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This article was published on December 15, 2020

‘Why are minorities in STEM so easily offended?’ And other stupid questions answered

‘Why are minorities in STEM so easily offended?’ And other stupid questions answered

Fair warning: This is an opinion piece. I was one of the background people arguing on Twitter over the weekend. 

Last Friday I had the distinct privilege of engaging with a legend in the computer science world. Saying I’m a fan of their work is a massive understatement. In fact, if you were to Google this person’s name and then select the “news” tab, you wouldn’t have to scroll far to come across several articles I’ve written with reverent references to them.

You know what they say: Never meet your heroes.

Here’s the story:

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There’s an annual event in the STEM community called the Conference on Neural Information Processing Systems. The official acronym for this conference used to be “NIPs.” It was recently changed to NeurIPS.

Here’s what Wikipedia has to say about that:

Conference organizers considered abandoning the conference name because of a slang connotation of its abbreviation, NIPS, with the word nipples and as a slur against Japanese. After a comment period and survey of 2,270 conference participants, conference organizers decided to keep the name and instead considered changing the acronym, since that was the main concern.

This name change sparked widespread outrage in the STEM community.

Some people believe that “NIPs” is an innocuous acronym. There are cookies and crackers named “Nips” after all. Jack Frost nips at your nose doesn’t he? As best I can tell, these people believe that we should address bad behavior, not change the world around it.

It seems like what they’re saying is that if a horny dev, for example, walks around saying “NICE NIPS!” to every woman he sees, at a conference, while pointing at their boobs, we should all collectively rebuke that person and tell them, in no uncertain terms: “No! That is not appropriate!”

The good-faith idea here is that, if we keep rubbing their noses in it when they do it, these people will eventually stop doing it.

That idea stinks so bad it smells like shit. For the same reason that it’s animal abuse to rub a dog’s nose in shit: because the person making the joke has no way of knowing why it’s wrong when we’ve created an environment that encourages it.

Ultimately, the people who don’t want the name to be changed don’t think anyone should be bothered by it, thus anyone who is bothered by it doesn’t matter to them. They submit that if someone steps out of line it should be dealt with on a case-by-case basis.

That’s called policing. And it’s not any woman’s job to do that unless she’s wearing a badge. It’s a system set up to purposely harm women, and it goes like this:

Guy: Nice nips lady!

Woman: Excuse me?

Guy: I said it’s nice to be at NIPs. Haha.

The problem is that, more often than not, if that woman goes and complains she’s being hysterical or deranged. If she doesn’t then she’s asking for it.

For as long as there’s been a “NIPs” conference, there have been women and allies asking for the acronym to be changed. I can’t speak for anyone else, but it’s been my experience in engaging with these people that none of these women and their allies are offended by the term NIPs. The people I’ve spoken to say it makes them uncomfortable.

Here’s what I mean: Calling me a faggot is offensive (for reasons I’ll get into soon). Walking up to me at work and telling me I have nice eyes makes me uncomfortable. The first is always wrong, the second is wrong the moment I make it known I’m uncomfortable with it.

By US Federal law, an action doesn’t have to be inherently offensive to be considered harassment if it produces a quid pro quo environment or makes someone uncomfortable. But this isn’t about the law or even about ethics or morality. It’s about teamwork.

That’s why, two years ago, the name was changed.

The current kerfuffle centers on Anima Anandkumar, the Bren Professor of Computing at California Institute of Technology and Director of Machine Learning research at NVIDIA and Pedro Domingos, a tenured professor at the Paul G. Allen School of Computer Science & Engineering at the University of Washington and the author of the book “The Master Algorithm.”

While numerous other people have been involved, the main disagreement between those two stemmed from discourse over the firing of AI scientist and ethicist Timnit Gebru. Here’s more on that.

As best I can tell, here’s what Domingos and his supporters are, as of this morning, trying to convey:

  1. They’d prefer a workplace where people can actually take a joke
  2. The real world isn’t always perfect
  3. NIPs isn’t offensive unless you choose to see it that way
  4. We could be focused on real problems that effect women instead of an acronym
  5. Most women surveyed didn’t want the name changed
  6. The people speaking out against NIPs/Gebru’s firing are just crisis actors
  7. The people speaking out against NIPs/Gebru’s firing have weaponized outrage to punish their enemies
  8. The people speaking out against NIPs/Gebru’s firing suddenly started attacking Domingos and anyone who agreed with them

So, here’s the thing. The rhetoric coming from Domingos and those supporting him seems like it can be summed as “Domingos was trying to engage in civil debate when he was suddenly called names, bullied, and attacked by Anandkumar and her friends.”

