children of Twitter

It’s a commonplace that Europeans, and people from several other parts of the world, see Americans as — if they’re inclined to be neutral — “childlike” or — if they’re inclined to be censorious — “children.” In his memoir Paris to the Moon Adam Gopnik quotes approvingly a French friend who comments that you can always spot the American tourists in France because they’re all dressed like six-year-olds. And indeed Americans have often embraced this description, though giving it a positive spin: for instance, in his seminal book No Place of Grace: Antimodernism and the Transformation of American Culture, 1880-1920, Jackson Lears explains how many intellectuals and artists embraced “antimodernism” in the form of medievalism precisely because they saw the Middle Ages as “childlike” in all the best senses of the term.

And then there’s A. O. Scott, writing in 2014 on “The Death of Adulthood in American Culture”:

A crisis of authority is not for the faint of heart. It can be scary and weird and ambiguous. But it can be a lot of fun, too. The best and most authentic cultural products of our time manage to be all of those things. They imagine a world where no one is in charge and no one necessarily knows what’s going on, where identities are in perpetual flux. Mothers and fathers act like teenagers; little children are wise beyond their years. Girls light out for the territory and boys cloister themselves in secret gardens. We have more stories, pictures and arguments than we know what to do with, and each one of them presses on our attention with a claim of uniqueness, a demand to be recognized as special. The world is our playground, without a dad or a mom in sight.

Yesterday’s post on social media, politics, and emotion is a variation on this theme. I don’t think there’s any question that social media prompt us to respond to the world in childlike/childish ways, leading always with our strongest emotions and then coming up with comically inadequate post facto justifications of them, or assuming that the only just world is one which conforms itself to my felt needs and within which the only real violations are of my feelings.

Nous sommes tous Américains. In the current moment, most adults are emotionally six years old, most college students four, and the Republican Presidential nominee two. (Seriously: look at any professional description of the “terrible twos” and try to tell me that it doesn’t precisely describe Donald Trump, whose supporters act as indulgent parents and elder siblings.)

I can’t say that this is a good thing, but it’s the situation we’re in and it’s not going to change any time soon. So when we’re thinking about social media and political discourse, what if we stopped cursing the emotional darkness and instead lit a candle? And the first step in doing that is by accepting that most of the people we interact with on social media really are children.

In The Abolition of Man, C. S. Lewis wrote,

St Augustine defines virtue as ordo amoris, the ordinate condition of the affections in which every object is accorded that kind of degree of love which is appropriate to it. Aristotle says that the aim of education is to make the pupil like and dislike what he ought. When the age for reflective thought comes, the pupil who has been thus trained in ‘ordinate affections’ or ‘just sentiments’ will easily find the first principles in Ethics; but to the corrupt man they will never be visible at all and he can make no progress in that science. Plato before him had said the same. The little human animal will not at first have the right responses. It must be trained to feel pleasure, liking, disgust, and hatred at those things which really are pleasant, likeable, disgusting and hateful. In the Republic, the well-nurtured youth is one ‘who would see most clearly whatever was amiss in ill-made works of man or ill-grown works of nature, and with a just distaste would blame and hate the ugly even from his earliest years and would give delighted praise to beauty, receiving it into his soul and being nourished by it, so that he becomes a man of gentle heart. All this before he is of an age to reason; so that when Reason at length comes to him, then, bred as he has been, he will hold out his hands in welcome and recognize her because of the affinity he bears to her.’

This, I think, should be the task of those who want to use social media wisely and well: not to try to reason with people — the code architecture of all social media, and especially Twitter, with its encouragement of instantaneous response and crude measures of approval or disapproval, militates against rational reflection — but to promote ordinate affection, and especially the love of the good wherever it may be found, even in people you have been taught to think of as your political opponents.

I say that because I believe hatred is the least selective of emotions, the most scattershot, the one that can most easily find its way into every human encounter if it is not restrained by strongly positive responses to the true, the good, and the beautiful. (The truth of this statement is confirmed on Twitter every hour.)

