Moral Panic On The Dance Floor

October 27, 2014

By Pax Dickinson

Hi, I’m Pax Dickinson. I’m the guy who was shamed by Gawker and fired because I made off color jokes on Twitter. I’ve been quiet for the past year, but I wanted to stick my head up and talk about some troubling trends in the tech industry.

This isn’t an essay about me and my moment of infamy; it’s an essay about tolerance (or, rather, the lack of it) in the tech world and how political correctness is making people fear to ‘Think Different’. If we’ve learned anything from the amazing Silicon Valley explosion that’s done so much to expand our horizons over the last thirty years, it’s that tech - and the world - needs its misfits, its rebels, and its troublemakers. Over the last few years, out of a mix of motivations (some good, some bad), the tech industry is losing the freedom that made it - and America - great. This worries me, and I want to talk about it.

After being fired last year from my job as Business Insider CTO, I went full time into building Glimpse with my co-founder Elissa. I really felt strongly that I could try to take some of the negativity and try to leverage it into building something positive for privacy and free speech. The Glimpse story is still to be concluded but having built out the infrastructure and encryption architecture successfully after a year it was time for me to move on to other things.

I also knew that I was holding Elissa back. I know my baggage was hurting the company. We were asked to insert clauses that would strip my equity if I “embarrassed” the company and it’s reasonable to assume that my presence as co-founder made other VCs shy away from us, which is heartbreaking to me because Elissa is fucking amazing and deserves better than that.

I’ve been observing the political developments in the technology scene keenly since that day just over a year ago, and what I’ve seen disturbs me. I’ve seen similar events happen to several other people, most notably in the Mozilla/Brendan Eich fiasco. This intolerance of dissenting & unpopular opinions in technology is frightening and the trend has only been accelerating. What happened to Brendan Eich, and the donglegate guys, and others is the result of a moral panic.

A moral panic doesn’t have any relation to reason. It’s a mob expression of rage against an issue that threatens the social order, usually relating to the violation of some cultural taboo. There exists a long American tradition of moral panics, from Prohibition in the 1920s, to the Red Scare of the 1950s, and most egregiously the Satanic Panic of the 1980s. People were jailed and  lives ruined over obviously false accusations made by children trying to please psychiatrists and other adult authority figures.

Brendan Eich faced a different flavor of moral panic, but I’d argue that the events are not wholly dissimilar. His donations favoring Prop 8 were a blasphemy against the reigning orthodoxy (despite it winning a majority of the vote at the time), and he was forced to resign from the organization he founded despite his amazing accomplishments and impeccable technological credentials, and despite a long track record of working well with all manner of diverse employees and co-workers.

I see the current GamerGate uproar as a pushback against a related ongoing moral panic, this one against ‘sexism’ in video games. The video gaming press has launched a moral shaming attack against their own readers for their perceived sexism, but unlike the previous moral panics, the gaming community has refused to cower before the onslaught and has risen up in rebellion against the accusations.

The new liberal ruling elite, a mix of academics and cultural powerbrokers, is like the old clerical orders—wielding its wealth and power to enforce “truths” and punish dissenters.

Today’s Clerisy attempts to distill today’s distinctly secular “truths”—on issues ranging from the nature of justice, race and gender to the environment—and decide what is acceptable and that which is not. Those who dissent from the accepted point of view can expect their work to be simply ignored, or in some cases vilified. In the Clerical bastion of San Francisco, an actress with heretical views, in this case supporting a Tea Party candidate, who was pilloried, and lost work for her offense.

Kotkin’s ‘Clerisy’ believes that ‘incorrect’ opinions should be punished and driven from the public square. We’ve seen this happen in media, to people like Rick Sanchez and Anthony Cumia. We’ve seen this on university campuses, where has done so much good work defending freedom of speech and diversity of thought against would-be cultural censors. In the past year we’ve begun seeing it in the tech industry as well, and right now the video gaming scene is facing the same kinds of attacks.

Pull Over, This is the Moral Police

When Valleywag posted their story about me, they dug through years of tweets to find the ones most damaging to take out of context, mostly tweets that had been posted years before to an audience of two dozen friends. The most damaging tweet was a 3edgy5me reference to long forgotten celebrity gossip item I had tweeted several months before I began working at Business Insider. The author of the article pointedly referred to my employment status to directly imply I should be terminated immediately. As I was, the next morning.

