The Ultimate Coward
Or, a composite picture of a type of horrible person I have met on and off.
There is a type of person in this world who prefaces their place in society with, “but first, don’t question me.” They are the bane of everyone’s existence, especially mine, and I’m going to sketch out for you with several stories who they are exactly and why they are the most malignant kind of evil afoot today.
I suppose it’s only fitting to start with the first person like this I met in my life, colouring this article with a touch of self-awareness and a grain of salt for you readers regarding my venom about this: my father.
My earliest memories were very positive with him. My father actually epitomised the cool hippie, and he was thus wildly popular with children and even teenagers. He had beautiful long blonde hair, good fashion sense, and was a self-taught professional guitarist, almost always in some band project. He even rode a Harley into work for many spells while he supervised children at Youth Services on Fort Carson. He was everything short of a celebrity to others, including me when I was little.
Those romanticisms faded into blood and fury after I came out to live with him long-term in high school. I’m not going to give a long hand account here of what that was all about, but suffice to say my uncle (his brother) committed suicide after living with us for six months, and the next month I moved out to live with my mother who had come through to do more visitation with us, not realising how violent and untenable the situation was for us. What was the problem?
It’s really simple: my father was never wrong. Obviously this is not a statement of fact, because he is not God, but he acted as if it were in every situation of current substance. He had this wistful bullshit story he would tell about how years ago he “woke up one day” and “realised he was an asshole”, but anyone with a brain would tell you that the man hasn’t aged a day or learned a god damn thing since any time after age 15. He’s 55 now, still going out to mountain retreats to do drugs and get laid like a 20-year-old vagabond. Many of the former mutual friends I used to know through him have moved on, because at the end of the day, it’s impossible to work with him. He is his own worst enemy. He is never wrong in any meaningful sense of the word.
I see this same kind of ‘infallibility’ with Elon Musk. I remember back on an old Twitter space when dissent was still abound regarding his takeover of the website. There was one choice interaction where someone actually pressed him for a technical explanation on why the site needed a “complete rewrite”. Instead of answering it, he kicked the guy, totally failing the shit test. It was breathtaking to me because I would have been able to answer it if Twitter was my project like it was for him. It’s kind of what I do – I’m an informatician and a software architect. If Elon can’t answer it, that’s fine, but he needed to have somebody to point to that can. Back in those days I was less lucid about the Austin mafia, and wrote an article entertaining the idea of doing precisely what he was pressed into in that conversation. Later on I would learn how bad his relationship really is with the rest of society, when arguably his darkest moment came in the form of a surprise cameo on Dave Chappelle’s standup set.
Here we had a complete narrative violation and it stunned him into total silence. Everyone in Austin/Twitter (it’s the same groupthink, really) had memed themselves into believing Dave is ‘one of us’ because of his anti-trans jokes, and they never went outside into the real world to learn or notice that society is not the dry, shallow monolith that they’ve made it out to be in their minds through stale and often parasocial relationships. When this crackpot fantasy they all shared didn’t manifest, they were dumbfounded. 80% of the crowd, booing him nonstop for 10 minutes? “Inconceivable!” Quite.
It’s normal to get things wrong. Even big things. It’s also normal not to want to do some giant public about-face and make a big deal out of it. It can be very embarrassing to find one’s self in the situation Elon did. But it’s more telling what he didn’t do after this experience. He didn’t learn from it. He never had an honest recollection, like “damn, that was crazy. What the fuck happened?” He didn’t stop and rethink his positions or his place in things. He didn’t reflect on what he might have done to lead himself to this point. He never answered to the haters in that crowd, even just to himself. He rationalised it away. Considering he’s a closet Twitter rationalist, is this not the best assessment of what he did? Complete denial.
Elon is never wrong. He is like an abusive father in tense situations – “I am correct all the time.” In fairness, I will throw him a shilling of charity and say he probably has better coping mechanisms to conceal this defect than my father does. He probably does better than “openly insulting you and going ballistic if you say anything back about it.” Maybe not, though. I’d take the word of former employees of his regarding that. But I don’t doubt for a second that “Elon is never wrong.”
So we’ve got a pretty solid picture here of the type of problem person at hand: they do not handle criticism well. But what if I told you that this manifests in many more ways than arrogant belligerence and embarrassment? To this, I hearken back to the classic Drew DeVault article entitled I don’t trust Signal:
Moxie knows about everything I’ve said in this article. He’s a very smart guy and I am under no illusions that he doesn’t understand everything I’ve put forth. I don’t think that Moxie makes these choices because he thinks they’re the right thing to do. He makes arguments which don’t hold up, derails threads, leans on logical fallacies, and loops back around to long-debunked positions when he runs out of ideas. I think this is deliberate. An open source software team reads this article as a list of things they can improve on and gets started. Moxie reads this and prepares for war. Moxie can’t come out and say it openly, but he’s made the decisions he has made because they serve his own interests.
