Propaganda & Other Lies We Tell
On Robert ‘Uncle Bob’ Martin, John Sonmez, and Charles Max Wood of the Devchat platform
Influencing an audience
Many of us have a large audience that none of us are trained to know how to handle or even truly grapple with the reach of those platforms we’ve built in the cyber world. People abhor the word influencer, because it sounds manipulative. But if we’re honest, we do influence people. Maybe that’s not our primary goal, but often times, it is, even if we won’t admit it.
The size of our audience is often obfuscated by the fact that we are online and can’t see the volume of people that audience entails. In fact, unless we are actively selling our reach, many people don’t know what it is at all.
I have 17,000 followers on Twitter. I honestly never really think about what that means.
There’s a website that visualizes crowd sizes. What’s 17,000 people look like?
I can honestly say I do not picture myself in a hockey-arena sized stadium nearly sold out when I tweet. If I spoke out loud to a space this sized, it would be impressive, and I would practice whatever I was doing. I’d be anxious. I’d be intimidated. I don’t feel this way when I tweet. In fact, I have to actively consider what I say, and sometimes, I say something stupid. Sometimes I make a snide comment about someone who has slighted me. Would I do that in this stadium full of people? No. No, I wouldn’t.
Okay, so I have 17,000 followers. Does that mean 17,000 people see what I say. Nope. That’s not how social media works. Social media wants more people than those that follow you to see what you say. How many people am I really talking to?
What does 45,000 people look like?
And, according to Twitter, that is below average for the reach of my tweets.
What does 100,000+ people look like?
What does 500,000 people look like? There’s no visualization of that. That’s an entire city. That’s roughly the population of Fresno, California.
In the last 8 days, I have been @ mentioned 1,000 times. ONE THOUSAND. I can tell you for certain I haven’t read these 1,000 tweets, how could I? This means that to some degree, I have no idea how people are using my image and my words to further some message that I put out into the world. My actions have a real, quantifiable reaction that is beyond what I can passively be aware of. I’m not standing in the middle of a city with all eyes on me, and yet, a city-sized volume of people often see what I say. It becomes a part of their realities, whether they cast it aside, whether they go out and gain further context, my words have become apart of what they observed and it, for better or worse, shapes the way they think. That’s simply how the brain works. We observe, our brain catalogues, the way we think and what we think about is affected.
My audience is large. However, it is dwarfed compared to someone like Robert Martin’s because reach is multiplicative. Robert’s tweets are nearly always reaching a city-sized audience.
Now that we understand that we are, regardless of how begrudgingly, influencing people, and that we should be treating our words with the same weight we’d give to a stadium, or even an entire city, full of people, let’s talk about Aimee Knight, John Sonmez, and Charles Max Wood.
Levels of harm
I will state before I talk about this situation that I have a pre-existing relationship with Aimee and have coached her on topics of this nature, though I did not coach her on this one, but rather was one of the people who publicly criticized what she had said.
I also was a host of a podcast with Chuck called ‘Vues on View’. I kind of ghosted the podcast because something about it made me feel uncomfortable. Nothing happened, I just didn’t feel like we meshed well.
Aimee and Jamon’s tweets
The tweets that started this engagement were Aimee’s and Jamon Holmgren’s. There is, of course, context here that is missing. This tweet of Aimee’s is referencing a situation in which Adam Rackis was mocking the proponents of semantic HTML (you can find the tweet here). Adam has a lengthy negative rapport with several people in the accessibility community, but even aside from that, many disabled engineers who are very vocal on Twitter about semantic HTML were hurt by what Adam said and loudly created an opposite ripple which denounced what Adam had said as harmful. Even further context here is that a year ago, we had the same very public discourse about the exact same matter.
