Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Point of honor

When Robin Page, "a farmer, conservationist, columnist for The Daily Telegraph, and the chairman of the Countryside Restoration Trust" spoke at a pro-hunting rally in 2002, he opened his speech with this sentence. "If you are a black, vegetarian, Muslim, asylum-seeking, one-legged lesbian lorry driver, I want the same rights as you." Page was arrested a month later for "hate crime". No surprises there. Mr. Page was subsequently exonerated, but in the process of preparing his defense he discovered that "his name was put on a 'Homo-phobic Incidents Register'". One of my steady interests is examining the phenomenon of the online reputation. I set out to discover what this 'Homo-phobic Incidents Register' was.

I could find no direct reference, but by implication it is the database where reported Hate Crimes go to live. The Northumbria Police site in Britain has the following entry. "There is a national online reporting service available for victims of homophobic incidents who would feel happier reporting a crime online. ... To make an online report, use the 'How can I report a 'hate' incident online?' link on this page." Online hate crime reporting forms write to a database and eventually, after some further cleanup and validation, eventually become part of the mysterious "homo-phobic register".

But the phenomenon of creating online "hate crime" registers is not confined to Britain. For example, UCLA's website has a "Hate Crime and Hate Incident Reporting Form" with the ominous disclaimer, "ALL information submitted will be maintained as confidential to the extent permitted by law" (the italics are mine). If you run this Google search query, it will be evident that there are literally thousands of ways of report criminal activity online.

The police have solicited tips from the public since time immemorial. And it would probably be impossible to mount an effective defense against terrorist activity without enlisting community informants. But as anyone familiar with well-protected databases understands, records unless deleted are forever. Somewhere, someplace a record that Robin Page was arrested for "hate crime" exists. It's part of his reputation. And as far as anyone with the smarts or legal authority to access his records is concerned, it is part of his online reputation. For now and all time to come, for better or worse, you are in part what other people think you are. Even legal action cannot wholly define an online reputation. The action itself becomes part of the reputation and the derogatory information may be repeated and spread even more by the very process of challenging it. Unless a way can be found ...

One of the more interesting ways societies in the past dealt with questions of reputation was through the duel.

As practiced from the 15th to 20th centuries in Western societies, a duel was a consensual fight between two people, with matched, usually deadly weapons in accordance with rules explicitly or implicitly agreed upon, over a point of honor, usually accompanied by a trusted representative (who might themselves fight), often in contravention of the law.

The duel usually developed out of the desire of one party (the challenger) to redress a perceived insult to his honor. The goal of the duel was often not so much to kill the opponent as to gain "satisfaction," that is, to restore one's honor by demonstrating a willingness to risk one's life for it.

The key feature of the duel is that it implicitly created a 'register of accepted truth'; that is to say it created an accepted fact. It settled things and expunged derogatory information (to the degree such a thing was possible). The interesting question is whether the Internet can be structured in such a way as to make an online duel possible. Like its physical counterpart, a online duel would entail great cost and risk; but the outcome of a Truth Duel would be the power to create an entry in a Truth Register. All the derogatory information online would still exist, but the final act of any online reputational evaluation would be a lookup to the Truth Register and any contrary information would be nulled.

The technology to do this may someday exist. Until then, our online reputations will be somewhat at the mercy of factors beyond our control. En garde!.


Blogger RWE said...

In high school, a teacher who had become a USN officer in the early 1930's mentioned an experience he had that provided a real teaching moment.

As a new ensign, he was about to go belowdecks for an inspection when an aged Lt, a enlisted man who had become an officer, told him of something that he had experienced. As a young officer he was doing just such an inspection when he came upon a couple of seamen engaged in an act of sodemy. He reported it, as he thought appropriate, and there was a formal investigation.

And thereafter, for the rest of his career, he was known as the "officer who had been involved in the sodemy incident." It was a distasteful episode, and people chose to forget everything but the fact that he was involved in some manner. The fact that he was not engaging in the act himself but was doing his duty to report it was all but forgotten - he was never promoted again.

So he then asked the young ensign what he would do if he made a similar discovery, who replied "look the other way."

Reputations are fragile things, even more so in the Internet age.

1/16/2008 05:12:00 AM  
Blogger newscaper said...

The problem with reputation is that it will ALWAYS be out of our control.

How could it be otherwise, since, at the fundamental level, a "reputation" is nothing more than the aggregate of the opinions held by other people in their own minds.

Of course *they* own their thoughts, not us.

1/16/2008 05:52:00 AM  
Blogger Wretchard said...

The problem with reputation is that it will ALWAYS be out of our control.

Interesting idea. But then is "reputation management" an oxymoron or does it have a meaningful definition?

1/16/2008 05:57:00 AM  
Blogger Wretchard said...

Former Spook has a fascinating case study of the attempt by Air Force BG Terry Schwalier to clear his name after he was blamed for failing to prevent the Khobar bombings.

