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The Educational and the Political

In March of last year, the medical school I attend was on the front page of Fox News. The headlines: “Indiana medical students subjected to DEI instruction on gender” and “First-year medical school students exposed to woke ‘sex and gender primer’ lesson.”

The lesson in question was delivered in our first-year anatomy course which, when I took the course, was included in a broader lecture on the embryology of the reproductive organs. This material, though, was explicitly labeled as political — even indoctrination — by commentators at Fox: to quote the latter article above,

“It’s dangerous for one major reason, and that is that these kinds of ideas are very controversial amongst Americans, and to have a medical world pick one side, if you will, pick one sort of approach in a very controversial ideological area just breeds mistrust.”

The same commentator continued:

“Politicization of the idea about gender is something that’s harming children in America, and that’s something we’re very much against, and political ideas shouldn’t be taught in a course on anatomy.”

Education has always been a topic of political interest, but the rhetoric has recently seemed to reach a fever pitch. Book bans. Bans on Critical Race Theory and the discussion of sexual orientation and gender identity.  The partisan destruction and reconstruction of New College in Florida. The list goes on, and the debate has likely reached your doorstep, just as it has mine. But even in a heated debate, the core of these arguments deserves our scrutiny, and this instance centering on medical education provides us with a case study.

What happens when education and politics collide?

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The purpose of medical education is to train physicians — to take students with limited experience in medicine (if any) and prepare them to be excellent clinicians. The adjective excellent here is important: competence is the minimum standard, but excellence is the goal. Take a look at the mission statement of any medical school, and you’ll see this idea repeated over and over — and for good reason. You do not just want a competent doctor, you want a good doctor; you may take a competent physician in a pinch, but the doctor you want is one who not only understands the basic pathology and treatment of your malady, but is also kind, compassionate, and attentive. You want a doctor who seeks to understand the larger picture of your health, who understands your goals, who makes you feel safe, comfortable, and heard. Doctors who don’t integrate these facets of medicine into their practice may be competent, but they are not successful.

As such, a key part of the medical curriculum extends beyond the basics of pathophysiology and treatment: medical students are not only expected to be competent in the science of medicine, but also demonstrate the virtues of a good physician. In the clinical curriculum at my medical school, an attending physician provides feedback to students through a 14-point rubric — only four of which are related to medical knowledge. The remaining 10 encompass these broader attributes: how does the student seek out and account for a patient’s social context? How do they communicate with patients and their families? Do they demonstrate integrity as a member of the healthcare team? Do they recognize and respect cultural differences? Are they empathetic?

It’s important to reiterate that the reason students are assessed in this way by their attending physicians is that attending physicians are assessed in this way by patients: medical knowledge is only part of what you want from a doctor. This is why, before students reach the clinical phase of their education, the first two years of medical school are spent in the classroom, where we not only learn what causes such-and-such disease, but also the social determinants of health and how we can cultivate the “soft skills” which are fundamental to clinical practice. As part of this, we are intentionally exposed to a variety of experiences designed to contextualize the idea of health in its social moorings: we learn about how to safety plan with victims of domestic violence, how people of different ages or cultures may have different expectations regarding communication and treatment planning, how to care for people with disabilities, and how, for some patients, spirituality will play a large role in their health care. We also learn from members of the LGBTQIA+ community and are taught how to be a supportive ally. All of these experiences are important for training excellent, empathetic physicians.

With this context, we see that the claim made by the commentators at Fox — that a sex and gender primer is a political intrusion into medical education — is both wrong, and a vast oversimplification.

Above, we discussed how medical education involves training in both clinical and social knowledge and skills — and the lesson at the center of this controversy is an excellent example of teaching at that intersection. The early slides define the terms to be used: it defines sex as a primarily biological construct, and gender as a primarily social construct. It further breaks down both of these terms, drawing the distinction between genotypic and phenotypic sex and elaborating on the differences between gender identity and gender expression. These are useful distinctions to draw in clinical medicine, because all of these concepts are independent of one-another: genotypic sex does not entail a phenotypic sex (or vice-versa), and gender identity and expression can vary in their overlap. Further, an entire section of the lesson is devoted to elaborating on how students, as future healthcare providers, can be inclusive of gender- and sexual-diverse patients: for example, using appropriate pronouns and person-first and anatomy-based language. All of this is important information for medical students, who will care for people across these spectra, to know: with this knowledge, students will be better prepared to build a therapeutic relationship with these patients and provide the excellent healthcare they deserve.

