Human beings are problem solvers. We like to understand things, to make sense of things, and to put things in a kind of causal chain. “I did this, which is why that happened.”

When a natural disaster happens religious types use this tendency to blame whatever group they find intolerable at the moment. When an unexpected death occurs, or some other unimaginable trauma, we like to say that everything happens for a reason.

And I understand that it brings comfort. If the idea that there’s a master plan brings you comfort then I beg you, please don’t read on.

Because I do not believe that there’s a master plan.

All this chaotic world fumbles along by chance

Ellis Peters

I’ve seen too many good people, who strive to make the world a better place, suffer unimaginable tragedy. I’ve seen utter bastards – evil monsters only out for themselves – not only get off scot free, but get rewarded for their sociopathic ways. I can’t believe that’s a plan.

But even without a master plan we look for control. We want to believe that our fortune is in our hands. It’s how people with privilege believe that they deserve it, rather than that it was an accident of birth. I don’t want to believe that much of my success can be explained by the fact that I am white and middle class. I work hard. And of course, I do work hard. But I am not held back by my race or my religion, or by where I was born, or what my parents did for a living. There’s a tailwind at my back that many people don’t have.

It’s the same with health. It’s easy to believe that if you exercise regularly, eat well, and generally live a healthy and active lifestyle, you will remain healthy for as long as possible. It certainly shifts your odds. But they’re only odds. The truth is an accident of genetics, or infection, or simply an accident, can take away your health – even your life – at any moment.

And when that happens to someone else we try to find a reason, so that we can “ensure” that it doesn’t happen to us. “She had a genetic issue, I don’t, so I’ll be fine.” Or “his dad smoked, mine didn’t, so I’ll be fine.” “She was a cyclist, which is risky. I’m not, so I’ll be fine.” “He ate too much red meat, I’m a vegetarian, so I’ll be fine.”

“He/she smoked too much, drank too much, partied too much, took the wrong pills, had the wrong doctor, lived in the wrong place, had the wrong job…”

This is a natural urge to protect ourselves, emotionally, from the idea that we are vulnerable. But the trouble is that it leads to blaming people who are suffering. We tend to want to believe that people who are homeless, or poor, or sick, have somehow brought it on themselves. That if they’d only been sensible about things (more like us, obviously), they’d be ok. That there’s no way it could happen to us, because we are sensible.

But it seems to me that we’re all at the whim of a random, chaotic universe. We could lose anything, at any time. There’s no way to protect ourselves from the chaos. There’s no quota of trauma after which nothing else bad could happen. Life can, and does, kick people when they are down, through no fault of their own.

To me that means there’s not much inherent meaning in this chaotic life of ours. There’s no control, no plan, no structure. As Pratchett said, “there’s just us, and what we do.” And I think that means that the only meaning I can create is in my impact on other people. In striving for kindness – to others, but also to myself (that’s my toughest challenge). In using my skills to effect as much positive change as possible.

Sometimes that means resting to avoid burnout. Sometimes it means throwing everything I have at a challenge for as long as it takes. Today, after a painful medical procedure, it’s meant bingeing season 2 of Harrow, because Daniel Harrow is many complicated things, but above all he is kind. Mind you, if the season doesn’t end well, tantrums will be thrown.

Tomorrow it’s going to mean working hard on the 6 presentations I need to have ready for the next fortnight. And if I can walk ok, maybe I will treat myself by picking up my fancy new red glasses. (Not purple! I must be ill!)

I’m a control freak. The illusion of control has been comforting. But maybe there’s something to be said for just riding the wave, and focussing on kindness. Maybe we don’t have to believe in mystical forces to find meaning. Maybe we can make our own.


Codes of Conduct

You know what you don’t tend to see if you are not in some way marginalised? Harassment. Bullying. Racism. Sexism. Homophobia. Transphobia. All of the “-isms” and “-phobias”. Because they’re not directed at you. They might not even happen within your earshot. It’s super tempting to believe that this means they’re not a problem at your particular event. They don’t happen at your favourite conference. Because your people are awesome and wouldn’t do that. They’re not an issue in your circles.

