Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed

Subterranean fact check blues

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In Jon Ronson’s uneven but worthwhile book So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed, there’s a fascinating interview with Jonah Lehrer, the superstar science writer who was famously hung out to dry for a variety of scholarly misdeeds. His troubles began when a journalist named Michael C. Moynihan noticed that six quotes attributed to Bob Dylan in Lehrer’s Imagine appeared to have been fabricated. Looking back on this unhappy period, Lehrer blames “a toxic mixture of insecurity and ambition” that led him to take shortcuts—a possibility that occurred to many of us at the time—and concludes:

And then one day you get an email saying that there’s these…Dylan quotes, and they can’t be explained, and they can’t be found anywhere else, and you were too lazy, too stupid, to ever check. I can only wish, and I wish this profoundly, I’d had the temerity, the courage, to do a fact check on my last book. But as anyone who does a fact check knows, they’re not particularly fun things to go through. Your story gets a little flatter. You’re forced to grapple with all your mistakes, conscious and unconscious.

There are at least two striking points about this moment of introspection. One is that the decision whether or not to fact-check a book was left to the author himself, which feels like it’s the wrong way around, although it’s distressingly common. (“Temerity” also seems like exactly the wrong word here, but that’s another story.) The other is that Lehrer avoided asking someone to check his facts because he saw it as a painful, protracted process that obliged him to confront all the places where he had gone wrong.

He’s probably right. A fact check is useful in direct proportion to how much it hurts, and having just endured one recently for my article on L. Ron Hubbard—a subject on whom no amount of factual caution is excessive—I can testify that, as Lehrer says, it isn’t “particularly fun.” You’re asked to provide sources for countless tiny statements, and if you can’t find it in your notes, you just have to let it go, even if it kills you. (As far as I can recall, I had to omit exactly one sentence from the Hubbard piece, on a very minor point, and it still rankles me.) But there’s no doubt in my mind that it made the article better. Not only did it catch small errors that otherwise might have slipped into print, but it forced me to go back over every sentence from another angle, critically evaluating my argument and asking whether I was ready to stand by it. It wasn’t fun, but neither are most stages of writing, if you’re doing it right. In a couple of months, I’ll undergo much the same process with my book, as I prepare the endnotes and a bibliography, which is the equivalent of my present self performing a fact check on my past. This sort of scholarly apparatus might seem like a courtesy to the reader, and it is, but it’s also good for the book itself. Even Lehrer seems to recognize this, stating in his attempt at an apology in a keynote speech for the Knight Foundation:

If I’m lucky enough to write again, I won’t write a thing that isn’t fact-checked and fully footnoted. Because here is what I’ve learned: unless I’m willing to continually grapple with my failings—until I’m forced to fix my first draft, and deal with criticism of the second, and submit the final for a good, independent scrubbing—I won’t create anything worth keeping around.

For a writer whose entire brand is built around counterintuitive, surprising insights, this realization might seem bluntly obvious, but it only speaks to how resistant most writers, including me, are to any kind of criticism. We might take it better if we approached it with the notion that it isn’t simply for the sake of our readers, or our hypothetical critics, or even the integrity of the subject matter, but for ourselves. A footnote lurking in the back of the book makes for a better sentence on the page, if only because of the additional pass that it requires. It would help if we saw such standards—the avoidance of plagiarism, the proper citation of sources—not as guidelines imposed by authority from above, but as a set of best practices that well up from inside the work itself. A few days ago, there yet was another plagiarism controversy, which, in what Darin Morgan once called “one of those coincidences found only in real life and great fiction,” also involved Bob Dylan. As Andrea Pitzer of Slate recounts it:

During his official [Nobel] lecture recorded on June 4, laureate Bob Dylan described the influence on him of three literary works from his childhood: The Odyssey, All Quiet on the Western Front, and Moby-Dick. Soon after, writer Ben Greenman noted that in his lecture Dylan seemed to have invented a quote from Moby-Dick…I soon discovered that the Moby-Dick line Dylan dreamed up last week seems to be cobbled together out of phrases on the website SparkNotes, the online equivalent of CliffsNotes…Across the seventy-eight sentences in the lecture that Dylan spends describing Moby-Dick, even a cursory inspection reveals that more than a dozen of them appear to closely resemble lines from the SparkNotes site.

