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Zunguzungu
By Aaron Bady
Anyone claiming to be an expert is selling something. I brandish my ignorance like a crucifix at vampires.
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On Landings, Soft and Otherwise, and Aggressive Lacks of Proportion

sacco

At some point Thursday, the title of Jon Ronson’s essay changed from “How One Stupid Tweet Ruined Justine Sacco’s Life” to “How One Stupid Tweet Blew Up Justine Sacco’s Life.” The change helps, because while “blew up” is figurative language—and thus, obviously not to be taken literally—the statement that Sacco’s life was “ruined” implies that it was ruined. But it wasn’t. Justine Sacco went through a rough patch and deservessympathy; she lost her job because of the Great Making Fun of Justine Sacco that occurred, and anyone who loses their job because of a joke made on twitter deserves sympathy.

But not that much sympathy. Let’s have a sense of proportion. Justine Sacco has gotten another job. She’s okay, particularly compared to the many, many people in the world who are not okay. To make this point, we don’t have to rhetorically gesture towards children born with AIDS in countries with historically disadvantaged health care systems (however tempting it might be to wave that bloody shirt). After all, a generous reading of Sacco’s tweet shows her to be well aware of that cavernous divide in destiny. But even on the scale of “lost your job for unwise tweeting,” Sacco’s experience just doesn’t rate. She lost a good job, and for a while she didn’t have a good job, but now she has a good job again.

By contrast, the Texas teen who was fired from her “fuck ass job” for tweeting that it was a “fuck ass job” lives in a different world than Justine Sacco, as do most people. Lots of people lose their jobs for all sorts of arbitrary and ridiculous things. The world is profoundly unfair, constantly, but there is very little that’s surprising about a publicist who acts like a fool in public losing their job. Justine Sacco was a publicist who made her employer look bad, publicly, and so her employer fired her. It sucks for her, but she’ll never be reduced to delivering pizzas in Texas.

And yet, Jon Ronson’s article so aggressively lacks this precise sense of proportion that it might convince you to overlook little things like the glaring absence of his subject’s ruined life from an essay ostensibly about how twitter ruins lives. This point is worth underscoring; for an essay with her name in the title and the word “ruined” in the URL, there’s very little in the actual essay about how Justine Sacco’s life was ruined, mainly because she didn’t want to take part in this latest iteration of her saga. She had something to lose:

I wrote to Sacco to tell her I was putting her story in The Times, and I asked her to meet me one final time to update me on her life. Her response was speedy. “No way.” She explained that she had a new job in communications, though she wouldn’t say where. She said, “Anything that puts the spotlight on me is a negative.”

By contrast, that heroic Texas teen who spoke truth to fuck ass power is enjoying her fame, to judge from her twitter feed (full of retweeted greetings from people around the world, telling her she’s famous in Argentina, etc). She’s not much of a victim, either, because she only lost a fuck ass job. But in a world where one person has a lot to lose, and one person has so much less, how is it that the first person absorbs all the sympathy? Again: the chances of Justine Sacco taking a fuck ass job are pretty slim. Most people in the world work fuck ass jobs their entire lives. We can sympathize with all and sundry, but we shouldn’t let empathy confuse us about the difference.

By contrast, Ronson wants to mourn Justine Sacco, specifically, as a casualty of internet shame-culture, and he wants this so badly that even thought she no longer counts as a casualty—her life having been subsequently un-ruined—he cannot not use her in this way. Indeed, since the actual Justine Sacco does not wish to participate, it’s easy to see that the essay is not really about the actual Justine Sacco. It is about what she has come to represent: the sympathetic victim of internet mob violence, a white woman who said something that some people took to be racist, but who never could have deserved the slings and arrows of the outrageous fortune that befell her. Hers is the melodrama of a world turned upside down by stupid tweets: what happened to her is not fair. And unfairness, arbitrary termination, and public scorn are not for people like her.

If Ronson’s story was really about Justine Sacco, in fact—if she had chosen to participate—it might have become a more complicated story about class and reversion to the demographic mean. People generally stay in the socio-economic class they’re born into. This is what passes for justice, and it’s the standard by which the “ruin” of Justine Sacco’s life might become a pitiable spectacle: look on her works, ye mighty, and despair! Even a white person, etc. But it’s only because we expect her kind of person to be treated fairly by life that an arbitrary shift of fortune can even become legible. You can only mourn your arbitrary termination if it wasn’t a fuck ass job.

Jon Ronson’s story is not really about Justine Sacco; it’s about “the way we tweet now,” and the worrying ways in which even white people who aren’t monsters sometimes suffer unfairness. It’s a public confession, his discovery of an empathetic connection with his victims that he wants to model for us (along with a disconnection from “SJW’s” that he also seems to want to bring us to share). He once believed in the wisdom of the crowd, he writes, and so he gleefully took part in the ritual shaming of people like Justine Sacco. That god has failed, however; he now sees the error of his ways and repents. He’s even written a book about it, to be published in March, apparently: So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed. As the title suggests, it’s an effort to identify (“you”) with the victims, the subjects of public shame campaigns.

Here is Ronson’s confession:

“In the early days of Twitter, I was a keen shamer. When newspaper columnists made racist or homophobic statements, I joined the pile-on. Sometimes I led it…in those early days, the collective fury felt righteous, powerful and effective. It felt as if hierarchies were being dismantled, as if justice were being democratized. As time passed, though, I watched these shame campaigns multiply, to the point that they targeted not just powerful institutions and public figures but really anyone perceived to have done something offensive. I also began to marvel at the disconnect between the severity of the crime and the gleeful savagery of the punishment.”

I have a certain sympathy for Ronson’s perspective, I’ll admit. People can be ugly, petty, and vindictive; a lot of people, in concert, can be all of these things, only much more so. The waves of twitter rage that settle on a target can be quite a non-ideal method of dispensing reparative justice, to put it simply: people have a lot of anger, aggression, and grievance, and when a lot of people pile that rage onto the figure of a name and a quotation, it’s often disproportionate and arbitrary. No one would mistake what happened to Justine Sacco for anything like justice. This is no one’s favored method of creating a utopia.