Lots of organizations which are pretending they don’t make self-serving decisions at their customer’s expense rely on argumentative strategies like Moxie does. If you can put together an argument which on the surface appears reasonable, but requires in-depth discussion to debunk, passerby will be reassured that your position is correct, and that the dissenters are just trolls. They won’t have time to read the lengthy discussion which demonstrates that your conclusions are wrong, especially if you draw the discussion out like Moxie does. It can be hard to distinguish these from genuine positions held by the person you’re talking to, but when it conveniently allows them to make self-serving plays, it’s a big red flag.
Wow, that sounds really familiar. Here’s another person responding to valid criticism like it’s an existential attack! Why would they do that?
And so we add another layer to the cake – a second potential motive, that these people are not always afflicted by glass egos, but are sometimes calculated and deliberate about their deflections. This guy doesn’t lose sleep if you call him a liar, he’s just borrowing the narcissist’s toolset to deal with the same problems they do in the same dishonest way. This more resembles psychopathy than mere garden variety narcissism. It’s probably more dangerous. But wait, there’s more!
For most of you who will not have context for this, it’s the terminus of a long-gone run-in I had on a Discord server run by Katherine Dee. While she wasn’t a participant in any of this drama, the deadbeat moderation that enabled it isn’t exactly something to credit her for either. The expounding drawn out in the screencap above really says it all quite concisely, IMO.
So, this is another layer: a situation where we once again find ourselves laid victim to someone else’s feelings about text they don’t agree with online, in complete defiance of the material facts at hand. But interestingly, there is no central actor one can identify and theorise a motive for – just a small group of people who got buttmad and manoeuvred to find the licence to cancel the person who upset them.
At this point I have to honestly ask: is there any way to levy criticism about things over the Worldwide Web? To be frank, I think not. This is not merely a problem of wording or politeness. This is the same asymmetry that Drew DeVault was describing about Signal: the way these assholes talk to me, you would be inclined to think I got into an argument with them and then things got heated, that I said anything I ought to regret, which then caused things to fall apart. I didn’t. They just got tired of me masterfully ripping into their pet cult object and instead of even having an argument with me at all they resorted to berating and insulting me and ostracising me from their little clique. It was only after insults started pouring in that I said ‘fuck it’ and started hitting back.
And for the record, that this kind of thing transpired without intervention under Katherine’s nose does not reflect very well on her, considering how she styles herself as a voice of authority on the intersection of psychology and the Worldwide Web. It’s actually kind of sad that her last word on it is this hyper-defensive, tribalistic non-statement parrying her reputation against me like a shield:
Some expert class we have these days. Gee, I sure am glad you are an open book. If only the pages weren’t blank.
All that said, I personally could not give you a better example of the lost cause that is online socialisation than my former friendship with Charles Rosenbauer. I have talked about him in various contexts before, and in The Scourge of Austin City I explained how none of my scathing criticisms of the place were levied against him or his judgement. After a point, that stopped mattering to him, and he started responding to me as if it all was. I tell him that people are celebrity-worshipping the Signal CTO, and his response is “you weren’t even there.”
Of course, it’s all been downhill since. The final straw came off the heels of a conversational experiment I started, initially trying to see what sorts of things I could say that would actually garner a response from him. He had left me on read on Signal and was DNI with me on Twitter up until this point, so I wanted to try something new to see if I could unstick that poor attitude he had towards me. Once I had him engaging with me earnestly, I immediately asked him why he only responded to me when I was antagonising. He took it to DM and explained that he used to have me muted and speculated that I was still bitter after what happened, which is a big projection if I do say so myself.
Some people really are just doomed to learn lessons the hard way. This was one of the few positive lessons I was taught by my father: sometimes you have to eat dirt to know it tastes bad, but you should try to avoid having to do that if at all possible.
Earnest explanation? Left on read. Oh well, time for another push.
I think it’s pretty obvious Charles is not a stupid person, and after giving it more thought I found his behaviour here pretty damn psychopathic. No response of his directly addressed any of my questions or concerns. He only responded to messages bearing incendiary nuggets that he could use to further the fiction here that I’m being unreasonable or insane, ignoring everything else. There’s literally no winning move with him here. He does not give you any opening to discover a mutual understanding about anything.
My husband reasoned that Charles is not a psychopath, but rather is heavily influenced by people in Austin City who are. This is probably true, as it would explain the magical impetus he had to unmute me for no reason and start engaging (someone else pointed out my replies to him and egged him on to do this). So he’s probably not a psycho. Not that it fucking matters though.
Here’s the thing that confounds me: I spent a day and a half letting my thoughts about what he said simmer before I wrote that last reply to him. Half of it came within the first twelve hours and it took a night’s sleep to even come up with the rest of it. Within an hour, he had blocked me on all of my accounts.
There is a problem many people have with the Web where they psychically embody themselves online as avatars instead of remaining in their minds as “people in the real world somewhere behind keyboards”. This mentally fucks them up beyond any recognition. One of the biggest social aspects of the internet is time asynchronicity – you can respond to messages any time you want. Why in the fuck would you let yourself be hypnotised into not using that so that your amygdala can start throwing up fight-or-flight responses to text messages? How does that help you in any way at all?