The lesson also provides students with the scientific, clinical knowledge which one would expect of a medical school lecture. It makes the scientifically correct claim that sex and gender are non-binary; and though it is only briefly summarized (as, in my curriculum, the material was covered in detail in another course), the lesson shows how differences in sexual development can place individuals along an entire spectrum of sex. You can have two X chromosomes and male-like genitalia; you can have an X chromosome and a Y chromosome and female-like genitalia. A biological, scientifically-informed concept of sex admits to no binary, and medicine has understood and discussed these differences in sexual development for nearly 50 years. Again: medical students will care for patients with these differences in sexual development, and understanding these differences is a vital part of building a therapeutic relationship and providing excellent healthcare.

We see, then, that the content of this lesson is immediately and well-connected to the purpose of medical education. I do not contend that this content is politically uncontroversial, but we see, here, a very different picture than that presented by the commentators at Fox. This lesson is not indoctrination, it is not ideological, and it does not represent the insertion of political content into an educational context. Rather, pre-existing educational content which aligns with the stated and agreed upon goal of medical education — the training of future physicians to provide excellent care — has been politicized. And though it may seem like splitting hairs, the distinction is incredibly important: there is not a flood of politically-charged content into medical education at Indiana University, but a flood of politically-motivated criticism of medical education’s established curriculum and mission.

But in these terms, the debate takes a very different contour: a commentator can only decry the inclusion of this material in medical education if they disagree with training physicians to provide compassionate, socially-informed care to gender- and sex-diverse communities. And maybe they do. But I won’t put words in their mouth, and, instead, I’ll state the broader point to be had here. Politics and education frequently collide, but the blame should not always be placed on education: in many cases, the educator does not decide to be political, but the politician decides that the educator is. This is why debates about political content in the educational context are, frequently, missing the point: we should not always debate whether or not political content should be discussed in the educational environment, but we should also consider whether or not content which is well-connected to an educational mission should be considered political. I believe that, in the case of the sex and gender primer in my medical school and in many similar cases, the answer is no, and the mechanics of the debate deserve to be questioned.

How to Execute Executions

black and white photograph of prisoners preparing for guillotine

On January 25th, 2024, the state of Alabama executed convicted murderer Kenneth Eugene Smith, who, in 1989, killed Elizabeth Sennett in a murder-for-hire. Unlike more commonplace or recognizable forms of capital punishment like hanging, the electric chair, or lethal injection, Smith was killed by asphyxiation. More precisely, once in the execution chamber, he was strapped to a gurney, masked, and was then fed pure nitrogen gas until dead. The use of nitrogen as a method of execution has never been used in the United States before and has caused significant consternation.

Officials predicted a quick and painless death; Smith took over 22 minutes to die, during which he gasped and convulsed. Smith’s religious adviser, Reverend Jeff Hood, who was present at the execution, said:

… we didn’t see someone go unconscious in thirty seconds. What we saw was minutes of somebody struggling for their life. We saw minutes of someone heaving back and forth. We saw spit. We saw all sorts of stuff from his mouth develop on his mask. We saw this mask tied to the gurney and him ripping his head forward over and over and over again. And we also saw correctional officials in the room, who were visibly surprised, at how bad this thing went.

The debate about whether the death penalty is justifiable is an age-old one. Proponents claim that it works as a deterrent and provides an avenue of societal retribution, while opponents argue that we risk executing the innocent and that it’s applied arbitrarily. And, while such a debate is always worth having (we’re talking about the state freely killing its citizens, after all), that isn’t what I want to explore here (but, for transparency, I fervently oppose the death penalty). Instead, I want to question, if such executions must happen, does it make a difference in what way they are done? In other words, is how one is executed a moral matter?

One intrinsic aspect of execution that undoubtedly makes the method via which it happens ethically important is the suffering involved. If process A results in an instantaneous death while method B causes hours of agony, then this is something which is a significant moral matter as we’re interested in suffering.

