No true conference organizers:

ashley williams
Dec 23, 2014 · 9 min read

Spool’s logical fallacy in his note on Codes of Conduct

Yesterday, Jared Spool wrote a blog post on Codes of Conduct at conferences. The crux of my critique against Jared’s post is the stark dichotomy he draws between creating safety and creating the feeling of safety. In this post, I’ll identify the points I believe that Jared is making in his Codes of Conduct blog post and then I’ll identify them as falling to the ‘No True Scotsman’, or appeal to purity, fallacy.

Jose declares that no organizer of safe conferences needs a Code of Conduct, to which Maria replies that she is an organizer of safe conferences who believes in providing a Code of Conduct. Wildly enraged, like any true person on Twitter, Jose declares that no true organizer of safe conferences needs a Code of Conduct.

To begin, I’ll say that Jared is right on many counts. Creating safety at a community event, tech or otherwise, is difficult. As someone who runs multiple meetups and has participated in organizing many events, I’ll go so far as to agree that creating safety is so difficult that most organizers often feel a bit lost and helpless as to how to go about it. Safety certainly isn't something that just happens because an event aims to gather “good people who know how not to be assholes”.

But then again, I’m not sure many people disagree with Jared on this front.

Where the trouble begins is Jared’s assumption that creating a feeling of safety is useless. In fact, he goes so far as to suggest that not only is creating that feeling of safety is useless, but that it is harmful because the feeling of safety can mask an actual lack of safety.

But then again, I’m not sure many people disagree with Jared that a feeling of safety can mask an actual lack of safety.

Jared boldly states in the announcing twitter post: “Code of Conducts[sic], considered harmful.” The main thesis of his blog post is a critique that suggests that one should not take steps to create a feeling of safety when actual safety cannot be guaranteed; or stated another way there is no need to create a “feeling of safety” when “true safety” can be designed. That is to say, avoid the stitches if you can’t do the surgery; or you don’t need the stitches if you got the surgery. Wait…what? Here the metaphor breaks down. It’s also where Jared’s argument breaks down; and, I think it is here where the crux of the fallacy lies.

Jared argues that, by employing Codes of Conduct, without the rigorous deliberate and designed elements of a “safe conference”, organizers and their attendees may believe they have created a safe conference when actually all they have created is the feeling of safety. With the false bravado from this “empty” action, organizers may fail to continue due diligence on designing a safe conference. With the false sense of security recieved from this “empty” gesture, attendees may fail to recognize an unsafe situation where one may exist.

This is probably true.

However, from here Jared makes some real questionable leaps in reasoning:

  1. Because a Code of Conduct does not guarantee a safe experience, they are potentially harmful; therefore they are all harmful and/or useless.
  2. The feeling of safety a Code of Conduct creates might be mismatched with the actual safety of the event, and therefore that feeling of safety is always useless and bad.

Here Jared falls to a classic logical fallacy: No True Scotsman, or rather an appeal to purity. Because Codes of Conduct might not be accompanied by the elements of a safe conference (as deemed by Jared), they are not true (in Jared’s terms, read: executable) Codes of Conduct; the feelings of safety derived from them not true (in Jared’s terms, read: reliable) feelings of safety; the safety they promote, not true safety.

Stated this way, Jared’s argument sounds ridiculous to me.

Jared suggests that a Code of Conduct is as effective at “creating safety” as TSA “security theater” is, stating:

I dislike this example. For one, I think it denies the feeling of safety value, where value actually does exists. Secondly, it strawmans the rules laid out in a code of conduct (regarding people’s behavior) with rules about physical objects; ostensibly these are very different types of rules.

Let’s try a less superficial example: criminal law.

Criminal laws state behaviors between people, or people and property, that should not be performed and what the consequences are if you perform them. The things one cannot do are sometimes very specifically stated, and sometimes they are really vague. Similarly, the consequences are also often up for interpretation.

There is a whole other organization(i.e. the police) and a whole other branch of government (justice department) that enforces and judges the enforcement of these laws. These things are also far from pure and clear. All my history and government classes in high school and college suggest that they were very deliberately designed, but even with literally centuries of history, how one should deal with a lot of pretty common situations is still hazy. Mistakes happen; gross, negligent mistakes happen, all the time. If you don’t know about this, watch some Law and Order (ping me if you want some choice selections). Or read a newspaper: there’s some relevant shit happening in the world right now.

Civilization has literally not figured out how to keep people and their property truly safe. Neither has Jared Spool. Regardless, I’m pretty glad that laws get written down and shared with people, even if they aren’t perfect.

