Injured Sovereigns, Foucault, and Jessica Price

Why does Jessica Price’s firing continue to attract so much attention? There’s plenty of other subjects I want to write about, but there is something about the story that draws me to it, just as it’s drawn literally thousands of people to my Twitter this blog, some of whom have called me “subhuman scum” and so on. It’s safe to say that nothing I’ve written in over two decades has attracted this kind of active fury. 

There are two curiosities here, the first being the minute nature of Price’s supposed offence. Even if you consider her comments to be exceptionally rude, why should rude comments cause such an uproar? We are not short of famous individuals who are far ruder, far more frequently. For those who are fond of throwing around accusations of overreaction amongst ‘snowflakes’, a few sharp tweets seem exceptionally small beer. Even the subject of her comments, Deroir, did not seem especially hurt at the time, and did not seek any redress – instead, it was others who came to defend his honour.

The second curiosity has been the active pursuit of any journalist or, indeed, individual who would dare to defend Price. But Price has been fired! Surely ‘justice’ has been done and the matter is over. Yet clearly there is something so dangerous about Price’s actions that they require an overwhelming repudiation, such that even her sympathisers must be challenged and punished.

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I’ve been reading Foucault’s Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison recently, by way of Shannon Vallor’s Technology and the Virtues (my review). The book attempts to understand how and why the treatment of criminals changed in the past 400 years, from torture to prison. Unexpectedly for me, Foucault’s analysis of why torture and public execution were thought to be necessary has provided an unusually intriguing new lens to decipher those two curiosities about Price’s story.

Why did western societies use such torture and execution – practices that even at the time were considered extreme – to punish criminals, instead of prison? Why kill someone for crimes as minor as larceny? Because:

Besides its immediate victim, the crime attacks the sovereign: it attacks him personally, since the law represents the will of the sovereign; it attacks him physically, since the force of the law is the force of the prince.

… Punishment, therefore, cannot be identified with or even measured by the redress of the injury; in punishment, there must always be a portion that belongs to the prince, and, even when it is combined with the redress laid down, it constitutes the most important element in the penal liquidation of the crime. Now, this portion belonging to the prince is not in itself simple: on the one hand, it requires redress for the injury that has been done to his kingdom (as an element of disorder and as an example given to others, this con­siderable injury is out of all proportion to that which has been committed upon a private individual); but it also requires that the king take revenge for an affront to his very person.

In a time of monarchy, where all laws are determined by a sovereign (here termed the prince or the king), any crime cannot merely be considered as an attack on the immediate victim; not merely an attack on the order and control of the sovereign; but in fact an attack on the sovereign himself. Such an attack demands redress and punishment.

In our case, who is the sovereign? The most obvious answer is ArenaNet, Price’s employer, which alone sets the conditions of her employment, and has the unique power to terminate her employment at will. Yes, one may argue that some harm has been done to the honour of Deroir, and one may even argue (although I would not agree) that some modicum of harm has been done to the sovereign – but not that much. We are talking about a few supposedly rude tweets.

So why the termination? Disorder has been introduced to the land. That is the true crime, the considerable injury that eclipses the mild sting of the tweets themselves, and so it requires immense revenge for the contempt it shows to the sovereign, ArenaNet. Contempt may easily turn into insurrection – unionisation – turmoil – bankruptcy:

In every offence there was a crimen majestatis and in the least criminal a potential regicide. And the regicide, in turn, was neither more nor less, than the total, absolute criminal since, instead of attacking, like any offender, a particular decision or wish of the sovereign power, he attacked the very principle and physical person of the prince.

It may only seem like a few rude tweets, but it could end in bankruptcy, a fate to be avoided at all costs. In that light, termination can be the only appropriate response.

Why must the termination be public? Even in the US, disciplinary procedures typically take days, if not weeks or months, and do not result in the kind of lengthy explanations and justifications that ArenaNet provided. Again, sovereignty is core:

The public execution … is a ceremonial by which a momentarily injured sovereignty is recon­stituted. It restores that sovereignty by manifesting it at its most spectacular.

