August 03, 2003

John Gilmore ("Suspected Terrorist") trashes me as a troll

My sins have come back to haunt me. John Gilmore has a front-page post on Lessig's blog, where he rebuts criticism of his actions in part by trashing me as a troll.

It's been interesting reading. I'd like to respond. I suppose the obvious place to start is with Seth Finkelstein's trolls. (Of course he is doing what he accuses me of - making outrageous statements and then chuckling when people take them seriously).

And later:

Some people here (including Mr. Troll) think that the minor risk that someone on the plane will have a panic attack after reading a tiny button, makes the button a "safety" issue, as if I had falsely cried "fire" and risked starting a stampede.

Well, yes, I do. The risk is foreseeable, and one can trivially take off the button, and the risk is eliminated. No-brainer. That's very much what I think.

But I have, for all intents and purposes, ZERO ability to shout this to a zillion people and defend myself against being called "Mr. Troll" (wasn't me who got an airplane turned around and started crying censorship over it!).

The way to success is saying simple, popular, demagoguery. The right thing for me to do was to join the chant-and-rant, to cheerlead along the lines of

"Another atrocity in post-Constitutional America! It's a terrible 9/11 loss of freedom, when a man can't even wear a "Suspected Terrorist" button on an airplane. A button's part of who you are, just like being Middle-Eastern or Muslim. How can an airline dare infringe on making political statements about being a suspected terrorist, in the name of "safety" and "security"? We must shout to the world about the grave Ashcroftian injustice here!"

Or at least keep my big mouth shut. Instead, I was dumb. I admit it. I said what I thought, which was that John Gilmore was being a troll. In my head, I know better than to do these things. But I just haven't taken the message to heart.

I have now got 1) John Gilmore 2) Brad Templeton 3) Larry Lessig, all somewhere between mad or unhappy at me. These situation are my undoing. I haven't learned that in politics, you line up or suffer the consequences.

Oh, I can attempt to defend myself by posting a comment somewhere, or my own blog, to the whole wide range of audience of dozens of readers. Whoop-de-doo.

It's not that, at some level, I didn't know I was playing with fire. Rather, in terms of heat and kitchens, I'm way too underpowered to survive. It's like a safety match versus a flamethrower.

By Seth Finkelstein | posted in activism , politics , security | on August 03, 2003 01:52 AM (Infothought permalink) | Followups
Seth Finkelstein's Infothought blog (Wikipedia, Google, censorware, and an inside view of net-politics) - Syndicate site (subscribe, RSS)

Subscribe with Bloglines      Subscribe in NewsGator Online  Google Reader or Homepage


Personally, I think you're being melodramatic and exaggerating about this all (and hopefully you don't think I'm a troll for saying my honest thoughts on this that happen to disagree with you). You called him a troll and he called you a troll back, the only difference being in location of the comments (you called him a troll on your blog and in the comments on Lessig's blog, and he did on Lessig's blog).

Regarding your original calling him of a troll I'd also have to disagree with. I claim that he was simply engaging in civil disobedience. Maybe you can't see that because you don't see the particular issue as important as he does, but if you genuinely believe that your rights are being violated, why not act in a certain way that makes a statement and helps expose them to the media?

Furthermore, why do you keep mentioning the millionaire point? Just because he made a lot of money at his old job he doesn't have the right to make political statements? One of the good things about having money is that you have more time to devote to things that you care about. He is simply doing that.

This whole little feud really seems silly to me, and distracts people from the causes you're both pursuing.

Posted by: Jonathan M. at August 4, 2003 02:13 AM

No, I don't think you're a troll, thank you. Not at all. I don't think you've gotten too many airplanes turned around :-)

The difference is far more people are going to see him trash me from "on high", than will ever see any rebuttal by me. Orders of magnitude! I know, the moral equivalence says that calling powerful people on trolling gives them the right to trash you in response. It was a very stupid thing for me to do, on a cost/benefit basis.

I understand he thinks he is right. My argument is that he is in fact wrong, and he's behaving in a classic troll-pattern. The difference between what he did and civil-disobedience, is that people who do civil-disobedience, at least best, acknowledge that they are violating the law, understand why they are violating it, but believe so strongly in their cause that they hope the sight of their willingness to suffer for it inspires their fellow-onlookers.

Gilmore is doing almost anti-civil-disobedience. He's not suffering, he's making others suffer for it. He shows no concept of WHY others might be concerned with what he's doing. Moreover, the tradition of people getting arrested or beaten to fight injustice is hardly served by a self-indulgent tantrum over what is arguably an extremely reasonable safety-related request.

Oh, the millionaire point is from the fact that I'm pretty grumpy at having spent much money out of my own pocket, and given up a HUGE amount at times, to do free-speech work. I deeply regret that now. I think to myself, I need to make my fortune first, then maybe I can be a millionaire troll too (money == being heard).