This does not immediately mean, however, that the latter form of execution is undeniably unethical. It could be that the very fact that it causes immeasurable pain makes it the superior option, as that painful quality is what is desired or even necessary. For example, suppose one thinks that the mere threat of execution is an insufficient deterrent to prevent the worst crimes society has to offer. In that case, one might be convinced that painfully executing criminals is the preferable option. That, between a choice of painless or painful execution, the former is ineffective, so the latter becomes pragmatically, and thus ethically, justified.

If I might, however, I would like to park this aspect of the discussion. What I want to explore is not whether pain’s presence or absence makes a method of execution ethically (un)justifiable, as this focuses on pain itself. Rather, I want to stick with the execution method. So, for the sake of argument, let’s go forward on the premise that the executions under question cause an equivalent degree of suffering – be that lots or little.

So, if it is not pain that matters here, what else could it be? Well, I think something should be said about each method’s symbolism. That is, what each way of executing says about the society in which such state-sanctioned killing is conducted and how that community views the value of life and the transition into death. To illustrate this point, let’s compare two forms of execution that have been used over history: hanging and lethal injection.

Hanging has been, historically, at least, a public affair. Or, to put it more accurately, it has not been a method of killing that was seen as inherently private. Watching people die at the end of a rope has been used as a critical form of deterrent for centuries – be that during America’s expansion into the West or during the Salem Witch Trials. It was a visual form of punishment which was meant as much for those in attendance as it was for the poor soul being killed. It was a method of state-sanctioned killing that, I would argue, disregarded the value of the individual. Upon being sentenced (if such a formal process even occurred), it turned them from a member of a society – with an internal world and rights and duties – to a tool via which the desired norms of that time could be reinforced. Put simply, they went from being a person to being an example. Execution wasn’t something to be ashamed of; the only shame was being the one executed.

Fast-forward to today, and the most common method of execution, at least in the U.S., is lethal injection. The process in which this is done, however, stands in stark contrast to that of hanging, with obscurity built into the very way it is conducted. Indeed, those responsible for killing the person are typically unaware they are responsible, as they sit separate from the execution chamber itself and work in conjunction with other executioners who are also in the dark. There is also a limited number of individuals present at the execution. While this varies according to jurisdiction, it usually features those close to the victim, those close to the convicted, a religious representative, a lawyer, and prison staff. Unlike hanging, it is typically a solemn, private affair (despite the media attention they often receive).

This change in method, from a public spectacle to a clinical activity, reveals something interesting about capital punishment’s societal placing. It is no longer something to be showcased or proud of. Instead, it is (considered by some) an instrument of justice required to ensure that society is protected from the worst parts of itself. It is more of an administrative activity that, despite some vocal advocacy, seems to carry a sense of shame.

I think this change – from skeptical to duty, from event to task – indicates something different about the methods of execution. The publicity of hanging erodes the individual’s worth and turns them into a tool for reinforcing state (or whichever sovereign at that point) power. The comparatively private nature of today’s executions has a seemingly lesser effect.

Now, there is certainly a point at which trying to differentiate the methods of execution, perhaps even grade them, becomes pointless. Looking for ethical distinctions between using nitrogen and argon to execute prisoners is an exercise in futility. It makes no difference to those in attendance, those reporting on it, and most certainly to the person dying. And I want to reiterate, I think capital punishment is always unjustified (and I may write another piece about why).

Yet, it does seem to me, for reasons that I am yet to grasp fully – although I have tried a little here – that different execution methods are ethically distinct beyond simple comparisons of how much suffering they may or may not cause. That, when it comes to the state exercising its ultimate punishment, how one dies is important and needs discussing.


P.S. On a personal note, I’ve stood inside Texas’ execution chamber, and it is one of the worst places I’ve ever been.

Free Speech and the Media Matters Lawsuit

image of 'no signal' TV screen with test pattern

In November 2023, Elon Musk filed a lawsuit against Media Matters (a left-leaning nonprofit dedicated to “monitoring, analyzing, and correcting conservative misinformation”) in response to their investigative report that suggested X, formerly known as Twitter, ran corporate advertisements alongside Nazi content. As a result, corporations including IBM and Comcast pulled their ads, causing further damage to a company whose reputation and finances are already bruised. Media Matters is just the latest to raise concerns about an increase in Nazi and white nationalist content on Twitter enabled by updated content policies.

