Thursday, February 28, 2013

Devaluing harassment

I've been taken aback lately by a variety of claims on blogs and twitter of someone "harassing" someone else or "stalking" them.  People seem to throw these words out so cavalierly that they are in serious danger of being devalued; watered down so that they have no substantive meaning.

I wanted to do my own research to provide those who might be tempted to throw these words out in casual assertions with some clear definitions and some tools you could use to perhaps determine if certain behaviors rise to the level of actual "harassment" or "stalking" before using those terms.

Many states, including my own, have passed laws where these terms have been given specific meanings that can help provide some guidance (although many I have seen are still problematic in an operational sense as they are fairly vague and do not differentiate between "annoying" and outright "harassing" behavior).

Let's start with a dictionary definition of harassment:
aggressive pressure or intimidation
Okay, that is not very helpful in terms of distinguishing between behavior that is socially and morally acceptable from the abusive kind of behavior.  What causes behavior to rise to the level of harassment vs. mere annoyance?

My own state of Washington defines an "unlawful harassment" term thusly[1]:
"Unlawful harassment" means a knowing and willful course of conduct directed at a specific person which seriously alarms, annoys, harasses, or is detrimental to such person, and which serves no legitimate or lawful purpose. The course of conduct shall be such as would cause a reasonable person to suffer substantial emotional distress, and shall actually cause substantial emotional distress to the petitioner, or, when the course of conduct would cause a reasonable parent to fear for the well-being of their child.
California was one of the first states to pass online harassment legislation and this is their definition[2]:
"Harassment" means a knowing and willful course of conduct directed at a specific person that a reasonable person would consider as seriously alarming, seriously annoying, seriously tormenting, or seriously terrorizing the person and that serves no legitimate purpose.
The key distinctions of harassment over just annoying behavior are:
  • willful (speaks to the intent of the actions)
  • directed at a particular individual
  • seriousness or severity of the conduct (typically "torments" or "terrorizes" the individual)
  • serves no legitimate or lawful purpose
  • causes"substantial" emotional distress
Cyberstalking is a flavor of harassment that "generally refers to a clear pattern of conduct through which the perpetrator causes the victim reasonable fear for their safety or their family's safety."[4]  Not all states have statutes covering both of these flavors and many include just one or the other or lump both in together.[5]

Washington state's cyberstalking statute says:[3]
(1) A person is guilty of cyberstalking if he or she, with intent to harass, intimidate, torment, or embarrass any other person, and under circumstances not constituting telephone harassment, makes an electronic communication to such other person or a third party:

     (a) Using any lewd, lascivious, indecent, or obscene words, images, or language, or suggesting the commission of any lewd or lascivious act;

     (b) Anonymously or repeatedly whether or not conversation occurs; or

     (c) Threatening to inflict injury on the person or property of the person called or any member of his or her family or household.
So, my state differentiates cyberstalking different from plain harassment:
  • requires a particular intent
  • requires an electronic (but not telephone) communication
  • requires the content to be of a nasty nature OR
  • requires making a threat to the person or property or relations
I'm not going to drag up any specific twitter or blog examples of people devaluing harassment (you know who they (or you) are).  But will generally point out that flaming someone or mentioning someone on twitter or a blog would not rise to the level of

But some of the actions that I've seen documented would appear to meet (IANAL) some (or more) of the legal criteria.  Such as photoshopped obscene pictures of the individuals being criticized, and perhaps the practice of doxing people that you disagree with (which only seems to serve the purpose of intimidating the individual by exposing their physical and personal information).