It's not a feud. Feud implies some rough equality of power.

Posted by: Seth Finkelstein at August 4, 2003 02:51 AM

Hi Seth,

I think you are overreacting. Sure Lessig has more readers than you, but you are a rational human, while Gilmore is passive-aggressive, and incapable of coherent argument. The more people who see the comparison, the better.

Posted by: Floyd McWilliams at August 4, 2003 04:12 PM

I agree completely with the arguments you made over in Lessig's comments -- but could you clarify why it terrifies you so much that the Gilmore Girl trashed you on the front page of Lawrence Lessig's blog? I don't understand your talk of not having "resources" to defend yourself. Are the words you've posted not enough? What are you afraid is going to happen to you?

Posted by: James at August 4, 2003 05:00 PM

James - It's a long and complex story, not just this incident. Let me try to compress it. I do activism work against censorware, said work which is legally-risky and might get me sued. For about the whole time, I've been deeply worried by the thought that if I DO get sued, I'll just be facing a prospect of overwhelming smears and attacks which I'll never, ever be able to counteract.

More generally, I've long had a feeling that I'm playing politics out of my league. That my "level" is too way low, and all that happens overall, as a process, is I'll accumulate negative-reputation points as a madman. That is, to respond to Floyd's point ("more people who see the comparison, the better"), the problem is people WON'T SEE a comparison. All they'll see, to a rounding error, is "John Gilmore calls Seth Finkelstein a troll", etc. and eventually, it'll be, gee so many people have said nasty things about Seth, it must be true. Well, no, that doesn't follow, what is true it's I've gotten into nasty arguments with many powerful people, where I couldn't get my side out.

But the people I'm arguing with, have enough ability to get out a positive reputation, so they don't lose, whereas I can't win. And while this may be abstractly tolerable when it's just name-calling, if it comes to a LAWSUIT for my work someday, I'm going to be destroyed from the result of this process of being portrayed so negatively.

That's a very short version. I really should try to explain it better in full entries.

Posted by: Seth Finkelstein at August 4, 2003 05:51 PM

A couple of my thoughts, please take them in the friendly spirit they are intended:

You could view it as a compliment. If you were as powerless as you believe yourself to be, john gilmore would not have bothered directing a response to you, nor would you have been mentioned in other web articles. Clearly you have some influence or your remarks would have gone unnoticed. Clearly your remarks hurt him enough that he felt compelled to respond.

I understand your feeling that you are not being heard and have less power than lessig and gilmore.
You do seem, though, to be purposefully setting up situations that heighten your sense that you're being treated unfairly. I don't think anyone is trying to silence you. There really is no reason to feel you can no longer be heard on the lessig blog site. You aren't paying a price for speaking your mind so much as for constructing a way of speaking your mind which would be most likely to anger the people you disagree with. Your remarks were pretty contemptuous of gilmore and you put him in a situation where he only had a few choices

1. He could ignore you and your opinions(which I don't believe you want and which would increase your sense of being powerless).
2. Being angered by your contempt he could respond in kind(which makes you feel that power is being used unfairly against you and increases your sense of being powerless)

Influence isn't a result of being intellectually brilliant.
A couple of old, trite but true sayings:
It isn't what you say, it's how you say it.
You can catch more flies with honey than vinegar.

It's all a question of approach. I have had vehement disagreements with many people, but I never give off the impression that I don't respect my opponents. People usually take disagreement and even criticism well if they feel that the person has a basic respect and empathy for them. Treating people decently and with civility shouldn't be seen as compromising yourself or your opinion.

Why don't you simply let things cool down a bit and change the way you approach presenting your opinion when you confront these people in future?

Posted by: steven at August 6, 2003 12:26 AM

Steven, thanks for the thoughts, but ...

I indeed have enough influence to be an irritant to powerful people so that they take enough notice of me to smash me. Sort of like a mosquito.

Along those lines, my censorware research perhaps can be significant enough to rate me a devastating lawsuit. This is not thrilling.

I will never be heard with anywhere near comparable numbers. That's the point. Sure, I can always shout to the wind. The problem is that it's not much use to do so.

Basically, you seem to have in fact agreed with me, that the outcome of this process is that I shouldn't do it - that's the implication of "you put him in a situation where he only had a few choices ...". The point is NOT that he attacked in reaction, so much as I CAN'T DEFEND MYSELF! (in a real sense, to a comparable audience).

No, regretfully, it's not much a question of approach, respect, civility, etc. Gilmore isn't using honey, he's using acid, and he's being heard very well.

And, I mean this very seriously, it's very hard to figure out how to nicely say that someone's being a troll or a demagogue.

