This week I'd like to thank Dr. Matt Taylor for helping to show us that we don't really understand each other or the internet, and probably don't care to.
Your Job Is Probably Not A Vehicle For Self-Expression.
First things first: we1 like to forget where we are (or pretend to) when it serves our narrative.
Dr. Taylor wore a vivid shirt with scantily-clad women at work, while he was representing his employer in media interviews. That's different than Dr. Taylor wearing the shirt at home, or out at a restaurant, or on his own time. Our employers generally get to set a dress code. This is actually not fascism.
I train both corporations and nonprofits in sexual harassment prevention, something required by California law for entities with more than 50 employees. I would advise my clients that someone wearing this shirt should be counseled in an appropriate manner to wear it on their own time2. It's not sexual harassment, and it doesn't create a hostile workplace: it's nowhere near being severe or pervasive enough to change the nature of the workplace. However, it could eventually be cited as one factor in a long list of things that create a hostile work environment. That's why I'd say it's a risk, in addition to being — in my opinion — unprofessional.3
On the other hand, I'd also advise any client that the way to counsel an employee wearing the shirt is in private, professionally, in a measured fashion. Asking the employee to apologize on television is not private, professional, or measured. No competent professional who deals with sexual harassment prevention would advise public shaming as a method of correction; it's irresponsible, legally reckless, and ineffective.
I've seen people say that the shirt "looks like freedom." Well, I guess, to the extent you think freedom means you can wear whatever you want to your job. I can usually wear whatever I like to my office, because my name is on the door and I don't actually own any clothes that would offend anyone, other than hypothetical people triggered by khaki. But I don't actually get to wear whatever I want when I go to court.4 I have a cool tie with little handcuffs on it but I don't tend to wear it to meetings with new clients because they can find it off-putting. I don't wear sweat pants when I take a deposition because part of a deposition is making the witness take you seriously and nobody takes you seriously when you are in sweat pants.
Work is not the same as home. We ignore than when it serves our arguments.
Our Intended Message Is Not Necessarily The Message People Received.
People took different messages from Dr. Taylor's shirt. Based on my own biases I interpreted it ironically, as in "MY HIPSTER SHIRT: LET ME SHOW IT TO YOU." Some people interpreted it as "this is what women are for." Some people interpreted it as "I do what I want." I don't know what message Dr. Taylor intended to send; it might well have been a message of fondness for a particular artistic style and iconographic era, to the extent he consciously contemplated a message at all.
Many of us don't have a firm and consistent grasp of how to handle the distinction between intended messages, received messages, and both reasonable and idiosyncratic differences between the two. It's tempting to say "we can assume that people intend the message that reasonable people receive," but prolonged exposure to actual people tends to cure you of that.
It's okay that we don't have a coherent theory of how to distinguish intended and received messages. Smart people have been arguing over that for a very long time. But doesn't it make sense to contemplate the difference when we talk about expression? Isn't it reasonable to ask "do I give the benefit of the doubt to people on 'the other side' as well as people 'on my side'?"
We interpret messages based on our experience. When we say "you're a sexist if you don't interpret this shirt as sexist" or "you're a weakling if you think this shirt sends a discouraging message to women," we're saying "my set of life experiences is the correct one." My wife is a PhD, and she shook her head at the notion that the shirt sends an excluding message. But I have friends and clients who are women in science, and some of them have had experiences with discrimination that would stupefy you. They may take the shirt differently. The issue isn't that one set of experiences is "right" and the other "wrong." The issue is this: if we want to discuss things seriously, we might have to resort to something other than our own experience-based gut reactions. We might have to confront a difficult question: how much do we care about how people interpret what we say, or about what people meant when they said things that annoyed us?
All of this is exacerbated by the fact that everyone on social media loves sarcasm and irony, but irony is hard to interpret on social media. I've been blogging with Patrick for nearly a decade and I still can't reliably tell when he's being ironic. As a Twitter follower said this weekend about our account:
So if one of our followers retweets us to someone who has never heard of us, what chance do they have of correctly interpreting our meaning?
