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Wheaton’s Law is not enough, and damn it, you are NOT neutral!

Wheaton's Law is a good start. But it needs elaboration.
Wheaton’s Law is a good start. But it needs elaboration.

Over the course of the summer I’ve had the opportunity to contribute to several different Codes of Conduct for various groups/events. And always, always there is someone who, with the best of intentions (and I mean that)*, suggests something along the lines of “let’s simplify this by taking out the list of attributes we’re not allowing people to discriminate on; clearly, we want to protect everyone.” Sometimes the attempts to “simplify” these codes go further, in one case with the suggestion that we remove the illustrative examples and the enforcement mechanisms, because “it might get too long for people to read the whole thing.” Nobody said as much directly, but the logical conclusion of these arguments is the suggestion that we just declare Wheaton’s Law on the event, and all will be fine. (Spoiler: No, it won’t.)

On a closely related note, I’ve been stewing for weeks over a comment a fairly well-known male library blogger made, after I asked him to work harder at promoting his female colleagues’ work, because men are disproportionately visible and listened to in our [numerically] female-dominated field. (It was relevant to the point at hand, I promise.) He refused, stating that he is neutral and promotes things based solely on merit*(same footnote).

I’m going to put this bluntly, and then I am going to explain: the idea of “neutrality” and of “including everybody [without an explicit list]” is bullshit. You aren’t neutral. You aren’t including everybody. I don’t include everybody, either, even though I work hard at it.

As someone far smarter than I am stated in response to one of these fellows, “I wish we were at the point in history where everyone read the word everyone as meaning everyone. But we just aren’t.” The fact is, we all have a default definition of “everyone” in our heads, and not only do we sometimes forget about people outside that default; we also forget to include these people in our interpretation of Wheaton’s Law.

On Defaults:

We live in a world where male is the default, as evidenced (just for instance) by the very idea of “women’s issues” as a special class of discussions in politics, when we’re 51% of the population. Many writers still use “he” instead of the grammatically-correct and inclusive “they,” and any writer who uses “she” is felt to be “making a statement.” When men see the word “gender” in a piece of writing, they skip that part, thinking it’s for women (citation: this amazing talk, which is geared for men but still worth watching for women), in the same way that straight people incorrectly believe the words “sexual orientation” don’t apply to them.

Here are a couple more links about male-as-default, in case you remain unconvinced: TV Tropes, Sociological Images (worth clicking – it links to many examples and has photographic evidence). And here’s an observation by Sheryl Sandburg: “I don’t wake up thinking, What am I going to do today as Facebook’s female COO?, but that’s often how I’m referred to by others. When people talk about a female pilot, a female engineer, or a female race car driver, the word ‘female’ implies a bit of surprise. Men in the professional world are rarely seen through this same gender lens.” As an engineer, I can confirm the truth of this.


Men are our default, the only people showing up in many people’s “everybody,” at least until women are explicitly mentioned. Even Wheaton’s Law is written in a pretty male-oriented way, right? (Not calling him out for sexism; while the idea that Wheaton’s Law is in any way sufficient is a terrible geek fallacy, 1) the man himself goes out of his way to be egalitarian and generally awesome, and 2) I don’t think he ever meant it to take the place of good codes of conduct.)

Moving past gender: my injuries and the resulting [relatively mild] chronic pain issues have given me some insight into ableism and how easy it is to unintentionally leave out the differently-abled, without feeling as though you’ve failed to include “everyone.” (Ask me sometime about the local meeting that involved sitting on a hillside, or the tech event held in a building with a loft and no elevator.) I notice every public building with mandatory stairs, now, and every restroom without a helper-bar (oh, boy, do I notice)—and, more importantly, I notice the many meetings and events that happen in these places.

And you know what? I definitely have, in the past, failed to include the differently-abled in my “everybody,” in a way that I hope I never will again.

Do we need to talk about body size? Body-shaming in general—fat-shaming, especially—is acceptable in our society and, to some extent expected; to set up a space where people aren’t allowed to body-shame is almost a revolutionary act, if it’s enforced. (If I work up the guts I’ll write a whole blog post about this whole phenomenon, because I. Have. Thoughts.) There’s this fallacy that body-shaming can be done “for someone’s own good,” but that’s been solidly disproven, so not only is protecting people of every size from body-shaming worthwhile, but, given the apparent societal acceptability of weight discrimination, it’s necessary.

At this point, I have to stop with the examples: I’m not qualified to list all of the ways in which white is default, or cisgendered is the default, etc. I feel like I’d better not try. But, by the same token, I think that people can draw analogies, and if you’ve followed me this far, you will likely agree that we leave many groups of people out of our “everybody,” when we don’t take the time to list them explicitly.

On Neutrality:

I will add, further, that it’s one thing to point out that all of these people can be left out. But it’s worse than that, because these people who made these statements—maybe not all, but most—truly believed that they were neutral and unbiased. I mean, at least one person actually said that. And that is SO INCREDIBLY DAMAGING. Have you heard of a bias blind spot? In short, it’s a human failing that makes us all very confident that we are neutral and unbiased, and it results in failure to correct for the biases that we (in actual fact) all have. In some ways, it makes us act more biased and non-neutral.

So stop doing that, folks. Acknowledge that bias is real, that your definition of “everybody” is almost certainly flawed, and that these issues are all worth thinking about and working on, please. It will make the development of codes of conduct—and the normalization of the behaviors these codes seek to encourage—that much easier.

* These are good people, who sincerely mean well. The thing is, if you live life as society’s default—and there is no shame in that, truly—then it’s hard to get to a point where you realize that not everyone else does, that the defaults in your and most people’s heads are broken, that nobody is truly neutral. And even when you get to that point, it’s easy to forget.

Published in#ALACoC#libtechgendercodes of conductdiversitygendersocial justice


  1. I am coming to believe that working to overrepresent minorities, when done right, actually makes environments MORE meritocratic. And that it is a thing we can do, not merely because we value inclusiveness or diversity, but also because we value technology.

    The argument would take me several paragraphs. Maybe pages. But I’m starting to be able to verbalize it.

    • I agree with you, but lack the words. I really, really look forward to this blog post (or article or however you choose to express it) when you’ve got it fully verbalized!

  2. […] appropriate/inappropriate behaviors is too restrictive/not restrictive enough. I’ve already addressed this, at some length, so I won’t repeat it all here. Short version: people are not mentally […]

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