Sunday, October 09, 2016

On the mansplaining hysteria

A large computer program which may appear as complex as a city, is essentially a web of decisions made by its programmers, aka developers. In my opinion, there are few human endeavors which involve decision making to the extent that programing does.

Given the long-lasting nature of many of our decisions, we, developers, try to chose wisely among alternatives. We do this by learning from past experience and discussing the choices among peers. The most important decision made during the lifetime of any program is the initial choice of the programming language. Indeed, the choice of the language has profound implications on the structure of the program being developed. Moreover, the choice of the language in a given program is for all practical irreversible.

Although it is relatively easy to learn a new language, it takes several years to become proficient in it. Given the investment involved, we, developers, tend to be very protective of the programming languages we already know well. Thus, the statement "language X sucks" is met by "that's because you do not understand the beauty of language X." This pattern has millions of instances on the Internet, repeating itself on a daily basis.

As a personal example, let me mention the following anecdote. Around 2010, I came across Scala, a programming language developed at EPFL, my Alma Mater. Appreciating the expressive power of the language, I started the "Scala Enthusiast Group Lausanne (Swizerland)" and chaired the group for a few years. At one point during this period, I complained about a particular feature of Scala with a tweet. A Scala enthusiasts quickly tweeted back that my complaint had no merit and that it should be viewed in light of my apparent anti-Scala bias. This is like accusing the editor of an LGBT journal of homophobia. Have I mentioned that we programmers can be over-protective of their favorite language?

Very recently, I stumbled upon a tweet by Jen Golbeck where she complained about Java, a widely-used programming language. Ludovic Reenaers tweeted back with "learn it well and you will never want to use anything else". To this, Golbeck replied that she gave Java classes and "shit" like this was very frustrating. I intervened by remarking that given the protectiveness of programmers regarding their preferred programing language, Reenaers' original comment could not and should not be construed as sexist.

Golbeck replied that she did not "want another dude to explain how I [she] should feel about things!" Then a bunch of ladies chimed in with how "manspanners were flooding in" and "this is mansplanning elite". My attempts at providing another perspective got no traction and were angrily dismissed.

Given the CS culture with which Jen Golbeck is presumably familiar with, I still fail to understand how she, a college professor teaching CS, can be offended by a common discussion pattern and detect a gender bias where there was none.

The exchange with Golbeck et al. is interesting insofar as it illustrates unwillingness to hear a different perspective. Not only that, any attempt at a conversation is met with accusations of sexism. Those flinging frivolous accusations of bigotry based solely on the gender of their interlocutor are being bigoted themselves. Such behavior is an insult to reason as well as human decency.


Blogger Daniel said...

This is called cognitive dissonance. Great post.

2:49 PM  

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