Wednesday, November 8, 2023

Being Comfortable With the Non-Binary: A Code of Conduct Case Study

Today morning I woke up to this message in FSCI's chat room:

What happens here when a member reveals themselves to be a transphobe in another room? 🤔

I immediately said "COC applies". The FSCI code of conduct, which I have contributed to the making of, is very clear about keeping FSCI an inclusive space. It explicitly recognizes that gender identity and expression can be diverse. And someone gets called a "transphobe" typically when they go against this idea.

But then there was this other question that came up in my mind. Would FSCI's code of conduct apply to another room?

My first instinct was to read through the actual code and look at the sections where it discusses the scope of the code: "all of this community’s spaces, including public channels, private channels and direct messages, both online and off." There could be an argument on technicality as to whether another room could be considered as community's space. There could even be a counter argument that the mere presence of another FSCI member in the other room makes it a private channel thus bringing it under the scope of the code.

But I quickly realized where my "COC applies" comment came from. I wasn't relying on technicality. I was relying on what I've internalized as the way a code of conduct works, and the way we influence others in the social organization.

And that has got a lot to do with being comfortable with the non-binary mess.

I was not like this earlier. I used to be very black and white, all or none about laws. I used to find comfort in the idea that anything human could be codified. Not just facts and information, but also implicit assumptions, emotions, social rules, and so on. So much so that I used to even think about building AGI with just symbolic AI through a comprehensive compilation of all these codified knowledge.

But as I started learning more about the world and interacting with human beings in the "real" world, I started recognizing that many things about human society is much more complicated than what could be codified. I'm not talking about this being quantitatively so large that it is too difficult to codify. It is complexity on a whole different dimension that prevents codification.

This complexity probably comes from free will. But what it practically amounts to is that there is no way to absolutely predict how human beings behave. (I leave it to the readers to draw parallels between this and quantum physics).

This particular understanding manifests in two different ways in my thinking: intersectional and non-binary.

I see the world in a heavily intersectional lens. Intersectionality is a framework that captures the many complexities of the world very well. It allows one to deconstruct (to use a word I used to hate) what's happening without resorting to simplistic/reductionist explanations.

But intersectionality without an understanding of the non-binary is a dangerous pitfall. Often what I see people doing is to think of intersectionality in a binary way, wherein instead of having a yes or no explanation, they would have a yes or no + yes or no + yes or no explanation. They would just superimpose multiple explanations. Easier to explain with an example. I had (more than) once heard a description of how a person who is queer and Dalit and Muslim suffer from "triple oppression". This sounds a lot like someone trying to add up binary bits. That's the antithesis of intersectionality.

It is when you combine intersectional lens with a non-binary lens that you can see things more clearly and in more practical ways. In the non-binary lens not only do you see everything in shades of grey, you even see categories blurring. There's no triple oppression when the very binary bits you are counting (Queer, Dalit, Muslim) cease to exist in well-defined boxes.

Sounds like a mess? It is a mess. Maybe I'm struggling to explain this, and that's okay. But non-binary is when you're comfortable with the mess. (Hat-tip to Swathi who attended the Looking In Looking Out Workshop and gave me the word "mess")

Being comfortable with the non-binary mess is the key

Incomplete information, inadequate resources, limited time. These are three things that make humans humans as opposed to Gods who are omniscient, omnipotent, and omnipresent. We are doomed to live this way. And we might as well be comfortable with it.

The Code of Conduct is a good case study here.

There are some people who feel a code of conduct takes away freedom of speech. There are some who believe that it is best to leave the code of conduct very simple ("Be nice" folks). The FSCI code of conduct is rather long. It is a synthesis of many other similar codes.

What makes me comfortable with a code of conduct like this is that I see it as a non-binary mess. The CoC is an essay on a social contract that we aim to uphold. It codifies certain nuanced understandings of the world and demands people to grow those understandings. That is a certain kind of politics. And that is exactly how the world works. It is a constant negotiation of politics. There's no clear way to categorize what it is. It is a mess.

The rules are rules. The rules aren't rules. The rules apply to everyone equally. The rules don't apply to everyone. The rules are clear. The rules are ambiguous. The rules ought to be respected. The rules can be changed. You can enforce the rules. You can't enforce the rules. All of these things are true to various extent at various time in various contexts and situations. Everything is non-binary!

 So, does the CoC apply? It applies to the whole world!

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