Where Self Meets Society

As a sort of addendum to my weekend post about the personae through which we engage with the politics of our societies, I point you to Quinn Norton's piece about her vanishingly brief tenure as a tech writer for the New York Times. The Gray Lady's Editorial page has been under a significant amount of fire lately over the guidance of James Bennet -- whose previous gig, perhaps not-so-coincidentally, was as the editor-in-chief of the outlet that ran Norton's post-mortem of the situation -- so the announcement of Norton's hire was greeted by some as a continuation of Bennet's apparent (and espoused) preference for provocations that strike at liberalisms of both the upper- and lowercase varieties.

The specific complaint against Norton was that her friendship with infamous hacker/neo-Nazi Andrew Auernheimer, coupled with her occasional use of performative bigotry, had the effect of legitimizing bigotry and fascism, and that, by hiring her, the Times ran the risk of doing the same. In some ways, this is a version of a story that's grown increasingly popular since a 30-year-old communications director made a (performatively) racist joke on Twitter just before boarding an 11-hour flight, but Justine Sacco's naiveté about the way social media can create avalanches of criticism wouldn't suit Norton. "I’ve studied online communities since 1995," she writes in a paragraph that serves as a kind of capsule resume. Farther on she adds: "I have been through this before, and I know who I am, an advantage I have over most of the institutions currently entrusted with the care of our society."

Those self-assertions are of a whole with the central argument of the piece, which is that the uproar wasn't really about her. Rather, "social media created a bizarro-world version" of her as a prelude to its public immolation. She writes:

I have seen strange ideas about me online before, but this doppelgänger was so far from resembling me that I told friends and loved ones I didn’t want to even try to rebut it. It was a leading question turned into a human form. The net created a person with my name and face, but with so little relationship to me, she could have been an invader from an alternate universe.

Anyone who fails to find this the slightest bit sympathetic probably hasn't thought enough about how they're perceived by others. We each tend to have a very articulate sense of the self we are in private, and a far murkier sense of how our expressions of that self are received by others. You can think of the self as a product of individual activity, but the substance of their corresponding persona is constructed from the perceptions of others. And it has to be that way because the persona is zone of effective action where self meets society. It can be jarring when the form it takes is reflected back to you. It can seem so unfamiliar that you fail to understand the part you played in generating it.

No doubt much of what was said about Norton was plainly untrue. Not so with her friendship to Auernheimer. It is one of the admitted facts from which the rest of us are left to form our perception of how she aligns herself to the rest of society. Possibly, something is lost in translation: What she means by the word "friend" may not align with what you or I mean by it. I tend to think in Platonic terms of mutual admiration, especially regarding one another's virtues, while Norton sometimes writes about friends as though they were reform projects. Still, there's only so much that the context of explaining one's personal philosophy can do to soften a stranger's concern that personal affection might cloud your judgment when the jackboots come marching. If she does not see herself in those concerns, it is not because they were born ex nihilo, but because she sees her private sense of self better than she sees the persona her public actions have made possible.