Talkin' about character, talkin' about ethics (yes, the "#gamergate" post)

>> Thursday, October 16, 2014

I'm talkin' about friendship. I'm talkin' about character. I'm talkin' about - hell. Leo, I ain't embarrassed to use the word - I'm talkin' about ethics.
- Johnny Caspar, Miller's Crossing (1990).

One of the sly running jokes in Joel and Ethan Coen's Miller's Crossing is that the only character in the film who explicitly worries about the ethics of criminality is a mentally unstable, erratic, violence-prone moron.  In a film stuffed to its gills with sociopaths like Eddie Dane and Bernie Bernbaum, one in which the protagonist is a seemingly amoral antihero who initially appears to be playing the same vicious game played by the protagonist(s) of Yojimbo and its remake A Fistful of Dollars,  Johnny Caspar is possibly the most psychopathic of the miserable lot.  He's such a rotten apple, his most sympathetic personality trait is that he's an easily-manipulated fool who's oblivious to the machinations and real agendas of those around him, possessed of a fundamental incompetence running so deep you could nearly feel sorry for him--a trap the Coens cannily avoid falling into by including a scene where Caspar slaps the shit out of his own son (a hapless adolescent who appears to have inherited the worst traits of his round mother and idiot father).

Naturally, as a violent and not-at-all-bright gangland boss, Johnny Caspar's grasp of "ethics" is, well... interesting.  It's not necessarily that he's wrong, it's just that even if he's right, it doesn't change the underlying fact that he's a clueless, murderous jerk.  You really can't undersell just how dumb and violent Caspar is.  But he has "ethics".  And loads of advice about getting a really clean shave.

Dumb, violent jerks who rant about ethics have been in the news a bit lately, especially if you're a geek or nerd who has an interest in, oh, I don't know, let's say you're interested in videogames.  Some of you already guessed where this was going, didn't you?  (Yes?  No?)

We would be talking about an assault on women in the gaming industry by a small but extremely noisy group of misogynistic malcontents that lately includes terrorist threats against professionals and critics (the word "terrorism" is not used lightly: a lecture by a prominent media critic that was scheduled to occur at the University of Utah was cancelled over public safety concerns after the school received an e-mail threatening "the deadliest school shooting in American history") that has been given the unfortunate label "Gamergate" because "gating" a word is how we Americans purport the land is awash in scandal again these days.


The tl;dr version would be that a sad little man-boy got his feelings hurt and a bunch of Johnny Caspars decided to launch a crusade about "journalistic ethics" that was really a not-particularly subtle attack on all the girlfriends in the world who are Ruining The Band1.  Which would even be funnysad but for the fact that the attack has gone beyond pissing and moaning about how ooky girls are and how much it sucks things have changed and to the aforementioned terror threats and doxxing (the posting of private details of someone's life online; which can be bad enough even when unaccompanied by explicit and implied threats of violence--and I'll give you one guess as to whether these asstards have been making violent threats); along with some other offensive and tacky misbehavior like slut-shaming that is meant to make people feel bad (but just shy of actual criminal conduct, though much of it is obviously tortious if any of these choads could be nailed down by a civil suit).

The sad little man-boy is a guy with the improbable name Eron Gjoni, and he makes an old man out of me.  See, back in my day, when a girl broke your heart, what you did was, you got yourself a bottle of Scotch, or maybe bourbon, and you drank the hell out of it until your buddies came around and took you to a bar and agreed with you while you bored them to tears with the sordid details of how this girl--who you loved, man, you really, really loved her--was a heartless bitch who--how could she do this to you?  How could she do this to you, you really loved her and how could she do this?  And your friends kept you from drunk dialing her and possibly tried distracting you with a strip club and made sure you got facedown onto the couch without picking up an impaired driving charge and surely were incredulous behind your back that you were such a pissy little whiner.  You possibly wrote a bunch of overwrought songs about how shabbily you were mistreated that nobody ever heard unless you were a member of Fleetwood Mac ca. 1977.

