My Meeting with Pax

I’m sick to death of this whole stupid topic, and fighting off a brutal chest cold, so I’m going to ask your forbearance on this piece; It’ll be a little less even-handed and detailed than I usually try to be, and if my language is ambiguous, I hope you’ll take a charitable interpretation to what I say.

Earlier this week, people noticed that Pax Dickinson has been saying horrible things online for a while and then he was held accountable for them. Early on in the discussion, I pointed out that his attempts to act like an asshole had succeeded, and so I became a sort of tangential part of the story, mostly for this tweet and its replies:

People who know me know that my offer was sincere, because while I was not trying to get Pax fired (though I certainly am not sorry that he was, and everyone including Pax agrees it was the right decision), I was definitely trying to find some way to understand if a constructive form of accountability could be attached to this incredibly shitty circumstance. I would still like to see Business Insider’s management explain how they’re structurally addressing their failures that allow a toxic culture to thrive for years with no accountability.

Today, Pax and I finally sat down as planned. The first indications to me that this was going to follow a predictable pattern was that his initial email to me described his tweets as being the voice of a “persona”, and that his final planning email mentioned that he wanted to change venue to a different place than I’d mentioned publicly out of deference to his wife’s desire that he be ultra cautious.

I hope that Pax’s friends in the pick up artist community take a few moments away from writing date rape manuals and sending me death threats to reflect on the fact that their new hero has at least some tiny bit of respect for the wife he’s been married to for 15 years. How crushed they will be.

Pax showed up about 10 minutes late, having been busy with the latest stop on his press tour, and as I had agreed, I called him an asshole to his face and paid for his coffee. We talked for about 20 minutes. He offered up a pretty boringly conventional defense of male privilege, and when I described the role of actual satire and comedy in punching up instead of punching down, he revealed that he sees attacking feminists and equality activists as punching up. There was some pointless bickering from me about the inanity of that perspective, but overall things were fairly civil; I’ve met guys like this before and I didn’t have any illusion that I was going to dissuade him from a perspective which his social group rewards with attention and the perverse impression that acting like an asshole is somehow being brave. There were the obligatory mentions of how his wife and some of his coworkers are women, so obviously he can’t be sexist. And there was a philosophical underpinning to his provocation, that Pax is trying to broaden the definition of what constitutes acceptable debate or discussion. That left me a bit amused, as I can’t think of a more self-defeating way to try to accomplish that goal.

There was also a pretty dogged pitch for his startup, which will get all kinds of warm huzzahs from the intersection of MRAs, Bitcoin fans, NSA critics and Redditors. I was pretty amazed that he went for it. He flat out said that he wants his startup to be funded and wasn’t sure if it’d be possible after all of his, and I replied that it realistically wasn’t going to happen without the say-so of someone like me, and I wasn’t inclined to give some VC the nod on this. On reflection, I’ll be explicit: If you’re a venture capitalist, and you invest in Pax’s startup without a profound, meaningful and years-long demonstration of responsibility from Pax beforehand, you’re complicit in extending the tech industry’s awful track record of exclusion, and it’s unacceptable.

[Update: Since the section above was misinterpreted by some, I’ll clarify. I’m not an investor or VC; I just know that when those folks look to invest in someone, investors check references by talking to those who’ve interacted with them. If they asked my opinion, I’d share this perspective: Pax did something his employer deemed a firing offense, but said that there was no changes he should make, nor constructive lessons learned, from the experience. Seems like a bad investment.]

But I am an optimist, and always try to find some opportunity for at least a tiny positive outcome in a shitty situation, so I asked if there was anything productive that could come out of our talking. He seemed pretty skeptical, and the first idea I had was that some of his technical skills were valuable enough that documenting them in a way that could be useful to others might be worthwhile. At this he seemed to perk up, and I said if there were materials that people could use to learn skills at a conceptual level, that might at least yield some good. Pax agreed there was potential, and I told him if he made something like that, I could get it to the right people who could put it to good use.

Then, foolishly, I tweeted about the meeting, briefly mentioning this last part of the conversation. My wording was terse in obedience to Twitter’s limits, and a few folks understandably misinterpreted my intentions.

So, to be clear: I have no interest in playing an agent of Pax Dickinson’s redemption. I do not want him anywhere near kids of any sort, let alone teaching anyone. I am not concerned with creating opportunities for him or reopening the doors he’s closed through his actions.

I do think Pax knows how to do some things that are valuable at a technical level. If he chooses to direct those abilities in a way that’s useful to society, I think that’d be a good thing. I think it would help atone for the hurt Pax has caused.

More broadly, I am trying to live a life where I am as unreasonably kind as I can be. If that means having coffee with a guy who’s been a supremacist asshole, I’m okay with that. In fact, some of the lessons that have stuck with me the most this year were imparted to me by a man who’s done even worse, having served two decades in prison for killing someone. I don’t forgive him that wrong; It wouldn’t be my place to do so even if I had the power. But it’s a good exercise for me to try to see the common humanity I share with even those who do the things our society defines as the worst things. I do not pretend it’s the right choice for everyone, but it is for me.

My most lasting impression of this stupid half hour at a coffee shop was from right in the middle of the conversation about how we speak truth to power. I pointed out that his words were bullying because he was aiming at those who have less power than Pax does, and he said, with great animation:

“But you guys are winning! The progressives and feminists are winning in everything, in politics and media!”

So yes, we did find some common ground during our conversation.