fuzzy notepad

[blog] Everyone’s offended these days

Stephen Fry has deleted his Twitter account after backlash from an incident I can only describe as very British. He vaguely explains:

…let us grieve at what twitter has become. A stalking ground for the sanctimoniously self-righteous who love to second-guess, to leap to conclusions and be offended – worse, to be offended on behalf of others they do not even know. It’s as nasty and unwholesome a characteristic as can be imagined.

There’s a bit of a semantic trick in his post, and it took me a couple reads to pick up on it.

Obviously, the problem is that he no longer finds Twitter enjoyable, right? The conclusion says he feels “massive relief” after deleting his account.

But look at the rest of it. There are no real mentions of how he felt before deleting his account. “The fun is over.” “The room had started to smell.” “The tipping point has been reached.” All detached, passive.

It’s not hard to guess why — here in the future, feelings are verboten. Feelings are weak. Feelings mean you’re offended. Let’s see what a great man had to say about being offended.

It’s now very common to hear people say, ‘I’m rather offended by that.’ As if that gives them certain rights. It’s actually nothing more… than a whine. ‘I find that offensive.’ It has no meaning; it has no purpose; it has no reason to be respected as a phrase. ‘I am offended by that.’ Well, so fucking what.

— Stephen Fry

Well then.

I love Stephen Fry, really I do, but this oft-repeated quote is bullshit and he is perfectly demonstrating why that is. What he’s really saying is this: everyone else’s feelings don’t matter, but his do, because he frames them as universal rules of discourse rather than feelings.

Look at his post again — that’s exactly how he words his point of view. “Too many people have peed in the pool.” “Now the pool is stagnant, …frothy with scum.” Fry’s feelings aren’t feelings — they are a universal and objective standard of behavior, which everyone else is violating. All those angry people, yelling that Fry has violated a universal and objective standard of behavior? Ah, they’re just perpetually offended, you see. Totally different.

A pattern seems to be emerging: “being offended” is something that only happens to people defending others. (Notice that Fry’s post gently veers into establishing this as the common case: “worse, to be offended on behalf of others”; “whether they think they’re defending”.) People defending themselves — people offended by others’ taking offense — are valiantly fighting injustice, or something.

It’s a preposterous double standard, an illusion of perspective. It would be comical, if an otherwise brilliant man hadn’t fallen for it.

I’m not saying I agree or disagree with the criticism leveled at him. I’m only saying that his own hurt feelings are not materially different from everyone else’s hurt feelings, and neither are less valid.

I’m also not saying that what happened to Stephen Fry is okay. I’ve grumbled before about the dogpile effect on Twitter, and now I’m going to do it again.

Fry told a joke — outside of Twitter, even. Some people found it tasteless, and told him as much. Multiply by tens, hundreds, maybe thousands. No single person would think they’re doing anything outlandish, but in aggregate, they become a massive impromptu mob.

This is a glaring problem with Twitter, and a worse problem with Tumblr. And there aren’t many tools for dealing with it. You have only a handful of options here, and they all boil down to: slog through it or retreat entirely.

Like many problems, this really comes down to power dynamics, which are easy to overlook if you haven’t experienced them. Mildly-nasty speech becomes an issue when it’s amplified by one of three forces.

  1. Actual power. Public scorn from someone with more influence is that much more powerful. “Influence” can be many things — it could be someone famous globally (influence over strangers), the leader of a small community you’re in (influence over your peers), or even just a close friend or someone you respect (influence over you).

  2. Volume. The same sentiment expressed by many individuals all at once can be overwhelming. Just ask Stephen Fry!

  3. Time. Whether from a few people or many, the slightest irritant can wear you down over time. Some days, even having two people reply to me with the same obvious joke can feel exhausting. Imagine a lifetime of it — that’s where you get “microaggressions”.

This exists in a strange middle ground. The platform can’t really police everyone individually for participating, when no one person’s behavior was notable. In fact, for impromptu mobs, they really shouldn’t. Speaking out is a useful power; in meatspace, it’s how we enforce the social contract. Centralized realtime platforms like Twitter have just made it very easy for one individual to attract a lot of very direct attention, while making it more difficult for others to push back when they believe the mob is wrong.

If there’s anything to be done, it’s client-side relief from the flood. For example, I was inspired by a couple others’ work, and wrote some adblock rules to hide mentions from people who don’t follow you. If a wave is bearing down on you and you’re tired of dealing with it, you can turn on the rules for a while, and at least you’ll have curbed the randos. It’s not foolproof, and probably won’t work so well if you have followers numbering in the millions, but it’s better than nothing.

Twitter mentions aren’t a town hall meeting; they are personally delivered right into your pocket. I think everyone deserves the ability to control what’s fired directly at them like that.

Perspective and context are so important. We are so bad at taking them into account, which is why so many power gradients are so hard to see.

I’m sure none of the people angry with Fry thought they were doing anything unreasonable. From their point of view, they were each just one person talking to one other person.

If someone comes into #python to make a joke about how Python sucks (yes, this happens), who cares? It’s just some noise. No one is going to have an existential crisis over it; we’re all surrounded by each other, a network of people whose very presence demonstrates that of course Python doesn’t suck. That person has negligible influence here.

Now, you’re the only Python developer at a Haskell conference. You go to a talk, and one slide makes a joke at Python’s expense. The entire room laughs. Suddenly you feel much smaller, maybe embarrassed, maybe annoyed. It was still only one person making one joke, but that person clearly had more influence here.

