What Happens After You’re Cancelled
This is a highly personal account of what happens after a social media crowd destroys a life. It includes talk of mental illness, severe pain, trauma, and suicide. Stop now if that’s not for you. Also, it’s long.
I was folding laundry with my partner one day when I looked up at him and said, “Do you think they’d be happy if I did kill myself?”
He looked at me, and took a long breath, and said, “No.”
“You’re right,” I said, “I know it. Nothing makes them happy.”
Taylor Lorenz, a staff writer at the New York Times told The Stranger: “In internet culture, being canceled is only good for your career. It usually results in going viral, which is default good in today’s broken world.”
I suppose it seems this way because you only see the people who survived it, who stayed in the public mind or their jobs. The rest of us, we cease, unpersoned and exiled. We are not in the observational data set, we are never spoken of when people talk about this mode of human life. To this day, as many articles as the New York Times has published about the phenomenon, never once has anyone mentioned my name.
The second time it happened, the bad time everyone remembers, I got a call in a movie theater. That was where I was when the internet wrecked my career, watching Black Panther, and my body still goes cold when I remember it. Katie Kingsbury called me, just before Killmonger died, just before he said “Bury me in the ocean with my ancestors who jumped from the ships, because they knew death was better than bondage” – I missed that part. As I was walking out, she asked me if I’d tweeted something, and I was confused by it. I said, “That doesn’t sound like me.” It turned out it wasn’t my tweet, it was a nine-year-old retweet of John Perry Barlow, an angry clap back at racists shortly after the first Obama election, and it contained the N word.
In the next hours, people would dig up tweets and display them out of context to paint me as an unrepentant racist and homophobe. I never had a chance, before I got home from the theater I was fired from my new job. The Times never asked me to explain the tweets. By the time the King of Wakanda was landing in Oakland, my life as I had know it was gone.
The only tweet anyone at the Times asked me about (after that initial call) was one where I was angry tweeting criticism of the Times’ coverage of the Michael Brown shooting. It was a tweet saying that I’d make a lot more money as a racist at the New York Time than I was making then, right after they’d published their “Michael Brown was no angel” article. I didn’t stop with the tweet. I wrote a satirical piece making fun of how the Times and other outlets covered Brown’s death and other police shootings, about how no one could be good enough to make the conventional media question the police, called Man Killed by Local Police in the Province of Judea.
I’ve spent a lot of my career weaving in elements of satirical bait-and-switch into my commentary and articles, and plenty of the bait without the switch was on display that day. I realized I couldn’t counter it, not all of it, and really not even a bit of it. No one was listening.
Online crowd stomping someone is like a sealioning of mythic proportions, where the crowd tempts you to think if you could just explain it would be OK, but it’s not true, it’s a lie that fucks with your head, a crowd screaming why are you hitting yourself while also telling you to kill yourself.
It’s not that the crowd used my weaknesses against me, it’s that they used my strengths. My pacifism, my work with weird and marginalized communities, my love of flawed people, my humor, my long thoughts and hopes about complicated moral topics, these were all used to reduce me to nazi sympathizer, a homophobe, a white supremacist.
So many of the things people brought up and threw at me weren’t my mistakes at all, but things I’m proud of, like trying to argue an anon out of making rape jokes at a feminist on Twitter.
And then my colleagues in American journalism did me dirty. They ran with the crowd, releasing fast articles without any more context than Twitter and Facebook, without talking to me or trying to understand what was happening. Not all, but most. Enough that I knew I wouldn’t get work again, that anyone who googled me would not speak to me again. And yes, they’ll complain I didn’t get back to them. But I was nine hours ahead of the west coast and overwhelmed. I had just been fired, I was preparing for spinal surgery, and I needed to sleep.Or at least, I needed to try to sleep.
The New York Times apologized for hiring me, but it would be years before anyone would apologize to me. It would be even more time before I found my anger. But it helped when I did.
You don’t know me, you assholes. You don’t even think that matters. All that matters is the last thing you saw, and feeling like you’re better than other people. You’re like the amnesiac goldfish of self-righteous hatred.
But then, I also know why they did it, I spent years studying and trying to understand exactly the forces that wrecked me that day. I had written about them, had spoken to the situations in which they arise, had suggested ways of making the internet better. Education, mostly, and creating the cultures you want to see on the net through active moderation, among other things. Maybe someday I’ll be able to write about it again.
That February 2018, I was in a level of pain hard to fit into words. I was struggling to type, I’d all but lost the use of my left hand and my right was starting to fail too. I had written about the pain the five months before, but it hadn’t improved since then. That’s what the spinal surgery I was preparing for was supposed to fix. This was the final cut on top many years of agony, physical and emotional. I explained everything as best I could in those days following my firing. I wrote about my philosophy, I wrote about what the Times and the crowd had done to me, the how and the why. Often I wrote by dictating notes into my phone, because typing was so painful and difficult. I hoped someone in journalism would retract their claims about me, but no one did. Regular people did, they still do. Sometimes out of nowhere someone on Twitter will say, I was in the mob, and I’m sorry. Not every article was a hit piece, but mostly they were, and none, not a single one that I could find, ever criticized my writing as racist or homophobic. Just me, on social media, in snippets no one wanted to understand.
Publications I was talking to replied that obviously they couldn’t work with me now. People who knew me apologized quietly, but with a few exceptions, they just felt like if they stood up for me they’d be destroyed by the mob too.
Friends, horrified by what happened to me, retreated from the internet. I found myself comforting them. I’d say the internet was not all bad, it was mostly wonderful, and that I would be OK. The first was true, the second, I still don’t know.