If we are going to begin to heal the wounds of our political culture that have been either created or exacerbated by social media, then we will need to train ourselves — and only then, we hope, others — in the practices of loving what is truly desirable. Rather than trying to wrench Twitter into a vehicle for rational debate, which it can never be, we need to turn its promotion of emotional intensity to good account. (We need jujitsu, not Mortal Kombat.) And then, perhaps, when at least some people have become habituated to more ordinate affections, and Reason at length comes to them, then, bred as they have been, they will hold out their hands in welcome and recognize her because of the affinity they bear to her.

social media, emotion, and politics

I’m not going to enter this contest — I should leave it to people who need the money and the publicity more than I do — but if I were to answer the contest question, Are digital technologies making politics impossible?, I would say something along these lines:

No, digital technologies are not making politics impossible, but they have already radically changed politics in ways that none of the existing political structures have so far been able to adapt to. Digital technologies — more particularly, digital social media — have had multiple political effects, but the primary one has been to keep the people who use them in a constant state of extreme emotional stimulation. As Bianca Bosker has explained in a recent story in The Atlantic, Tristan Harris wants software engineers to take a kind of Hippocratic Oath that they will cease to take advantage of their users’ susceptibility to emotional manipulation, will cease their “race to the bottom of the brain stem,” but I cannot imagine a more pointless campaign. None of the current social media companies will act in a way that could take eyeballs away from their apps, because eyeballs are what they monetize; and none of their would-be successors will do it either, for the same reason.

Likewise, no more than a tiny percentage of users will develop any self-discipline or alter their habits in any way in response to being manipulated by their social-media apps. The addiction is too strong and too universally shared.

Some of those who feel silenced, marginalized, and powerless — especially those who also believe that they have declined as a a cultural force, or have had rightful power snatched from them — embrace the addiction to social media most enthusiastically because they get the most out of it. They come to believe that their voices are loud and powerful, or at least that they can strike a blow against their enemies. Thus they can devote a great deal of otherwise empty time to harassing and abusing anyone who doesn’t live up to their expectations — which can mean not just evident political enemies but people whom they believe have betrayed their side. Consider the stories that have just appeared by David French and his wife Nancy French, explaining what it’s like to be on the receiving end of such abuse.

We can perhaps understand this behavior better by zeroing in on one particular kind of abuse. The Anti-Defamation League has just released a report which shows a marked upsurge in anti-Semitic social media activity in recent years, but the report also notes that of “2.6 million tweets containing language frequently found in anti-Semitic speech between August 2015 – July 2016,” 68% came from 1,600 Twitter accounts. Twitter has suspended about 20% of these accounts, but their owners can just create as many more as they want.

A look at his Twitter mentions suggests that David French gets some anti-Semitic abuse, even though he is not Jewish. (I do too, simply because Jacobs is a common Jewish name.) But the same people who produce a lot of anti-Semitic tweets are nasty towards many other racial and social groups, as well as those whom they think politically naïve or treacherous. They are not specialists in harassment, but rather generalists; and as the numbers above indicate, they are very, very active.

On websites where comments sections are still provided, such abusers will probably dominate the space; but precisely because of their behavior, comments have been disappearing from major websites for some years now. Facebook’s code architecture — its real-name policy, its reciprocity (I friend you, you friend me), and a few other elements — tend to limit, though certainly not eliminate, abuse there.

Which leaves Twitter.

In early 2015 Twitter CEO Dick Costolo wrote, “We suck at dealing with abuse and trolls on the platform and we’ve sucked at it for years. It’s no secret and the rest of the world talks about it every day. We lose core user after core user by not addressing simple trolling issues that they face every day.” Since then nothing has changed. Twitter simply is not seriously interested in protecting its users from abuse, and unless it is sold to a company that does care, it will remain an environment perfectly calibrated for incubating hatred.

It’s also true, though, that for people who want to communicate with an audience beyond their family and friends, Twitter remains by far the best option. So people like the Frenches won’t want to leave it altogether until a better alternative emerges, and it’s hard to imagine that happening. We’d need everyone to move to a rival at once, or in very short order. In social media, incumbency has great power.

So, to return to the question with which we began, what are the political implications of this situation? Primarily this: that a very small number of angry and hate-filled people are empowered by Twitter’s code architecture and membership policies to spread their message of anger and hatred to people who have no reliable means of ignoring it, which leaves the entire Twitter-using world in a more-or-less constant state of emotional agitation. That the emotions generated are usually negative doesn’t turn people away: as I have commented before, “It is impossible to understand social media without grasping that, as Craig Raine has said, ‘All emotion is pleasurable.’” And the pleasure of such emotion will inevitably outweigh any desire to have rational conversations. There’s a reason why Donald Trump and his most enthusiastic supporters like Twitter so much. As Richard Spencer, a pro-Trump alt-right white nationalist, recently said, “It’s not so much about policy – it’s more about the emotions that [Trump] evokes. And emotions are more important than facts.”

