Understanding Imbalances of Power
I wrote last week about the harassment that Taylor Lorenz has endured at the hands of powerful men, and the story has continued to develop at the hands of professional ghoul Glenn Greenwald. His nightmare screed that begins by making light of Taylor saying her life has been ruined can effectively be summarized as “she has it easier than other people, and she hasn’t faced real persecution in comparison to Julian Assange,” which is both a reductive and ridiculous approach to take.
It’s like saying you shouldn’t complain about being stabbed three times versus being run over by a tank three times, because one is more painful than the other. It’s the classical linguistic tropes of those who have downplayed the effects of bullying, suggesting that you should simply “toughen up.” And it’s a truly depressing thing to hear from a person who has absolutely faced abuse in his life.
A large part of the issue here is the total failure of a famous journalist to identify the victim and the antagonist, and to understand exactly who exactly is suffering here. Greenwald himself is famous for questioning and revealing the intentions and actions of those in power, and has faced brutal harassment as a result of his work investigating the Brazilian government.
It boggles my mind that Glenn would see Taylor Lorenz as “pretending to report” by listening in on Clubhouse rooms as a different mechanism of reporting to, say, reporting on Telegram conversations from government officials. I will absolutely admit that it isn’t quite on the same scale - a VC using or not using a slur is not the same thing as corruption at the highest level of government - but the methods used are not different, nor are they malevolent, nor are they wrong.
I also hate the comparison of hardships as a means of justifying further hardships as an ethical principle. Just because you’ve had it harder doesn’t mean that something is hard, and just because something doesn’t hurt you doesn’t make it not hurtful to someone else.
In Taylor’s case, Greenwald is framing her as an ultra-powerful elite who is complaining about a pedestrian issue, wielding her mighty power at the world’s most important newspaper with oppressive force, rather than a columnist writing for the styles section about internet culture literally calling attention to a billionaire’s actions. Putting aside that Greenwald got his law degree from NYU (I’d consider a top 10 law school elite, personally), the framing he is using is as disingenuous as it is confusing, and fails to answer one fundamental question:
What harm did Taylor cause? Who, indeed, did she slander?
The Powerful Are Not The Victims
In any situation like this, you need to understand the players in question, and what they get out of it, and what damage has actually been done. The prevailing bad faith asshole argument is that Taylor suggested that Marc Andreessen used a slur when Ben Horowitz did, which she both apologized for and corrected in her tweet.
I’m no lawyer, so I can’t speak to actual legalities, but as far as actual harm goes, what actually happened to either party here? Did LPs withdraw from his firm? Did people not work with A16Z because of this? I’m gonna guess nothing really changed - people would have totally forgotten about it had Glenn not brought it up again, and I would argue there were zero actually consequences.
So, what were the consequences for Taylor? Harassment, for days, by people in power, using their positions of power to direct hatred and scorn toward her, again and again and again, calling her a liar that maligns people.
I don’t see how anyone can truly come out of this seeing Taylor as the oppressive force. She isn’t sending people after anyone. Marc’s life has not materially changed from this, beyond being slightly annoyed. Taylor’s mentions are full of guys screaming at her for “lying” and searching her name and responding to people who talk about her.
Identifying the powerful player here is important. Taylor is not the editor of the New York Times, nor is she David Brooks or another opinion columnist who has actual power and actual ethical concerns. She does not simply hit “post” on every thought she has and have it appear on NYTimes.com and in the paper, and her Twitter account is not the sole nexus point from which people get their information. Her account - like Andreessen’s - is not followed by millions of people on Clubhouse, nor does she, like Andreessen, or Horowitz, command a rabid fanbase of people who want to be like her.
In short, she does not exist in a position to inspire the actions and directions of millions of hopeful, optimistic startup people. She does not sit at the top of billions of dollars of investment capital, she does not have influence over the valley, and she does not have the ability to get them fired from their jobs or precluded from other jobs. An errant comment from her has influence, but she is not capable of using her largest pulpit - writing in the New York Times - errantly.
Conversely, Andreessen has the ability to send a notification on Clubhouse when he starts a room (I believe he has 3.7 million followers), he has millions of adoring fans, he can easily attract the attention of most of the media with any statement, and he even through association with something can drive interest into it. Like any fandom, he also has people that will leap to his defense, and has not been considerate enough to make even a brief statement that says “even if you dislike Taylor, leave her alone, women shouldn’t be harassed.”
Nevertheless, the scale of the power he wields and the protections afforded by that power are so completely imbalanced compared to Taylor’s that it nauseates me. His power is such that he has not actually had to do anything and Taylor has faced harassment in his name (which is why a response decrying it would be so powerful). This is a particularly insidious power, because it also relieves him of responsibility - he didn’t do the harassment, nor did he directly incite it. The “Taylor Lorenz fans” clubhouse room he was in was apparently just “for him to listen in to,” which comes with it a spurious layer of protection - he was “simply listening” not actually harassing - though one can easily argue that you’re encouraging by participation.
Greenwald should and may indeed know better. A lot of these bad faith dogpiles usually manipulate the narrative to make someone with a great deal of power look like the victim, and said manipulation is used to suppress voices that are potentially harmful to said power. He knows this. I don’t know Glenn, and I do not know why he is acting like this, but it’s a truly despicable way of framing a situation - and it’s framing it in such a way as to support and reinforce power structures.
The despicable thing is that this power and influence can be used to genuinely help people. The escalation of harassment and violence against women online is accelerating rapidly, and instead of saying “stop fucking harassing women online,” Glenn is downplaying its seriousness and telling a woman that her struggles and fears and pains are not as bad as Julian Assange’s.
His argument is that Taylor’s actions - and the cancel culture movement - are anti-journalism and anti-freedom of speech, but tell me this: what message a powerful man stating that a woman’s fears and agonies are not significant send to female journalists who might want to investigate something but fear for their safety?
And what message does this send to those who might question powerful forces? What good does wielding the power of a Pulitzer prize winning reporter’s platform do, other than further gatekeeping of the truth?
Whenever you evaluate situations like this, I encourage you to evaluate who what harm is being caused, why it is being caused and who benefits from said harm. I ask you to interrogate the motivations of the parties involved, and what they were intending to do in the situation. It’s understandable to jump to the side that you consider yourself on, to protect founders, or VCs, or people who look and sound like you, but I encourage you to look deeper and really consider what actually is happening.
What’s happening to Taylor is disgusting, the opposite of free speech and the opposite of what we should want in any ecosystem, technology or otherwise. Hundreds of people attacking her constantly, saying grotesque things about her, threatening her, these are things that weigh on a person, they make you anxious, they scare you, they make you paranoid, they hurt your ability to work and live. It isn’t “just people being mean,” it’s a continual white noise of anger and pain that you are made to live through, and to call it “not persecution” is disgusting.