But, of course, I don’t know of anyone that is claiming that it is or was. It happened, but things happen all time. It wasn’t justice, but there is no justice in this world, and it’s mostly only children and white men who claim otherwise, even implicitly. Children and white men often find it easy to look out at a world in which suffering and reward are dispensed with an arbitrary disproportion, and to avoid coming to the conclusion that shit is fucked up and bullshit. In the abstract, racism, sexism, or homophobia are bad things, of course—what good liberal would deny this?—but in practice, well, it’s complicated. Justine Sacco turns out not to be a monster. She turns out to have feelings, and more than that, she turns out to resemble us. Yes, we’re against racism, but if being against racism means that a sympathetic white woman suffers, well, hold up, this is not what I signed up for.

Ronson’s argument is essentially a reactionary liberalism taking shelter in the privilege of the status quo: while the ideals of twitter shaming campaigns are well-founded, their application, in practice, is problematic. They go too far. Innocents have suffered. His rhetorical appeal, therefore, is like the many liberals who have written books and essays and memoirs about how they joined the communist party (or Occupy, or whatever) only to discover that it didn’t instantly solve everything painlessly and precisely, who find fault with every activist who isn’t literally the saintliest fantasy of MLK and Gandhi rolled into one. The theory is (still) good, they always say, but the practice leaves something to be desired. I’m all for anti-racism, but you know what, I can’t get on board with disrupting people’s commute. It’s a shame what Israel is doing to the Palestinians, but if a boycott will impact well-meaning Israeli liberals, hmmm… And so on.

As I said, I have a (limited) sympathy for this perspective. There can be a vengeful lack of empathy that a sense of injustice can enable those who are inclined to be vigilantes to enjoy, and expressions of anti-racism can sometimes also be self-indulgent narcissism (like this blogpost, perhaps?). Most often it’s a mixture of lots of things, good and bad; people are complicated and imperfect. Plus, the disproportionate cruelty of what happened to Justine Sacco was hardly, in and of itself, something to be proud of: she made an ignorant joke on twitter, and she lost her job. That sucks. But we are capable of thinking more complex thoughts than that simple cause and effect. After all, the people who made jokes about Justine Sacco on twitter were not the people that fired her. She was fired by her employers, who most likely judged that Justine Sacco had become a liability to their interests, because she had. She was fired because her employers judged her to be a bad publicist. Unless you think she has a God-given right to employment—no matter what effect her publicity has on her employer—it’s hard to argue that they were wrong. She may not deserve to be placed in the stocks, but she spoke freely in a world where free speech has a cost, and for once, she was presented with a bill for it. She was a bull in a china shop, and she paid for the dishes that she broke. But only white men and children expect to live in a world where there are no consequences. Only people of a particular privileged social class get to expect employment to be given to them by God.

Which is why we should look askance at anyone who takes “no consequences” to be the default, the standard against which any efforts at reparative justice must be measured. Ronson’s essay (and his book, presumably) has a gaping lack of empathy when it comes to people who are not well-meaning liberals that have fucked up. People like Justine Sacco get loving, empathetic attention; those who complain about them, however, disappear into a mob, a faceless mass.

Take, for example, the very different kinds of empathy he gives to Adria Richards and to the two dongles that she had the audacity to complain about. He treats them differently by treating them the same. When he writes that “The people I met were mostly unemployed, fired for their transgressions, and they seemed broken somehow — deeply confused and traumatized,” he merges the two groups together:

“I’m not one to shed tears, but” — he paused — “when I got in the car with my wife I just. . . . I’ve got three kids. Getting fired was terrifying.”

“I cried a lot during this time, journaled and escaped by watching movies…SendGrid threw me under the bus. I felt betrayed. I felt abandoned. I felt ashamed. I felt rejected. I felt alone.”

Both of these people were fired, but while being fired always sucks, the former was fired for breaking an actual rule (don’t create a hostile environment for women by making dick jokes at the conference where he made dick jokes) and the latter was fired for breaking an implicit rule: if you’re a woman, shut up about men being dicks in public (to say nothing about being a woman of color). In a perfect world, neither of these people would lose their livelihood for making statements in public, but in a perfect world, neither of these people would depend on the whims of capitalism for their ability to feed and sustain themselves and their families. This is not that world. But by blurring them together, by making “internet shame culture” the villain, here, we lose sight of the fact that employment is an arbitrary crap shoot always, and tweeting is just one of the random things that can result in getting fired (when you aren’t shielded from consequences by the privilege of your position).

This is not to say that there’s nothing to see here: it is interesting and novel that “internet shame culture” is even remotely legible as a thing, much less something that can make a corporation take notice. The “democratization” of normativity that social media makes plausible (if not quite common) is an interesting development; a great many people can make themselves heard that couldn’t, before, and that’s weird and disturbing if you expect people like Justine Sacco to be treated with loving sympathy and gentle forgiveness. Some kinds of privilege are eroding in some places, even first world privilege. There are fewer places where a white person can crack jokes about black people and be insulated from any possible negative consequences, as a variety of (mostly) white people are horrified to discover.