To Twitter’s power to stimulate emotion may be added the more familiar one of intermittent reinforcement, with this result: The emotional extremity of Twitter will continue to draw people like moths to a flame, even when that extremity makes it almost impossible for people to engage rationally and patiently with one another. And the communicative habits strengthened and intensified by Twitter will continue to bleed into the larger world of political discourse, as we have already seen in the Presidential debates of this season. (Just think about how fluttered everyone became when one person, Ken Bone, asked a question that presumed thoughtful and informed consideration of a complex political issue rather than posturing and grandstanding. It was like a message in a bottle, from another time and place.)

Unless Twitter makes significant changes to its code and policies — and as I’ve suggested, I think that highly unlikely — the “race to the bottom of the brain stem” will continue, and our political culture will become more purely emotional. Indeed, that process has gone far enough that even when Twitter gives way to a different platform, that platform will almost certainly intensify emotions more effectively than Twitter does. This is the communicative environment in which politics will, for the foreseeable future, be performed.

As I said at the outset of this post, “digital technologies … have already radically changed politics in ways that none of the existing political structures have so far been able to adapt to.” In the coming years the existing political structures will certainly take adaptive steps. None of them are likely to console those who think facts ought to be more important than emotions, but that does not mean that we are wholly without hope. In the media/politics environment that is on its way, and to a considerable extent already here, the people who will achieve the greatest public good will be those who learn to encourage the better, the nobler emotions. All emotion is pleasurable, but there are only some emotions that we do well to take pleasure in. And those who learn to feel as they should can eventually be brought to understand the value of thought.

Tony Stark and the view from above

Many people writing about the new Captain America: Civil War have commented on what seems to them a fundamental irony driving the story: that Tony Stark, the self-described “genius billionaire playboy philanthropist” who always does his own thing, agrees to the Sokovia Accords that place the Avengers under international political control, while Steve Rogers, Captain America, the devoted servant of his country, refuses to sign them and basically goes rogue. But I don’t think there’s any real irony here, for two reasons.

The first and simplest reason is that the destruction of Sokovia, which we saw in Avengers: Age of Ultron, was Tony Stark’s fault. Ultron was his creation and no one else’s, and in this new story he is forced to remember that the blood of the people who died there is on his hands. There’s a funny moment in the movie when Ant-Man is rummaging around in Tony’s Iron Man suit to do some mischief to it, and when Tony asks who’s there, replies, “It’s your conscience. We don’t talk a lot these days.” But Tony’s conscience is the chief driver of this plot. Cap was not responsible for Sokovia, and so doesn’t feel responsible (even though he regrets the loss of life).

But I think another point of difference between the two is more broadly significant, and relates to one of the more important themes of this here blog. Tony Stark is basically a plutocrat: a big rich boss, who controls massive amounts of material and massive numbers of people. He sits at the pinnacle of a very, very high pyramid. When the U. S. Secretary of State deals with Tony, he’s dealing with an equal, or maybe a superior: while at one point he threatens Tony with prison, he never follows through, and Tony openly jokes that he’s going to put the Secretary on hold the next time he calls — and does just that. Tony Stark’s view is always the view from above.

But Steve Rogers was, and essentially still is, a poor kid from Brooklyn whose highest ambition was to become an enlisted solider in the U. S. Army. That he became something else, a super-soldier, was initially presented to him as a choice, but quite obviously (to all those in control) a choice he wasn’t going to refuse — he wouldn’t have made it into the Army if he had not been a potential subject of experimentation. After that, he did what he was told, even (in the first Captain America movie) when that meant doing pep rallies for soldiers with a troupe of dancing girls. And gradually he has come to question the generally accepted definition of a “good soldier” — because he has seen more and more of the people who make and use good soldiers, and define their existence.

I think the passion with which he defends, and tries to help, Bucky Barnes, while it obviously has much to do with their great and lasting friendship, may have even more to do with the fact that Bucky, like him, is the object of experimentation — someone who was transformed into something other than his first self because it suited the people in power so to transform him.

Tony Stark is, by inheritance and habit and preference, the experimenter; Steve Rogers is the one experimented upon. And that difference, more than any other, explains why they take the divergent paths they take.