But they are.

Ask any openly LGBT+ person. Any person with dark skin. Anyone who wears a yarmulke or turban. They cop it. They cop it every day. In almost every situation.

Sometimes conference organisers say “No-one has ever complained, so we clearly don’t have an issue. If we put a code of conduct in place it makes it look like we’ve had issues!”

But you do have issues. You’ve always had issues. It’s just that if you don’t clearly signal that you want to know about them and that you will stop them in their tracks, most people won’t bother reporting them.

Because anyone who is the target of constant harassment has experienced the “oh, we’re so sorry that happened to you, I wish there was something we could do but our hands are tied” response, or some variant of it, many, many times. And it’s exhausting. It’s exhausting to be constantly targeted. And it’s even more exhausting to turn to the people who are in a position to stop it and have them fail you. Again. Why waste energy in another pointless reporting exercise that won’t change anything?

So here’s the thing. If you’re organising event – ESPECIALLY one that involves young people, because they are so damned precious and so damned vulnerable – your code of conduct and anti-harassment policies have to be incredibly pro-active. This is a lot of work. But it is so worth it, because it means your event attendees can be safe, both mentally and physically.

So how the heck can you make your event safe? I have a few suggestions, from my own experience and that of those around me. Please add your own in the comments!

  • STEP 1 – CODE OF CONDUCT. Attending the event means agreeing to the code of conduct. This makes expected behaviour very clear to your attendees, and gives you something to point to when a perpetrator whines “but it was only a joke, you can’t throw me out!” Yep, we can, because we said we would. The DDD Perth Code of conduct is an excellent example that also empowers participants to be aware of code of conduct violations that happen around them, by giving them effective steps to follow.
  • STEP 2 – Ensure participants know who to talk to in the case of problems, and make it as easy as possible to report – which means have a range of people to approach, and a range of ways to approach them. It’s pointless to have a code of conduct if there’s no clear way for participants to get help when it gets breached. Have your people wear coloured t-shirts, highly visible lanyards, or some other very visible form of identification. Have a phone number, an email address, and an anonymous form (for people who are scared to come forward) and publicise them widely – and MONITOR them AT ALL TIMES, so that you can respond fast if there’s a problem.
  • STEP 3 – Be prepared to follow through and enforce your code of conduct without fear or favour. Have a clear, unambiguous, and fair process, and follow it. I was recently involved with an event which had multiple code of conduct violations reported (for the first time) and they had to create a response on the fly. This is both intensely stressful for both participants and organisers, and also wildly ineffective as it makes it almost impossible to act fast. Make sure you have planned this part. It is incredibly (and disappointingly) likely to happen sooner or later.
  • STEP 4 – Sweat the small stuff. When people get away with doing small crappy things they very rapidly become big crappy things. If you stamp out the small stuff immediately and make it clear that it’s unacceptable, it doesn’t have time to become big stuff.
  • STEP 5 – Do some research. Many people know a lot more about this stuff than I do, and have done a lot of fantastic work in this space. Take advantage of their considerable wisdom. Valerie Aurora has written an excellent book on this subject,which is a great place to start.
  • And Step 6, courtesy of YOW’s Michele Playfair who has been my guide in this journey – if you have a code of conduct, you are advertising your event as a safe space. This means you MUST be prepared to enforce the code of conduct promptly and vigorously. Otherwise your event is NOT safe and you have promised participants a safe space and then failed to provide it.

That’s it. Remember that people are being bullied and harassed whether you see it or not. Event organisers have the power to create safer spaces, but all of us have a responsibility to our fellow human beings, wherever we are, and whether there’s a code of conduct or not. In the immortal words of The Whitlams: I can Make the World Safe for you!