… Its aim is not so much to re-establish a balance as to bring into play, as its extreme point, the dissymmetry between the subject who has dared to violate the law and the all-powerful sovereign who displays his strength.

Price’s termination must be seen by all employees, and must demonstrate the power and determination of ArenaNet towards anyone else who might challenge its authority; hence the immediate firing of, Peter Fries, who did not tweet at any customers, but who, by supporting Price, lent support to her implicit challenge of authority.

The speed of the termination also demonstrates ArenaNet’s ceaseless presence in its employee’s lives:

…What had hitherto maintained this practice of torture was not an economy of example, in the sense in which it was to be understood at the time of the ideologues (that the representation of the penalty should be greater than the interest of the crime), but a policy of terror: to make everyone aware, through the body of the criminal, of the unrestrained presence of the sover­eign.

If you make any mistake, ArenaNet will terminate your employment immediately. They have unrestrained presence. And while some claim that the problem is because she used her ‘public’ Twitter (more on that later) and she mentioned her employer in her profile: do we really believe this would altered the outcome? Jessica Price is not famous, but she’s not unknown. It’s certain that fans would have found her profile and asked her questions.

This can’t be the whole story. True, only ArenaNet has the power to terminate Price – but are we to believe that the company wasn’t pressured into this action by part of its customers? What role do these ‘Customers’ (the vocal portion which I should stress is only a tiny minority of the total) play in proceedings?

An offence, according to the law of the classical age, quite apart from the damage it may produce, apart even from the rule that it breaks, offends the rectitude of those who abide by the law: ‘If one commits something that the law forbids, even if there is neither harm nor injury to the individual, it is an offence that demands reparation, because the right of the superior man is violated and because it offends the dignity of his character’ (Risi, 9).

Many of the complaints about Price – her rudeness towards Customers – remind me of the rectitude of those who abide by the law. The law, after all, is what matters. I have lost count of those who’ve told me that they would expect to be terminated immediately if they were rude to a customer. There is no question as to whether this would be fair or no, and no mitigating circumstances will be considered. “Perhaps termination was excessive, but we cannot dispute the ultimate right of power of the corporation.”

The Customers have been harmed. They require redress. They require recognition. In fact, like corporations, they also see themselves as sovereign. It is totally unacceptable that a mere employee, their servant, should be disrespectful towards them. They demand punishment out of proportion to the harm done to Deroir, because their person had been affronted. Price’s disrespect may seem minor but it could end in disregard – disdain – banishment.

Many Customers have dredged through Price’s social media, include comments about deceased YouTubers. These direct and indirect offences have been tallied and presented point by point, as if enough points might lead to a conviction in the minds of the public. Thus an “asshat” is worth one point, “stop fucking tagging me” two points, etc. It is obviously the performance of a judicial process: the gathering of evidence, the testimonies from would-be-YouTube-magistrates, not unlike how justice was performed a few centuries ago in France:

We have, then, a penal arithmetic that is meticulous on many points, but which still leaves a margin for a good deal of argument: in order for a capital sentence to be passed, is a single full proof enough or must it be accompanied by other slighter clues? Are two approxi­ mate proofs always equivalent to a full proof? Should not three be required or two plus distant clues? Are there elements that may be regarded as clues only for certain crimes, in certain circumstances and in relation to certain persons (thus evidence is disregarded if it comes from a vagabond; it is reinforced, on the contrary, if it is provided by ‘a considerable person’ or by a master in the case of a domestic offence).

