Category: Ethics

The trope that changed my mind

Major spoilers for Get Out and lesser spoilers for Six Wakes follow below. This got long and warnings around topics that touch on (but don’t discuss in detail) body image.

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That John Ringo Thing

I don’t have much to say about writer John Ringo withdrawing from the ConCarolinas con. It isn’t just that most things have been better said elsewhere, it is also that most of the relevant issues have been discussed here in depth already but with different examples. You could probably do one of those fake bingo cards with the talking points that came up.

But while we are here:

  • People on the left or perceived as being left SAYING things? That is treated by the right as an attack.
  • People on the right saying things? That is a valuable expression of free speech.
  • The right are champions of liberty…but not the liberty of people to choose not to go to a con because they are concerned about the harassment.
  • The left objecting to somebody’s poor behaviour is bullying and harassment according to the right but bullying and harassment is simply being “not PC” if you are on the right.

It’s not consistent, its not sincere (no matter how passionately it is expressed) and it certainly isn’t anything to do with liberty.

Is he being punished for his “politics”? Yes but only in the sense that the right have made being obnoxious and unpleasant to other people a political issue and have re-badged people objecting to rude behaviour as an attack on liberty. Nobody was objecting to Ringo because of party allegiance, who he voted for, his views on taxation, his economic theories, his attitude to labour law or trade unions, his view on trade, capitalism, the merits of public healthcare, deficit reduction or electoral reform. As far as I can see nobody was objecting to him on the grounds of more contentious issues such as abortion or gun control.

As for his “safety” that is a very odd explanation for why the con asked him to withdraw. The con was facing other guests not attending and potentially other fans not attending. Are we to believe John Ringo’s safety was imperilled by people NOT turning up?

Reviews, aggregation and consent to be talked about

The fandom theme of the week for me seems to be on the topic of consent to be talked about. I’ll start with the absurd and work my way to the more subtle.

The absurd first of all.

Science fiction writer Richard Paolinelli kicked off my week with this tweet:

“Can @AusFedPolice tell me if @CamestrosF , a citizen of Australia, is violating Australian law, i.e. Chapter 33A-Unlawful Stalking, 359B(c)(ii) with his online attacks on myself, @jondelarroz and many other writers? He is attempting to ruin our ability to earn a living.”

This was so absurd and so counter to actual facts as to be laughable. However, the intent was clearly serious and I imagine Richard’s feelings are sincere, even if they are wholly at odds with his own behaviour.

Essentially Richard is not happy with me discussing him. Actually, I rarely do so and the most substantial discussion I’ve had about him was when he had attempted to engage me in a discussion (in the mistaken belief that I was either an agent of Mike Glyer or actually Mike Glyer).

It would be easy to dismiss Richard Paolinelli’s concerns because of his wider online behaviour but it is part of a spectrum of concerns around online discussion of others.

Mike Glyer has received more than his fair share of related complaints about him posting SFF news stories about people who don’t want to be covered by his site File770. Most notably many on the Sad Puppies side of the Puppy-Kerfuffle became increasingly hostile to Mike’s coverage. Again – easy to see their objections as absurd given their own behaviour, yet it isn’t only Sad Puppies. Reviewer and Shadow Clarke Jury member Jonathon McCalmont also had strong objections (again not well expressed) to being covered by File770.

In all of these examples, we have public comments being discussed publicly but the originators of the comments feeling as if there is either an intrusion into their life or a misuse of their comments.

Wayyyyyy over onto another side of this spectrum we have sealioning and harassment by trolls i.e. repeated, unwelcome and clearly intrusive attempts to engage a person in a discussion of what they said — typically done in bad faith or worse for the express purpose of trying to make somebody avoid saying anything for fear of being hassled.

I think there is a clear gulf between Mike’s news coverage and actual harassment. That doesn’t mean bloggers shouldn’t be mindful of when what they believe to be legitimate coverage of a person’s public comments have become distressing to that person but public discourse is an intrinsic good thing. It is simply not a viable ethical principle to only talk about the people who have given express consent to be talked about.

