Friday, 2 May 2014

The Dilbert mystery

I worked in a big insurance office when the first collections of Dilbert toons came out, back in the '90s. I became a major fan and introduced the strip to a few of my fellow low-cost, high-density work units,* who also loved it. I still think it's a pretty good description of the absurd reality of corporate life and office politics. I especially like the economy and integrity of the strips, the way the simple, minimalist, consistent line drawings reflect and reinforce the terse, laconic wit of the dialogue. Dilbert, with his blank, deadpan expression is the perfect delivery system for Adams' dry, wry one-liners.

I was also quite a fan of Scott Adams himself, whose career trajectory from downtrodden corporate drone to successful creative artist, living by his wit(s) was an inspiration. I loved the idea of taking all the frustrations and idiocies of working life and turning them, through creative alchemy, into entertainment and a profitable career. It's a perfect escape fantasy; one minute you live the circumscribed life of a lowly team player, faking enthusiasm for (or hiding your resentment at) every dumb idea and bullshit buzzword that oozes down the hierarchy, the next you're a licensed jester, gleefully spearing every new corporate inanity with your pen.

The great thing about being a licensed jester is that you can say what you damn well like and not give a fig for what it will do for your career prospects. It must be great, being able to fearlessly say whatever you damn well like, right?

Wrong, apparently, judging by the title of a recent post on the Dilbert blog, entitled I Miss Having Freedom of Speech. So what's the problem?
Today I wrote two blog posts about events in the news. That writing is some of my best work. You won't see either post. And for that you can thank,, and

Unfortunately, both of my posts have content that could too easily be taken out of context by the bottom-feeding parts of the media and special interest groups looking to bolster their causes. Even my standard disclaimer wouldn't be enough in these two cases. My opinions in the two posts aren't the least bit offensive, but out of context they would look so. 
What is this potentially explosive content that might be distorted in order to discredit Scott? Too controversial to even hint at - he can't bring himself to mention the thing he was going to write about in his post and when people in the comments plead for a clue, he still ain't sayin' nuthin'. Scott's 'standard disclaimer', by the way, goes like this:
Warning: This blog is written for a rational audience that likes to have fun wrestling with unique or controversial points of view. It is written in a style that can easily be confused as advocacy for one sort of unpleasantness or another. It is not intended to change anyone's beliefs or actions. If you quote from this post or link to it, which you are welcome to do, please take responsibility for whatever happens if you mismatch the audience and the content.
The tone of his recent post and the wording of his disclaimer, imply that he's had at least an e-sack full of hate mail and has quite possibly been subject to physical or litigious threats, on account of controversial subjects he's tackled the past.

Other sources suggest that he's waded into some controversial areas and has simply been forcefully disagreed with by people who thought his comments on specific topics were dumb, ignorant or patronising. The most notorious specific examples are:
I’ve been trying for years to reconcile my usually-excellent bullshit filter with the idea that evolution is considered a scientific fact. Why does a well-established scientific fact set off my usually-excellent bullshit filter like a five-alarm fire? 
The reality is that women are treated differently by society for exactly the same reason that children and the mentally handicapped are treated differently. It’s just easier this way for everyone. You don’t argue with a four-year old about why he shouldn’t eat candy for dinner. You don't punch a mentally handicapped guy even if he punches you first. And you don’t argue when a women tells you she’s only making 80 cents to your dollar. It’s the path of least resistance. You save your energy for more important battles.
Taken at face value, these statements seem batshit. Even qualified by his standard disclaimer, they sound pretty bizarre. Maybe he did write these words, but didn't mean them, or was being satirical and meant the opposite of what he wrote, or was deliberately being provocative in order to flush sexist knuckle-draggers and creationist numbskulls into the open, or wanted to "start a conversation" on the issues. But  if you're going to say things like that, you'd better have a very good, specific explanation.

A boilerplate disclaimer that basically says 'I might mean what I'm going to say, or I might not, but I'm not going to tell you which and if you don't like what I say, it's probably your fault for being some kind of literal-minded idiot' triggers my usually-excellent bullshit filter every time. After all, he's an experienced satirical cartoonist who has, so far, been able to negotiate the ambiguity of giving voice to his outrageous or sarcastic characters without having to resort to a 'The views expressed in this cartoon do not necessarily represent the views of Scott Adams' disclaimer after every strip.

Here's a modest proposal. How about deciding whether your basic mode of writing involves saying what you really think, or something else, like being ironic or satirical, then having a more straightforward disclaimer if you feel that you might be misunderstood?

A specific example would be Chris Dillow, who blogs more or less what he thinks. If he's doing something slightly different he adds a 'Note for the hard of thinking' (e.g. 'if you believe in x, then y logically follows - by pointing this out, I don't necessarily mean that I believe in x'). Or there's Tom Pride, whose normal mode is satire. Sometimes he'll post about a real-life story that's so outrageous that it sounds like satire, in which case he'll add, 'not satire.' Simple.

Both blogs are written for a rational audience that likes to have fun wrestling with unique or controversial points of view and both manage perfectly well with simple, comprehensible disclaimers, rather than a catch-all get-out-of-jail-free-card statement. If Scott Adams made his disclaimers a bit simpler, we might finally penetrate the mystery of what he really thinks about things like evolution, gender equality and the thing that must not be named because it's so controversial.

*The phrase "low-cost, high-density work unit" came from a descriptive label I found on the underside of one of the desks we worked at, but it could equally well have described  the Dilbert-esque existence of the millions of human resources who populate the little boxes on corporate org charts.


Update - the subsidiary mystery of why annoys Scott is no mystery (via). If you don't enjoy finding out that your idols have feet of clay (or at least weak ankles), it's been a bad day.