Thursday, January 02, 2014
Editor's Notes: (1) I am back, but the kids are ill and I've taken a possibly time-consuming job for a new client. Blogging may be sporadic for a week. (2) I have a small backlog of comments to moderate. I'll do this when able, probably some time in the next few days.
A favorite essayist of mine, Paul Graham, has been wrongly accused of anti-female bigotry. Here is the quote that went viral and got him into trouble, with a word that was deliberately omitted highlighted in red:
We can't make these women look at the world through hacker eyes and start Facebook because they haven't been hacking for the past 10 years. [emphasis in original]Graham outlines a sordid ruse in more detail, explaining that the words used in the above quote weren't the only ones involved. In fact, someone fabricated an entire "interview" with him from the transcript of a conversation they had had as part of the "interviewer's" background research on a female tech startup founder.
Graham makes some very good points about interviews in general in the process of defending himself:
If this had been an actual interview, I would have made more effort to make myself clear, as you have to in an interview. An interview is different from an ordinary conversation. In a conversation you stop explaining as soon as the other person's facial expression shows they understand. In an interview, the audience is the eventual reader. You don't have that real-time feedback, so you have to explain everything completely.This I agree with, assuming the context and any explanations are geared towards intelligent and reasonable adults. (The minute one starts trying to address an irrational audience, one has taken on an impossible task.)
Also (as we've seen), if you talk about controversial topics, the audience for an interview will include people who for various reasons want to misinterpret what you say, so you have to be careful not to leave them any room to, whereas in a conversation you can assume good faith and speak as loosely as you would in everyday life.  [hyperlink omitted]
But I don't agree with the following, which is footnoted within the above:
This is particularly true in the age of Twitter, where a single sentence taken out of context can go viral. Now anything you say about a controversial topic has to be unambiguous at the level of individual sentences. [emphasis added]This level of clarity is impossible, given the hierachical nature of concepts, and the fact that most controversial topics involve disagreements about high-level philosophical abstractions. (Should one use a tool like Twitter to disseminate something other than the most easily verifiable facts, one simply has to be ready to elaborate somewhere that allows more room, and be resigned to the fact that, in this day and age, many people go to the web looking for an excuse to become angry about something. This means they will take almost anything on a screen as bait.)
The whole essay is worth reading for the thought it provokes on the role of context in communication, but it also raises another issue: When does one defend oneself? Graham has a good reason to to do this, as becomes apparent. But if a writer stopped to answer, as William Faulkner might have put it, every itinerant scoundrel with a Twitter account who impugned him, he'd quickly find he had little time for anything else.
When one writes, one has to find the right limits for the amount of explanation he offers or he will never get around to making an original point. When one does so for the general public, one must furthermore value his time more than what scoundrels feel about him.