The line between "acting like an asshole" and "being an asshole"

It turns out Elan Gale was making the whole thing up.

To catch you up: Elan Gale posted on his Twitter account that someone was being rude on an airplane, and proceeded to detail with screenshots how he harassed her (of course it was a her, wearing mom jeans) in retribution for “not being nice” on Thanksgiving. He gained 70-ish thousand followers over the affair, and sparked a firestorm of dudebros defending their inalienable right to tell rude moms to eat a dick, everyplace the story was covered. He’s been hailed as a hero, completely took in Buzzfeed and thus went viral as all hell, and those few of us who decried the assholish behaviour (myself and way more especially, Ophelia) are presently enjoying the lovely booby-prize of having skepticaler-than-thou skeptics tell us that we were insufficiently skeptical of the whole affair.

First and foremost, there was nothing about the story that expressly failed the smell test, though Avicenna has pointed out that the medical bits (e.g. the lung cancer part) were questionable. See, being on a plane on Thanksgiving is not unheard-of. Planes being delayed is not unheard-of, especially near as we are to winter weather. People being self-entitled, self-centered, thinking their grief is the only grief that matters, is not unheard-of. Someone deciding to “put them in their place” and mistreat them in retribution for their selfishness is not unheard-of. The situation escalating repeatedly is definitely not unheard-of. Nothing about this story was at all worthy of especial scrutiny because it was not describing an extraordinary series of events.

What’s also not unheard-of, though, is someone talented at developing fake drama narratives, like, say, one of the guys behind The Bachelor, putting together a publicity stunt that depends entirely on inventing a story that is completely plausible in every respect that is designed to try to prove a point. Especially when the way they go about proving the point, in the story, is actually kind of undercutting to the narrative they’ve developed, and some people are willing to argue — despite the throngs of abuse heaped at them, too — that that was absurdly cruel, borderline illegal harassment, and well out of proportion to the original offense.

But the whole story was supposed to be illustrative, by Gale’s admission, not “factual” per se.

And it was, in fact, illustrative, and it had sparked a real phenomenon that was worthy in itself of comment, one that I and others have commented on repeatedly — that people were rushing to defend Elan’s inalienable right to repeatedly harass someone who was being mildly annoying instead of deescalating. That people were rushing to defend someone from criticism whose false narrative actually amounted to bullying. These are the people who declared Gale’s actions “full of win”. These are the people who swelled his Twitter followers from (reportedly) a “mere” 30,000 to nearly 175,000. This is the culture that we, Ophelia and I at least, are trying to change by pointing out that it’s ridiculously and needlessly damaging. It’s a culture that revels in “taking victims down a peg”. And that’s just on the surface level — never mind the casual misogyny of repeatedly telling a “frumpy mom-jeans-wearing woman with a breathing mask” to eat his dick, as though the qualities are important for anything except setting the stage with a proper archetypal annoying woman, and as though the instruction was anything but a command to fellate him. The victims of this feeding-frenzy internet mentality are far more often than not uppity bitches, and is any one of us surprised?

There is much wrong with the narrative, but insofar as the truth value of the story was not important to illustrate what he hoped to illustrate, that we should be nice to each other, neither is it important to use the self-same story to illustrate both that Elan Gale is a douchenozzle, and that the general internet asshole rabble who rallied to support him has a twisted moral compass in thinking that his professed actions DID illustrate the point to be nice. As though the cruelty he evinced in his narrative was perfectly acceptable. Whether he was “acting” the asshole in reality, he certainly proved himself one, not only with the very narrative he shaped, but the fact that he did it intentionally setting out to pull the wool over everyone else’s eyes. I’ve encountered one too many person whose flexibility with reality belied their asshole natures. Performance art is only performance art if everyone agrees to the rules and consents. Otherwise, it’s a “hoax”, or less generously, “lying your ass off”. Either of those are asshole behaviour, and they’re exactly the sorts of things we skeptics should REALLY care about, moreso than whether or not we casually believed a widely-reported and entirely plausible story that did not fail any easy sniff tests.

Nothing I said, and likewise nothing Ophelia said, is muted by the fact that this story is not true. The vultures who came out to redouble the pain of the imaginary woman, and who heaped the same levels of abuse on people suggesting that behaviour is unacceptable, are exemplar of exactly the sort of casual misogyny and cruelty we’re decrying here. And they came out to defend behaviour I likewise would have disagreed with if it had happened — and that sort of thing DOES happen, all the damn time.

Sure, Gale’s annoying woman wasn’t real. But these people stirring up drama on the internet by fighting on the side of trollish behaviour in meatspace? THEY ARE.

The line between "acting like an asshole" and "being an asshole"

15 thoughts on “The line between "acting like an asshole" and "being an asshole"

  1. 1


    And I could do a whole thing here about the ethics of telling the truth, about trust and how to erode it, about people who rely on the fact that in normal circumstances we don’t just assume everyone is always lying, about psychopathy and lying, about people who use conventions about trust to tell plausible false stories for the sake of a giggle…

    …but I won’t.

  2. 2

    Yep. His hoax painted himself as a gleeful bully bragging about a sustained campaign of harassment lasting the entire duration of a flight where his target couldn’t get away from him. Then tens of thousands of people praised his boorish harassment as “hilarious” and celebrated his “taking a stand” against the annoying woman.

    Sure, Gale’s an arsehole who didn’t actually harass any real person (this time at least). But those tens of thousands of people who signed onto #teamelan just to get a vicarious buzz of self-righteousness are a much bigger problem.

  3. 3

    I’m reminded of the old Aikido story by Terry Dobson, “A kind word turneth away wrath”. (TW for homophobic and sexist language.)

    It describes an altercation on a Tokyo subway with an angry and belligerent drunk in which the writer, a student of Aikido, was just itching to put a public annoyance in his place, much like the hero of Elan Gale’s story, Elan Gale.

  4. 6

    Who wrote the “Dianne” notes?

    In my capacity as Someone On The Internet, I must say:
    the handwriting in the “Elan” notes and the handwriting in the “Dianne” notes are completely different.

  5. 9

    Boy, it’s at times like these that I’m glad that I’m always a few days behind everybody else (not to mention that I’m too old to have developed twitter addictions).
    btw what actually are ‘mom jeans’?
    Are they those elastic fronted thingies worn when enceinte??

  6. 10

    btw what actually are ‘mom jeans’?
    Are they those elastic fronted thingies worn when enceinte??

    No, those are *maternity* jeans.

    “Mom jeans” are any jeans worn by a woman which dare to focus on comfort and/or affordability and/or practicality rather than high fashion.

    Because FSM forbid that any woman at any time, even in the service of cynical rhetorical fiction, be anything less than smoking hot for any male observers who might happen to cross her path.

  7. 13

    I’m at an utter loss as to what exactly this guy was trying to prove, here, by lying about being a terrible person to someone. It sounds like it’s just the difference between someone who goes out an lynches despised-minority-of-the-week and someone who enthusiastically supports and fantasizes about lynching. It’s nice that they haven’t caused physical harm, but they’re still terrible people and they’re still facilitating physical harm.

  8. 14

    I’m at an utter loss as to what exactly this guy was trying to prove, here, by lying about being a terrible person to someone.

    It’s because he was too “edgy” to lie about doing something nice for someone. Y’know if the story had been about how he’d rescued a puppy and now it had grown up to be a fine, smart, well-behaved rescue dog — nobody’d have believed it. Which is kind of sad, but I guess that’s why the internet is a home to shocking trolls like Elan.

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