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This is part two of a blog series, about why the PHP community is having a rough time talking about diversity related issues (like code of conducts), and struggling to handle toxic behaviors from members.

In the previous article I discussed one of the major problems in the conversation: negative assumptions about people who either bring up diversity or try to amplify marginalized voices, and how these assumptions lead to people being actively ignored, accused of lying, or otherwise having their contributions devalued.

In this article we're going to look at another problem with how conversations are currently happening (especially in tech communities).

The problem stems from individuals acting like there is a conspiracy out to get them. This generally leads to them, and their followers, ignoring whatever is being said. Whenever we presume somebody has an ulterior motive, we are stripping them of credibility, which either halts or derails the conversation. It also strongly reduces the chance of any positive or productive outcome from the conversation.

Where did the conspiracy narrative come from?

Ignorance Leads to Anger

There are individuals in the PHP community that are dogmatically logic-minded. This is understandable, because a dogmatically logical mindset can make for incredibly good programmers. Unfortunately, when it comes to certain complexities like empathy, understanding and interacting with people, without the use of other thought-tools dogmatic logic can be a bit shit.

There are some developers in this category, who post all sorts of political things on their blogs, and have (in my opinion) some pretty outlandish views on the world. I too have some fairly out-there things that I find interesting. For example, I listened to a Hardcore History podcast that discussed who was worse: Alexander the Great, or Hitler? This essentially went through some reasons why Hitler was "doing what he thought was right", compared to Alexander the Great who was just trying to kill as many people as he could to make a name for himself and outdo his shitty father.

Now, there’s probably people that would say I was defending Hitler in that previous sentence and for that, I am likely to be called a Nazi. People don't always respond to things that you think are interesting in the way you will expect.

Sometimes empathy-impaired people write posts about gender or society that angers a large number of people. When they say something wildly outside the mainstream, they get called on it by large numbers of people trying to address their assumed ignorance, as well as people who just love joining in on an internet dog pile, and instead of reflecting or listening they just dig in against their "attackers". This too is entirely understandable, just unfortunate.

The Vicious Cycle

The more these folks share their thoughts that are outside the mainstream, the more people call them on their ignorance, thus the larger this perception of a "conspiracy against them" becomes. Later at a certain point, people just pile on these people for the fun of it, starting in with antisocial behaviors like trying to get people fired from their jobs which is not ok - ever. They then look for people who believe the same wildly non-mainstream ideas they do, often ending up in echo chambers (like Breitbart for example), which reinforces their convictions, leading to more inflammatory internet postings and mob reactions in a vicious cycle.

It only takes one person to get upset about an internet argument and contact someone’s boss to solidify a person’s suspicion that they are being personally targeted by an anonymous mass of people “out to get them”. We end up in a situation where anyone proposing we make the PHP community a better place is secretly part of this imagined conspiracy to punish them for daring to speak their opinion in a public forum. The vast majority of people (as far as I know) are entirely uninterested in messing with the careers of people they disagree with; They simply want to show that they disagree, and maybe help change a mind.

Examples of the fear of conspiracy results in the negative behaviors that can be seen happening currently in the PHP-FIG. Spurred on from fears that a Code of Conduct is coming to PHP, and after showing confusions about how Code of Conducts work in general, one person went on to spam the PHP-FIG so heavily he got a temp ban, arbitrarily starting talking about sockpuppeting, vote brigaded Reddit threads all over Twitter, started accusing the secretaries of using "selective" throttling, and all sorts of other nonsense.

I can understand being in their shoes and being upset, but they assume ulterior motive and conspiracy when there is none. This seems to be the root that causes these potentially minor conflicts to spiral out of control.

Their lack of understanding on how Code of Conducts work led them to think Code of Conduct (either in general or specifically in PHP) are "unfairly implemented". When it comes to his concerns that "the rules on self-throttling are enforced … let's say, 'selectively.'", it is understandably seen that way to him as the first and only person to receive a temp ban. It could also be because he is the only person so far to repeatedly cross the line enough that it needed to be done.

His toxic conspiracy theory driven actions within the PHP-FIG has lead to over twenty people independently filing complaints complaining to the PHP-FIG secretaries, all over the course of a few weeks. The fact that twenty people complained seen as evidence of an organized conspiracy, rather than considering that his own behavior, like a drastic and relatively sudden increase in snark and disrespect for other members in response to recent Code of Conduct conversations, might have been the final straw for many.

This example is used to highlight the issue, that once someone has adopted this mindset, any reasonable action taken to managed the situation is then considered further evidence of a conspiracy against them. Anything will be used to justify their position, rather than reflect on how they are interacting with and affecting that community.

Trying to Break the Cycle

Trying to help somebody trapped in this kind of downward spiral understand that there is not a conspiracy against them is - as far as I can tell - impossible. I often feel like I could help somebody have a breakthrough moment if I just explain something in a more simplified way, or use a better analogy. Why? Because I've been there, and I recognise a lot of the thought patterns, responses, and knee-jerk reactions to various concepts.

  • I used to think that calls for diverse speaker lineups were "positive discrimination", but I saw the light and changed my tune.
  • I used to believe the pipeline problem was a thing, but it really isn't.
  • I used to think Code of Conducts were pointless and daft, moaning about conferences implementing them with my friends like a sullen child. I still think they shouldn't be necessary, but recognize why they are.
  • I used to be offended when people talked about my privilege, thinking "I didn't have any privilege, I worked hard for my career!" but realised thats literally not at all what the term means.