When the chips were down I found out I was mostly alone. It wasn’t the first time I felt that. It wasn’t the first time a crowd came for me, nearly drove me to the point of self-harm.
I’d felt it five years earlier, when the media and public went looking for a bad guy to blame for Aaron’s suicide. There were bad guys, MIT and the prosecution, US Attorneys Stephen Heymann and Carmin Ortiz, but they were safe behind the walls of institutional power. The crowd came for me for the same reason Heymann did: because I was powerless and easy to exploit and they wanted blood.
I was at my girlfriend’s flat in London the morning Aaron died. I woke up and opened my laptop to see mails and messages from everyone saying to call them, and that it was about Aaron. I said something like “No, no, what did you do, you didn’t do it no no no” and, of all things, pulled up Wikipedia. There, on the page, was Aaron’s end date. As I recall it, I just rocked and cried and said “no no no you didn’t do it” until I had to explain it to my girlfriend. She fed me and looked after me while I booked my way back to New York and then Chicago for the funeral. I went to a conference and did a presentation on Anonymous. Everyone told me I didn’t have to, including the organizers, but I wanted the distraction. I wanted to go through the motions of a normal life I already knew was never going to be normal again.
I met a filmmaker friend of mine at the conference. He hadn’t known Aaron, but now he was surrounded by people who had, and he wanted to understand more. He did a few interviews with me and other people, and said he thought this might be a short film. I looked him in the eye and said, “this is a feature length film.” He was thoughtful and silent. Later, with the camera rolling, he asked me why so many people cared so much about Aaron, and I said, “He was the internet’s own boy, and the old world killed him.”
That film, Internet’s Own Boy, would be shortlisted for the Oscars.
What I didn’t tell Brian that day was the complicated role I played in Aaron’s prosecution, or the complicated roles we played in each other’s lives. That would come out later, in the movie, and in articles, including my own. I would bring most of it out, but already under attacks from people who wanted someone to suffer for what had happened to Aaron. I’d been on and off in a romantic relationship with Aaron for years, and we had both struggled with depression in that time, even before he was arrested while riding my bike in Cambridge.
We’d gone through his arrest and investigation together. I was so angry at him, though you must understand, not for downloading journal articles. I was angry he hadn’t told me what he was doing. When I was being questioned by the Secret Service they couldn’t believe that I didn’t know, because we were so close. I wanted to pound on the table and explain that if I’d known they would never have. There wouldn’t be a laptop in Evidence, purchased with my credit card, there’d be a smoking crater where the JSTOR server used to be and not a shred of evidence that lead anywhere. Aaron wasn’t that kind of hacker. I, on the other hand, had done plenty of things no one ever caught me for.
My lawyers, who were terrible and sold me down the river, had advised me not to say that to the prosecution. They were probably right about that at least.
Aaron was so angry at me for meeting with them on my lawyers’ advice. He was right, but I didn’t know that. He was angry at me for betraying him, but not the way everyone thinks. I was the only one he told when he was suicidal, which was often during the investigation. One day I blurted it out to his lawyer on a speakerphone call. “Aaron is suicidal,” I told him, but he didn’t respond and Aaron hung up and yelled me that his lawyer wouldn’t care and it didn’t matter. I wouldn’t know that his lawyer had tried to act on that information until after Aaron died.
My life with Aaron started at the same time that my spinal problems started, and started with the loss of control of my hands and daily migraines. Just as my marriage collapsed, my body also started to collpase. In 2008 when the first MRI came back, the specialists explained that I could maybe control symptoms with physical therapy, Botox injections, and cortisone injected into my spinal neck, but that very little could be done for me, and when I had surgery, I’d lose mobility. That I would suffer a decline and my body would fail and that it would be terribly painful. “Maybe,” I was told. “Someone will invent a prosthetic.”
Ten years later, thousands of miles away in a country with more mercy for the ill, I was fired from my job, and waiting for that prosthetic to be inserted into three sections of my cervical spine, all while the crowd was trying to move into my mind.
Recovery was not easy. I had to cross Paris on the metro and take a train home, and it was a shockingly painful experience, even for someone as familiar with pain as I was. For the next weeks, I would patiently get up and reach up on the walls to feel them and push myself along. I’d shuffle my way along the edges of my room, trying to balance, trying to move. I didn’t have adequate pain medication, complained, and then I had too much. I became physically dependent on Fentanyl, and then wrote about the withdrawal.
I handed my Twitter account over to a group of friends for my recovery period, and they tweeted the details of my post-operative condition. “Every time I lose a follower, an angel gets its wings,” I joked with them. I was already retreating from the world, as I had when strangers had spent their time telling me I’d killed my beloved.
The weeks passed. I talked to a few publications, but no one wanted to be seen with me. I felt like an unperson. My throat would tighten until it felt like I would choke, just sitting there. I was fighting to get my body back, and fighting the memories of being a pariah for all of my childhood. It had all welled up and poured over my psyche after the Times, along with the inadequacy I felt at not being able to save Aaron. I was barely keeping my grip on reality. I still had support on Patreon, which was both shocking and intimidating. I felt like I couldn’t produce, I felt broken down completely, and unsure how to rebuild myself, physically, mentally, or emotionally.
And then, a ray of hope. Out of the blue, a publication I dearly love offered me a column. It sounded like it would be coming home, and I said yes. They told me whom I would talk to next in the process to brought on board, and then there were no more mails. They ghosted me. I wrote and wrote asking for the next steps, and they simply never wrote back. I never learned why.