But Musk is a self-described “free speech absolutist,” and his laissez-faire attitude towards hate speech has informed those policy decisions. While Musk’s position might seem extreme, it is not without precedent. The ACLU, for example, has taken a similar stance. They have come out against Musk in response to a lawsuit similar to the Media Matters one, they also represented white nationalist and Unite the Right organizer Jason Kessler in Virginia courts. They defend this action in a public statement, writing that the government should not be the arbiter of “when and whether the voices opposing a person’s speech can be preferred,” even when that speech is  “deeply offensive to others.”

The question of free speech, especially hate speech and misinformation, is nothing new, even to social media. Facebook has long been criticized for its tolerance of hate speech and misinformation, while Twitter has time and again fallen under public ire, with both Republicans and Democrats raising accusations of censorship. To explore this problem, it is first helpful to consider what limiting free speech is not. While the United States Constitution does guarantee the right to free speech under the First Amendment, this pertains to governmental interference. The First Amendment does not obviously prohibit Musk’s permissive content policies, Media Matters’s attack on those policies, nor corporations’ decision to spend their advertising dollars elsewhere.

Even so, social media’s power as a public forum complicates things. Social media corporations may be private, but they play an outsized role socially and politically, often with negative results. We saw this during the COVID pandemic, for example, where social media misinformation was responsible for increased mortality rates. Due to the magnitude of social media’s impact, there might be grounds for restricting speech in those private spheres and some places already do. Germany, for example, has strict hate speech laws that have been expanded to include internet speech, though not without controversy. (One German judge recently ruled that the law was government overreach and an infringement on free speech.)  Likewise, in the United States, there are some limits imposed even on constitutionally guaranteed freedoms: while the Second Amendment guarantees the right to bear arms, some guns like short-barreled shotguns and automatic weapons are nonetheless illegal.

While there may be good reasons for favoring permissive free speech policies, they can quickly lead to what the Austrian-British philosopher Karl Popper called the paradox of tolerance. To have a tolerant society, one that is permissive of a plurality of viewpoints and expressions, it must be tolerant of all opinions — except those that are intolerant. Intolerance undermines the very conditions for a tolerant society. In a free society, we should allow for any belief so long as it can be countered by reason. But an intolerant position, on Popper’s account, is one that refuses rational argument. And those who refuse to participate in rational, common discourse often express them through coercion, threatening to destroy the tolerant and, with them, free society. One example might be a Holocaust denier who ignores the historical and testimonial evidence supporting those events as historical fact. This person’s discourse is either irrational or not in good faith; in either case, they are not engaging in rational argument. Popper would say it is no surprise, then, that we often see violent speech and actions coming from those who hold this view.

Using Popper’s criteria for identifying intolerant speech, however, may be especially difficult in our current socio-political climate. As Thomas Hobbes said, when it comes to the perception of our own rationality, “almost all men think they have [it] in a greater degree” than any other. With so much misinformation swirling around, the marketplace of ideas has lost shared conceptions of evidence and reasons. Since the grounds for discourse themselves are questioned, both parties in a dispute are open to accusations of irrationality from the other. Mob rule decides which opinions are disqualified, and this leads right into Popper’s worries about intolerance. So, while his paradox might be a helpful way of framing the problem, it does not offer much practical advice for escaping it.

We might gain more traction, however, by looking to the British philosopher John Stuart Mill. Mill is something like a free speech absolutist himself, arguing that personal liberties must be “absolute and unqualified.” Like Popper, Mill argues that society must allow for unpopular opinions, or it is not a free society at all. When we silence people that we disagree with, we assume that our beliefs are true beyond correction. Likewise, when our beliefs go unchallenged, we hold them superficially and without much conviction. When unpopular ideas are expressed, they provide an opportunity to refine our own opinions and more clearly understand them. For reasons like these, Mill says we should allow freedom of speech and expression with almost no limits, as there is one important exception: the harm principle. Our vast personal freedoms — including the freedom of speech — end when they harm others. There is already legal precedent for restricted speech in the United States on these grounds: fraud and incitement to violence are not protected speech, for example, due to their harmful consequences. A plurality of opinions, however unpopular, should then be welcomed, so long as expressions of those opinions do not cause these kinds of injury to others.

Where does that leave us?