Unfortunately, being perfect is not a viable solution, since I am not perfect, merely average. Some people say I'm particularly bad, and I dispute that, all things considered. But it would be madness for me to think I'm particularly good at diplomacy, conciliatory approaches, and similar. A viable solution must take into account if I'm as ill-tempered as the people I'm arguing with :-). Note that's semi-humorous, but in fact deep. It's again a question of being out of my league.

Moreover, remember, the problem is not this incident per se. A censorware company which sues me, is not going to be using honey! They will be using lawyers, which are much worse than vinegar.

Posted by: Seth Finkelstein at August 6, 2003 03:13 AM

It would be a shame to allow yourself to become demoralized after the effort you have put in. I think you are not seeing the ways in which you are sabotaging yourself with your debating style. You can change the style and still remain true to the cause and beliefs underneath.

"Basically, you seem to have in fact agreed with me, that the outcome of this process is that I shouldn't do it"
If, by do it, you mean call gilmore a troll, yes I don't see why you feel that was so central to the argument.
If, by do it, you mean question the validity of approaching the problem as gilmore did, I believe you should do it, but in a different way than you did. You're giving yourself a false choice(this isn't an ultimatum being forced on you from outside yourself) by concluding that either you had to use the language you used or you had to shut up and say nothing.

" that's the implication of "you put him in a situation where he only had a few choices ...". "
What I was trying to say was that when you chose the tack you did, calling him a troll and arguing, not with the case, but calling into question his personality and psychological makeup, you put his back against the wall. People lash out when they are put in this position. You always give people a way to save face and you don't put them in a position where you threaten their basic sense of dignity and respect.
Why can't you question his behavior, in this instance, without implying that his behavior is a result of personality and character flaws?

"And, I mean this very seriously, it's very hard to figure out how to nicely say that someone's being a troll or a demagogue."

I'm not clear on why you feel this is a place that requires a pitched battle. Why is it so important to point out that he is a troll? `One has to pick and choose one's battles carefully. I'm not sure why you need to try to analyze gilmore's personality at all, even if you are right. Why couldn't you simply argue the case, as you did at the top of the lessig blog comments?

An important start would be not using the word troll:) The word seethes with contempt and its only effect has ever been to piss people off. I don't believe that anyone's opinion of anything is ever changed by calling someone a troll.
Intellectual integrity doesn't require you to put things in an inflammatory way which, I feel, is your downfall here.

To give a different example, if I write to my congressman, I don't brutally confront him by beginning "Dear bought and paid for whore". Even if it is TRUE, this isn't the way I'm going to approach him.
If I feel this is the heart of the problem, I'm going to work to elect his opponent, support campaign finance reform etc. I'm still going to begin my letter "Dear Sir" . This doesn't mean I am selling out. It simply means that this isn't the place to make my assault.

Posted by: steven at August 6, 2003 01:13 PM

Steven, I understand your general point. Believe me, I've been given enough advice in my time so that many common things have been said repeatedly.

Part of the out-of-my-league problem, is if I offend powerful people, I'll be smashed.

This leads to a reply of, in effect, if at all times I'll be very, very, careful never, ever, to offend them, I won't be smashed. So all I have to do is take great pains to participate in debates about highly contentious issues in a mild and inoffensive way.

Regrettably, this idea is not a functional solution. For general debates, who wants to walk on eggshells for fear of severe consequences of making a mistake? For legally-risky activism, the censorware companies will be offended by definition.

Again, consider, if I'm not out of my league, I have to be able to have the ability to be as ill-tempered at times as other participants. If I can't, if the results thereof are ruinous for me, the problem remains unsolved.

Gilmore's actions are the rebuttal to your idea of "You always give people a way to save face and you don't put them in a position where you threaten their basic sense of dignity and respect."

Gilmore doesn't do this. He's powerful enough so that he doesn't have to do this.

When Michael Sims was domain-hijacking Censorware Project, he didn't worry about any consequences of lashing out. With Slashdot de facto supporting him, he knew he could do anything he damn well pleased, because every single day 250,000 people would hear him in a positive context, while only a few hundred people would know what he had done in spitefully attempting to destroy Censorware Project. He doesn't have to deal with anyone telling him how he could be nicer - in fact, he makes it a practice to ignore or personally attack all the people who have pleaded with him not to be so destructive.

That's POWER. It's not personality or ego. It's simply power.

As the joke runs "We don't care. We don't have to".

The logical - not moral - implications for me seem to be: Don't get into these debates. Keep my mouth shut. Don't argue with people at the level of Gilmore, AND don't do censorware research. For the same reasons - the opposition is simply far more powerful than I am.

Remember, it's not about being flamed by Gilmore per se. It's about what follows from participating in controversies where I'm decidedly underpowered/overmatched.

Posted by: Seth Finkelstein at August 6, 2003 03:02 PM