Without drilling into it too deeply, I’ll venture to say that if this all seems weird, it’s because Bob Dylan, of all people, after receiving the Nobel Prize for Literature, might have cribbed statements from an online study guide written by and for college students. But isn’t that how it always goes? Anecdotally speaking, plagiarists seem to draw from secondary or even tertiary sources, like encyclopedias, since the sort of careless or hurried writer vulnerable to indulging in it in the first place isn’t likely to grapple with the originals. The result is an inevitable degradation of information, like a copy of a copy. As Edward Tufte memorably observes in Visual Explanations: “Incomplete plagiarism leads to dequantification.” In context, he’s talking about the way in which illustrations and statistical graphics tend to lose data the more often they get copied. (In The Visual Display of Quantitative Information, he cites a particularly egregious example, in which a reproduction of a scatterplot “forgot to plot the points and simply retraced the grid lines from the original…The resulting figure achieves a graphical absolute zero, a null data-ink ratio.”) But it applies to all kinds of plagiarism, and it makes for a more compelling argument, I think, than the equally valid point that the author is cheating the source and the reader. In art or literature, it’s better to argue from aesthetics than ethics. If fact-checking strengthens a piece of writing, then plagiarism, with its effacing of sources and obfuscation of detail, can only weaken it. One is the opposite of the other, and it’s no surprise that the sins of plagiarism and fabrication tend to go together. They’re symptoms of the same underlying sloppiness, and this is why writers owe it to themselves—not to hypothetical readers or critics—to weed them out. A writer who is sloppy on small matters of fact can hardly avoid doing the same on the higher levels of an argument, and policing the one is a way of keeping an eye on the other. It isn’t always fun. But if you’re going to be a writer, as Dylan himself once said: “Now you’re gonna have to get used to it.”

Jokes against inanity

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Yesterday, Harvard University made headlines by withdrawing acceptances for ten high school students who had posted “sexually explicit memes and messages” on a private Facebook group. Here’s how The Crimson describes the situation:

A handful of admitted students formed the messaging group—titled, at one point, “Harvard memes for horny bourgeois teens”—on Facebook in late December…In the group, students sent each other memes and other images mocking sexual assault, the Holocaust, and the deaths of children, according to screenshots of the chat obtained by The Crimson. Some of the messages joked that abusing children was sexually arousing, while others had punchlines directed at specific ethnic or racial groups. One called the hypothetical hanging of a Mexican child “piñata time.”

Not surprisingly, the decision has been a divisive one, with critics of the college making the argument—which can’t be dismissed out of hand—that Harvard overreached in policing statements that were made essentially in private. But there’s another line of reasoning that I find increasingly hard to take seriously. The Washington Post quotes Erica Goldberg, an assistant professor at Ohio Northern Law School, who compares the humor in question to the party game Cards Against Humanity:

It’s an unabashedly irreverent game whose purpose is to be as cleverly offensive as possible. The game uses cards to create inappropriate associations, on topics we are generally not socially permitted to mock—such as AIDS, the Holocaust, and dead babies. Even many good liberals love the game, precisely because the humor is so wrong, so contrary to our values. There is something appealing about the freedom to be irreverent and dark.

I might have agreed with this once, but I don’t think I do anymore. The catalyst, oddly, was a passage in Jon Ronson’s otherwise very good book So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed, which was evidently intended to make the opposite point. Ronson discusses the notorious case of Justine Sacco, the public relations executive who inspired a torrent of online outrage after tweeting before a flight to Cape Town: “Going to Africa. Hope I don’t get AIDS. Just kidding. I’m white!” Sacco then switched off her phone, which meant that she spent the next eleven hours oblivious to the fact that her life had effectively been ruined. Ronson writes of the firestorm:

I could understand why some people found it offensive. Read literally, she said that white people don’t get AIDS, but it seems doubtful many interpreted it that way. More likely it was her apparently gleeful flaunting of her privilege that angered people. But after thinking about her tweet for a few seconds more, I began to suspect that it wasn’t racist but a reflexive critique of white privilege—on our tendency to naïvely imagine ourselves immune from life’s horrors.

