So as some of you may know, Ophelia Benson at Butterflies and Wheels posted this to her blog a couple of days ago:
I got email threats about TAM today, so I’m not going.
One less thing to worry about.
Today she posted a follow-up, saying that the threat in question seems not to have been intended as a threat — it seems to have been a sincerely well-meant warning, worded in a clumsy, hyperbolic manner that made it indistinguishable from a threat. (Content of both emails is posted in the follow-up.) And, of course, she’s getting comments from people trivializing the entire matter, and saying that Ophelia should never have treated the email as a threat. Mostly she’s getting empathy and support: I want to spell that out right up front, for people who are feeling battle-worn about this whole conflagration. But she is also getting some of the “Oh, that wasn’t a threat” response.
And I’ve seen this “Oh, that wasn’t a threat” trope before: not just from trolls, but from intelligent, thoughtful people who I generally consider allies.
So now seems like the time to say something about threats, something I’ve been thinking about for a while.
Here is the thing about threats, veiled threats, joking threats, references to threats, and warnings about threats that are indistinguishable from all of the above:
They’re all Schroedinger’s Threat.
There is no way of knowing whether the person making the threat actually intends to be be threatening, or is just goofing around. Assuming for the sake of argument that they do actually intend to be threatening, there is no way of knowing whether they intend to carry out the threat, or simply mean to intimidate, frighten, and bully you. Assuming for the sake of argument that they do intend to carry out the threat, there is no way of knowing how likely they are to actually do so.
In fact, Schroedinger’s Threat is even more indeterminate than Schroedinger’s Cat. If someone winds up not carrying out a threat, that doesn’t mean they never intended to harm you — they could easily have missed their opportunity, or had a technical snafu, or been talked out of it, or lost their nerve. In fact, if someone winds up not carrying out a threat, that doesn’t even mean they never intended to threaten you — threats are often genuinely intended to frighten and intimidate, even if there’s no intention to actually do physical harm. Schroedinger’s Threat is like Schroedinger’s Cat… except that opening the box and seeing the cat alive still gives you no indication whether the poison pellet was released or not.
Consider, for instance, the common threat we see referenced in Mafia movies: “Nice place you’ve got here. It’d be a shame if something were to happen to it.” The whole point of the wording of this threat is deniability. People making actual threats don’t always come right out and say, “If you don’t give us $500 a month in protection money, we’ll set fire to your business.” Veiled, deniable threats are very common.
So when someone posts a comment on your blog saying they’re going to find you at a conference and put something in your pocket? When someone posts on Facebook saying that they want to hit you and kick your readers in the cunt? When someone sends you an email saying that you need to be careful at TAM, because you might get shot?
You have no way of knowing if this is a threat or not.
You have to look at context. Was this Schroedinger’s Threat a casual passing comment made in a comical and otherwise friendly conversation… or did it come at the end of an ugly, escalating, increasingly personal altercation? Does the person making this Schroedinger’s Threat have a history of bizarre, unstable, inexplicably hostile behavior… or are they generally fairly calm and controlled? Is the person making this Schroedinger’s Threat someone who’s generally been hostile and ugly towards you… or are they someone who’s generally been friendly and supportive? Is the current climate in which this Schroedinger’s Threat was made one in which tensions and hostilities are running high, and in which the target of Schroedinger’s Threat has been one of the main targets of this hostility… or is it a relatively calm time for the community, in which the biggest controversy is “kittens or squid?”
And none of the answers to any of these questions is a guarantee that Schroedinger’s Threat will or will not be carried out. All it does is give you more information with which to weigh the odds.
And very importantly: If a threat was not actually carried out? That does not mean it wasn’t a real threat. In fact, even if a threat was never intended to be carried out, that doesn’t mean it wasn’t a real threat. If the Mafia people telling you, “Nice place you got here, shame if something were to happen to it,” are secretly saying to each other, “Nah, we’re not going to torch that place, it’s too much trouble and it’s right next door to that awesome gelato place we like so much”… if they say it with the intention of intimidating you into giving them money, it is still a threat.
Here’s what my wife Ingrid — known as Nurse Ingrid on the Interwebs — had to say about this in a comment on Ophelia’s follow-up post:
Ophelia, this situation is a perfect illustration of why it is absurd for anyone to dismiss threatening statements made online as “just a joke,” or “they didn’t really mean it,” etc.
By what means are these people suggesting that you determine, based on text on a screen from someone you have never met and know nothing about, which threats are credible and which are not?
I am a health care provider with a lot of experience in mental health. I can tell you that there is no agreed upon set of reliable criteria by which mental health professionals can predict which patients who threaten harm to others — or suicide — will go on to act on those statements. Most of them don’t, but there is no way to be sure if the patient in front of you is one of the very small number who really are serious. So we take all threatening statements as potentially serious and act accordingly.
It’s the same reason that airport security doesn’t allow you to joke about having a bomb. The stakes are too high if they dismiss someone as “just joking” and they’re wrong.
And all of this is dialed up to eleven if you’re a public figure, and threats are part of the background of your everyday life.
Now. None of this means that anyone issuing Schroedinger’s Threat immediately needs to be arrested and thrown in jail. Not even close. What it does mean… well, it means a lot of things. But one of the main things it means is that, if a Schroedinger’s Threat is made about a conference or another public event, the event organizers need to treat it as a real threat. They need to investigate. They need to do what they can to find out who is issuing a threat, and what their history is, and what the background and context of the threat is. They need to make a record of it, so that they can see over time if there’s a pattern, and so that future investigations will have a paper trail. They need to let law enforcement know. They need to find out what the target of Schroedinger’s Threat needs to make them feel safe. They need to take it seriously.
And one of the other main things that this means? It means is that the community needs to take it seriously. Again, this doesn’t mean assuming guilt until innocence is proven. It means not treating reports of threats with a hyper-skeptical demand for absurdly high, impossible to meet, goalpost-moving levels of evidence. It means not requiring more evidence for reports of threats than you would for homeopathy or Bigfoot. It means not treating reports of threats as extraordinary claims demanding extraordinary evidence. It means understanding that reports of threats are actually a fairly ordinary claim. It means not jumping to the conclusion that, unless your rigorously high standard for evidence is met, the person making the report must be a liar. It means not assuming that, if the target of the threat didn’t report it to the police, they must not have taken it seriously, and are just stirring up drama. It means, when discussing threats, not omitting the relevant details that actually made the target see it as a threat. It means not derailing conversations about threats with endless “Yes, but…” discussions of whatever it is that you feel like talking about instead. It means understanding the Schroedinger’s Threat nature of threats, and understanding that even if you, personally, think the threat is unlikely to be carried out, it still deserves to be taken seriously. It means that the community needs to not contribute to the climate that fosters threats and allows bullying to work.