For both Popper and Mill, unqualified free speech rests upon the benefits of free discourse outweighing the risks of abhorrent speech; as a free society, we must allow space for persuasion. But an additional factor not yet considered here is that social media platforms like Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram are different from other media that reach large audiences such as radio, television, and other internet platforms like Substack. Timelines and newsfeeds are uniquely addictive. While social media has the illusion of offering the public a marketplace of ideas, newsfeeds and timelines are designed to engross the user, indefinitely limiting their exposure to opinions that are new or different from their own. Social media can be a tool for discourse, but it is often the antithesis of what Popper and Mill envisioned when advocating for unrestricted speech — an echo chamber that is susceptible to validating poor arguments and calcifying opinions without any opportunity for refutation. While this might be enough of a reason for a free speech absolutist to limit certain speech on social media, there remains the tremendous challenge of how we are to determine what such algorithms should filter and how.

This is no easy task. Musk’s lawsuit assumes the economic harm that Media Matters’s speech caused to X. Yet the advertisers motivated by the economic risks of being associated with Nazi content could make similar arguments. Media Matters’s report is motivated by different harms, namely social, psychological, and physical harms that they believe unrestricted white nationalist content causes. These different types of harm are not easily parsed, and one harm often indirectly causes another; someone physically harmed may not be able to return to work, for example. Yet, in the Media Matters case, direct harms like political polarization, stoking racism (social), increased hate crimes (physical), and doxing or threats (psychological) are more destructive than the direct economic harm caused by lost corporate revenue. Of course, that is only if the types of hate speech they draw attention to in their investigative report are directly responsible for causing those harms.

Does this lead us back to the same challenges facing the paradox of tolerance? Perhaps not. Where the paradox of tolerance faces challenges due to the difficulty of assessing rational discourse, cases of harm might be more easily measured. One important first step could be listening to members of communities affected by hate speech, rather than assuming on their behalf that there is or is not harm. When navigating the difficult problems of internet free speech and its limits, we might find it helpful to begin not by defining free speech, but by asking what counts as harm.

Davos and the Ethics of Noblesse Oblige

photograph of statue holding scepter

Every January, high in the mountains of Switzerland, the tiny resort town of Davos hosts thousands of political, business, and economic leaders for the World Economic Forum annual meeting. The overarching mission of the World Economic Forum is to promote partnerships between government and businesses, and the conference provides current events based talks and discussion forums targeted at the “haves” of the world. The founder and chairman of the World Economic Forum, Klaus Schwab, is known for his advocacy of stakeholder capitalism, in which industry should work for the benefit of all its stakeholders — employees, customers, shareholders, community members, and others — as opposed to just shareholders. The conference theme this year: Rebuilding Trust. (Rebuilding trust in the abstract, mind you, this was not an admission that the global elite had broken trust and now need to repair it.)

Conspiracy theories aside, the Davos conference leans more Alpine retreat with TED-talks than sinister cabal. Politico mocked this year’s offerings for exhibiting the kind of bland political discourse you’d expect to pair with a white picket fence and a two car garage.  And indeed, the talks and panels are standard fare — what’s going to happen in the Middle East, how will AI impact the economy, how can science be more transparent.

The event is many ways thoroughly modern — globalist, corporate, technocratic. And yet, its ethical spirit is an old one: noblesse oblige (literally, nobility obligates). The phrase connotes that nobility and its associated privileges is no free lunch, but comes with commensurate moral obligations, especially to the less privileged. The opening remarks appealed to notions of “stewardship” and “trusteeship,” asserting “as leaders in government, business, and society we bear a particular responsibility to rebuild trust in how we assume our own role as trustees.” The “we” here being those invited to the conference. Attendees were repeatedly encouraged to use their power wisely and to care about the greater good.

Davos grates against American anti-elitist sentiments, but vast inequality is a fact of the modern world and noblesse oblige merits due consideration. The most cynical interpretation is that it is more a PR gambit than anything else; an implicit claim that the rich should get to keep their money because they are being ethically responsible with it. A slightly less cynical interpretation, is it that it self-soothes those at the top confronted with inequality. But let us accept for the moment that many wealthy and powerful individuals do genuinely want to help the less privileged. What comes of this? Is this a good thing? Can we count on it in lieu of progressive taxation or redistribution?

