Public shaming and free speech: Why the rush to attack Pax Dickinson makes me nervous

Every week seems to produce a new poster boy for the sub-species of internet troll known as a “bro-grammer” — the kind of unrepentantly macho and in many cases misogynistic idiot who makes everyone around them cringe. This week we’ve seen two already, including the guys who came up with the widely ridiculed Titstare demo at Disrupt. But it’s the second one I’m more interested in: namely, Pax Dickinson, the former chief technology officer at Business Insider — the guy whose tweets eventually got him fired.

In case you aren’t following this particular story, Dickinson made a number of sexist comments on Twitter that triggered a storm of controversy. This caused some of those who were outraged by his behavior to dig back through his Twitter stream, where they found abundant evidence that this had been going on for years — involving not just sexist or misogynistic comments but what appeared to be homophobic and racist ones as well (I’m not going to reproduce the worst ones here, but you should be able to find them if you really want to).

Tweet some sexist remarks, get fired

Dickinson’s tweets quickly turned from a typical Twitter rubbernecking incident into a full-blown news story, in part because of his position as CTO at Business Insider, the online news site run by Henry Blodget. Nitasha Tiku wrote a story about his behavior at Gawker and asked Blodget what he thought about one of his executives saying such things — especially the ones that implied he wouldn’t hire women — to which the BI founder replied that he didn’t agree with them. The next morning Dickinson was fired.

shouting, free speech

For many, this seems deliciously fitting: A man who has used Twitter to make horrible comments about women and other groups loses his job over those comments, and the arc of the moral universe tilts toward justice as it should. Even some of my Gigaom colleagues, when I brought the incident up during a story discussion, argued that this kind of crowd-fuelled public shaming of a creep like Dickinson is totally appropriate, especially since he had the ability to make hiring decisions at a major internet site. As one person put it:

“FWIW, I think it’s actually a good example of using public shaming to enforce social mores. Like, it’s no longer cool to be a racist dick in public. That’s kind of the point of shame anyhow and how we as a society enforce our idea of what’s right.”

Just to be crystal clear, I am not defending anything that Dickinson said in his tweets, nor am I arguing that he should get his job back, or that he should win employee of the month, or anything of the sort. Based on an interview he gave to New York magazine, he seems to be a bit of an idiot — and one who can’t seem to understand what people found so offensive about his comments. Either he is trying to generate publicity for his new startup or he is just thick.

When does shaming become an angry mob?


That said, however, I confess that I still find what happened to Dickinson disturbing, in much the same way that I found what happened to the “brogrammers” who made the dongle remark at PyCon disturbing, and what happened to the Twitter user known as Comfortably Smug, after he posted a series of fake news alerts during the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy in New York. All of those involved were subjected to public ridicule and attacks from all sides, and eventually lost their jobs.

In each of these cases, there was clearly some harm done by the comments made. And I fully appreciate that there is a systemic sexism problem in the technology industry, and that allowing such behavior to go without being criticized encourages that to continue. But at the same time, this case produced what seemed like an orgy of outrage that at times felt like the beginnings of an angry mob — if only because of the speed and aggressiveness of the response.

Clark Bianco at the blog Popehat echoed some of my concerns in a post, in which he argues that the kind of public shaming that the social web encourages can be more damaging than helpful. While public shaming may have worked in small towns or other confined spaces, it becomes a much more dangerous thing when the entire internet participates — and it’s difficult to crack down on the speech we don’t like without affecting everyone else’s right to free speech at the same time. As Bianco puts it:

“I simultaneously think that the proper response to speech is more speech… and worry that given modern technologies, the result is often not debate that merges thesis and antithesis into synthesis, but punishment… and punishment that can be disproportionate to the crime.”

In some cases, free speech is a victim too

Naming and shaming

The desire to do something about behavior like Dickinson’s is totally understandable, and even admirable, since his comments demean women and make light of their inability to get good jobs, as well as other serious topics like sexual abuse. And as many people have pointed out in the aftermath of Titstare and other incidents, the technology sector has a problem with brogrammers and related behavior, and it needs to be called out. I understand that, and a lot of the criticism he got was appropriate.

But Bianco, who says he has corresponded with Dickinson but never met him, argues that what the former CTO was doing on Twitter was a form of satire — or “performance art,” as he calls it — and that he is “smart, hilarious, and an ardent defender of free speech, human rights, and a decent human being.” The satire explanation, which Dickinson elaborates on in his interview with New York magazine, may have worked with his wife (he has been married for 15 years) but apparently wasn’t enough for the woman he co-founded a startup with: she wrote on Medium about how she was parting ways with him.

Regardless of whether you buy his defence, however — and plenty don’t — it is still more than a little troubling to me that we are so quick to censure someone for some comments they made on Twitter, in some cases years ago, and to hound them publicly until they lose their jobs. At some point, that kind of activity becomes tantamount to censorship, as Jillian York of the Electronic Frontier Foundation argues in an interview with the Switch blog at the Washington Post.

Where is that line exactly? Perhaps we are starting to find out — but it is a messy and unpleasant process, and I am afraid that if we aren’t careful we could end up on the wrong side when it is all over.

This post was updated to remove the term “lynch mob,” which I agree was a poor choice of analogies.

Post and thumbnail images courtesy of Shutterstock / Aaron Amot, Shutterstock / 1000 Words and Shutterstock / Sam72