What I’ve learned from Objectify A Male Tech Writer Day – and why I’m calling it off

The real mission has to be making everyone feel welcome, period.

"Objectify A Man in Tech Day" has become much bigger than I expected since I first wrote about it. At first I was excited, but now I see the scale of the discussion and coverage is creating a number of valid risks - and as a result, I'd like to call off the event.

The widely-covered event started out as a lark that emerged when I got fed up with experiencing - and seeing other women writers and presenters in gaming and tech - fielding irrelevant compliments on their appearance when people referenced their work.

I hoped the result of what we began calling "#Objectify day" would catalyse discussions about the way we use language and how seemingly-innocuous "compliments" are belittling and distracting. A lot of people liked this idea, understood the intention and found it fun.

My goal was that humor and empathy could help people open constructive dialog about sexism. And for a while it seemed like it could work! But there were also a lot of problems with my approach that came to light thanks to the feedback of some trusted friends and colleagues, and I take their concerns extremely seriously.

The dialogue's been great, but the end result - a day of circulating a hashtag on Twitter - runs the risk of catching fire with people who miss the point. #Objectify is not about celebrating objectification or about making people feel uncomfortable, but I'm increasingly worried that point will be lost and that harm can be done.

My friends and I have done our best to put clear information about our goals out there, but the sad fact is we can't expect everyone to read up or treat one another with respect. And there are some problematic risks even assuming everyone does "get it": We liked people comparing #Objectify to the Hawkeye Initiative but that also means we must consider similar criticisms, and the very real risk that our event would solicit homophobia, transphobia, ableism and other prejudices.

Though we wanted to call out gendered language, focusing on men in this way makes some dangerous assumptions about gender norms and sexuality:

For one thing, the event as it stands currently ignores the fact that gay men, trans men, men of color and any other man outside the "straight white guy privilege" zone are already victims of objectification. "Objectify a man" risks using harmful language toward people who may be vulnerable.

For another, some people feel that an environment of men tossing cute comments at each other ends up reducing women's sexual agency to a joke, since the compliments won't actually have the same effect on their intended recipients. But it's worse if the compliments do affect someone negatively -- is potentially triggering men who have body issues a victory for anyone?

We also need to consider people who live outside of the specific gender binary our society enforces: There are trans women, genderqueer and non-conforming people struggling every day not to be misgendered, and people living quietly with gender issues they may not share in the open. If these people end up caught in the crossfire of our event it doesn't matter whatsoever how well-intentioned we are: We risk actually traumatizing them.

I hoped discussions of gender norms would be one of the positive outcomes of #Objectify, and that attention to the issue would make it all worth some inevitable hostility. But for some people who may be exposed to the wrong kinds of language on the planned day, misunderstanding can be actually harmful, and that is absolutely not a risk I want to take.

"Starting dialogue" this way isn't worth potentially triggering others, putting them at risk or making them feel unsafe. I feel naive that I failed to fully consider the potential ramifications and want to apologize to anyone that was made uncomfortable or who felt threatened by my choice to approach an issue in this way.

There are a few good things, here: it's been an incredible learning experience, and I am still proud of the respectful attention my colleagues, friends and readership have given to issues of objectification and of making women feel welcome in tech. I've had positive conversations that would have been impossible even a year ago. That it took off in a larger way than I ever could have expected shows on some level that people care about change, and that makes me glad.

But the real mission is making everyone feel welcome, period. What I wanted to encourage through humor was caring, empathy and a willingness to listen and educate - now I've been asked to change course, and by calling a halt to #Objectify I hope I'm modeling those same qualities myself.

When people tell you they are hurting, are afraid or feel excluded, you don't get obsessed with your own sense of righteousness, you listen That's what this has always been about.

If you've been paying attention, I hope you continue thinking about the words you use to describe other people and their work. Please continue aiming to listen to and care for everyone who needs your help to feel respected, safe and welcome in tech -- or anywhere.

If you understood and appreciated our intention we thank you for your support, but we ask that if you've written about Objectify to please remove your post, or at least modify it to reflect our reasons for reconsidering this event.

Thanks for your compassion.

Leigh Alexander, gaming and social media culture journalist, is Gamasutra editor-at-large, columnist at Edge, Kotaku and Vice Creators Project, and contributor to Boing Boing,Thought Catalog and numerous others. This post first appeared at her blog, Sexy Videogameland.