Aimee’s tweet was about that discourse, so the impact was even far greater than simply tying empathy and diversity in a negative way to the emotional state of anger. (My Response)
Sara Soueidan posted something similar to Aimee in October of 2018, which also centered the activists as problematic for not being “kind” while engaging with people who don’t believe accessibility is a necessity or something that should be legally enforced. (Unfortunately the tweet has since been deleted, but you can see my response to Sara here.) One has to understand that layers of frustration have been built here. Years of vocal protesting for equity for users of all bodily-abledness and years of being unheard are going to start showing that frustration.
The impassioned anger or frustration is the song of the unheard. Being so quick to tone police is a problem, and it’s not the fault of the protestors or activists that people jump in to police their tone. It’s part of a larger problem, which is not focusing on the problematic people and the issues at hand. The volume and the tone of the advocates is a direct result of that same problem.
I actually found Jamon’s tweets to be the more egregious of this discourse, but the feedback about his tweets went unengaged by the group of individuals who felt and verbalized that those of us who discussed the harmful nature of all of these tweets were attacking Aimee. (My Response)
Unfortunately, I did not catalogue all of the responses to both Aimee and Jamon’s tweets, but I saw very verbal discourse about both of them from a variety of vocally active and visible folks in the industry. I personally tweeted about the importance of anger, and the facets of messaging which paint anger as a negative (and how it is especially harmful for black women) here, here, and here. (I urge you to listen the TEDtalk and the Podcast in those tweets, if you haven’t.) I pointed to a TEDtalk regarding Jamon’s tweet here.
I want to take a moment to identify something pretty major here. Jamon’s tweets were also criticized for the same reasons Aimee’s were, and additionally, the racist trope regarding the Nigerian developer was also criticized. In fact, I saw more tweets showing the disappointment in Jamon’s tweets than in Aimee’s. I saw more anger about Jamon’s tweets. I saw anger about the criticism toward Aimee. I did not see anger about the criticism toward Jamon. I want you to really think about this before you read the next part of this. Consider reading this for some context.
Aimee apologized and expressed she was going to do some reflection and try to do better in the future. Aimee’s apology tweet is here. As far as I can tell, this is the only top-level public acknowledgement Jamon had for his damaging rhetoric. He did say something that was not top-level, but I’ll get to that in a minute.
Following Aimee’s apology and deletion of her original tweets, this is when the level of harm began to multiply. Enter John Sonmez.
To link every single tweet of John’s would be time-consuming, and since he’s not deleted any of them, it’s quite easy to go find them for yourself. I posted a tweet which quoted some of the sexist and racist statements he made, it is here. Most of his abusive tweets were done in reply to others, but he did make a top-level post about it here (pictured below), and some of his verbal abuse is also in the replies to that tweet.
Let’s talk about this tweet.
John posits that he is here to stand up for Aimee, and that his violent rhetoric (which was particularly targeted at several black women, one of whom was Kim Crayton, because Aimee DM’d her to be coached and to apologize directly instead of publicly engaging with her in the already public discourse, context here). This inexplicably ties Aimee’s problematic tweet and DM to Kim to John’s behavior, which is why John’s behavior is another layer of damage to Aimee’s original post, even though she’s not personally responsible for his verbal abuse. If Aimee’s behavior is a tree, John’s behavior is a tree that grew from a seed that fell from one of her branches. It’s a part of the cause and effect.
If you think back to the sexist trope of the damsel in distress caricature mentioned previously, you see that John is specifically demanding men defend Aimee’s honor with him. In fact, if you watch all of his videos on his Bulldog Mindset channel, you’ll find that he creates and persists many sexist tropes about both men and women, so creating imagery that Aimee is a helpless woman being attacked and ripped into shreds by wild animals and in need of saving is a part of his core behaviors.
What’s important about all of this, is that among the people John verbally abused, Jamon was one of them. Marco Rogers specifically addressed Jamon’s tweet about the African developer community, which also was directed at Aimee because she agreed with what Jamon said. Marco’s tweet is here.