Charles had all the time in the world to think up a response. Even if he was a psycho, which he’s probably not, this would still be true. This is still true regardless of any conversational context or object-level points. In general, you probably won’t figure it all out right in that moment. You do not need to jump the gun and try to get out of having to think about it at all. That is a very stupid and foolish thing to do considering the context. Making up a fiction like we didn’t live in my car together for a month traveling around the nation – like you don’t know me – is not a sane response either. You met my mother in real life. She cooked you spaghetti. I also met your parents. I’m not some online rando, and you treating me like one is wrong. This was the core problem I was demanding he answer for, and of course, he opted to play head games about it. He is ‘never wrong’, just like how we split over ‘creative differences’. He is publicly lying about me. This is not OK, and yes, it is a moral issue, not me “being a faggot” like the dumbass from the DF server accused me of. Come the fuck on.
I wish I had kept screenshots of this, but I do have one more story from the Discord archives involving former Occupy primadonna Justine Tunney. She launched a project called Cosmopolitan, building a libc for a polyglot format she calls Actually Portable Executables. It’s a nifty project, and I happened to be the first outside contributor to land a successful merge into
master (it was for VS Code integration, IIRC). Not long in that initial saga back in 2021 and she reached out to me on Twitter DMs to ask me about some thread I wrote lambasting the American University system. I didn’t think much of it, and was kind of busy waiting tables while texting her at work, and was very surprised to see that she went out and blocked me for not sharing her view about Universities (apparently she thinks they are all great and wonderful sources of just reputation, especially for programmers). Even by online standards, that’s pretty mental, and you would sooner expect that out of a pseudonymous rando nobody than someone with plenty of reputation and time online posting under their real name and face.
Originally she didn’t have a Discord server, but she was still bootstrapping the Redbean project to leverage Cosmo into a web server, for which she did create one finally. One day, I joined, and posted a very brief introduction. Interestingly, she actually asked me to elaborate on it, and I obliged.
I tried to talk about informatics work, and once she started engaging me it became this very terse conversation she wanted to have with me about “my journey”. She asked me a barrage of very personal questions more quickly than I could answer them, and then proceeded to levy a judgement at the end of it, which was terribly confusing. After that discussion died down, I started to talk more about informatics, and then I went to bed. I woke up in the morning and the server icon was gone.
In most of these experiences, my husband has always been a silent observer. He never gets involved in my socialisations, but he does watch them and can provide a lens for me to peer into the servers after I get kicked or whatever. The thing that was amazing was that Justine was, at that time, dealing with a summary banning of her and everyone she invited to the Reddit clone lobste.rs, for “spamming”. The admin that banned her for shilling her Redbean/Cosmo stuff was totally unresponsive to her super diplomatically-worded emails contesting the ban.
I thought it was so ironic that she was caught up in precisely the type of violent, self-serving reputational destruction she once levied against me. Initially when I joined, I thought that perhaps she had learned from that. That was not the case. Without a hint of irony, she continues to do the very same ladder-pulling bullshit to people she sees as ‘beneath’ her that the lobste.rs admins were doing to her. There’s apparently no moral introspection, and considering she’s pushing 40, there probably never will be.
It’s hard to tie this together so neatly, but I’m good for nothing if not trying to do precisely that: all of these experiences, and many more both online and in real life that I haven’t the space to go over with any justice, have a common thread that seems like cowardice to me. It’s an erroneous response to adversity – years ago, my landlord and friend died, and his sons-in-law took over our house. I was asking one of them about who was handling rent, and he said his brother was, and that I should talk to him. While I went inside to get a piece of paper to get his contact info, the guy dipped right from my front porch with the door left open.
It’s always this kind of lying bullshit that is an insult to your dignity and intelligence. They desperately need to come up with some fake story about how they weren’t an asshole for some fucking reason even though they absolutely were, and the performances are just pitiful beyond measure.
I don’t judge people for failing, but you have got to be pulling my prick if you’re gonna pretend like you don’t fail. That kind of indecision and cowardice will ruin you. That’s not a projection from me – as far as me goes, I have it hard enough trying to deal with the fallout from shit like this without losing my own senses. I don’t pretend it’s easy or that I didn’t say any of the shit I said. These ultimate cowards do, and that’s my point. They can’t explain themselves, so they depend on banding together with other cowards who will “stick up for them” regardless of the facts. In contrast, explaining myself is literally all I can do.
If you think none of this shit matters, you need to sit down one of these days and honestly ask yourself—think deep—what difference does it make? If the door is open for you to lie like this, what else will you shirk in the same way? When Charles or Elon or Justine vanquishes the pesky little annoyance—the person who was so ‘obviously wrong’ and socially expedient to shut down—what are they going to see when real opportunities come their way? They’re not going to be prepared for the truth, and the chance will slip out of their hands.
That, by itself, is a shame.