Because there is something new about this semi-democritization of public morality, however, historical analogies are suspect. Ronson, for example, wants to compare twitter shaming to “the last era of American history when public shaming was a common form of punishment.” He wants to compare #HasJustineLandedYet to being literally placed in actual stocks, being publicly whipped, being beaten and spat upon by crowds. This is kind of an absurd comparison. Absurd comparisons can sometimes be useful, of course, when treated with care: I would observe, for example, that the backlash against public shaming and “mob justice” was, in the 19th century, a drive by the state to monopolize the practice, to claim the right to judge and punish for the judiciary alone. It took a long time, but by the end of the 19th century, judges, lawyers, and police had taken control of the rituals of justice that had previously been more directly in the hands of communities who (in the absence of a judiciary) had made their own justice. This was good and bad. In structurally racist societies, “public justice” could and did mean ritualized racist violence; in the South, and in other white democracies, democratized justice often meant the lynching of black people. In structurally misogynist societies, democratized justice could and did mean the public shaming of women for their sexuality. Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter is about many things, but one of them is the fact that when a woman gets pregnant out of wedlock, she will carry the shame of her indiscretion in public, while the father will escape public shaming. Justice is, and has always been, unequally applied. Democracy is a good thing in the abstract, because in practice it’s no better than the power structure that the demos embodies, like any other system of government. If we look back at “the last era of American history when public shaming was a common form of punishment,” the main thing that strikes us about the power structure and ideals that it embodied should be that lots of people were not people: everyone but white men with property could pretty much count on a life of humiliation and injustice. That’s what those systems were for.

We still have those form of public shaming and putting-in-place. As the instigator of “dongle-gate” wrote at the time, “I publicly called out a group of guys at the PyCon conference who were not being respectful to the community.” Because our society is structured by racism, patriarchy, and a variety of other violent banalities, it was not long before this woman of color was fired for the sin of speaking up.

Effective immediately, SendGrid has terminated the employment of Adria Richards. While we generally are sensitive and confidential with respect to employee matters, the situation has taken on a public nature. We have taken action that we believe is in the overall best interests of SendGrid, its employees, and our customers.

Empathy is a good thing, in the abstract, because in practice, it’s no better than the even-ness of its application. If you are concerned about public shaming as social control—if your empathy directs you towards the kinds of people who are mocked on twitter for being racist or homophobic—do you therefore direct your empathy away from the quiet forms of social control that the racist homophobes need never fear being subjected to? There is a reason, after all, why Justine Sacco’s tweet stirred up a lot of anger. There was a reason why those Silicon Valley tech-bros telling dick jokes attracted the ire of The Big Mean Internet: the banalities of everyday brotriarchy are what usually keeps women in line. Tell the women on the receiving end of organized campaigns of online harassment, who fear for their safety and sanity, about the troubled, embattled tech-bro who can no longer tell dick jokes in public. It’s strange and unsettling when the status quo changes, when the dividing line between who needs to watch what they say and who has free speech starts changing, or becomes uneven. But it’s nothing to do with fairness or justice. And those who are born on the right side of that line can take comfort in the fact that justice will still reliably revert to the demographic mean. Everyone will land, but some people fly first class.

It’s so hard to know what role, if any.

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Journalism is not objective, because nothing is objective. We know that. Objectivity is a myth, an impossible standard: you are not objective, and I am not objective. No one is objective, because objectivity does not exist. The closest we could ever come to “objectivity” is careful adherence to a social norm: instead of thinking weird, dissident thoughts (which would be just your individual opinion), you can spew the conventional wisdom, the truth we know to be true because we all know it to be true. That latter will seem objective. It will seem unbiased. It will seem reliable.

On some level, I think, we know this, all of us, and we don’t really expect objectivity from the news media. We’ve learned not to expect that. Yet we complain about how a reporter constructs their account (or how they don’t) because of the careful, painstaking pose of objectivity which they adopt and create, the careful distinctions between the knowable and the unknowable. Some things can be verified from the view from nowhere, it seems; some things can only be seen second-hand. The voice from nowhere can report on the objects it sees, objectively, and also on the subjective impressions which it observes and then turns into objects. There are facts and there are also opinions.

Here was what CNN knew this morning:

cnn 609

There are sharp distinctions being drawn here between what is known as fact by objective journalists and what can only be speculated about by the opinion-havers on twitter. The police have said they charged a man with murder; this is therefore a fact. Three people were shot dead, and we know they are Muslim students because their identity is knowable. Just look at them! It’s obvious. It’s a fact.

What “compelled” the accused to kill them? I’m sorry; what compelled him “to allegedly carry out the attack”? What overpowering force was it that compelled him to do the thing that (allegedly) he did? We know that the man is being charged with murder, because the police have said that is what they are doing, and we believe them. But while they say that a man has turned himself in for allegedly having been compelled to carry out an act, we can only report what we know. I wonder what role the fact of their religion played? We can only wonder.

I am stuck on this sentence:

“But given the victims’ religion and comments the alleged shooter apparently left on a Facebook page, many social media users wondered what role, if any, the victims’ faith played.”

The religion of the victims is a given. It has been given to us: just look at them. Muslims! It is obvious. Yet the person who has alleged that he was the shooter (it has not been confirmed that he is the shooter) has apparently left comments on FB (it has not been confirmed that he left these comments) that are apparently threats to kill people based on their religion. None of this has been confirmed; none of it is objective fact. Here at CNN, we cannot know for sure about any of this.

If you go back to the first, local news reports of the killing, nothing was known about the killers or the victims, because the police had not yet released that information.

  • Three people were shot and killed…authorities said.
  • All three victims were pronounced dead at the scene, police said.
  • Their names were withheld Tuesday night pending family notification.
  • A suspect in the shootings turned himself in…sources told.
  • The suspect’s identity was not released.
  • Investigators have not said what led to the shootings
  • authorities said there was no reason to believe the public was in any danger.

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After the police released the names of the victims, it was immediately known that they were Muslims. When the police released the identity of the suspect who had confessed, on the other hand, a white guy named “Hicks” who hated religions, it raised more questions than answers.

(by contrast)

However, we here at CNN can confirm that there are people with opinions, on social media, who have the opinion that perhaps the fact that the victims were Muslims (which is a fact) might be the thing that compelled the alleged killer to apparently carry out the attack that resulted in the shooting death of those factually Muslim students. You might very well think so; we here at CNN cannot possibly comment. Was it the overwhelming force of their Muslim identity that compelled this man to get involved in carrying out an attack? Some have suggested there might be a connection here. But while some things are facts (the fact that they are Muslims, I mean, just look at them), some are merely opinions: things get said on twitter, bu cannot be confirmed. Things also get said on Facebook, but who can tell, really. Who knows. It’s so hard to know. Luckily, authorities have said there was no reason to believe the public was in any danger.

