Some Quick And Random Thoughts On “The Pile On.”

As I said, these thoughts will be quick and somewhat random. I got feedback from my dissertation readers, and while it’s not awful it’s not exactly great either. So my free time is more or less nil until I figure this out. But I felt like this was worth trying to put words to.

So the setup is more or less this: Some dudebro, in response to a Woman’s Libertarian Group, tweeted the “Make me a Sandwich” me back at them.

This isn’t really a judgment on the joke or troll itself. My thoughts on the nature of the internet can pretty much be summed up by John Gabriel’s Theory. (Though in this case the author used their real name, but I would submit there’s something about the internet itself that makes us feel anonymous, even when we quite clearly aren’t.)

What’s partially interesting is the response. Prominent Reason writer Elisabeth Nolan Brown screenshotted the offending tweet and sent it out. She specifically noted

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”.

Slate Star Codex (whom I sometimes agree with and sometimes not) has some interesting thoughts on this that will frame the rest of my random musing. So go read, it’s short, I’ll wait.

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Ok, you’re back? Setting aside for a moment his mash up of Kant and Rawls, which I’m sure I could write a dissertation about, there seems to be an underlying issue here that goes unmentioned. Specifically: questions of who we should be demanding accountability for.

That’s really what we’re getting at isn’t it? If you’re “Signal Boosting” with the expressed intent of harming job prospects for someone, you’re trying to hold them accountable for some action.

Now social accountability (i.e. shaming) goes back to pre-history, no doubt. And it serves a purpose, especially in the context of a community of people who interact with each other on a regular basis. No one wants to be friends (or coworkers) with a total asshole.

The internet however, has created conditions whereby we all appear to be in one giant community, so we police it with a certain level of social brutality. This is the “Panopticon” SSC mentions in passing. The original Panopticon being a literal prison designed, though never built, by Bentham. Foucault picked up on the idea and used it as a metaphor for the way in which society normalizes behavior via punishment.

We have built Foucault’s Panopticon in the form of the internet (and to a lesser extent CCTV and other forms of surveillance).

What follows is an interesting phenomenon. We now claim not just authority but obligation to punish all behavior we see outside of the norm. I’ll submit that this expansion is fairly new development. Before you might be at a bar and overhear someone in a different group make a joke that you think is offensive (whether something can be objectively offensive is a discussion for another day.) In the past you’d probably ignore it. Either that person’s social group will deal with it, or they won’t (because it’s a group of assholes) either way it’s not your group and so it mostly falls to the wayside.

In the current environment, we feel compelled to treat everyone as a member of our community and so we pile on for offenses that arguably don’t even involve us. (Remember #hasjustinelanded. That’s perhaps the pinnacle example of this.) So someone pushes a line, and instead of the normal social pressure that gently moves them back into the norm for their in-group, they get it DIALED UP TO 11, from groups that have an entirely different set of norms, and bam, life over.

(Quick aside: the argument will go “well he’s a libertarian, and an employee of a libertarian group, ergo he’s part of her in-group and subject to it’s whims. Bullshit. The “libertarian” movement is broad enough to contain any number of, often competing, groups that are only tangentially related to each other under a thin philosophy. It’s like saying that everyone at the brewpub I frequent is in the same in-group because we all drink craft beer.)

(Quick Aside #2, I said this would be random. The other argument will be “Well they have a right to do this.” Yes, true, they do. But I’m not saying they don’t have the right, I’m asking the moral question. Never an ought from an is.)

Now as someone who has joined in, and even instigated a few pile-ons, I would say I don’t think there’s a hard and fast rule against them. But I think we do need to consider who we should be demanding accountability from. Elected officials: yes. The press: Yes, in so far as it deals with their press related duties (I don’t give a rats ass if you never paid your co-anchor the $20 bucks you borrowed, but push a parody twitter account as real then quietly memory hole it without any acknowledgment of your mistake, then PILE ON.) Hollywood stars: We shouldn’t, but they’ve taken such an outsized role in our politics, that we may have to (though I’d prefer to reduce that role.)

Academics is a little bit trickier to define. Public dollars are the lifeblood of a substantial portion of the academy, this gives us a certain obligation in that sphere. As I’ve said before, as an academic I have concerns about the ability of many professors to grade fairly, which is an important aspect of accountability (but I’m not sure how that applies to the rest of the world.)

Should be roaming the internet like vigilantes, pickup up every Tom, Dick, and Harry who offends us and force a connection to them so we should hold them accountable? No, for the love of all things, NO.

So ends the ramble.

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