What’s in a Name?

Thus far, while I have sometimes used my own experiences as examples or perspective for various subjects, nothing I have posted on here was especially personal. Everything was focused on some other concept or person besides myself. But some recent chatter on Twitter inspired me to say a bit more about my name, which has more story and thought behind it than some.

Thorne is my assigned-at-birth first name. Though, as I’ve seen my trans comrades experience dead naming more and more, I’m glad that I took the route that I did, my reason for keeping it was far more simple: I love it. It’s unique. It’s bold and strong. It enables me to make weird puns about Poison power ballads and (as I’ve discovered more recently) being a defender of the DSA.

There are only two problems I’ve ever run into with it. The first has largely blown over and something that honestly, today, if someone used against me, I would laugh at and own: bullies growing up calling me “Horny Thorney.”

The other is that I studied abroad in Japan when I was fifteen. I’m still close with my host family, and we have spent time together since. But my name is not linguistically easy for the native Japanese speaker. The closest katakana approximation effectively equates to “So”-“Oh”-“On” all run into one syllable. Japanese tends to have short, choppy syllables, usually only ending with a consonant sound if it is an “n” or if they are, as is common colloquially, dropping a “u” at the end of a word (e.g. most Japanese people pronounce “desu” as “dess.”)

Given this, I decided to replace my middle dead name…? dead middle name…? whatever you want to call it that would be something easier for them to call me. However, I was concerned that picking something blatantly Japanese would open me up to accusations of being a weaboo or a cultural appropriator.

I have a deep and respectful appreciation for Japanese culture, and part of my username (“enso”) is a reference to a Japanese symbol of Zen Buddhism. My parents are atheists, and I was raised in a non-religious household. This left me in search of something to fill the spiritual void, and studying abroad Japan exposed me the opportunity to go and meditate under the guidance of monks who would slap me with wooden sticks called keisaku if my meditation was not up to par.

That said, I’m still a white girl, and being, say, Thorne Sakura Melcher, as much as I love cherry blossoms, would not feel my place in a number of ways. Naomi offered a balance of being something that was fairly common among white women while still providing them something that is also familiar to Japanese ears.

Melcher is also an assigned-at-birth name, though obviously that is a lot more common with last names of people who a trans. Almost everyone I encounter gets the pronunciation wrong, viewing it as a less ridiculous version of the Bobs Burgers family name, Belcher. However, it is a corrupted form of “Melchior,” which many will recognize as one of the names traditionally associated—but only centuries after the Bible—with the three magi who visited Jesus. The “ch” is a hard “k” sound, making it pronounced like “Melker.”

If you’re still reading to this point, I don’t have any kind of witting concluding statements that brilliantly sum up how everything that went into my name meant something, but thank you for indulging my momentary descent into something far more self-centered. 

The Directionality of Punching

Often times, you hear discussions of the “direction” that someone “punches.” While they may be talking about their street fighting—be it in real life or the iconic video game series—it’s more likely they are talking about the direction that one focuses ones critiques, be they erudite and mellifluously composed blog posts or fucking dank memes dunking on some idiots who deserve it. Left and right directionality is used to refer to someone’s political views, whereas the up/down is used to refer to someone’s clout, power, and visibility. One should aim to punch upward and to the right, though the latter is often not appreciated or wholly misunderstood.

The idea that one should “punch up” is not especially controversial. Any long-time fan of YouTube darling h3h3 will hear Ethan Klein refer to the concept on a number of occasions, especially in context of how their rapidly rising fame over the last few years have made it difficult to “punch up” and thus why they have drifted further from the reaction videos that used to be one of their channel’s staple. The Papa—that’s Papa John for the uninitiated—has blessed them with enough self-awareness to understand the importance of this. They also were wrongly targeted by—and fortunately won—a copyright infringement and defamation lawsuit from a creepy predator of a man whose video they dunked.

