Insidious Assault: When Mistakes Become Bigotry – The Full Story

May 23, 2012 in It is what it is - opinion column | Comments (0)


As with so many things, it seemed simple. It was a situation that on the surface seemed benign, innocuous, but that at its core represented the most dangerous kind of bigotry as well as a valuable lesson about the pitfalls of failed communication on the social web.

So I did what any warm-blooded writer would do. I wrote a blog post. Reading it over, I decided to share it with a friend who then suggested I submit it to PandoDaily. They loved the idea, but as my initial draft was intended for here my personal blog and more of a blow-by-blow account of the situation (yes, venting), they asked me to make some edits to bring it into alignment with a more journalistic tone. I was happy to do so, so stay tuned for that. In the mean time, here’s the unabridged version of Insidious Assault: When Mistakes Become Bigotry.

If you’ve been paying attention for the last day or so to any of the major tech industry media sites you’ve likely seen a story about Kleiner Perkins Partner Ellen Pao and a lawsuit about alleged sexual harassment and gender discrimination.

Cases of this nature are serious stuff. There are many facets, not the least of which is that in a democratic society such as the one in which we live here in the US, one is innocent until proven guilty. Now for what it’s worth, and solely in my personal opinion (which is founded on nothing other than my gut), I doubt this is a bogus case. After all, in bringing the suit, Ellen Pao has pretty much put a bullet in her career (let alone her work) in Silicon Valley. Sad really, that if her allegations ARE true that her standing up for herself and her rights would result in such a thing, but we all know (sadly) how things work. If her allegations are not true that turns this into another kind of horrible thing.

But this post isn’t about that.

This post is about a seemingly innocuous comment made on Facebook by someone who posted the same TechCrunch link that I posted above. Here’s that comment:

If you’re here on my blog chances are you know a little about me and so probably can guess what part of that fairly shot off the page at me … “(and formerly gay)”.

Here’s the thing – the poster is calling into question the KP case, and is doing so by saying that the woman making the allegations is married to a guy whose own legal history is somewhat dubious … and who is bisexual. Not entirely sure how any of that matters, but there are some who are promoting what I’m calling the “peas in a pod” theory – if he is a crook, then she is a liar.

My mother always told me that we are judged not merely for who we are but for the company we keep. That if we hang out with bad people the assumption (rightly or wrongly) may be made that we are bad too. If we hang around with bad people others may feel that is a reflection of our own behavior. Overall I know my mom is right, though I don’t buy that just because this woman’s husband has a history of legal issues that she is engaging in a false suit.

Whether she is or isn’t frankly is none of my concern. I’m not a legal expert and will leave the detailed discourse on this to those who are. I am, however, an LGBT activist and why this individual thinks that the husband’s sexual history merits mentioning baffles me. Unless of course her inference is that bisexuals are crooks or bisexuals cannot be trusted.

It gets worse.

Within the thread several people begin to raise this very point – mostly wondering how this particular fact fits into the discussion, questioning the relevance. Granted some of the people were a bit aggressive in their tone; but rather than acknowledging that perhaps her comment was unnecessary the poster got defensive:

Though this post had been brought to my attention when there were about a half dozen comments, I opted to watch the conversation unfold a bit. The exchange above happened about 5 comments in. By the time it reached about 18 posts there were others who joined in – some defending the poster, others calling names. There were plenty of comments that pushed my liberal-leaning buttons, but rather than engage in excessive debate, I thought it most appropriate to address the initial poster directly. We were, after all, “friends” (on Facebook).

So I posted this:

“I am compelled to chime in for a few reasons. First off, the issue of the Kleiner case … sexual harassment is a serious thing – both for those who speak out and for those who are accused. I am not suggesting one way or another what happened there. I have no way of knowing. Frankly it’s none of my business. However, I do believe everyone is innocent until proven guilty. The bigger issue for me here, XXX is the utterly inappropriate and needless move you made to bring Ellen’s husband’s sexuality into this. I’m no legal expert but from where I sit it this has no bearing on EITHER case. Shame on you for bringing the issue into the discussion at all, XXX. It’s irrelevant. The fact that you attempt to deflect criticism about it by holding up your role as founding chair of XXXX sounds to my ears like someone who deflects accusations of alleged racism or bigotry by saying, ‘Some of my best friends are {insert minority group here}.”

Within 30 minutes my comment had been deleted.

And she de-friended me.

Okay so perhaps I did take more than a little bit of a “tsk tsk shame on you” tone, but there were other comments that were far more scathing.

So I re-posted my comment.

Thirty minutes later – deleted again.

Now I have deleted people’s comments from threads that I started on my timeline. Sometimes it’s because the person is derailing a conversation. Sometimes it’s because the person barges into a discussion and is insulting or rude in the way they engage. Sometimes it’s because someone exploits a discussion to pimp a product or service. In any cases I contact the person directly to let them know why I’ve deleted what they said; and in every situation the person has always responded thoughtfully. In some cases they apologize for having posted something that they didn’t realize would offend. In most all other cases they engage in a reasonable discussion about the difference of opinion, something that has led me in some cases to gain new viewpoints as well as help the other person see things in a new light.

THIS is the power of the social web – an open forum that allows for discourse and a way for people of differing perspectives to engage reasonably and in doing so, learn and find middle ground. That power, however, can only take place when people follow a few simple ground rules:

1) Be respectful
2) Be constructive
3) Don’t be an asshole

In terms of de-friending, I’ve done this too. Generally it happens, though, after multiple interactions that are in some way unpleasant, uncomfortable or just in cases where – as sometimes happens – I realize that an individual and I have perhaps drifted in opposite directions; but to unceremoniously slice someone without at least engaging in some discussion about the difference in opinion? That’s just a wee bit immature.

I realized the original poster’s item actually came as a comment posted on the TechCrunch article. So I did the only reasonable thing a determined activist would do – I re-posted my comment directly on TechCrunch so that it could not be taken from the thread.

This situation saddens me for two reasons:

1) This woman failed to see that her simple statement is the type of discrimination that is far more insidious and dangerous than blatant homophobia and;

2) The entire experience highlights just how far we have to go when it comes to leveraging the social web as a reasonable and powerful tool for change and how ignorant even some of the most active users of these platforms are about how to use them.

You will notice I have redacted the name of the individual as well as the reference to the company for which she was a founding chair so as to avoid identifying her specifically. While I may personally find her behavior slightly north of sophomoric and insulting, my objective is to use this as a teaching moment for both of the abovementioned issues.

First, as a reminder that every time you say, “That’s so gay” you are discriminating. Every time you say that two women arguing is a “cat fight” you are discriminating. These may seem to carry little weight or importance, but in the aggregate, over time, it is the small things that take away people’s power. In doing some research to write this post I came across a book that I think bears reading. It’s called Benign Bigotry. I haven’t read it yet, but based on what I’ve seen about it online, I will.

Second, grow up. If you don’t like something someone says or does try being an adult and engage with them reasonably. In Carol Bartz’s recent commencement address to the graduating seniors at University of Wisconsin-Madison she proclaimed that they were “a generation wired for transmit and not receive” and that they “must learn to listen”. These are words for all of us to live by. Beyond listening, try being respectful and if someone disrespects you, rather than acting like a spoiled child try letting the person know how you feel. Barring scenarios that involve trolls (a topic for another post) you will find that most people just didn’t realize how their words/actions were perceived and will be all-too-happy to apologize and return to the conversation with a fresh view.

We may use the social web to raise money and awareness for causes. We may use the social web to galvanize populations/groups into actions. But if the people who use these platforms day-to-day act like children, the social web will never be anything more than a series of toys.


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