Pax Dickinson: Thought Crime, Public Shaming and Thick Liberty in the Internet Age
The topic du jour is Pax Dickinson.
He makes outrageous tweets, asserting things like he invented the question mark (well, no, really – that's from a Mike Meyers character) and delights in baiting defenders of free speech into calling for censorship ("heightening the contradictions" as Lenin and Saul Alinsky would say).
His detractors would say that he's crude and insulting, and while there's some truth to that, what they miss is that the vast majority of his tweets are based off of current events and slyly reference existing memes. When I used the phrase "performance art" before, that wasn't just a lazy way of saying "he's an asshole in public and I like listening to assholes". There are tons of assholes on twitter, and I end up blocking most of them, even the ones that I sort of agree with politically. I dislike crudity, racial stereotyping, insults for the sake of insults, etc.
…as does Pax. I note that he criticized the two-day-ago the "titstare" app as being in poor taste and classless, even as he fine-tooth-comb criticized criticism of it as being poorly written.
Another example: three years ago, when Mel Gibson's racist tirades were spilling into the public view
The Most Offensive Mel Gibson Quotes
I found Pax's nearly instant mockery of Gibson's racism, crudity, and simplicity hilarious, pointed, and on target:
(I note that around the same time a good friend and I also parodied Gibson's buffoonish behavior by calling each other "sugar tits", after Gibson's now-famous manner of addressing a female police officer; parody is a game we can all play.)
So, anyway, I find Pax to be smart, hilarious, and an ardent defender of free speech, human rights, and a decent human being. I've never met him, but I've swapped email with him twice over two years.
Now you know my biases.
So, what's the Pax Dickinson story?
Yesterday Valleywag / Gawker ( a top 1,000 website with $60 million in revenue, $30 million in profit, and a half-billion-dollar valuation) wrote a calm, even-handed editorial about Pax that started with the lead sentence "What has two thumbs and a homophobic, racist, misogynistic, classist worldview? Pax Dickinson."
And then the world exploded.
Speech and more speech
First, let me say where I agree with Ken:
* I believe that the best (and only) remedy for offensive speech is more speech.
* I believe that "censorship" means "government punishes you for your words"; it does not mean "society punishes you for your words".
Next, let me say where I disagree with Ken:
* While Ken thinks that it is legitimate to use government force to make people engage in commerce that they find morally distasteful (or, alternately, to force them out of commerce), I do not.
So getting back to Pax, Pax has a long history of tweeting stuff that, at a quick glance, is patently offensive…and, after deeper examination, is also frequently offensive.
A writer stumbled into Pax's tweet history and wrote an article that consisted largely of quotes of Pax's tweets and the sentence
We've contacted Business Insider founder, editor, and CEO Henry Blodget, who recently received a $5 million funding round led by Jeff Bezos to see how he feels about Dickinson representing his brand.
So, on the speech-and-more speech metric, this is a wonderful outcome: Pax said things that are offensive to 99% of American citizens, other people took to media, blogs, and twitter and attacked his statements, and no one with a badge and a gun did anything about it.
A clear line: social shaming vs state punishment
Did government agents arrive and arrest Pax? No.
Did a violent mob tar and feather him, causing second degree burns? No.
What happened was that Pax's opinions were made public and people were free to tweet to him, engage him in dialogue, hold up his tweets as examples of a right-wing dudebro culture that strikes them as misogynistic, racist, and crude.
(And I'm 100% serious about that "yay".)
Types of Speech, Dunbar's Number, Proportionality, Power Disparities, Media Persistence
The following is a topic I've been thinking about for a long time, and it's genesis is actually my concern for people who not e-friends like Pax; I started thinking these thoughts during the Charles Carreon imbroglio – and let the record show that I find Carreon pretty loathsome.
There's a continuum of speech. At one end you have purely intellectual conversations, at the other end you have a bunch of people pointing a finger at one person and chanting "Slut!", or engaging in whispering campaigns.
Like all reasonable people, I prefer the former over the latter. In fact, I detest the latter. However, there's no way to prevent the latter with out also stomping out the former. Further, a fair bit of biting social commentary (first group) actually looks like the second group. As H L Mencken said:
One horse-laugh is worth ten thousand syllogisms. It is not only more effective; it is also vastly more intelligent.