Ethan, as clever a comedian as he may be, also serves as an example of how the political left/right punching can be misunderstood. But first, it’s important to understand the person he is. Unlike some of the other anti-PC YouTubers, Ethan has expressed time and time again a desire to be progressive. He’s, with some awkwardness but clearly good faith, spoken out on subjects like transgender issues. His wife, Hila, has spoken about how important feminism is to her, which Ethan seems to highly respect.

The problem is that Ethan politicizes what is ultimately more anger than anything—anger that often even comes from a place quite possibly to his right. Ethan mistakes social justice as being a “far left” topic, when in reality it is an active subject among all of the greater left-wing and involves everyone from centrist Clinton worshippers to Anarcho-Communists.

That’s not to say it’s best to view these actions through the lens of “punching right,” though. If they are, it is not much, and they are punching more down than anything. Ethan often recognizes that he is the much maligned “cis white male,” though he does not understand how attacks along those lines are often punching down.

As a queer trans woman myself, I know how much the world can wear you down as society finds new and exciting ways to devalue and dehumanize you for who you are. The anger that “SJWs” manifest is often hard for people who don’t experience that first-hand to understand. That’s not to say that a lot of the most extreme anger coming from people under the banner of social justice is productive. Anger can be channeled into productive ways. Discomfort is productive. Used well, anger can make someone reflect on their actions.

One of the reasons I’m perhaps more patient than most with Ethan is that on some level, even if I cringe at my good faith naivety, I feel I can relate to him. For a period of time, back when I was deeply depressed and desperately trying my darnedest to be happy as a guy, I ran a subreddit focused on the “ShitRedditSays” community that angrily mocked redditors for their displays of bigotry. My perspective was not that they were wrong to do so, but that they were bad progressives, so to speak. However, I was wrong to be so critical. SRS affords people a community where they can punch up viciously without experiencing anyone punching back down at them.

Of course, that is an isolated space for people to express that anger and not a place where that anger regularly interacts with the real world. It’s understandable when someone is met with hostility that they react with defensiveness and attempts (however righteous or not) at justification. Things get messy. However, while some extreme tactics are genuinely deserving of condemnation, it’s important to realize this anger is from desire to “punch up,” and it is crucial to have that awareness when evaluating these sorts of behaviors.

This is the exact reason why the attempts to equivocate stuff like “white people are the fucking worst” with actual racism directed at people of color is so off-base: in the context of directional punching, the former is punching up and the latter is punching down. The key takeaway here is that while social justice can rightly be viewed as a left-wing phenomenon, the nature of identity politics is such that one almost always winds up commenting either “down” to a marginalized group or “up” to the group that is not marginalized.

The irony of all of this misunderstanding, of course, is that the “far left” is attacked for being so “extreme” that it alienates “moderates” (read: people who were mostly going to vote Republican one way or another anyway) and thus is effectively throwing marginalized groups under the bus. This is insincere bullshit coming from neoliberal talking heads designed to stall any meaningful progress, not for marginalized groups but anyone but the ultra-wealthy.

A lot of Ethan’s self-professed beliefs outside of social justice in particular sound somewhat reminiscent of the folks at Chapo Trap House. His aesthetic isn’t far from the typical Dirtbag Leftist either. Given most of the hosts are cis white men, they routinely have to deal with misplaced left-punching criticism under the guise of poorly applied social justice principles. When Ethan maligns the “far left cult of outrage,” he fails to realize that sort of “cultish” behavior is often used to punch left more than to punch right.

This left-punching from largely Democrat-voting people is one of the biggest impediments to the progress that so many people on the Left want to see realized. Something that should be as obvious as guaranteed, quality healthcare for everyone is framed as “too idealistic” in a time when people are pushing for a repeal of Obamacare because of ballooning healthcare costs that something like Medicare For All could ameliorate. Ensuring minimum wage is fair and livable gets turned into “wishing for a pony.”

The dangers of punching left are thus wholly quite different than punching down—they’re macro, they’re societal. Punching left keeps us from moving forward in ways we should as a society to make sure that we should take care of everyone. Punching down in many contexts is little more than bullying that is exploiting the struggle of someone’s lesser place in life against them.