We're Not Sure What It Means To Say Something On The Internet.
As a variation on the last point, we're often not clear what message someone intends when they say something online.
Take this response.
The textual message is pretty clear. But what message, if any, is intended by posting it on Twitter? If you are sympathetic to Dr. Taylor and hostile to the criticism of him, you may interpret the underlying message as "cry havoc, and let slip the dogs of war" — you may assume that the speaker intended to make this into a Very Big Deal, and intended to provoke a particular response among readers. But did she? I don't know. Twitter lets us reach all of our followers instantly, and potentially be repeated to thousands or millions more. But it lets us do it in an instant, with very little thought or effort — really no more effort than it takes to speak it. Yet when it serves our individual narratives, we tend to assign a level of intentionality to Twitter and other social media that we would normally reserve for planned, deliberate, formal expression. A tweet might be a throw-away, a vent, a yawp, but we interpret it as "this person carefully formulated this statement and deliberately transmitted it to thousands of people, intending that it be passed on, showing how important they think it is."
That's true of tone as well as content. Let's say I say "fuck" in a tweet, as one does. I have likely not gone through the thought process "I am going to say 'fuck' now, with full consciousness that the people who are going to read it include my 14-year-old cousin, several of my pastors, some judges before whom I appear, and any number of people who are uncomfortable with that language." I type it out the way you might mutter something under your breath in traffic. Yet people may interpret it as if I arranged to have it engraved. Then the very same people will turn around, forget that that's the way they interpret Twitter, and casually toss out something with a tone and content they wouldn't deliberately choose for polite company. Let's call this "Twitnesia."
We're also fuzzy about how to react to multiple people talking about something. When I retweet something, or comment on something on Twitter, I rarely think "this person needs to have social consequences inflicted on them and I will add my followers and then we need 2.4 million more people to read it and then that will be the appropriate level of condemnation." In other words, we don't consciously think "watch me pile on." Instead, we tweet about stuff that's interesting, or funny, or affirms or preconceptions, or that we have a good line about. But we tend to interpret other people as being part of a coordinated effort. When they do it, it's "piling on."
Moreover, it's easy to confuse one person's momentary chosen focus for that person arguing that their focus should be everybody's focus. This is the "how can you talk about this when children are starving in Africa" rhetorical technique — or if you want to be a complete asshole, the fallacy of relative privation — and we aim it when we disagree with what a person is saying. When Mars Curiosity landed, plenty of people paid lots of attention to Mohawk Guy. Few people were upset by that — you didn't hear a lot of "OMG people are focused on appearance rather than on this historic event, how terrible." That's because for the most part the comments didn't push anyone's social or political buttons. But let the comments on appearance become critical along politically controversial lines, and all of a sudden everybody's name-checking the African kids. (That's easier to do when some people use rhetoric explicitly suggesting they are framing it as "what I noticed is the most important thing.")
In short, when we react to something on social media like it's been thought out and nailed to the cathedral door, we may be serving our own preferred narratives rather than reality.
We Build Our Own Echo Chambers.
We like to imagine that the internet in general, and social media in particular, will broaden our horizons by exposing us to a greater diversity of ideas and arguments.
What if the opposite is true?
The internet — and particularly social media — is only as broadening as you work to make it. Our natural instincts may be to use it to confirm and congratulate what we already think. That's especially true on places like Twitter: we "follow" people we want to follow. They, in turn, follow the people they want to follow — so when they retweet content, it's often agreeable to our peer group. When conflicting ideas are retweeted, it is often in the context of ridiculing them, or as disingenuous ideological synecdoche: "look at what this idiot says which is representative of what people on That Side say." We misinterpret a show of hands in our carefully cultivated clubhouse as a broad consensus. That means, of course, that it's much easier to treat opposing views as preposterous, extreme, or deliberately offensive.
We Can't Tell Whether There Is A Difference Between "Online" and "Reality."
We also become so immersed in our internet subculture that we mistake it for the broader culture. Have you ever talked to a kid with a hobby who seems genuinely mystified that you aren't intimately familiar with the intricacies and petty dramas and celebrities of his or her hobby? We make fun of that ("Grandma, I CAN'T BELIEVE you're not getting how controversial it is that they nerfed Paladins again in this latest patch!"), but we are that. We assume that something that's the talk of social media is the talk of the nation, and react accordingly. We're encouraged in this by online journalists — and increasingly television and print journalists — who are immersed in online culture and report it as if it is the same as the "real world." Then, when the story self-perpetuates into mainstream media and the "real world," we react with contrived outrage: "can you believe that this is actually a thing?" Of course it's a thing, we made it a thing by training journalists to rely heavily on social media for stories.
We're Dishonestly Obsessed With Metaphors of Violent Oppression.
People get criticized on the internet. Sometimes this criticism is unfair, irrational, and/or ridiculous. But when you say they've suffered a "lynch mob" or "witch hunt," unless people are actually calling for the person to be hanged or jailed, you're almost certainly full of shit.
Criticism is not censorship. Criticism is what we have instead of censorship. Preserving the ability to criticize vigorously is how we convince ourselves — tenuously — not to censor. Criticism is often leveled for incredibly stupid reasons, but then, so is the mechanism of government censorship.
When you say that someone criticized on the internet (or in the news) is the victim of a "lynch mob," here are the notions you are trying to sneak past your listeners:
In other words, you're likely just saying "I disagree strongly with this criticism and I will use lazy shorthand to say so." That's how you get a discourse in which lynch mobs are apparently chasing each other in circles — first the lynch mob after Dr. Taylor, followed by the lynch mob chasing the people who criticized Dr. Taylor, etc. This makes the shirt itself look profound in comparison.
We also use related rhetoric about what we're allowed to say. You hear a lot of "you're not allowed to . ." or "these days you can't . . ," by which people mean that we live in a time where if you do certain things it will have significant social consequences. But we always lived in that time. If I got up at a town meeting in 1914 and said "homosexuals should be allowed to marry each other," that would likely have had one set of strong social consequences, if I got up in a town meeting in 2014 and said "homosexuals should not be allowed to marry each other," it might have a different set of strong social consequences. The "you're not allowed to" rhetoric implies two false things: (1) that social consequences are equivalent to force or government coercion, and (2) there has been some sort of magical bunny-rabbit-gumdrop time when people could say whatever they wanted without social consequences.
Why do I care? I care because society's commitment to free expression is weak, and literacy in basic free speech concepts is spotty. "Lynch mob" rhetoric tends to equate speech with action that can be regulated. People who say "politically correct people form lynch mobs that ruin lives" may ironically make it more likely that the populace will tolerate laws enforcing political correctness, because they help conflate speech and action.
Should we make an effort to practice decency, and proportionality, and humility, and self-awareness in inflicting social consequences for speech? Damn right we should. But remember the points above about how we don't understand the internet. We mistake everyone in our Twitter feed condemning someone with everyone in the world condemning someone. We mistake offhand criticisms for carefully calculated ones deliberately sent to a mass audience. We mistake a different perspective for malice. We mistake our familiarity with someone for mass familiarity ("OMG @popehat called that guy out! Popehat has a huge audience! That's so disproportionate! He's leading a lynch mob!"). Our view of what is proportionate or disproportionate may be skewed.
We Like To Use Everything As A Weapon.
Whether we're criticizing, or criticizing the criticism, or criticizing the criticism of the criticism, or so on unto eternity like a mastubatory Oroborus,
Orobus, we enjoy making very broad social and political use of incidents.
Take the narrative that emerged in the criticism-of-the-critics level over Dr. Taylor. Allow me to pick on Glenn Reynolds for a second, because he can take it:
So how are things going for feminism? Well, last week, some feminists took one of the great achievements of human history — landing a probe from Earth on a comet hundreds of millions of miles away — and made it all about the clothes.
This, with all respect to Prof. Reynolds, is bullshit. Imagine me turning it back on him:
How are things going for conservatism? Well, last week, conservatives took a transitory social dispute and cynically twisted it for political advantage.
The familiar sequence is this:
1. People did something stupid.
2. Those people self-identify as feminists or I label them as feminists.
3. Feminists are stupid.
4. [A week later] Feminists say we should do xyz. But remember how stupid feminists are? Extremely stupid. Ha ha. So clearly we shouldn't do xyz.
You could plug anything into that to replace "feminists" and recognize it as common discourse. It's nonsense. It distorts the way we interpret things: it makes our focus not "what's a reasonable interpretation of this comment/incident" but "how can this comment/incident be of use to me."
But it's so seductive and fun. That's why we do it.
We're Plagued By Dirtbags.
If we congregate at the coffee shop on the corner to discuss politics, it's pretty easy to get rid of the nut who says "YOU DESERVE TO DIE for saying that about ethanol subsidies!!" It's a lot harder on the internet. There, crazy assholes can plague our conversations without getting kicked out. It's the drawback to anonymity: we can't inflict social consequences on trolls and threatmongers.
This is an uncomfortable truth, so we tend to deflect it. "Your statistics about who gets threatened more are totally misleading!" "Of those five statements, only one was really a threat, the others were just ill-wishes!" "Your Side's threats are worse than Our Side's!" "You didn't say anything the time we got threatened!" "This threat is probably a false flag!" "That dude probably can't really kill you because he lives far away and he doesn't have a car!" "That wasn't really doxxing because I found your home address on the internet!"
Ultimately, if we want to promote conversations worth having, that's all wheel-spinning. I have opinions about who is more likely to be threatened online, but whether or not I'm right, threats are unacceptable. I know the difference between true threats and bombast, but even "untrue" threats can be seriously creepy and unsettling. I know the difference between malicious abuse and threats that are likely to be carried out, but malicious abuse can be genuinely chilling. We minimize it until it happens to us.
It's easy to say "threats and publishing addresses and phone numbers and abuse of families is completely unacceptable," but that really doesn't get us anywhere. Being told "what happened to you is not right but it doesn't represent everyone who disagrees with you and it's probably a false flag and other people experience it too and I got called a dick on XBox Live once" isn't productive. Action talks. What might action look like? It might look like utterly shunning — unpersoning — anyone we identify who is engaged in such tactics. It might involve saying "that's unacceptable" without the "but . . . ." It might involve saying "this threat is frightening and unacceptable" rather than "this threat that is typical of Group X is frightening and unacceptable." It might involve people using their white-hat or grey-hat or even black-hat skills to identify — in public — the people who make threats, so that appropriate consequences can be inflicted upon them.5
As of now, threatening behavior distorts discourse in important ways. The discussion of Dr. Taylor is a good example. I hear — and find completely credible — that some people who criticized Dr. Taylor were threatened. Then when Prof. Reynolds offered the critique of the critics that I criticized above, some people suggested that he was morally responsible for what the threateners did. That's unfair and even pernicious. The existence of threatening scumbags shouldn't deter anyone from speaking their mind — whether it's a likely target, or someone that the scumbags are likely to agree with politically.
So where the hell do I come out on Shirtgate?
I come out like this: the shirt was not workplace-appropriate, but Dr. Taylor may not have realized that. The appropriate way to tell him was privately and professionally. Making him apologize on TV — if, in fact, he was made to do it — was hideously inappropriate. Some people reacted much more strongly to it than I did, but those people might have very different experiences with sexism than I've had. Someone calling Dr. Taylor an asshole on Twitter is not the same as someone saying "I call upon the polity to brand Dr. Taylor officially an asshole." Shut the fuck up about lynch mobs already.