So while I believe that there is utility in thinking about and talking about the difference between "debate" and "shaming", in practice the line is pretty fuzzy, and there's no way to allow one while preventing the other (even if we were utilitarians and wanted to do such a thing).
So let's talk about shaming. Shaming and exclusion have a long history. Humans do it. Chimps do it. To a lesser degree, you can even see it in the operation of canine social groups.
Shaming is not pleasant for the target, it's not a good technique if you want to encourage people to generate new ideas, and it's not a good technique if you want to encourage people to challenge old orthodoxies…but it is an effective technique to enforce norms and existing tribe / pack hierarchies.
Sometimes enforcing norms quickly and brutally is the right thing. If I overheard someone making fun of my child for his race in a restaurant lobby, I wouldn't engage the miscreant in a debate over human biodiversity; I'd immediately raise my voice and say "Excuse me, sir, are you making racist comments about a child? What's your name? Joe? Joe, I can't believe that you're making racist comments about a child! In public! I guess you don't care if everyone learns that you're a racist who picks on children in public, Joe!"
Shaming works well (to the ends that it works, at least) in small bands of hunter gatherers. It causes people to adjust their actions to social norms, it leaves no physical scars, it doesn't incarcerate anyone or destroy the value of their labor…and it's got a built-in time horizon. A guy reaches for the last slice of pizza, one of his friends says "Hey, don't be a pig; you've already had your share". The guy's face flushes because he was called out. He pulls back his hand and lets someone else eat the last slice. Perhaps over the next few days his friends make pig-snorting noises at him to remind him that he was greedy, and he's annoyed, ashamed…and chastised. He takes extra pains to eat his share or less at future shared meals over the next week or two. The shaming joke never spread beyond 148 or so people, and within a few weeks the entire incident is forgotten.
Social mechanisms evolved in small groups without any form of information persistence other than fallible human memory. I constantly find it amazing that they work at all in our much changed world and society (I also find it amazing that primate minds that evolved to hunt small game on the savanna can do differential equations and put probes into orbit around distant planets).
Eliezer Yudkowsky made a point once about superstimuli which I find endlessly fascinating:
A candy bar is a superstimulus: it contains more concentrated sugar, salt, and fat than anything that exists in the ancestral environment. A candy bar matches taste buds that evolved in a hunter-gatherer environment, but it matches those taste buds much more strongly than anything that actually existed in the hunter-gatherer environment. The signal that once reliably correlated to healthy food has been hijacked…
And likewise, a video game can be so much more engaging than mere reality, even through a simple computer monitor, that someone will play it without food or sleep until they literally die.
I'd suggest that shaming people in very large, very modern social settings is a superstimulus. In the ancestral small-tribe environment it feels good to be the dealer of a joke and not the brunt. It feels good to be the social arbiter and not the social pariah. It feels good to be the cool kid and not the nerd. …and, in the iterated version of the game, where a given person is on the shaming end every now and then and on the shamed end every now and then, everything works out.
We've got the social process wired into our heads, and it works well when we're in small groups, but it can be destructive when we're in larger groups. Calling out the hunter in a pack of 150 who took more than his fare share of meat is one thing. Calling out the miller who took more than his fare share of flour in a village of 1,000 is another.
…and calling out the Jewish moneylenders as taking "more than their fair share" in interest in a modern nation of 50 million, in an age of newspapers, radio, and movies (or calling out the Tutsi merchants as taking "more than their fair share" of the economy) is another
(preemptive response to anyone who is tempted to quote Godwin's law: please don't. It's not, contrary to belief, an indication of a rhetorical flaw; it's merely a descriptive law.)
I note that my point here is not remotely to say that Pax is suffering like Jews in the Holocaust; I'm leaving the Pax topic far behind to explore some general thoughts about how our species is not well equipped to deal with the mass media of 1930, let alone 2013.
When we combine modern communications technologies with large crowds (far in excess of Dunbar's number) and then add in persistence and searchability, the social environment of 2013 is radically different from that of even 1990.
…and I'm not convinced it's an unmitigated good thing. I'm not thrilled by a society that tweets pictures of a 15 year old girl blowing a guy at a rock concert. I feel bad for the chubby Star Wars kid and the millions of youtube hits. I am deeply uncomfortable with making fun of Rebecca Black for her song and video "Friday".