Skipping forward to the end of the week and there is a more interesting case that falls closer to being an ethical dilemma around related issues.

Rocket Stack Rank’s Eric Wong released a new feature at the review & review aggregation site entitled “Best SF/F by People of Color 2015-2016” which you can read about here and here.

Now personally I don’t like claims of “Best X…” whether it is in lists like this or in anthology titles. My dislike is moderated somewhat by the fact they can’t possibly be an objective assessment of what is best and hence readers know to take “best” with a hefty pinch of salt. Even so, I wish people wouldn’t do it and use a title that better reflect what the collection is (e.g. ‘our most liked…’, ‘our favourite…’). Having said that RSR did explain the actual process they had done to aggregate the list.

One reviewer, Charles Payseur (of Quick Sip Reviews) was unhappy about RSR list. His objections were manifold – a general objection to RSR’s approach, the nature of such a list being built mainly from reviews by white authors and finally, the use of his reviews to help compile the list.

Which is interesting on multiple levels. I think it is obvious that Payseur has:

  • Every right to be unhappy with his work being used to create the list.
  • Every right to ask not be used in this way.
  • Every right to ask not to be used at all by RSR.

However, that is not saying a lot. The question is what ethical obligation would RSR have to comply?

I think the answer is none but it is close.

Payseur has gone onto expound what he sees as the ethics of consent in these circumstances but reading through what he has written, I find it hard to find a coherent principle at work. That’s OK – I do a lot of thinking out loud directly to the world also. However, I don’t feel I understand Payseur’s objections well enough to paraphrase them correctly.

However, I can see two related ideas that could be in play (but I’m neither saying these are Payseur’s or not Payseur’s)

  • Exploitation of Payseur’s name and/or reputation to give credence legitimacy to RSR’s list.
  • Exploitation of Payseur’s work (as in what he has created and also his labour) to create the list.

These are both stronger points than simply not wanting to be talked about.

Of the two, I think the first is the stronger objection but looking at how RSR present things, I think they stayed on the right side of an imaginary ethical line – I don’t see anything that looks like they are implying the reviewers they aggregated endorsed the list or that they are using the reputation of reviewers like Payseur to promote the list. Having said that, it is safer to err on the side of caution and I think it is here that RSR is most right in conceding to Payseur’s request.

This first point also relates to some of the ethical issues around the Sad Puppy 4 recommendation lists (e.g. Alistair Reynolds asking not to be included) and the 2017 Dragon Awards (e.g. various authors asking for their finalist status to be withdrawn). The line here is around consent to be associated with a thing or being ‘forced’ to participate in a thing.

The second point really comes down to fair use. Reviews, criticism, critiques even public attacks necessarily derive from the work of others. I literally exploit stupid things Vox Day says to generate column inches – heck, I’m exploiting the work of both Payseur, Hullender and Wong in this very column! That is the nature of public discourse – there isn’t a way of having a discourse that isn’t built upon what others have said.

In RSR’s case, we have a somewhat different form of discourse: aggregation of data. Now it should hardly be a surprise given many of my posts that I’m very much in favour of seeing aggregating derived data as a legitimate fair use of other’s work for the purpose of public discourse. I’ll concede that is different in style from a review or a critique but it is also important because it provides insights into a field. It is by its nature transformative and is by no means ‘free’ and requires its own labour.

I don’t think it requires the consent of those who create public information if the aggregation is genuinely transformative (and respectful of privacy and other ethical considerations). Not only that requiring or expecting consent for such activity would be detrimental to public discourse. It’s not just RSR, its a wide range of other activities such as the Fireside Report, that looks at what is produced by wider fandom and identify trends or other underlying values.

Have a fully thought through all of that? Nope – happy to revise my opinion accordingly but it is a discussion worth having. There clearly is a spectrum of behaviour here and consent does play a role but so does the more general good of public discourse.

