Friday, July 31, 2020

The Harpers Letter On Justice And Open Debate And What Followed. Prologue And Act I.

For part 2 go to here and for part 3 here.


You are going to lurve this story

It is about pizzas (and who doesn't like pizza (1)) and it is about Domino's Pizza in far-away and exotic places.  That would be in New Zealand and Australia.(2)  There the advertising people had a brilliant idea to spread a little warmth and human kindness around (and, ultimately to sell more pizzas) by offering a free pizza to all women whose first name is Karen.  Their actual, real first name, that is.

The backstory, for those who have not spent much time in social media recently is this:

A giveaway, titled "Calling all (nice) Karens" was posted on the pizza chain's Australian and New Zealand pages.
It asked those named Karen to tell Domino's in 250 words how they were one of the "nice ones".
"The name 'Karen' has become synonymous with anyone who is entitled, selfish and likes to complain," Domino's chief marketing officer in the region, Allan Collins, said while introducing the offer.
"What used to be a light-hearted meme has become quite the insult to anyone actually named Karen.
"Well, today we're taking the name Karen back.

You get their intention, right?  It's a little ham-fisted and I would have written it differently, but their point was to try to be nice to people who might have been suffering a little from watching their first names being rolled in human excrement and then used as pissoirs.

Well, what happened, you might ask.  The promotion in Australia is going on as planned while the New Zealand promotion had to be canceled.  This was because of a social media backlash:

The offer was immediately criticised, with many arguing "Karen negativity" was an issue that affected mostly "privileged white women".
"Most of the time Karens are entitled privileged white women. If a few people actually called Karen can't handle the meme they should try handling 400 years of oppression," said one user on Twitter.
"When you wanna reward more privilege to the most privileged in our society," another said.
Some brought up recent incidents where women were accused of acting like "Karens".
"Please Dominos, stop. Karens ask to speak to the manager and actively try to get low wage workers fired. Karens put people at risk by refusing to wear a mask. Karens don't need your defense," said another Twitter user.

Now that is some hilarious shit. 

After I stopped laughing (howling) at those quotes I wondered where the education system of such an advanced country as New Zealand could have gone so wrong (3) that many cannot tell the difference between Karen-in-the-meme and Karen-as-the-actual-real-name of actual real people who may have nothing (4) in common with the demographic group Karen-in-the-meme demonizes or with those nasty, entitled and racist white women whose antics are portrayed in many popular videos circulating in social media.

Act I

The above made me think about the famous Harpers Letter On Justice And Open Debate, signed by over 150 fairly famous journalists, writers and academics from both sides of the American political aisle and with many different specializations. 

I had just finished digesting not only that letter and the letter (with 180+ signatories) which was written in response to it,  but also a respectably large number of additional pieces of prose on the topic. 

Some of those agreed with the contents of the letter, some disagreed with those contents, while yet others demanded to know why certain named individuals had signed the letter even though other, quite nasty individuals also signed the letter. 

Were the former aware of the presence of the latter in the list of signatories?  And if so, why didn't they refuse to sign the letter?  And if they were not aware of the presence of wrong-thinkers, why didn't they ask their own signatures to be withdrawn later? (5)

Some signers did withdraw their signatures later, though not because others had demanded it.  Some who had not signed the letter (and perhaps not even asked to sign the letter) wrote in great detail about what someone else signing the letter meant for them. 

Almost everyone, however, reacted to the letter from their own standpoint.  In other words, they interpreted the vague words of the letter as code which actually referred to episode x in their own political career or political issue z which they had worked with. And so on.

Although I write about all the reading I did in a flippant tone (my hazmat suit today), I have no intention to belittle the issues the articles raised.  Indeed, while I was reading the various takes on the possible meaning of the letter, on the timing of the letter, on the signatories on the letter etc., I found myself agreeing at least a little with some parts of each article I finished.

And hence the need to take time to digest everything.  What did I/me/myself think about these issues?  The "eureka" moment then happened: 

I realized that I, too, was unable to approach the entirety of the arguments in the initial letter from any other starting point than my own personal online reading and writing experiences!

Was this, then, one of the beneficial outcomes of open debate?  For though the debate I carried on took place only inside my own head it certainly was quite open, because it was fed with a vast amount of arguments, facts and opinions.