It’s common to make comments around friends that one wouldn’t want widely distributed. Have you ever tweeted in jest about how badly you need a drink? Your friends who know you rarely imbibe to excess might chuckle, but how would that comment come across at a child custody hearing? What if it featured on the front page of Gawker, juxtaposed with five other tweets about heavy drinking, carefully cherry picked from thousands of tweets over years of social media use? What might your boss and your co-workers think? What would your neighbors think?

While I certainly regret some of the tweets that I agree went too far and were offensive, this was speech on the Internet. No one was physically harmed by my tweets. Relief was never more than a Block button away. I never tweeted at people who didn’t want to hear from me, and no one had to read my tweets without opting in.

No one at Valleywag ever attempted to contact me, before the article went up or afterwards. In the following days, I was declared by literally every media organization that I have ever heard of, and many that I haven’t, to literally be The Devil. CNN hilariously posted a picture of me in a Halloween costume wearing horns. Other outlets used a different Halloween pic of me as a brogrammer with a popped collar. (Don’t tweet pics of your Halloween costumes kids. It’ll come back to bite you. Trust me.)

Reporters contacted anyone who had recommended me on LinkedIn. I was a trending Twitter topic, the “Sexist Tech Bro Nightmare”. I got dozens of death threats, which I didn’t take seriously, but it was still disquieting to receive threats, and it says something disturbing about the vindictiveness of the Clerisy when their social norms are transgressed.

The thesis of the media coverage was that I had retrograde opinions about women, and couldn’t work with them.  I can understand, I suppose, how they reached these conclusions from a handful of tweets, but ironically the reality is the exact opposite of the story they drew.

I have a long, long record of successfully working with women, working for women, and having women working for me. At Business Insider I reported to a woman, and I had a female developer working for me the entire three years I was there. We got along terrifically. I’m still friends with the developer. When I’m asked for professional references, I provide glowing recommendations from three women. No one has ever alleged that I engaged in improper behavior at work, or with regards to employment and hiring. If the Clerisy could have found someone, they would have, and Lord did they try.

Let’s Stop Firing People For Expressing Themselves

I expressed opinions and reporters went through my life with a fine toothed comb looking for further dirt to pin on me. They dug into my personal life, and they dug into my professional past. They found nothing. An army of reporters couldn’t find a single shred of evidence that I was ever guilty of sexism at the office or had anything but a happy home life with my wife of 16 years. So while I am certainly guilty of being a troll and while I certainly am a complete idiot to have made all of this possible, I have a great track record where it matters most, with the people I worked side by side with every day to build great things, and with my family.

My career has been irretrievably damaged. I’ll always have trouble finding a job. It used to be easy for me but even a year later I find that recruiters shy away and applications to jobs I’m well qualified for don’t result in a call back. I’m not worried, I know that with enough time I’ll find someone who doesn’t mind my notoriety given my skills, but I’ll always pay a very real price for this whole incident. I can certainly accept that for myself, but I hate to see the tech industry that I grew up respecting for its freewheeling style and embrace of eccentric freethinking degenerate into moral gray goo. This issue is far bigger than me and my career.

If the tech industry gets rid of its iconoclasts, if it expels its rabble rousers, if it Bans Fun, will it even be the tech industry we treasure anymore? Can technology remain an innovation engine when “Think Different” is punished by an informal social blacklisting at the hands of the Clerisy? Did we build an Internet to foster free speech and let it be taken over by Mrs. Grundy, to use in whipping up mobs to voice her moral disapproval?

And my God, are we going to also let this happen to video games, of all things? Have these people no decency? Shall we draw a line here, at GamerGate, before we have nowhere left to go? Will we let those who seek to turn the pastime we love, a hobby about Fun, into a hobby about ‘Social Justice’?

I don’t mind if they make games about the things they like. I want everyone to have the same freedom to make what they like, and play what they like, without being lectured or oppressed for making those choices. We can all make wonderful things, together or separately, in gaming and in the tech industry as a whole, but if we choose to purify the world of heretics instead, it comes at the cost of innovation. It comes as the cost of great products. It comes at the cost of Fun.

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