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February 27, 2016
The chemistry of discourse
Posted by Abi Sutherland at 07:21 AM * 108 comments

One way of looking at freedom of speech is atomic: treating each individual act of free speech as an equal component of the overall freedom of our discourse. That’s kind of the default position on Twitter, as well as in the section of American culture out of which it grew. It’s an assumption that is all but baked into the 140-character platform1. It’s also the basis of a lot of arguments advocating an unmoderated online culture as a whole, or pushing back against individual acts of moderation all over the web.

The problem, as Twitter so ably illustrates, is that treating free speech as a collection of free speeches can actually diminish the collective freedom of speech. There are conversations I can’t have on Twitter, because I’m afraid of the atomic acts of free speech that I will get in response. Some of them will be genuine tests of the value of my speech, but others may be rape threats, doxxing, a flood of vicious and pernicious abuse. And yet more will inhabit the shady borderland between the two: arguably legitimate things disproportionately aimed at particular targets2.

But because absolutes are easy, atomic acts of free speech are easy to defend, and are defended widely on the internet. Actual adults who can deal with nuance elsewhere can be surprisingly simplistic on the topic.

(musical interlude)

Jefferson:
We fought for these ideals; we shouldn’t settle for less
These are wise words, enterprising men quote ‘em
[…]

Hamilton:
That was a real nice declaration
Welcome to the present, we’re running a real nation.

I’m being a little unfair here. Many of the people who defend free speech on an atomic level do so because of the risks of controlling it for any kind of “greater good”. And they’re right: most of the greater goods that have been used to control atomic free speech have been neither great nor good. But the answer is not to give up, any more than the answer to bad government is no government. The answer is to do better.

Because the model we’re using is broken. The awareness of its brokenness haunts our entire discourse3. Indeed, many of the people who abuse the model draw their passion from a fear of being silenced, of not being heard.

(musical interlude)

Jefferson:
if New York’s in debt—
Why should Virginia bear it? Uh! Our debts are paid, I’m afraid
Don’t tax the South cuz we got it made in the shade
[…]

Hamilton:
Hey neighbor,
Your debts are paid cuz you don’t pay for labor
“We plant seeds in the South. We create.”
Yeah, keep ranting
We know who’s really doing the planting.

Jefferson’s portrayal of the South as a financially stable “land of the free” is, as Hamilton points out, based on keeping certain costs off the books. This is possible because in Jefferson’s Virginia the people paying those costs aren’t as important as the people reaping the benefits4.

In the same way, the “wealth” of atomic freedom of speech has costs that don’t appear on the absolutist balance sheet. No individual has the strength of heart and mind, the time and resources, to deal with the full range of possible responses to their speech. The fact that this full range is more likely to be deployed against certain speakers5 is the equivalent of Jefferson’s financial accounting6: important costs are being kept off the books.

Add those costs in, and it’s clear that our speech, taken as a whole, is actually desperately poor, deeply unfree, silenced, squashed.

I can’t solve the internet as a whole. I can’t solve our entire discourse. I’m a moderator on a few sites and a participant in a few conversations. But here, for what it’s worth, is my approach in those places.

  • Free speech is a complex molecule. You can’t just pile up individual atoms of free speech and hope they’ll crystallize into it.
  • It is an objective that we cannot reach, but must continuously strive toward anyway. That’s a form of adulting: we screw up, individually and collectively, and must then try to clean up the mess and to learn to do better in the future. It’s hard. But what worthwhile thing is easy?
  • This striving takes the form of tuning the balance between competing discourses. Every decision we make protects some voices and silences others. If I as a moderator constrain the shouters, they are constrained, but the people who leave the room when the shouting starts may stay. If I let the shouters shout, those other people leave.7
  • Inaction is also a choice. Choosing not to moderate is also silencing voices. It’s simply letting the mob choose which voices get silenced instead of doing it yourself.
  • If you make choices, you need to hold yourself appropriately accountable for their consequences. This doesn’t mean the trolls don’t own their words, of course—they’re accountable for their own trolling. But you’re accountable for letting them stay in any conversation you control.
  • Now while we’re at the adults’ table, let’s just admit that choosing the voices you protect and prioritize means choosing the conversation that will take place in your space. And that choice, like the choice of voices, excludes as well as protects. No community can hold all conversations.

And here we get to a problem I cannot solve with a blog post, a few bullet points, and a couple of stray Hamilton quotes. What we really need for free speech is a varied ecosystem of different moderators, different regimes, different conversations. How do those spaces relate to one another when Twitter, Reddit, and the chans flatten the subcultural walls between them8? Have we the tools or the will to foster the kind of genuine respect for disagreement, trust in disagreement, that that would require?

Probably not. But as adults, we still have to try to do our fallible best in a complex world.