Some little thing in me snapped after that. It was too much. I fought back thoughts of suicide on a daily basis. I talked them through with friends and my partner, and defanged them, but always temporarily.
I was fighting my worst depression in years, and I was using everything I knew to fight it. I was exercising and doing mental work and trying to manage my sleep, but my PTSD was also out of control. I was dreaming every night of fights with Aaron, Occupy camp evictions, seeing my dead father’s body, being visited by all the people who had died, and sometimes just straight up monsters chasing and killing my people, both alive and dead. It had progressed to hallucinations that lasted up to a few minutes after I’d wake up. I’d bat at the air, fighting demons my mind dreamt of, until I realized what was happening, and stopped. I apologized when I woke up my partner.
When I’d dealt with every self-harming thought as well as I could cognitively, they retreated into urges, a feeling like my body would just act on its own, however I might fight it. I became scared to walk across bridges. I tried to not be alone too much. I hated feeling like a burden, I hated feeling like I couldn’t do or be anything helpful or productive for the world, but I had hung on, until the day came when I couldn’t.
I didn’t trust myself anymore. I walked over to the bus stop, and caught the last bus of the night that would take me to the Emergency Room. When they asked me why I had come, I said I was afraid I was going to hurt myself.
They asked me to sit down and before long had a staff psychiatrist talk to me. He spoke some English, but not well. He asked what had happened, and why I was feeling so bad, and I started to tell him about Twitter and the New York Times. I stopped, realizing that he didn’t understand much about this crazy story and I was going to get the wrong diagnosis if I wasn’t careful. I called my partner, and put him on the phone to explain in French.
I watched the psychiatrist. He was an older man with a trace of corrected cleft palate. This comforted me in ways hard to explain. He’d known pain, and flaws, and problems with society. He couldn’t really understand me or my world, but I knew he could understand the pain of being different, of people being thoughtless. He nodded with the phone to his ear and ask questions, and eventually handed my phone back to me. He suggested I take a bed in the hospital for the night.
My trust was not misplaced. Over the next few days we never had much of a real conversation, but he listened and tried to help.
I was admitted to the psych ward that night. It was not a great experience for me, but it was safe. And more than anything I felt like I’d pulled the emergency cord on my life. I’d stopped the whole train, just to say, I need help, I need something to change. I’m not going to survive this without help. I spent two days there, stabilizing and trying to figure out a long terms plan for care. It didn’t work out. Luxembourg, which had so wonderfully cared for me when it came to my spine, has next to nothing in terms of mental health care options. The only care they would pay for outside of the country was inpatient. A former NHS psychologist who had recently moved to Luxembourg was found to talked to me a few hours while I was in the ward, but there was no option to see her later.
Still, the few hours did help.
I went home two days later, in the strange and liminal mood that comes after you’ve done something that changes everything. Everything was a different color. I wasn’t better, but I had nothing on my to do list but survive.
I went back to America, where I knew I could see providers, but for a lot of money. I passed the hat — and old school gofundme — to pay for a couple months of therapy and a visit with a creative, young, and damn expensive psychiatrist. I walked into his office with a twenty-year history of drugs which either had unlivable side effects or hadn’t worked on my depression and PTSD. He took it, read through it, and said “You’ve taken all the drugs.”
I talked about the night terrors, which I never had before. He prescribed me a hypertension drug, which somehow someone realized controls PTSD related night terrors in overly high doses. I had to ramp up over six weeks, but I did. The night terrors aren’t completely gone, but they’re much reduced, and the hallucinations have almost disappeared. It was the second time a drug had actually helped me mentally, the first being taking Trazodone to help me with lifelong insomnia.
But controlling the wider PTSD and depression symptoms wasn’t working. I sought out more group therapy as well as one-on-one, and started a short term treatment with ketamine in hopes that it would control my depression. I tried everything I could at the beginning of 2019.
It didn’t work. It wasn’t a total failure, my sleeping was better, but I was still struggling to live. I felt like I gave it all I could.
When I came back home everything was quiet, around me, and in my head. I felt allowed to do anything I wanted to get better, what was left? Who could say anything to me? I figured if I wanted to run off to a forest and drop acid to get better, so be it, I was going to do whatever I wanted. I had tried everything. I read the studies, saw so many clinicians, read books, tried apps, even taught myself a fair bit of neurology. I was allowed whatever I wanted at this point. I was allowed to call myself treatment resistant.
I didn’t run off to the forest and drop acid, that was mostly theoretical, I don’t even know how to buy acid. But I felt better thinking I could if I wanted to.
I started a new drug prescribed to me by a pschiatrist, new enough that it had to be brought in from France and wasn’t cover by my national insurance. Maybe it helped, I don’t know. It gave me migraines again, which we tried to control through more Botox and other drugs including heavy duty NSAIDs and triptans.
I let the days go by, mostly. I cooked and helped people where I could, I wrote when I was able. I felt time slipping away with panic again, just as I had when my hands stopped worked and every day was full of physical pain. There were ups and downs, but for a while, it seemed to be getting better. My doctor thought it was the new drug, I was not so sure. Trying to understand this stuff makes the three body problem look like child’s play. Controlling one variable is a fun game researchers play, while clinicians laugh at their theories. In the real world, you still have to throw things at the wall, and hope.
I started declining again. I stopped writing, and hated myself for it. I began reaching for anything — exercising, meditation, but everything just got worse. I went back on sleep medication, and upped my antidepressant, figuring I’ll just live with the migraines. I went looking for more ideas, more research, more anecdotes. The familiar gift of desperation was back, accompanied by the fireworks that heralded 2020.