Each piece of evidence, each point contributes to Price’s guilt:

The different pieces of evidence did not constitute so many neutral elements, until such time as they could be gathered together into a single body of evidence that would bring the final certainty of guilt. Each piece of evidence aroused a particular degree of abomination. Guilt did not begin when all the evidence was gathered together; piece by piece, it was constituted by each of the elements that made it possible to recognize a guilty person. Thus a semi­-proof did not leave the suspect innocent until such time as it was completed; it made him semi-guilty; slight evidence of a serious crime marked someone as slightly criminal. In short, penal demonstration did not obey a dualistic system: true or false; but a principle of continuous gradation; a degree reached in the demon­stration already formed a degree of guilt and consequently involved a degree of punishment. The suspect, as such, always deserved a certain punishment; one could not be the object of suspicion and be completely innocent.

Finally, why are the Customers so fervent in the pursuit of Price’s supporters? My article was barely published before I started receiving replies from strangers who had evidently been searching for “jessica price” on Twitter. I asked one person why they’d been searching, and they said they were bored. OK: but if you’re bored, why not watch Netflix or play a game? It’s because the Customers, as sovereign, must demonstrate their unrestrained presence.

…What had hitherto maintained this practice of torture was not an economy of example, in the sense in which it was to be understood at the time of the ideologues (that the representation of the penalty should be greater than the interest of the crime), but a policy of terror: to make everyone aware, through the body of the criminal, of the unrestrained presence of the sover­eign.

If you agree with Price, we will find you, wherever you are.

It is the combination of these two sovereigns – Corporate and Customer –  that is new and unusual. Both reinforcing each other, in their demand for respect, for a public execution in response to attack on their persons. The precise wording used by ArenaNet, “attacks on the community”, was not lost on Price:

Neither was the very public nature of proceedings:

Have I stretched the analogy too far? Am I blowing things out of proportion?

We’re already past that. Price has been fired and she is likely to be hounded on social media, and very likely in person, for many years. And for what? A few tweets. But these are tweets are so dangerous, so threatening to the natural order, that nothing short of termination will satisfy.

(Once, there was a third sovereign – the employee. Or the union. Or, yes, the guild.)

Where is it that humans can get respect, today? The option of last resort is as a customer. The customer is always right. “My money will force your respect.” And because many workers are now on social media for the very simple purposes and pleasures of talking with their friends and colleagues about their life, and yes, their work – the thing they spend eight hours a day on, the thing that keeps them clothed and fed – and because they do not want to make an artificial distinction between their personal and work lives (as if that would stop harassment, really!) – well, you as a Customer can demand their attention and their respect whenever they’re on social media. Which means their whole lives.

But what happens when your money no longer forces their respect?

It is disturbing to some Customers that some companies – not including Arenanet – will now overlook or even tolerate perceived rudeness. Whether this ‘lenience’ comes from a simple consideration of their staff as humans worthy of care and respect, or from a cold-hearted calculation that the loss of your few dollars, and your community’s few dollars, do not outweigh the financial benefit to the corporation of the occasional “rude” tweet made by the employees (aka humans) necessary to actually make products and services. Indeed, some rudeness may even be encouraged, in so far as it helps to retain and attract employees who can make profitable games.

(The expectation of total servility from those interact with Customers exists regardless of the sex of the employee. However, sexism is relevant to the extent that politeness is expected more from women than men, and rudeness is tolerated and in some cases celebrated more from men than women.)

All of this leaves the obvious question: what happens when two sovereigns go to war – when the Customers (again, I’m talking about the vocal minority) fight the Corporations?

As it turns out… usually very little. Which highlights the absurdity of these Customers taking the Corporation’s side over that of the employees who actually make the entertainment they value. But perhaps it is not so absurd when you consider that these customers value certain things over even their most beloved hobby, like the desire to see employees abasing themselves.

Now that’s entertainment.

 

4 Replies to “Injured Sovereigns, Foucault, and Jessica Price”

  1. Your last paragraph here is quite mendacious. It’s rather disappointing since until reading this post I had assumed you were actually participating in a good faith discussion. The willingness to simultaneously (a) Be extremely generous with the characterization of one individual’s actions (Price’s) and (b) be extremely critical of and project motivations upon a group that consists of thousands of individuals is worrying.