I spoke earlier of a recurring theme of this blog, and it’s this: the importance of deciding whether to think of technology from a position of power, from above, or from a position of (at least relative) powerlessness, from below. My most recent post considered the venture capitalist’s view of “platform shifts” and “continuous productivity,” which offers absolutely zero consideration of the well-being of the people who are supposed to be continuously productive. Even more seriously, there’s this old post about a philosopher who speculates on what “we” are going to do with prisoners — because “we” will always be the jailers, never the jailed.

As with politics, so with technology: it’s always about power, and the social position from which power is considered. Tony Stark’s view from above, or Steve Rogers’s view from below. Take your pick. As for me, I’m like any other morally sane person: #teamcap all the way.

on microaggressions and administrative power

Let’s try to put a few things together that need to be put together.

First, read this post by Jonathan Haidt excerpting and summarizing this article on the culture of campus microaggressions. A key passage:

Campbell and Manning describe how this culture of dignity is now giving way to a new culture of victimhood in which people are encouraged to respond to even the slightest unintentional offense, as in an honor culture. But they must not obtain redress on their own; they must appeal for help to powerful others or administrative bodies, to whom they must make the case that they have been victimized. It is the very presence of such administrative bodies, within a culture that is highly egalitarian and diverse (i.e., many college campuses) that gives rise to intense efforts to identify oneself as a fragile and aggrieved victim. This is why we have seen the recent explosion of concerns about microaggressions, combined with demands for trigger warnings and safe spaces, that Greg Lukianoff and I wrote about in The Coddling of the American Mind.

Now, take a look at this post by Conor Friedersdorf illustrating how this kind of thing works in practice. Note especially the account of an Oberlin student accused of microaggression and the way the conflict escalates.

And finally, to give you the proper socio-political context for all this, please read Freddie deBoer’s outstanding essay in the New York Times Magazine. Here’s an absolutely vital passage:

Current conditions result in neither the muscular and effective student activism favored by the defenders of current campus politics nor the emboldened, challenging professors that critics prefer. Instead, both sides seem to be gradually marginalized in favor of the growing managerial class that dominates so many campuses. Yes, students get to dictate increasingly elaborate and punitive speech codes that some of them prefer. But what could be more corporate or bureaucratic than the increasingly tight control on language and culture in the workplace? Those efforts both divert attention from the material politics that the administration often strenuously opposes (like divestment campaigns) and contribute to a deepening cultural disrespect for student activism. Professors, meanwhile, cling for dear life, trying merely to preserve whatever tenure track they can, prevented by academic culture, a lack of coordination and interdepartmental resentments from rallying together as labor activists. That the contemporary campus quiets the voices of both students and teachers — the two indispensable actors in the educational exchange — speaks to the funhouse-mirror quality of today’s academy.

I wish that committed student activists would recognize that the administrators who run their universities, no matter how convenient a recipient of their appeals, are not their friends. I want these bright, passionate students to remember that the best legacy of student activism lies in shaking up administrators, not in making appeals to them. At its worst, this tendency results in something like collusion between activists and administrators.

This is brilliantly incisive stuff by Freddie, and anyone who cares about the state of American higher education needs to reflect on it. When students demand the intervention of administrative authority to solve every little conflict, they end up simply reinforcing a power structure in which students and faculty alike are stripped of moral agency, in which all of us in the university — including the administrators themselves, since they’re typically reading responses from an instruction manual prepared in close consultation with university lawyers — are instruments in the hands of a self-perpetuating bureaucratic regime. Few social structures could be more alien to the character of true education.

Friedersdorf’s post encourages us to consider whether these habits of mind are characteristic of society as a whole. That seems indubitable to me. When people in the workplace routinely make complaints to HR officers instead of dealing directly with their colleagues, or calling the police when they see kids out on their own rather than talking to the parents, they’re employing the same strategy of enlisting Authority to fight their battles for them — and thereby consolidating the power of those who are currently in charge. Not exactly a strategy for changing the world. Nor for creating a minimally responsible citizenry.

