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Dec 12 / Great Apes

The Language Of People

Here’s something that I’ve been thinking about a lot lately: the way we disguise the actors behind certain events by describing the organisation that they work for rather than the people themselves.  This manifests most prominently, I think, in two places.  The first is talking about government.  We talk about “the government” as though it’s some sort of monolithic entity, but it’s actually a particular group of people who wield power in very specific ways.  I am including both the political party currently in power and the civil service as “the government” here, which already highlights how the term can be problematic.  The second place I frequently see this problem is discussing businesses.  I’m going to stick with just businesses in this post for the sake of brevity, but I do intend to write about how this all applies to government in an additional post later.

As you may have heard, Twitter updated the way that blocking works on its site today.  As seems to be the case all too often in Silicon Valley, no one seems to have asked any women what they thought of the change.  Since it was revealed, many women have complained that this will make it easier for stalkers and harassers to make their life miserable.  The response from at least some people has been something along the lines of “Twitter is a business, what motivation does it have to deal with harassment?”  While Twitter’s blocking functionality is the topic du jour, this kind of response comes up all the time in regard to other behaviour of businesses that some might object to on ethical grounds.

I think this really fundamentally misunderstands what Twitter and other businesses really are.  There is no decision making entity known as “Twitter”; Twitter is a collection of software and branding and a URL and so forth, but it has no will and it can’t make decisions.  All of the decisions are made by people who happen to be working under an umbrella that we refer to as “Twitter”.  This may sound like semantics but I think it has real, important effects on how we understand our world and our relationships to people and things in it.

It’s easy to say that “Twitter” doesn’t have any responsibilities to its users (or to anyone else) because “Twitter” is an abstract concept with no real moral value.  But Twitter is operated by people, and people absolutely have ethical obligations toward other people.  [Whether people really do have ethical obligations toward each other is a hugely complicated topic that I’m not going to get into arguing for here, so I’m going to take it on faith that you do generally believe that things like empathy and compassion matter, that people should generally try to prevent or reduce suffering.]  And if you recognise that very important fact, then the discussion changes dramatically.  “What motivation does Twitter have to care about people?” may sound like a reasonable thing to say but “What motivation do the people who work for Twitter have to care about people?” sounds like something a sociopath would say.

Indeed, this is precisely why “Twitter” should care about whether its service is being used as a vehicle for harassment and whether the decisions it makes are causing people to suffer: because it is people whose work is being used to cause others to suffer.  And people have a moral responsibility not to contribute to the suffering of others when it is forseeable and preventable.

I have myself used phrases like “Twitter updated the way that blocking works on its site today” in this post to describe actions, and I think that as shorthand it can be useful to talk that way rather than a more cumbersome approach like “some of the people operating under the moniker ‘Twitter’ have decided …”  But it is important to recognise that that kind of phrasing is shorthand; that “Twitter” as such does not really exist, that all of these decisions are made by people, and that those people do have ethical responsibilities.  If we talk about businesses not as though they are actual entities with decision making powers but as a collection of real, specific people, then I think it becomes very clear that the idea that they have no obligation to behave ethically is nonsense.

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