 

You are totally unreliable Twitter

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Your brain is good at making you overconfident about what you see and hear, and it works hard to hide your own unreliability from you.

You think you hear “words” when someone talks to you, for example, but what you actually “hear” is an over-superabundance of noise—waves and waves of messy sensory data splashing through your ears—which parts of your brain that you have no conscious awareness of quietly and efficiently process and transform all that noise into something that your conscious mind can understand. That quiet intermediation is incredibly important, and quite thorough. Your brain eliminates sounds that it decides are not relevant and where there are gaps in what you hear, it deduces what should fill them, and adds them in. It’s startling to realize and take seriously, but much of what you “hear” has already been heavily edited for your consumption, by a part of your brain you aren’t even aware of.

The same is broadly true with vision and memory. You see things, and then a moment later, your brain declares that the memory that you have of what you saw is reliable, a perfect copy. It really isn’t, though. As we’ve learned over and over again, eyewitness testimony is notreliable: we are fully capable of remembering that we saw all sorts of things that weren’t quite there (or of overlooking things that were). The quiet, silent little sub-editor in our heads has not only transcribed your notes from the meeting, but has extensively edited them, cleaned them up, converted the font, and even re-written them with more consistent grammar.

In short, we are always playing a game of telephone with the universe. Our unconscious minds are always taking down garbled transmissions as neat typescripts, or turning impossibly complex slices of visual reality into the kinds of rough line drawings that we could use as a street map. On some level, we know this. We know that sometimes our lying eyes and ears deceive us, or mislead us; to get by, we must be aware of our limitations.

On another level, however, we don’t and can’t. To get by, we must also pretend that we are much more reliable than we are. We must take ourselves on faith, suspend our disbelief in what we see and hear and know. It’s all we have to go on. If we sometimes check the transcript against the original recording, we’ve gotten good at suspending our disbelief, in practice.

Memory, listening, and reading are creative. The most passive-seeming activities can often be quite labor intensive, precisely because it’s a kind of labor that we don’t tend to think very much about. Our brain does that for us. When we are watching the thing we are watching, our brains are processing that visual data into pictures; when we are listening, our brains are processing noise into sounds and signals; when we are sleeping, our brains are processing short term memories into long term memories. And so on. Our unconscious minds are busy.

I’m not any kind of expert on any of this, and I’m not trying to present myself as such. But knowing your own lack of knowledge is a kind of knowledge, too, and these are examples of it: some kinds of knowledge can be relied upon, others cannot, and figuring out how to manage the difference—how to know, or how to estimate, where and how you know what you know is true, and where and how it might not be—is an important skill. It is a certainty that you will make mistakes, constantly and continuously; the question is whether you will be open to that possibility in ways that allow you to correct them. Can you accept that fact that you think you know things that you have actually created? Can you engage with that problem in ways that allow you to mitigate the problems created by it?

As readers—both as readers of texts, and as daily interpreters of things we hear people say—we misread constantly, so much that we might as well regard it as the norm. We misread so much and so often and so invisibly that misreading is the dark matter of our social universe. We must necessarily remain more or less unconscious of the fact that a lot of what we take to be the world we share with each other is, more or less, radically variable from person to person. If I say something, every listener hears it a bit differently; if I do something, every witness remembers it differently; if I write something, every reader interprets it differently. We are the blind man and the elephant, arguing about what this beast is that we’ve found.

We can try to control for this problem—if we don’t pretend it doesn’t exist—but we don’t have many resources in doing so. You can repeat yourself; you can anticipate misreadings and try to correct them; you can even ask your audience to repeat back to you what you’ve said, so that you can clarify and correct. Misreaders are going to misread, and we are all misreaders. Which is why, ultimately, we are always relying on the social contexts and communicative frameworks that govern and clarify where and how we are to listen and understand. In the classroom, students know to listen and hear in particular ways—or they should, if the class is going to work—whereas moviegoers listen and watch in other and very different ways. If you read a non-fiction book, you understand what you are reading in different ways than if you reading what you are told is a novel, or a poem. You will listen to your significant other differently than you will listen to your parents, or children; you will listen differently to someone you’ve just met than to someone you’ve known all your life. And they will speak to you knowing and anticipating that this will be the case, always; we are constantly negotiating the contexts in which we are speaking, and the relationships through which those contexts are construed. Words don’t mean what you want them to mean; they mean lots of things, simultaneously, because of the ways they circulate, are heard, are remembered, and are transformatively interpreted.

Fundamentalist preachers and literary critics, police officers, and Clarence Thomas tend to want to live in a world where we can simply blame the badness of bad readers for this swirling and confusing indeterminacy. If you insist that the words mean what they mean vigorously enough—and if you call upon power to enforce your interpretation—you can maintain the polite fiction that words are self-sufficient. But there’s as much ambiguity in the things we say as there is empty space in the universe. To be a literalist interpreter of texts requires a torturous amount of carefully studied ignorance. But while we are all, of necessity, literalists in how we read—as there is no other way to read—we become dangerous readers when we stop trying to correct for our own failings, when we insist that any misreading is the fault of other people, and narcissistically insist that what we have creatively produced is the real text.

This is why we need more generous readers, and more of them. If you aren’t trying to understand what I think I’m saying—if you’re not trying to reconstruct the patchwork of words and thoughts and references in a sympathetic collaboration with the organic set of ideas that I was trying to stitch together—then you and I are not on the same team, we are working at cross-purposes, and our collaboration is not going to work out. If you don’t presume a base-level of good faith, competence, and insight on my part—and try to correct for your own narcissism, incompetence, and mistakes by also forgiving me for mine—then we are not going to understand each other in any meaningful way. Unless you want to hear what I want to say—and unless we both put in the work—then nothing I can do will change the fact that you will creatively reconstruct my words in ways that will suit you. You may not even know you’re doing it, but your transcription service does it job so efficiently that it gives you what you want even if you don’t ask for it.

