Codes of Conduct don’t do enough to prevent bad behavior, or at least that’s the latest argument against them. So is the problem with the social contract they impose, or with the behavior? When we argue the problem is the code, and not the conduct, we cast out a red herring that distracts our limited time and attention away from the real problems that require real work. And if you recognize the problems codes of conduct attempt to address, why would you want to do that?
In Tweaking the Moral UI, this week in A List Apart, Christina Wodtke called for other conference speakers to support the need for codes of conduct to address, define, and respond to breeches in our behavior. While we might optimistically anticipate interacting with the angels of our better selves, if you work with people or design for users experience teaches you to meter that optimism with realism: our better selves don’t always show up. This isn’t a sigh of cynicism, but a mark of maturity. Conferences are made of people, and people don’t always behave in a way that is respectful. Sometimes there’s alcohol, sometimes there are jerks. Sometimes, humans aren’t always humane–and we bristle at that notion.
Public displays of bad behavior are common–or common enough–in our industry. Yet now we derail small, swift actions in response to the problem by giving more time to ponder the most practical, judicious, and legally protected ways to respond. In the long run, I think that kind of deliberation is good. It helps to ensure more immediate actions, like Codes of Conduct, are legally sustainable. But when we let perfection distract from incremental change–that old saw about letting perfect be the enemy of good–we cannot make progress on either short or long term change.
Mike Monteiro argued codes of conduct aren’t good because they don’t fix enough, and they aren’t necessary because they don’t fully fix the true social evils in our world.
That argument may be true, but it isn’t right, realistic, or relevant to making incremental change.
Other social challenges test the argument.
If we cannot do enough, we shouldn’t do anything. That’s the argument of cynics and people who bemoan the fate of global warming. The planet is on its own course, with polar ice caps melting into the ever-rising sea levels. They throw up their hands, except while driving to the corner market in high emission, low fuel economy, giant SUVs. This is also the argument of the pampered princesses on My Super Sweet Sixteen. If they cannot get the Lexus they want when they want it, nothing will do.
Daddy, if I cannot have an Oompa Loompa right now, I will scream. It’s not enough to just get to see Oompa Loompas and hear them serenade you–you must have one right now now now. All-or-nothing arguments for immediate change are Veruca Salt activism and hardly the province of adults working collaboratively, constructively toward real social change.
Not to say social movements don’t warrant bold and immediate action. That need allowed Malcolm X to champion righteous anger in the face of enduring, systemic racism. It was an ethical and proportional response to unchecked violence. There’s a place for his response in ethical action. There’s a place for rioting after the systemic racism that visited Ferguson, Missouri, and the family of Eric Garner. An angry response demanding immediate change is righteous, ethical, and appropriate.
In the wake of rioting, many people have voiced their support while calling for peace by quoting Malcolm X’s counterpart, Martin Luther King, Jr. “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice,” he evangelized. He advocated patience, endurance, and discipline in the work toward social justice.
He wasn’t wrong, but the Civil Rights movement needed both the patient perspective and the bolder action. It still does.
Today, the arc of justice similarly sweeps across the movement for marriage equality, specifically in state-by-state rulings. That arc started with a spark. When Massachusetts Supreme Court Chief Justice Margaret H. Marshall decided the case of Goodridge v. Department of Public Health, she ruled that civil unions weren’t enough. That slow, disarming path toward marriage equality wasn’t enough. Instead, she ruled that Massachusetts could not deny the freedom to marry and that the state constitution “forbids the creation of second-class citizens.” In a ruling that vaulted past incremental change, she took no prisoners: separate but equal was struck down again. In the decade since her decision, the arc of justice has broadened to include–as of this writing–35 states and counting. The slow, enduring work on state by state is the effort of organizations like The Raben Group, a consulting firm which works to advocate public policy change at a state level.
Marriage equality needs both those sparks and arcs. The civil rights movement needs both sparks and arcs. And feminism, that radical notion that women are people and deserve respect and all that comes with it, needs both sparks and arcs. But saying we only need sparks, and then refusing to light yourself on fire and rally a bold solution? That’s distracting and irrelevant.
If you believe codes of conduct aren’t enough to improve behavior at conferences, and if you’re saying we shouldn’t do anything until we get everything, what does that look like? A more civil society? Passage of the Equal Rights Amendment? Because if that’s what you believe, I see the reason behind your belief. I understand your anger, even if I think an all-or-nothing attitude is unrealistic and privileged. All or nothing might be okay if you already have something, some level of respect due to your own fortune of birth or hard work, but not everyone is there yet. But I do admire your spark and will blow more oxygen into that fire. And encourage you to separately research the legal implications and insurance requirements of codes of conduct and other more immediate actions toward change.
But if you’re casting red herrings to distract or dissuade from the hard work of building that arc bit by bit, why? The cry of how it oughta be and the shrug of how it’s always been are cynical and irrelevant arguments in the face of how it is–and how that arc toward justice is already bending. Complement that progress with constructive, thoughtful, enduring work–but don’t derail it.