Some thoughts on handling harassment and toxic behavior privately

I’ve seen some calls for people like @shanley to handle their complaints about abuse and harassment privately, or maybe “more privately” than they have. So, today I just mused aloud for a few minutes on Twitter the thoughts I have about private handling of public acts of cruelty, harassment and abuse. Here’s those tweets, slightly edited, in a blog form. This is meant as a discussion of why public responses to public harassment are not only justified, but helpful. I don’t believe that those who are harassed are obligated in any way to respond publicly to harassment.

Why is it important to “handle in private” the responses to public odious, toxic, anti-social and harassing behavior? How does that help?

I believe in proportionate response. However, when the interactions are online and there is no physical public space, just “public media”, there’s a serious problem with the idea that a private response, particularly from the harassed, works at all.

My experience has been that private responses to people who harass me don’t help. Harassment continues, the harasser does not change. The only thing that has ever “changed behavior” is directing a complaint through the public or someone with authority over the harasser. And, that only worked for me a small percentage of the time that I asked for help. Asking for help has also increased harassment.

I’m not sold on the idea of private responses to public acts shared on the internet as “effective for behavior change”.

There’s also a difference between individual behavior change (personal reform), and cultural change (what we find acceptable as a group). Not everyone is aboard the cultural change train. And, I see twitter in particular as performance art, not a conversation happening “inside” a community.

The more time I spend thinking about this, the more I realize I haven’t spent enough time defining what my community is. Because for a long time I bought into the idea that there was some kind of global FOSS community protecting me, caring for me, backing me up.

But what I believe now is that I have a few close friends, some who know each other, some who don’t — but not a coherent community. And the reason why I don’t think there’s coherency, is because they don’t respond the way that a community does when there’s danger.

There is real, lasting damage done to people I care about by harassers and abusers. Things I hear about afterward, things that make me ill to think about and repeat. Things I wish I could prevent. That we could all prevent. But the worst damage done, I think, happens when those who come forward aren’t believed.

I didn’t go into detail about this in the twitter thread, but I have found that many people, who I come in contact with through FOSS, who are abusive on social media and on public mailing lists, are also abusive and harassing in private. Assuming that the public behavior is the worst behavior that a harasser exhibits is not a safe or reasonable assumption.

So. Handling things in public when we’re dealing with public acts, cruelty, harassment: Yes, I think we should.