I am out here on the peculiar edge of human experience: the hate of the crowd, in a peculiar era where the crowd can kill you and you still find yourself untouched, alive, and ill-equipped for this life.
Looking for ideas in one thing after another, I found research about holocaust survivors who, having told their story, started doing better. Their physical and mental health improved after they stopped holding in the stories of what happened and how awful it was. I looked at my blown deadlines, and my loving partner, my hesitant career, and all these secrets I was keeping about how much it hurt to get hated and driven out of my career, and I thought, well, what the hell do I have to lose? So here I am, saying what it’s like to try to rebuild a life after a cancelling, and so far, largely failing.
I’ve been harassed on the internet most of my life, but it has tried to kill me twice, a kind of civic death absent stockades or end dates. It nearly succeeded both times. Some days I’m still shocked by the absurdity of still being alive.
The first piece I was going to write for the Times was about how human proclivities and network math work together to sort us into strange crowds, and how hard they can be to escape from. It’s still here, on this hard drive, almost finished for years. I look at it occasionally, but I can’t find the strength in my fingers and mind to tie up its loose ends. I am one of those loose ends now. Every day is hard.
Thanks to my Patrons on Patreon, who amazingly keep trying with me,
even though I struggle and complain so much.
Thank you for sharing this. I hope you recover and thrive.
This is a powerful story and I appreciate being able to read it. There is a lot I’ll need to process, but everything fits what I see about the NY Times.
You are definitely succeeding in saying what it’s like trying to rebuild a life, and in that respect, I think you are taking a good step in the direction of not failing. Keeping secrets and holding in stories is exhausting work, whether it is the 12 year old who thinks the kid in the desk next to them is really cute but is afraid to tell them that, or the LGBTQ person who sits in the closet rather than say it out loud to someone, or the person who hides grief or an illness behind a brave face to the world.
Thanks for sharing this, and may telling your stories bring you one step closer to peace.
This is my sixth or seventh attempt to enumerate how important Norton’s enduring existence is to me – and to you, dear reader, whether or not you know it. She’s emblematic of humanity beyond the comment box, organic being askew the thread, that feels actual joy and pain. Paradoxically, I find it both necessary and impossible to address her directly (hence earlier failed attempts at a comment). In a node/edge world built from Friend(TM)ships and interactions with all the warmth of ATM transactions, she has the temerity to demand we run our fingers over humanity’s crooked timber. Each other’s.
A knotted cord clenched tight against the fist, to remember: I exist. I exist. I exist. I exist.
Thanks. Please keep writing.
Thank you for your post. I hope the rebuild goes well and you feel the love that is out there.
Thank you for writing this. I hope it gets better.
That was one of the more painful things I’ve read lately, and I’m sure that writing it, and living with it, has been even more painful. I hope that life, and the people around you, give you fewer and lesser challenges and become more supporting so that you can recover from these awful past events.
Really excellent post. Hits me close. You are smart to reveal yourself. THAT is good therapy. It took me way to long to realize this; that’s what I tell my kids et al now to do with their 50% of me.
I can relate to you in many ways although I am an old man now and I carried for way too long my mother’s suicide from the age of 7..a really bad time to jump out a 5th floor window for a little boy who needed a female figure to rely on..get this: while on leave from the nut house on her wedding anniversary. That’s a hoot, right? The poor girl; my father was no angel but she was just nuts. An uncle set me straight on this. Could not admit or say that for so long. My brother still cannot (guess who the asshole voted for, the asshole). I started asking my dad about her in my late 40s and he said: the psychiatrists said to be open about this when I asked but that was 30 years ago he said!; and he was clearly upset so I just dropped that unpleasantness for him. OK. but I was lucky: married a nice girl, had a family and worked a lot; made money but I had a Trumpian advantage I am loath to admit it (money does insulate you from a lot). Your story is much stronger and more powerful and terrible. I hope you can reconcile it.
I also had cancer and all the shit chemicals which cure it and destroy so much other parts (teeth, soft tissue) that to me hardly make it worth while. Then to top that off got conned into having Spinal Stenosis surgery by the neurologist and surgeon and he dug around the back of my neck and front for 11 hours on the slab. He insisted he had cured me falsely going on about nano-surgery. My fault for not getting a second opinion; however, it would probably be the same result. Retested with a neurologist 3 years later: “No better; no worse”. It is slowly going worse. So I understand the weird sensory nerve sensation, the lack of balance and fine motor control; the pain; although yours sounds worse by a factor or two or much more. Walking with a walker now to avoid falls.. No one else can understand how upsetting and difficult and painful this can be; the focking doctors just bounce you around and want you to take weird drugs with side effects advertised which are truly unbelievable (just look at the small print on TV and print: guinea pigs anyone? YES. Freud admitted doctors love to be around people in pain and I agree and the control thing they have.
Not sure if this helps you in any way but I wish it to and I send love and will send money and consolation.
Taking me a long time to send this..Fock it….everyone needs to talk about mental health issues more. For Christ sake look at all the sociopaths running the USA.. I would move to Finnland were I capable.
You are younger which is better or worse; now I wish I had just let the cancer take me. If you get to 60 and get cancer I advise the treatment is just about as bad. Not worth it? I had done almost everything by then; the following decade hasn’t been fun. However another day to get stoned at the end of the day and watch mostly stupid stuff on the internet still works for me and then get up at 6am and go to the office again.
Drugs: yes, but only the old ones: really strong weed and alcohol (got to watch that but WTF it is the ONLY time I get some respite). Low dose LSD maybe; psylocibin (mushrooms) I would suggest but I have no access.
