Here’s a disgusting little secret about freedom of expression: it’s possible to keep the First Amendment completely intact in a narrow legal sense and simultaneously render it functionally useless for upwards of ninety percent of the American intelligentsia. It’s entirely feasible to neutralize from without even the most robust protections of free speech, and to do so without altering their constitutional, statutory, or judicial forms in the slightest.
I know, Wow Much twilight Very confuse Where serling. But it’s true. In the regime that I’m describing, the First Amendment is still invaluable, but its practical effect is greatly diminished. We still have the constitutional right, with extremely narrow limitations that are aggressively monitored and reevaluated by the federal judiciary, to utter and publish whatever we damn well fucking please, but with the extrinsic caveat that this right isn’t necessarily worth the royal shit residue from William III’s bedroom privy once it comes time to exercise it in the real world, where private busybodies may effectively abrogate it by intruding and using free speech against its speaker for deliberately chilling purposes. We may have to take PBS at its word that the royal expatriate Prussian shitter still stinks, but we can see for ourselves that the ever-present background threat of sea-lioning by ideological hacks and other cutthroats is unconscionably foul.
Here’s a question that far too few modern Americans are asking: what is freedom of speech really worth on the ground if a large percentage, perhaps a supermajority, of the country’s best educated and most intelligent citizens have in point of fact taken to routinely censoring themselves for fear of socioeconomic retaliation, abandoning their own right to free speech and leaving this cardinal civil liberty in the hands of a small, eccentric collection of honey badgers and alt-politics hustlers? It’s still worth a lot more than its total absence or official legal abrogation, but it’s worth a whole lot less than it should be. We’ve reached a point at which Roosh and Blair Naso are two of its most obvious remaining practitioners, and there’s no telling what sort of deliberately unhinged nonsense they may be publishing beyond their true beliefs just in order to goose page views, or how totally nuts they are if they actually believe all that shit.
Objectively comparing my own writings in these pages to the sorts of comments that have gotten other people prominently fired by American employers, I have to assume that publishing this stuff makes me less employable, not because I’m incompetent or would likely be a genuinely bad match to a prospective employer, but because hiring authority is routinely delegated to chickenshits and asshats who consider inquiries into irrelevant aspects of applicants’ personal lives a form of due diligence. By some accounts, Facebook is designed to be more traceable for background investigation dirtbags than other platforms, and I publish a lot of controversial material on Facebook, too. Why the fuck shouldn’t I? I’m reasonably scrupulous about taking my contacts’ sensibilities into consideration when posting on Facebook and either toning my comments down to conform to prevailing community standards or shielding specific individuals from things that they won’t want to see or that I don’t want them to see. Meanwhile, I’m in touch with people on Facebook who I’m pretty sure are posting their shit no filter; most of it is banal and nominally uncontroversial, although I can’t be the only person who gets sick of seeing tropical resort pictures from smug high hatters on a weekly basis.
It’s perverse that there’s a running moral panic about the dangers and impropriety of posting photos of nudity and drunkenness, either of which can easily be practiced at home, and hardly even any peer pressure against the publication of the worst sorts of status-whoring nightlife and vacation photos on social media targeting friends and relatives. It’s unheard of for annoyed recipients of this horseshit to tell the offenders, “That last round of St. Turks and Caicos pictures was obnoxious, and I know you posted that shit to rub it in our faces. No, seriously, you’ve been pulling that sort of shit for years.” Offhand, I’d guess that two thirds of the First World pictures that come across my Facebook feed are from class acts, and the other third from people who can’t share their privileged experiences without turning into total fuckwads. This ratio might be reversed without the Lifestyles of the Rich and Obscure chronicles published by a handful of friends and their hangers-on around Huntington Beach; the stuff from my old Philadelphia crowd tends to be thoroughly crass and obnoxious, the sort of garbage that makes Mao’s classic Agricultural Field Trip for Bougie program seem at least a bit equitable, if not a bit well-planned.
