Why a Code of Conduct for Conferences is a Really Bad Idea

Use your own best judgment at all times.
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I’m a member of a student association that conducts a annual conference (“academy”). During last year’s membership meeting, the organizers made the suggestion to introduce a code of conduct for the academy.

Apparently, during the previous conference (now second to last), someone had ostensibly sexually harassed another person. Ostensibly, because despite questions the details were not shared. Only that one woman called one of the organizers after the conference and complained bitterly about being sexually harassed. No clear information what happened. Not the best situation to discuss policy, if the facts aren’t known. Or only kinda sorta one side of the story.

But the call was emotional and motivational enough for the organizers to try to introduce a code of conduct.

On the one hand, I can understand the desire to do something. After all, if you invest a lot of time into something to bring people together, the last thing you want is to hear is how this meeting has hurt somebody. And it’s good to want to protect people — even if the students are all adults.

However, a code of conduct is a really bad idea.

In short: It won’t — and should not — work on the ones you want to get. And it will hurt both bystanders and actual victims.

Let’s unfold this claim.

It won’t work on the ones you want to get, because people who ignore the sexual self-determination of others are not the ones who get discouraged by a code of conduct. The idea that a code of conduct will filter out harassers is incredibly naive. Why would people who deliberately ignore one of the most fundamental rights of another human being suddenly realize the error of their ways, just because they see a piece of paper? They already know it is illegal and they do not care. It’s a case of “It’s great to feel safe again, now that crime is finally illegal.” joke.

To make matters worse, if anything a code of conduct is blood in the water. It signals to predators that the attendees of the conference are apparently not able to say “no”, extract themselves from bad situations, or resist. And that the organizers are naive enough to think a mere ‘code of conduct’ helps.

Even worse when it comes to enforcing a code of conduct. Social interaction is messy, excepting a few clear cut cases that are usually in the domain of the police. So what happens when a person is accused of harassment? There is usually no video available, just one person accusing another. Whom do you believe? Is an accusation equal to being guilty? So, if two people get into a fight, the last to file is the one to go? And damn the presumption of innocence, the cornerstone of modern justice? Expect a lot of false accusations. Not done by many, but a few socially disturbed individuals who want attention, crave power, or just feel righteously justified for some bullshit reason (e.g., one person expects a fling and the other expected something deeper). And then — hopefully — expect a couple of lawsuits for libel. There is a reason why we have a police force who are trained to deal with those matters.

It is just not the job of a conference to create a parallel legal system, nor create a private police force. Just think of the kind of power structures you have to have in place if you want to enforce a code of conduct. As written, social interaction is messy and misunderstandings are frequent. Whom do you give the power to decide whom to remove and whom to protect? I’d predict a sharp division along gender lines and between cliques. Not great for a meeting which brings different people from different backgrounds together. Plus it will attract people craving for power — who have not the well-being of the conference and its attendees in mind but the well-being of their own egos.

A code of conduct also should not work. A person who sexually or physically harasses or even assaults another person hasn’t just violated some meaningless code of conduct for a conference. This person has committed a crime. Thus, this person should not be removed from the conference, this person should be removed from society. If it’s serious enough to warrant official intervention, it’s a case for the police and the justice system.

Another major drawback is that written social rules often do not work. Often they are subject to interpretation, e.g., “we deal respectfully with each other”. What is respectfully? For some people getting negative feedback is not only disrespectful but even hurtful. So, no more discussions of ideas? How about not calling  anyone names? How often are people jokingly called “asshole”? How about “bitch”? Rules ignore the vastly different social relationships people have with each other and try to bring them all to the same impersonal level. It’s hard for relationships to grow when you cannot show the strength of the relationship by violating some norms. When people are forced to interact on the lowest common denominator, because otherwise, someone might overhear and feel vicariously disrespected or just the need to intervene.

For socially awkward people, a code of conduct makes even less sense. I get the impression that many socially awkward people would really want to have clear rules — but as written above, they just don’t work. It’s not only that they make no sense (like greeting people you have seen yesterday and will see tomorrow each and every day), they also differ depending on the people involved. Having additional rules in mind — to check every action against — severely impedes social interaction. It’s the socially awkward people who want to fit in who try to adhere to rules who will be hindered the most. Really bad for a meeting that tries to bring them to the table.

