How to deal with ideological censorship in a community? Who gets empathy and who is humanized the most? Does contemporary rhetoric about toxicity hold up to scrutiny?
“When you keep rewarding people for becoming injured, they self-modify to become injured more easily.”
Tang-flavored tech aggregator HackerNews has become something of a Rorschach test. Depending on who you ask, it’s either a forum for a rare kind of interesting and enlightened discussion, or a hive of “webshits” and their sophomoric ideas about software and enterpreneurship. Arguably it’s both. Whether you subscribe to the naive optimism of youth or the weathered cynicism of a scarred veteran, its influence is undeniable. Reaching its front-page by way of upvotes represents a significant amount of attention, and even the Elders of the Internet drop by from time to time to chime in when summoned.
Given its status, it was inevitable that the culture war in tech would appear there too. This much to the dismay of its moderators, who prefer an atmosphere devoid of ideological battle and bad faith discussion. Rorschach pops up again, as they stand accused of both ministering a church of SJWs, as well as hosting an unfettered alt-right cesspool, despite claiming to give both sides equal treatment.
Counter-culture voices, including this very blog, often find themselves and their causes flagged and censored if they get any traction. But progressive activists vocally complain about HN’s misogynist and even white supremacist “techbros,” some moving on to more sanitized venues altogether.
In this case though it can’t be both. Faced with an apparent contradiction, the moderators have decided both sides are off their meds, and prefer to keep all such discussion on a short leash. I myself have been shadowbanned a few times, despite being a low frequency poster who plays the ball and not the man.
First though, let’s imagine a facile retort, common in progressive circles, only coming from the opposite side: the moderators are clearly denying the lived experience of their users, gaslighting them into thinking that the obvious isn’t actually taking place, and making them feel unsafe to share their sincere opinions. My standards of argument are higher, but I’m noting it here for later; this sentiment obviously isn’t taken seriously unless the right people express it.
I don’t think there’s a real contradiction though, and I don’t think the moderators lack good faith… just imagination. What’s playing out is the result of a few simple dynamics enabled by a mostly objective application of the site’s stated rules. It’s the natural result of a conflict between Flaggers and Debaters, and exactly what you would expect.
The Flaggers are hypervigilant against any ideological dissent, and consider even giving it oxygen to be a step too far. By consistently tagging offending threads, the content drops off the front-page very quickly, left to gather cobwebs among week-old content. The discussion can still continue, but mostly just among those already in it. Worse, this harsh penalty kicks in even before the post officially appears as [flagged], providing plausible deniability if the Flaggers are careful not to overplay their hand. They’ve certainly had some practice.
To the Debaters, this is blatant foul play. Flags are meant for spammers, bots and other abuse, not to erase good faith commentary on links interesting enough to be voted to the top. Even if the subject is ideological, real arguments are being made, and taboos should remain broachable. Furthermore, if there is insufficient transparency about a post’s lifecycle, that actually does qualify as gaslighting to some degree, as does shadowbanning. That the discussion keeps recurring and going in circles is probably because it’s not actually about the arguments, but rather a classic case of Mistake vs Conflict. One side wants to determine who’s right, the other just wants to enforce their will.
What the Flaggers are doing is not actually against the rules: flags exist to allow the community to have its say about what content is inappropriate, and it’s a free for all. Meta-discussion on the other hand is forbidden, which puts the Debaters at a striking disadvantage. If they stick to the written rules, they simply have to grin and bear being marginalized, and this supposedly in the name of fighting marginalization. On the other hand, if the Debaters violate the rules by drawing attention to this phenomenon, they respect the spirit of the site while flaunting its letter, opening themselves up to accusations of posting in bad faith.
Heads I win, tails you lose. This is the Crybully’s Prisoner’s Dilemma, where a committed defector convinces bystanders that their opponent is being unreasonable by not cooperating in their own loss.
The site’s leadership however does not have plausible deniability, particularly without objective data to support their claim. HN is such a desirable platform that it has various active mechanisms in place to detect and penalize deliberate vote manipulation. It is simply not credible to claim that coordinated ideological flagging should be respected as the will of the community, when this serves as a practically irreversible super-downvote and minority veto.
It’s also a false dichotomy to think that anyone opposed to ideological flagging by the “SJWs” is necessarily right-wing, particularly when respect for openness and free expression is a traditionally left-wing value.
There is of course a third option: the Debaters could become Flaggers themselves, giving up on their own values, which would be the true defect/defect scenario. That would actually create the symmetry the moderators claim already exists. It could even work, given how consistently certain tactics are legitimized and delegitimized purely based on who’s using them on who. The current debate about civility and decorum in American politics is certainly illustrative in this regard.
This post isn’t about a community spat though, it’s about the importance of what counts as legitimate hurt. I just think HN is an appropriate microcosm for the greater conflict.