The moral panic about loucheness on social media is not about manners. If it were, the people running it would be telling the less shambling members of the yuppie jet set to fuck off with the goddamn beachfront margarita pictures already. That’s the weird thing about some of these people that I couldn’t put a finger on until now: they’re always posing with expensive cocktails at expensive venues, but they look as sober as a Wesleyan minister who watched his uncle drink himself into a whiskey-soaked grave right about when Queen Victoria finally croaked. Or else there’s no way to tell because the pictures were taken from behind or are down-torso selfies surveying disembodied extremities, with the beach and the properly tropical drink serving as props. Jimmy Buffett got involved in the parrothead thing in order to get absolutely blasted with other drunks; these people are spending more per day to have less fun on shorter vacations so that they can one-up their friends back home like younger versions of Hyacinth Bucket.
In other words, it’s personal branding, and just another reason that the cultivation of personal brands should be killed dead. The whole concept is fit only for total shitheads. Hugo Schwyzer, for example, believes in personal branding:
[Interviewer] What are you going to do now?
[Schwyzer] Work on getting mentally healthy. I need to get my meds right. Second, I need to get my marriage right. There’s some bad shit that went down. I had an affair, which is very off-brand for me.
Off-brand … as in out of character?
In that I’m supposed to be reformed….
Gee, isn’t that high-minded. Of course, this affair, and the whole rape/maybe attempted murder-suicide thing, is in fact out of character for Hugo Schwyzer, in the same way that Mariska Hargitay giggling with Jay Leno was out of character for Det. Olivia Benson. He’s right: it is about what he’s supposed to be. It isn’t about who he really is; it’s about who other people think he is. Schwyzer is supposed to be a male feminist ally, not a minor dirtbag with major mental health problems. These dipshits who post photos of their latest trips to places with lots of palm trees are supposed to be the kind of people who enjoy the finer things in life, like streets lined with palm trees that were tastefully trimmed by Haitians or Mexicans and expensive mixed drinks in scrupulous moderation, not high-hat pains in the ass who don’t understand that I can find my own damn palm trees in Huntington Beach, and also Legends at the Pier. And you don’t even need a fishing license.
There’s certainly no need for a catfishing license, although it is licentious, if you think about it. Of the 240-odd people I’m in touch with or following secondhand on Facebook, probably one or two dozen of them are actively misrepresenting themselves online, and they’re all doing it under their own names in interactions with their own acquaintances. I’m not referring to polite discretion, either; most of these same people use Facebook to rudely preen about their bougie street cred, and this preening is an integral part of their catfishing routine. I’ve known quite a few people, not all of them certifiable catfish, who seem quite intellectually engaged in person but are vacuous online, and I get the feeling that at least some of this is an effect of self-censorship: i.e., that pictures from the latest trip to Cozumel are cool, but writing about substantive social or personal problems might upset other people and be a buzzkill in Happyland.
The root problem here seems to be a fear of provoking offense trolls. It shouldn’t be a surprise that people are scared that offense trolls will come out of the woodwork if they post something politically incorrect on their personal Facebook pages. Offense-trolling is a major and rapidly growing form of corporate parasitism, after all:
Sacco boarded the plane. It was an 11-hour flight, so she slept. When the plane landed in Cape Town and was taxiing on the runway, she turned on her phone. Right away, she got a text from someone she hadn’t spoken to since high school: “I’m so sorry to see what’s happening.” Sacco looked at it, baffled.
Then another text: “You need to call me immediately.” It was from her best friend, Hannah. Then her phone exploded with more texts and alerts. And then it rang. It was Hannah. “You’re the No. 1 worldwide trend on Twitter right now,” she said.
Sacco’s Twitter feed had become a horror show. “In light of @Justine-Sacco disgusting racist tweet, I’m donating to @care today” and “How did @JustineSacco get a PR job?! Her level of racist ignorance belongs on Fox News. #AIDS can affect anyone!” and “I’m an IAC employee and I don’t want @JustineSacco doing any communications on our behalf ever again. Ever.” And then one from her employer, IAC, the corporate owner of The Daily Beast, OKCupid and Vimeo: “This is an outrageous, offensive comment. Employee in question currently unreachable on an intl flight.” The anger soon turned to excitement: “All I want for Christmas is to see @JustineSacco’s face when her plane lands and she checks her inbox/voicemail” and “Oh man, @JustineSacco is going to have the most painful phone-turning-on moment ever when her plane lands” and “We are about to watch this @JustineSacco bitch get fired. In REAL time. Before she even KNOWS she’s getting fired.”