But, sure, it's easy to feel bad for kids.
So let me note that while I think that Charles Carreon is a douche, but I'm not sure that his douchiness needs to be highlighted at the top of the search engine listings for the rest of his life. I think that John Scalzi is a nasty individual who has never written a good novel, lies about his website traffic statistics, has the instincts of a censor, and mocks other people but has a very thin skin when it comes to being mocked himself…but I'm at least somewhat uneasy about the glee that some take in shaming him.
And on and on and on.
Human flesh search engines cause pain, and they aren't particularly subtle, and they don't have a well calibrated power level.
tl;dr: I simultaneously think that the proper response to speech is more speech…and worry that given modern technologies, the result is often not debate that merges thesis and antithesis into synthesis, but punishment…and punishment that can be disproportionate to the crime.
Progressives dislike slut shaming, body shaming, childlessness shaming, atheist shaming, and so on. I suggest that people need to either expand their concern about shaming to victims that they don't particularly agree with, or they need to admit that their concern is really special pleading: "I don't want my people or my activities shamed, but I'm all down with shaming The Other's people and activities." That second choice is a legitimate position, but they lose a fair bit of moral high ground – there's not much gravitas in saying that it's wrong to slut-shame progressive women but it's morally good to do it to the Palins of the world, or that it's wrong to fat-shame Bill Clinton but OK to do it to Rush Limbaugh, etc.
I have no solution to this problem, if problem it indeed is. I certainly don't want the government to get involved. But I do think about it with some regularity.
Censorship vs Silencing
Granted: it's censorship when the government does it and merely discretion when a private blog owner does it.
…but there is still something off-putting to me about people who try to silence a critic rather than rebut him or her.
The phrase "needs to shut up" is particularly grating.
No one, in my opinion, needs to shut up.
…but not everyone agrees.
I find that self-described progressives are particularly bad at this. A quick Google search shows the phrase popping up a lot at Salon.com, Slate.com, theroot.com, Daily Kos, etc. ("Sarah Palin needs to shut up", "Juror B29 needs to shut up", "Jeb Bush needs to shut up", etc.)
A question I have, and it's a serious question, is what the goal of trying to get people to shut up (either through explicitly calling for them to shut up, or for making their lives so miserable that they choose to shut up) is.
I gave a hypothetical example earlier of a restaurant patron making racists statements about a hypothetical child of mine. I admit that I'd try to shut him up. My reasons for doing so would be to (a) spare my child the pain of hearing it, (b) show my child that one can choose one's social environment, (c) try to teach the person that his opinions are his own, but others will resist their expression in social environments – especially when children are present.
I'd never think of doing that in an online debate, though – I'd dig up some statistics showing growth rates in societies that are racially tolerant are better than in those where there is less tolerance, etc. My goal would be to win the argument. I'd try to convince the racist that he was wrong (perhaps not very likely) and to convince others that he's wrong (more likely).
So, I am genuinely curious as to what the goal of mass shaming someone is.
Is the idea that the shamed person will genuinely change his opinion because he's been made the object of ridicule? I can't imagine that happening.
Is the idea that the shamed person will falsely change his opinion because he's been made the object of ridicule? Quite possible – corporate CEOs do it all the time, kissing up to groups and causes that they don't really care about. I'm not sure why someone would want this.
Is the idea that the shamed person will stop posting under his own name and take up a nom de plume? This is very likely – I know several people who blog or tweet under personas because they've seen shit-storms descend on people with unpopular opinions.
Or is the idea that shaming people isn't enough, and "society" needs to do more – like curtail their ability to earn a living?
An unclear line: firing, the ability to earn a living
A few days ago Ken called out the distinction between social repercussions and economic repercussions. I recommend his words there.
An hour or two after Gawker's story Pax was fired from his job.
This is exactly the template that played out a few months ago when two engineers at a conference made a joke amongst themselves about the word "dongle" and got fired over it after @adriadrichards made a stink about it.
I'm curious whether Nitash Tiku and Adria Richards are happy that they got people fired over thought crimes and speech crimes (note to literalists: yes, I realize that thoughts and words are not actually criminal. Not in the US, at least. And not unless paired with other activities, like beating someone up. Or engaging in commerce.)
