The least surprising thing about Quinn Norton's piece for the Atlantic is that Quinn Norton wrote it.
Norton is a tech writer who became famous for being embedded with Occupy and reporting about Anonymous. She was published in Wired. Through constant repetition of the can-you-even-understand-how-topical-my-piece-is formula, Norton became generally relevant. She was germane in the way that financial features about retirement are always timely: sure, why not? On Feb. 13 the beleaguered New York Times Editorial Page announced they were hiring her. That was at 3:30 PM. The honeymoon lasted seven hours. A Twitter backlash informed the Times that Norton was friends with the Neo-Nazi Andrew Auernheimer, and that Norton had written a number of tweets using the n-word and the f-word. By 10:18 PM, Norton was out. On the 27th, Norton wrote a long, passive-aggressive piece for The Atlantic, titled “The New York Times Fired My Doppelgänger.”
What does Norton say about her dismissal? First of all, that it wasn't really her:
The day before Valentine's Day, social media created a bizarro-world version of me. 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. It is strange to see such a version of yourself invented and destroyed by networked rage.
This isn't the first time Norton has aired the Bizarro Twin theory. In a 2015 Medium post, she discussed how poorly the cartoonist Ben Garrison was being treated by the Internet: “Social media generates these doppelgängers, memes are constructed of these doppelgängers.” This was before Garrison became famous for his Trump fandom, but Norton would use this same reasoning during her public shaming.
Norton's opener needs unpacking. Indeed, it is the premise for the entire feature: I, Quinn Norton, was misrepresented by the Internet. Later, in the Atlantic piece, Norton elaborates:
But this isn't what the internet did with the idea of me that emerged from a scatter of tweets before Valentine's Day. The internet lets people create and then interact with a character. Regardless of who I am and what I've done, there is now a Nazi-sympathizing and homophobic “Quinn Norton” out there: She was born into privilege, and in some versions of this story even attended two universities in California. She is an abusive and deceptive person, who lies about her family, her disabilities, and even her sexuality. She is also fictional, a creation of a collaborative writing process that took place on social-publishing platforms, over a matter of days, between countless people who had never met each other.
Norton argues that the view of her as a racist and Nazi is untrue. I agree with her. Having read many of her pieces, as far as I can tell, she is neither a white supremacist nor a fascist. Rather, she comes across as insensitive, careless, unkind, and tone-deaf. When the Internet describes her as a clueless, glib, and shallow thinker, they are correct. As a writer, her trademark is a proud, obtuse haughtiness that delights in oversimplification.
I have related the bare facts of Norton's termination. What I have not fully communicated is the defensiveness and lack of empathy demonstrated by Norton at every stage of this process. Long before, during, and after her hiring and eventual “firing” by the Times, Norton displayed a staggering lack of self-awareness—baffling in a pundit whose strong suit was supposedly the intersection of tech and human nature. The general annoyance with Norton goes deeper than her recent record. It is not merely her blithe embrace of a Nazi, troubling as that is. Or her cavalier and unapologetic deployment of hurtful hate speech. Rather, it is the manner and method in which she uses her platform:
In her writing and online behavior, Norton has a raw genius for obliviousness. This strain repeats itself throughout her archive. For example, here is a paragraph from a Medium piece titled: “Cis People, Stop Thinking About Other People's Junk All The Damn Time. Understanding Transsexuality as an Endocrine Disorder”:
One time I sent a trans woman friend out to get me some menstrual supplies, and she brought back the wrong thing. By the point I realized, we were out on a boat. I cracked a joke about the whole situation, and had to immediately apologize for hurting my friend's feelings. This annoyed me, though I was not annoyed at my friend. Society had been so completely shitty to her that I couldn't crack one well-timed, fairly witty joke about being different kinds of women without hurting the hell out of her, which is insanely stupid. Women constantly crack jokes about the differences between women, and there's something around 3.5 billion different kinds of women alive today. But society has so wildly abused trans people that my friend can't get in on this rich vein of girl humor. I'm sick of this, and I need people to get a grip on how vicious and ignorant their behavior is.
