On a couple mailing lists I participate in, people have raised the question: “When something offensive occurs during a conference presentation, what’s the right response from the audience and/or conference organizers?”
Unfortunately, at least one of these discussion lists is private, so I can’t directly quote the individuals who posted. But the content was worth sharing, so I’m summarizing the group’s thoughts in my own words below.
Here are some of the suggestions for handling offensive, unprofessional or inappropriate presentation content:
- Train session monitors for a conference to contact the conference chair in the event of an issue, so that the conference chair can make a decision on whether to stop the talk or directly address the issue immediately (or later)
- Conference chairs/committees make it clear to presenters up front what the expectations are (Presentation be rated G/PG-13/R, none of the “seven forbidden words” allowed, no commercial pitches, etc) — and there were dissenting opinions about this (esp G-rated issue — examples were given of things that were G-rated but also incredibly offensive depictions of women and minorities)
- Screening presentations ahead of time (typically not something that open source conferences are able to do because of the habits of our presenters, and the rapidly evolving nature of the topics, but possible for a subset of presentations)
- Audience members could address something that is offensive during Q&A (and audience members are encouraged to operate under the assumption that the speaker unintentionally offended)
- Leave room for judgment on the part of conference organizers when developing community standards, as conferences are an “intentional community” and are free to set standards which are more or less strict than other conferences/communities
- Bake a WTF cake, and serve it to the presenter (WAY underutilized tactic)
One theme that emerged was the need for some kind of immediate response that communicated both to the audience and the speaker that something was wrong. However, many situations require individuals to use their best judgment in responding, and stopping a talk should likely be left to the discretion of a conference chair.
Also, treating the speaker as though they have made an honest mistake and did not intend to offend anyone (I have yet to experience a situation where this was not the case, personally) is always the right way to start a conversation about it.
Photo courtesy of SanFranAnnie, under a Creative Commons License