The most compelling argument in favor of noblesse oblige is simply the unsettling alternative — nobility without obligation. If there is going to be such inequality, do we not want cultural mores which encourage benevolence and civic-mindedness among the elite as opposed to rapacious individualism? More generally, across multiple ethical perspectives it is an uncontroversial “good thing” for people to care about and help other people.

There are also practical advantages. An ethos that encourages the elite to use their resources and skills to help society, if taken seriously, has a genuine possibility of creating positive change. Societal change requires power, which, naturally enough, powerful people tend to have. The elite also often have access to skills and information that can greatly aid in problem solving. To be clear, it is not that elites are inherently better or more skilled, but rather that a life path awash in resources and opportunities advantages one in developing their skills.

The real question for the public is not whether we want our modern-day elites to be benevolent as opposed to selfish (obviously benevolent), but whether to accept noblesse oblige as an adequate response to inequality. Are we okay with present levels of inequality, if the wealthy and powerful adopt a social code of benevolence of good stewardship? What are the limitations of this?

Perhaps the most straight-forward challenge is that noblesse oblige is not meaningfully committed to political equality. It cares about general well-being, not wanting deprivation or abject poverty, but not about relative inequality. For some, it may be enough that the benefits of wealth trickle down to the poor and that everyone materially benefits even as relative social positions stratify.  Others, such as the philosopher Elizabeth Anderson, argue we should seek a full-throated equality in which community members stand in social relations with each other as equals. Even if noblesse oblige genuinely encouraged those at the top to care about wealth inequality, the inherent paternalism would fail to deliver on Anderson’s understanding of equality as it would not treat the less fortunate as social equals.

A choice line from American steel baron Andrew Carnegie’s famous essay, “The Gospel of Wealth” reveals this creeping condescension even while encouraging philanthropy: “the man of wealth thus becomes the mere agent and trustee for his poorer brethren, bringing to their service his superior wisdom, experience and ability to administer, doing for them better than they could or would do for themselves.”

Similarly, while noblesse oblige often encourages the powerful to help and solve problems for the less privileged, it does so on the terms of the powerful. As Carnegie illustrates, from the perspective of the wealthy and powerful, this is a feature not a bug. Klaus Schwab, the World Economic Forum chairman, asserts, “we come together at the beginning of the year to analyze the state of the world, in a systemic and strategic way” — the world’s problems as defined and curated by 3000 people enjoying canapés in the Swiss Alps. The overarching concern is that the vaunted knowhow and the problem-solving power of the elite may not matter if there is not agreement as to what the problems are.

Noblesse oblige is also, phrasing aside, ultimately a social/moral norm as opposed to an enforceable legal or institutional obligation. The implicit assertion is that a more powerful enforcement mechanism is not required, as the wealthy and powerful will be responsible with their wealth and power. (And more skillful than the fumbling hands of the government or general public.) The assessment of whether this promise is enough is ultimately for society more broadly to decide. Although there is also some measure of self-interest at play. Historically, too much “noblesse” and too little “oblige” has led to aristocracy losing their wealth, and sometimes their heads.

Finally, noblesse oblige places boundaries around societal change. It does not question the position of the nobility (the rich, the wealthy, the influential, the powerful) themselves, but rather takes the current distribution of power as its starting point and asks what obligations follow. It puts out of reach — on pain of self-sacrifice — any solution to societal problems which would strip the wealthy and powerful of their wealth and power.

Ban the Bots that Dehumanize Us

woman taking a selfie with illusion effect

If you’re on social media, chances are that you’ve encountered bots: social media accounts set up to run autonomously. Some bots are just for fun. Twitter bot Serval Every Hour, for example, simply posts a photo of a serval (a kind of wild cat) every hour. But recent months have brought a proliferation of a distinctive kind of automated account, colloquially referred to as porn bots.

Most of these bots don’t post any content at all. They simply like other users’ posts in the hopes (if bots had hopes) of bringing traffic to their profile. The bio in the profile usually consists of some inviting phrase such as “looking for my adventure partner” and a link to a webpage. Together with a feminine profile pic and display name, these features are meant to entice viewers to click on the link. I’m neither naïve nor journalist enough to have clicked the links in any bots’ profiles, but the standard candidates for suspicious links are familiar; perhaps they lead to malware, a phishing scheme, or maybe an ad-supported website where views generate revenue. The link’s destination isn’t particularly important for what I want to discuss here. What I want to discuss is the effect these bots have on Twitter users, stemming largely from the fact that these are apparent accounts of women that — though they exist because of someone’s actions — are not properly the accounts of people at all.