This passage amazes me. It is telling where Norton's focus lies. Norton asks a friend to help her. The friend unintentionally inconveniences Norton. Norton is annoyed, and says something hurtful. Her friend gets upset, and Norton has to apologize. Where is the blame? “Society had been so completely shitty to her that I couldn't crack one well-timed, fairly witty joke about being different kinds of women without hurting the hell out of her, which is insanely stupid.”
In this mirror world, it is not Norton's fault for saying hurtful, transphobic things. She is not required to change. Rather, it's the entire world that's to blame. Consider the debt of understanding required to tell that story, and then to type this sentence: “I'm sick of this, and I need people to get a grip on how vicious and ignorant their behavior is.” Then she goes on to tell the reader that “transsexuality is best understood as a disorder of the endocrine system of the human body, and not even a particularly complicated or esoteric one.” There are a dozen similar examples of point-missing throughout the Norton canon, including “That Time I Tweeted About #BlackGirlsAreMagic” or “Black Men, Please Play Pokemon Go If You Want To.”
I spent a day reading her takes on Medium and her site, and could have made this piece twice as long.
It is this Norton who wrote the following line in the Atlantic feature:
Around Valentine's Day, people found some things I've said over the last decade upsetting.
The use of passive voice is instructive.
Some of those things I said, and the way that I said them, I stand by completely. They require context to understand, but that's not a flaw—that's part of what makes them complicated and useful thoughts. Some things I've said—-mostly things not discovered by the mob, to be honest—-are not so great, and I don't agree with them now. But that's a worthwhile part of my story.
Norton argues for a larger context in her essay. I concur. Here is a tweet from Norton a week after she was let go from the Times:
This is the appropriate context to understand Norton in, I think. Her rhetorical method is a strange combination of scolding, faux-wokeness, and straw-manning, all delivered in the smuggest possible tone. It's the special kind of patronizing that grows from superficial thinking. Norton writes in the Atlantic:
If you look long enough you can find my early terrible writing. You can find blog posts in which I am an idiot. I've had a lot of uninformed and passionate opinions on geopolitical issues from Ireland to Israel. You can find tweets I thought were witty, but think are stupid now. You can find opinions I still hold that you disagree with. I'm going to leave most of that stuff up. In doing so, I'm telling you that you have to look for context if you are seeking to understand me.
This is not a coherent point. Norton wants everything in her piece: to be forgiven, and be defiant; to be left alone and to lecture us, to deplore the Internet and to celebrate it.
I am not, and will never be, a simple writer. I have sought to convict, accuse, comfort, and plead with my readers. I'm leaving the majority of my flaws online: Go for it, you can find them if you want. It's a choice I made long ago.
What is Norton's goal? Does she want to be taken seriously as a pundit? Then she needs to make arguments which are logically consistent and non-contradictory. Does she want to be an advocate for social justice? That trade requires greater sensitivity than we have evidence for. Does she stand by her own writing or not? Then Norton must decide whether she will defend it, or throw it away. Does Norton's writing seem terrible because we lack context, or because it is genuinely awful? Which is it?
Let's return to the above tweet, the one about Myanmar. What is its purpose? Is it to seriously argue that people who hate Nazis approve of the Burmese genocide? Norton would doubtless claim she was making light of simple solutions to complex problems. But there's no hard question here. The question is simple: should we platform genocidal mouthpieces? The answer is easy: No.
