Carl van Tonder

Perhaps Jeff Atwood Should Stick to the Code

22 January 2013

Like everyone else with an internet connection and a brain, I am deeply saddened by the passing of Aaron Swartz: a brilliant activist, programmer and visionary who was (according to family members) pushed to suicide by a vindictive prosecution. One of the many people to write about Aaron's death was Jeff Atwood (whose main claim to fame is StackOverflow, the programming Q-and-A site he founded), posting an article a few days ago entitled "The End of Ragequitting".

"Ragequitting" — for those who are not avid gamers, and as Atwood explains — "... is Internet slang commonly used to describe the act of suddenly quitting a game or chatroom after either an argument, extreme frustration, or loss of the game." To me, the word itself is unimportant: it's trite to the point of being offensive, but the real damage lies in the underlying argument, which is better expressed in so many words. Jeff Atwood is apparently saying that Aaron Swartz was taking an underhand route to escape the consequences of his activism, and that he was being a bad activist in so doing. This is made clear as the article progresses:

> One who breaks an unjust law must do so openly, lovingly, and with a willingness to accept the penalty.

(emphasised excerpt from an MLK quotation)

> But also, I must admit that I am a little disappointed in Aaron. .. he chose the path of the activist long ago. And the path of the activist is to fight, for as long and as hard as it takes, to effect change.

> Ragequitting is childish, a sign of immaturity. But it is another thing entirely to play the final move and end your own life. To declare the end of this game and all future games, the end of ragequitting itself.

> What happened to Aaron was not fair. Not even a little. But this is the path of the activist.

So here we have a man whose only experience with a courtroom is, by his own admission, as a non-participating juror and whose only brush with activism is a highly-questionable appeal to the public not to learn programming, proclaiming that Aaron Swartz just made his bed and didn't want to lie in it.

I am a some-time political activist, and I have lived through a small part of the state's response to protest that it deems illegal. Firstly, I can assure Jeff Atwood that the reality of police and legal persecution is worse than he, I or anyone else imagines it will be ahead of time. The criminal justice system is precisely designed as a form of psychological attack and control, and the true awful details are hidden from the public to make the whole framework morally palpable. In the book "Every Twelve Seconds", Timothy Pachirat quotes sociologist Zigmunt Bauman to define a "zone of confinement ... a segregated and isolated territory ... invisible ... and on the whole inaccessible to ordinary members of society", and this description precisely fits the physical spaces in which the majority of the violence of the criminal justice system is inflicted: police stations, courthouses and prisons.

As Pachirat continues, "concealment and the creation of distance mark the primary relation between power and sight in the contemporary era", and in the US that power is exercised to terrifying effect in the dark corners of cells and at the barrel of police guns in city streets. Close to 1000 dead in custody, 350 killed by police each year1, 200,000+ victims of prison rape, unknowable hundreds of thousands serving life sentences for draconian "three strikes" drug laws. The savagery is horrifying, so is it not understandable to be horrified in response? Jeff Atwood, from his glib quote about "loving acceptance" of this state violence, does not seem to be in a position of great knowledge — perhaps a single visit to a prison or a single night in a jail cell would be helpful before passing further comment about the moral imperative to bear it all with civil passivity.

There is no justice in a system that magnifies the differences between rich and poor, for instance letting off a bank which assisted in laundering $60 trillion per year on the same day as sentencing a 27-year-old woman to a life in jail for cocaine found in her house, and allows personal ambition to be one of many unsavoury factors influencing the uneven application of justice (as occurred with Carmin Ortiz's strategic pursuit of Swartz). To imply that Aaron's death was some kind of poor sportsmanship is to pretend against all evidence that life is fair in the first place: we cannot replace a gigantic machine that imprisons and destroys and drives to suicide merely by holding our heads high while we are cut down by it. Jeff — if you ever happen to glance at this post — you would do the world a great service to highlight the horror inflicted by the system that was starting to chew up Aaron Swartz, and be clear that an exhortation to stay alive to carry on a cause must come with compassion for those who have been broken by it.