I hope this helps a little but I suspect the money I send will help more. Like I said: it does help insulating one. I never would have made it this long otherwise.
Hang in there. Keep on trucking…or not. Love to you.
Hope I haven’t exceeded the moderation rules here.
This is a great site with some very smart people: I really like you all notwithstanding some of the things I have said. Shout out to Ms. Emptywheel…how you do it girl I am amazed and for all of you.
Your story is amazing, and I deeply appreciate you sharing it, and I appreciate you. I’m so sorry you’ve had to endure all of that, but so thankful and honored that you’re willing to share it. I understand how you feel about the treatments and the pain, but I am still glad you are here, and still glad you’re willing to share your experience and strength. I’ll write you a more private message over on Patreon, I want to ask you for your advice on something.
Wow! Thanks for sharing this. I have had so many conversations with folks who live and work in the “back allies” and on the fringes, folks who wonder whether their choices to do so are worth all of the headaches and heartaches that accrue. Whether they really had a choice at all. Good luck to you and take care.
This piece is a strange gift made through unthinkable pain and difficulty. Even so, your words will offer solstice to those whose struggle connect with your own in various ways. There are a lot of people who are fighting for their lives in the way you describe. Hang in there.
Oh, dammit! Solace … that’s the word.
Solstice for solace, best typo ever.
Thank you for writing with such searing honesty. Thank you for sharing openly. I don’t have any antidote, but I think you touch many hearts with what you shared.
For those who have lost or nearly lost a friend or loved one and who helped that person, as best they could, in their struggle with a life-long battle against depression this brings tears and is totally recognizable. The battle with drug cocktails, trying to understand what might be “working”, trying to know what might be symptoms of mental illness, what might be symptoms of drug reactions, and what “depression” might be a perfectly appropriate response to life situations… all these are complicated, confusing, and as a person not so afflicted trying to help one who is, very difficult to really understand. I think in that regard its important to realize that full understanding is not needed (and the attempt to always try may be counterproductive unless you are a professional) ..that one must simply accept and listen and try to be available.
This is true, but also, you have to take care of yourself first, in order to be available to someone else. Good luck, and take care. and <3 to you and yours.
In sharing your story you have succeeded in reaching into many hearts and explaining the need to remember our humanity and empathy for each other in order for us all to survive. Your strength and commitment is astonishing.
My! That is quite a read. Courageous writing. Here’s hoping that writing & publishing your story does calm (some of?) the demons. I found Internet’s Own Boy still online here, https://archive.org/details/TheInternetsOwnBoyTheStoryOfAaronSwartz – I have to watch it. If you are up to it, any additional commentary on the film would be appreciated. All the best, look forward to reading more of your work.
Thanks – I’ve been looking for it. And “hear, hear!” to additional commentary by QN on the film, possibly as audio annotation. IMO it’s a crucial bit of future history.
Quinn, thank you for being, and please know that for many out there you matter.
Rooting for you.
Um-hmm. Really hear you and feel terrible for your pain. Some of us would so much like to read your explanation of “how human proclivities and network math work together to sort us into strange crowds, and how hard they can be to escape from.” If you can stand to revisit that part of your story, it could make a good deal of difference for women who find the darker web a sinister neighborhood.
Seconded. As a scientist for whom writing is essential to survival, may I suggest finding a collaborator? I constantly find myself blocked and it’s co-authors who end up pulling me out of lots of ditches (and I try to return the favor!). Overall it sounds like a great project with ideas that should see broader discussion.
In rough times it’s too easy to see the best ideas you’re working on as a kind of armor, making the stakes of putting it out there artificially high. Try to get past that – and if you do, please tell me how you did it.
You are so inspiring and thank you !
Three things come to mind:
(1) are you saying that on the Internet, a platform where you make/made your livelihood exercising your right to free speech, that others must not exercise their right to free speech, in criticizing your prior speech?
(2) taking as given that you made some statements that were wildly misconstrued, and your actual intent was not offensive in any way, it seems like others have done the same, e.g. Joy Reid. And I wonder what it was, that allowed her to survive the ensuing storm?
(3) Perhaps it was, that she didn’t defend her right to befriend out-and-out Nazis, and her more-recent work made it clear that she no longer held those opinions.
A little analogy: I worked for a very large tech company. In this large company, a -very- senior technologist once told the story of how he stood up at a major semiconductor conference during a forum about Itanium (remember that?) and expressed the opinion that everybody there was either fooling themselves, or lying, to pretend that Itanium was anything other than dead in the water. As he described it, a “literal army of flacks descended upon him [from his employer] to shut him up but good.” During two decades at that company, I never blogged, never commented, and only -read- the Internet. Because to blog/comment, would have been to police my expression, and I just didn’t have the time to do that and my job too. What I’m trying to explain, is that maybe, just maybe, you ought to have concluded that you should have more-carefully policed your words — many, many others have had to do that, but then, you don’t know about them, because they don’t become the target of shitstorms on Twitter.
After all that: I keep coming back to the fact that you defended your right to have Nazi friends. I once had a friend who wrote (at Forbes, IIRC) (long before Don Bedsore’s Usurpation) that the Civil War had been about tariffs. I asked him to retract this, and when (after multiple round-trips involving me sending him reading-material contradicting that idiocy) he persisted, I unfriended him. After the 2016 election I ditched literally every (now-former) friend who voted for Don Bedsore, and at this point will countenance no social relations with Republicans whatsoever.
