Donglegate: Adria Richards, Dongles and Burqas

The firing of Adria Richards this week has something to teach us about power, and how it can backfire.

Ms Richards took offence to some off-colour humour she overheard at a PyCon programming conference at Santa Clara California on Sunday. She photographed the perps, and posted the pics to twitter, along with her opinion of their conduct. The post cost one of the fellows his job, but not only his job, but Richards’ as well. Why?

I suspect that if a tech. company fires an employee for cutting up at a conference, it’s not so much because the executives don’t want employees with bad senses of humour. It has, I suspect, more to do with widgets — or, in this case, let’s say — dongles. A company is in the business of selling dongles, and they will enact policies that will increase dongle sales. Such policies make shareholders happy with their dongle shares and increase dongle dividends.

Now, if you get your picture posted to twitter for violating a conference code of conduct, you embarrass your employer, Dongle Corp. It’s not that Dongle Corp. can’t handle a few red faces, but when it affects their bottom line, without any return, you are now a liability,  rather than an asset. Bye bye.

So, that’s why the twittee might get fired, but why the twit? Why punish Richards for reporting the bad guys?

Because she didn’t just report them. She turned what should have ended with “Shush, guys!” into an international media event. There’s a principle in conflict resolution: resolve disputes at the lowest possible level. Or: don’t use a cannon when a fly swatter will do. You see that principle at work in Matthew 18. Paul also admonishes the Corinthians (1 Cor. 6:1-6) to resolve their disputes internally.

The company that I work for has a similar policy of conflict resolution, and so, I suspect, does Richards’ former employer. By going public so quickly with a dispute that could have been resolved at a much lower level, she gained them much undesired attention. She then became a liability. It isn’t that they think that a PyCon conference is an appropriate venue for dongle jokes. As CEO Jim Franklin wrote in the corporate blog, they had to act in “the overall best interests of SendGrid, its employees, and our customers.” In other words, the bottom line.

According to a really scary comic book I read when I was a kid, if you call upon a demon to perform your bidding, the demon might just stick around and cause you more trouble. Richards invoke the PyCon demons against her annoying neighbours, and got whacked real hard.

What does this have to do with burqas? Plenty. Whenever I hear the suggestions that burqas (those black full-body tents that some Islamic women wear) should become illegal, I always feel a little uneasy. Does it really empower women to counter an Islamic custom that says they must wear a burqa with a law that says they must not wear one? As distasteful as I find burqas — even more distasteful than dongle humour — do I really want my government to be able to legislate what my wife or I wear.

Every time we invoke power against our neighbour – whether they be the annoying dongle comedians sitting behind us, or speeder in the lane next to us — we give a foothold to that power. And sometimes the power that we wield can turn against us. Something to think about.

Adria Richards ran out into traffic to defend her right-of-way, and she got hit by a truck. Now has plenty of time to think about it.