Tuesday, December 06, 2005

What have we learned from the Deignan affair?


Do you remember Paul Deignan? I know, I know, it's been ages since that affair blew up and ended and we have all moved on with our lives. I do not fault you for being sick and tired of it and not at all interested in revisiting these stale news. But I have to. Please bear with me. Let's see first if it is actually over yet, and second, what we can learn from it.

First, let me try to think through the various reasons why I was interested in the whole sordid affair in the first place. After all, flame wars have been going on online for many, many years. Remember the horrors of Usenet? What made this case different, and why was I personally fascinated by it?

Why did I follow the Deignan story?

A) I am human.

Fallible. This was watching a trainwreck happen. I could not help but gawk. Guilty as charged.

B) This is the era of Ivan Tribble editorials (and rebuttals).

I am myself hoping for a job in academia one day, so the whole issue of blogging affecting one's academic career and job prospects is very interesting to me. And it is far from being resolved. The fact that Dr.Hettle notified Deignan's advisor made this an interesting test case of the whole notion. Fortunately for Paul, his advisor is not Internet savvy and he ignored the whole issue. Future employees may or may not act the same - only time will tell. I certainly would not like someone to snitch to my advisor, although I am sure that my advisor would dismiss the whole thing, too. The Deignan affair certainly stirred the discussion anew and prompted a couple of interesting blog posts on the topic. How does one's online behavior translate into and result in real-life repercussions offline?

C) Memes.

As a blogger and someone who often thinks and writes about the blogosphere, it was fascinating to watch how the name Deignan, sometimes capitalized, sometimes not, quickly started being used as a shorthand for describing a whole, complex suit of behaviors that Paul exhibited during the affair. Watching a birth of a meme! Fascinating! I have seen it used (and used myself, too) as a noun, e.g., "don't be a deignan", or "to pull a deignan", and also as a verb: "to deignan". I doubt this will last very long as the number of people aware of the whole thing is relatively small, but still, what a way to get immortalized! Like Goodwin's Law! Who's Goodwin, btw? The meme leaves behind and transcends the person and takes a life of its own.

D) I am deeply interested in blogging as a social phenomenon.

Internet has grown organically, and blogosphere has grown, if possible, even more organically. There are no written rules of ethics and conduct. There are, however, unwritten rules - a Code of Honor of sorts. Whenever somebody breaks the code, the person gets ostracized by the rest of the blogosphere. By taking the offline squabble out into the real world, by threatening to out an anonymous blogger, and by seeking redress in court, Deignan has broken some of the most important elements of the Code of Honor and is, thus, rightfully ostracized. His later suggestion that people flag BitchPhD's blog is the most disgusting example of unethical behavior I have encountered. Spam blogs are a real problem. Trivializing the effort to fight splogs by flagging legitimate sites one disagrees with is the lowest of the lowest form of internet behavior.

It is extremely important for the rules of online conduct to be formulated by the online participants themselves. These rules have evolved over time to encompass rules of behavior that all the participants can abide by and gladly abide by. Imposing rules from the outside is doomed to fail. Thus, shouting matches, direct personal insults and use of profanity are not just tolerated, but are almost a norm of online discourse (differs in degree from site to site, of course). Newbies may find the experience jarring and may take some time to grow a thick skin, but we've all been there and we try to be understanding.

Taking this case to the courts is potentially very dangerous. Not just to any of the individuals involved, but to the future development of the blogosphere. A bad ruling by an ignorant judge can set the precedent with a chilling effect on the freedom of speech on the Internet. This is not a Left or Right issue, not even a political issue. This is the issue of NOT allowing the outside world to get a foot in and start regulating the blogs.

Blogosphere is supposed to be self-regulating. This also means that ALL spats are resolved online. Having a court decision written down somewhere out there can have seriosuly negative consequence on the future of blogging. If it happens in Deignan's case, it will not be liberals but ALL bloggers who will be extremely mad at Paul for what he has wrought to the whole world of blogging, for generations to come, decades after we are all dead.