A code of conduct might even attract emotionally unstable individuals who falsely feel protected by a piece of paper. This is not to say that resistance is always possible. I’ve been in a situation in which there was nothing I could do — and it left scars that took a long time to heal. But some people aren’t capable in normal situations and they don’t know what they want, what they don’t want, and how to get the one and not the other in everyday situations. And, well, they should probably take a few sessions with a good therapist first, not visit a conference. Other attendees usually aren’t therapists, nor should they be, and a conference isn’t a therapy session or safe-space, nor should it be. To put it bluntly: It’s extremely arrogant to expect hundreds of attendees to cater to the special needs of specific individuals. Mental illnesses and disorders are things to fight and to control, not something to cater to. They should be taken seriously and dealt with by professionals in a professional setting. And above all, neurotics and people who have self-diagnosed themselves shouldn’t set the rules for social interactions.

Especially when it comes to things that should be taken for granted, a code of conduct actually becomes insulting. Suppose it would ask you not to sexually harass or assault other conference attendees. How would you react? Personally, I would find it extremely insulting. As if that would be normal behavior and okay outside of the conference. Akin to “We don’t know how you normally behave, but in case you do sexually assault other people, kindly don’t do it while you’re here. Wait until the conference is over.” If organizers had that view on me or mankind in general — why the hell would I attend their conference? And would you ask this of all attendees, incl. invited senior lecturers and experts in the field? Or is there a double standard in which only normal attendees, or subgroups thereof, are explicitly asked (insulted) to behave this way?

And lastly, it sends the wrong message. If you make harassment or assault a prime focus, you communicate that it is a large problem at your conference. Usually, these instances are rare. I’m not talking about being offended when asked for a coffee, but actual harassment and assault. But once you get primed to look for these instances, even harmless interactions and fuck ups can look like another case of prevalent harassment or assault. Human confirmation bias works this way. Not what you want a great conference — in which motivated individuals exchange ideas, make new contacts, and have a good time — be known for.


Okay, after dissing a code of conduct, let’s end constructively. What can you do?

Above all, tolerance and a thick skin for hurt feelings is a basic necessity. I can’t count how often people have stepped on my toes in social situations. It’s part of everyday interaction. As the nice Dune quote said:

“When strangers meet, great allowance should be made for differences of custom and training.”
“Dune” by Frank Herbert

People have different habits, different background, and interpret situations differently. That is normal. And that’s why clear communication is needed. And the principle of charity to interpret actions the best possible way. Because if you see intent everywhere, you will find it (again, confirmation bias). Including in completely random events like when you roll the dice. And it’s easy to attribute bad intend to any action, esp. if you are primed to look for it.

Personally, I think emphasizing personally responsibility is key. Lots of things are possible during conferences, but it’s the decision of each person whether to do something or not. Attendees are adults who have to have their own well-being in their own hands. If you know that when you drink alcohol you make decisions you later regret or become an asocial asshole, then don’t drink. Person invades your private space? Move back or point it out. Don’t expect mind reading or organizers to intervene. Send clear signals. And no matter what you do, sometimes shit does happen. That’s the price we pay for a social life that is messy and full of mistakes — but also full of wonderful encounters and different points of view.

And if things go wrong, it’s a good idea to have people to talk to. At least two (a man and a woman) who are available for comment, questions, different perspectives, etc. People who are skilled mediators without any formal power. A conference does not need Judge Dredds, it needs people who know how two people can be right even when both cannot be right at the same time. And when to get outside help — and in some rare cases that means the police — to stop actual predators. And predators can be both those who attack others, and those who claim to be a victim for attention and/or profit. To use another great quotation:

“You only need to hang mean bastards, but mean bastards you need to hang.”
John ‘The Hangman’ Ruth in “The Hateful Eight (2015)”

No code of conduct can ensure that. Only competent individuals can do it — which means all attendees — thus contributing to a positive conference experience. After all, our lives and the outcomes of our social interactions are (usually) in our hands.


Do you disagree? If so, leave a comment. I’m interested in different points of view.


Update (2016-09-04): Made some minor changes and added a few clarifications.

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