Two features of the bots give them a distinctive influence: their appearance as women and their unavoidability. While the bots vary somewhat, the typical bot has a profile picture of a woman (likely stolen) ranging from a typical selfie or vacation photo to more provocative poses. The bots often have only a feminine proper names as their display name. In short, they seem to be accounts of women. The features listed above — the lack of posts, the link in bio, etc. — can clue you in to their status as bots, but many of these features can only be viewed by visiting their profile; at first glance (and before you’ve encountered too many of them), these bots seem to be women.

While one can recognize a porn bot from its profile, they are difficult to avoid. In order to try to weed them out one by one, you need to visit their profile page and click on the icon that brings up the option to block that account. Thus, in order to prevent a bot from intruding on your Twitter notifications, you need to expose yourself to it further by viewing its page, doing so one by one for any bots that start showing up in your notifications. There are more drastic options for avoiding them, but these options also make it harder to connect with human users of the site.

The porn bots raise a number of ethical issues, including the issue of how much agency an adult should have as to when or whether they encounter adult content in a public setting, as well as the issue of the bots’ disruption of genuine interactions in a social media community. As someone who spends a lot of time interacting with friends and treasured mutuals on Twitter, I find the bots distracting. Much of what’s posted on Twitter is deeply unserious, but that doesn’t mean it’s unimportant; and intrusions by bots undermine the sense of community among Twitter users. (The latter issue is satirized succinctly in this image, which was relatable enough to receive 93,000 [mostly human?] likes.)

Beyond their unavoidability and intrusion on community, however, is an issue of injustice: the presence of these bots dehumanizes women by shifting what is reasonable to believe about accounts that appear to belong to women. Encountering these bots shifts one’s perceptions about whether someone with a feminine profile picture and display name is a human being. Once one realizes that these likes come from bots, this shift in perception is hard to avoid — and it’s not even irrational! The proliferation of porn bots actually reduces the probability that someone you encounter with a feminine profile picture and feminine display name is a human being. It’s like throwing a bunch of Skittles into a bag of M&M’s: at first glance you have good reason to be suspicious that any one of them really is what the label says. The proliferation of these bots not only creates an environment in which people are more likely to dismiss an account with a woman’s name and woman’s profile picture as being a nonperson; they create an environment in which these doubts are reasonable.

This dehumanization takes a form somewhat different from (which is not to say better or worse than) the typical objectification of women and girls through oversexualizing them. The use of photos of women for these accounts is a kind of objectification, and the profiles do sexualize them through the suggestion of something salacious just a click away. But until you click through to their profile, the majority of these bots look like, simply, women — women as they often present themselves in public. Again, this is not to say the situation would be more just if the bots’ profiles were more uniformly provocative; only that the ethical issues are sensitive to what the bots actually display and, therefore, whom they (mis)represent and how. And they misrepresent a lot of women by using passably typical profile pictures.

The ensuing situation falls under the broad category of an epistemic injustice — a situation where someone is wronged in their ability to know or to be treated as a source of knowledge, often as a result of their social position. The proliferation of bots that pose as ordinary women undermines the knowledge that any such user, at first glance, is an actual person. Thus, women who use Twitter are at risk of being in a position of needing to distinguish themselves as real persons. (“By the way, I’m someone! I’m one of the real ones!”) Therein lies the distinctive dehumanization. All the unreal copies appearing to be women make it a little bit harder for a woman on Twitter to be recognized as a person.

The environment created by these bots is a small example of the ways in which a culture that sexualizes and objectifies women and girls can fail them as persons. Who we are in our social identities — such as race, class, and gender — depends heavily on who others take us to be. This dependence is why, for example, we wrong someone if we purposely misgender them, act on unfounded assumptions about their ethnicity, or call them by the wrong name. We need others to tell us who we are in order to be who we are. This reciprocity is what philosopher Hilde Lindemann calls holding one another in personhood. The creators of the bots (and those at Twitter failing to prevent their intrusion) support an environment in which it’s harder to uphold each other in our personhood because, for a split second, it can be harder to perceive women on Twitter as people at all.