John said something abusive to Marco, and Marco suggested that Aimee and Jamon do something about the vitriol that John was spewing “on Aimee’s behalf”, so Jamon replied to John with this tweet.
John has now done two things. First, he persisted a sexist trope by creating a call to action specifically to men to defend Aimee, did not create the same call to action to defend Jamon, referred to Jamon as pathetic, and also admitted that his primary goal is to abuse the “SJW” community, and to use the situation with Aimee as a jumping off point. He further admits this in his video discussing the situation, saying, “I was like you know what, fuck this, I’m tired of these social justice warriors ruining people, destroying people, and silencing people. I’m going to fucking take a stand.”
Two things before I move on. Part of what John has complained about is the tone of the black women who have been vocal advocates for anti-racism, feminism, and other social equity. Notice that in his own form of advocacy, he uses terminology and tone that he has decried. It’s important to take a mental note that it’s not about the tone. It’s about the work towards social equity. The second thing is that one of the responses to John’s verbal abuse was that he was standing up for his friend. I mentioned that they were not friends, and he corroborates that here.
John also states in this video that there were folks trying to get Aimee removed from conferences and threatened her job. None of this occurred. Aimee was spoken to very civilly, even if firmly, and the purpose of that is to make it clear that what Aimee says has a rippling impact, and that what she says matters.
John posted this video on October 30, 2019. A week earlier, one of his close friends, Charles Max Wood, decided it was time to say something.
Charles Max Wood’s tweets and videos
Chuck was silent on this issue up until he retweeted Robert Martin’s post regarding John’s de-platforming and publishing revocation. That tweet is here.
Chuck’s very first public involvement in this was to endorse a known problematic person who generally ignores all criticism and victimize John and demonize the folks who called for John to be held accountable. Claiming someone is virtue signaling is a form of ad hominem, designed to create a narrative that vocal advocates for issues don’t actually believe in the issues they are advocating for, and instead only trying to build an audience for personal gain. What Robert Martin does here is very manipulative. He creates imagery that advocacy is toxic, and that abusers who face consequences are the true victims. Of course, understanding the context of why anyone would do this is imperative, but we’ll get to Uncle Bob in a bit.
The same day, Chuck tweeted this.
I want to point out that he’s calling the loud, expansive call for his friend John to be de-platformed and removed as a leader and teacher in the community a debacle. A debacle is a disaster or violent disruption. In essence, this is the second time in one day he is helping to persist or create imagery that is in defense of John.
I took the time to watch Chuck’s video, and write out specific feedback with timestamps to refer to.
Here is that feedback:
- 10:20 you use aggressive language to describe Kim’s CALL TO ACCOUNTABILITY on Aimee. There was no violent harmful language from Kim.
- 11:06 you say that no one is safe and black women are going to “come after them”, this is more violent imagery
- 13:00 centering on people who weren’t involved in the situation being “hurt” by how oppressed people CALL TO ACCOUNTABILITY
- 14:00 You use Kim’s own podcast name against her, despite that the entire message is to disrupt the status quo to give minoritized people the space they deserve, to amplify their voices. White, male politicians do this all time, and people VOTE for them.
