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Summary:

Pax Dickinson, the former CTO for Business Insider, lost his job after some of his tweets were criticized for being sexist and racist. But at what point does public shaming of such behavior have a negative impact on free speech?

free speech_Newtown grafitti

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?

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

  1. I bet if he used the word screwed instead of raped it would have been fine.

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  2. Um? Pax Dickinson is free to say whatever he likes. And when his free speech potentially exposes his employers to legal ramifications of that speech, they are free to part ways with him. No one’s right to speak has been impaired here. Making this a free speech issue badly misses the mark.

    I think part of the problem here is a category error, in that Mr Dickinson probably believed that his audience was primarily made up of people much like himself, “brogrammers” who would be amused and not offended by his jokes. It’s possible – even likely – that his tweets seem playful in the right context. However, on twitter, EVERYONE can hear you. Twitter has no context. And it behooves someone with a C-suite position at a very public-facing company to watch what he says in public. Else he may lose that C-suite employ. That is a normal social consequence.

    Free speech does not mean consequence-free speech. Adults are free to say whatever they like. And they are also free to face the consequences of that speech.

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    1. What is the consequence to the crowd for ganging up on somebody who may or may not deserve the mass criticism? That is the million-dollar question. Take for instance the case when the person being mass-criticized turns out to be innocent. What then is the consequence to the crowd?

      From http://www.thenation.com/article/174039/problem-public-shaming#

      “Consider the announcement of the Sandy Hook episode and the ensuing media frenzy to name the shooter. He was first incorrectly identified as Ryan Lanza, who turned out to be the killer’s brother. Other “Ryan Lanzas” and their friends and families were harassed during the confusion. Reporters are notoriously bad at getting the facts straight during the frenzied moments following a big story, let alone amateur detectives or doxxers. Things get especially hairy when big media publish the identity of alleged aggressors based on unverified claims from untrustworthy sources. Amateur detectives raced against the FBI to uncover the perpetrators behind the Boston bombings on social news site Reddit. They fingered the wrong person, resulting in a misguided witch hunt that prompted Reddit’s general manager Erik Martin to publicly apologize. Such exposure can lead to misguided counterattacks from a faceless troll army. On an Internet where people can so deftly conceal their identities and impersonate strangers, we must be mindful of our propensity for error.”

      I think the lynch mob analogy is actually quite apt. What we are lacking here is due process and a presumption of innocence before proof of guilt. A crowd can mistakenly attack an innocent, and there is no consequence to them for their free speech.

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  3. ‘Free speech’ is only protected in the US (theoretically, though less and less) from government interference. That doesn’t apply here. These things are all happening in the private sphere. No one’s asking for him to be prosecuted for anything (nor should they). Nowhere, however, is there a right to say whatever the heck you want to say and then get to be immune from the consequences of saying it.

    Bad people can harass someone for saying something good and virtuous and there’s no recourse for that. Why shouldn’t the inverse be true?

    And as far as the ‘performance art’ defense? Maybe. I don’t know his heart, only his actions. But I hope he was a better CTO than artist, then.

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    1. Free speech deserves to be protected from things other than just government interference.

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      1. madiduslexdiscipulus Tuesday, September 17, 2013

        Anyone who defends this Pax is clearly a sexist misogynist. You would think it was ok to fire him if he said “I hate Niggers” or “Gas the Jews,” but you think that women should be abused because they won’t give it up to you stupid, old, and ignorant ass. Your comparison to misidentified Facebook user is SUCH a logical fallacy. Pax said all that he was accused of. He admits that he is a misogynist and is proud of it. We don’t support that, except on Fox news, in America today. Freedom of speech is strengthened by the public discourse. Hate speech is defeated by the speech of the rational and caring side of society, and children learn what is right. When I grew up in the 70’s the racists learned that they need to shut the fuck up, it is long past due that the sexist need to be knocked down a few pegs.

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  4. I understand why it’s troubling to you “that we are so quick to censure someone for some comments they made on Twitter.” But I draw the line at the comparison of actual rape to a move. And the word “only” in his tweet is barbaric and cruel.

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  5. “In some cases, free speech is a victim too” — look, no. That’s just not true. Free speech is not under attack. No one is preventing Pax, or anyone else, from continuing to make whatever statements they would like to in an open, public broadcasting environment like Twitter. He is still free to continue saying whatever he likes (and he certainly has continued to).