Over the decade that followed, General Schwalier fought a long battle to clear his name. His efforts were largely unsuccessful until he came across an Air Force Academy classmate, Michael Rose, at a conference in 2005. Schwalier told Rose, an attorney practicing in South Carolina, that he had just received another rejection from the Air Force Board for the Correction of Military Records, denying a request for reinstatement of his promotion to Major General. Three months before the bombing, Schwalier had been confirmed for his second star by the Senate, but then-Secretary of Defense William Cohen removed his name from the promotion list after release of the Downing report.

Rose agreed to represent Schwalier for free and submitted a new request for correction last September. While preparing that appeal, Rose made some rather startling discoveries. In 2004, he learned, the corrections board ruled that Schwalier, had (in fact) been promoted to Major General on 1 January 1997, although he never pinned on that rank. However, the same official who approved the correction later reversed his decision. According to Mr. Rose, that marked the first time that a civilian Air Force attorney had interfered with a board decision, an action he described as a clear abuse of authority. ...

We also wonder why General Schwalier has never received a formal apology from the political and military leaders who were so quick to throw him under the bus. Someone ought to ask Mr. Perry, Mr. Cohen (and their former boss, Bill Clinton) when they will publicly apologize to Terry Schwalier.

What's true and what people think is true are often two different things.

1/16/2008 06:18:00 AM  
Blogger Marcus Erroneous said...

It appears as though one thing that a duel did is hold you accountable for what you said or spread in public. The aggrieved party could determine how damaging and/or how important it was to him. Important enough to stake your life to the correction of it? By calling for the duel, the originating party was now being held accountable and had to decide how important it was for people to know what he had imparted. Was it important enough to stake his life to it?

We now see large corporations with deep pockets suing people with no pockets over factually true statements, yet without the means to defend them. And the converse, the ever popular anonymous post. Where one may say anything with no accountability for your actions. Leaving the victim with no recourse for redress.

While the whole "honor" thing has never been perfect, at least there were some feedback mechanisms to provide balance. On the 'Net, "Where no one knows you're a dog", we have yet to figure out how to provide an effective means for redress.

1/16/2008 08:06:00 AM  
Blogger amr said...

“One of the more interesting ways societies in the past dealt with questions of reputation was through the duel.” I have suggested to a few politicians that they should be glad that they live in a modern society, because what many say could get them challenged to a duel in times past and then we would see how courageous they were about their positions.

I sometimes long for the good old days, without the racist element, where if someone was being too much of an ass, a group or the sheriff would drop buy and offer a few words of advice. The small claims courts are somewhat helpful, but as Marcus Erroneous wrote, one has little protection from the powerful.

Many claim that we are an extremely violent society and there needs to be even more controls than now exist. If that is correct, why did those who participated in the Enron scandal live to go on trial; If I had lost everything, not just my reputation, because of their actions (realizing that many did not follow the usual advice to diversify their investments), vigilante justice by me would have resulted in most states of getting three squares a day and a roof over my head. We haven’t seen a major threat against those that are believed to have abused their power since the days of the SLA and SDS.

Since seemingly our economic and political leaders have little to fear from the justice system, a little fear of the public placed in their minds might go a long way to making them think twice about taking advantage of the system and the people. As horrible as it sounds, usually an alarming example where justice is done is needed to make people think.

1/16/2008 09:03:00 AM  
Blogger Buddy Larsen said...

"I have endured a great deal of ridicule without much malice.... I am used to it."

President Lincoln's letter to James H. Hackett, November 2, 1863.

1/16/2008 09:56:00 AM  
Blogger Aristides said...

I have given some thought to this subject.

Reputation management and identity management are going to be big industries in the 21st and beyond.

On reputation management, I'm relatively certain it will take the form of real-time, date-stamped, unbroken video documentation of one's public life (probably combined with GPS data). Most likely the video will come from a nano-device embedded in your clothes, to be automatically and wirelessly uploaded to your primary home computer as soon as you walk in the door. The database itself will be protected by the best encryption available, and will be off limits to authority via an extension of the Fifth Amendment.

Would you wear one? I certainly would.

1/16/2008 11:38:00 AM  
Blogger Bill Lever said...

Going to much trouble to correct one's internet reputation reminds me of Anton Chekov's short story "A Slander".

The main character (needlessly) worries about a slander by another man. In his attempt to head off the slander -- he slanders himself - and his wife believes it all.

Writing that you "didn't do it", will probably lead to a larger audience with a firm conviction that you did.

1/16/2008 12:11:00 PM  
Blogger RWE said...

The blame attached to BG Schwailer as the result of the Kobhar Towers attack had an noteworthy side effect. The USAF Chief of Staff, Gen Fogleman, so opposed the kangaroo court that convicted BG Schwailer that he resigned - a first for the Air Force.