Anyhow, the legal language still does not make it quite clear where to draw the line between annoying someone and harassing.  Stalking may be clearer, although I don't quite understand how the term "stalking" applies based on the way the legal language is written.  What is more useful is a heuristic tool to gauge someone's words and actions.  One such tool was mentioned on a Linkedin discussion forum that is claimed to originate from the University of Alberta[6].  I tried to find the primary source material for the tool as I think it is a good one, but have yet to find it.  I will quote it here for posterity and will add pointers to the original if it ever comes to light.  The tool is called R.A.T.E.:
  • Respect - Is this behaviour respectful? Does this behaviour honour the dignity and the worth of the person? Does the behaviour recognize and appreciate differences - culture, viewpoint, age, status etc.?
  • Appropriate - Is the behaviour appropriate to the situation and to the relationship between the individuals?
  • Trust - Many relationships are relationships of trust - e.g. the relationship between a professor and student or between an employee and manager. Is the behaviour a violation of the trust?
  • Equal - What is the power balance in the relationship? Are the individuals equals? Is the behaviour exploiting a difference in power? Would an objection to the behaviour threaten the well-being of the person to whom the behaviour is directed?
I like that this model includes an assessment of the relative power of the individuals involved.  There is a note that a single incident would not rise to the level of harassment.  Harassment would generally need to involve a pattern of behavior.

[1] "RCW 10.14.020 Definitions",, accessed 2013-02-18

[2] "PENAL CODE SECTION 639-653.2",, 653.2. (c)(1), accessed 2013-02-18

[3] "RCW 9.61.260 Cyberstalking.",, accessed 2013-02-18

[4] "Harassment",, accessed 2013-02-18

[5] "State Cyberstalking and Cyberharassment Laws",, accessed 2013-02-19
[6] "Where is the fine line separating "harassment" behaviour from merely "annoying"?",, accessed 2013-02-19

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

The Truth Imperative: What's in a name?

I used to have a blog.  I used to opine in it.  Oh those days of yesteryear before kids when I had such luxuries of time...  I let my blog languish.  It devolved into my personal bookmark tool.  It didn't have a good focus.  It was called "Juxtaposition", after all, which is by its nature not focused.  I had a missed opportunity to call it "Jaxtaposition" since my network handle was often "jaxley" -- a kind of portmanteau of my name.  But I have even found since then that neither were as unique or compelling as I had thought.

I have long wanted to have a place that could serve as my sounding board for sharing insights or tips regarding information security as well as skepticism and science.  This is the focus my previous effort lacked.  I plan to tag each post separately so if it turns out you really don't care about skepticism, you can just subscribe to the "security" tagged items.  And vice-versa, you could just subscribe to the "skeptical" tags.

I get a lot from detailed articles and in-depth insights and wanted to be able to give back to some extent.  This will be my vehicle to do so.

Coming up with a name was a combination of frustration and humility in that so many of the names I thought of were not just inspiring to me but had been used already or were too common to stand out.  I wanted something that would embody what my I've come to see is a core moral imperative:  to seek the truth, no matter where it leads, and to stamp out falsehood and ignorance as the enemies of truth.  Hence, "The Truth Imperative" seemed to embody this perfectly and was also was not crowded out in the Google search rankings.  In fact, even before I posted the first article, this blog is result number 7 on Google.

If you were on the fence about the moral angle to the truth, perhaps the analogy in this quote will make the relationship clearer:

It is morally as bad not to care whether a thing is true or not, so long as it makes you feel good, as it is not to care how you got your money as long as you have got it. -- Edmund Way Teale

There is something inside me that is outraged by truth injustices as much as social injustice.  Falsehoods are so corrosive to our democracy, our environment, our health, to our freedoms, our safety, our own personal growth, and our understanding of the world around us.  I came across this blog post, The reason for truth, sets out a fantastic list of reasons why the truth matters that I heartily endorse and says much of what I was going to write so go read it instead and then come back.  He lays down his position on truth which jives completely with mine that I will quote here:
  1. In a strict sense, all truth is provisional and stands open to challenge on the basis of a new interpretation of the available evidence or the provision of new evidence. The key point here is that it is evidence - old or new - that is at the heart of the determination.
  2. In the meanwhile, the most truthful statements explain and are consistent with all the currently available evidence.
  3. On the basis of consistency and utility, the most truthful statements are likely to be consistent with the current paradigm until persuasive evidence challenges that paradigm.
  4. The most useful truths are those that do simply explain past phenomena but enable consistently accurate statements about the future.
I would only perhaps add some bullets to the list regarding protection of the truth from corrosive influences, whether subconscious or deliberate.

