Code of Conduct and the IndieWebCamp Nürnberg 2018

I wanted to attend the IndieWebCamp Nuremberg this month, just as I did last year. While browsing the page for information, under "Participating" I saw a link to the "Code of Conduct" that one has to adhere to when attending the event.

There has been much talk about CoCs in the last years, and I generally try to ignore such things as much as possible, just like CLAs and NDAs. But now it was that I should forced to follow one, and asked some questions about it in IRC.

Levels of rules

My understanding of rules in societies is that there are two levels:

  1. Law
  2. Common sense / good sense

If you break the law, police will come and arrest or fine you.

If you do not follow good sense, people will yell at and/or avoid you.

So, why do we need a third level? A "Code of Conduct", which also could be called "house rules"?

If you add a Code of Conduct, you think that level 1 (law) does not help and level 2 (good sense) is not available/adhered to.

Why?

In the IRC discussion, Rosemary Orchard gave a couple of reasons for a CoC:

  1. People feel safer if some rules are written down
  2. People know that somebody will care when they have a problem
  3. It is easier to ban people based on written rules
  4. At international communities/conferences, common sense is not actually "common" because of different backgrounds.

Problems

People feel safe

Reason 1, "people feel safe", follows the same reasoning that states follow when flooding public spaces with video surveillance.

But just feeling safe does not actually make you safe. Video cameras do not make your life more safe, neither does a Code of Conduct.

Somebody will care

I'd have put this under "good sense", but that's obviously not enough.

Banning people is easier

The premise is that banning someone based on some written text is easier than referring to some nebulous common sense.

I did realize that in the end, every Code of Conduct only exists to achieve one goal: Make it easy to ban people from some space, be it an online community or a conference.

Common sense is not common

This seems to be an easy argument: Because of diverse social backgrounds, members of an international community cannot assume that other members share the same common and good sense.

If you follow this reasoning, then the rules written down in a Code of Conduct have to be very clear, so that people with different backgrounds can understand them without ambiguities.

And this is where it all breaks: Instead of clear and unequivocal rules, the IndieWebCamp Code of Conduct (and probably all others, too) is full of soft words that can be bent in every direction:

Respectful behavior

  • Be considerate, kind, constructive, and helpful.
  • Avoid demeaning, discriminatory, harassing, hateful, or physically threatening behavior, speech, and imagery.

If the organizers determine that an event participant is behaving disrespectfully, the organizers may take any action they deem appropriate, up to and including expulsion and exclusion from the event without warning or refund.

So what actually is "demeaning"? It's a very soft word that has no singular definition, and will mean totally different things depending on your background.

The same applies to "discriminatory" and "harassing". Almost every joke discriminates some group, be it guests in a restaurant (German: Ober-Witze), types of animals or groups of people that are on the losing side of a joke.

The Wikipedia definition of harassment refers to common sense, which we can't rely on because of reason #4:

It is commonly understood as behavior that [...] embarrasses a person

IndieWebCamps have hacking days where people code together. Now when I point out some stupid bug in someone else's code, this might embarrass the person who wrote it.

This already covers the Code of Conduct's definition of "disrespectfully", and bam, I'm kicked from the conference.

Together with reason #2 ("somebody will care") this will eventually lead to overreaction: When someone complains based on the CoC, the organizers will know that people expect them to do something, because they themselves put their conference under the Code of Conduct. Common sense will be less likely to be applied in such situations.

Fin

A Code of Conduct is a set of rules to ban people.

It is needed because people have so diverse backgrounds that no common sense exists.

People with different backgrounds understand the rules differently, because they are soft instead of explicit.

I will not attend the IndieWebCamp this year.

Other people can express the issues better than I:

Christian Weiske.

Comments? Please send an e-mail.