For this reason, I try to aspire to read other people with a generosity that I don’t necessarily expect them to deserve. Not because I’m exceptionally selfless—this is why I say that I’d try to aspire to it—but to correct for the fact that I’m extremely selfish in the same familiar and banal way that we all are selfish. It’s because I tend to hear in your words what I want to hear that I need to make an extra effort to hear what you want me to hear. And vice versa.

But this is also why I’ve mostly given up on twitter as a place where it is possible to have meaningful, heated arguments with strangers. I think it’s possible to talk to strangers when you’re not having an argument, or to argue when the person you’re talking to is not really a stranger. But if you don’t know and respect the person you’re talking to (and to some extent, understand where they’re coming from, and want to), and especially if you build up a head of aggressive steam as you set out to crush their arguments, both of you are likely to come away from the exchange pleased and unsatisfied. After pleasantly proving to yourself that you are correct, you will be unsatisfied by the failure of your new mortal enemy to admit it. I describe this experience as a person who has experienced it many times, and who is so very tired of it. But it’s left me thinking that “changing minds” is something that twitter is all but engineered to do poorly. If you think it can be done, more power to you; I hope you are right. For me, it seems like a machine designed for creating mutual enraged incomprehension, an alchemy by which anger plus misunderstanding creates the self-righteous confirmation that I am right and everyone else is wrong. The friction between these divergent confirmations can burn extremely hot.

One reason why this is so, I think, is that “twitter” feels like a public space, but it’s neither public nor a space, and in practice, will always frustrate our expectation that it be those things. After all, when we curate “our” timelines, we do so as if we can control what’s in them and what isn’t, as if our timelines were spaces we have the personal power to regulate (and thus, are semi-private). We often expect to have control over what information enters our feed, and then it turns out that we don’t (and not only over our mentions). If we think and act as if we have control over what we see—as if we are choosing and selecting what sorts of people and voices will appear—we will find that choosing the former does not determine the latter. This is mainly because people are large and eccentric and contain multitudes. If you follow me because I have radical politics, you might be irritated by the fact that I’m obsessed with literature; if you follow me because I tweet about African novels, you might be irritated that I tweet about rape culture; if you follow me because we went to school together, all sorts of things I tweet about may surprise you. In other words, you will find that in inviting me into your timeline, I will probably abuse your hospitality. Yet, to me, you’re the one who followed me; what you might experience as a response to something I said, I can easily experience as an out-of-the-blue invasion of my conversational space.

This produces the sealion problem: we both feel like the other person has intruded on our space. We both feel like we’re just sitting here, in our own homes, and who is this asshole acting like he has a right to be all up in my business? I’ve got things to do; what makes you think you have some god-given right to my time and attention, etc.

Again, part of the problem is that social media can feel like a space, but isn’t. In our embodied social interactions, we’re either in one place or we’re in another, because that’s how bodies in space work: if I’m in your house, we both know it; if you’re in my house, we both know it. If we meet on the street, too, we both know that that is where we are, and what that means (or doesn’t), and so we know to act accordingly. Everywhere and anywhere two people meet, in their bodies, is likely to be a place framed and understood by reference to the social norms that obtain there. But how do you have a conversation with someone where both of you think that you are both in your own house, and both of you act accordingly? Both of you are going to turn out to be assholes. What if I think we are in the street, so I step on my soapbox, but you think you’re in your bedroom, getting ready to go to bed?

What makes twitter a potential perfect storm is that there is no more totally de-contextualized piece of text than a tweet: it’s almost the smallest piece of comprehensible speech it is possible to produce that also feels like a complete thought (or fels like it should be), but there’s nothing more to it than that, that and a name and persona. It has to be self-sufficient, because it has little or no context from which we can deduce what we do not know about it. And yet what text is ever self-sufficient? What piece of data or sensory information is enough, on its own?

In the 1970’s H.P. Grice formulated what has come to be known as the cooperation principle. That latter link is a good introduction to it, but what he articulates in careful academic reasoning is more easily described as, simply, the fact that speakers and listeners have to work with each other to make sense of a conversation. What is actually said is only the tip of an iceberg of assumptions, and without the two speakers more or less sharing a sense of the ground rules for the conversation—and more or less adhering to them, or trying to—the conversation breaks down.

Cooperation doesn’t reliably happen on twitter, I think. We all see the same text, but how often do we each assume a slightly or dramatically different iceberg beneath it? Quite often, I suspect. Yet we have to do this. Nothing we find on twitter would make any sense at all if we didn’t place it in some social context, construe it by reference to assumptions about what it is or what it is doing, and treat those projections as if they were basically valid. We have to assume that we are contextualizing the text correctly. Yet proximity is often misleading, particularly if we presume to know what a subtweet is subtweeting, why, or how; our assumptions about who people are, behind the tweet, are extremely tenuous (and often based in almost no solid information); and our sense of familiarity with people on twitter is illusionary. Like the first audio illusion in this video, the text stays the same while we each place it, mentally, in a different context.

All of which is to say, simply, that I think twitter is particularly well-suited for exacerbating and eliding the basic contradiction I started this piece with: we need to pretend more confidence in our own comprehension than is justified—in order to get by and make meaning—even as we also need to check ourselves, constantly, in order to make up for the moments when our confidence is misplaced. But since we are already divided against ourselves, what happens when you meet someone divided against themselves, and you, also, are divided against yourself, and the two of you start arguing—because you are divided against each other—and you have to tell the difference between a misjudgment of context and a Fundamental misjudgment of The Moral Law of the Universe? One of the most important contextual frames we sometimes apply to twitter, after all, is the notion that we are DOING POLITICS. But if some of us are, some of us aren’t. Sometimes I’m making a joke, because it amuses me; when someone takes that joke as the expression of Political Critique, we are unlikely to find ourselves having a useful communication. Jokes are performative speech; “Critique” is usually understood to be constative. If we don’t observe the difference and allow for it, we can find ourselves taking a joke way too seriously (and thus, misunderstanding what it’s trying to do), or vice versa: a deeply felt assertion of a very serious point can be made fun of, as a humorless person who doesn’t get it.