    From a neutral perspective there is no expressed rationale for this. Although you attempt to bury the fact by dredging up Foucault and using this as a framework for hanging your particular reading of the situation around, it’s nevertheless clear that you privilege the experience of Price over the experience of other people, which is in fact de-humanized, abstracting away the identity of individuals into an objectified mass.
    As an observer we must ask ourselves, “What is the reasoning that motivates this type of post? What is so particularly motivating about the experience that we are attempting to characterize ArenaNet / Mike O’Brien as an injured monarch, as if this is in any way an honest and justifiable reading, rather than as a thinly-veiled attack on character? Why the attempt to characterize innate & unavoidable social relationships with ominous inferences to the French Revolution and public executions? Why is this piece so focused on making emotional appeal with charged language, imagery, specious analogy, and rhetoric?”

    Now I am feeling the desire to do a thorough and complete dismantling of the silly artifice of an article you’ve written here. However, we both know that your mind is already made up on this issue (as is mine). People changing their minds is an exceptionally rare circumstance, and in fact a significant fraction of our particular perspectives is driven by biological factors. Someone like myself, who is low in the OCEAN FFM personality characteristic Agreeableness but high in Conscientiousness is particularly drawn to the ideal of intellectual consistency based on a set of principles. Which principles? Good question. Most people, whose personalities are less cantankerous, are more concerned with holding the “popular” or “right” opinion. People who are motivated by Agreeableness might lean towards a response characterized by empathy, and may seek to settle social discord caused by Jessica Price’s hostile behavior in such a way that it causes as little upheaval as possible.

    I don’t have the time or desire to really go down point by point to try and rebut the claims you make in this article. We know that’s not actually going to change your mind, so it’s largely a waste of time. However, I did want to bring up a few points that you raised that I thought were worthwhile, even if what is otherwise rather inconsistent and messy meanderings:

    It happens on a fairly regular basis that we see people fired for making what could be generously called, “speech offenses” even when there is no victim at all. Recently, it seems, the founder of Papa John’s Pizza chain was fired for using the “N” word — Even though the context of his using the word was specifically to condemn its usage by others. What do we make of circumstances where punishment is meted out despite the absence of victims? Indeed, not only in the absence of victims, but used in such a context as to reinforce the prevailing social attitudes? Is the mere utterance of certain syllables by people with certain genitalia or skin color offensive? Offensive to whom?

    In another case, male engineers were fired for words exchanged in a private conversation which was misunderstood by a bystander. Upon raising the issue up publicly, an angry mob was formed by media outlets eager to exploit any rationale for emotional, viral content. Public apologies were issued, but to no avail. A single face-to-face conversation, innocuously discussing technology and meant for no one to hear except its participants, is enough to result in firing without any formal warnings or complaints.

    How does this happen? Why does this happen? It is so perplexing and fascinating to see the outrage culture fomented on outrages that are either not-real, or outraged on the behalf of precisely no-one.

    Addressing why we, as humans do that is actually something that would take a book to do thoroughly, and is certainly beyond your or my depth (or the author of this blog, or Michel Foucault). My objective is not to try and actually grapple with that point, rather to point that we live in such a confused environment where objectively harmless actions can lead to mobs which arise in order to defend … what precisely? A great invisible spirit?

    In this situation, stripping away the layers of preconceptions, we simply have one human attacking another human in an unprovoked manner. All of the discussion in defense of Jessica Price is to add layers of prevarication to justify and make permissable verbal aggression against several real people.

    One valid point that is raised is to call attention to an imbalance of power existing between employer and employee, one which begs for some counterbalance. The gaming industry in particular is notorious for this precisely because of the nepotistic nature of the industry, its winner-take-all stakes (within certain poorly defined parameters), and high demands placed on employees.

