[Air-l] universal ethics?

Paula pmg at gmx.co.uk
Tue Apr 5 05:30:42 PDT 2005

I'm glad you specified -- it makes the question easier to address more 

I used to run a chatroom for women on IRC Chatnet -- had massive 
problems with diversity there, including a North American-owned network 
g-lining all Turkish masks at one point. The misunderstandings between 
North American women and Turkish men were particularly catastrophic - 
and I don't use that word lightly! I've often thought about writing it 
up but the chat transcripts could not be used in support as I should 
think all concerned would want the ground to open up and swallow them . . .

The problems were actually pretty easy to work out in a talking shop 
(explaining  the purpose of women-only spaces to men from Islamic 
cultures is actually pretty easy cos it's a familiar concept) -- and 
should never have got to boiling point.  It did boil over precisely 
because both sides *universalised* their own values and did not enquire 
into the value systems of the other parties.

North American female users frequently automatically stigmatised the 
Asian users as totally sexist male perverts (without attempting to talk 
to them), whilst the Asian male users had often got completely 
misleading constructs of Western sexual ethics from MTV and Dynasty 
which led them to assume that Western women had no sexual morality at 
all (without checking this against real conditions) -- so they 
experienced North American women's outraged rejection to sexual advances 
as purely racist. These really weren't meant to be insulting, however. I 
found most of the men from Islamic cultures articulated a positive value 
for a perceived sexual freedom in the West from which they thought the 
women were excluding them for racist reasons. So I made it a policy for 
operators always to open a query window and explain the purpose of the 
women-only chat space to each individual male visitor -- this was a bit 
tiring, but I found that the overwhelming majority of men were perfectly 
willing to respect the space and leave without fuss. If anything, the 
men from Islamic cultures accepted the idea *more* readily than those 
from North American or European backgrounds -- where the concept was a 
political "hot potato" at the time.

It also has to be said that I have been kicked from a lot of women-only 
rooms myself -- because my European attitudes are unfamiliar to North 
American women and they have a tendency to assume that this means I'm 
male. And, on top of that, when Turkish users opened up rooms whose 
avowed purpose was the mutual pursuit of their own idea of sexual 
freedom, a posse of the North American ops attempted to lock-out the 
rooms and launched a campaign of harassment. This was because they 
universalised a radical feminist assumption that male sexuality is 
always exploitative and it's presence in the "neighbourhood" of their 
network would lead to increased harassment in the women's rooms. My 
feeling is that if a bunch of men and/or M/F transsexuals want to have 
sex (frequently with each other, as it usually happened!) that's their 
business -- but I do recognise that if a highly sexualised culture 
flourishes, that does tend to attract men who may also harass women who 
don't wish to participate. But still I think these issues could probably 
mostly be ironed out by *talking* and agreeing ground rules.  Kicking 
and banning as first recourse just inflames conflict.

There were women's rooms on Chatnet which had looser policies, but the 
majority of women's rooms used kick-ban with obvious relish (and 
frequently also with insulting language) and would enter into vociferous 
wars of attrition with ban-jumpers (who were jumping the ban because 
they thought it was unfair and exclusive). Things got extremely 
acrimonious resulting in DoS attacks against the network by some Turkish 
users and a g-line in response from the network. A meeting was rapidly 
held and the g-line removed with recommendations to encourage 
participation of more Turkish IRCops (which didn't really materialise 
being unaccompanied by a programme for ensuring it). I ceased to use 
Chatnet a few months after that and moved to a quieter network with a 
value system a bit less unlike my own and with a preponderance of 
European users, though the network is American-owned. On a recent visit 
to Chatnet, I was unceremoniously kicked on entry to women-only rooms 
without enquiry -- probably because I had a gender-neutral nick (I find 
it cuts harassment without causing fuss) and obviously say "hello" all 
wrong! So it seems fair to infer that things have not improved much.

I also chat a lot to a Turkish woman (whom I *know* is a woman because 
I've met her several times in real-life) who was constantly thrown out 
of women-only chatrooms because her mask identified her as Turkish 
which, to the American ops, automatically meant she must be a "sexist 
male pervert". This caused her an enormous amount of distress. This was 
10 years ago, but I still observe this kind of stuff going on on the 
larger IRC networks.

It's this kind of experience which underpins my concern that values 
should never be universalised but negotiated contextually on the 
assumption that we're most of us basically decent people (globally 
speaking) and agreements about what is considered appropriate in "local" 
virtual spaces can be reached with a little work.

Please don't give me gyp about generalising about North Americans or 
anyone else -- I *did* meet a handful of North American women struggling 
to cope appropriately with cultural difference. There were also North 
American IRCops active in getting the g-line on Chatnet lifted quickly 
so I'm not trying to "diss" North Americans. Turkish men were also often 
at fault because they failed to read genuine distress on the part of the 
women and assumed the problem was simply one of racism rather than 
resulting also from their own sexist assumptions or misapprehensions 
about Western values. I've also seen European and Asian women using 
anti-American invective in arguments with North American women as well 
as North American women aggressively dismissing Asian and European 
values. I want to emphasise that this is not a problem of specific 
nationalities, but of making universalising assumptions such as "all 
Moslems are sexist" and "all North Americans are racist" or "I don't 
understand this person's attitudes and therefore they're hostile" . . .

Or, with more obvious relevance to universal ethics:  it is clearly 
problematic to universalise assumptions about "liberty" such as that 
freedom of sexual expression (speech) is universally desirably or 
universalising constructs of "public" and "private" spaces.


Radhika Gajjala wrote:

>> Hi all, I have had time to read the replies and thanks for brushing 
>> up my ethics and legal studies with your comments.
>> My point needs explaining. I chat at yahoo. Recently more chatters 
>> are from Pakistan. Sometimes people do not tolerate them based on 
>> their foreign origin. I started chatting with one particular person. 
>> He always bless's me. I assume in his culture which I know very 
>> little about this is a norm much like we in Canada might ask "how's 
>> it going?" or "how are you today?" as a conversational norm. Just a 
>> little detail.
> when I was in Catholic school - we constantly blessed each other too.
> We learned this cultural code from each other and from the nuns and 
> teachers in the school.
> We didnt have to.
> I agree - this is more an issue of intercultural, contextual 
> exploration (n)ettiquette - mutually negotiated -  than of ethics.
>> I should not have put my question as universal ethics (blame my past 
>> computer ethics course with Diane Dubrule) but rather intercultural 
>> exploration.
>> There are still so many people to meet on the Internet. Unicode and 
>> XML as Larry Wall suggests will make it even easier to talk with 
>> others. What was once an unrealistic  hope of cross culturalism via 
>> Internet is I think becoming easier to access and more realistic. 
>> Mostly because more of the world in "other" places is getting on-line 
>> now. Lucky for me they know a little English. ;)
> luckily for you indeed.
> r
>> Peter Timusk B.Math Just trying to stay linear
>> www.crystalcomputing.net >blog> http://logbook.crystalcomputing.net
>> www.webpagex.org >blog> http://notebook.webpagex.org
>> eof
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