E) Related to that last sentence just above, it was also fascinating to watch the responses from the Left and responses from the Right.

First, from the Left. Bitch PhD is one of my favourite bloggers. I check her blog relatively often - I'd say a couple of times a week. I admire her as a blogger and as a person. That said, her blog is not one of my first-thing-in-the-morning places to go and I am not a regular on her comment threads (check my blogroll). I have posted a comment there probably less than ten times over the past several months since I first discovered it. So, I missed the whole initial thread on which the fight happened.

Still, when she was threatened by Deignan it was just natural that we would all come to her help. We have all seen how nasty Right Wing folks can be and we had to protect one of our own. Our senses are highly tuned to detect their intentions as we are aware that some of them are quite deranged and dangerous people. Have you ever read comments on The Corner or Little Green Footballs? Blood-curdling!

So, is this groupthink? No. Just check the blog responses from the Left and you will see a whole range of opinions and personal takes on the story. No talking points repeated to death. Not everyone agreeing (on Hettle's behavior, for instance). Mostly, people were having fun for a day or two pointing their fingers at yet another example of a silly Wingnut who is all macho but cannot take it when a woman puts him down. Some went to his blog and blasted him in the comments. They all thought that this would blow over in a day or two. When it did not blow over and they realized that Paul is serious and persistent, many of them changed their tone. Instead of blasting him, they tried, in good faith, to advise him against this self-destructive behavior.

Response from the Right was also very interesting. Initially, they were supportive of Paul. However, as the time passed, more and more of them - his friends, blogrollers and commenters - started advising him to, for his own good, quit the charade as it can only damage him. They had no horse in this race, so they were realistic in their assessment of the situation, and tried to help one of their own by giving him sound advice (including sound legal advice from bloggers who are also lawyers). It was heartening and reassuring to see so many of them transcend politics and do the right thing.

What happened, in my opinion, is that the two groups - the Lefties and the Righties - realized, some consciously some subconsciously, that Paul's action is potentially damaging not just to Paul, and perhaps Bitch PhD and Dr.Hettle, but that it is also potentially damaging to the blogosphere as a whole. In a sense, people from all points of the political spectrum united in a common cause - self-preservation of the blogging medium and the free-wheeling, democratic, unregulated discourse on it.

Blogosphere, and Internet as a whole, has developed, over years, a pretty good "immune system" to deal with rogues in its midst. It tries to shame them, scare them, or appease them, and it usually works in the end. However, blogosphere is very vulnerable from the outside. Any rules and regulation imposed from the outside, either by courts or legislatures, even if written with good intentions, are likely to have a devastating effect on the freedom of discourse on the Web. Some of the people almost panicked, trying to get Paul to see how damaging it would be to everyone if he proceded with lawsuits. Some teased him to produce the name of the lawyer, hoping he would crack down and give up. Others appealed to his own self-preservation instincts. Some wrote blog posts explaining exactly what the real issue is, as I have just written in the last several paragraphs.

After a while, with Dr.Hettle sending Paul an apology and Bitch PhD retracting the accusation on her blog, everyone breathed a sigh of relief and moved on, hoping for the best. Unfortunately, this is not the end of the story. Keep reading.

F) A good chunk of my blog consists of analysis of the conservative ideology as motivated psychopathology.

You can go through 100+ posts on this topic if you dig through my "Understanding America" category, but what I have in mind is the application of psychological research to political ideology, ably summarized and reviewed here (pdf) and here (pdf), and perhaps to some extent here. Deignan's behavior throughout this affair was an interesting case study supporting some of the research published in the linked papers. I am not Bill Frist, so I don't do distance diagnostics, and I am not interested in Deignan as an individual, only as a representative of his ideological group and a data-point, but it was certainly interesting to see how his behavior fitted the patterns predicted by published research.

G) This was a very interesting case in which precise definitions of words mattered.