When in doubt, try to interpret something vertically, rather than horizontally, as the immediate negative impact of the latter is far greater. So often when you see someone being “ridiculous,” you’re seeing them at their worst. While it’s great to goof on someone like Peter Daou who is having a meltdown and playing the victim despite having his mediocre WordPress site endorsed by Clinton, the last thing someone posting about how “men are trash” needs is a lecture about how that’s sexist when the reason she is saying so in the first place is likely to be from a lot of punches down from men.

There’s nothing wrong with humor or criticism, but when analyzing your own actions or making decisions, the lens of directional punching provides a useful tool to evaluate the morality of your actions. By focusing on punching up and punching left—and making that upward when there’s any doubt—one has the weight of justice behind their memetic antics.

Capitalism & Coercion

Much to my chagrin, a tweet that mostly got overlooked at first gained the attention of a cluster of conservative armchair pundits who reveled in the opportunity to make shallow criticisms of my point: that right libertarianism’s biggest flaw is that it overlooks that capitalism itself violates the non-aggression principle by coercing people into participating to survive. Ultimately, I decided to delete the tweet because it was causing more trouble than anything, but this point is important.

Of course, the easiest jab a few used was the fact that I, myself, am an executive of a startup that has benefitted a lot from venture capitalist investment, and thus there is an apparent absurdity or a hypocrisy to my statements. And my experience with the VC world goes even deeper than can be gleaned from my Twitter biography as well. However, this is merely just a beefed up version of the tired old “if you hate capitalism so much, why do you buy things?” By living in a capitalist society, we are inevitably compelled to participate in capitalism—the very point I was making with the tweet—and there is nothing hypocritical or ironic about trying to use capitalism to your advantage despite being a critic of it.

A couple of the responses insinuated that the implication was that this makes “the laws of nature” coercive, implying that this view is too reductivist to be valuable. This is a false equivalency. For starters, it is almost impossible to escape “the system.” You’re still under the jurisdiction of some authority—one that probably levies taxes—and, as many of the participants in the “sovereign citizen movement” have found, it is quite easy to find yourself on the wrong end of the law despite maintaining your non-participation in it. Libertarians love to talk about how taxes are collected via force since you face coercive action from the legal and justice system for non-compliance. However, an eviction or an arrest because you had to steal to even be able to eat is fundamentally the same thing. The condemnation and call out of folks—largely people of color, predictably and depressingly—searching for food in the wake of Harvey shows how deeply rooted this mindset is in our society.

Contrary to the perception of a lot of these AnCap fedora fashion models, nature itself operates in a fundamentally different way. The seminal Ishmael trilogy from Daniel Quinn makes a distinction between two types of societies: “Leavers” and “Takers.” Prehistoric societies are largely the former. All modern civilizations are the latter. In the more naturalistic, hunter-gather Leaver societies, there is no ownership of natural resources, and one does not hoard resources at the expense of others. Takers seek to put the control of resources under lock and key in order to—you guessed it—force participation in Taker society (i.e. capitalism). If a Leaver comes across a fruit tree in the wild, she plucks a piece of fruit to eat and moves on. If a Taker comes across a fruit tree in the wild, he claims it as his own, guards it, and sells the fruit to others. 

A key point of Quinn’s philosophy is that Taker culture inevitably tends to conquer Leaver culture. The history of colonialism is a broken record version of this. The so-called “white man’s burden” is better seen as the greed of the Taker mentality that took root in Europe. That’s not to say Taker culture is wholly white, as arguably some medieval Asian societies such as Japan and China fall into that category as well. But the indigenous people of a substantial part of the world experienced subjugation under the destructive march of Taker culture.

The simplistic take here is that one should seek to be a Leaver. However, that not only simply is not practical in a capitalistic society due to the reasons described above but it also kneecaps one’s power to change the status quo. The ability to survive and thrive outside the system is limited, and thus people are strongly coerced into participation in violation of the nonaggression principle. This is unlikely to change in an Anarchist-Capitalist society given the fact that any system heavily based on capitalism is going to lead to people operating intensely as Takers.