The Flaggers don’t just get to censor and control the discussion, they can use it as evidence that they’re right to be fighting in the first place, as it provides useful social proof outside the site that the menace is real. Debaters on the other hand will find themselves pondering whether it isn’t better to appear weak and vulnerable too: if these are the kinds of suffering that are seen as legit, I guess I better start moving in that direction… Those who desire sympathy are encouraged to adopt overt weakness.
More sensible then is to question the role of empathy in all this. As a bona fide spergonaut, I certainly won’t be accused of having an abundance of affective empathy, namely, to instinctively grok and mirror the emotional state of others. But on the flipside, it can provide a richer perspective. Without a strong theory of mind, you instead develop your own theory of minds. From this viewpoint, the promise of affective empathy seems awfully limited, baked in with a heavy dose of overconfidence by way of typical mind fallacy. Without a first hand account, you can only infer someone’s internal state from their apparent behavior, and that requires two leaps of faith: first, that their behavior when feeling a certain way is the same as yours, and second, that they’d feel the same way about being in a given situation. Trying to get into the head of someone you’ve never spoken to is likely doomed to fail for this reason.
Furthermore, the reflexive nature of affective empathy makes it vulnerable to another exploit, namely of availability bias. The harm most easily empathized with is that which is the most commonly encountered. If there is a well-known body of threat narratives to bank off of, actively spread as part of a particular agenda, vocal coverage will easily substitute for actual incidence, confusing how prevalent certain harm actually is. Faced with a demand to empathize with a lesser known and unusual situation, there simply won’t be the same kind of response, as a deliberate form of cognitive empathy is required to bridge the gap to a more complete understanding. Those whose maladies are mostly (or entirely) invisible face a serious uphill struggle.
This also highlights a specific problem with text-oriented communities: if you usually rely on various non-verbal and behavioral cues to inform your empathy, you will be woefully underequipped if you have to rely purely on the written word. I often see it stated that ex-Googler James Damore was clearly arguing in bad faith, be it because of his choice of words, his method of publication, his actions afterwards, or just the larger context. First hand accounts of the memo’s origins and intentions are often rejected in favor of projecting a different interpretation onto the situation.
In contrast, when certain Googlers claimed to feel unsafe because of it, to the point of staying home from work, numerous coworkers and outsiders lined up to lament the injustice. It apparently did not occur to them that if this is the level of fragility that employees ought to be protected from, then what Damore himself went through amounts to a human rights atrocity: leaking an internal document, stripping it of its citations, mislabeling it as “anti-diversity”, and pillorying the author as a right-wing misogynist brogrammer for it. Claiming this is done in good faith is difficult to argue.
Damore’s agency and potential bad intent was grotesquely magnified, his vulnerability entirely dismissed, while his opponents afforded themselves the opposite treatment. This was then used to justify who deserved empathy and who did not. The “real” victims got carte blanche to revel in their hurt, seeing their subjective experience validated in a giant media spectacle. When a Guardian profile later tried to humanize him by drawing on his own experiences growing up with autism, this was seen by many merely as an admission of guilt that he lacked the necessary and expected sensitivity, in a striking reversal of victim and offender. It is little more than a sleight of hand, using the overt appearance of empathy to deny it to the only person permanently affected.
When you keep rewarding people for becoming injured, they self-modify to become injured more easily. Once this fragility is enacted, it is difficult to reverse, because there is an enormous amount of perceived harm associated with not prioritizing their concerns. This eclipses the actual harm done in general, creating a negative utility monster.
The common retort is to pull out the red card and castigate the plaintiff for victim blaming. But seeing as this is based on a pre-judgement of who is allowed to be a valid victim in the first place, it holds little water.
In the worst case, it amounts to a form of hypervigilant narcissism: certain Googlers were so primed to expect the worst, and receive so much support and social reward for spending their waking hours feeling this way, that they feel justified in throwing friends and foes under the bus because of self-inflicted anxiety over a threat that simply wasn’t there. Sure, there is a gun pointed at their head, but they’re the ones holding it. That this takes place in one of the most affluent and unaffordable places in the world should raise at least a few eyebrows about who exactly this is supposed to benefit.
What’s particularly galling is that all of this is playing against a backdrop of toxic masculinity, in which men are told to get more in touch with their own feelings and those of others, and to learn how to express them more positively and productively.
This demand is expressed in baffling forms, like the following comic:
The easy critique is that the author has summoned the strawman of the “angry comic book guy” in order to make a simple to refute point. The assertion that men built like a wardrobe do not appeal to women, and that they instead want big eyes, rosy cheeks and kissable lips is refuted by taking a gander at the covers and descriptions of various romance novels for women. Not only are there plenty of beefy love interests, but many don’t even bother to include the man’s face past the chin. It’s not a male power fantasy, but a female one, of being able to instantly charm and compel a top-shelf man to pursue you. There is a clear market for this.