Most words have more than one definition. Often a common word gets adopted by a smaller community and used in a much narrower, more specific sense. Just think of the word "theory". In regular conversation, it means something like a hunch, a hypothesis at best. But in science, it has a very specific narrow meaning: an explanation for a broad range of phenomena, overwhelmingly supported by mountains of diverse empirical evidence. As close to "fact" as one is allowed in science. It also has predictive power. Here, again, the word "predictive" is not used in the sense "predicting the future", but in a sense of being able to "predict the results of observations or experiments before such observations or experiments are performed".

During this storm, two terms were defined and redefined endlessly by various participants and onlookers. One is "IP spoofing", the other is "libel".

Frankly, I have never heard of the term "IP spoofing" before. After all this, I am still not sure what it is. I am quite computer-illiterate. I doubt Bitch PhD is much better. At first sight, it sounds sorta like the practice of changing IP addresses in order to fool a server, thus bypass a block. Is it? How do you do it? Whatever it is, I have no idea if it is legal or not. Anyway, I understand that techno-geeks have a very precise definition of this term, but how many of them are out there? Dozens? Do we really need to know the exact definition of it? After all, the scientific meaning of "theory" is important for everyone to understand, but IP spoofing is just a very narrow technical term, so why bother.

Once she realized that she misused the term in the wrong (or is it right?) context, Bitch PhD retracted her use of that term, pleading ignorance. I am still waiting for a Creationist to retract the wrong use of "theory" pleading ignorance. Alas, misuse of that word is part of their strategy! Misusing of IP spoofing cannot possibly be thought of as "strategy" for anything. So few people have even heard of the term. It does not have a colloquial meaning. How and why would anyone use it maliciously I really cannot fathom. After all, I have yet to meet a scientist who objects to the colloquial use of "theory" when talking about something that is not related to science.

"Libel" is apparently a word with a very specific definition in the legal lingo. From what I could understand from all the blawgers who pitched in, Deignan has no case. In other words, he is using the word in its colloquial sense - he feels like he is libeled (sp?). Some lawyer is going to make a lot of money off of him on this losing case, no matter how much he insists on the contrary.

From what I understand, for something to be a libel, a statement has to: a) be untrutful, b) be said with malicious intent to harm, and c) actually cause measurable harm. Nothing anyone said or did to Paul satisfies either a, or b, or c. The only exception may be that Dr.Hettle's e-mail to Paul's advisor may count under b), but Hettle retracted and apologized since, so he is off the hook. So is Bitch PhD whose use of "IP spoofing" did not satisfy b) or c) (I am not sure about a, though). She also retracted, so she is also off the hook. Her calling him a sexist was a correct diagnosis, i.e, fails a). Finally, Paul has repeatedly made bravado claims that his career is in no jeopardy, thus undermining the case for c). So, is this thing over? Keep reading.

What did I write and why?

When the whole story broke I found it fascinating. What do bloggers do? They post about stuff they find fascinating. So, I wrote a post. While I did write a little bit of typically snarky editorializing, the primary reason for the post was to assemble, in one place, all the links to blog posts commenting on the event. I've done it before for other events (including Katrina) and I see it as a service to the blogging community to have a one-stop-shopping place where all the links are assembled. This post was appreciated by many, as I can see that they linked to it. It even appeared on Blogarithmicly, the Carnival of Link-Harvests. Heck, from what I could figure out on my Sitemeter, Paul Deignan himself used my post (and still does) as a starting point to everyone else's commentary. After a couple of days I realized that I have missed a couple of important posts, but by that time I was already bored with this story and have moved on, so I did not bother updating it any more.

I titled the post Moron. I should have listened to Berube's sound advice and titled it "A person exhibiting a moronical behavior". I have no idea if Paul is a moron or not, but his behavior in this whole affair was moronic - that's not an insult, that is a fact. Calling him a moron was an insult, as it sounded like a diagnosis (decades ago it was a technical term, now abandoned, for people with IQ of 50-70). I did it because we are always told by web gurus to make our titles snappy. It was fun, too.

