I’ve been trying to decide how I feel about all the commotion over Hoss Gifford’s session at FlashBelt 09, and whether or not to chime in on the whole matter. However, as I watched a few understandably upset individuals snowball into a torch wielding mob RT’ing themselves into a frenzy (ex. @hudsonakridge “Hoss Gifford should be set on fire”), I decided I would proffer a few thoughts.
This was a very tough decision for me, because I’m between a rock and a hard place. On one hand I am risking becoming a new target for the frothing mob, and on the other hand I risk damaging my friendship with Hoss, whom I have known for years. At the end though, I am a believer in moderation, truth, and positive action, and I hope that by adding my own thoughts I can help to steer all of this energy in that direction.
I’m also distressed to see all the bad press this is causing for Flashbelt – Dave did an awesome job on the conference, and I would hate to see this become the primary thing it was remembered for.
I’d like to begin by clarifying some of the things that have been stated about Hoss’s presentation:
- Yes, his session did open with a photo of him looking up at a (largely obscured) picture of a woman’s groin clad in panties that read “drink me”. No, this was not photoshopped – it is the entrance to a rather well known club in Amsterdam. Was it irrelevant, and needlessly obscene? Probably.
- Yes, he did draw a penis on stage (poorly). It was in the context of explaining that any time you give people a blank canvas to be creative on, they will immediately draw penises and swastikas. This is unfortunately true. Did he go beyond what was necessary to make the point, and wring it for frat house comedic effect? Most definitely.
- Yes, he did show a “orgasm simulator”, which showed a female face working through 4 or 5 expressions up to orgasm as he moved the mouse up and down. It was crude, and didn’t really have anything much to do with his theme, but it wasn’t explicit. It’s also worth noting that it was originally built for a bar setting at Flash conference in Amsterdam (context matters).
Was Hoss’s session crude, juvenile, and unprofessional? Absolutely. Was it inappropriate for the conference? Probably. Was it poorly described in the session book, and a mistake to run it as an all-call “keynote” session with no warning as to the content? Certainly.
Was the session sexist or misogynistic? I don’t believe so. It was definitely crude and borderline obscene, and I can see how it could be offensive, but I think you’d have to work hard to describe it as sexist. I actually feel strongly (as does my wife, who was in attendance) that the people calling the session sexist are showing themselves to be sexist. To suggest that showing crude sexual material (including genitals of both sexes) to an audience of men is fine, but to show it to women isn’t, demeans women’s sexuality and their intellectual/emotional ability to handle crude material. My wife agreed that the material was not appropriate for a professional conference, but she was at no time offended or felt that it was sexist.
There seems to be a lot of confusion about the definition of sexism and misogyny. People are confusing sexual harassment (unwanted sexual contact or advances) with sexism (discrimination based on gender) and misogyny (a hatred of women). I can understand lumping Hoss’s talk into sexual harassment, but it was not directed at only the women in the audience. The crudeness of the content was targeted at everyone in the session, and was reasonably balanced in terms of gender participation. Likewise, calling it misogyny is just being sensationalist. Hoss at no time indicated or promoted a hatred of women. Let’s get our labels straight so that we can talk about this maturely and reasonably.
I wonder whether the accusation of misogyny was leveled because it carries more weight than crudeness and obscenity.
While none of the following excuses that the session was inappropriate, I think it is worth knowing a little bit about Hoss before you polish your pitchforks and light your torches. Hoss is a marvelously friendly, fun, intelligent, and generally respectful man. He is a good friend, and an excellent father, and from what I know is very good at his job. He has a crude, juvenile streak a mile wide, and definitely jumps over lines of appropriateness without a backward glance. This can be pretty entertaining over some pints with a close group of friends, but doesn’t always translate well into public speaking.
Hoss has been doing crude, frat-humor laden sessions for years now, and I’ve never heard of a complaint in the past. This isn’t to suggest that makes it ok, but it’s worth noting that this is what he’s known for, and what has become expected from him, both by attendees and conference organizers. Recently he confided to me that he would like to do more professional sessions oriented on his work, but has met resistance from conference organizers that want him to entertain, not teach (I’m not at all suggesting Dave is one of these). While I’m not defending his content, it is important to understand that he has been pigeon-holed into it. He chose that path, and he could likely break out of it, but as everyone knows its hard to give up on something that people say you’re great at.
I can also sympathize with him a bit because I had an attendee complain that a session I ran a few years ago (playing with yourself for fun and profit) was full of juvenile humor. I haven’t had a complaint before or since, but it showed me how people’s threshold for appropriateness varies wildly. It only had a few slightly suggestive jokes (none any cruder than the title), but it obviously offended someone.
With all of this in mind, I think we have the opportunity to make a positive change, rather than just lynching Hoss and Dave. I can guarantee that other conference organizers are following this, and revising their plans. Likewise, I’m sure Hoss is trying to reconcile this reaction with his previous experiences of being congratulated for identical behaviour, and pondering his future as a speaker.
I don’t think anyone wants the Flash community to become a dry, corporate, politically-correct group of stuffed shirts. At the same time we definitely want to be sure its inclusive and comfortable for everyone. Let’s look at how we can encourage this environment in a positive manner. Rather than taking the easy road of joining a witch hunt, provide feedback to organizers and speakers, support programs that encourage diversity in tech, and model positive behaviour to your peers. It’s always easier (and hey, more fun) to be sensational than productive, but hopefully some of this energy can be steered into creating real change.
— UPDATE —
Stacey Mulcahy, a fellow speaker at FlashBelt, has posted a great response everyone should read.
Niqui Merret, another fellow FlashBelt speaker, has posted her thoughts.
Hoss has posted his response. You can read it here.