Similarly, I’m glad we have Code of Conduct documents. And just as I believe that civilization is a doomed enterprise, I know that Codes of Conduct will never be ideal solutions. Consequently, if I thought laws/CoCs would keep me totally safe, without enforcement and judgement institutions, I would be an idiot. But I am not an idiot, and (at least in this regard), neither are most people.

As much as we’d like to reckon with the world on black and white terms, even the best efforts remain a bleak grey. There are safer and not-so-safe conferences. There are effective and not-so-effective Codes of Conduct. All of these things exists in a universe with seemingly no absolutes, and certainly no purity. There are measures to be taken to make a conference better. There are measures to be taken to improve the efficacy of a Code of Conduct.

However, there is no true safety (even Jared agrees to this). If there is no true safety, everything is really a feeling of safety, to different degrees of confidence. From here we can deconstruct the binary that Jared creates between feelings of safety and safety. They are not mutually exclusive. They are very much 2 points on a single “feeling safe” continuum.

Some organizers just do a Code of Conduct and that’s it. Some want to do more and don’t know how. Some do more but it’s not the right more and it doesn’t work out. Either way, it’s a move towards making people feel more safe. Creating a feeling of safety is a start; an important start- given that we’ve identified that feelings of safety are all we can really achieve, either by pre-emptively demonstrating intent with a Code of Conduct or responsively by taking actionable steps in the face of a violating act.

I was heartened to see this tweet at the beginning of the last BostonJS meetup I co-organized last week:

A feeling of safety

Is this person a deluded fool? According to Jared: probably. Again: I call ridiculousness.

In the end, Jared ends up making a thousand excellent points and one terrible one. He details, at length, extremely good ideas about creating more safety at events. It’s actually a damn shame he felt the need to make the post a polemic.

By insisting on purity, Jared fails the same way we know that perfectionism is a terrible way to write software. It needs to be iterative. Working deliberately to perfect a feature for a product is similar to working deliberately to perfect the safety of a conference, one is bound to fail in one of two ways: not shipping, or shipping something irrelevant. If held to perfectionist standards, either conferences won’t happen, or their attempts at safety won’t be timely or relevant to community issues.

However, Jared attacks this point head on, arguing that in matters of safety we can’t be iterative:

The trick here is that we don’t have a physics for social interaction. The design isn’t deterministic. We don’t have readily available mathematical models for avoiding the person-on-person version of the car-vs-gravity situation in Jared’s bridge example. Maybe one day we will; but I bet it will involve a lot of people falling through bridges. And that is awful. I know it is awful. But, I imagine it was also super awful when they first started designing bridges, too.

Before I conclude, I do want to say that my critique of Jared’s arguments is not an excuse to be negligent. I have been the car that plunges into the depths on more than one occasion. For example:

At the conference I last spoke at I ended up being stalked by an attendee. He followed me to the bathroom at the party reception, hid under the stairs, and grabbed me when I came back out of the bathroom, kissing me against my will.

It was not OK.

There was a Code of Conduct. In fact, you could consider me an organizer. There was not much that I could do besides report it to my fellow organizers and ban him from the current and future iterations of the conference. I am still glad there was a Code of Conduct. It gave me something to point to; I didn’t feel alone and I felt like I had a shared vocabulary to explain what happened. I didn’t feel misled; I didn’t feel tricked. I felt like something bad happened but I was at an event that had already defined what happened to me as bad, so I didn’t have to defend myself. And even though it wasn’t dealt with perfectly(what is the perfect response even?), I felt recognized. The recognition step is immeasurably important; in my opinion, it is sometimes even more important than any subsequent reactions.

Our message, both Jared’s *and* his critics, should be that communities need to constantly and consistently work to improve their standards of safety. It’s a forever enterprise. A Code of Conduct is a step in the right direction, though certainly not the only step one should take. Creating a feeling of safety *is* important, as is backing up that feeling with actions. They are both important; they are symbiotic, not mutually exclusive.

In the end, there are no true conference organizers. Just conference organizers doing better and worse jobs at making conferences safe. Instead of appealing to purity, let’s stay constructive and keep iterating on our efforts. Design is not opposed to iteration, rather, it is a very important element of every iterative step. The dicohtomies and post-rationalization Jared demonstrates in his blog post render his opinion unfalsifiable and, as a result, premptively end any further critical conversation about how to make conferences safe. That’s the last thing we want.

Perfectionism doesn’t work. Small achievable goals and a lot of humility do. We've learned this lesson in software, let’s apply it to how we build and secure our communities.

Thanks to my colleagues Sue, Kassandra, Ben, Adam, and Tyler at Bocoup for indulging me in an early morning sanity check before I posted this to the world wide web.

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