- 14:30 You say protestors “get in the way”
- 14:50 You don’t acknowledge that focusing on the minority of protestors who react violently (against property, generally) is symptom of the will to stay in power and on the upside of privilege
- 15:03 You bring up MLK Jr as only spurring a non-violent revolution. This is categorically untrue. In the South, he talked about how it was easier to fight without violence because there were segregation laws to overturn. The “monster” could be seen, and the target was clear: make segregation illegal. “a riot is the language of the unheard”, is something Dr. MLK Jr said on an interview with 60 minutes, and he repeatedly talked about how Riots were so prominent in the North because segregation was ALREADY ILLEGAL, but black people were still being segregated by LEGAL means, whether that be by discrimination or incarceration. A foundational notion of nonviolence is that the rules are fair. This country is founded on, and continues to run on the subjugation of the poor, the disabled, the black, and the otherwise marginalized. The game isn’t fair. So LOUD discontent is NECESSARY. “Urban riots must now be recognized as durable social phenomena,” he told the assembled crowd of mostly white doctors and academics. “They may be deplored, but they are there and should be understood. Urban riots are a special form of violence. They are not insurrections. The rioters are not seeking to seize territory or to attain control of institutions. They are mainly intended to shock the white community. They are a distorted form of social protest. The looting which is their principal feature serves many functions. It enables the most enraged and deprived Negro to take hold of consumer goods with the ease the white man does by using his purse. Often the Negro does not even want what he takes; he wants the experience of taking.” — Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. “Let us say boldly that if the violations of law by the white man in the slums over the years were calculated and compared with the law-breaking of a few days of riots, the hardened criminal would be the white man. These are often difficult things to say but I have come to see more and more that it is necessary to utter the truth in order to deal with the great problems that we face in our society.” Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
- 15:20 you are creating a parallel between Kim’s tweets and riots, and specifically use the word ‘violence’
- 15:34 you call John’s tweets “fighting back” — his words were abusive, racist, and misogynistic, and looking at his Facebook revealed that this type of behavior is typical of him
- 15:55 you say that what he did was the same as what the black women he attacked did — they called Aimee to accountability, they did not use abusive language toward her. He specifically engaged in target cyberbullying and harassment.
- 16:18 you specifically call the NONVIOLENT language used to CALL AIMEE TO ACCOUNTABILITY violent, screaming, and abusive
- 16:32 again you claim that John was “pushing back in the same way”, referring to ANY ACKNOWLEDGEMENT OF AIMEE’S TWEET’S HARMFUL IMPACT as an attack or bullying or targeted harassment
- 16:37 you say you don’t condone it, but then qualify that with that you empathize with HIM
- 17:04 you blame his behavior on us. Why does he call indigenous people savages on Columbus Day? Why does he call people who disagree with him (prior to this incident) idiots? Why does he make sexist videos? Referring to women as “bitches”? Is that our fault too?
- 17:39 you assume we want to win you over. We don’t. If you’re in need of “winning over”… you’re on the wrong side of history.
- 18:00 ffs “this stuff” is peoples’ HUMAN DIGNITY
- 18:20 NOTHING HAPPENED? He lost his book deal, was deplatformed by Pluralsight and other podcasts he’d been on. Yes, this was a WIN. More marginalized people felt empowered to BE IN TECH. To FEEL SAFE. TO EXIST.
- 18:55 Bringing up Ken when you clearly didn’t take the time to understand that situation. You know who did? KEN. Don’t bring him into this bullshit. He disavowed the people he was accidentally dog whistling. He didn’t say anything racist or sexist. He didn’t attack people. He processed his emotions, took the time to understand what the problems in our community are, apologized, whole-heartedly, and became a better person with more insight into the challenges black people face.
- 25:00 You don’t get to self-identify as an ally, and if you’re not willing to hear the ways you harm people, and address them, YOU ARE NOT AN ALLY
- 26:00 You say that we are ruining his reputation. We didn’t do that HE DID THAT TO HIMSELF.
- 27:00 you equate a CALL TO ACCOUNTABILITY as an ad hominem attack, which is what John and his followers did Honestly, if you want to be friends with a racist, misogynist cyberbully, you are totally right, that’s your private business. But it’s also our business that we absolutely do not want to be associated with someone who dehumanizes people of color and women. No one needs to walk you through sexism and racism. There are volumes and volumes and volumes of literature on this. Read a book. Try Stamped From the Beginning of Dr. Ibram X. Kendi.
Something that Chuck has done here that is specifically harmful to Kim is that he has opted to single her out by name. As a result, she has had to deal with even more verbal abuse than prior to this video. Again, this is the layers of harm. Multiple people called for John to be deplatformed. People with much larger audiences than Kim. Kim was not the first person to comment on his behavior in terms of his publishers and platform providers. In fact, her first comment on it was to quote tweet the most highly visible post, and quite possibly the first one. That post was indeed, by a white man by the name of Michael Dowden. That tweet is here.