The furor over Sacco’s tweet had become not just an ideological crusade against her perceived bigotry but also a form of idle entertainment. Her complete ignorance of her predicament for those 11 hours lent the episode both dramatic irony and a pleasing narrative arc. As Sacco’s flight traversed the length of Africa, a hashtag began to trend worldwide: #HasJustineLandedYet. “Seriously. I just want to go home to go to bed, but everyone at the bar is SO into #HasJustineLandedYet. Can’t look away. Can’t leave” and “Right, is there no one in Cape Town going to the airport to tweet her arrival? Come on, Twitter! I’d like pictures #HasJustineLandedYet.”
A Twitter user did indeed go to the airport to tweet her arrival. He took her photograph and posted it online. “Yup,” he wrote, “@JustineSacco HAS in fact landed at Cape Town International. She’s decided to wear sunnies as a disguise.”
By the time Sacco had touched down, tens of thousands of angry tweets had been sent in response to her joke.
This viral mob descended on Justine Sacco and dragged her employer into the fray over a single edgy tweet that she posted out of boredom and anticipation at Heathrow: “Going to Africa. Hope I don’t get AIDS. Just kidding. I’m white!” Specifically, she was a South African citizen returning home to visit family over Christmas. This was a tasteless thing to publish, but this high-tech lynch mob (Clarence Thomas claimed to have suffered one, too) didn’t have a lick of taste itself. They were a vicious claque that proved Nietzsche’s adage about monster slayers becoming monsters in a matter of hours.
This melee had nothing to do with black AIDS patients in the poorer parts of Africa. If these asshats gave a shit about people suffering from AIDS, they would have written about the ravages of AIDS, not the trifling gaucheness of an obscure corporate PR lackey and the sick romantic arc of a scheduled commercial flight from London to Cape Town. These fuckers were living out a sordid excuse for a romantic travel movie in real time, a sort of FlightAware live tracking-meets-Home Alone-meets-Two Minutes Hate. They were running an aggressive hate fuck on a complete stranger; say what you will about Jian Ghomeshi, but he pretty much stuck to women he’d already met. These people were so high on schadenfreude that they were about to cream their pants.
The solipsistic narcissism gets even worse than that. In another incident profiled in the Times Magazine piece, a Massachusetts woman got fired from a job at a program for developmentally disabled adults after an online mob set on her like a pack of feral dogs for posting a photo in which she made obscene gestures in front of a “Silence and Respect” sign at the Arlington National Cemetery. The fuckheads who got her fired were so adamant about “supporting our troops” that they set up a dedicated “Fire Lindsey Stone” page on Facebook. Stone’s photographic stunt was wrongheaded, but her attackers didn’t really give a shit about the troops. They were concern-trolling military corpses at a time when severely injured military personnel and veterans were languishing in understaffed, dysfunctional hospitals. Some of them, I assume, had never been on a military post and didn’t have any friends in the military, and it’s a given that most of them hadn’t done jack shit to advocate for or reach out to troubled personnel, veterans, dependents, or survivors. If I do say so myself, I did more to support our troops by chatting on the phone the other day with our family friend at JBLM than these screeching shitbirds did by contriving to get Lindsey Stone fired and give her PTSD. If you give a damn about helping people who suffer from PTSD, you will not give it to someone who has been devoting her career to ministering to the mentally retarded. Full stop.
Brace yourselves, because we can’t get to the other side of this quagmire without passing through #GamerGate. It’s a strong indication of the surplus real prosperity produced by the computer technology industry that this industry has produced not only computer games, but also professional offense trolls who make a living by bitching about sexism in gaming or about whores who bitch about sexism in gaming. If business is slow, one can always raise a ruckus about some guy who quietly told a buddy a joke about “big dongles” at a meeting and get him fired within three business days.
Let’s be clear on something: this is not an inherent or intractable problem having to do with relations between the sexes in the professional workplace. I’ve known women who were engineers or professional geologists working around large numbers of male colleagues, and none of them acted like that. Hundreds of thousands of American women in medicine or nursing manage to avoid stooping to the level of Adria Richards-style depth charge retaliation; they have an order of magnitude more maturity in dealing with belligerent patients than Richards had in dealing with some guy who snickered about dongles at a meeting. There’s a genuine problem with bro culture in Silicon Valley, but even that shouldn’t be so much a debilitating source of offense to emotionally mature women in the industry as a source of annoyance. A well-adjusted woman might get worn down to the point of resigning by Peter Shih-style “forty-niner” talk and similar horseshit, partly because it can be demoralizing to work around total idiots, but it’s flatly indecent to get someone fired for making a private off-color joke within earshot. A decent person might turn around and give them a dude-what-the-fuck look, and most likely the dongle boys would be chastised. The fellow Jon Ronson interviewed said that he looked away from Richards’s camera on the assumption that she was trying to take a candid shot of the crowd, when in fact she was gathering evidence for an online scapegoating rampage that she was preparing to lead.