In a fascinating article called “The Japanese Preschool’s Pedagogy of Peripheral Participation,”, Akiko Hayashi and Joseph Tobin describe a twofold strategy commonly deployed in Japan to deal with preschoolers’ conflicts: machi no hoiku and mimamoru. The former means “caring by waiting”; the second means “standing guard.” When children come into conflict, the teacher makes sure the students know that she is present, that she is watching — she may even add, kamisama datte miterun, daiyo (the gods too are watching) — but she does not intervene unless absolutely necessary. Even if the children start to fight she may not intervene; that will depend on whether a child is genuinely attempting to hurt another or the two are halfheartedly “play-fighting.”

The idea is to give children every possible opportunity to resolve their own conflicts — even past the point at which it might, to an American observer, seem that a conflict is irresolvable. This requires patient waiting; and of course one can wait too long — just as one can intervene too quickly. The mimamoru strategy is meant to reassure children that their authorities will not allow anything really bad to happen to them, though perhaps some unpleasant moments may arise. But those unpleasant moments must be tolerated, else how will the children learn to respond constructively and effectively to conflict — conflict which is, after all, inevitable in any social environment? And if children don’t begin to learn such responses in preschool when will they learn it? Imagine if at university, or even in the workplace, they had developed no such abilities and were constantly dependent on authorities to ease every instance of social friction. What a mess that would be.

UPDATE: Please see Josh’s comment below.

algorithms and responsibility

One of my fairly regular subthemes here is the increasing power of algorithms over our daily lives and what Ted Striphas has called “the black box of algorithmic culture”. So I am naturally interested in this interview with Cynthia Dwork on algorithms and bias — more specifically, on the widespread, erroneous, and quite poisonous notion that if decisions are being made by algorithms they can’t be biased. (See also theses 54 through 56 here.)

I found this exchange especially interesting:

Q: Whose responsibility is it to ensure that algorithms or software are not discriminatory?

A: This is better answered by an ethicist. I’m interested in how theoretical computer science and other disciplines can contribute to an understanding of what might be viable options. The goal of my work is to put fairness on a firm mathematical foundation, but even I have just begun to scratch the surface. This entails finding a mathematically rigorous definition of fairness and developing computational methods — algorithms — that guarantee fairness.

Good for Dwork that she’s concerned about these things, but note her rock-solid foundational assumption that fairness is something that can be “guaranteed” by the right algorithms. And yet when asked a question about right behavior that’s clearly not susceptible to an algorithmic answer — Who is responsible here? — Dwork simply punts: “This is better answered by an ethicist.”

One of Cornel West’s early books is called The American Evasion of Philosophy, and — if I may riff on his title more than on the particulars of his argument — this is a classic example of that phenomenon in all of its aspects. First, there is the belief that we don’t need to think philosophically because we can solve our problems by technology; and then, second, when technology as such fails, to call in expertise, in this case in the form of an “ethicist.” And then, finally, in the paper Dwork co-authored on fairness that prompted this interview, we find the argument that the parameters of fairness “would be externally imposed, for example, by a regulatory body, or externally proposed, by a civil rights organization,” accompanied by a citation of John Rawls.

In the Evasion of Philosophy sweepstakes, that’s pretty much the trifecta: moral reflection and discernment by ordinary people replaced by technological expertise, academic expertise, and political expertise — the model of expertise being technical through and through. ’Cause that’s just how we roll.

brief book reviews: The Internet of Garbage

Sarah Jeong’s short book The Internet of Garbage is very well done, and rather sobering, and I recommend it to you. The argument of the book goes something like this:

1) Human societies produce garbage.

2) Properly-functioning human societies develop ways of disposing of garbage, lest it choke out, or make inaccessible, all the things we value.

3) In the digital realm, the primary form of garbage for many years was spam — but spam has effectively been dealt with. Spammers still spam, but their efforts rarely reach us anymore: and in this respect the difference between now and fifteen years ago is immense.

And then, the main thrust of the argument:

4) Today, the primary form of garbage on the internet is harassment, abuse. And yet little progress is being made by social media companies on that score. Can’t we learn something from the victorious war against spam?

Patterning harassment directly after anti-spam is not the answer, but there are obvious parallels. The real question to ask here is, Why haven’t these parallels been explored yet? Anti-spam is huge, and the state of the spam/anti-spam war is deeply advanced. It’s an entrenched industry with specialized engineers and massive research and development. Tech industries are certainly not spending billions of dollars on anti-harassment. Why is anti-harassment so far behind?

