Monday, January 11, 2010

on ageism, sexism, and bad behavior: what we can learn from Dave Winer

Over at, ageism is becoming an issue for Dave Winer.

Here's how it went down, in Winer's own words:

Earlier today I was listening to Talk of the Nation on NPR and heard an interview with Keli Goff from the Huffington Post. The interview started with an explanation that linked Reid's embarassing words (about Obama's race) to his age. She went out on a limb, way too far, although later in the interview she walked it back a bit.
This led to an afternoon of heated exchanges on Twitter. Lots of nasty stuff was said about people of my age, most of them untrue. What troubles me is that there is no general acceptance for insults based on race, religion or gender, but age-based insults have no taboo.

Dave Winer got attacked on Twitter today, no doubt about it. But what Winer doesn't point out here is that he gave as good as he got: He came out absolutely swinging, excoriating Groff and smacking back at anyone who disagreed with him, insulted him, or--and you can imagine the temptation was just too great for some of Winer's followers--notified him that he's too old to know what he's talking about. Here's a clip of Winer's twitter feed:

More than one person responded to Winer with some version of this:

I have to admit, it's kinda tough to disagree with @miniver.

Before I go on, I want to cop to my own bad behavior with respect to ageism: In the past, and on this very blog, I have offered up Rupert Murdoch as "further proof of why old people should not be allowed to run media conglomerates." That was blatant ageism, pure and simple, and it was wrong, and it's not okay, even when used as a rhetorical device. (In retrospect, I should have offered up Rupert Murdoch as further proof of why hopelessly avaricious people should not be allowed to run media conglomerates.) I am sorry. I promise to try harder from here on out to avoid such wrong-headed attitudes and discriminatory language.

Now then.

In some ways, ageism is similar to sexism in that it's brutally apparent to those who are the victims of it, even if others (non-victims) don't see how a person might take offense. (I imagine, but don't know for sure, that the same comparison could be made to other forms of prejudice--I'm just sticking with what I know best here and leaving the rest to others who know better than I.) People who react with anger to sexism, as to ageism, are treated like they just have their panties on a little too tight. "It's just a fact that women are better at raising children." "It's just a fact that older people don't understand the digital revolution." Both disempower the target. Both are destabilizing. And both are treated as socially acceptable in lots of situations where everyone should know better. (By the way, here's the mp3 of the Talk of the Nation conversation--Winer's right to take issue with what's clearly blatant ageism.)

Oh, but while I'm at it, I should also mention that women are exposed to sexism throughout their lives, so they're used to it and develop strategies for coping with it as it happens and afterward. But ageism is perhaps as startling and frustrating as it is for the simple reason that its victims are experiencing a prejudice that's entirely new to them. Of course, women who are the targets of ageism get hit with the double-disempowerment that comes with not only being female but being an old (read: asexual and therefore irrelevant) female. I can't imagine how the prejudice gets compounded when the target of ageism is nonwhite, nonstraight, or otherwise out of the mainstream.

Winer self-identifies as white and he's presumably straight (though a significant web presence has insinuated that he is, among other things, gay--about which more in a second), which perhaps explains his extreme outrage at the ageism directed straight at him today. (I agree with Anil Dash, who offered Winer this advice via Twitter:

@davewiner The way you are saying what you're saying is undoing the argument you're trying to make. Take a deep breath, come back in a bit.)

If you've rarely, or never, experienced the prick of arbitrary bigotry, then the first prick stings perhaps all the more deeply, scalds all the more powerfully. I still remember my first encounter with sexism, when my fourth grade teacher told me I couldn't climb the playground swingsets to unwind the swings because I was a girl. It never gets less galling. It's just that we do our best to get better at responding, in word and in deed. The fourth grade me, surprised, gave in and went inside. The 32-year-old me, by contrast, might climb the swingset anyway, in direct defiance of her teacher. (The 32-year-old me may, incidentally, actually be worse at getting what she wants.)

There's a side note to this story, an interesting one: Dave Winer apparently carries a reputation for bad behavior in online communities. I didn't know this until this evening, when I started researching Winer's backstory for this post. I started following him on Twitter because of his status as a pioneer in weblogging, and until today knew next to nothing else about him. But here's a sample of what I learned about how Winer responds to criticism:
  • Software developer and writer Mark Pilgrim decries Winer's propensity for personal attacks against those who criticize his work (here's What's your Winer number? an algorithm for determining how your experience of Winer's verbal abuse compares to the experiences of the hordes of others who have fallen victim to it, and here's a post where Pilgrim makes public Winer's response to the Winer number post--take a look at Winer's comments below the post).
  • Here's Matthew Ingram on Winer's response to public criticism of a post Winer wrote called "Why Facebook Sucks." When Stowe Boyd disagreed with Winer's post, Ingram writes, Winer apparently called Boyd "a creep" and "an idiot."
  • Here's Jason Calacanis, who names Winer as a friend but still offers his experience of "getting Winered" during a public presentation.

The list goes on. The ridiculous "gay" insinuation--well, that sort of bad behavior is what people resort to when they feel people in positions of power are acting in violation of the public trust--when they see arrogance, pettiness and rudeness from someone who has no reason to act so poorly.

There are at least two lessons to draw from the Winer / ageism story: First, that the worn grooves of prejudice and discrimination are so, so easy for humans, flawed as we are, to fall into, and that it is our responsibility to guard against taking that easy path; and second, that bad behavior in communities of practice is still not okay, no matter who you are. The difference these days, of course, is that reputation not only precedes you but follows behind you like a little yipping terrier. It's getting harder and harder to walk into a room you've never entered without everyone noticing the constant bark of that little dog.


Rafi said...

On the topic of ageism, it's always important to remember the "forgotten" ageism, as I call it, against young people. Young people are regularly disempowered by not only broader societal systems but also by those that are literally closest to them, their parents and teachers (see your example of early sexism, which was in my eyes a double whammy). What might be most deleterious about ageism against young people is also it's greatest cause: young people are doing the greatest developmental heavy lifting of any age group and are greatly shaped by their environment. This fact, in turn, results in parents and mentors (not all but certainly some) that aim to over-engineer the environment to the point of disempowerment. This disempowerment and other forms of what can essentially be called discrimination then get baked into their developmental structures and result in deeply rooted negative mental patterns which are then inflicted on others when they are adults in what I consider one of the greatest cycles of violence in human history.

Rafi said...

And yes, I noticed how many times I used the word "greatest" in that comment. I blame it on my parents. :P

Jenna McWilliams said...

Nah, you only used it three times, with a bonus "greatly" thrown in for good measure.

I was reminded of how unjust it can sometimes feel to be young and completely without power over the holidays, when I was visiting with my sister and her infant daughter. When she cried, the common refrain was "Oh, I KNOW--life is so TOUGH!" all patronizing and scrunched-up like. She's too young to know how cruel it is to say that to a frustrated child, but she'll eventually learn. Cruel because for children, frustration often comes out of a pure inability to change a situation, and for adults to minimize that frustration--well, we just pile it on, don't we? Bake it right in and add some sugar on top.


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