Ultimately, the likely downfall of Taker culture will be the rise of automation and the development of a post-scarcity society. When everything you could ever need is readily and inexpensively available, then the need to keep it under lock and key plummets. The desire to hoard evaporates. This would lead to a more Leaver-like culture akin to the “laws of nature” that it is so easy for people with polisci majors from Wikipedia University to pretend mimics capitalism. The only difference is that nature often does have issues of scarcity, leading to problems such as famine, which is ultimately one of the initial drives towards participation in Taker culture in the first place.

This is also not to lift up some ideal of a “noble savage” or to say that Taker culture is wholly without merit. Leftist commentator Peter Coffin correctly points out in one of his YouTube documentaries that a lot of our technological innovations were fueled by socialist programs, though it is worth noting that those socialist programs still occurred in the context of a Taker society. The cost in human life and suffering is immense, but Taker culture led us to transcend ourselves. “Progressivism” as a broad political ideal likely would not exist without a framework for that progress to occur. However, is a modern human deeply happier than our prehistoric counterparts? Of course, it is impossible to say, but it is without question that we are far more stressed.

Regardless, the crucial thing to appreciate, at least for the near term, is that leveraging capitalism to your benefit is not only necessary to ensure survival but is the only way to gain the means to oppose its abuses. When most resources are allocated through capitalism, and resources are needed to fix the system, working to master the system in its current state beneficial. The startup world is one of the few comparatively accessible places to gain a lot of leverage. Therefore, it is fair to say that capitalism is coercive in a way that violates the non-aggression principle, and it is not ironic or hypocritical to do so while heavily leveraging capitalism to your benefit.

Googling Diversity

In America, we often idolize the individual. The ideal of success is the “self-made man,” who, through his hard work and talents, pulls himself up by the bootstraps. My use of gendered language there is intentional. However, in practice, careers are usually anything but—teams work together to produce something greater and better than any one individual could produce. This is especially true in software, where coordination and communication are crucial to produce a product that is reliable, consistent, and maintainable. An utter failure to understand this is the core fallacy of the Google Manifesto.

When discussing the subject of diversity, whether in the context of recent events or not, often the focus goes back to the individual: “Shouldn’t you just hire the best person for the job?” The innuendo usually devolves into the notion that the whole process is discriminatory towards quality talent. However, research on the subject suggests that diverse teams lead to better outcomes, both along racial and gendered lines.

The reasons are straightforward. Diversity in talent leads to a greater diversity of ideas as well as criticisms of those ideas. So often the anti-diversity crowd frames the initiatives as a way to silence people and staunch discussion. In practice, the reverse happens: by having the diversity there, a far greater depth of discussion is possible in the first place.

Of course, when certain groups dominate, they are not used to having their ideas challenged. Diversity brings in that challenge—that further need to justify the merits of an idea or approach. While anti-diversity advocates try to frame the discussion around the supposed mediocrity of diversity hires, the entire act, whether subconscious or otherwise, is born out of a fear that their own mediocrity (or fears of mediocrity induced by impostor syndrome) might be elucidated.

The ways we judge merit professionally are also imprecise. The fact that someone has worked prestigious jobs in the past or went to a prestigious school does not necessarily mean that they are a “better” employee than someone who has not. The anti-diversity crowd often clings to these metrics of value and sees encroachment on them as proof of their fallacious arguments that diversity is a blind goal. However it is often by virtue of birth alone that a lot of these more straightforward pathways to success are even possible.

Those pathways themselves seem to be a significant source of the anti-diversity angst. Working at Google comes with prestige. When someone had to overcome even more to work there or to attain whatever significant goal, it is easy to feel as if that lessens the worth of your own success. However, it comes from a privileged fixation on the praise without an empathetic appreciation for the pain that preceded it. This is why so often “diversity hire” is almost used as if it were a slur—it’s a way to undercut the successes of others because they make you feel insecure about your own.

