Hypermemetic intersectional normalcy

Published on 2024-02-07

I am once again subposting a Lobste.rs thread.

The other day, I saw some people discussing an article on the subject of Elixir, where the author said that they felt like when they were present in the Elixir community, they felt like they were surrounded by "tech bros."

Now, in my experience Lobste.rs responds to this sort of thing a lot better than Hacker News. I wouldn't even want to see the replies on Hacker News. Of course, in either case I would expect them to have complicated feelings about this because one way or the other they are largely the people getting labelled "tech bros." That sort of thing can be hard to interrogate, I concede.

One person decided to retort. I'm not going to link them here because ultimately this is not about them and that'd feel mean, but they made the argument that the fact that the Elixir community is so "tech first" is actually a virtue. Someone else pressured them on this, highlighting the author's point that what makes, say, the Rust community so great is that everyone feels welcome to be however weird they are. The commenter, then, made the point that while they appreciated the value of people being weird, the problem they had was that communities that are "tech first," that don't centre identity, are more efficient for people who aren't weird.

Someone shared one of my articles on Lobste.rs a while back. Supposedly they bestow upon you an invitation link if that happens and you message the moderators. As much as I want to sometimes I feel like if I joined Lobste.rs I'd see things like this, and I'd start making the point that everyone, including the so-called technocrats, have identity and then I'd get banned for "sucking the air out of threads."

Everyone has identity.

A significant problem we--those with the political, weird, controversial identities--have is that the people with the apolitical, normal identities often forget they even have them. If you were to ask intersectionally normal people what they think of something like the Elixir community, they might tell you it's full of tech-first people. If you were to ask a transgender person, they might call it cisgender. If you were to ask a BIPOC person they might call it white. If you were to ask a disabled person they might call it able-bodied. If you were to ask a woman they might call it male. White, male, able-bodied, cisgender people very rarely think of themselves as such, because they're so often surrounded by whiteness, maleness and able-bodiedness.

I've talked a healthy amount about so-called "politics" in technology before:

All your software is a political statement

There, I was talking about how we codify technology as "political" and "apolitical." We do something quite similar to people too. and I suppose that's what this post is about. Statements like this, seeing people claim that a particular community ought to be "tech first" or something similar, anger marginalized people quite a bit and I want to take the time to explore why. To do that, we need to break down this idea of what it means to be tech-first.

What does it mean to not be tech-first? Well, based on the way people I've encountered describe it, to be not tech-first is to have a habit of bringing identity politics into things. So, tech-first people are those who don't make a big deal of it.

What does it mean to bring identity politics into things? This is where things get kind of complicated. People rarely just lay it out for you what exactly the "identity politics" you're bringing into things are. In my experience, it seems people will throw out this line if I do anything of or relating to my identity that makes people uncomfortable.

But the thing is, I'm transgender! Everything I do makes people uncomfortable!

I can't exist without making a political statement, because my mere existence is a revolutionary act--particularly, one against the patriarchal notion that people are either men or women, and it's always obvious who's who. It's the statement that people like me can and do exist. It's one that's being contested in more places more intensely with each passing day.

In other words, for me to be "tech first," for me to "de-centre my identity," is to pretend to be something I'm not.

Diversity is good because having more than one perspective makes for stronger, more resilient, more accessible systems. We work to make sure different kinds of people feel safe to be who they are in our communities not only because it's a morally good thing to do but also because it has legitimate instrumental value. When we tell people to stay on-topic, to be tech-first, to not make identity politics a big deal, we're asking them to leave everything that makes them who they are at the door.

We're asking them to be white, cisgender, able-bodied, or whatever it is that would make us feel most comfortable. If we can't be white, then we need to act like it. If we can't be cisgender, we need to act like it. If we can't be able-bodied, then we need to navigate life so flawlessly as to be indistinguishable from an able-bodied person.

"Tech-first" is in and of itself an identity. It's the identity that's treated as so normal we don't even bother putting the labels on it. But if we did, those labels would sound a lot like all the words we use to characterize tech bros. The identity label that goes unspoken is always that of the hegemon.

When merely being who you are makes people feel uncomfortable, you can't "leave politics out of it" without leaving yourself out of it too.

Okay. A little more ranty than I was hoping. I think the key take home is that the difference between "being" and "performing" a particular identity is very blurry, particularly when that identity makes people feel uncomfortable. That's why we've got to work to make sure everyone feels comfortable being who they are. That's why allowing people to be who they are means letting them bring identity politics into things. It makes for better software I swear to god

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