A thoughtful commenter objected in a procedural way to my open letter to Chris Dodd. He praised the letter and affirmed that I spoke for him in it, but said:
One significant concern I have is your claim, explicit and implicit, that you speak on behalf of all the many technologists and geeks who work to build and defend the Internet. You don’t. You no doubt speak for many, and as I said above, to a significant extent you speak for me, but I’m sure there will be many thoughtful dedicated contributors to Internet technology who disagree with at least some of what you write.
I’m well aware of this issue. But worrying too much about about the N% who are going to disagree with any given representation I make on behalf of our tribe would leave me unable to serve the (100-N)% who do agree. And somebody has to do that, especially when the issues are public and political. The alternative is that we aren’t heard in the public conversation at all.
N=0 is an impossible standard. The best any of our public faces can hope for is to represent us to 95% confidence and speak up knowing that some 5% are going to be disgruntled about it.
I know that our values push us towards so much respect for individual dissent that we tend to think unanimous consent is required before anyone can speak for the group. You’re expressing that very well when you report that you agree with me but feel a need to speak up for those who don’t. Trust me, I feel similar doubts about my standing to represent us every time I have to write something like that open letter.
The trouble with those thoughts is that they’re a counsel of paralysis. They’d be great if my objective were to feel virtuous and pure and I didn’t mind that making me ineffective. But that’s lousy practical politics – and practical politics is what we need to keep from having SOPA/PIPA/ACTA and worse rammed down our throats. I can only serve our actual, practical interests by making a deliberate decision to ignore the 5%.
You suggest language that works around the problem by being more explicit and contingent about who agrees. Again, this is a counsel of self-destructive virtue, and terrible practical politics. It’s great for an audience of individualistic intuitive-thinker personalities (people who think like hackers) but for general audiences it’s meaningless noise or worse. And by “worse” I mean they have a strong tendency to read such disclaimers as actually meaning “this ‘spokesman’ has no confidence in his own legitimacy, he’s a waste of our time, we should ignore him”.
I had to unlearn that mistake fifteen years ago. It’s simply one of the hazards of my position that in order to effectively address mainstream audiences I have to adopt a communications style that is inevitably going to put some people’s backs up within our tribe. I live with that because I understand very clearly that the alternatives – not speaking up, or using self-defeating language – would be worse.