It's really hard for anyone to break the cycle, while they are actively saying daft things and getting shouted at. The way I did it was by using my ear holes instead of my mouth hole, and listening to some amazing, kind, patient people. After a lot of long tricky conversations, I started to understand a few things, and over the last few years I've been on a mission to learn more.

One person who was way further entrenched than my previous self wrote the article I Was a Men’s Rights Activist - One man’s journey from misogyny to feminism. It is amazing.

Sadly I think some people are too invested in their current world-view to tolerate self examination at this point. Whilst they're a small number, they unfortunately can end up seeming like heroes in the PHP community, "fighting SJW conspiracies from invading our language", when things couldn't be further from the truth. Some act like they're against a specific concern about a PHP CoC - for example, but you'll find them outright fighting against any sort of CoC conversation. Some popped up in the Ruby bug trackers, snarking about CoCs wherever the discussion shows up, not just in PHP.

Stopping Others From Entering the Cycle

I certainly don't know how to help those people break their cycle, but we absolutely must avoid having reasonable people who were sat on the fence, running to these outliers.

One way this happens is when people are put on the defensive by being called bigots and misogynists. It's tough, and I'm guilty of doing this. When somebody says something bigoted, you want to say "That is bigoted", but then they throw up a shield and no ground is made. Maybe try and avoid using those sort of words, as I'm going to start doing from now on, and explain the problems in terms that sound more like an invitation to examine the issue and do better, rather than like an attack on them as a person.

This is a tiresome and frustrating for diversity advocates, as they are definitively the minority. When you have to explain this stuff over and over and over against a sea of people who may or may not listen, losing your calm is an understandable outcome, even if it is detrimental to the goal. I'm not going to tone police anyone, and if someone is being a massive asshole then you do you, but whenever possible we need to try and help these people learn from their mistakes instead of making enemies.

The only thing I can think of doing is putting together "Ally in Training" materials that attempt to explain concepts such as "Ally vs White Knight", "So you've just been called a bigot", "Dude Privilege", and a bunch of other things. As somebody who used to be incredibly ignorant to these topics, I feel driven to help the situation now that I've had my eyes opened.

You're No Angel, Phil

Oh absolutely, I have an awful temper at times, and my communication skills are sub-par. I’ve worked on those a lot of the last few years. I still swear like a pirate, and whilst I’ve cut out some of the stronger words, I continue to love my quaint British insults.

More than once I've seen people say:

If even Phil Sturgeon can understand this stuff, it's amazing that other people are struggling.

The fact that I'm not some innocent bunny rabbit, but am still a Code of Conduct supporter… well maybe that’s good food for thought.

Two Rudes Don't Make a Right

Beyond that, two "rudes" do not always equate. If somebody pushed you out the way on the pavement, telling that person to fuck off is probably a reasonable reaction. If somebody is doing something that makes a whole bunch of other people sad, or stops them being able to contribute to a community, then telling them to stop being an asshole also doesn't seem unfair.

I'm not advocating fighting fire with fire (two rudes that equate) because that just gives ammo to the people who consider this to be a conspiracy. What I am saying, is that frustration in dealing with these people has to be understandable, even if not ideal, and that those witnessing frustration should not write off the argument based entirely on tone.

This is called Sea Lioning, and it can be a real problem.

It's especially tough, when the negative actions of one person are not as clear cut as a push or a direct insult. When somebody is just a bit of an ass for months / years, and somebody finally snaps, it's the person that snaps who appears to be the problem, and it can be tricky and require a lot of patience and goodwill to unravel how things got to that point.

Summary

Whatever we do, we need to stop turning these confused extreme voices into martyrs, and we need to make sure our concerns against the extremists are directed against the extremists alone. That way, when they're ranting off about conspiracies, there is less of a chance that people in the middle will give their paranoia any weight.

Too often I have said something like "Look at this jerk rallying Men’s Rights Activists against Code of Conducts." and had some random person say "How dare you suggest that anyone not entirely convinced about Code of Conducts is a Men’s Rights Activist?!"

This is hard to avoid, because it would be like saying "Terrorists hate public transport" and somebody replying "How dare you suggest anyone who hates public transport is a terrorist?!" 🤔

It may not be a logical response given how words are supposed to work, but we have to be aware of how people are going to respond when we complain about this tiny handful of people, because that is how emotions work. This small group is the problem, and people with valid concerns, who are interested in learning more are totally welcome in the conversation.

I really have a lot of time to help people learn about this stuff, and wholeheartedly apologize to anyone who felt attacked during previous arguments with the small handful of the PHP community, who have gone so far off the rails they're entirely unable to be reasoned with anymore. You can always talk to me, about diversity, code of conducts, maybe somebody called you a bigot and you're not sure why, anything along these lines.

P.S: A huge thank you to everyone who took a look at this post before I put it out. All views in this article are my own, but I wanted perspective, the usual plethora of typo corrections, and some of my sentences get fantastically long. Amongst others, Derick Rethans, Graham Daniels, Jenny Wong and Margaret Staples were a wonderful help.


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Phil Sturgeon

Platform Engineer @ WeWork who talks about APIs a lot. Programming Polyglot, Pragmatist, Centerist and Sarcasist. Ex-The League of Extraordinary Packages, PHP The Right Way, Ex-PHP-FIG, Ex-CodeIgniter, Ex-FuelPHP, Ex-PyroCMS.

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