Thinking about the Theory of Codes of Conduct …

So, Stephanie Zvan is commenting on someone who describes themselves as a thinker thinking about Codes of Conduct:

Oh, good lord, we’ve got a “thinker” on our hands. Seriously, that’s how he describes himself in the bio for his self-published book about psychopaths (based on his personal experiences rather than psychological research, natch). Only now he’s thinking about codes of conduct.

She pretty much describes being a “thinker” as being itself problematic in some way, with pretty much a “Lord, save us from the thinkers!” type of attitude. So what’s wrong with thinkers? It’s not that it’s that they think, as Zvan herself comments, so what’s the issue?

It’s the same problem that continually happens with people who define themselves as smart or as good thinkers: They forget about GIGO. They come to think of themselves as experts without having done any of the work.

This guy, in true “thinker” fashion, has decided he knows how people who work on codes of conduct theorize and conceptualize them without apparently ever having talked to any of us.

Okay, that might be fair enough, but it might not be. So let’s look at what he said (she quotes it herself, and I’m going to reproduce what he said here):

And indeed, I think the mainstream Code of Conduct model is based on false assumptions. The mainstream theory of harassment (let’s call it “Model A”) has these assumptions:

  1. Anyone can be the harasser.
  2. Harassment is a motiveless act.
  3. Outlawing harassment will stop it

So, what is Zvan’s issue here?

Those are indeed false assumptions. They are also not even close to the premises I’m working from when I talk about codes of conduct.

Note the issue here? He’s talking about the mainstream, standard view here. Zvan, in arguing against that, says that it’s not what she thinks about. But just because it’s not Zvan’s view doesn’t mean that it isn’t the mainstream view, unless Zvan wants to claim that her view just is the mainstream view, I guess because she does so much work on them. But she’d definitely need to demonstrate that. Even more interestingly, Zvan shifts from his view here — which is about harassment — to talking about Codes of Conduct in general. So what she thinks about when talking about Codes of Conduct is irrelevant when we’re talking about people think about when we talk about harassment. Just from this — although, in the interests of full disclosure, I have read all of the original post — it seems that Hintjens — whom she, oddly enough, never refers to by name in the entire post — is saying that we have Codes of Conduct to stop harassment, and that the Codes of Conduct we develop don’t work because they have a false idea of what harassment is.

This is actually really important to note, because when Zvan lists her list of 30 premises, it turns out that her main goal when thinking about Codes of Conduct is not to do that. She mentions harassment exactly once … and only as a special case of “violating boundaries”. Indeed, all of her premises talk about violating boundaries. From this, it seems quite reasonable to conclude that she thinks that Codes of Conduct exist to stop violations of personal boundaries, whether those violations rise to the level of harassment or not.

The problem with this is that when people insist that we need Codes of Conduct, they don’t usually justify it by appealing to violations of personal boundaries. The examples are always of very egregious violations that rise to the level of harassment. So either the mainstream view of Codes of Conduct is that they’re there to stop harassment — and thus, Zvan’s view isn’t the mainstream — or else the people who are pushing for Codes of Conduct really are interested in ensuring that personal boundaries aren’t violated, but are using the specific instances of harassment to justify a broader category than that. And a big part of the issue here is that while you can’t justify not stopping harassment with “People need to handle that themselves with the normal social mechanisms”, it’s perfectly reasonable to say that we don’t need a Code of Conduct to specify what things violate one’s personal boundaries … and, indeed, as those are personal a Code of Conduct can’t specify them anyway. What a Code of Conduct should do, then, is say that if someone violates your personal boundaries and it bothers you, you need to make it clear that it does, and that once you do so if they continue to take that action, then that’s likely harassment and can be reported as such.

As we go through the list, though, it’s clear that Zvan doesn’t want that either:

2. Societally, we consider the boundaries set by certain groups of people as inherently less valid, meaning those people encounter more boundary-violating behavior.

8. Societally, we make certain groups of people work harder to have their boundaries recognized and respected.
9. Societally, we punish the setting of certain boundaries.
10. When we gather together for the purposes of work, requiring people to continually set and enforce their boundaries cuts into our collective productivity.
11.When we gather together for the purposes of fun, requiring people to continually set and enforce their boundaries cuts into their fun by making them work.
12. A code of conduct that sets out certain boundaries up front reduces the amount of individual work participants need to take on.
13. A code of conduct that explicitly recognizes boundaries of certain groups reduces the amount of extra work those groups have to do.

At this point, we’re not really talking about personal boundaries anymore, because you can’t do this for personal boundaries. What we’re talking about are group boundaries, meaning boundaries that it is presumed that everyone has or at least ought to have. And in relation to Codes of Conduct, there are some issues here:

1) We actually already have that, in terms of societal norms, which define what behaviours are acceptable and what behaviours aren’t, and under what circumstances. Given that, we could simply do what some critics do and say that the sort of boundary violations that she’d be worried about here need to be settled with the existing social mechanisms, and once those mechanisms break down you’re definitely getting into harassment territory … or, at least, getting into a dispute situation that it would be obvious that the organizers need to resolve.

2) The existing social mechanisms don’t just specify what things not to do, but what things you can do. If the Code of Conduct doesn’t specify what things are allowed, it will be assumed that anything not mentioned is okay, unless it puts in some kind of vague statement that things not covered might still be a problem … at which point, people need some way to determine what is and isn’t allowed, because the Code of Conduct — which, by Zvan’s own statements, is supposed to save us effort by spelling this out — either will drop us back into the same situation or, even worse, will force people to go through the formal process to find out if it’s a problem or not.

