The names we won’t say

“Why won’t you tell me their name?”

We were at a conference, talking about the fact a known “problem person” is attending. Those of us who’d attended for a while (and had been around the industry) knew the person had been accused of sexual harassment multiple times. The incidents keep piling up, year on year.

But none of us could say their name.

One of the attendees was having none of that. “If I’m not safe because of their presence, you need to give me a name. Why won’t you tell me their name.”

I didn’t have an answer. As a community, we just didn’t say their name.  But why… was it fears of a lawsuit? Was it that making accusations felt like hearsay (even though I’d heard six separate, verifiable stories about them?) Or were we just afraid we’d have to tell the truth — that we’d known the stories but had repeatedly refused to do anything about them because we didn’t want to rock the boat?

So we did nothing, and it happened again.

Every year there’s a new story. Every year another victim’s story is told across the whisper network but never bubbles up to the point that someone does something. And every year, the information diffuses unevenly so not everyone knows.

And the cycle of vulnerability begins again.

Why won’t we say their name? Why won’t we remove them from the community? Why won’t we choose the safety of those vulnerable to these predators over the silence we stick to?

I wish I had a good answer, other than just being afraid of what happens when I speak up.

In the #metoo era, our society has to reckon, repeatedly, with abusers in our society we haven’t removed. We’ll say they’re “important” or “essential” people, that they have power or smarts or political capital. We have to reckon with these small decisions that have repeatedly left vulnerable people, often new to the business, open to being preyed on by these abusers. We’re frightened, as a group, because we’re frightened individually of the repercussions of saying no.

I want to say their name. I have no idea how to, though. The stories of abuse aren’t mine to tell. I just know what I’ve heard.

At some point in the near future, someone will say their name publicly. And they will be met with scorn, denial, threats, and worse. They will also be met with a chorus of “me too” that will raise questions about the silence this community has built. Other names will rise. Hard and painful conversations will follow. Lawsuits may fly.

But it will be a moment of true honesty for all of us in this community. Design requires honesty. Without it, design is nothing more than a façade of “design mythmaking” wallpapering over an empty, lifeless, sometimes dangerous manipulation of truth.

May that moment of honesty come soon. In the meantime, the predator keeps lurking, unnamed like some ancient sea monster.

Author: Dylan Wilbanks

Dylan Wilbanks is a web roustabout, raconteur, and curmudgeon currently practicing as a user experience designer in Seattle. He’s spent nearly 20 years designing, building, and perfecting online experiences, and every once in a while does a good job. Occasionally, he speaks at conferences like SXSW and Webvisions. He created one of the first Twitter accounts used in higher education, but that was an accident, and he's really sorry about it.With Kyle Weems, he co-hosts Squirrel And Moose, a podcast about designing and building the web, when they remember to talk about it.He likes nectarines.You can read his tweets at @dylanw and learn more at dylanwilbanks.com.