Your Blood Group is Determined by Biology and is a Social Construct

I doubt this is original but it is worth going through because strange right-leaning people keep shouting about biology at me. Oddly though, I was prompted to write not by an argument about nature v nurture but a different argument about invention v discovery in mathematics. I’m not an expert on blood groups (which is sort of the point) so apologies for any biological errors.  Note also this is a description of one specific relationship between a social construct and biology. Others may have things in common but that doesn’t mean they are the same or have the same relationship between a biological aspect and the associated things that a society may construct around it [i.e. neither the social constructs of gender nor ‘race’ is directly analogous to blood group]. Anyway, here we go.

You probably know your blood group. Once upon a time I regularly gave blood and felt a moral obligation to do so. I’m O negative, which is a handy default blood type for donation as it contains neither A, B or Rh factors and hence shouldn’t trigger an immune reaction in most people of other blood types.

But ABO and Rh are just two blood typing systems and even with those two systems, there are variations. Group A can be further subdivided into approx 20 subgroups of which A1 and A2 account for most type-A people. In terms of inheritance, there are also exceptions to the commonly understood rules – CisAB (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cis_AB ). More generally there are tens of other blood typing systems that categorise other factors that can exist in human blood and which can potentially complicate blood transfusion.

The ABO/Rh system is a very effective simplification of a set of much messier, more organic categories. Yes, it is determined by your biology (you don’t get to pick) but the significance of whether you are “A” or “AB negative” etc depends very much on the existence and practicalities of a blood donation system. That system also has practical constraints but it is effectively something societies choose to do and requires political and social support as well as the existence of hospitals and an infrastructure to support them.

I also said that I used to give blood. I’m not allowed to currently because I lived in the UK during the height of the BSE/Mad cow disease outbreak. Concerns about the transmission of a prion disease via blood transfusion have meant that many countries place restrictions on blood donations. That rationale makes some sense given the extent to which prions are not well understood. What makes less sense is the restrictions imposed on men who have sex with other men (phrased that way to match the eligibility questions). Rules on blood donation to prevent the spread of HIV prevent people who have engaged in ‘at risk’ sexual behaviours (e.g. http://www.donateblood.com.au/faq/sexual-activity ). Such rules prevent many gay men in long-term monogamous relationships donating blood. The rules arise out of medical and practical considerations but such rules also have a social impact and arise because of social aspects (from international travel to personal and sexual relationships).

You should note another trick I employed above: I said ‘type-A people’. Once we have categories that can be applied to aspects of ourselves it is easy to see them as categories of people. I’m O negative, well no, no *I* am not, not really – my blood is O negative for the purpose of blood donation, it really isn’t much of a thing about who I am beyond that. The notion of me being O negative only really makes sense in the context of donating blood or receiving a blood transfusion (or a few other related circumstance). Prior to the development of safe blood transfusion and large scale blood donation, your blood group is not something people would know or care about. Even that history is entwined with complex social factors including the development of modern healthcare infrastructure but also the development of modern warfare.

Blood groups have also generated their own pseudosciences and racist theories – a kind of inevitable consequence of any system that allows a categorisation of people entails a dark desire to identify that categorization with other aspects including personality or as a means of identifying some inherent purity. Suffice to say there is little evidence of blood group actually determining anything other than the most likely blood needed in a blood transfusion (and as we’ve seen even that is a simplification – although a very effective one).

In most developed countries blood donation is voluntary but even such a primarily altruistic system has social implications. It isn’t had to imagine a situation in which blood donation was more heavily required or in which there were more significant socio-economic implications to donating blood. In such a situation the layers of social significance to blood type would be greater both in a direct sense and in the sense in which any social division generates its own myths and stereotypes. A world in which blood transfusions had to be more common and was connected to economic status, would with a capitalist-style economy lead to more weird (and unpredictable without knowing more details) stratifications by blood group.