    But that doesn’t mean that BusinessInsider (or any other organization) has to continue to employ him.

    Considering that Pax had hiring/firing control and the statements that he publicly made, he put BusinessInsider in potential liability for biased hiring practices. So from a purely legal point of view, he had to go. No question.

    It wasn’t the mob that terminated him, it was BusinessInsider, and they had every right and just cause to do so.

    Separately — the “public shaming” that Pax received was in the form of free speech as well, wasn’t it? How could you argue for Pax’s form of free speech, but argue against the form of free speech that the response took?

    And what about the public responses to ValleyWag and others who have covered this debacle? Those who have escalated the name-calling and threats in defense of Pax? Is this acceptable or unacceptable free speech?

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  6. This is not a free speech issue. Free speech violations occur when the government punishes people for speaking their mind. The general public complaining until someone loses his job? Not the same thing. Why do so many people not get this?

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    1. If freedom of speech is a principle worth upholding, then it deserves to be thought of as more than just an issue of government intervention and the First Amendment.

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      1. Oh Jeeze, you really are defending Pax in particular. So he can say “hey I’m the powerful CTO and I will let it be known that no one in my organization, and none of my peers, should hire a woman as a programmer, because none of them are talented.” And no one is allowed to attack him for that. He can admit to baseless illegal discrimination and face no repercussions? We all just shut up because that’s free speech?

        That’s asinine.

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      2. @Mathew, I agree, freedom of speech should be upheld because it is a “morale” and “rights” given to all men through our creator… But if you’re going to hold this to be true with distinction in character, you must also hold true any and all other distinctions which fall below the acceptable realm of a good morale justice. And prejudice falls into that category…

        I’m sorry my friend, you CANNOT ignore one while attempting to prop another one up…Unlike the Benjamin Franklin “T” I believe there is another strong filter based formula that works even better.. it’s called the “equal(=)” sign… YOU cannot justify one side of it without ensuring the other side has been given equal value.. To do so makes it unequal or an improper value… That is “logic” at its base core…

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  7. Travis Mason-Bushman Friday, September 13, 2013

    The First Amendment says you can’t go to jail for saying something dumb and misogynist. It doesn’t say your employer has to keep paying you after you bring them into disrepute.

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    1. That’s not at all what the First Amendment says; I invite you to read it sometime.

      However I do agree with the second part of your post.

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  8. Does Jillian York actually make the argument that “[public shaming] becomes tantamount to censorship” in her WP interview? I can’t find that sentiment anywhere

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  9. Most companies care about the public perception of them, and if an executive says things that are offensive to a large segment of the population (especially if the segment overlaps with the subset of the country that uses the company’s product), it’s not unusual for the company to fire the executive. If he was a lower level employee, it wouldn’t have received as much attention, but when you’re at the C level, you can often be considered a spokesperson for the company, or at least someone who represents the kind of leadership the company looks strives for. Dickinson’s comments project a negative image of leadership for BI, especially given Blodgett’s morally challenged career in the financial industry, so he had no choice but to fire Dickinson.

    He can now continue to make those kinds of jokes without worrying about making his employer look bad.

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    1. When I first came across PD’s twitter account, two things came to mind:

      (1) Is this guy for real or just a troll? He’s saying some pretty unpopular and offensive stuff.

      (2) CTO of Business Insider? That’s a company I’ve actually heard of. Wow. Do they know he’s posting this stuff.

      I think you hit the nail on the head in explaining that PD was a C-level executive at Business Insider. I don’t really think Blodgett’s past skeletons in the closet have much to do with the decision.

      It doesn’t matter if you’re posting about stuff completely unrelated to your job title. Even if you’re CFO posting about religion, or (in PD’s case) CTO posting about politics and social issues, if you use your company name in your twitter bio, you’re making the choice to representing your company. All the more so if you’re CxO.

      The fact is, if he posted exactly the same things under some alias “Paul Dickerson”, had no information about his company, and had a cat picture as his avatar, none of this would have happened. Offended people would unfollow or block him, a few people would agree with him, and he’d be just another twitter member with a thousand or so followers.

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