Any business that encourages or even capitulates to rank treachery of the sort employed by Adria Richards is troubled. Some people may still find it worthwhile to work in such an industry because they enjoy the work or believe in the core business, but there will inevitably be dire morale problems that can be fixed only by marginalizing or firing employees who are there to cause trouble. Richards is exactly such an employee. The same is probably true of some of the bro culture dipshits. Pax Dickinson, for example, made a huge ass of himself on matters arguably pertaining to his ability to refrain from engaging or being complicit in the workplace harassment of female employees. For the bro schmucks and the feminist offense trolls alike, though, the ultimate problem is an organizational tolerance for disruptive buffoonery and political treachery. In many cases, the dipshit behavior in question can be abated by telling the offender, “hey, you need to tone it down.” If straightforward don’t-do-that counseling repeatedly fails, the only option is to bring out the ax.
This is basic don’t-screw-the-pooch managerial theory. The fact that it isn’t a standard across-the-board practice in Silicon Valley bodes ill for morally grounded and competent people trying to work there. Silicon Valley has been overrun lately by people who consider it moral, or at least pragmatic and quite satisfying, to get people fired for expressing controversial political views. Brendan Eich was pressured out of Mozilla a month after being appointed CEO because he had made a $1,000 contribution to the California Proposition 8 campaign against same-sex marriage six years earlier. He wasn’t even allowed to disagree with a relatively small amount of his own money on his own time.
This isn’t about civility or inclusiveness; it’s about totalitarian control of dissidents. I have my own misgivings about gay marriage, albeit fairly minor ones that I see no reason not to leave at the back of my mind as a matter of course. Should I be politically disqualified from all positions of corporate responsibility in the Bay Area because I don’t fully agree with the local majority opinion on a political issue that I consider minor and distracting? Hell no. Bitch I was born in Stanford Hospital. I lived in Palo Alto until three weeks shy of my tenth birthday. On top of the pathological social climbing and the Red Queen’s race in housing, the prevailing corporate culture in the Bay Area has gotten so morally degraded that it would be a good idea to get somebody who is aggressive but not insane to reform it by brute force. There is nobody that some of these treacherous creeps wouldn’t fire and blacklist for expressing the most milquetoast disagreement with the party line on some wedge issue. These conniving little shits are too fixated on their own privilege to be 100% sheltered from the least offense or discomfort that they’re willing to bomb individual rights, the good corporate government of their own employers, and the civic fabric into oblivion. Whole sectors of the economy have been reoriented to protect the tender feelings of their worst employees. This is the stuff of national decline.
You haven’t seen the last of eligible Canadian spinster Dagmar Midcap, Dennis Lynn Rader, Charles Cullen, sexy male nurse Orville Lynn Majors, big fat fatties on electric scooters in the Cottage Grove Safeway, or Queen-approved fat whores in Tacoma in these pages yet. There will be more of it, although maybe not all at once, since it’s a bit much. But you see, I’d like to not be the only American who refuses to always and everywhere cater to the prissy whims of people like Adria Richards, or morons who think that some South African chick who’s bored at Heathrow is contributing to the AIDS epidemic and, unlike Goodluck Jonathan or the Nigerian Army, offending normal Nigerians. OMG he said “dongle!!!!!” Yeah, and my three microbiology lab partners mildly embarrassed me once by all agreeing that “that looks like splooge” while I kept my mouth shut, since I didn’t yet know them well enough to talk about red wings or other chicks in the class whom I’d fuck. Those weren’t subjects that I broached, either.
It is a point of honor that Murica Derp was, is, and shall remain a safe space for not quite all but most things that are gratuitous, tasteless, or gratuitously tasteless. If you have a problem with that, I’ll gladly pair your White Whine with a suitably aged Manchego fuck yourself.
Keep on rockin’ in the free world.