Following Mr. Dowden’s lead — many other leaders, who were mainly white male leaders in the space, publicly disavowed John and also endorsed that he had violated every single Code of Conduct in the tech space and that consequences were necessary.
And yet, Chuck very specifically only uses her name in a false narrative that paints her as an aggressor leading an angry mob of other black women he references (not by name) that attacked his friend Aimee and unfairly destroyed his friend John. When you’ve only focused on the black women in a negative way, in a situation which was mainly highly visible because of white men, you are being discriminatory. This entire narrative Chuck has created is inherently racist.
Racism is a huge part of our tech community. No, it isn’t always the blatant obvious kind of racism like we saw in John’s facebook post about indigenous folks. It isn’t always like my father whose first question when I told him I was pregnant was “it better not come out black”.
Racism is engrained in our society. It’s the ways we show up for a white woman being verbally abused, but not nearly with as much vigor or conviction for the black women. And it’s not just because we notice the white woman and want to stand up for her, it’s also the algorithms we write. Tech is not neutral, and neither are we. What we see because of our brains and what we see because of our computer algorithms are intrinsically intertwined.
For a debrief on racism and how it is tied to this, please listen to this podcast episode.
Following Chuck’s video, several folks, men and women, non-white and white, expressed how problematic Chuck’s video was. Many of those folks pointed directly to my breakdown with timestamps to reiterate many of the same points.
One person who entered a discourse with Chuck was Chris Ferdinandi. Those tweets are here.
He makes it very clear that the overall message of Chuck’s video is that is to police the tones of those expressing their criticisms and concerns.
A common thread in that many people are guilty of, myself included, is the entitlement and need to create a narrative that makes them a hero or a victim, but never the villain. We saw this with Jamon’s tweet, which created imagery that he was a savior, and we see this here with Chuck making John and Aimee victims of an attack, and in Chuck inserting himself into the dialogue to “fix” John’s image and be the one who got everyone to “understand each other”. He never refers to John as an aggressor, and repeatedly states what he is trying to do here, but never what Kim, or anyone else is “trying to do here”.
Sarah Mei also pointed out how Chuck’s video centered himself in a narrative that didn’t involve him the first place. This tweet is here.
In response to this, Chuck once again singled out Kim, inviting her and unnamed “friends” to a conversation with John, and asked them to be civil. One thing I want to point out is that Chuck added a period at the beginning of this tweet to ensure it showed up on everyone’s timelines as a top-level tweet. This is an odd thing to do when you’re addressing someone specifically. You do this when you want your followers to see your tweet. This tweet is here.
Inviting someone to have a civil conversation with someone who harassed and verbally abused them is in itself abusive. You are openly asking someone who was harmed to put themselves in a position to be harmed again.
Grady Booch responded to this request with very clear and concise feedback that what he was doing was normalizing John’s behavior. In the first of Chuck’s videos, he states he can “see both sides”. This means that while he has said John’s posts were “not okay” and “really mean”, he hasn’t called them what they are. This means that what he wants is for the black women, namely Kim, he verbally abused to hear his perspective and understand why they were deserving of that abuse. Grady’s tweet is here.
Myles, the first person that John verbally abused actually stated she would go on his podcast under the stipulation that John was disinvited. She stated this on Twitter as well as in the YouTube comments the aforementioned video. That thread is here.
Following all of these responses, including Myles’ offer to go on his Podcast and help him understand her perspective as a black woman, Chuck posted this tweet.
Once again, the tone policing. Some folks were justifiably harsh in their responses. Chuck inserted himself as a mediator, when he should have recused himself. He created a narrative for John as someone who he could empathize with, and a path for redemption for someone who has shown he has zero motivation or intention to change, let alone apologize to the people he verbally abused.