The sort of people who would back the Google Manifesto are nothing more than the adult equivalent of children who knock over someone else’s block tower out of jealousy. Rather than focusing on honing their talents and making sure that they can compete at their best with the people they feel are gunning for their jobs, they viciously attack others. The best individual talent in the world is worthless if they are the type of person to constantly undermine and devalue the work of their colleagues.

The best thing you can do is keep learning and challenging yourself—something that happens more readily in a diverse environment. This extends far beyond how many programming languages you know or how advanced an algorithm you can implement. Learn to be more emotionally aware. Learn how to more effectively communicate. Learn how to see someone’s success through more than a lens of jealousy. This growth and introspection supports not only the best outcome for you but also your company, this industry, and humanity. 

In Defense of Greenwaldian Skepticism

We have reached a point where the debate over whether or not the Trump administration colluded with Russia is over and it is merely a matter of how much. Many are quick to—and already were quick to every time each new tidbit comes out—condemn Glenn Greenwald, for his prior outspoken demands for more proof with the accusations of Russian collusion. Some take it further and imply an involvement. However, Greenwald was right to do so all along and many of the points he brings up are important to consider.

There is something subtle in the moral of The Boy Who Cried Wolf that is often missed. In this case, the boy was lying, but ultimately, whether or not he was lying or mistaken, the same thing would result: the townspeople would not pay attention when the threat was clear and present. The single most helpful thing Trump has gotten in this scandal is continued press attention for months. The Trump-Russia connection transformed from more of a scandal to a meme.

We are at a point as a society where the virality of a meme is far more powerful than rational assessments of a situation. More and more, people get their perspectives from social media over the traditional news, which means the ideas that get shared the most get seen the most and, inevitably, get adopted the most. Whether an idea is actually good is important. But the ideas need to be packaged in ways that can be organically spread.

Though the Trump-Russia scandal is over accusations orders of power worse more than the contents of the Clinton email scandal, it represents a similar memeification of a political scandal that enabled Trump. In this case, by the time the full details of the investigation were released, the Left was largely reduced to the meme you still occasionally today, “But her emails…” Of course, her emails were nothing compared to all of the reasons why Trump should not be president. But by reducing the Left’s perspective on the issue to a meme that is so dismissive, it ensured that the meme—as viral as it was—would actively work against winning over hearts and minds.

This effect is especially important to consider as scandals evolve. Greenwald mounted much of his skepticism during the time when most of the focus was on the hacking of the DNC servers. Article after article talked about the Russian connection to the hacking and the distribution of the documents to WikiLeaks. As Greenwald himself said at the time: it’s a plausible narrative. But it is one that is risky to make without proof.

Had the Left not mounted such a strong offense in response to the Russian hacking accusations, then the information coming out now would resonate more strongly—the scandal would be less memeified in a way that works against new information from resonating with people. Much like with semantic satiation—where repeating the same word over and over makes it feel like nonsense—we experience memetic satiation, where ideas we are exposed to over and over in a short period fail to resonate with us.

Many have said that we live in a “post-truth” era and have talked about the various consequences of it. The reality was we were never in a “truth” era at all, and the process of selling ideas is ultimately only tangential to the quality of the ideas themselves. However, for much of human history, selling “truth” was easy. The conglomeration of mass media happened because people trusted large news organizations. However, that bubble burst. What we are seeing now is better thought of a post-authority era.

This is reflected in the fact that, across the board, we’re seeing a surge of success for candidates on both the Left and Right that are populist and anti-status quo. Though Sanders and Corbyn are politically antithetical to Trump, this unites them, and both they and their supporters have used memes to their advantage. “Make America Great Again!” may be an empty promise versus a Labour’s more accurate “For Many, Not the Few,” but they are both passionate, easily digestible statements that excite people to learn more.

Though many question Greenwald’s political or even national—with some people quick to point out that Greenwald worked with Snowden, as a last resort, wound up in Russia—allegiances, his open-minded, cautious skepticism is exactly what the Left needed. Greenwald was trying to save us from ourselves, and more people should have listened. We are no longer in an era where the establishment can save us from ourselves. We must be the ones to learn how to effectively win the war of ideas.