3) Zvan is trying to divide it up by subgroups, and is giving particular priority to “certain groups” whose boundaries she feels get respected less. But if you aren’t going to rely on the societal boundaries, then you have to define this for all groups. She can argue that we need Codes of Conduct to replace the societal boundaries because they tend to exclude these groups and privilege other groups, but she’d still need to include the other groups specifically as well. In short, she’d need to include the boundaries that apply to the so-called privileged groups as well as the boundaries that apply to those certain groups that she’s really concerned about.

4) Even if she can manage this, there may be issues when she has to include every group that has been marginalized by society. For example, one of the clashes has been with people who are in technology fields or who are gamers, but gamers themselves are a marginalized group. Certain behaviours that Zvan likely thinks acceptable might indeed potentially violate their boundaries, like some sorts of flirting or even dress. This isn’t that big an issue for Zvan — as if she was being consistent she’d just include them — until …

5) When you try to set boundaries for the group, you run into the issue that boundaries are, in fact, personal, and so you can never actually define boundaries for the group that cover everyone. This means that the best you can do is cover what the majority think, or rather that you should cover what a reasonable member of that group sets as personal boundaries. But, of course, Zvan disagrees with using the “reasonable person” standard. Okay, so then how does she determine what is and isn’t acceptable or reasonable? If whatever a person thinks is a violation of their personal boundaries counts, then we’re back to the original implementation, except that if she is going to actually use the Code to enforce the “If they think their boundaries are being violated, they are” idea, then people will end up violating the Code for actions that they couldn’t possibly have known would violate someone’s personal boundaries — as it’s unique to them — and if you don’t enforce it then all you really have is a “If someone violates your boundaries, tell them, and if they persist, that’s harassment” Code of Conduct, which is not what she wants.

But, of course, if you actually try to outline specific behaviours so that people know what to avoid, then you’re going to get disagreements over what things ought to actually count as violations. For example, in the earlier discussions I’ve noted that they’ve tried to introduce the idea that you ought not touch someone else without getting permission first, because some people find being touched uncomfortable. I find this idea utterly infantilizing and patronizing as someone who is not exactly comfortable with being touched. You’ll also see the arguments over things like, say, cat-calling, where some women have pointed out that they happen to like being cat-called (I don’t understand it myself, but who am I to argue?). And if you argue that people ought to find out if the person likes those behaviours before doing them, either you effectively ban the behaviours, or else you end up adding lots and lots more work .. which Zvan explicitly wants to avoid. And if the behaviours are commonplace, then you end up fielding a lot more complaints because of some minority of people who might find it uncomfortable but who, for some reason, can’t just make that clear.

Given this, it’s no wonder her attitude towards zero tolerance policies:

23. We have good information from a variety of sources telling us that “zero tolerance” solutions don’t solve these problems.

Yes, zero tolerance solutions don’t work when you’re trying to enforce personal boundaries, because given the variety of people from a variety of cultural backgrounds if you try to enforce zero tolerance solutions you end up either banning most interactions or else being so vague that you’re constantly having to address issues, but don’t really have recourse to say that it isn’t really a violation. But if the Code of Conduct was trying to stop harassment, then you definitely could have a zero tolerance solution, because once it was identified as harassment — essentially meaning that the person either knew or ought to have known that the behaviour was unwelcome — then action needs to be taken. It’s only this vague “personal but group boundaries” solution where you have to make sure that you don’t kick people out for legitimate misunderstandings that, nevertheless, violated the Code of Conduct.

Of course, there are a couple of other problems with not having a zero tolerance policy:

1) The complaint that was raised was that even places that had Codes of Conduct — like TAM — could ignore instances of harassment if the organizers didn’t see it as such. Zero tolerance forces organizers to take the complaints seriously, even if they don’t agree with them. Backing away from that simply reintroduces the problems that specific Codes of Conduct were invented to solve.

2) Less popular and less socially adept people — on either side of the policy — will be disadvantaged by this as they will be less likely to get the benefit of the doubt than people who are more popular and, particularly, are more popular with the organizers than they are. Thus, it is likely that they will be censured for less serious offenses than the people who are more popular. A set Code of Conduct avoids this, but as Zvan notes it doesn’t work for what she wants it to do.

The really interesting thing to note here is the actual lack of thinking in the actual post. I’m not saying that she hasn’t thought about any of this, but all she’s doing in the post is listing a bunch of principles, some of which are poorly thought out. She doesn’t talk about anything else in his post — including his own solution (which seems to be somewhat in line with what she wants). She doesn’t engage his actual solutions or thoughts on the issue, then, and merely dumps this as an excuse to avoid thinking so that she can then say this:

That is what you get if you actually talk to someone who works on these things instead of just thinking up what we must think. And this is why you need real information instead of just being a “thinker” if you want to present yourself as any kind of expert and not be laughed out of the room.

But she never gives any reason to think that he should be laughed out of the room, and never even demonstrates that he’s wrong about the mainstream view. She doesn’t demonstrate that he’s presenting himself as any kind of expert. Her entire post, which starts from denigrating “thinkers”, shows a complete lack of thinking.

Perhaps Hintjens is not the one we should be laughing out of the room.


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