Two Sad Stories, Not Just One

Jon Ronson tells the story of “Hank,” who joked about “a really big dongle” and “forking someone’s repo” at a tech conference.

Another conference attendee was offended and complained to the conference organizers, including a photo of “Hank.” As a result, “Hank” lost his job. Ronson thinks this is a sad story, and I agree. So does Christina Hoff Summers, who Tweets:

Man tells innocuous joke to friend at conference. Overheard by aggrieved woman. What happened next is frightening.

And, yes, the story is pretty much as you might guess. In Ronson’s telling, the complainant is a “men’s movement” caricature of the sort of woman who uses “being offended” as a weapon and has no remorse about wrecking someone’s life for an off-color joke.

But – also in Ronson’s telling – the complainant, named Adria Richards, is then the victim of an internet lynch mob. She is subjected not only to insults but to physical threats. She, too, loses her job: the on-line mob takes down her employer’s server, and threatens to keep it down unless she is fired; the employer (not named by Ronson) complies.

And, unlike Hank, who quickly finds a new job (at a place that, conveniently for him, doesn’t employ any women), the complainant is still out of a job, and still subject to digital harassment, two years later.

Ronson skilfully uses language and selects facts to make “Hank” sound like an innocent victim, and Adria Richards like someone who was last seen knitting next to the guillotine. Naturally, Richards (as relayed by Melissa McEwan) tells the story somewhat differently: among other things, she asserts that she protested against the firing of “Hank.” She also, (quite plausibly) accuses Ronson of practicing the bait-and-switch characteristic of low-rent journalism, setting someone up for character assassination by pretending to provide a sympathetic ear.

But put that aside for the moment.

Let’s assume arguendo that Adria Richards is precisely the sort of unsympathetic character Ronson portrays. (Of course, it’s also possible that being fired and then harassed for two years might have somewhat depleted her stock of empathy.) She is also – again, by Ronson’s account – the victim of a crime, and someone who lost a great deal more for complaining about the rude jokes told by “Hank” than Hank did for telling them. But somehow Ronson and Sommers sympathize only with “Hank.” Like millions of battered women and rape victims before her, apparently Adria Richards was asking for it. How is it possible that Ronson, Sommers, and editors of Esquire, and the publishers of Ronson’s book all missed a point which was obvious even to me, based entirely on Ronson’s own account?

After all, I’m squarely in Ronson’s target audience. I’ve been the victim of enough “STFU-you-privileged-white-male” treatment to fully sympathize with someone in the position of “Hank.” My natural response to pompous unsolicited moral advice is a rude gesture; I’ve been known to respond to the two hours of dim-witted “sexual harassment” the University of California imposes on me every year by asserting I am already expert at sexual harassment and require no further training.

But how morally challenged do you have to be not to sympathize with Adria Richards, the victim not merely of organized intolerance but of a criminal conspiracy involving extortionate threats?

There’s a broader point here, too “Hank” and Richards both lost their jobs, though neither had done anything anywhere close to violating the law, or even raised serious questions about their job performance. That was possible because of the doctrine of “employment at will,” which makes puts every (non-union, non-civil-service, untenured) employee at the complete professional mercy of his or her employer. I think professors and civil servants are somewhat over-protected against being fired for incompetence or shirking. But it seems obvious that the rest of the population is grossly under-protected against the whims – or, in Adria Richards’s case, the mere cowardice – of the kind of people who wind up working in “human resources” departments.

[Cross-posted at The Reality-Based Community]

Mark Kleiman

Mark Kleiman is a professor of public policy at the New York University Marron Institute.