As we saw with the Voltaire story, it is not possible to stamp out criticism; if it harms you, get out. It is easier to change jobs than control your reputation or public perception.
Some jobs and professions are fragile to reputational harm, something that in the age of the Internet cannot possibly be controlled—these jobs aren’t worth having. You do not want to “control” your reputation; you won’t be able to do it by controlling information flow. Instead, focus on altering your exposure, say, by putting yourself in a position impervious to reputational damage. Or even put yourself in a situation to benefit from the antifragility of information. In that sense, a writer is antifragile, but we will see later most modernistic professions are usually not.
I was in Milan trying to explain antifragility to Luca Formenton, my Italian publisher (with great aid from body language and hand gestures). I was there partly for the Moscato dessert wines, partly for a convention convention in which the other main speaker was a famous fragilista economist. So, suddenly remembering that I was an author, I presented Luca with the following thought experiment: if I beat up the economist publicly, what would happen to me (other than a publicized trial causing great interest in the new notions of fragilita and antifragilita )? You know, this economist had what is called a tête à baffe, a face that invites you to slap it, just like a cannoli invites you to bite into it. Luca thought for a second … well, it’s not like he would like me to do it, but, you know, it wouldn’t hurt book sales. Nothing I can do as an author that makes it to the front page of Corriere della Sera would be detrimental for my book. Almost no scandal would hurt an artist or writer. 6
Now let’s say I were a midlevel executive employee of some corporation listed on the London Stock Exchange, the sort who never take chances by dressing down, always wearing a suit and tie (even on the beach). What would happen to me if I attack the fragilista? My firing and arrest record would plague me forever. I would be the total victim of informational antifragility. But someone earning close to minimum wage, say, a construction worker or a taxi driver, does not overly depend on his reputation and is free to have his own opinions. He would be merely robust compared to the artist, who is antifragile. A midlevel bank employee with a mortgage would be fragile to the extreme. In fact he would be completely a prisoner of the value system that invites him to be corrupt to the core—because of his dependence on the annual vacation in Barbados. The same with a civil servant in Washington. Take this easy-to-use heuristic (which is, to repeat the definition, a simple compressed rule of thumb) to detect the independence and robustness of someone’s reputation. With few exceptions, those who dress outrageously are robust or even antifragile in reputation; those clean-shaven types who dress in suits and ties are fragile to information about them.
Large corporations and governments do not seem to understand this rebound power of information and its ability to control those who try to control it. When you hear a corporation or a debt-laden government trying to “reinstill confidence” you know they are fragile, hence doomed. Information is merciless: one press conference “to tranquilize” and the investors will run away, causing a death spiral or a run on the bank. Which explains why I have an obsessive stance against government indebtedness, as a staunch proponent of what is called fiscal conservatism. When you don’t have debt you don’t care about your reputation in economics circles—and somehow it is only when you don’t care about your reputation that you tend to have a good one. Just as in matters of seduction, people lend the most to those who need them the least.
And we are blind to this antifragility of information in even more domains. If I physically beat up a rival in an ancestral environment, I injure him, weaken him, perhaps eliminate him forever—and get some exercise in the process. If I use the mob to put a contract on his head, he is gone. But if I stage a barrage of informational attacks on websites and in journals, I may be just helping him and hurting myself.
I’m an attorney representing a professor at the University of Central Florida who is being subjected by the university to what can only be called an inquisition after expressing opinions on Twitter that led to widespread calls for his firing. UCF is a public institution—an instrument of the state—and is now bringing its full power to bear against a man who dared to question the prevailing orthodoxy that has quickly descended over so many of this country’s institutions. I cannot bear witness to what the university is doing to this man without speaking out against it. If we do not challenge this egregious abuse of power, things will only get worse.
Professor Charles Negy is a wonderfully eccentric man, someone who teaches extraordinarily controversial subjects—Cross-Cultural Psychology and Sexual Behavior—with bluntness and humor. He is exactly the kind of professor you want in college: someone who is passionate about his subject, who will challenge your deeply-held assumptions, and who encourages free and open discussion in the classroom. Negy’s bluntness has occasionally ruffled feathers over the years, but throughout his 22-year career at UCF he has received consistently superior performance reviews. For the past four years, for example, he has received an evaluation rating of “Outstanding” for his instruction and advising.
In June, however, things changed overnight for Negy after he posted a characteristically blunt tweet to his personal Twitter account…
Immediately, #UCFfirehim began trending on Twitter and people began to protest both on UCF’s campus and outside Negy’s home.
UCF president Alexander Cartwright understood, but was clearly disappointed, that the university could not fire Negy for his constitutionally protected tweets, telling the Orlando Sentinel: “The Constitution restricts our ability to fire him or any other University employee for expressing personal opinions about matters of public concern. This is the law.”
So Cartwright chose a different strategy: He publicly announced a witch hunt into Negy’s classroom speech.
* I remember about 25 years or so ago I applied for an adjunct teaching position at a college with an overwhelmingly high percentage of minority students. The head of adjuncts and the department chair in that department were minorities themselves.
At one point in the interview I was asked my opinion about minority education. I went on a rant, saying minority education was a racist concept which implied minority students weren’t capable of learning. The head of adjuncts took me to the department chair and had me repeat my rant. I was hired.
Not only that, but when I caught some minority students cheating a few years later I was permitted to punish them. Not all colleges allowed that for certain ethnic groups.
So yes, even many of us liberals don’t want students coddled no matter what the ethnic background, and that includes liberal minorities as well.