The other night Twitter was abuzz with controversy and drama, as per usual. One of those threads (which I’ll get to momentarily) invovled what I’ll refer to as “employer-tattling,” and Jon Soeder (laudably without drawing attention to the ongoing echo chamber), tweeted this:

He doesn’t mention which Twitter thread prompted this, but I have an educated guess.

Last Friday Night

Someone called Shanley Kane a cunt. Okay, it was Ash Taylor, lest I be accused of omitting details. Apparently, he quickly thought better of it and deleted the tweet, but Shanley got a screenshot!

Using that kind of language (in general, but particularly in a public, online forum such as Twitter) is offensive, inexcusable, and basically stupid. My guess is that Ash realized this when he deleted the tweet.

Ash also apologized publicly to Shanley and Ashe Dryden (also mentioned in the offending tweet), even after Livestream fired him.

It’s been pointed out in the related Hacker News thread that Shanley herself is not known for shying away from name-calling and ad hominem attacks.

But the point of this post isn’t whether unproductive and childish name-calling (sexist or not) should be acceptable in public discourse; it’s about employer-tattling, and its rather disturbing implications.

Playground Rules

My first concern about employer-tattling is the infantilizing effect it has both on the offended party, and on public discourse in general. This decline of agency implies a troubling transfer of responsibility from individuals to institutions. One would hope that adults functioning in the public sphere would have the maturity both to own their words (and mistakes), and appropriately respond to criticism — and difficult though it may be, sometimes ignoring trolls is the most productive response.

Duty Calls

Increasingly, we’re seeing a tendency to run to the nearest “adult” to plead for them to punish the offending party. And in a world of adults behaving like spoiled children, the next relative equivalent to an adult (i.e., position of power or authority) is either the State or, if no laws have been broken, a corporation.

Corporations aren’t just people, they’re parents

At least, that’s the message this sort of tactic sends. I find it sadly ironic that supposed critics of institutionalized patriarchy (a very real and entrenched systemic problem in our society, particularly within capitalism itself), would deliberately reinforce the role of the corporation/employer as the judging, disciplining Father archetype.

I want to make it clear (if it isn’t already) that this post is not intended as an attack on anyone, but as an externalization of my bewilderment at whether those who employ this tactic have fully thought through the implications of doing so.

Many of the people who seem to think this tactic is acceptable also tend to express a commitment to class politics (as well as politics of race and gender, and their intersectionality). This is a tactic that demonstrates a shocking lack of class solidarity. Deliberately attempting to destroy the employment or employability of a fellow worker out of spite is inexcusable.

Appealing to capital to enforce one’s political agenda (no matter how noble that agenda might be) implicitly places that agenda as reliant upon and subject to capital itself. It’s just plain bad politics.

And as Jon points out, it sets a terrible precedent. It expands the role of the employer to managing the totality of our lives, rather than limiting that influence to our professional lives. It changes us from professionals into frightened children.

A culture of fear

The prospect that one could lose one’s livelihood, threatening the safety and security of one’s family, over an online discussion, has a chilling, Orwellian feel. It’s actually worse than that: whereas Orwell envisioned an omnipotent State punishing “thoughtcrime,” we have an emergent culture of fear in which no state intervention is necessary. The NSA might be reading my email, but they’re not likely to get me fired.

I know whereof I speak. Some months ago, I was involved in a Twitter conversation about a study that showed that women on IRC were more likely to be harassed than men. While this seemed perfectly reasonable an observation, I (among others) had some questions about the methodology (e.g., literally women, or users with female-sounding handles, etc.). Attempting to inject some levity into what was becoming a tense discussion (something I would do IRL), I made an offhand reference to Rule 30 from the Rules of The Internet, i.e., “There are NO girls on the internet.”

I did not expect the vitriolic reaction that ensued, and once I realized that people had genuinely taken offense, I apologized. I did not verbally attack anyone or do anything but have a civil conversation about this one study, but I made a reference to a stupid meme without thinking anyone would react beyond eye-rolling.

A couple of days later, my COO, Margaret Roth asked me about a weird voicemail she had received. Someone had called claiming to be interested in our company’s services, but then went on at length saying, “I don’t think you know what’s going on in your development team, but your CTO tweeted that there were no women on the internet, and I’m very concerned about the type of employees that you’re hiring.” No name or number left (odd for someone supposedly interested in the company’s services), just accusations of poor management and supervision.

Upon reflection for this post, Margaret said, “It was ridiculous that I was getting a call about this at all, let alone without citation. It’s not my responsibility to police what you say on social media, especially in a case when I’m getting blindly harassed for my management skills. If someone wanted to have an adult conversation with me about this, I’d be happy to do so.”

I’m glad I’m lucky enough to work for someone who treats me like an adult as well as a professional, and doesn’t respond to anonymous attempts at character assassination, but it was a rather disturbing experience for both of us, and not everyone is so lucky.

I backed off from participation on Twitter for some time after that incident. It’s never pleasant to be reminded that participating openly on the internet can (and often does) result in being doxxed and/or harassed in “real life.”

The decline of agency

This is the first of (what I intend to be) a series of posts on what I perceive to be a decline of the concept of agency in socio-politico-cultural discourse. Whether it’s the instant recourse to public Twitter-shaming rather than civil dialogue of Donglegate, or the infantilizing trend of employer-tattling, we are seeing a retreat from personal agency and a shift toward character assassination, public intimidation, and creating a culture of fear that is inimical to productive public discourse and debate. I can’t speculate as to whether such discourse is even valued by the practitioners of these tactics, but one can’t help but wonder.

Ash Taylor was just plain wrong to (publically or otherwise) refer to Shanley and Ashe as cunts. No excuse. But should he have gotten fired over it? Well, I suppose that’s up to his (now former) employer, Livestream. But I wonder if Livestream would have reacted so quickly and drastically if they hadn’t been prodded by such a polarizing figure with a degree of celebrity in the internet echo chamber.

It’s also a bit interesting that the founder and CEO of Feminist Technology Collective, Inc. (i.e., someone who cannot be fired) is trying to get people fired and doesn’t see (or willfully ignores, or gleefully exploits, but let’s generously hope it’s an innocent blind spot) the inherent privilege gap in that scenario. But that’s a topic for another post.

The author would like to thank Jon Soeder for pushing me to finally write this, and Margaret Roth for her editorial guidance and support.

Update: Comments are now closed, but there’s plenty of discussion over on Hacker News.