Women, fire, and dangerous things

Published Sun, Apr 7, 2013 by Austin Govella. Updated Sun, Apr 7, 2013.

A code of conduct has two problematic assumptions. First, the community that presumes to create the code presumes to predict that future versions of itself will have the same values, express them the same way, and expect to manage violations the way violations are managed now.

Even worse is the second assumption: creators of codes of conduct believe they have the right to obligate future generations to the code of conduct they would identify today.

Not to mention, codes of conduct are never embedded with mechanisms for evolution and adjustment. Codes of conduct are always edicts, set down now and forever, presuming the future and the creator's own wisdom and discounting everyone who will follow, as if now, at this moment in time, we would suddenly know more than all other moments in time.

Statements of values

Wisely, some, sensing the problems with a code of conduct, have tempered their critique with an alternative: a statement of values.

A code of conduct is built from negatives: these are the things we do not do. These are dangerous things. Even if the code is stated in the affirmative, it is constructed of negatives. A code of conduct is exclusive, meant to exclude those who violate the code.

In contrast, a community constructs a statement of values from affirmatives: these are the things we believe. A statement of values is inclusive. All those who will prescribe to these values will be included into the community. If you believe fire is a dangerous thing, then you are one of us.

With a code of conduct, a violation is a violation. There is no adjudication. A code adjudicates an action as a violation or not a violation. It is a dangerous thing, or it is not a dangerous thing. Judgement is prescribed only to the sentence.

In contrast, where a code of conduct requires correct actions, a statement of values requires correct beliefs. Where a code of conduct only requires judgement of the sentence, a statement of values also requires judgement of the action. Yes the violator's actions may have violated our values, but do they still agree with our values? Yes, they may have done a dangerous thing, but do they still believe fire is dangerous?

Future tense

Where a code of conduct presumes to divine the future, a statement of values presumes to step out of time, to describe a pure and true comprehension of a community's culture. As human experience is embedded in time, assuming one can step out of time is like a fish explaining to an earthworm what it's like to be roasted alive and eaten by ants on a sidewalk in the Summer sun. In all the oceans and all the seas, there is no fish so prescient, and any fish who realizes this truth dies from the epiphany.

So, we have three problems:

What we have left is the past. We should not explain what we will do. Nor should we explain what we believe. Rather, we should describe what we have done. Our tribe need not mandate what actions make a tribe member. Nor should we mandate a creed. We need only tell our history.

Past perfect

How should we act? What do we believe? I don't know. But I do know our history. What I do know is that Saturday evening, I saw children playing games. I saw a child sing at karaoke. People brought their children to the conference. And, our metaphorical children, first-timers, are actively recruited to speak, trained in a speaker studio, set-up for dinner, applauded in public, and roundly welcomed.

Four years ago in Memphis, one of the memes was that "our women speak", and our history is filled with leaders like Christina Wodtke, Karen McGrane, Samantha Bailey, Sara Rice, Livia Labate, Mags Hanley, Erin Malone, Abby Covert, and Whitney Hess. Our women are not the exceptions that prove the rule. Our women are the rule.

So, Sunday morning, while you gather with good intentions (and I've snuck onto an airplane to go home and see my kids), I hope you don't try and tell future newcomers what they can and can't do at some unknown point in the future. And I hope you don't try and tell us what we believe.

Instead, I hope you tell our history. I hope you talk about your first Summit. How it was more like a confab than a conference. How we welcomed newcomers more than old-timers. How we talk more about ideas than about javascript. How we share stories and wisdoms more than we share rules and truths.

You need a code of conduct if women are dangerous things. If you never know how they'll react, if you must temper future behavior to avoid their danger. You need a statement of values if you believe women are like fire, able to warm you or burn you, and that they require a cosmology to understand the difference.

We need neither. Our women are neither fire, nor dangerous things. Our women are just a part of us. They're a part of our history. And our history is all we need.