There'll be no more objectification. Look at this lovely picture of a baby giraffe instead. Photograph: Getty Images
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The lute master and the siege of Aleppo

Luthier Ibrahim al-Sukkar's shop was bombed; when he moved, militants came for him. Over WhatsApp, he told me what's next.

Aleppo was once a city of music, but this year the 400,000 residents who inhabit its eastern suburbs can hear nothing but the roar of Russian warplanes, and ear-shattering blasts from the bombs they drop. To the north, west and south, the city is encircled by ground troops from the Syrian armed forces, Hezbollah and Iran. Most residents are afraid to flee, but soon, now that supply lines to the city have been cut off, many will begin to starve. We have reached the crescendo of Aleppo’s suffering in year five of the Syrian civil war.

One clear August morning in 2012, in the early weeks of the battle for the city, a man approached a street corner shop and found a hundred shattered lutes scattered across the floor. Ibrahim al-Sukkar, the engineer who had made the lutes (Arabs know the instrument as the oud), was overwhelmed. He wandered between the tables of his workshop and peered up at the sky, suddenly visible through holes in the roof. He wept on the floor, amid the dust and ash.

Some of the wooden shards that lay around him had been lutes commissioned by musicians in Europe and America. Others were to be used by students in Damascus and Amman. Each oud was built for a specific purpose. In every shard Ibrahim saw a piece of himself, a memory scattered and charred by government bombs. He packed his bags and headed for Idlib, a few hours to the west, where he set up shop a second time. A year later, his workshop was destroyed again, this time by Islamist militants.

It was at this point that Ibrahim came to a stark realisation – he was a target. If barrel bombs from government helicopters could not succeed in destroying him, the Islamists would. The cost of sourcing materials and getting goods to market had become unmanageable. The society that had inspired his desire to make musical instruments was now trying to lynch him for it.

The 11 string courses of an oud, when plucked, lend the air that passes through its bowl the sounds of Arabic modes known as maqamat. Each one evokes an emotion. Hijaz suggests loneliness and melancholy. Ajam elicits light-heartedness and cheer. An oud player’s competence is judged by his or her ability to improvise using these modes, modulating between them to manipulate the listener’s mood. The luthier, the architect of the oud system, must be equal parts artist and scientist.

This is how Ibrahim al-Sukkar views himself. He is a trained mechanical engineer, but before that he was a lover of classical Arabic music. As a young man in the Syrian countryside, he developed a talent for playing the oud but his mathematical mind demanded that he should study the mechanics behind the music. Long hours in the workshop taking instruments apart led him to spend 25 years putting them together. Ibrahim’s ouds are known for their solid construction and, thanks to his obsessive experimentation with acoustics, the unparalleled volume they produce.

Ibrahim and I recently spoke using WhatsApp messenger. Today, he is lying low in the village where he was born in Idlib province, close to the Turkish border. Every so often, when he can, he sends some of his equipment through to Turkey. It will wait there in storage until he, too, can make the crossing. I asked him if he still felt that his life was in danger. “All musicians and artists in Syria are in danger now, but it’s a sensitive topic,” he wrote, afraid to say more. “I expect to be in Turkey some time in February. God willing, we will speak then.”

Ibrahim’s crossing is now more perilous than ever. Residents of Idlib are watching the developing siege of Aleppo with a sense of foreboding. Government forces are primed to besiege Idlib next, now that the flow of traffic and supplies between Aleppo and the Turkish border has been intercepted. And yet, to Ibrahim, the reward – the next oud – is worth the risk.

I bought my first oud from a Tunisian student in London in autumn 2014. It is a humble, unobtrusive instrument, with a gentle, wheat-coloured soundboard covering a cavernous, almond-shaped bowl. Some ouds are decorated with rosettes, wooden discs carved with dazzling patterns of Islamic geometry. Others are inlaid with mother-of-pearl. My instrument, however, is far simpler in design, decorated only with a smattering of nicks and scratches inflicted by the nails of impatient players, and the creeping patina imprinted by the oils of their fingers on its neck.

My instructor once told me that this oud was “built to last for ever”. Only recently did I discover the sticker hidden inside the body which reads: “Made in 2006 by Engineer Ibrahim al-Sukkar, Aleppo.” 

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle