A recent spat on Twitter, which I won’t link: some guy using his real name tweeted an offensive joke about how women should make sandwiches at a group of women. A feminist columnist with tens of thousands of followers retweeted with the comment “This is a young man who ostensibly wants a job someday, tweeting at professional women in his field under his own name…RT to help ensure [REAL NAME]’s prospective employers know this when they search for [REAL NAME]’s name”.
[EDIT: See here for discussion of various complicating factors; my claim isn’t going to be that a completely innocent person was punished, so much as that this entire paradigm of punishment is dangerous]
What particularly bothered me about this situation was that the columnist involved was a libertarian who writes for Reason, and her supporters were mostly other influential libertarians. And they were all using the old argument that the concept of “free speech” came into existence ex nihilo on December 15, 1791 with the ratification of the First Amendment, and has no meaning or significance outside a purely legal context of delimiting government power.
I have a friend who grew up gay in a small town in Alabama, where “faggot” was the all-purpose insult and the local church preached hellfire as the proper punishment for homosexuality. He unsurprisingly stayed in the closet throughout his childhood and ended up with various awful psychological problems.
If you’re a very stupid libertarian strawman, you might ask whether that town had any anti-gay laws on the book – and, upon hearing they didn’t, say that town was “pro-gay”. If you’re not a very stupid libertarian strawman, you hopefully realize that being pro-gay isn’t about boasting how progressive your law code looks, it’s about having a society where it’s possible to be gay. Not having laws against locking up gay people is a necessary precondition, but it’s useless on its own. You only get good results if good laws are matched by good social norms.
Likewise, the goal of being pro-free-speech isn’t to make a really liberal-sounding law code. It’s to create a society where it’s actually possible to hold dissenting opinions, where ideas really do get judged by merit rather than by who’s powerful enough to shut down whom. Having free speech laws on the books is a necessary precondition, but it’s useless in the absence of social norms that support it. If you win a million First Amendment victories in the Supreme Court, but actively work to undermine the social norms that let people say what they think in real life, you’re anti-free-speech.
But I’ve discussed this before at more length. What I want to get into here is a point specific to this situation: the guy made this joke under his real name. All the Reason columnist did was retweet it and add some commentary about how she hopes he becomes un-hire-able. This isn’t doxxing. It’s not even divulging a secret; the guy said it on his public Twitter. Is it really so wrong to do what’s basically just signal-boosting his comment?
A quick philosophical digression: what are we even doing here? My thought is: we’re trying to hash out a social norm. We expect this social norm to be sometimes in our favor and sometimes against us, so we want it to be universalizable and desirable under a veil of ignorance.
On that note: let him who is without sin throw the first stone. Have any of you ever said or done anything which, if signal-boosted, would be very embarassing and might prevent you from getting a job?
Before you answer, consider this: the person signal-boosting you has much wider reach than you do. There are now tens of thousands of people in the world who know you only as the guy who said that one embarassing thing one time. For that matter, anyone who Googles you will know you only as the guy who said that one embarassing thing one time. All of your triumphs, all of your defeats, all your loves and fears and follies – none of these exist in the public mind. If you cross a blogger, a columnist, or a Twitter celebrity, all that will exist is that you once retweeted a racist joke on the 26th of March, 2014.
Never retweeted a racist joke? Someone will find something. Maybe you’ve been a sex worker once – hope you didn’t put your picture up on the Internet, or else Reason columnists will say it’s not “doxxing” to merely “signal-boost” it so that everyone knows. Heck, even watching porn is enough to get people fired some places. Maybe you were stupid enough to admit you were gay or trans under something traceable to your real identity. Maybe you voted for Trump (a firing offense in some places) or against Trump (a firing offense in others). Maybe you committed a crime someone can find on a public crime database, or maybe you said something perfectly innocent which can be twisted into a sinister “dog whistle” out of context.
My own story – some antipsychiatry crackpot decided to target me, went through a couple of posts I’d written defending the practice of involuntary psych commitment in certain cases, and took a few statements out of context to make it look like I thought we should lock up all mentally ill people and throw away the key. Then he posted it on an antipsychiatry website, asking if anyone could find the address of my workplace so he could send it there to prove that I was unfit to work with the mentally ill. Luckily the moderator contacted me and deleted the post, and it stopped there. And it was never that convincing an effort to begin with. But…
In a world where an average of 250 resumes are received for each corporate position, how convincing does an effort have to be to ruin somebody’s life? Do you think your dream company is going to spend a long time sorting through each claim and counterclaim to determine that the highly-Google-ranked page about you claiming you’re unfit to work in your industry is mostly unfair? No. They’re just going to cut their risks and move on to the other 249 candidates.
Here’s an exercise which I encourage you to try. Suppose there’s a Reason columnist who wants to get you fired. They pore over your public statements – Twitter feed, Facebook timeline, any blogs you might have written, anything you’ve said in mixed company that you don’t know if somebody else wrote down waiting for the time they could use it against you. Imagine the most incriminating dossier of your statements, out of context, that they could put together. Imagine what would happen if they were pretty determined, and sent it to your workplace, your church, your parents, et cetera. How much of your life could they destroy?
And I agree this is weird. It’s bizarre that so many people trust to security by obscurity, when anybody with an axe to grind can destroy their obscurity and reveal them to the world. It’s bizarre that we treat Twitter as a private place, when literally everything that happens there is visible to every human being on Earth. It’s bizarre that we trust to these fragile online identities when any hacker can cut through them, bizarre that we wear such different masks to different friends when they could just talk and compare notes, bizarre that we dare to talk at all when we know every word we say is logged and the future may be less forgiving than the past.
But don’t let the fact that it’s bizarre make you think it isn’t important. How many of us can say, honestly, that we could bear the Panopticon? If every valley were raised up and every mountain pulled down, so there was nowhere to hide, and we were rendered naked to any eye anywhere in the world, how long could we endure? Wouldn’t we retreat into ourselves, turtle-like, afraid to ever speak at all?
And who would enjoy this new flattened landscape more than the biggest and most predatory? In the Panopticon, any celebrity with a platform can destroy the lives of any ordinary person, just by mentioning them. It would be paradise for any petty tyrant with a blog, and hell for anybody too poor to tolerate a risk of losing their livelihood.
I have a pretty big blog. But other people have bigger ones. I’m not confident that the amount of fun I could have destroying the reputations of people I don’t like outweighs the chance of someone else destroying mine. I’m certainly not confident that the aggressive-signal-boosting power would mostly end up in the hands of good people. So I reject the entire tactic. I think it’s morally wrong to try to signal-boost people’s bad behavior – even their semipublic bad behavior – to get them fired. Probably there’s a lot of subtlety here and there have been times in the past I’ve supported cases that seem completely different to me but might seem similar to others. I admit there’s an argument that doxxing is a way of shaming people in order to enforce social norms, and that we need some way to enforce social norms eg the one against offensive jokes – though see my post Be Nice, At Least Until You Can Coordinate Meanness about good and bad ways to do this. But for now I just am very suspicious of the whole enterprise.
Lord Byron wrote of his political philosophy:
I wish men to be free
As much from mobs as kings; from you as me
I stand with Byron. But I worry there’s a big strain of libertarians today who don’t. Who wish men were free from kings, but not from mobs. Who wish men were free from others, but definitely not from them.