Comments below or on HackerNews.

  1. According to the Bureau of Justice Death in Custody Reporting Program; latest figures available are from 2009 for deaths in custody and 2005 for "arrest-related" deaths. 


#1 steve 6 years ago

I call troll. If you are seriously trying to imply that Jeff was in anyways belittling Aaron's death to ragequitting you probably either didn't read the same article Jeff posted or have very poor comprehension skills ...or (as in most likely) are just trolling !

#2 Carl van Tonder 6 years ago

Steve — I think it's pretty fair to say that if person A calls person B a ragequitter (or otherwise implies that through strong association), that's pretty belittling. It's certainly not a compliment…

If that's not what you meant, perhaps you could rephrase?

#3 Breton 6 years ago

I call troll on steve. I read Jeff's article. It is clearly written by someone with an outsized sense of smugness and privilege, and to dismiss these legitimate complaints as trolling is nothing more than textbook abuse.

#4 BluesDriveMonster 6 years ago

Jeff is right. Aaron excepted this path for himself and completely gave up. The system is tough but what do you expect when you "steal" from a server. As long as we have this system today you'll always have to pay the price for your actions. It seems like you missed the point of Jeff's article maybe you should read the last 3 paragraphs of that article again. Maybe you should stick to the code.

#5 Tank 6 years ago

I found Atwood's post and the response from HN on the matter really disappointing. There's depression and the feeling of hopelessness and thoughts of suicide that I'm sure many people deal with at some point in their lifetime, and then there's people who cope with years and years of heavy self-perpetuated psychological trauma that leads you to believe that suicide will be the end for you, it's just a matter of what you can accomplish before that time.

The post and the HN response read like someone dealing with the former when the victim was the latter. This, of course, is not to at all negate the feelings of those who have only dealt with these depths in a temporary fashion, however I believe that it has a lot to do with why Aaron chose to do what he did, especially when a large part of feeling this way is driven by how you're perceived by your peers. If HN's response was any indication of the community-at-large, nobody wanted to care. They couldn't be bothered. In fact, they told him to essentially suck it up.

If this situation has brought any good with it, it is that we are talking more about depression and suicide. We have already seen at least one prominent entrepreneur (Jody Sherman of Ecomom) take his life since Aaron took his, despite his otherwise prominent place in the community and the long list of people that stood behind him. There's been a downpour of blog posts from other founders, successful or not, on the ups and downs of their journeys.

But it isn't enough.

Regardless of if their depression took roots much earlier on or if they manifested themselves only after a succession of self-perceived failures, telling someone to "suck it up" is not an option. Writing a blog post with the title "Ragequit" is offensive whether or not you want to make the justification that you can speak to it because you have had such feelings before. Researching suicide is not the same as committing it. It sounds harsh, but it's true. I say that as someone that has spent countless hours doing said research. Except in my case, that research didn't make me feel like "what it 'really' was: giving up", it felt like an answer. It felt like relief. My offense at this article was because it was written by someone that believes his own reality is the only reality, that suicide is only one thing and a weak thing at that. He then whines about Mark Pilgrim and _why's removing themselves from an environment that can hurt us more than we think it is helping us. It's these entitlements that makes this post so hard for me to swallow.

(continued below)

#6 Tank 6 years ago

I could never in good conscious and out of respect for fellow sufferers write a post with that title to describe those actions. It attempts to bottle one's problems in ways that we cannot begin to fathom. Add legal woes and government threats to that, and it turns into something someone like Atwood can't even begin to comprehend. No less HN, a community that likes to pretend it isn't the same 20-somethings that post much more hateful retorts on Reddit in their off-hours.

And the worst part of it is is that I could never write this response on HN and expect anything but downvotes and hate. Here and there, you have people who felt the need to tell you you were wrong instead of realizing the subject matter is far too out of their understanding to even begin to make the case either way.

If you want to write a post encouraging people not to consider suicide as an answer, write a serious headline instead of one that insults the very people you are trying to reach out to.

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