In fact, BG Schwailer's people had identified the very vulnerability associated with the attack and were trying to correct it. They simply were not able to fix it right away because they were on a Saudi base and required the host country to take action. In fact, when the tanker truck with the bomb was parked it was seen almost immiediately by USAF security personnel and the building was in the process of being evacuated when the bomb went off. If similar thinsg had happened on 9/11/01 fighetrs would have been waiting over the target cities and the airliners would have been shot down long before reaching their targets. Contrast what really happened at the WTC and Khobar Towers with who got fired and you will see a basic differnce between Deomcatic and Republican Administrations - or at least this Bush Admin.

What has been called the "Kill Your King" approach of going after a symbolic high-level target is a characteristic of the Left. As Wretchard himself has described, the Left's favorite focus is on a single individual who will fix everything - or who is responsible and must be fired.

1/16/2008 12:56:00 PM  
Blogger Gene said...

Mr. Page was subsequently exonerated, but in the process of preparing his defense he discovered that "his name was put on a 'Homo-phobic Incidents Register'".

Getting him on the register may well have been the point of arresting him. It enabled the authorities to damage his reputation regardless of the outcome of the trail.


1/16/2008 02:38:00 PM  
Blogger Buddy Larsen said...

rwe's & gene's posts both remind me of alinsky's 13th rule for radicals - find your target, freeze it, personalize it, and polarize it.

1/16/2008 07:30:00 PM  
Blogger joe buz said...

In my less than humble opinion Mr. Page's reputation is far from ruined. In fact after reading his quote I hold him in high regard. Almost as high as I hold buddy larsen.

1/16/2008 08:48:00 PM  
Blogger Jonathan Levy said...

The phrase 'register of accepted truth' reminds me of a well-known Arthurian scene which I read in Malory's Le Mort D'arthur.

The short version: Queen Guinevere and a dozen knights are 'guests' in Meleagant's castle. Lancelot sneaks into her room, they sleep together, he escapes, but leaves bloodstains from a wound to his hand gained by forcing open the window. Next morning Meleagant sees the blood and accuses the queen of infidelity. Lancelot rushes to her defense (a glove conveniently hides his injury), and challenges Meleagant to a duel, which he subsequently wins.

While reading the scene, one is struck by a cognitive dissonance - how can Lancelot boldly accuse Meleagant of being a liar, when the proof of his guilt is staring Lancelot in the face? How can Guinevere shamelessly beg for a knight - any knight - to risk his life to save her, when she knows she is guilty - and believes that God will determine the outcome of the battle according to the justice of the cause? Moreover, how can Malory write the scene without feeling the need to excuse or accuse the behaviors of his characters?

The concept of a 'register of accepted truth' sums it up nicely. Once Lancelot defeats Meleagant in a duel, Guinevere's innocence has become an Accepted Truth, and his memories of that night and the scar on his hand are meaningless.

I also remember another case - which I believe is historical - where a nobleman, if accused, could find a dozen noblemen who would swear to his innocence (regardless if they were witnesses to the event) to clear his name. There was a particular instance, where the (I believe) infidelity of the queen was so blatant, that it was thought necessary to have 120 people swear to her innocence.

1/16/2008 10:55:00 PM  
Blogger M. Simon said...

With so many anon. posters on the 'net a person who posts under his/her own name automatically has a higher reputation. He/she can be held accountable.

Second best is a consistent handle.

Anon. comments of course have no reputation and are more easily dismissed.

And the worst of course are sock puppeteers like Greenwald. Any positive comment about him in a thread is automatically dismissed.

So it goes.

1/17/2008 05:57:00 AM  
Blogger Annoymouse said...

"If you are a black, vegetarian, Muslim, asylum-seeking, one-legged lesbian lorry driver, I want the same rights as you."

For goodness sake, the man is making an allegory of broad diversity that has established a peculiar exclusion of his own existence. What is the crime about citing the existence of another “Special Ethics” group? What could possibly be offensive about this? The point is everyone has an axe to grind and those with most axes to grind our bequeathed with some special power… the power of victimhood requiring the direct intervention of mom… I mean the government. “Mom! Bobby keeps calling me names” Mom; “BobbyyY! Leave your sister alone!” I have myself referred to the mythical wheelchair-bound black Native-American Jewish lesbian. A trifecta (quadfecta?) of designated victim status. They are empowered by the grievance Nazis. Now I can’t gripe without being arrested? Great. That is progress… or should I say Progressive?

“Anon. comments of course have no reputation and are more easily dismissed.”

Jeesh, my name is John Doe. Believe me now?

1/17/2008 08:02:00 AM  
Blogger newscaper said...

The way any level headed critics of homosexuality -- or rather the typical politics of the most vocal blocs -- is always dismissed or tarred as "homophobia" is just like the way gun buyers/owners are said to be living in, giving in to, fear (if not hate).

The whole idea is to paint all who disagree as irrational, and therefore out-of-hand not requiring reasoned rebuttal.

In other words, it's cheating in the debate.

FWIW one might as well begin calling gay men "gynophobes".

1/17/2008 09:05:00 AM  

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