It occurred to me, yesterday, that you don’t hear the term “flame war” all that often anymore. It occurs to me now that this might be because the old new media (bulletin boards, listservs, blog comments) was structured in such a way that you could talk about one person flaming another person—I was flamed; he flamed me; we flamed each other, etc—and that this transitive verb could have an object because there was a sense of a space being crossed by the abuse being hurled. There could be a thrust and counter-thrust dynamic, a reply and counter-reply.

“Twitter” is an oversimplification. There are many twitters, which is also part of the problem: my twitter and yours are different, but they can come into contact with each other and overlap, and do. We can each think the other person is a holographic projection into our living room, and the rooms are similar enough that we can overlook the ways they are different (and then blame the other person for coming into our house and acting like an asshole). But this also means that talking about what “twitter” is or isn’t, or does, or doesn’t, is a similar exercise in polemic misunderstanding. If the underlying structure of the program is a constant, the conversational norms and practical methods we bring to it will vary, radically and dramatically. Some of the problem is the latter thing: people not only use twitter differently, but they sometimes regard other people’s use of it as illegitimate or wrong. Policing other people on twitter can become particularly heated and vicious, if a police from one jurisdiction comes into another, without knowing it, and attempts to apply one set of laws to someone who thinks they’re operating in another. It rarely ends well. And yet if we keep pretending that there is one twitter (ours), we’ll keep crashing into each other and insisting that it’s the other car that came into my lane. Twitter road rage.

One generalization I’d advance about “twitter,” however, is that it’s so space-less, and also so rapid, that instead of flame wars, we now have nuclear conflagrations, chain reactions that explode fast and hot and with such all-encompassing bitterness that it happens in time, not space. We know when it began, and we can tell when it starts to cool, but it can be almost impossible to tell who and why people are fighting (even as we decide that we do know, but disagree about it, making the arguments all the more intractable). That it happened is the only thing you and I both know, but who, what, why, where, and how get lost in the blast, leaving each of us disagreeing as much about what we disagree about as the disagreement itself.

* * *

Reading You are Unreliable Twitter

The Souls of Drone Folk

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Chris Kyle lived by the sword and died by it. If I were religious, I might pray for his soul. I imagine that his soul could use the prayers. He was a serial killer, seemed quite viciously racist, and he said a great many things about himself that appear not to be true, but which would be really horrifying if they were true. He once bragged about killing thirty “looters” in New Orleans after Katrina, to pick just one example, and it’s a good thing he was making that up. Imagine if, in the middle of one of the worst disasters in recent American memory, Chris Kyle set out to execute people who took much-needed food and supplies from the shelves where they had been left. Imagine if he went to New Orleans not to bring supplies and relief, but to finish the job started by the hurricane. The monstrousness of this desire staggers the imagination, but it apparently did not stagger his: he was apparently happy to imagine that this is what he had done. It is a good thing he was a liar. But what kind of person would pretend that he had done such a thing, would invent that fantasy and brag about it to his fellow SEALS, later? Is such a human being still human? If we have souls, then spare some prayers for his.

Chris Kyle was a drone. The metaphor is apt on so many levels that it isn’t even a metaphor. It’s just a simple description. He was a drone, a machine for killing without conscience. You might even describe him as “un-manned.”

Over at the Atlantic, Megan Garber doesn’t use that word, but she made the analogy quite plainly without it, calling a sniper “an almost mythical union of man and gun, a modern-day mixture of centaur and centurion” and “the closest the military has come to creating a human killing machine”:

The sniper may, like other soldiers, be subject to the cold anonymities of bombs and bullets. But his mission is specialized, and personalized. He finds his target, moving and warm. He aims. He “eliminates” and “neutralizes” and every other euphemism we use to separate the logic of war from the logic of murder.

I haven’t seen American Sniper, but I’ve seen the trailer, and that was plenty. A trailer is a movie’s tl;dr, the essential kernel of a movie’s case for itself. This trailer does a lot of work:

The trailer shows a drone operator, seeing all and making the call. A man on a phone; he chooses not to shoot. A woman and child; he chooses not to shoot. The woman gives the child an explosive; he agonizes. The child begins to trot towards some troops; he hesitates. He suffers. He makes a decision. The trailer ends.

We don’t see him shoot, of course, though we know that he has done so. The information presented in the trailer has been sufficient to know exactly what the right thing to do is. We have literally seen the child carrying an explosive—which Kyle precisely identifies as an RKG-3 Russian grenade—and we see the child running towards a group of vulnerable and unsuspecting American Troops. If he shoots the child, he will Save American Lives; if he doesn’t, American Lives Will Be Lost. It is his job to save American lives by killing non-Americans, and we know that he is good at his job. Obviously he pulls the trigger.

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Does he regret it? Do we?

A drone, a real drone, would be a soulless killing machine, a terminator. And this is what Chris Kyle apparently was: remorseless, lacking in empathy, able to thoroughly dehumanize the people he killed. He was a good sniper, and those are qualities that make a good sniper.