Apparently that's not how These Kids These Days do it.  Apparently these Millennials--the idiot Millennials, at least--write long blog posts about it and publish them online for the world to gawk at.  Which, I'll confess to you Dear Reader, I went by and gawked at it myself because sometimes the voyeuristic urge to look at the photos from the wreck at the rail crossing overcomes good sense and decency.  Old people, anyway, who fail to resist the urge to look at somebody's wreckage, will read Gjoni's groaning, self-pitying angstwank and shudder to imagine themselves in their childish twenties, and send a silent shoutout to their old brothers and sisters in arms who put up with their crap back in the day (to those of you reading who put up with my shit: thank you; to those of you reading whose shit I put up with: you're welcome).

May I digress and tell all you kids that if this is how you do it these days, plastering your juvenalia all over the Internet, that you're doing it wrong?  No, seriously, I mean, you're really, really doing it wrong.  Instead of boring your friends with what an emotional fetus you still are, you're turning it into a public spectacle that will be stored on servers forever and ever and ever until some vast interstellar EMP wave lobotomizes our collective intelligence or we global-warm ourselves into extinction, whatever comes first.  For centuries, ever since the invention of distillation, getting shitfaced and blubbering all over the people unfortunate enough to be on a first-name basis with you has been the approved and satisfactory solution to dealing with heartbreak, precisely because the lack of record means later everyone can pretend they've forgotten about it.  Leaving permanent digital records of when you were immature, shallow douchetards for all posterity to shake their heads over?  Not smart, kiddos.  Not smart at all.

Of course, it's possible that Mr. Gjoni has no idea how shitty and stupid he's going to feel when he's forty, and even feels some kind of misplaced smug self-satisfaction because what happened was that this girl who supposedly broke his heart (and he loved her, man, he really really loved her!) just happened to be a prominent rising force in videogame development, and there was already this vocal contingent of cretins who are having a hard time dealing with women doing just about anything (it's a subgroup of the misogynistic residue that's been grappling with the role of women in American culture since the 1940s), and they seized upon Gjoni's childish missive to the world as an excuse to yet again target the poor woman for various crimes against mankind ranging from existing to enjoying sex, along the way stumbling into an allegation that maybe she used her sexual wiles to seduce a freelance journalist named Nathan Grayson into writing nice things about her, making this a matter not just of Girlfriends Ruining The Band, but a matter of Journalistic Ethics!

I'm going to go ahead and call attention to something you may have just noticed.  I've called out Eron Gjoni by name.  I'm telling you that the journalist who allegedly slept with the game developer is a guy named Nathan Grayson.  But I'm not naming the game developer.  I'm doing that very much on purpose, and not to demean her in any way: quite the opposite, because this isn't a post about what the developer purportedly did to "deserve" being a primary fixation of a bunch of gynophobic trolls.  This would ultimately be a post about how the gynophobic trolls out themselves by focusing on a woman they're trying to victimize and hound out of their precious little world and paying scant attention to the men involved: ironically, while there's a larger issue at stake about the role of women in society, this isn't actually a post about what women do, it's a post about men.  So we're naming men.

So, anyway--where were we?  Ah yes: a bunch of cretins began flogging Gjoni's bitching, seizing upon the claim that one of the people his ex, a game developer, supposedly slept with was Nathan Grayson, who is a journalist who writes about video games--scandal!  This, the wankers said, was evidence of deep corruption within gaming journalism, a breach of journalistic ethics that warranted countless nauseating pixels about what a horrible person Gjoni's ex-girlfirend--a game developer, not a journalist--is and what ought to be done about Gjoni's ex-girlfriend--a game developer, not a journalist.

