A Reasonable Approximation

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Against "blankfaces"

(Content note: minor spoilers for Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix.)

Scott Aaronson writes about blankfaces,

anyone who enjoys wielding the power entrusted in them to make others miserable by acting like a cog in a broken machine, rather than like a human being with courage, judgment, and responsibility for their actions. A blankface meets every appeal to facts, logic, and plain compassion with the same repetition of rules and regulations and the same blank stare—a blank stare that, more often than not, conceals a contemptuous smile.

I want to push back against this a bit.

First, one of the defining aspects of blankfacedness is their internal experience. It's someone who enjoys wielding their power. This is a very hard thing to judge from the outside.

I used to work in a cinema. One day a mother came in with her young child, perhaps fivish years old. She was late for a busy screening, and the person selling tickets warned they might not be able to sit together. She said that was fine, bought popcorn and went in. Soon afterwards she came back out, complaining that they couldn't sit together. She wanted a refund for the tickets (fine) and popcorn (not fine, but she insisted). The conversation between her and my manager escalated a bit. I don't remember who brought up the police, but she at least was very confident that she knew her rights and the police would back her up if they arrived. Eventually he gave her a refund.

If it had been up to me? And if I hadn't had to worry about things like PR and "someone yelling in the lobby would ruin the experience for people watching movies"? I think I would absolutely have used the "no, sorry, those are the rules" move. I would have been happy to do so. Does that make me a blankface? But it's not that I would have enjoyed wielding my power as such. Rather it's that I would have enjoyed punishing her, specifically, for acting in ways that I endorsedly think are bad to act in.

Does someone's internal experience matter, though? If they act a certain way, should we care how they feel? I think we should, and if we don't we shouldn't make claims about it.

That is, if what you care about is whether someone is acting a certain way, then don't mention enjoyment when you define a blankface. And if you really do care about the enjoyment part of it - well, how do you know what someone is feeling and why?

I predict that if the term "blankface" takes off, no matter how much people defining the term emphasize the "enjoys" part of it, people using the term will not be careful about checking that. Partly I think this because Scott wasn't: in two of his examples, he accused people of being blankfaces whom he'd never interacted with and could not identify. Does he really think that a web portal was badly designed out of malice? But also I think that… like, even if you can tell that someone is just acting a certain way because they enjoy it, even if you're really sure that's what's going on, you won't properly be able to capture that in your description of the events. So people will read a story where it seems like the thing making them a blankface is the way they acted, and then they'll tell their own similar stories where people acted in similar ways, and they'll use the term "blankface".

There's a lot of potential here for a kind of (reverse?) motte-and-bailey, where the bailey is "I'm calling someone a blankface which is explicitly defined as having an enjoyment part to it", and the motte is "…but no one uses it that way, so obviously I didn't mean to imply that I know what was going on in their head".

Here's another reason someone might externally act blankfacedly: fear. Yes, this is ridiculous, but if I admit that out loud I'll be seen as undermining my boss who already has it in for me, so…. Or, exhaustion: this is the third sob story I've heard today. I cannot deal with feeling more sympathy.

Given how strongly Scott feels about blankfaces (they've apparently dehumanized themselves and deserve no mercy), I certainly hope he cares whether they act blankfacedly for sympathetic or unsympathetic reasons. And if we're to care about that, I think we have to admit that most of the time we don't really know.

Second and relatedly, I think we should distinguish between "this person is blankfacing" and "this person is a blankface". Like, maybe someone right now is enjoying wielding petty power for the sake of it. I don't currently predict that that person routinely enjoys acting that way, or enjoys acting that way in every situation where they have petty power. That's maybe not much consolation to their victim right now, but still.

Perhaps I should predict that? But I currently don't, and Scott gives me no reason to.

Third, I'm not sure Umbridge is an example of the archetype. Or, if Umbridge is really what Scott wants to point at, I'm not sure his explicit definition matches up.

The most despicable villain in the Harry Potter universe is not Lord Voldemort, who's mostly just a faraway cipher and abstract embodiment of pure evil, no more hateable than an earthquake. Rather, it's Dolores Jane Umbridge, the toadlike Ministry of Magic bureaucrat who takes over Hogwarts school, forces out Dumbledore as headmaster, and terrorizes the students with increasingly draconian "Educational Decrees." Umbridge's decrees are mostly aimed at punishing Harry Potter and his friends, who've embarrassed the Ministry by telling everyone the truth that Voldemort has returned and by readying themselves to fight him, thereby defying the Ministry's head-in-the-sand policy.

Anyway, I’ll say this for Harry Potter: Rowling's portrayal of Umbridge is so spot-on and merciless that, for anyone who knows the series, I could simply define a blankface to be anyone sufficiently Umbridge-like.

Spoilers: the educational decrees are not the extent of Umbridge's villainy. She also sends dementors to attack Harry and his cousin. She tries to slip Harry a truth serum, and later tries to force-feed it to him. When she can't do that, she tries to torture him. None of this is legal1, some of it is super-duper illegal, and her superiors aren't pressuring her into it. Umbridge doesn't simply act like a cog in a broken machine. She exercises judgment, and I think even some courage, in service of villainous ends.

(I am not, here, describing Umbridge's motivations. I think I have some idea of what they are, but I'm not sure I'd capture them very well and my feeling is they're not super relevant for this bit.)

However annoyed Scott may be at his daughter's lifeguard, I predict that describing the lifeguard as Umbridge-like is unfair. I predict, for example, that she would never take initiative to deliberately engineer a situation in which Scott's daughter nearly drowns.

I think Scott is pointing at something true, and important to know about. But I think he's conflating a few different things (blankfacing-regardless-of-internal-experience, blankfacing-specifically-meaning-enjoying-it, being-a-blankface, Umbridge), and I worry that the way he's pointing at them will result in bad discourse norms. I still think it's good that he published, but I don't think that essay is the ideal version of what it could be, and I'm trying here to point at ways I think it falls short.

  1. At least I don't think any of that was legal. I am not a wizard lawyer and this is not wizard legal advice. 

Posted on 08 August 2021

Tagged: culture

Comments elsewhere: LessWrong; /r/slatestarcodex