I’m not saying you must do these things. But I -am- saying, that if you do not, I am perfectly within my rights (as are many other people) to think less of you for it. And also within my rights, to remind you that it is your actions that normalize those unacceptably racist/misogynist/homophobic people and their beliefs.
As you wrote: “Some of my friend (sic) are terrible people, and also my friends.” It is unrealistic for you to expect everyone to not think less of you for this.
You expressed my thoughts on this better than I could have.
That being said, I don’t think the punishment in this case fit “the crime” and I still don’t understand how QN ended up where QN did. Bret Stephens gets paid to invite people to his house to tell his wife he’s a bedbug & measure people’s skulls. QN has more insight and writing talent in a fingernail than all of the NYT editorial board combined, and most of them are unapologetically terrible people without any redeeming features.
I wholeheartedly agree that having anything to do with Nazis helps normalize them. I think there was room to straddle the fence before 2008 but I no longer can visit 4ch or old irc hangouts having seen their toxicity elevate white supremacy to an acceptable political platform.
QN I am sorry for your pain and loss and hope you keep writing. Goddamn NYT.
Someday the mental stages humans go through when they encounter an argument on the internet that’s deeply, blisteringly wrong will be the subject of a paradigmatic treatise – sort of a Kubler-Ross stages thing. The shock at wrongness, the desire to call the (usually) pseudonymous and faceless opinion-holder a troll or jackal, the understanding that this accomplishes nothing, the logical deconstruction, the formulation of rapid and then nuanced counter-arguments, the worry that calling it out will lead to flaming or worse, resignation that minds are made up and doesn’t matter, the decision that it’s a waste of time and to just leave it.
Honestly, I should probably just leave it. But I won’t. Unlike PinkEye, I see no redeeming quality in Murthy’s argument.
Taking it in order: Murthy’s “1, 2, 3” is utterly bogus. 1, “Free speech” never entered into discussion, for crying out loud. S/he misses a core point, which is that quickly-forming scrums of glibly self-anointed Righteous People can and do deeply hurt real thinking, feeling humans whose lives are more complex than a gaggle of sophomoric denouncers can possibly imagine. 2, Joy Reid – who I’m fine with BTW – is a shockingly inapt comparison whose sole purpose for Murthy is to 3. frame QN’s arguably compassionate desire to understand her friend Weev’s descent to bitter fascism as somehow deeply and unpardonably sinful. Basically, Murthy wants QN to cry “Uncle” or something, as if it were about that. Well, here’s an ungenerous view of Reid for y’all: she was unremittingly mendacious about straight-up homophobic posting (“I was hacked!!1!”) until it was clear to everyone she was lying about that and dead to rights (and in danger of job loss), at which point she shifted to contrition and everything went into the memory hole. Here’s the thing – I actually DO think Reid evolved, and am delighted she hasn’t been canceled. It was the right outcome; I’m glad she survived. However, comparing QN’s situation is fish and bicycles. Please. QN has been consistently honest and isn’t about erasing her transgressions, actual and purported. And QN hasn’t been given the shot at public discourse that Reid has.
Murthy then extols his/her “unfriending” of Republicans and right-wing Nazi types, essentially proclaiming that QN should be shunned for not doing this. BUT let’s be clear: QN’s sin IS NOT that she holds Evola-thumping Nazi views, but that she isn’t doing as Murthy does! Repent, recant QN, you showed compassion to a Nazi! Ugh. Myself? I’ve abandoned close childhood friends who got into that crap, and if I were QN I’d have kicked Weev to the curb when the swastikas showed up, without hesitation. Hell, I too am modifying my social orbit to avoid Republicans.
Deep down, though, I want to understand why they went off that deep end. Is there a path back? If not, how can other humans be taught to avoid those dark places? QN memorably asks “Would you shoot a Nazi in the face? Down to what age?” She chose the path of engagement. What was it MLK said about light and darkness? Somehow I’ve lost that in the noise, gotta look it up……Maybe you don’t admire QN – and it’s fine to point out areas of disagreement – but lay off the self-righteous torture. Cripes.
Finally, I don’t agree that having anything to do with Nazis normalizes them. Engagement is, after all, a form of confrontation. You can take your jacks and go home. But guess what: eventually they’ll show up at your door with those boots on if you do. The bastards aren’t going away. Pretending they don’t exist allows them to multiply in darkness and play the PR game on their terms.
I feel the spaces specifically online where Weev and his ilk weaponize fascism are beyond the brink of being salvageable at this point. It is worth studying to help reduce the number of young people being sucked in to that culture but I’m ambivalent on the value of shining a light on the veterans of that space in a format other than something like the ACLU does with Hatewatch. Spend some time at the chans if you haven’t already. At some point saying, “just trolling” loses its value, like when a Nazi smashes their car into a crowd of counter protesters.
Idk man. I struggle with this. You are right about the outrage crowd and QN was absolutely a victim of this and the media is unforgivably hypocritical for blackballing her. The OP of this chain did miss the painfully familiar and human expression that formed the bulk of this article.
*SPLC, definitely not the ACLU
I agree that those dudes are now past redemption, and that they’ve punched through the back side of trollery into actual public menace. But someone’s gotta understand those jagoffs and it can’t be me. I can’t fault QN, particularly because she was there as the devolution progressed. In a sense it can really only credibly be her. Honestly I’d question the motivations and/or sanity of anyone announcing they’re gonna go look up Weev and be buddies the way he is right now.
Modification/clarification: for me a lot of this boils down to the “beyond redemption” thing. I certainly feel that about the /b/ nazi cadre, et al., who’ve unleashed real pain and death into the world. Radical peacemakers – they’ve existed, do exist, and move history – would disagree. Honestly, I’d love to be able to walk that path. I just can’t. But the idea that anyone should be shunned for doing it is repellent.
Ok, 1) is silly, I’ve never said people don’t have a speech right to be mean to each other. But meanness does have consequences, just as my position does.
As for the difference between me and Joy Reid, like Bret Stephens, she had institutional support, and that makes all the difference. And, to be frank, that institutional support comes from social power and social position, the right schools, the right class background, the right friends, being in the right place and being seen as part of the right crowd, and I have none of that. Say what you want about my friendship with weev (though I have never endorsed anything more than his humanity) and would not have promulgated race theory of intelligence. Stephens is doing just fine, after that and so many more harmful and hurtful ideas of his own.
The thing about my friendship with weev is that I talked about it because I believe we need to engage, and that’s a controversial belief. But, how can I be an honest advocate of my ideas if I back down because a lot of people don’t understand or don’t like them? I’m not trying to win a popularity contest, I’m trying to make thing better. I’ve written against racism for years, I’ve written about the difficult need to engage with the broken people we have personal connections with for years, I’ve written that white people have to fight white racism for years, how do I look myself in the face if I don’t practice what I peach?
Shunning shouldn’t be the strategy of anyone old enough to have object permanence. Evil needs to be confronted, or it grows. People need love and mercy. weev became as virulent as he is now after being wrongfully imprisoned and tortured — weev is the embodiment of the rage and hate we direct at people, and how it can turn them into monsters.
So for me, when you say, let’s hate and shun these people, it’s like saying, this thing that doesn’t work, maybe it will work better if we do it harder.
“Peach practice” sounds awesome. I’m betting it’s actually an East Bay thing…
Respectfully that sounds like a rationalization for Weevs toxic bigotry, antisemitism, and fascist sympathies. Lots of people are wrongly prosecuted or imprisoned. Not all of them end up denouncing an insidious Jewish cabal on the courthouse steps afterwards. That is on him. Regardless of what he went through, *none* of that can excuse or rationale his choices.
BTW did you write an article about an anon member that was on Suboxone and got arrested during a group video chat several years ago? Don’t remember
“The thing about my friendship with weev is that I talked about it because I believe we need to engage, and that’s a controversial belief …. So for me, when you say, let’s hate and shun these people, it’s like saying, this thing that doesn’t work, maybe it will work better if we do it harder.”
Can you see that you’re making fundamental assumptions of the redeemability of (e.g.) this Nazi? That others might not share? Let me give a for instance: do you think that Alan Dershowitz should not be shunned? He’s on record as being a friend (a very, very good friend) of Jeffrey Epstein: should he be shunned for that? To what extent should we simply class the Epsteins of this world in the bin of “irredeemable” and move on?
And if think that this “weev”, a leader — a LEADER — of neo-Nazis, isn’t in the same class of monstrous person as Epstein …. well, again, can you see how others might make inferences about your character, from that?
“let’s hate and shun” …. I should have added: no, I don’ think that that’s what many people want. What we -want-, is to throw him in prison and let him rot, where he cannot wreak any further harm. We’re as unconcerned about his well-being, as we are about the well-being of any “hostis humani generis”. After 2016, Mike Godwin let us all know that it was perfectly fine to compare Don Bedsore and his feculent horde to Nazis. And to many of us, we know what the only good thing there is to do, with Nazis.
P.S. This doesn’t mean that there aren’t people worth reaching out to: there are Trumpist voters who aren’t Nazis (yet). But this joker? He’s one of publishers of the The Daily Stormer. That’s not just a random Trump voter. I mean, it’s like pretending that Stephen Miller is redeemable, as opposed to simply wanting him in to rot in prison for his crimes against humanity.
” It is unrealistic for you to expect everyone to not think less of you for this.”
This piece of bastardry, at least, I will address.
I, for one, do not think less of humans who have terrible people as friends.
Given the issues in play, I see that clarification as sufficient for my purpose.
It’s interesting that you think it’s “bastardry” to think less of people who expect all others to shun Nazis. Very, very interesting. I’m assuming you’re a white man.
And so it begins anew.
Presenting BS. that everyone holds your views about who people can hold as friends without being thought less of by everyone, to someone who has been abused by people holding similar restrictive views, is the bastardry.
You can hold you views.
And I point at the BS.
Now this is excellent. You see, I replied to the author of the OP in mild terms. I didn’t call them Nazi, or Nazi-adjacent, or Nazi-friendly, or even just racist. Even though being friends with people whose avowed and long-standing position, is that I (an American citizen) am less of an American (and frankly, *not* an American) *instrinsically* means that they care more about a Nazi, than about those whom he would send to the camps.
I merely noted that if you’re going to be hanging out with such people, then others are going to think less of you for it. And if you do this in public as a public intellectual, then you might find that a LOT of people think less of you for it. And that they use the “democratizing” communication platform that you used to launch your career, to make their views known. Loudly.
But hey, you can call that “bastardry”. Good on ya’.
P.S. As many have noted, 14-year-old young black children are “adults”‘; 40-year-old white men are “large adult children”. Nazis get a ton of second chances; poor people of color? Not so much. It says a lot about a person, what sort of bad behaviour they believe should be given second chances. It really does.
I’ve got no problem with you stating your view, and you claiming that many, most, or a LOT of people are like-minded.
But the use of a factually inaccurate, absolutist exageration, claiming “everyone”, against an abused person is objectionable.
I doubt that even most people would agree that spurning Nazis and other terrible people is a greater obligation than rehabing, infliltrating, blocking, delaying, confining, or obstructing terrible people. I see us needing discussions and learnings about the frameworks, methods, skills, risks and pitfalls around interacting with terrible people. Having had 5 recent damaging interactions with destructive bureaucracies I can see a real risk of an unskilled engagement with terrible people being a net cost to society and the engager.
And to the people involved. It definitely takes a set of skills and strong self knowledge to confront these kind of terrible false beliefs effectively and in a safe way. When I wrote about this here (https://www.emptywheel.net/2018/02/26/we-have-to-build-the-future-out-of-the-past/) One of the first comments was about how you needed a strong sense of values to do this work effectively. I liked it so much I stuck that comment on top of the piece.
of course I don’t care more about weev than the people he would harm. I mean FFS, Aaron was the love of my life.
I care about humans, and I care about helping them getting better. I wish I could help everyone, but I’ve come to realize that it only really works when you have a personal connection to them, and even then it’s hard, it takes years, it takes perseverance, and it takes a strong sense of self.
Maybe swine actually do appreciate the pearls. I can’t say I’ve really given it a chance.
please don’t be mean to each other, not here :)
You’re an amazing writer and one tough cookie. To have gone through all of this and still be alive, you’re amazing!
Read this blog fairly regularly. Don’t read the NYT. Had to look You and Patreon up on goggle.
Being cancelled, is a term I’ve not heard of, except in movies, when they talk about killing people. You explained it and the ramifications exceedingly well. My thought is, it must be very difficult to have this happen to you, especially if you’re a writer, a known quantity and then you’re not part of the life around you. Having had people turn on me or my opinions, hasn’t bothered me, for long. It could my attitude towards others, it could be I’ve had a couple of friends who have been there through everything with love and stability. What you have written, is all in the past. Its not you. You are a good writer. You’re smart. You’re good to go.
The PTSD, migraines, depression I understand. To have to deal with all of this without a decent health care system, I don’t. It makes things much worse for you.
Your lines, “You don’t know me………….gold fish of self hatred” made me laugh. Now it may not have been meant to be funny, but when I looked you up on Goggle there was a picture of you, at the side and I imagined you yelling that at some one in Starbucks or some other place and it made me laugh. It is a very brave thought.
People don’t get what they write hurts or sometimes they don’t care. Its reminds me of how people could be very rude and hurtful on the phone, back in the 1970s, but not in person.
A lot of people on this earth have “friends” who aren’t nice or say the wrong things or are whatever. What you might want to look at is: Were they friends or acquaintances. Many people confuse the two, especially in today’s society.
It is hoped you get better, that the migraines take a hike, the depression lifts and your health improves. You’re a very talented writer and its very brave to put all of your thoughts out there like this. It is hope it helps. Thank you for writing this. Thank you for Empty Wheel blog for presenting this.
You didn’t do any thing wrong. A lot of people wronged you. I also found it helps to sit by the ocean, where there aren’t a lot of people around.
Thank you again for a great piece of writing.
I am so sorry you have to deal with this. Please be well. Please know this anonymous randos does want the best for you.
Hello, Quinn Norton.
When you write something like this, you become an old friend.
Pleased to meet you.
Pleased to meet you too.
Thank you for your courage, Quinn. Your words are valuable to us all.
Quinn, this is gorgeous. I think it is one of the first important essays describing what happens when people live their lives on the internet and the data can be twisted against them. I hope you write a book.
I wasn’t sure what “cancelling” meant until I got into the essay.
Quinn, so sorry for the active hate that was turned against you. Hoping so hard your health improves. My wife has been taking mystery drugs all our life together in hopes of being helped by them. Those side effects are also pretty strange.
Best wishes for self care and improvement. Also, Fuck the Fucking New York Times, which has supported fascism vigorously since at least the 1920s… no surprise they cut you off…
Quinn, Thank you for sharing your experience, your losses and your courage.
Your story resonates for us here who understand the unfairness that life and the nytimes has thrown you. I am so sorry for the losses you have suffered. I truly believe that pain expressed is pain that will heal, and we are honored that you have shared your story with us here at empty wheel. You are an extraordinary and talented writer and thinker. Please continue to write.
I still can’t believe Aaron is gone either (knew his dad a bit through Pugwash, and we emailed each other a few times discussing Batman, the Dark Knight movies of all things). The one constant sometimes in the universe is that you’re not going to get one piece of bad news, but multiple pieces at once, which can be overwhelming on a number of levels. I don’t believe that many who have never experienced constant pain realize what it can do to both your mood and to the quality of your life, so I hope your frank words can help them understand why it’s so tough to live with.
The most important step you took was saying you needed help. I had a friend at college who didn’t say that, and although I suspect she was struggling, I didn’t push it, which meant it was too late. So thank you for reaching out to someone, and for writing this essay, and I hope your recovery continues in the right direction. (and if you have a physics related piece suitable for our audience, drop us a line at Physics Today.)
Thanks Quinn – as ever, you continue to be a guiding light for me (and to judge by the comments here, others) of word, thought and deed. Stay strong, keep loose, keep on. – Eric
I just wanted to thank you for posting the above. It was the push I needed to get in contact with people that might be able to help me. Grieving, in physical pain due to a condition, self-harming (for the illusion of pain control), and suicidal.
I’d been delaying for over a year. Meanwhile the situation was just getting worse and I’d all but slowed to a stop.
I’m now expecting a call back for an assessment after making the call last night, and feel the smallest bit of relief for having taken that step.