So what’s my point if it isn’t a point about gender or race? The point is very much NOT that other social construct work the same way as blood group might in a fictional society. However, a broader point remains true. Critics of the term ‘social construct’ treat it as if a person is saying ‘wholly arbitrary’ or ‘completely made up’ or ‘fictional’. Treating the term like that makes it an easy strawman to knock down. No society exists in a vacuum*, so the things that our societies construct** are things that have practical limits and which are influenced by the environment that is constructed in INCLUDING the existence of other constructs. But the physical, ‘real’ influences on how a social construct has evolved over time do not mean that the categories, stereotypes or social expectations that arise apply in a deterministic way to individuals – some elements might (e.g. O- blood is safe for me to receive), others less so (e.g. whether there is a greater moral imperative for ‘O- people’ to donate blood) and others not at all (e.g. pseudoscience blood-group personality types).

tl;dr Societies and social attitudes are shaped by ‘real’ things including biology, but that does not imply that biology (or physics or chemistry) somehow validates them, makes them somehow extra true, or makes departure from them (either as an individual or as a direction for society) some kind of revolt against reality or science.

*[OK maybe there is a society of space squid, plying the void between the stars but that is a separate issue.]

**[You’d think that was obvious from the term ‘constructs’. Anything we physically construct has physical limits and depends on physical rules but can still be a work of creativity in which arbitrary, non-determined choices are made.]

Weird Internet ideas: Are modern nazis imaginary? (spoiler: no, they’re real)

We’ve been busy watching Rabid shenanigans with books covers, but meanwhile over in Sad Puppy domains, Chris Chupik has decided that modern Nazis are largely imaginary. Chupik, for those who don’t know, is notable mainly as a regular commenter on Puppy blogs but sometimes he guest-posts at According to Hoyt. https://accordingtohoyt.com/2017/03/25/coyote-gravity-by-christopher-m-chupik/

[This get’s long so more below the fold…also ‘Spencer‘ is usually an external link but each time to a different article rather than peppering this piece with quotes]

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Is It OK to Thump People?

 

thump

I’ve watched several times a video of a guy thumping another guy recently. There is, naturally several sides to consider here:

  • Whether the violent act undermines free speech.
  • Whether, even if provoked by the objectionable views of the person punched, the act lowers discourse in general.
  • Whether violence is ever a justified reaction to a dialogue even with somebody obnoxious.

Having said that I think most people agree that the person doing the thumping was justified. Here is the video again (you’ve probably seen it already).

Yes, naturally I am talking about that time Buzz Aldrin hit lunar-landing denier Bart Sibrel in the face after Sibrel harassed and insulted Buzz and called him a coward and a liar. After multiple provocations, Buzz then, wack, thumps Sibrel in the face. What can one say? It is OK to both deplore violence AND accept that people have actual emotions and that when repeatedly provoked will react accordingly. Buzz doesn’t beat the guy up, he thumps him once.

The LA County District Attorney did not lay any charges on Buzz Aldrin and, according to Wikipedia, Sibrel (the man punched) later apologised to Aldrin.

So there you go. Yeah, maybe sometimes it is OK to thump people – you know if you are provoked enough it would be weird if people DIDN’T react that way. You know, like in the example above in which Buzz Aldrin is repeatedly harassed and called a liar by a guy whose ideas are based on stupidly elaborate conspiracy theories. Just don’t make a habit of it.

 

 

Oh, and apparently alt-right pro-genocide shit Richard Spencer was thumped the other day also. Whereas Sibrel was just a rude guy with an omnifallacious theory that in itself harms nobody, Spencer is a guy who promotes race hate and genocide. As far as I can tell the major ethical issue people have with this is that it wasn’t Buzz Aldrin who hit him.

Leak Ethics and Hack Ethics

Many, many reasons to put some thought into the ethics of email hacks and leaks currently.

Firstly, is the current political trajectory of Wikileaks – in the past seen as somewhat anarchic and/or libertarian and now being cast as a tool of authoritarian strongman Vladimir Putin. In either case, it is worth asking is there a way of looking at the ethics of what Wikileaks has done beyond comparing the rightness/wrongness of the people who have either benefit or suffered as a consequence?

Secondly, Chelsea Manning remains imprisoned where she has been treated in a way that has been described as “cruel, inhuman and degrading“. Aside from the specific cruelties she has been subject too, should she anyway be pardoned by Obama before he leaves office?

Thirdly is the issue of the ethical culpability of the press or others (such as a rival political campaign) in exploiting revelations from an illegal leak or hack. Currently, the question of press coverage of the leaked DNC emails in the recent election and what electoral benefits the Trump campaign may have gained from those leaks.