The story told in that trailer is a version of the anecdote with which Chris Kyle begins his book, a prologue entitled “Evil in the Crosshairs.” But Eastwood has told it very differently. His trailer shows us an empathic, tortured soldier forced to make a decision—indeed, he has to make that decision on his own, because only he can see what’s happening. His spotter reminds him that “they’ll burn you if you’re wrong,” implying that the safe choice would be to be cautious, not to shoot. Then we see a soldier in a hospital bed, reminding us the cost in American Lives of too much caution. To add another level of pressure onto our hero, the camera has been cutting back and forth between Kyle-as-sniper and Kyle-as-paterfamilias, doing so with the same jarring and unsettling ease that a drone operator in Northern Virginia might feel, hovering over the Pakistan by day—an all-seeing God of War—and driving home to the suburbs after work, there to pretend to be a normal all-American patriarch of an all American family. In my favorite image of the trailer, we see the father as drone, threatening child:

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This forced parallel—between the Kyle-as-sniper, killing a child, and Kyle-as-father, hovering above his own child—is Clint Eastwood ratcheting up the tension between white protector and white killer. Eastwood makes us see that a child is a child is a child: in killing a child, the camera agonizes, Kyle was killing a child like his own. More importantly, Eastwood makes us see Kyle seeing that. The emphasis is not on the lives that are extinguished, but on the killer who does so. We are forced to feel—through Bradley Cooper’s soulful eyes and haunted memory—an ambivalence about killing that Chris Kyle shows no sign of having felt.

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In the prologue to his book, Chris Kyle tells the story quite differently. The scene is set in “Late March 2003. In the area of Nasiriya, Iraq,” and begins with these words:

“I looked through the scope of the sniper rifle, scanning down the road of the tiny Iraqi town. Fifty yards away, a woman opened the door of a small house and stepped outside with her child.”

A moment later, he shoots her, saving lives.

Several things strike you, if you read this scene expecting to find Bradley Cooper’s ambivalence, the courage to make a hard or impossible choice (and the suffering that follows). For one thing, there is no individual agency. Kyle doesn’t make the decision (none of this “they’ll take your badge if you’re wrong” stuff); he sees something yellow, is told that it’s a grenade, is told to shoot, and he does shoot. He’s not a cowboy; he’s an executioner, just one piece of a complex machine. He does his job, does what he is told to do:

“Marines are coming,” said my chief as the building began to shake. “Keep watching.”

I looked through the scope. The only people who were moving were the woman and maybe a child or two nearby.

I watched our troops pull up. Ten young, proud Marines in uniform got out of their vehicles and gathered for a foot patrol. As the Americans organized, the woman took something from beneath her clothes, and yanked at it.

She’d set a grenade. I didn’t realize it at first.

“Looks yellow,” I told the chief, describing what I saw as he watched himself. “It’s yellow, the body–”

“She’s got a grenade,” said the chief. “That’s a Chinese grenade.”

“Shit.”

“Take a shot.”

“But–”

“Shoot. Get the grenade. The Marines–”

I hesitated. Someone was trying to get the Marines on the radio, but we couldn’t reach them. They were coming down the street, heading toward the woman.

“Shoot!” said the chief.

I pushed my finger against the trigger. The bullet leapt out. I shot. The grenade dropped. I fired again as the grenade blew up.

It was the first time I’d killed anyone while I was on the sniper rifle. And the first time in Iraq–and the only time–I killed anyone other than a male combatant.

This scene sets the tone for the entire book. Given the heavy-handed symbolism of Eastwood’s version—cutting back and forth, again and again, between white mother and child and Iraqi mother and child, just to make sure you absolutely get it—I don’t think it’s quite inappropriate to look awry at some of these details. For example, the first time the real Chris Kyle kills—his first time—it’s a woman who hides something threatening under her clothes that he kills with his gun. He does it for his brothers. Eastwood wants to make us feel anguish about children and parents, but the real Chris Kyle was minding those the “Ten young, proud Marines in uniform,” much less a patriarch than a fratriarch. Eastwood gives us the ambivalence of a father killing a child; Kyle gives us bros before hoes: to protect his brothers, he must kill this woman, and does.

Chris Kyle liked to tell stories that suited his worldview more than they matched the actual world, so it’s not surprising that the details of his story support the justice of his actions. In his account, women and children are not collateral damage, but clear and present dangers. While reassuring us that the vast majority of people he kills are men, he also shows us how women and children are legitimate targets. More importantly, despite the “fog of war,” the decision to kill is the right one. Chris Kyle has a little bit of information—he sees something yellow—and it is enough to act on. It is a grenade. It is always a grenade.

He regrets nothing. The apologia that follows this scene is the kind of murderous sociopathology that we would expect to hear at an unrepentant defendant’s sentencing hearing, rather than in the prologue to a bestselling memoir. This is a killer saying he regrets nothing, and would kill again:

It was my duty to shoot, and I don’t regret it. The woman was already dead. I was just making sure she didn’t take any Marines with her.

It was clear that not only did she want to kill them, but she didn’t care about anybody else nearby who would have been blown up by the grenade or killed in the firefight. Children on the street, people in the houses, maybe her child . . .

She was too blinded by evil to consider them. She just wanted Americans dead, no matter what.

My shots saved several Americans, whose lives were clearly worth more than that woman’s twisted soul. I can stand before God with a clear conscience about doing my job. But I truly, deeply hated the evil that woman possessed. I hate it to this day.

Savage, despicable evil. That’s what we were fighting in Iraq. That’s why a lot of people, myself included, called the enemy “savages.” There really was no other way to describe what we encountered there.

People ask me all the time, “How many people have you killed?” My standard response is, “Does the answer make me less, or more, of a man?”

The number is not important to me. I only wish I had killed more. Not for bragging rights, but because I believe the world is a better place without savages out there taking American lives. Everyone I shot in Iraq was trying to harm Americans or Iraqis loyal to the new government.

Chris Kyle was a drone if he was a machine that would kill without needing to know why, and which would not regret it afterward. He showed no sign of having a soul. People have asserted that Chris Kyle was a racist, but if we take his book seriously, then he was something much worse. He was a machine for killing. A racist hates a particular kind of person, not only deems them less than human but needs or wants to hate them for some human, broken reason. A racist hates particularly. But Chris Kyle was not that. He didn’t hate the Iraqi people in particular, because he didn’t care enough about them to hate them. It wasn’t about them; it was about him. If necessary, he would kill anyone. Anyone could be a non-person. Anyone could be evil. Anyone could be a savage, and the moment they’re a savage, it becomes necessary to exterminate them.