He concludes: “Justine’s crime had been a badly worded joke mocking privilege. To see the catastrophe as her fault felt, to me, a little like ‘Don’t wear short skirts.’ It felt like victim-blaming.” And there’s no question that Sacco, who was fired from her job, paid a disproportionately harsh price for her actions. But it also feels like an overstatement to repeatedly insist, as Ronson does, that Sacco “didn’t do anything wrong.” To say that her tweet was “a badly worded joke” implies that there was an alternative wording that would have made it funny and acceptable. I have trouble imagining one. And the implicit assumption that this was a problem of phrasing or context strikes me as the slipperiest slope of all.

This brings us to Cards Against Humanity, a kind of analog computer for generating offensive jokes, which, revealingly, often evokes the specter of “white privilege” to justify itself. When asked to explain its expansion pack “Ten Days or Whatever of Kwanzaa,” one of the game’s designers told the Daily Dot: “It’s a joke that we meant to poke fun at white privilege, ignorance, and laziness.” This amounts to a defense of the entire game, in which players theoretically interrogate their privilege by forcing one another to make what Goldberg calls “irreverent and dark jokes.” In the same article, Jaya Saxena neatly sums up the company’s position:

The Cards Against Humanity team is stalled in the middle of that narrative: understanding that there is a cultural hierarchy that disenfranchises people, making it clear they’re aware of the privilege they hold, attempting to use their humor to separate themselves from those who don’t get it, and apologizing for their mistakes when they’re called out.

This raises two related issues. One is whether this kind of scrutiny is, in fact, what most players of the game think they’re doing. The other is whether this activity is worthwhile. I would argue that the answer to both questions is “probably not.” This isn’t a matter of political correctness, but of a logical and comedic inconsistency—and, frankly, of “privilege, ignorance, and laziness”—in the sort of humor involved. Let’s say that you’ve made a “transgressive” joke of the type that got these prospective Harvard freshmen in trouble. Now imagine how you’d react if it had been said by Milo Yiannopoulos or posted as a meme on the alt-right. If it bothers you, then the only conclusion is that your identity as a progressive somehow justifies statements that would be horrifyingly racist in the mouth of someone of whom you disapprove. You can make the joke because you, as a “horny bourgeois teen,” know better.

This sounds a lot like privilege to me. I won’t say that it’s worse or more insidious than other forms of racism, but that doesn’t mean that it isn’t problematic, especially if you believe that transgressive humor is something to be celebrated. As Dan Brooks writes in an excellent essay in the New York Times Magazine: “The whole architecture of the game is designed to provide the thrill of transgression with none of the responsibility—to let players feel horrible, if you will, without feeling bad.” It’s a mechanical simulation of transgression, and, like bad art that allows for an emotional release that absolves the viewer from other kinds of empathy, it can numb us to the real thing, leaving us unable to make the distinction. Just because you were smart enough to get into Harvard—and believe me, I know—doesn’t make you Michael O’Donoghue. On that level, the college made the right call. It has the right to withdraw admission if “an admitted student engages in behavior that brings into question his or her honesty, maturity, or moral character,” and even if these teenagers share their assumptions with millions of other “good liberals,” that doesn’t make them any less wrong. Max Temkin, the primary creative force behind Cards Against Humanity, has impeccably progressive credentials and has done a lot of admirable things, but he has also said “We removed all of the ‘rape’ jokes from Cards Against Humanity years ago,” as if this were commendable in itself. They cull the cards that they’ve personally outgrown, as if objective standards of acceptability have changed simply because they’re no longer in their early twenties, and I’m not even sure if this strikes them as problematic. As a profile of the company in Fusion notes:

As part of their job, [the creators] periodically pull cards that seemed funny to college seniors in their parents’ basement, but are a little less funny now…Meanwhile some [cards], like “passable transvestites” and “date rape,” were pulled when the guys realized that kind of “humor” wasn’t actually very humorous.

The reference to “the guys” speaks volumes. But this kind of culling is something that we all do, as we leave behind our adolescent selves, and it has one inevitable conclusion. Speaking of the “passable transvestites” card, Temkin said: “It’s embarrassing to me that there was a time in my life that that was funny.” And for a lot of us, that includes the game as a whole.

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