    A more equitable distribution of power, where employers are less inclined to push employees to sacrifice personal life may have helped here — I doubt it — Every game studio I have ever worked at did not have overtime to meet executive demands. Rather, we worked overtime because we demanded more from ourselves. If unionization is adopted more as a result of that incident it will be the one act of good that Jessica Price has contributed to the gaming community as a result of her otherwise shameful and cowardly acts.

    Another point that was raised prior was the emphasis on privacy. While it’s apparent that presenting yourself as an employee in a formal way, discussing work, and engaging with customers represents behavior that reflects on an employer, as humans we are optimal in social groups are limited to roughly 50 people. The scope of interacting with communities of millions of people is very difficult at best. Particularly modalities of behavior driven by emotionality, agreeableness, and other such traits, are poorly suited to these large-scale social interactions.

    That is why privacy is important, and one of the bigger reasons why technology corporations have a responsibility to allow users to control their own identity when it comes to content online. Humans are poorly suited to having every aspect of their entire lives available for scrutiny by everyone, and preserved for all time. This is extremely dangerous, and it’s correct to let some things pass into oblivion over time.

    I think that’s about enough for now, perhaps I’ll feel differently tomorrow.

    1. What an odd comment. You said you were going to dismantle my post but I can’t see much evidence of that. I can see that you disagree on most points and agree on a few, so it could be worse.

  2. I am still of the mind that we are missing a few pieces of the puzzle. Action and reaction don’t add up to this event and I feel as if we are missing information. Whenever it comes to forceful terminations, both sides generally have some form of axe to grind and make the recounted events have a away to them, either on purpose or just through an unconscious bias.

    I know Glassdoor reviews should be taken by a grain of salt but looking back at the company for the past two years on there, the same trend among all the reviews (both mediocre and good) are the same: Great culture, great people, bad middle management (and mediocre pay but that doesn’t seem relevant to this situation.) I don’t feel like if Price stayed on and apologized, their company would have taken a hit in the long run and they know their community enough to know that too. I don’t see NCSOFT giving enough of a crap to step in and say “fire her” either.

    So while I understand the point you are writing about, I just have trouble seeing it as so black and white as a *Price is rude on twitter* *Arena Net fired her because she only was rude on Twitter this once.*

    Perhaps I’m just off base but everything, to me, points that there was more internal things gojng on that were not made light of.

    Also, to the point of social media as a whole, this is the world of we have made. People say something in short format and that thing is recorded forever. I understand that there is a need for a place to let go and let loose with friends but we are in an age where doing so with your employer in your bio is the equilivent of doing it while wearing the uniform of your employer. I don’t like it, I’m actually in the camp saying social media has done more harm than good as of recent, but this is the world people set up. It doesn’t matter ones political alignment, it ends up being the same story. Someone says something, if someone with enough of an outreach condemns it, it riles up all the supporters and they go at said person or their employer. The caveat is that Twitter is a public space and that we are far enough along in social media’s existence to see that the things you say may come back to bite you and that the chance for such to happen increases exponentially the more followers you have on that medium and the way in which you interact on that medium. This is something that isn’t attached to any political, belief, gender, etc etc, this is just a fact of the way social media has evolved in the past five years. It’s sad, but saying ones Twitter account is private and doesn’t represent the views of one’s employer doesn’t actually stop anyone from seeing that person in that moment as the quality of person that company is willing to hire. It’s similar, though more of an extreme comparison of content (for lack of a better word to describe the difference in the content posted) , to the firing of the Subnautica sound designer for things he said on Twitter. The internet mob bombarded the steam reviews with negative reactions and raised hell with the company. It’s a shame that people can’t be responsible and stay out of tribalism for such things but this has been reinforced for half a decade by now and I don’t see it slowing down.

    1. It is very possible there is more to the story, but I would have expected both ArenaNet and Price to say if there had been previous internal arguments and warnings. Given that neither did – and that both parties are clearly happy to talk to press – I’m not sure that there really had been any formal internal proceedings before this point.

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