A few points: there was nothing sudden about it. This debate has been going on for years and the two of them engaged in civil back-and-forth for days before it careened into “name-calling.”

The fact of the matter is that good faith arguments such as “it’s a racist slur against the Japanese” and “I’m a woman that was made uncomfortable by it,” fell on deaf ears. Anandkumar explained her case and her agency was disregarded – that is, her right to say “I was uncomfortable” and be taken seriously.

Here’s the rub:

One side apparently thinks the other side is lying. They seemingly think we’re manufacturing outrage because, as they’ve said time and time again: it’s just a word. They appear to believe that if you can’t get over yourself and a simple word, you won’t be able to do science in a world where things don’t always go your way. (Oh, the irony).

They see Occam’s Razor as shaving away all the bullshit until what you have left is a shrieking woman going “I’m upset! Pay more attention to me than science because a tech bro giggled at my breasts.”

They’re the ones who think they’re being mature when they imagine themselves standing up and saying something like “Sit down lady, everybody has nipples. We’re trying to learn.”

And they cannot fathom how anyone else could see things differently.

Here are some links to some articles about professional environments with a long-standing tradition of sexual harassment and assault:

Report: As sexual assault reports increase at Naval Academy, prevention efforts may not be effective

Exclusive: Border Patrol Knew About Harrowing ‘Game Of Smiles’ Sexual Assault Claims, But Did Not Take Action, Former Official Says

And here’s some about the STEM industry:

Tech conferences have a sexual harassment problem

Study: 4 in 10 women keynote speakers cite sexual harassment at tech events

‘We Need Less Ally Theater’: Little Has Changed for Women in Tech Since the #MeToo Movement

The status quo says: if you see a problem, report it. We may as well be telling women “We know there are people making these jokes, but it’s up to you to report them.” This is a broken system. It’s a system that says “If you got a problem with the way we do business here, feel free to go tattle about it. Let’s see who they believe.”

For decades now women, POCs, and queers have been told that we work in “equal opportunity” workplaces, yet STEM is still a field dominated by straight white men. We’re still harassed and excluded. The same people who’ve always hired and promoted the ones making the jokes are still there to decide who’s a good “team player” and who’s disruptive.

And it’s all because “disruption” is a greater sin in STEM than harassment. And that’s as ironic as it is stupid.

Anima Anandkumar is a disruptive woman. That may just be my opinion, but I stand by it. When she and others felt uncomfortable over the rampant jokes, Reddit groups, and internal emails every year about how people “hope it’s cold at NIPs this year,” and what-not, she and others stood up to do something about it.

STEM is disruption. When you see something that needs to be changed, you do the work.

Now, with the background out of the way, here’s the stupid questions you were promised answers to. 

Why are you so scared of NIPs, it’s just a word?”

Nobody’s scared of words.

But words have power. I know that gay men are called “faggots” and “fags” because that’s what was used to light the fire when bigots and zealots burned us at the stake. If someone calls me a faggot the threat of violence is inseparable from the insult. 

The word “nip” is an offensive slur against Japanese people that carries the same threat of violence due to its relation to WWII and internment camps. Full stop.

The continued use of this acronym is counter-productive. NIPs, as an acronym or word, isn’t offensive on its own, but neither is faggot or bitch.

We aren’t children. If you walked up to me and yelled “Bitch ass faggot” and I called you an “asshole bigot,” it wouldn’t make you the victim. Not even if you then said “I was saying female dog, donkey, and bundle of sticks. You owe me an apology.” Again, because we’re not children. 

Next question. “Why are (insert minority) always so easily offended.”

We’re not. I laugh at this all the time. Dudes can’t imagine how thick women’s skin needs to be just to walk down the street.

The same people who are afraid to be in a locker room with me just because they know I’m queer have no problem with women being catcalled and harassed.

It’d be funny were it not for the statistics such as “In 2019, 406,970 women were raped or sexually assaulted while the corresponding number for men was 52,336,” – and that’s just those that were actually reported in the US.