There are some easy answers of course:

  • The Russian government shouldn’t be trying to manipulate US elections.
  • Whatever the rights or wrongs of Chelsea Manning’s acts, she should not be subject to cruel punishments.
  • Trump is deeply unethical on multiple levels regardless of whether he benefited from the DNC hacks.

But can we do better than these clearer issues?

Firstly there is an ethical distinction between leaks and hacks. Practically there are blurred lines between the two (e.g. an insider leaking a password to a third party who gains illegal access to a server) but we can still make a distinction between:

  • Somebody inside an organisation revealing confidential information to somebody outside an organisation.
  • Somebody outside an organisation breaking in (either physically or electronically) and stealing information.

The distinction is related to (but not identical to) the degree of discrimination in the information sought and released.

  • Somebody obtaining and disseminating specific information about an organisation, with some awareness of the information they are revealing.
  • Somebody obtaining and disseminating bulk information about an organisation, with little knowledge of what that information contains.

There is a sliding scale between the two.

Yet another pair of factors, and again on a scale, there is a question of personal risk.

  • The actor responsible for the leak or hack is acting at significant personal risk, either to their career or facing legal sanction or violence.
  • The actor responsible for the leak or hack is facing very limited risk and/or may gain financially or professionally from their actions.

Lastly, I’d make one more paired distinction.

  • The leak or hack is of a government body or agency.
  • The leak or hack is of a non-government body or agency, or of an individual.

In all cases, I’d contend that the default is an assumption of privacy. That is either a leak or a hack of data is, by default, morally wrong without some sort of mitigating factor. Put another way, non-consensual transparency purely for the sake of transparency is not sufficient justification for dissemination either leaked or hacked information BUT there may be times and occasions when other factors can justify both leaks and hacks (and indeed we know that such times and occasions do exist).

Roughly speaking, this is how I am seeing things:

  • Leaks are easier to justify ethically than hacks.
  • Targetted release of ‘stolen’ data is easier to justify ethically than dumps of data.
  • Acts done in the face of personal risk are easier to justify ethically than acts done with low risk or for personal gain.
  • The release of government data is easier to justify than the release of non-government data, which is easier to justify than the release of an individual’s data.

Beyond that questions of legitimate public interest and consequence matter.

Scenario 1: Donald Trump is President and a member of Whitehouse staff leaks a very specific email regarding the purchase of ‘adult diapers’. The leaked email is widely disseminated and there is much speculation that the President has some degree of incontinence.

I’d see Scenario 1 as unethical. Although it essentially government data (and hence publically owned data) and although it is targetted and a leak (forgive the pun) and the staff member runs the risk of being sacked (and maybe prosecuted) – it fails ethically because the public interest test is weak (yeah, there is an argument that the state of the President’s health is public business but this is a stretch) and the consequence is the bowel/bladder movements become fair game for judging the worthiness of politicians. Odds are that many effective US presidents have had less than functional bodies with regarded to toilet functions.

Scenario 2: An activist believes (because of persistent but inconclusive evidence) that a private company is knowingly involved in testing pharmaceuticals in third-world countries to avoid protocols on human experimentation. The activist manages to download encrypted backups of emails. Believing that there might be ‘smoking gun’ evidence in the emails that executives knew about the testing, but lacking the resources to decrypt and then examine all the emails, the activist releases all the data in an attempt to ‘crowd source’ an examination of the data.

I’d still lean to this being somewhat unethical action by the activist, but it would really rest on how reasonable their belief was that the company was knowingly engaged in unethical human experimentation.

Scenario 3: A lower level manager believes that the private company they work for is knowingly involved in testing pharmaceuticals in third-world countries to avoid protocols on human experimentation. The manager knows that there are emails that can prove this but doubts that people will believe a single email that anybody could have faked. Instead, they pass on to an activist group a download of encrypted backups of emails. The surrounding emails and the encryption scheme help verify that the emails are really from the company concerned.

I think this is more clearly ethical. The person is acting in the face of clear wrongdoing.