Back to the USSR by Way of Twitter
“A guy told a joke to his friend. Someone standing nearby overhead the joke. The joke-teller was fired from his job.” If someone asked me to describe the circumstances under which this scenario could have transpired, I would not have to think twice. You see, I was born in the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (U.S.S.R.) and I have heard plenty of stories like that from my family. It usually went as follows. Someone told a political joke to his friend. A KGB informer was eavesdropping nearby. The informer alerted his KGB handlers, and the joke-teller’s state-owned employer was ordered to let him go. Most likely, this story happened after Stalin and before Gorbachev. If the story happened during Stalin, the joke-teller would be sent to a Siberian GULAG camp for a period of at least 5 years, probably along with the guy to whom he told the joke (for not ratting on the joke-teller to the KGB). If the scenario took place during Gorbachev, nothing would have probably happened, as by then the soviet repression apparatus had started to collapse.
The fact that a scenario with the same cause and effect transpired in the 21st century America is mind boggling and terrifying. Enter the Adria Richards Twittergate: “At a technology conference, a guy tells a dirty joke to his friend. A fellow attendee overhears the joke, gets offended, and in response, twits the picture of the joke-teller to her followers on Twitter. Scared of the potential of negative publicity, the joke-teller’s employer fires him.” Of course the nuances of these two scenarios are quite different: a political joke vs. a dirty joke, a KGB informer vs. a public person with a large Twitter following, the Soviet repression apparatus vs. the corporate PR machine. However, the cause and effect in both scenarios are terrifyingly identical: tell a joke to a friend => get fired from your job.
I am not going to comment on the appropriateness of telling dirty jokes where they can offend bystanders, on the propriety of twitting surreptitiously taken pictures, or on firing people based on hearsay; others have written about these issues in excess. What I would like to comment on is the terrifying similarity of the two Systems, with respect to sharing the same cause and effect for similar scenarios. It is amazing how a combination of modern social networking tools (i.e., Twitter) and the corporate PR machine has effectively replaced the role of the secret police in a totalitarian society. In fact, not every part of the scenarios was strictly worse in the USSR: the KGB would have certainly investigated the infraction; the joke-teller would be summoned to report to the local KGB headquarters, where he’d be able to tell his part of the story. “I was drunk as a fish and cannot remember anything” could have even served as an acceptable defense for first offense.
We live in a democratic country. That is, even though the USA is a republic, I would like to believe that the system in place is more or less representative of the collective wishes of its electorate. As a society, do we want to live in a country where a person can lose his job because he has told a dirty joke to his friend? Back in the USSR, parents taught their children to never share unapproved political opinions with anyone outside of close family. It is not that political jokes were not plentiful, but they were shared in the company of close friends. Here is one: Brezhnev asks Carter: “Do you collect political jokes about yourself?” Carter: “Of course, I’ve got two notebooks! What about you?” Brezhnev: “Of course, I’ve got two prison camps!” We are not yet imprisoning people for telling offensive jokes, but it is all a matter of nuance. Once a society accepts a given cause and effect as acceptable, it is a slippery slope from there.