(One possibility Jeong explores without committing to it: “If harassment disproportionately impacts women, then spam disproportionately impacts men — what with the ads for Viagra, penis size enhancers, and mail-order brides. And a quick glance at any history of the early Internet would reveal that the architecture was driven heavily by male engineers.” Surely this is a significant part of the story.)

Finally:

5) The problem of harassment can only be seriously addressed with a twofold approach: “professional, expert moderation entwined with technical solutions.”

After following Jeong’s research and reflections on it, I can’t help thinking that the second of these recommendations is more likely to be followed than the first one. “The basic code of a product can encourage, discourage, or even prevent the proliferation of garbage,” and code is more easily changed in this respect than the hiring priorities of a large organization. Thus:

Low investment in the problem of garbage is why Facebook and Instagram keep accidentally banning pictures of breastfeeding mothers or failing to delete death threats. Placing user safety in the hands of low-paid contractors under a great deal of pressure to perform as quickly as possible is not an ethical outcome for either the user or the contractor. While industry sources have assured me that the financial support and resources for user trust and safety is increasing at social media companies, I see little to no evidence of competent integration with the technical side, nor the kind of research and development expenditure that is considered normal for anti-spam.

I too see little evidence that harassment and abuse of women (and minorities, especially black people) is a matter of serious concern to the big social-media companies. That really, really needs to change.

Ethical questions and frivolous consciences

Our Futurisms colleague Charlie Rubin had a smart, short piece over on the Huffington Post a couple weeks ago called “We Need To Do More Than Just Point to Ethical Questions About Artificial Intelligence.” Responding to the recent (and much ballyhooed) “open letter” about artificial intelligence published by the Future of Life Institute, Professor Rubin writes:

One might think that such vagueness is just the result of a desire to draft a letter that a large number of people might be willing to sign on to. Yet in fact, the combination of gesturing towards what are usually called “important ethical issues,” while steadfastly putting off serious discussion of them, is pretty typical in our technology debates. We do not live in a time that gives much real thought to ethics, despite the many challenges you might think would call for it. We are hamstrung by a certain pervasive moral relativism, a sense that when you get right down to it, our “values” are purely subjective and, as such, really beyond any kind of rational discourse. Like “religion,” they are better left un-discussed in polite company….

No one doubts that the world is changing and changing rapidly. Organizations that want to work towards making change happen for the better will need to do much more than point piously at “important ethical questions.”

This is an excellent point. I can’t count how many bioethics talks I have heard over the years that just raise questions without attempting to answer them. It seems like some folks in bioethics have made their whole careers out of such chin-scratching.

And not only is raising ethical questions easier than answering them, but (as Professor Rubin notes) it can also be a potent rhetorical tactic, serving as a substitute for real ethical debate. When an ethically dubious activity attracts attention from critics, people who support that activity sometimes allude to the need for a debate about ethics and policy, and then act as though calling for an ethical debate is itself an ethical debate. It’s a way of treating ethical problems as obstacles to progress that need to be gotten around rather than as legitimate reasons not to do the ethically dubious thing.

Professor Rubin’s sharp critique of the “questioning” pose reminds me of a line from Paul Ramsey, the great bioethicist:

We need to raise the ethical questions with a serious and not a frivolous conscience. A man of frivolous conscience announces that there are ethical quandaries ahead that we must urgently consider before the future catches up with us. By this he often means that we need to devise a new ethics that will provide the rationalization for doing in the future what men are bound to do because of new actions and interventions science will have made possible. In contrast, a man of serious conscience means to say in raising urgent ethical questions that there may be some things that men should never do. The good things that men do can be made complete only by the things they refuse to do. [from pages 122–123 of Ramsey’s 1970 book Fabricated Man]

How many of the signers of the Future of Life Institute open letter, I wonder, are men and women of frivolous conscience?

(Hat-tip to our colleague Brendan P. Foht, who brought the Ramsey passage to our attention in the office.)

the story of everything

A does something to B. (Maybe A shoots B; maybe A refuses to bake a cake for B. It doesn’t signify.)

Social media pick up the story of what A did to B.

Some members of Group Y are outraged at what A did to B, and demand swift retribution.

Some other members of Group Y to are also outraged by what A did to B, but hesitate to commit themselves to a call for swift retribution. They think that perhaps they don’t know all the facts; or they wonder whether the retribution called for might be too extreme. But they stay silent because they don’t want to be called out by, or exiled from, their group.