Drones are a solution to the problem that human beings start off with souls, and need to be taught to kill. Unmanned aircraft, they solve the problem of a human disinclination to kill women and children without mercy. These are problems for the U.S. military, now that—since Vietnam or so—the default mode of military engagement is occupation and counter-insurgency, the U.S. military finds itself killing lots of people who aren’t holding a gun and shooting at you. A person with a soul might hesitate to fire missiles at a wedding party. This is a problem because the way you crush an insurgency is to be maximally bloodthirsty, to kill and kill and kill, without hesitation or reservation, and then to kill some more. This is a lesson that colonial occupying powers learned over and over again, over the course of the long 19th and 20th century imperial era, and it remains true today. There is very little that an invading, occupying power can do to “win” hearts and minds; it can only destroy enough of them that the rest go silent, for a while.

On some level, the US “lost” the Vietnam war because it was politically impossible to be indiscriminately murderous enough to win. It was always possible to “win” these wars: as WWII reminds us, a good way to make an occupation successful is to drop a nuclear bomb on a city. And then drop another one, just to show you can. Obviously, this kind of “victory” needs some incredibly strong scare quotes. But as John Rambo became massively popular in the 1980’s by explaining, “we” could have won the war in Vietnam if they’d let us win, ad this is the kind of fantasy victory we weren’t allowed by reality to have. All “we” would have had to do was treat the entire country as a legitimate military target, and accept the fact that we might have to burn down every village in order to save them, along the model of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. After all, if you exterminate all the brutes, then the problem is solved.

There are reasons why this was not done, of course—though the military came a lot closer to killing anything that moves in Vietnam than was or is generally recognized—but one of them is that genocide would have hurt the Democrats electorally. Alas! It was therefore always necessary to distinguish the naked and unrelenting military terrorism that would be required to crush a guerrilla insurgency from the honorable military campaigns that American voters were willing to accept and imagine. Euphemisms kept “our” hands clean, or clean enough, to pretend that moments of clarity, like “It became necessary to destroy the town to save it,” were the exception rather than the rule.

In this nonsense sense, “we” also “lost” in Iraq; we could have won the war, if we had been willing to kill indiscriminately, to murder millions quickly (rather than merely kill hundreds of thousands slowly). The insurgency dragged on because we didn’t simply drop the bomb on Baghdad and destroy the city. There are reasons why we didn’t do that, of course, but it was never unthinkable; as terms like “shock and awe” remind us, we have always known what we had to do to “win” the war: kill basically everybody. Bomb them into the stone age, etc. Make Baghdad into a parking lot. Etcetera. And as Bijal Trivedi observed at the time, the bombing of Baghdad didn’t “trigger” shock and awe because it was too precise:

“Even after several days of bombing the Iraqis showed remarkable resilience. Many continued with their daily lives, working and shopping, as bombs continued to fall around them. According to some analysts, the military’s attack was perhaps too precise. It did not trigger shock and awe in the Iraqis and, in the end, the city was only captured after close combat on the outskirts of Baghdad.”

Note the logic of this paragraph: the desired effect was not achieved because “Many [Iraqis] continued with their daily lives.” Which is to imply without quite saying the underlying fantasy of the shock and awe campaign: the desired effect was that many Iraqis not continue with their daily lives. The US military has the technological capacity to do this. If they were willing to kill, say, half the population of Baghdad, maybe the war would have been over in weeks. If not, they could then kill the other half.

If Chris Kyle didn’t have it within his power to kill 50% of the population of Baghdad, American Sniper shows that he would have done so, if he were told to do so. Iraqi lives are meaningless to him. As he writes:

I didn’t risk my life to bring democracy to Iraq. I risked my life for my buddies, to protect my friends and fellow countrymen. I went to war for my country, not Iraq. My country sent me out there so that bullshit wouldn’t make its way back to our shores. I never once fought for the Iraqis. I could give a flying fuck about them.

If you “could give a flying fuck about them,” and if your paramount objective is to keep “that bullshit” from coming to the USA, then logically, why wouldn’t you simply kill all of them? Why would there be an upper limit to how many people you would kill? The answer is that there wouldn’t be. If you take seriously the things he says—if you believe him when he says things like this—then you cannot escape the logical conclusion of such sentiments, which is that dropping the bomb on Baghdad is probably the best way to proceed. But, failing that, you could settle for just shooting 255 people. If you “believe the world is a better place without savages out there taking American lives,” as he wrote, then there is nothing surprising in the fact that his one real regret was “I only wish I had killed more.”

Eastwood’s film gives Chris Kyle a soul, puts a ghost in the machine. Instead of cog in a killing machine—skillful precisely to the extent that he could give a flying fuck about “them”—Eastwood makes Kyle a killer with a conscience, torn between competing necessities: to be a killer and to be a dad. Bradley Cooper’s character needs to have it both ways—as we do—and so he is torn apart by the contradiction. He agonizes. He is scarred. In the grand tradition of Hurt Locker and Zero Dark Thirty, war is hell for the winner. Let’s pray for Chris Kyle’s soul by hoping that Bradley Cooper got it right. Let’s pray he wasn’t the sociopath his own words make him out to be. Because what’s chilling about Chris Kyle’s book is that there is no sign of any such conflict. War is fun. Killing is love:

I loved what I did. I still do. If circumstances were different–if my family didn’t need me–I’d be back in a heartbeat. I’m not lying or exaggerating to say it was fun. I had the time of my life being a SEAL. People try to put me in a category as a bad-ass, a good ol’ boy, asshole, sniper, SEAL, and probably other categories not appropriate for print. All might be true on any given day. In the end, my story, in Iraq and afterward, is about more than just killing people or even fighting for my country. It’s about being a man. And it’s about love as well as hate.

Being a man is killing a woman is love is hate. Support the troops. Give a flying fuck. Be a drone.

A Note To My Readers

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I’m probably gonna keep blogging, as long as it works for me. Whenever I feel like doing it, I probably will, you know?