And now we hit upon a funny, funny thing that happens when you're dealing with assholes whose real agenda is at wide variance with what they're actually doing.  You see, we're at the point in this mess where the natural and instinctive thing to do is to point out that the cretins' version of the story was severely wanting from what you might call a factual perspective: from a strictly factual perspective, Nathan Grayson wrote less than one entire sentence about the game developer and the game she was working on, and only wrote about the game developer at any length in a single article about a group of game developers who were treated shoddily by a reality show about game developers--an article that was published before this particular game developer and Mr. Grayson began dating.

The thing is, these particular facts, while inconvenient for the trolls, don't really matter with regard to the claims they claim they're making.

Let me seemingly-sidetrack for a moment into an ethics issue I happen to have a professional (but, thankfully, not a personal) interest in: attorney ethics.  Specifically, North Carolina's Rule of Professional Conduct 1.19:

Rule 1.19 Sexual Relations with Clients Prohibited
(a) A lawyer shall not have sexual relations with a current client of the lawyer.

(b) Paragraph (a) shall not apply if a consensual sexual relationship existed between the lawyer and the client before the legal representation commenced.

(c) A lawyer shall not require or demand sexual relations with a client incident to or as a condition of any professional representation.

(d) For purposes of this rule, "sexual relations" means:

(1) Sexual intercourse; or

(2) Any touching of the sexual or other intimate parts of a person or causing such person to touch the sexual or other intimate parts of the lawyer for the purpose of arousing or gratifying the sexual desire of either party.

(e) For purposes of this rule, "lawyer" means any lawyer who assists in the representation of the client but does not include other lawyers in a firm who provide no such assistance.


Thou shalt not sleep with your client.  Pretty clear-cut ethical rule.  But please notice the obvious point: the ethical rule barring a lawyer from having sexual relations with a client says nothing about a client being prohibited from having sexual relations with a lawyer.

The difference?  The difference is that if a lawyer and a client have sex, and the North Carolina State Bar gets wind of it, they don't investigate the client.  They may talk to the client to obtain information about what the lawyer did, but they're not really interested in the client's part of it beyond that.  The client will not receive a mean and nasty formal letter from the State Bar, the client will not be sanctioned, the client will not risk being prohibited from the practice of law, the client isn't in any trouble at all.  Clients can sleep with whomever the hell they want to.

While I'm not in the medical profession, my understanding is that the rules are quite similar.  A patient who sleeps with their psychiatrist doesn't get a letter from the licensing board informing them they can no longer visit psychiatrists because it's substantiated they slept with their current practitioner.  The onus is all on the professional.

There's a reason we talk about attorney ethics, medical ethics, and, yes, journalistic ethics.  As opposed to client ethics, patient ethics, subject ethics.  When we're really discussing those things, there's only one participant (or group of participants) whose (mis)conduct matters: the professionals who are subject to the rules.

Even if they're informal rules.  Journalists don't have ethics.  (That's sort of a joke.)

But seriously: there aren't licensing bodies that can take away a writer's right to write (boom!).  Journalistic ethics are completely self-imposed and self-enforced; if someone like Stephen Glass invents sources, quotes and entire stories, for instance, the only thing that stops him from being a professional journalist is that editors and publishers will stop paying him when the embarrassment he causes is a bigger loss than whatever a publication gains from publishing him. Glass could still be a journalist today if he could find a willing outlet.  (And nothing keeps him from making a go at self-publishing his reporting, were he to choose to do so.)

If a journalist has a conflict of interest, there's an understanding amongst writers, editors and publishers that the conflict ought to at least be disclosed and perhaps should bar the writer from covering the subject.  As best I can tell, there's a good-faith effort among those players--or at least among the most serious and committed of them--to self-enforce that rule.  But whether or not they do so (or succeed), the key thing here is noting who those players are: they're the writers, editors and publishers.

So let's suppose a game developer, any game developer, does have sex with a journalist, any journalist, in quid pro quo, straight-up, tit-for-tat exchange for a favorable article.  A breach of journalistic ethics, perhaps, but if so the game developer isn't the one who's done anything wrong.  Maybe, I dunno, it's "unbecoming" or something, but it isn't an "ethical scandal" for the subject of the article.  It's a scandal for the writer who failed to disclose a conflict of interest and thereby may have mislead their editor and/or the reading public, or perhaps a scandal for the editor who should have chosen to pull the story if they knew about the apparent conflict, or perhaps for the publisher who failed to maintain an appearance of objectivity and integrity for the publication-at-large.  But for the subject of the article, the game developer?