Additionally, I would clarify that this pursuit of truth is all about truth with a small "t".  Many make the false assumption that there is (or must be) some metaphysical Truth with a capital "T" out there and even claim that skeptics or scientists think they "know the truth" or "know everything".  Not only are these flimsy straw men, but skeptics and scientists generally do not believe that such a Truth is something we are going to be able to know for certain.  Truth, and especially scientific truth, is always truth with a small "t".  It is a provisional, asymptotic approximation of the Truth with a capital "T", or at least a usable model of that Truth that works well enough to make predictions and describe and understand our world.

As humans, we are fettered by various human frailties, biases and tendencies toward rationalization that make it often times difficult to step back and be truly objective about ourselves, our beliefs, the world and the facts that we attempt to evaluate.  Our brains are constantly filtering and interpreting the information we receive via all of our senses.  We all (skeptics included) need to be aware of and constantly diligent about these limitations as well in our pursuit of the truth.  I've seen ideology trump facts and data too often in all walks of life.  Follow the evidence!
Q: "What do you call alternative medicine that works?"
A: "Medicine"
I love this joke.  It is pithy and gets to the heart of the difference between a prevalent topic where people have many rationales that lead them to relaxing the standards for reason and evidence to give something not rooted in demonstrable, testable, measurable facts a seat at the table next to something that is.

Reason and evidence are crucial as well for my vocation, information security.  I have come across so many terrible arguments, both for and against, security controls as well as people who try to use security as a trojan horse to deliver something rooted in ulterior motives that would otherwise have never been green-lighted, or who use security as a sword to strike down something they don't like for other reasons (often unjustifiable or flimsy at best).  Intellectual dishonesty, sloppy scholarship, fallacious argumentation, rationalization, cognitive dissonance all occur so often that it is useful and necessary to engage one's skills as a skeptic to get at the kernel of truth and ensure you are making the right evidence-based decisions, lest you convey a false sense of security, waste precious security budget on the wrong (or incomplete or ineffectual) solutions, or miss out on focusing on more important security problems.  I think I've made a career out of being the voice of reason calling out for demonstrable evidence where necessary to prove an assertion or in redirecting efforts to address higher risk vulnerabilities than the hack-du-jour.  I'll definitely write more about those experiences.

Wherever those pesky facts lead us is worthy of pursuit and protection from those who would undermine reality for pursuit of their own alternative agenda.  There are the aforementioned who abuse the truth about information security to push a competing agenda, religious fundamentalists who are adulterating the educational system, global warming deniers preventing real change to stem the damage and research solutions to anthropogenic forcing, ideologues, quacks and charlatans who peddle remedies that simply don't work (except to drain your bank account) or worse, are highly dangerous or keep people from continuing with real therapies, religious fundamentalists that keep their kids from receiving medical care in lieu of prayer, etc.  Visit for specific documented examples of the real harms of pseudoscience.

I leave you for now with some of my favorite quotes regarding the pursuit and importance of truth:

Truth is a shining goddess, always veiled, always distant, never wholly approachable, but worthy of all the devotion of which the human spirit is capable. -- Bertrand Russell

The pursuit of truth and beauty is a sphere of activity in which we are permitted to remain children all our lives. -- Albert Einstein

Truth is stranger than fiction, but it is because Fiction is obliged to stick to possibilities; Truth isn't. -- Mark Twain

The truth may be puzzling. It may take some work to grapple with. It may be counterintuitive. It may contradict deeply held prejudices. It may not be consonant with what we desperately want to be true. But our preferences do not determine what's true. -- Carl Sagan

I maintain there is much more wonder in science than in pseudoscience. And in addition, to whatever measure this term has any meaning, science has the additional virtue, and it is not an inconsiderable one, of being true. -- Carl Sagan

The significance of our lives and our fragile planet is then determined only by our own wisdom and courage. We are the custodians of life's meaning. We long for a Parent to care for us, to forgive us our errors, to save us from our childish mistakes. But knowledge is preferable to ignorance. Better by far to embrace the hard truth than a reassuring fable. If we crave some cosmic purpose, then let us find ourselves a worthy goal. -- Carl Sagan

If I could get the world to respond to one question, it would be, Do we have the courage to let go of our beliefs in order to grab on to what is true? -- Sara Mayhew