13 February 2018

Quinn Norton

Earlier today the New York Times announced that they were hiring Quinn Norton to be their new opinion columnist on “the power, culture and consequences of technology”. Before long, her friendship with neo-Nazi weev had been pointed out to the NYT, along with her history of using homophobic and racist slurs online. By nighttime, she was unhired.

The TL;DR here is that being friends with literal Nazis is a career-limiting maneuver. But in her response to the kerfuffle, Norton references an article about “context collapse”, and explains that she only used homophobic slurs when she was talking to 4chan trolls. This is the part I feel the urge to comment on.

It’s certainly true that “context collapse” can cause problems; consider the person who suddenly finds their postings to a BDSM forum doing the rounds at work. But if context is the thing that makes you think it’s OK to be homophobic or a Nazi sympathizer in the 2010s, I don’t think it’s the context collapse that’s the real problem; that’s like blaming the alcohol for your drunken racist rants. I’ve been on web sites where it was apparently considered OK to use slurs; that doesn’t mean I decided it was OK to start using them myself in that context, let alone on public Twitter.

Some see this incident as another example of censorship by Internet lynch mob, and suggest that reporters might be prevented from doing their vital job for fear of censure. I don’t see it that way. Nobody’s saying that reporters shouldn’t associate with Nazis. On the contrary, reporters should be free to meet with Nazis, talk to them, and interview them. (Maybe not every other month, though.) No, the line that was crossed here was going beyond that, and sympathizing with Nazis and considering them personal friends. That’s what caused the backlash.

Look at Louis Theroux. He has spent time with appalling people like the Westboro Baptist Church and various neo-Nazis, and has treated them fairly and sympathetically — but in spite of all of that, we know that he isn’t actually sympathetic to their horrific viewpoints, he isn’t their friend, and he isn’t going to be inviting them round for dinner to discuss plans for genocide.

Reporting on terrible people is undoubtedly a tough job. You have to show them sympathy and fairness, while at the same time keeping distance and objectivity. I’m sure it’s a very tough path to walk — but if you can’t walk it, pick easier subjects to report on. Because if you keep terrible people as your friends and talk to them in their preferred vocabulary of homophobic and racist slurs, you’re going to find yourself unpopular in what’s left of polite society.

© mathew 2017