A few days later, Chuck posted another two videos:
In the first of the two videos, Chuck once again states that Aimee’s intentions were misunderstood, that John’s intentions were honorable, that he meant to protect her, and that he “just wanted everyone to slow down and have a conversation”.
While he admits that he “did this the wrong way”, he immediately turns himself into a victim by saying that people have been “going at him”.
A key statement he makes that is super important “Sometimes encouraging each other and helping each other is calling each other out on our crap.”
He mentions he’s going to be humble and that he “picked up a book that was recommended”, but he doesn’t mention the book, which would be really helpful in taking his journey to his audience and spreading the opposite message he spent time spreading previously. He doesn’t give credit to the person who recommended it, which would go a long way in legitimizing the people he created a false, unfair narrative about.
He also mentions in this video that he was told that he can’t tell people how to talk to him or how to talk about issues, and he agreed. This is an understanding of what tone policing is. He later in the video tells people they shouldn’t “get mad” and calls responses to his request “violent”, but self-corrects.
What I don’t quite understand is how this video came next.
He goes back to centering himself, tone policing, and minimizing John’s actions.
After John’s video was posted on October 30th, Chuck posted this video:
In this video, Chuck states once again that he was attacked, that Aimee was attacked, and that John was attacked. He also states after watching John’s video, where John specifically states that he’s sick of “SJW mobs,” that John reveals that his fatal character flaw is that he gets angry.
Chuck states in this video that he was acting with his moral compass in defending John, and that nothing John said was racist or sexist. I responded specifically to that in this tweet. He mentions that if someone comes to him with information that can convince him that he is wrong, he will change his stance, because his morals would no longer be in alignment with his actions. After I tweeted exact quotes from John that were racist and sexist, Chuck blocked me. I find it difficult to believe that Chuck is willing to see that he has been wrongly defending someone who has done zero work to be the redeemable person that he wants him to be.
16 minutes in, and Chuck uses black people who support him as props. It’s not necessary. Some black folks supporting you and disbelieving you’ve done anything wrong does not cancel out the black people who feel silenced, dismissed, and a part of a false narrative you’re creating and inserting yourself into.
After this, Chuck posted that he got travel to go to KubeCon sponsored. This made many attendees feel very uncomfortable. Kevin Stewart was among those who spoke up about their discomfort. His tweet is here.
Several attendees of KubeCon contacted The Linux Foundation’s Vanessa Heric and Colleen Mickey to report specific feelings about code of conduct violations and discomfort about attending with Chuck also attending, per the Pre-Event concerns directive in the Linux Foundation’s Code of Conduct. The Linux Foundation consumed all of the tweets regarding the entirety of the situation, and watched all four of Chuck’s videos and determined that they agreed he had violated to the code of conduct. That tweet is here.
Chuck responded to that and clarified that he was cited the reason of “tone policing”. That thread is here.
As you can see by all of the collected content, it was not one tweet. It was not one statement. It was not one innocent question.
While yes, there was mention of the inappropriate MAGA hat post, along with his responses to his followers that shared they were upset about his post, it’s not related to Linux Foundation’s decision.
Robert “Uncle Bob” Martin
I’m not going to get fully into this, but Robert has been repeatedly problematic and has been held accountable for it in the past. I believe it’s part of the reason he has gone all in on defending John and misrepresenting Chuck’s KubeCon revocation. This tweet is here.
I’ve rehashed this to Robert multiple times, and so have others, the most recent is below.
I’m not going to accept that he doesn’t have all of the information now that I’ve compiled it. I won’t accept that other people chiming in don’t have all of the information either.
Update on 11/13/2019:
Advi Grimm, one of the former panelists of Ruby Rogues, has written a public repudiation of both John Sonmez and Charles Max Wood, and the devchat podcast platform, giving further insight into the relationship John and Chuck have had, and the gatekeeping they’ve participated in, for more than a decade. That article is here.