But my main objection is actually in the last panel, where the strawman claims the art makes him “feel uncomfortable.” There are few sentences less likely to flow from a man’s lips, kissable or not. The reason is very simple: a man’s internal turmoil carries no weight by itself to the outside world, and men act accordingly. He might observe that a situation is awkward to break tension, but his mere personal discomfort will not be expressed this way, because it does not elicit sympathy or action on its own. Indeed, here it’s just the set up for a punch line: I’m making you feel uncomfortable? Good. That this comic then turns out to have been drawn by a man is quite remarkable. It suggests a lack of self-respect on the author’s part, who uses a caricature to mock his own gender and sell a stereotypical fiction about all women.
The fact is, if the background radiation of your life is something others will complain about on your behalf, you have it pretty good. For someone like Damore, who clearly felt strong discomfort at Google, that did not apply. His memo also stuck to factual explanations and did not mention his own emotions, only that it was a perspective that “desperately needed to be told.”
Had he actually written a personalized account that detailed his feelings of being told to attend mandatory seminars that openly denigrated him by gender and ethnicity, it’s not difficult to imagine the response: I bathe in your white male tears, #MasculinitySoFragile. I know this, because his subsequent lawsuit did describe feelings of being “ostracized, belittled and punished,” and that is exactly the kind of shamelessly heartless response that it got.
A barely better take read that:
“Only a dude could have thrown an internet tantrum so pedantic.
Damore just cannot wrap his head around the fact that there are women who are smarter than he is, that these women still need extra structural support just to get to where he is, and that their presence at Google will improve Google.
The right has effectively weaponized their supposed victimization at the hands of feminists, to the point that it feels like we’re dealing with a different set of facts.”
The implicit assertion of eminent domain is rather striking. It seems to me it’s the author who can’t imagine that there’s a white nerdy guy who could be smarter than she is, or even forgoing that, that what he had to say could still possibly improve Google.
There is another stark assertion too, in the accusation of throwing a tantrum. Like comic book guy above, complaints coming from men are easily dismissed as the immaturity or even infantilism of the man-child, even when expressed dispassionately. Curiously, the adjacent concept of a woman-child never seems to enter into it. Even when discussing fiction and fantasy, it is apparently the height of maturity and an Important Conversation™ when, say, Vanity Fair celebrates how Vice-Admiral Gender Studies beat down the mansplaining rogue, or that the female Ghostbusters valiantly adlibbed their way through a forgettable remake.
The word pedophrasty was coined to describe when children are used as props in order to elicit sympathy for particular causes and tragedies, and to make critics appear heartless and cruel. But it’s even weirder when it comes to women, who can cloak themselves with childlike interests and innocence to score points, even while simultaneously accusing opponents of a complete lack of maturity. The term “woman-child” lacks teeth, because damseling and self-infantilization are acceptable for women.
We’re not dealing with a different set of facts, but different sets of feelings, and some are categorically forced to stay in the closet in order to completely validate others.
This clicked for me after observing a curiously recurring pattern: the only emotions consistently attributed to men as a group is that they are angry and feel entitled. If you look at coverage of the so-called manosphere from the feminist side, there is a persistent conflation of its various factions (MRA, MGTOW, PUA, Incel, …) even if they have dramatically different outlooks on gender, policy and personal action. MRAs feel disenfranchised but hopeful about societal change. MGTOW feel betrayed and imposed upon, and desire male friendship instead. PUAs feel mislead but aim to cope well by playing the game as it exists. Incels feel worthless and lonely, depressed because of lack of companionship and intimacy, not just sex. These various emotional dimensions are consistently ignored, in favor of pointing to a few genuinely disturbed murderers who can be counted on one hand, inexplicably forcing all other men to take collective responsibility before their own concerns could possibly be taken seriously. Men’s feelings seem to matter only insofar as how women feel about them, and universal male anger will do just fine to bootstrap that conversation.
There’s a particular phrasing that appears in this sort of discourse, when someone’s perspective is questioned, a superlative of the concept of denying lived experience: you are denying my right to exist, and X’ism is just the radical notion that X are people. This with-us-or-against-us frame conflates the act of existing with the notion of having your identity and your beliefs socially validated. But of course, an important characteristic of conscious existence is that your internal world is not conditional on other people’s approval: we are all allowed to live without permission. The attitude thus embodied is the polar opposite and is somewhat of a blind spot, as if that which is not socially validated does not even exist.
The effect of the statements however is pretty clear, as a form of dehumanization-by-proxy: ordinary criticism or disagreement is framed as dehumanization, in order to justify why those offering it are the real monsters.
It’s a well known fact that awareness of cognitive biases does not make us less likely to commit them, only to notice afterwards that we did. The same appears to be true of social dynamics, but it seems even worse. The awareness of how insidious it is to guilt trip and shame people into compliance is not just no obstacle to perpetrating it… it seems to help justify it, by pre-emptively accusing others of what you’re about to do to them.
Check your privilege, angry white men. Your male tears don’t count, because your pain makes me feel uncomfortable.