You know, when considering how competitive the field is, one can frankly sympathize with any developer or game publisher, from the pseudonymous app coder in a basement somewhere to a corporate dinosaur like Electronic Arts, doing whatever it takes short of murder to bring attention to a title.  (This isn't unique to the games industry, either.2)

In other words, if you really care about journalistic integrity, the bête noire these Caspars yammer on about, you care about what a journalist does, and who he does it with is kind of immaterial.  They slept with someone they were writing about and failed to tell anyone they had a special interest in the subject?  Any sin wasn't in the sleeping.

But who--and this is the point, folks--who are the Gamergating trolls calling out for ethical lapses?  Ninety, ninety-five percent or more of their ire is directed at a game developer, who just happens to be a woman they have a history of disliking and directing nerdrage towards.  (What a co-in-key-dink!)  Sometimes they'll remember they're supposedly concerned about journalism, and drop the name of Kotaku, the gaming website Nathan Grayson contributed to, and that has cleared Grayson of wrongdoing.  But how often do they hound Grayson, d'ya think?  Who supposedly, allegedly committed the breach of having an undisclosed conflict of interest?

Not much.  At all.

Not that Grayson, in point of fact, committed a lapse.  I want to be clear about that.  And there are further some points about this that are worth bearing in mind:

  1. He's been cleared of committing the breach: he wrote a single longform piece about a subject concerning the developer in question (the article wasn't even about her--it was about a television show she was to appear on) prior to having any kind of personal relationship with her;
  2. Even if he had committed an ethical breach (he didn't), that breach would have been a failure to disclose a possible conflict of interest: the rule isn't that you can't sleep with someone you're writing about, the rule is that you ought to let people know if there's a reason your piece might not be properly objective;
  3. Which, incidentally, also means that it's probably perfectly okay to write about someone you're sleeping with as long as you're perfectly clear about any effect it's having on your work; indeed, writing about your relationship or about a subject in the context of your relationship can be a quite valid and informative form of writing.3

Every time one of these "Gamergate" trolls says this is about "journalistic ethics" and they mention a specific game developer, you know they're lying.  Flat-out.  Straight up.  Nope, that's not what they're about.  Because if they were worried about journalism, they'd talk about journalists.  And every time the game developer they mention happens to be a woman, you see what they're really about.  Who the fuck still cares about who a sober female person above the age of consent has had sex with in this day and age?  Prudes, savages, moral infants, the intellectually-undeveloped, reactionaries, cretins, fools and jackasses.

You know, the Johnny Caspars.




1I wanted to avoid notes, but one of the things happening here is a variation on a very old meme.  Remember The Beatles?  And remember how Yoko Ono broke up The Beatles?  With some help from Linda McCartney?  Because the breakup had nothing at all in the whole wide world to do with the actual members of the band.  The Beatles didn't break up because John Lennon and Paul McCartney grew up and, once they were no longer teenagers, discovered like so many teen-friends do that they no longer had the same interests in music, politics, lifestyle, etc..  The Beatles didn't break up because George Harrison felt his contributions to the band were being neglected (which, incidentally, in addition to getting the artistic shaft, also meant he was getting cut out of album songwriting royalties, which can be a demoralizing symbol even when you don't actually care about the money; see also Floyd, Pink).  The Beatles didn't break up because Paul had a real love of performing live but George was a little stage-shy and didn't like performing in front of screaming throngs who couldn't even hear his playing.  The Beatles didn't break up because Paul's artistic ambitions had evolved just a little ahead of Ringo's (frankly underrated) playing to a point where he was secretly re-recording some of Ringo's drum parts and hiding it from Ringo only Ringo found out.  Nope, The Beatles' breakup had nothing at all to do with the diverging interests and goals of the guys who were actually, you know, in the band and everything to do with women not sticking to their place.  It's always about the girls ruining everything.  Bros before hos and all that.


