for a language which most software developers have only just heard of, a guy whose name is unimportant gave a presentation entitled CouchDB + Ruby: Perform like a pr0n star.
The presentation caused a splash, in a not-entirely-good way. Any publicity is good publicity they say, but the presenter in this case committed an unforgivable sin: he did something that made, or could have made, someone feel uncomfortable.
You see, this dastardly individual spliced 14 slides of suggestive imagery (read: scantily-clad but non-nude women) into a 79-slide Powerpoint presentation in order to get his point across: that applications built on Ruby and CouchDB “perform like porn stars”. He didn’t actually take a page out of Tyler Durden’s book and use hardcore pornographic images. The images didn’t even contain nudity, let alone porn, unless you have an extremely puritanical idea of what porn, in this day and age, actually is.
But he violated the ceremony of political correctness, just the same.
Rule of Political Correctness #4: Any person who commits a public act which could conceivably make some other person uncomfortable should be relentlessly castigated and harassed by progressive men and women until he or she repents and formally apologizes, loses his or her job, or both.
What followed was a lot of tired, angry, predictable blather from industry bloggers who should’ve known better. I was disappointed but not surprised to see Sarah Allen take a casual swipe at a guy who was obviously trying to spice up some rather dull technical material:
The second low point was Matt Aimonetti’s talk “CouchDB + Ruby: Perform Like a Pr0n Star.” It is unfortunate that he took this joke too far. What might have been a short, juvenille, eye-rolling bit of humor continued throughout the talk to become increasingly disturbing. Amidst this normally warm, welcoming community, I spent an uncomfortable half hour wondering if I had somehow found myself in 1975.
Cue the funky slap bass. This was on 20 April 2009. Five days later, Sarah Mei chimed in with Why Rails Is Still a Ghetto, playing off a several-months-old rant written by Ruby on Rails heavyweight Zed Shaw. (Zed’s post was written prior to the CouchDB Incident, but contained enough poisonous invective against the Ruby/Rails crowd—most of which was, let’s face it, probably justified—to earn him a sterling mention on TechCrunch. Zed later retracted the rant.) That same day, Audrey Eschwright took up the crusade against Evil Alpha Males in Dear Fellow Rubyists:
I struggle constantly, as a member of this female minority in Ruby and technology in general, to negotiate a representation of my sexuality that gives me a comfortable working space, but without feeling like I’ve compromised some part of my identity. I’m not female by default (because of my physical body); I have a gendered identity.
This author can only note that Newspeak phrases like “negotiate a representation of my sexuality” and “gendered identity” are at least as offensive, to some people, as the CouchDB Incident itself. However, Audrey’s post performed well on Reddit—performed like a porn star, in fact—garnering almost 200 upvotes and more than 500 comments. And two days later, on 27 April 2009, Peter Szinek, perhaps smelling blood in the water, jumped on the apologist bandwagon with a bit of herdthink imaginatively titled Rails *is* (still) a Ghetto.
Why can’t you [Matt Aimonetti] just simply apologize, admitting that this [the CouchDB-porn presentation] was a bad move (because it offended some, not because porn, sexual images or whatever in presentations are bad, per se) and finish the discussion?
The day after that, Mike Gunderoy sent shockwaves through the RSS feed readers of about six separate people when he announced he’d made A Painful Decision:
For what it’s worth, I think the original presentation was an inappropriate and regrettable mistake. However, far more disturbing to me are the reactions to the discussion on the part of some of the Rails community….So, effective immediately, I’m resigning my position with the Rails Activists.
The Ruby/Rails community, not exactly famous for hand-wringing and tearful apologies, issued the following response:
Yawn. Shrug. See ya.
But help was just around the corner. That same day (28 April 2009), well-known Microsoft blogger Scott Hanselman joined the crusade, publishing Don’t Give Bile a Permalink — Finding Balance within the No Asshole Rule.
There’s a lot of discussion on the Interweb right now about an individual in a technical community who used some imagery in a technical presentation at a technical conference that could be described as gender-insensitive. That’s a PC way to say it. Another way to say it is that a guy used a porn metaphor and soft-core porn imagery in a technical presentation in front of a gender-mixed technical crowd.
Meanwhile, Sara “The Girl Developer” Chipps made use of a whopping-but-common double standard the following day (29 April 2009) in C’mon You Guys, We Can Do Better Than This:
I am a feminist. I support a woman’s right to do and act the way she chooses to (and accept the consequences when they are due). I think that we should have the same rights engendered to a man, without question. I do not, however, disregard the difference between the sexes. We are women, you are men. That’s why I say “shame on you.” Shame on each and every one of you men who sat next to a woman and didn’t treat her like a lady. Shame on you for letting the women who were brave enough to come to your convention sit there, and experience the discomfort of having borderline pornographic images on the screen that were intended to arouse (admit it, it wasn’t there so you could all study the brilliance of the photographer and his use of light) and stimulate the audience sexually enough to keep them interested.