Do they consider this fitting?
Well, we know the answer for Nitash Tiku. Recall that her article said
We've contacted Business Insider founder, editor, and CEO Henry Blodget, who recently received a $5 million funding round led by Jeff Bezos to see how he feels about Dickinson representing his brand.
She was clearly hoping to get him fired, and she got her wish.
But is she content at just having people fired once, or would she prefer permanent blacklists? After all, if Pax thinks that it's irresponsible to try to support three dependents on a minimum wage job, he's unlikely to change that opinion after being fired. What's a good societal goal? Should he be fired from his next job if he still thinks this? Or only if he expresses it again?
Or would it be better if Pax was rendered permanently unhirable?
Or perhaps just unhirable in his current profession? Would society be better off if instead of doing whatever a CTO does ("load balancing nginx servers", or what-have-you), he couldn't get a job better than working the front desk at a dentist's office, would that be good?
At some point one has to think about and draw comparisons with the Soviet Union, especially in its later kinder/gentler days, when certain political opinions wouldn't get one sent to the gulag, but would merely result in being fired from one's job. (Feel free to cite Godwin's law again, if you'd like, suitably modified.)
Thick liberty versus thin liberty
I've been drifting from right-wing anarchism every so slightly towards left-wing anarchism over the past few years. Even if the drift continues at the current rate, I'll die before leaving the territory that's marked out as "ancap", but I do understand and appreciate more left-wing arguments than I used to. One core concept of left anarchists is the concept of thick liberty, and the criticism of right anarchists as being only in favor of thin liberty.
One example of a cause where I see the distinction but am utterly unpersuaded is economics: in any world where people have to pay for food, they have thin liberty. They are not truly free to write poetry all day long, because they'll starve. Corporate employers, goes the argument, can leverage this lack of liberty into other compromises of liberty: exploiting people to sell their labor because they're in need.
(Like I said: I'm unconvinced.)
But let's talk a bit about thick versus thin liberty in the realm of freedom of speech.
Again, I fully support a business owner's right to fire a person for all sorts of reprehensible reasons: race preferences, gender preferences, etc. I do not want any law on the books that would stop Business Insider from firing Pax. I was once fired from a contract gig for my off-the-premises / off-hours political speech, and even though this was a violation of the relevant state law (California) I refused to involve the law because I thought the law was immoral.
So I don't want to use force to stop employers from firing people based on their beliefs or speech.
But I do have another serious question: what sort of culture do we want to create? Do we want to live in a society where people are legally allowed to say that they don't believe in God…but are socially shunned, fired from their jobs, and attacked in dozens of online magazines with millions of readers if they actually exercise that right?
I love arguing; I engage in debates with friends and e-friends on all manner of topics. I don't think that people often or easily change their minds, but it does happen. I've change my mind over
- gun control c. 1985
- abortion c. 1990
- LGBT rights c. 1995
- the death penalty c. 2000
- the legitimacy of US foreign wars c. 2005
- the correctness of left-wing anarchism (in progress)
and so on. Part of the way in which my views evolve over time is that I seek out and engage with people who deeply disagree with me. In the past few weeks I've had interesting conversations with a green, two Trotskyists, a New Deal Democrat, and a left-anarchist.
All of these people have some views that are beyond the pale for polite society, and all of them could be shamed into silence (or, at least, into pseudonym-hood) if the cruel glare of a million shaming eyes all turned on them at once.
It is my assertion that we're all better off with a thick liberty where Trotskyists, Drum Circle Occupy-ists, Family Values Republicans, Pick Up Artists, Racial Realists, Pete Singer pro-infanticide "ethicists", neo-reactionaries, and all the rest out and in the open, where we can debate them, point out where they're wrong, and maybe learn about where they're right.
It is further my assertion that one provocative free-thinking Pax Dickinson is worth a thousand shaming conformist Nitash Tikus.
If you like this post, you might also enjoy:
- The Third Wave, CNC, Stereolithography, and the End of Gun Control
- Security Theater, Martial Law, and a Tale That Trumps Every Cop-And-Donut Joke You've Ever Heard
- Wherein a Right-Libertarian Sticks a Toe in Left-Libertarianism and Finds That the Water Is Fine
- Mutants. Secret Society members. Communists. Baby deer.
- Bullying in New York State