2Consider Larry Harris' entertaining memoir of his time at Casablanca Records, And Party Every Day.  One can find fault with the journalists, editors, disk jockeys, sales directors, program directors, promoters, etc.  who were willing to compromise themselves in exchange for entrance to cocaine-fueled parties with famous people, but you can hardly blame someone like Harris for exploiting their willingness to put a fun weekend ahead of their professional responsibility--in fact, it's his job to use any tool at his disposal to sell his label's records.  Even if some of those tools seem a little amoral or, strictly speaking and from a purely technical point-of-view, involve violations of Federal and state drug laws and/or a broadcast professional violating FCC regulations.

Quite seriously, Harris wasn't the one at fault: just because you tell a station manager that you'd love to fly him halfway across the country to go to Studio 54 and maybe Mick or Andy will be there (and do you need to even mention all the fun things you can put into orifices at Studio 54?), and by the way has he heard the new Donna Summer record, just phenomenal, why, you just happen to have a copy right here--well none of that means he has to take you up on it, much less ever get around to playing the record, right?

I don't know if Harris ever considered exchanging sexual favors for airplay (I don't recall mention if that in the book), but if it ever crossed his mind: hell, you'd have to give him credit for a cheaper solution to his problems than plane tickets and coke, wouldn't you?


3Aha!  Caught you, VanNewkirk!  So what's wrong with Eron Gjoni publishing a poisoned essay about his ex-girlfirend?  Ha!  Winning!

Well, no.  I didn't say what Eron Gjoni did was unethical.  I basically said it was stupid, ugly and tacky.  And that he's a pathetic, sad little whiner.

What he did was also (presumably) hurtful to another person, and gratuitously doing hurtful things is probably immoral.  (I think so, anyway, but I'll grant you that Philosophy majors may have arguments about this in their dorm rooms at three a.m..)  He was being petty and vindictive and trying to publicly embarrass someone, all of which is bad.  In the context of journalistic ethics, it bears pointing out that Gjoni's poor widdle broken heart isn't newsworthy; in other writing contexts, publishing a piece about your ex's love life... well....

I mean, nobody who knew anything at all about the private life of Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes had any doubt who some of their poems were really about, even when names weren't named.  And everyone knows about how Rumours is a document just crammed full of angry brokenhearted back-and-forth sniping.  To cite but two exemplars.

But Sylvia Plath and Lindsey Buckingham were/are artists, in that they made/make art things, and their work (whether or not it appeals to you) is artistic work.  Eron Gjoni's sad little poor pitiful me routine isn't even trying for art: it really is nothing more and nothing less than one of those post-breakup rants you'd inflict on your friends between lap dances at the titty bar.  A laundry list of grievances and second chances, how badly he was abused and if anything was his fault it's only that he loved too well but too unwisely.  It doesn't even rise to the level of Tommy Wiseau's The Room: at least Wiseau had the minimal decency it took to turn his angstwank about the real-world "Lisa" into a stage play and then (when that failed) into a bizarre piece of cinematic outsider art.

In short, Gjoni may have outed himself as a pathetic loser, may have proven he isn't a gentleman, may have demonstrated that he has poor judgement and no self-awareness, and may have done something cruel and awful in a vicious attempt to lash out at someone he was mad and sad at by publicly humiliating her--but these aren't ethical lapses.  They don't make you corrupt, they just make you an asshole.  One whose most noteworthy accomplishment to date is something that isn't as good as the worst motion picture ever made by an incompetent hack.

Perhaps a better human being, or at least a slightly more mature one, would have written a song called "Chloe" and posted it to YouTube, maybe even recorded a concept album about it; or perhaps penned a book of sad poems.

See the difference?








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