This is, incidentally, the same reason Fry’s quote makes no sense when applied to a community — which, of course, is virtually the only way I ever see it used. If it’s just you, then by all means, be as much of a dick as you want. People will like you, or they won’t. Either way, it’s solely your own ass on the line.

But the whole point of a community is that everyone interacts with each other. If your approach to conflict is that whoever has a problem should just suck it up, guess what — they may just walk away, like Fry did. Except they’re not going to have millions of fans, so their departure will be silent. Why even bother objecting if no one will care anyway?

It’s just a joke. Everything offends someone. No one’s ever complained before.” Yeah. They just left without saying anything instead. How many? Are you sure? Did those people have close friendships within the community? Do the people they were friends with think your lazy joke was worth a departure?

On the other hand, last weekend was the Super Bowl (I think). I saw maybe one or two tweets making “haha kickball” jokes, maybe half a dozen actually about the game. But somehow I saw at least a dozen tweets criticizing people who would make “haha kickball” jokes, for not being considerate of… something a third of the entire country is doing simultaneously? I get it, it’s nice not to poke fun at anyone’s interests, but you think this is the most appropriate horse to hitch that wagon to?

There’s even an xkcd saying that he appreciates when people listen to his niche hobbies, so he’s going to listen about football. Okay but buddy, you appreciate it because it’s uncommon. I don’t think too many people are wanting for someone who’ll listen to them talk about football. Yet I haven’t seen any comics and snarky jokes suggesting that sports fans listen to their friends rave about Warhammer.

The message this sends seems to be: it’s fine that no one cares about whatever dorky thing you’re into, but wow why would you make fun of the sacred and hallowed Super Bowl, which is so important to so many people, how could you be so inconsiderate?

This was such an obvious and ridiculous imbalance to me, yet I still need three paragraphs to explain it. I made a whole tweetstorm about how silly I thought it was, and someone I know still assumed I just wanted an excuse to be a jerk to jocks because I was shoved in a locker once. (I wasn’t.)

We can be pretty bad at perceiving power gradients. Especially when we’re at the good end of them.

I rarely use words like “abuse” or “harassment” or “bullying”. Those are fuzzy concepts, and in my experience they mostly invite endless semantic quibbles and border disputes. I don’t think impromptu dogpiling by people with genuine grievances is really “abuse”, for example. But it doesn’t matter, because it still sucks when it happens to you. And beyond a certain scale, there’s not much you can do about it.

Yet any dialogue about this problem tends to attract people who are hellbent on scoffing about it. A tsunami is bearing down on your home; you can hear the roar, feel the initial mist fall on your face. Here comes the peanut gallery to sneer. What’s the big deal? It’s just a little water. Mist never hurt anyone. Don’t live under clouds if you can’t handle rain.

Meanwhile, all you can do is report one drop at a time. “This drop does not appear to pose a threat to your house,” each response says. But don’t worry — they’re putting together a task force to design a really good umbrella.

An all-too-common sentiment at the moment is that you should just get off the Internet entirely if you can’t “handle it”. Someone said that to me just a few minutes ago, even. I don’t get it. I don’t get how anyone can think that’s a reasonable solution, especially for people who are pouring their lives into creating digital work. Apparently it’s even common to hear from people in the judicial system, for whom the Internet is this thing other people sometimes use to look at cats.

The subtext here is that cretinism is acceptable, but being a target is not. If you’re a total dick who only uses the Internet to seek out strangers and ruin their day for kicks, you are absolutely welcome. If you happen to be one such sought-out person, there’s the door. What kind of reasoning is that, and what kind of society does anyone think it’s going to create?

And this has all just been about natural pile-ons. What do you do against the truly determined, who think being blocked is an invitation to make a new account? Stephen Fry is so well-known that deleting his Twitter account is newsworthy. What about the people who don’t have that kind of visibility or support?

Here are some things I’ve actually seen happen to people, often multiple times, when antagonism runs rampant:

  • Someone influential mentioning you publicly as an adversary, inviting dozens or hundreds of their followers to come be nonspecific jerks.

  • Anonymous third parties tracking down strangers who spread your work, then lying to them about you so they won’t spread your work any more.

  • A small group using a platform’s Google juice to associate a bunch of gossip with your name.

  • Horrible dissections of your life coming up as recommended videos next to anything you put on YouTube.

  • People stalking your online trail and weaving conspiratory stories out of virtually anything you do or say.

  • People attracting attention to their crap by tagging it with projects you’re trying to run. (This is more of an issue on Tumblr, where there are no “community” blogs, and tags are used as a rough substitute — so you have no moderation powers.)

  • People mass-filing false reports on your work until it’s automatically deleted, or filing bogus DMCA takedowns.

  • Someone with a widely-read private platform writes gossip articles about you, while you have no comparable platform from which to respond.

Most of these make a better report button look like a joke. Half of them are deliberate design decisions on the part of the platform, which was built to treat loud noise as consensus and thus truth. What is anyone supposed to do against that?

And we can’t even talk about this without attracting people who believe the whole Internet should be like 4chan, that their right to talk trumps everyone else’s right to ignore them. People who’ve never had anything like this happen to them, who can’t have this happen to them, because they are phantoms with no online presence beyond the sick memes they send to strangers. People who have so desensitized themselves to everything offensive that they’re offended by mere attempts to be considerate.

Disagreement isn’t harassment,” cries someone who arranges their life around engaging in technically-not-harassment. Sure, whatever. I’d hope we could all agree that at least some of the stuff in that list is harassment, however you define the word. It’s certainly all pretty cruel. And none of our platforms are built to deal with it.

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(illus. by Rumwik)