  1. This is not your standard “damn Twitter and its damn character limits killing depth of communication” rant9. The brevity that strips nuance and allows decontextualized comments to wander through our discourse like visitors from the Oort Cloud also brings a kind of clarity, and rewards a particular sort of wit. At its best, it’s a vast collective parlor game.
  2. Hic sunt otariinae
  3. This includes people all over the political landscape, from TERFs to economically precarious Christian- and (historically) Republican-identifying Americans. People in otherwise violent disagreement are united in a fear of being silenced10.
  4. We’re still working on a true balancing of those books. Ironically, one of the places we’re doing the sums is Twitter itself.
  5. And it’s so often the same people who get the short end of every stick: the poor and powerless of every kind.
  6. I am not equating the consequences of even the most horrible avalanche of online abuse with slavery here, by the way. But there’s a core problem that the two share: they each work because some people are more valued than others.
  7. This point, and arguably this entire post, was an idea I ganked from a 2007 post by Chris Clarke.
  8. There’s a whole ‘nother blog post in this, but in brief, what I am referring to is the long-running move away from discussing a given post in the local comments, and toward discussing it elseweb. Which is not a new phenomenon, but the weakness is that the discussion venue is often a community that doesn’t understand the context of the post or value the people making it. Many times, the readers don’t click through and read the original post, relying instead on an excerpt or a summary (or their assumptions).
  9. This lawn here? The land it grows on predates me and will outlast me. I just mow it while I live here. Come sit with me on it and let’s have a conversation.
  10. And this conversation is not a referendum on the realism of anyone’s fear. People genuinely feel it, and act differently because of it. It’s a real factor in the conversation, a real rock in these rapids.

February 14, 2016
Heads up: Hugo PINs
Posted by Abi Sutherland at 06:26 AM * 67 comments

I keep seeing it on Twitter, but I haven’t seen much in the way of heads-ups in less ephemeral fannish media, so here’s what I know. Note that I don’t have any insider knowledge; this is just assembling links and publicly posted information for the convenience of anyone who might have missed the chatter.

  • Some (many?) people who are eligible1 to nominate2 for the Hugos and elected to receive information electronically don’t have their credentials, though the date announced on the MidAmericon page (February 5) is past.
  • If you cannot find your credentials in your inbox, check your spam trap(s).
  • If you still can’t find them, email hugopin@midamericon2.org3. They should get back to you within a day or two, though I’m sure that depends on traffic and volunteer time.
  • Try out your credentials (or start nominating!) by following the instructions on this page. If that doesn’t work, try swapping your first and last names4.
  • I’ve seen mention of some problems with some of the PINs sent out. If it still doesn’t work, contact them again and they’ll sort you out5.

Nominations close at 23:59 North American Pacific Daylight Time (GMT - 7) on March 31, 2016. You do not have to fill all the nomination slots or nominate in all categories to participate. If you are unsure whether a work is eligible, the rules are stated in plain English here. Hugo administrators will rule on edge cases.

Happy nominating! It’s been an awesome year for our genre; there’s a lot to choose from.

Mod note: Please only comment on this post about the process of getting your PIN and logging in, plus related matters. I’m going to unpublish or disemvowel conversations about the works to nominate, the ways people choose those works, and all mention of domestic mammals of any sort. I haven’t the spoons just at the moment.


  1. As a reminder, you are eligible to nominate for Hugos if you are or were:
    a voting member of the 2015 [Sasquan], 2016 [MidAmeriCon II], or 2017 [Worldcon 75 in Helsinki] Worldcons by the end of the day (23:59 North American Pacific Standard Time/GMT - 8) on January 31, 2016
  2. This is distinct from voting for the Hugo awards from the list of nominated works, which will happen later and under different eligibility criteria.
  3. It scarcely needs mentioning that being pleasant and including all the relevant details on this email is Totally A Thing. People dealing with email workarounds to technical glitches are not, as a rule, happy and unstressed bunnies.
  4. Pleased to meet you. My name is Sutherland Abigail (call me Suth) and I love merging data from multiple sources. (I’m seriously not bothered by this, honestly, having both Been There and Done That many times myself.)
  5. vide 3

Updated to add: the MidAmeriCon II Twitter account posted this update:

…so it’s worth waiting a bit to see if the PIN email turns up. You may still have to fiddle with names and numbers once it does.

Further bulletins as events warrant.

February 06, 2016
Gentleman Jole and the SPOILER Queen
Posted by Abi Sutherland at 05:32 AM * 140 comments

I know it’s been a few days since it was requested, but here’s a SPOILER thread for Bujold’s latest installment in the Vorkosigan series.

It’s not been a great winter for taking in new things for me, so I confess that I haven’t read it yet. As a result, my image of the book at the moment is a conversation between two characters from elsewhere in literature…

Desire waited in the carriage. Again. The thing with Norton had been a setback, but this one should be easier. Royalty, taken as a whole, was pretty venal. That’s how they got to be—and stayed—royalty. And Pain was a good salesman. He’d even sold himself his own nostrums. Still, it was frustrating. He talked so quietly that only one side of the conversation was audible.

“You call that an offer? I’ve seen offers in comparison with which that would be a confiscation! Besides, queens never make bargains.”
(Cajoling from Pain)
“When I want a thing, that means that I lack it. But to lack a thing is not to have it. And if I see something, it’s mine, and what I cannot see, I cannot miss.”
(Slightly confused response from Pain)
“OFF WITH HIS HEAD!”

Pain returned to the carriage, carrying his head in his hands. The gore from his neck stained his shirt a deeper red. “That didn’t go very well.”

(I know I’ve mapped Gentleman Jole to an extremely unlikely character.)

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