Some members of Group Z are outraged by the calls for swift retribution. Either because they have a predisposition in favor of A or have bean agitated by the rhetoric of the more vocal members of Group Y, they come to A’s defense, and suggest that what A did isn’t that bad after all.

Some other members of Group Z are also outraged, or at least disturbed, by those calls for swift retribution, but aren’t sure that they can come to A’s defense. They think that perhaps they don’t know all the facts; or they wonder whether the justifications of A are really warranted. But they stay silent because they don’t want to be called out by, or exiled from, their group.

The vocal members of Group Y are even more outraged by the attitudes of the vocal members of Group Z than they were by the original actions of A. They double down on their condemnations of A, and demand that the members of Group Z receive their own retribution for justifying the unjustifiable, defending the indefensible.

The vocal members of Group Z ascend to the condition of righteous wrath. Those who had originally said that A’s actions were wrong but not that wrong now say that A’s actions were completely justified, and in fact could have been much more extreme and still justified. They denounce Group Y’s calls for retribution as “McCarthyite” “witch hunts.”

The vocal members of groups Y and Z make no distinction between the aggressively vocal members of the other group and the silent ones. Any attempts to suggest that the members of the other group are not monolithic and unanimous is met with a sneering hashtag: #notallmembers.

Some of those in each group who had remained silent because of uncertainty or an instinctive desire for moderation realize that they’re being targeted just as aggressively as the most extreme members of their group. They begin to suspect that those extremists were right all along about the other group. In their shock at being so condemned, they tend to forget that there are people in the other group who are feeling just as they feel, for for the same reasons. Their silence has led the rest of the world to think that they don’t exist, and that their entire group of fairly characterized by the behavior of its most extreme members. And gradually that assumption, initially false, comes to be true.

Kathy Sierra and online abuse

Kathy Sierra has written a post about her experiences with what we (mildly) call online harassment — a post that may not stay up for long, so if you’re at all inclined, please read it while you can. I just want to say a few words.

1) Understand where I’m coming from when I talk about things like this: I wrote a book on the history of the theological doctrine of original sin that more-or-less openly endorses the claim that we are all fallen, all broken, all tempted by wickedness and all sometimes successfully tempted. As Solzhenitsyn famously wrote, “The line between good and evil runs through the middle of every human heart.” So no wickedness surprises me.

2) Wickedness has to be called by its true name.

3) The people who have abused and harassed and threatened Kathy Sierra (and Lord knows how many other women with online lives) have acted wickedly. Their behavior is not trivial: it is malicious to the highest degree.

4) Psychological and emotional abuse is no less wicked than physical abuse; in some circumstances it can be worse.

5) It does no good to say that these are the acts of “a few bad apples” in the tech world. We have no way of knowing what percentage of men in the tech world act in this way — but in total numbers, there are certainly far more than “a few.” It would be impossible for a relative handful of men using multiple user names to do as much harassing of women as gets done in forums, in comment threads, on Twitter, and elsewhere online. Regardless of the percentages, there are a great many of these cruel and malicious men, and they are very active, and virtually nothing is being done to stop them.

6) What corruption is in my heart, or yours, is not something that can be determined solely by our actions. We may restrain our darkest impulses out of fear — fear of being shamed or punished. It is when we have no fear of exposure or retribution that we act according to our desires. The men who harass women online do so because they think they are protected. For the same reason, children will torment animals when they think adults can’t see — they know they have power over the animals, and rejoice in exploiting that power. For the same reason, in Stanley Milgram’s famous experiment, people administered electrical shocks to strangers because they were protected by the authority of the scientists who assigned them that task.

7) It is impossible to overstress how outraged the mobs at Reddit were when one of their nastiest and most prominent trolls was doxxed — this threatened everything they had come to take for granted about their ability to manage their online presence. We have no way of knowing how many men started controlling their cruel impulses after this exposure; probably not very many, since it could be seen as a one-off. But if exposure were more common, we might see some changes in behavior.

8) As the Milgram experiment shows, exposure isn’t the only thing people fear: the people who administered those electrical shocks had their own willingness to inflict torture exposed, but by and large they didn’t mind: they were “happy to be of service”. Similarly, weev has been exposed as one of Kathy Sierra’s abusers, but he has paid no evident social price for being so exposed: as Sierra points out, leading figures in the tech world chat with him in a friendly manner and treat him with respect. To some he is a hero, a martyr. He doesn’t need to be protected from exposure; he is protected by the good opinion and warm bonhomie of his fellow geeks.

