The Dilemma of Confronting Abusers Who Do “Good Work”

The Dilemma of Confronting Abusers Who Do “Good Work” June 27, 2016

We’ve all encountered that person who does “good work” but has shitty interpersonal skills or is even abusive. What to do then?

Photo by Unsplash. By Nicole Mason.
Photo from Unsplash. By Nicole Mason.

I don’t work in tech, but I sometimes follow tech news. For one thing, there are a lot of folks in the tech industry in my life (mostly software engineers, like my life partner); for another, I do some scholarly work in the digital humanities, so it just makes sense for me to keep abreast of some trends.

So when I read about the evidence stacking up against Jacob Appelbaum, who’s been in and out of various tech/sex industry connections, I became quite interested. One of the best takes on the case that I’ve seen is by Violet Blue. It details the repeated incidents he enacted on his colleagues at work, which ranged from outright abusive to just bizarre. Apparently, one of the reasons it took so long for the harassment and so on to surface is that Appelbaum reportedly did “good work” and thus people wanted to shield him from the consequences of his actions (or they didn’t believe he was capable of it in the first place).

As Violet Blue writes:

When someone harasses, humiliates, discounts, abuses, threatens, stalks, takes action to harm someone, no — they do not do good work. And this is one of the biggest problems in hacker culture, and it will always make me and my sisters and LGBT and non-white family unsafe.

If you find out someone is doing any of the things I have described in this essay, their work is not good. There is always, always someone else who can do that work. And that other person will do it better because they are not handicapped by being fucked up.

This helps reframe the discussion from “aw, but so-and-so does good work” to a recognition that doing good work in incompatible with making people feel unsafe through either action or inaction. Maybe there’s some potential for short-term or limited benefit from someone’s work, and we can’t deny the long litany of people who’ve changed world history but also did awful things like keeping slaves or whatever. But if you want to build a sustainable infrastructure moving forward, the “but they do good work” excuse won’t get you very far.

On the one hand, I feel like a truly sex-positive approach to a situation like this is to make it safe for everyone. That means removing the abuser from the situation (by firing him, not working with him, or whatever), and not feeding bullshit rape culture tropes about how you need XYZ number of claims against someone for it to really count, or whatever.

On the other hand, I believe that a thoroughly sex-positive approach needs to not dehumanize abusers. You can say: you are not welcome here, you need to change, you need to do better, but do it over there please… but I don’t think it’s helpful to conflate every facet of a person’s identity with the abuse they’ve performed. That way lies no path to redemption, no incentive to do so. These thoughts are preliminary, and I don’t really have a good sense of where to go from there. I just wanted to note them here.


See also: Covering Up Rape in a Community That Values Consent


In terms of solution space, I really like the ideas in the blog post No More Rock Stars. These include:

  • Starting with the assumption that harassment reports are true
  • Making it easy for victims to find and talk with each other
  • Keeping an eye out for small boundary violations and taking them seriously
  • Calling attention to people who monopolize time, energy, credit
  • Not sinking all the resources into one person’s talent at an organization
  • Minimizing organizational hierarchy
  • Having (and enforcing) policies around sexual/romantic relationships within the group
  • Encouraging reasonable work/life balance
  • Cultivating environments that aren’t as conducive to boundary violations

These seem like generally sound principles, reminding me of the axiom in my post about sex scandals about how you do anything is how you do everything. I also like how the authors disambiguate between two potential causes of a situation that looks fishy. I quote at length:

  1. A clueless person makes a few innocent, low-level mistakes and actually gets called on one of them fairly quickly. Signs that this is the likely case: the actual incident is extremely easy to explain as a mistake, the accused quickly understands what they did wrong, they appear genuinely, intensely embarrassed, they apologize profusely, and they offer a bunch of ways to make up for their mistake: asking the video of their talk to be taken down, writing a public apology explaining why what they did was harmful, or proposing that they stop attending the event for some period of time.
  2. A person who enjoys trampling on the boundaries of others has been behaving badly for a long time in a variety of ways, but everyone has been too afraid to say anything about it or do anything about other reports. Signs that this is the likely case: the reporter is afraid of retaliation and may try to stay anonymous, other people are afraid to talk about the incident for the same reason, the reported incident may be fairly extreme (e.g., physical assault with no question that consent was violated), many people are not surprised when they hear about it, […] the accused tries to change the subject to their own grievances or suffering, the accused admits they did it but minimizes the incident, or the accused personally attacks the reporter.

I shared this segment because I think it’s important to recognize that sometimes people don’t realize how inappropriate their behavior is, and ideally they should be given a chance to reform. How many chances do they get? I’m not sure; that answer probably depends on context.

Again, I wish I had more answers, but I think this is important to talk about.

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