Society is still struggling with the idea that women are entitled to a) equal treatment while b) retaining all the little courtesies and privileges which men have customarily attached to women and which women have come to expect. So we’ll set it aside, as chivalry gasps its last breath, and turn instead to the de facto summation of the entire Matt-Aimonetti-is-a-bigoted-asshole crusade, incarnated in the form of a popular comment made on Reddit in response to Peter Szinek’s original post:
If you’re a Rails programmer, or a Ruby programmer, and you don’t decry this sort of thing, you have no business calling yourself a professional. It doesn’t matter how large your website is, how easy it was to write, how much better it is over PHP or ASP.NET or J2EE; by definition, you do not belong to a professional community. That’s all there is to it.
It’s incumbent on every Ruby programmer to either reject this sort of misogynistic sewage, or accept that you’re never going to advance the promotion of Rails in the public perception because members of the community still think it’s edgy or cool to put pictures of strippers in their public presentations.
And here’s a hint: if your decided reaction is to talk about how unimportant this is, how much it doesn’t matter, or how much it doesn’t offend you personally, you probably don’t understand professionalism at all.
By this point, the argument had grown some teeth. The gloves had come off. Witness the logic whereby someone’s livelihood is attacked because they communicated in a (supposedly, but not really) politically incorrect manner:
- Using, approving of, or failing to condemn suggestive pictures of scantily-clad women is misogyny: outright hatred of women.
- Misogynistic people are unprofessional and should be fired.
- If you don’t agree with me, you don’t understand what it means to be professional and perhaps you should be fired.
If Matt Aimonetti had done something egregious, this would make sense. If he had stated that women are sexual objects or women make poor software developers, I could understand the anger that’s been directed his way. But he didn’t, and to pretend that he did is to cheapen the experience of every woman who’s ever experienced actual, honest-to-goodness sexism and/or misogyny.
Take Martin Fowler’s Smut On Rails rant, published 30 April 2009.
It doesn’t matter whether or not you think the slides were pornographic. The question is does the presenter, and the wider community, care that women feel disturbed, uncomfortable, marginalized and a little scared.
A better question would be: does the community realize that pandering to women through faux progressivism is reprehensible and lame? That it takes more to achieve true equality of the sexes than parroting this sort of yeah-women-are-equal-but-they-need-our-surreptitious-protection-being-implicitly-weak-and-delicate-creatures sort of claptrap?
Would you respect a man who needed or demanded this sort of crutch?
No, you wouldn’t. You’d think to yourself in private: this guy is a little soft. Nice guy, but a little bit of a wuss.
And is that the secret message of your progressivism?
That women are softies?
Prone to crying, and so forth?
If so: who needs sexism! Your progressivism already includes it.
You see I think Matt Aimonetti was quite simply under the impression that he was giving a presentation to a roomful of capable adults—men and women—who could presumably handle a little sexual innuendo in this day and age of nonstop Desperate Housewives episodes interspersed with Trojan condom commercials.
Apparently, he was wrong.
And it forces us to at least consider the possibility that people who are deeply offended by a presentation containing a few frames of suggestive imagery…which they didn’t even attend…which occurred outside the office…might not be cut out for the relentless BS of corporate software development. Or corporate anything, for that matter.
After all, which employee would you rather hire or work with?
- The well-meaning employee whose zeal for technology sometimes causes him or her to exercise questionable judgment?
- The righteous employee, forever on the warpath, filing complaints with H.R. every time he or she hears an off-color joke?
I know who I’d want on my team.
I’m not saying sexism and other forms of bigotry should be swept under the rug; I’m not saying that it’s okay to use non-nude pseudo-porn in a business setting; I’m saying we should be very careful when using words like sexism, misogyny, or racism, either explicitly or implicitly. These are the armor-piercing bullets of the English language. Failure to use them with care hinders, rather than helps, the cause, and is likely to foster an image of you as an angry, bitter, forever flying-off-the-handle personality; the type of person who memorizes the code of politically correct conduct but doesn’t have any tolerance for your fellow human beings; nor any conception of what it means to have equanimity as an adult and a practicioner…
In short, the type of person who never gets invited to Happy Hour.
And ironically but predictably, all this vociferous complaining has had one cardinal effect, namely, lavishing the Matt Aimonetti presentation with ten or twenty times the traffic it otherwise would have gotten. You can’t buy that kind of publicity. Whether you think Matt Aimonetti is a sexist prick, a merely misguided, somewhat oversexed geek, or a brilliant technical presenter, it’s clear that the vociferous complaining has achieved exactly the opposite of its intended effect.
Rock the comments—like a porn star?—if you disagree.