9) The best analogy I can think of to this cadre of misogynist trolls is the Ku Klux Klan. The Klan arose not in the era of slavery but as a response to the abolition of slavery, when white men felt that their previously undisputed social dominance was in danger of being undermined. Only a relatively small number of men participated in the the Klan’s lynchings and burnings; but almost no one spoke out against them. Though they protected their identities with masks, those identities were nonetheless widely known; yet upstanding citizens greeted them on the street every day, looked them in the eye, smiled, shook their hands. Perfunctory legal inquiries sometimes led to slaps on the wrist, but the Klansmen were willing to risk that, because they paid no social price for their actions. Indeed, they were feared, respected, and sometimes secretly admired — and they knew it.

10) This is why Martin Luther King Jr. wrote, “I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate.” Similarly, in this situation the heart of the problem is not people like weev, but the moderate, reasonable, friendly people in the tech world who enable weev. The dedicated trolls are probably beyond correction — and are certainly beyond reasoning with: they are drunk on the power they wield. But those in positions of power in the tech world who would never abuse women online or offline and yet tolerate, even sort of admire, the trolls — they may be reachable. They must be reachable. But reason may not be the only or even the best tool. They are going to have to be exposed, and shamed into action to change the structure of the technological tools and services they control. Otherwise there is no foreseeable end to the kind of abuse that Kathy Sierra and countless other women have experienced.

a civil tongue

A sudden consensus seems to be emerging among a subset of current-event commentators: there are big problems with with term “civility.” Here’s the claim, summed up:

(NB: see important clarifications/corrections from Pat Blanchfield in the comments below.)

Likewise, Elizabeth Stoker Breunig writes of the “cult” of civility, of its “peculiar tyranny.” Freddie deBoer agrees, and goes a step further: “Civility is the discourse of power…. That’s what civility is, in real life: the powerful telling us that we must speak to them with deference and respect, while they are under no similar responsibility to us.”

I think these complaints are immensely counterproductive. Does the term “civility” get misused? Of course it does — just like every other term celebrating a virtue or an achievement. But it’s sloppy and thoughtless to allow criticism of a term’s abuse to slide into dismissal of the term itself. What words have been more abused than “justice” and “peace” and “charity”? Yet it would be madness to stop using those words because of the ways that bad people have sought to deploy them. They must be rescued and redeployed. The same is true, I think, of “civility”, of which, surely, there is not enough in this fetid swamp of abusive language everyone on social media at least dips a toe into every day.

So, to Freddie I would say that if the powerful demand a civility from the powerless that they are not willing to offer in turn — a claim that I agree with whole-heartedly — then the problem is not that the powerful invoke civility as a virtue but that they are rankly hypocritical, acting in a way totally at odds with their rhetoric. The critique should focus on that hypocrisy; such a critique is not aided by the abandonment of the ideal of civil discourse.

Making a rather different argument, Bruenig writes, “We should all want to be the kind of person who is charitable, merciful, quick to forgive and quick to ask forgiveness; these are all better virtues than ‘civility’ anyway, which is by its own admission little more than a veneer of these genuine virtues.” Well, sure! But the lesson Bruenig draws from this point is the opposite of the one that should be drawn. It is precisely because civility is a lesser virtue that we should be at pains to cultivate it. It is precisely because charity and mercy and forgiveness are so hard that we build a bridge to them by the lesser virtue of civility. I may not be able yet to love my enemies as I should, but if I can practice civility towards them that’s a step in the right direction. If that’s a “cult,” it’s one I want to belong to. A world in which the language we use towards others does not aspire to something nobler than we feel at the moment — well, again, that’s the world of most social media. And it’s not a healthy one.

Nor is civility of discourse incompatible with speaking truth to power. Indeed it may be necessary if one would speak that truth in a way that it can be heard. Consider, as a paradigmatic example of what I mean, Martin Luther King’s “Letter from the Birmingham Jail.” It’s hard to imagine anything more civil. It’s also hard to imagine anything more devastating. King held himself to a strict standard of civility because setting that standard aside would have reduced the likelihood of his people entering their promised land.

It may well be true that some nasty and ill-intentioned people have tried to co-opt the language of civility. For heaven’s sake let’s not help them do so. Instead, let’s take it back.