To the extent Norton has a coherent philosophical project, it is engagement. Her thesis may be stated thus: we are obliged to interact with terrible people; it's good for them and good for us. She uses ethnic cleansing in Myanmar as a feint to get the reader on board with her Engagement-is-Good-Thesis. And Norton doubles down on this argument in the Atlantic:
I was called a Nazi because of my friendship with the infamous neo-Nazi known on the internet as weev—his given name is Andrew Auernheimer; he helps run the anti-Semitic website The Daily Stormer. In my pacifism, I can't reject a friendship, even when a friend has taken such a horrifying path. I am not the judge of who is capable of improving as a person. This philosophy also requires me to confront him about his terrible beliefs and their terrible consequences. I have been doing this since before his brief time as a cause célèbre in 2012—I believe it'd be hypocritical for me to turn away from this obligation. weev is just one of many terrible people I've cared for in my life. I don't support what my terrible friend believes or does. But I strongly advocate for people with a good sense of themselves and their values to engage with their terrible friends, coworkers, and relatives, to lovingly confront them for as long as it takes, and it would be wrong to not do so myself.
Norton fully formulated the Engagement Thesis in a November 2017 Medium post titled “The Problem With White Shunning”:
I had some pretty fucked-up ideas growing up. Friends confronted me, I did some work, and I changed. I'm still changing, and this is going to be a lifelong process. ... White folk, stop patting yourself on the back for unfriending people. Stop harassing other people for having racist friends and family. Stop yelling at someone, stalking out, and calling it a job well done.
Norton has repeated this idea, in varying ways, during her entire writing career. She did so in a take titled “Robert Scoble and Me,” about sexual assault. In the White Shunning piece, Norton confuses the active decision to shun with passive indifference. As if people who ostracize racists were cowards. Like most contrarians, Norton is unable or unwilling to reckon with the fact of power. In the 1950s, what kept Jim Crow alive? Certainly the individual prejudices of ordinary men and women. But those bigotries were supported by institutional might.
This is an important point. Establishment thinkers explain oppression as the result of individual behaviors: if you're poor, it's because you don't work hard enough; if society is racist, that's because people just won't open their hearts. But poverty and racism are more than an individual choice: they are embodied, empowered, institutional systems. These systems must be challenged, belittled, and then dismantled. What broke the back of mid-century apartheid was coordinated, enduring action. Shunning played a large part in this process: the South was made the shame of the world, to great effect.
I suspect that if Norton had been writing during the Montgomery Bus Boycott, she would have encouraged the protesters to chat with the white supremacists in charge. But the African-Americans of Alabama had been talking for a century, and they had been answered with bullets, sticks, and dogs. Oppressive power is codified in our economic structures and our laws. It exists above and beyond individual patterns of behavior.
We all understand the value of rational debate. But Norton is proposing that we give unending honor to noxious beliefs. She is wrong for four reasons. First, platforming implicitly treats the bigot as having an ideology that deserves respect. Second, it ignores the historical reality of how change actually happens: collective action and norm erosion. Third, it ignores the existence of the crank and the troll—of people who will never engage, who only exist to poison public space. Fourth, it places the focus on the wrong people: the dignity of the oppressors, and not the humanity of the oppressed.
When Norton writes, in her last paragraph, “We are powerful creatures, but power must come with gentleness and responsibility,” is she trolling us? In her writing, has she shown gentleness, or responsibility?
What makes Norton worthy of attention is that she was considered for the Times. The powers that be took a look at the Internet and decided Norton was the one to elevate. Of all the writers and pundits, all the clever thinkers and funny word-jugglers, the philosophers of soundbite and the masters of clause they could have picked from … and Quinn Norton, who used the term “f____t” online, was their prize pick.
Here’s the thing. You can read economic statistics telling you there’s no real mobility in America. You can listen to leftist podcasts explaining the meritocracy is a sham. You can read a thousand thinkpieces elaborating how the ruling class exists to reinforce its own power. You can absorb all of that, over years, and repeat these points in conversation with your friends.
And yet knowing a thing rationally does not quite prepare you for knowing it emotionally, for groking it in the bones. It’s still hard to grasp just how befuddled and incompetent the master controllers of 21st-century America are. And then comes the proposed hiring of Norton to drive it home. Like a lightning flash over a train yard at night; all the engines are illuminated at once. Norton was right exactly once: it’s about context.