If Paul found the title insulting, he did not say so in his comments on that post. I'll apologize for using the term anyway because I myself do not like the fact that I used it. BTW, in his comments on my blog, Paul was civil. I still think he is wrong, but I had no reason to be rude to him on my blog (in "my house"), or to delete his comments or ban him. He came to state his view politely. I appreciate that.

The rest of the editorializing is snarky and opinionated, designed to make fun and insult, but nothing there is exactly untrue. At the least, some of the stuff is open to interpretation. My blog, my opinion. My attitude was: the guy is digging himself deeper and deeper on his own - just let him! That was actually much milder than many posts on other blogs.

Am I proud of my post? No. Am I going to delete it? No - that would be unethical. It is OK to delete a post that is a one-liner (I have deleted at one point in the past about 20 old posts all of which stated "The new edition of such-and-such carnival is now up", an action which sped up loading times of my blog while I was temporarily using a very old computer). But it is very different to delete a post that has independent content, contains a lot of links, and is widely linked to.

Links are the currency of the blogosphere. Dead links are like fake money. Deleting posts that are linked to is a Big No-No. Code of Conduct. Unofficial. Time-tested and good. That post is part of history and a document for future historians, archivists, students and journalists. No way is it going down! This brilliant post can probably stand quite nicely on its own, but it is also important to place it in context. The context is provided by the link to my post. Breaking that link would be a really dishonorable thing to do.

But that is what Paul wants. I got an e-mail from him earlier today. He wants me to retract. He does not specify what to retract, or what his definition of retracting is. Is it deleting? Is it apologizing? Is it saying I was wrong? Does this post count as a retraction?

He did point out one sentence from that post that he though was "libel" (ah, that sorry misused word again). I deleted it. But that was not enough for Paul. You give him a finger,.... Another e-mail. Mention of $1000 in "damages" for...what? For not liking him? The guy certainly does not make himself easy to like. Does my feeling of being threatened and extorted have any legal standing? Just as much as his notion of "libel", I'd say.

His message was CC'd to a lawyer. This one. So, she is the one who is going to milk him out of all that money, I see. I say, let her!

Something about the wording of that e-mail suggests to me that I am not the only recipient. PZ apparently got some e-mails, too. The fact that he has practically stopped posting on his blog and is furiously cleaning up the old comment threads from anything substantive suggests that he may not be bluffing. But, I don't care if he does or not.

Anyway, I have no further interest in his sorry self. I have moved on from this story weeks ago and have no intention to ever revisit it again. I have a life. I have no time, money or interest to go to court - particularly in the light of what I said above, i.e., the danger that would pose to the whole blogosphere. I could have used the time it took to write this for something else - writing a more interesting post, playing with kids, going for a walk, taking a nap...

There is a saying in Serbian "The smarter one gives in" (Pametnji popusta). Sometimes it is just smarter to let a bully have his way. At least he will not have his day in court with me, which is most important for all of us. He has already been isolated by the rest of the blogosphere and is the only one still paying attention to this whole business. Although it makes me mad that someone else is dictating what I write on my blog, I think this post is small enough price to pay to never hear from him again. It will not make me look cowardly or unmanly (I am a liberal - I do not operate that way) to do what he asks. So, here Paul:

I retract and apologize for everything I wrote about you to date.
I retract and apologize for everything I am writing about you in this post right now.
I pro-actively retract (or is that pretract?) and apologize for everything I may still write about you in the future (not that I intend to), even if it is fawningly positive, even if I just use one of the memes, like "undeignanty", in an unrelated context.


OK, Paul? Happy? You like precise definition of words. Here they are. Retract. Apologize. Rinse and repeat.

It's your turn now, Paul. Now that BitchPhD has apologized, Dr. Hettle has apologized, and I have apologized, can you be a man and stop this nonsense, for everyone's sake, most importantly for the sake of your own life, family, career and nerves?

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