This realization pleased me, and it looked like a fairly good reason to have more open debates:  They might make us learn more.

But if I hadn't come across that pizza debacle I might not have written on the Harpers letter, and the reason is that parts of it rang very true to me: 

The rules of debate have changed on us, without any particular group or individual having done that changing (though some boo at the changes while others applaud them), and the costs of being misunderstood or, perhaps, and more to the point, of being accurately understood can be far higher now than they ever were in the past.  Though this is not true for everyone in all contexts, it is probably true for almost everyone in some contexts.

This is because the online world creates a new kind of debating environment.  I wish to expand on that topic later in this post, but as a gross simplification every single online communication, however private it might feel,  should be viewed as the communicators yelling in extremely loud voices while the whole world listens to them.  And judges them.  And just might decide to punish them in some ways for that communication. 

The world, as we all know, is full of both wonderful and horrible things, and the horrible ones tend to be drawn to certain types of speech by certain types of people, like ants to honey. 

I have no desire to be the honey and I have real ants in the kitchen. 

Besides, I have been a most polite online arguer for such a long time that I have worn through all my hazmat suits and my thick turtle shield lets light through.  The negative consequences which might come from discussing challenging ideas now outweigh all the pleasures of the search for answers, the pleasure of getting good feedback and good respectful push-back and the pleasures of learning. 

And I do sometimes feel that many more Twitter debates now turn from mere bickering to something quite nasty and even frightening than was the case even five years ago.  Though most of that is, I believe, due to the characteristics of Twitter itself and not due to the people using it, the risks simply seemed too high for me to assume in my current condition.  Besides, I don't really have anything truly new to contribute. 

That was how I at first talked myself out of writing on this issue.  But then the pizza came, and I saw that I was avoiding the "open debate or not" (6) debate because I subconsciously expected it to turn into a clone of the pizza debacle. 

The people who "won" that particular debate didn't actually debate better!  They didn't even debate on the actual topic of the debate!   But  Domino's Pizza allowed them to win because it feared the power of a bunch of anonymous social media commentators to affect its ethical reputation and its revenue stream.  The anonymous commentators, on the other hand, had nothing to lose from playing this game.

And to the extent that pizza example resembles the state of today's debates, or at least their worst state, perhaps staying silent and demure isn't an acceptable ethical choice for me.

So whatever it is worth, the rest of the post will go on and on and on about various aspects of today's debating climate, as seen by me.  I will begin by looking at why having instant access to millions of strangers might create problems for those who are trying to control the contents and the scope of any particular debate topic.


(1)  I love a white pizza.  I would love other colors on pizzas, too, but, alas,  I get migraines from tomato sauce and tomatoes.  The world of food is not a place of justice.

(2) They are exotic places because I have never been there.  I so want to see the cassowary before I change planets but, alas, this doesn't look likely now.  They are also exotic places for having accepted Domino's pizza there as if it was a valid food product.

(3)  Not enough cassowary time between lessons?  Or would that be in Australia?  I refuse to learn geography because it is too late. In any case the social media denizens were probably Americans pretending to be Kiwis.

(4)  And by that I mean that all sorts people might have that name.  Not all are white, not all are middle-aged, not all are middle class, and most are probably ordinary nice people, just like the rest of us.

(5)  This is "guilt by association" and has to do with a particular authoritarian mindset which is not terribly uncommon on the far right or on the far left, one which sees the world in all-or-nothing, black-or-white terms and has great trouble with nuances. 

People with that mindset are not necessarily wrong (or at least not always wrong), but debating them feels like rowing a water-logged boat against the stream and every step one takes is a misstep.  That should explain why I feel grumpy about them.  

I am aware of the alternative interpretations for the guilt by association.  For instance, if you frequently  eat free finger food at the cocktail parties capitalists organize in Washington DC,  you might not then be the most objective of labor reporters.  Achtung:  That was a made-up example.  I don't know a single labor reporter and I made the whole story up.

But if it upsets you I shall obviously cancel it! 

(6) The adjective can be contested, although it is not completely untrue.  Debates in the past were open in one sense but very closed in another also important sense. 

There were always people not invited to participate in the debates or even allowed to sit in the audience.  That specific aspect of closing the debate from some disadvantaged groups, say, is gone thanks to the online environment.  Well, mostly gone.