The NIPs argument has nothing to do with taking offense. I’m not offended. And as far as I can tell Anandkumar (whom I don’t know) and her supporters don’t appear to be offended either.

I’m disappointed. Rather than simply say “I’m not uncomfortable with NIPs, but a rational person could see how a woman, person from Japan, or an ally could be. I support you and this change,” the majority of our peers said “no, I don’t think you’re right about being uncomfortable.”

It takes courage to know that’s how so many people in STEM feel about you and still want to work in this industry.

I’m also upset that Anandkumar was framed as deranged, hysterical, and a bully. Her crime is that she refused to accept bigotry and misogyny as something that belonged in a so-called “civil debate.”

That brings us to the next question:

All I did was tell this woman she was being deranged and hysterical and that I didn’t believe her. Then she called me a misogynist and used mean words. Why am I being victimized?”

Answer: You’re not. Worst case scenario, someone’s being mean to you online. Have you considered logging off and refilling your butthurt-cream prescription? Most likely scenario: You’ve expressed a shitty opinion and are under the illusion that all opinions should be respected.

We don’t respect the opinions of flat-Earthers, anti-vaxxers, bigots, racists, and pedophiles for a very good reason: they aren’t compatible with civilized society.

For example, if you say “women should learn to take a joke” and I call you a misogynist, you aren’t being victimized. Not even if I call you “a stupid fucking misogynist.”

The difference is that I’m being an asshole because you’re being a misogynist. That’s the proper response to bigotry. Bigotry and misogyny are incompatible with civil discourse no matter how polite the person spewing them are.

Serving a turd on a silver platter doesn’t make it tastier.

If you politely inform me of your opinion that astrology or ghosts are real, I’ll respectfully disagree with you. If you politely inform me of your opinion that white people are the master race or that women aren’t good at tech, I’ll call you a fucking asshole or worse. In this scenario the bigot is always the one being uncivil.

Next question. “Why do you have to be an asshole? Why can’t you engage in civil discourse?”

Answer: I don’t have to be an asshole, I just choose to. One of the most-used tactics to shut women, POCs, and queers up is to tell us we’re hysterical, deranged, and incapable of civil discourse. Bigotry and misogyny aren’t civil. If you engage in either, you don’t deserve civility. Full stop.

If the tone of our complaints bother you it’s because you weren’t paying attention when we were being nicer.

It’s been said a thousand times: There is no “acceptable” way in which Colin Kaepernick, nasty women, uppity queers, and allies can disagree with those in power.

Next stupid question: “Why can’t we just punish people for being bad when they do bad things?”

Because that ain’t my job. It ain’t Anandkumar’s either. I’m not the “don’t be mean to queers police” and she doesn’t appear to be the “woman who has to police all men police.” Police your own horny men. Horny men aren’t my problem. My problem is that “NIPs” made me uncomfortable because of the horny men and the fact it’s also a racist slur. It’s easier to change the acronym than it is to make men less horny and racist.

Next: “Why do wokes want to cancel everyone who doesn’t agree with them?”

So it’s hilariously ironic that Pedro Domingos is currently engaged in a campaign to get Anandkumar fired for being mean to him on Twitter.

But the answer to this question is: there’s no such thing as canceling, being canceled, or cancel culture.

Let’s say that again: canceling doesn’t exist. If you do or say something so bad that nobody wants to work with you, that’s something you’ve done to yourself. 

Bottom line, while canceling doesn’t actually exist (he’ll still be a rich, famous, tenured professor when the dust settles again), he certainly has no problem trying to get a woman fired over her “Free Speech.”

Last question: “Why do you hate white men and think gays and POCs and women should be in every work place?”

Lol. Statistically speaking, nobody hates white men. Otherwise they wouldn’t own the vast majority of wealth, businesses, and political positions in the world. But I want women, queers, and POCs in every work place because we make every work place better. It’s going to be too expensive for any big tech business or academic institution to do business without us in the hyper-personalized near future.

Because, just like the current occupants of the White House, the status quo in STEM is a lame duck regime. The world’s moved on past boys clubs and unchallenged male authority.

And, since all of this is about being able to take a joke, here’s one I just made up:

Why didn’t the bigot/misogynist chicken cross the road? Because there was no place in this world for it over there either.

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