Behind The Bullying Epidemic

I was very sad to hear that Kathy Sierra has decided to withdraw from online interactions again. Her insights into how technical communication and collaboration happen are among the finest I have read, and losing her voice again is a tragedy. But the reason she has gone hurts us all too. Reading her explanation is very depressing. Her conclusion — that what she experienced is not a one-off event but an expected outcome — would be worrying even if it was just about her.

But it’s not.

While hyperbolic and perhaps narrow in naming Linus Torvalds, there’s a seed of truth in what Lennart Poettering says about the tendency for open source communities to amplify toxic people. That’s not uniquely because they are open source communities, though. It’s because they communicate online, with the scale that permits the overwhelming numbers to drown out any residual social brakes that would normally apply to in-person interactions.

It would be easy to assume how Kathy has been treated is purely a gender issue. But I don’t believe it is. There are sometimes female attackers too and the analysis Kathy provides suggests the effect is one of a critical mass of angst being catalysed by a sociopath. There’s no doubt sexism is a frequent key factor for the catalyst — “that woman doesn’t deserve to be right” — but catalyst role is itself gender independent and so is the angst-cloud. Gender and race dominate the ways victims are tormented to be sure, but it’s a mistake to let the undeniable misogyny of the mob define the root cause.

Online Outgroups

Drawing all these threads together for me is a long, fascinating article (h/t Alec) that makes me wonder if we are seeing the formation of outgroups in these incidents. Scott Alexander’s essay talks about red, blue and grey groupings of almost-identical people differentiated by some of the details of their political ideology such as their expectations of causality. He suggests the greatest risks come not from people who are very different, but rather from those who are almost the same.

I wonder if the socipathic hordes are the result of an online outgroup reaching critical mass? They could be Alexander’s Grey Tribe, or it could be the effect he describes is an expected behaviour of large groups of humans. Just as Fowler’s Stages of Faith seem to apply to all belief systems and not just religion, so it seems likely people can belong to many different outgroups in different parts of their lives.

Kathy suggests the catalyst is privilege envy. Her tormentors seem to think she has a privileged position she does not deserve and attack her without restraint; I bet they have that view based on more than just her gender. If that’s the case, it may not much matter which perceived privilege is the trigger, whether it’s gender, race, ethnicity, orientation or music choice. This is Alexander’s point; the smaller the difference, the worse the hate.

Whatever is going on, I also agree with Natasha Lennard that it’s a mistake to let any of these sociopaths (or the growds they catalyse) be socialised. It monstrous behaviour that must not be excused. Unlike Greg Sandoval I don’t think the perpetrators develop empathy or stop wanting to harm people. One friend suggests it’s a form of the “addictive righteous indignation” that David Brin writes about.

There is an irony that the people doing the bullying appear to be a group of people who themselves might have expected to be bullied, as the characters from Big Bang Theory are wont to observe — omegas becoming alphas and betas. It’s ongoing inadequacy recast in their minds as injustice, used to justify inhuman cruelty in the name of correcting a privilege imbalance. If you doubt there’s inhuman cruelty, watch Anita Sarkeesian’s XOXO talk.

As Paulo Friere once worried, are we seeing a group from the oppressed become oppressors instead of gaining empathy from their own experiences? Which, as Alexander ends up reflecting, points the finger backwards and as Pete Warden concludes tells us our toleration of asshole behaviour — from anyone regardless of their excuse — must end. The lulz do not justify the means.

[First posted on Ello]

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