Accountability, empathy, and liability

2010-10-27 15:59

Something has sort of clicked recently, between a couple of different things I’ve read.

One of the most important parts of having a complaint, for most people, is having someone else acknowledge that complaint. We live in a society, though, where admitting to some kind of wrongdoing is pretty much regarded as creating legal liability. What that means is we’ve created a powerful incentive for people to never acknowledge a role in anything that is definitely ungood.

This goes directly to undermining the basic concept of personal accountability. It creates a powerful incentive for people to start by denying involvement or responsibility. Once they’ve done that, they’re committed; they’re not going to want to admit that they were wrong, or that they were just saying what they thought would get them out of trouble. Given a bit of time, they’ll become convinced that their evaluation is, in fact, a fair and accurate one.

It isn’t at all obvious to me how to address this. Obviously, if there’s a liability issue involved, it makes sense that there would be relevance to, say, admitting that something was your fault. But if you can’t do that, it’s very hard for people to get closure.

Some years back, I was in a small car accident. We were in stop-and-go, bumper-to-bumper traffic. There was a van in a driveway in front of me, trying to pull out into traffic. The van occasionally lurched forward a couple of inches, then stopped, then moved back up into the driveway. One time, I started to ease forward, the van did this, and I stopped to avoid hitting the van on the off chance that this was the time she’d actually go for it. She didn’t… but the guy behind me did. Minor accident, some bumper damage, no one hurt at all.

Later, while we were talking about it, he asked me about this. I don’t remember the exact words, but he tried really hard to make it clear that he wasn’t looking for liability or anything, he just wanted to know — had I started moving? So I explained that, yes, I had started moving, and then stopped suddenly because of the van.

This didn’t change legal liability; he rear-ended my car, he was supposed to be more careful, and all that. But it meant, to him, that he wasn’t delusional, or crazy. He really had seen my brake lights go off, and my car start to move. It meant that he could trust his judgement at least that far — that he had to be careful about stop-and-go traffic, not about going crazy and seeing things.

Most of the time though, it’s harder for people to do that. When Blizzard rolled out Real ID, a number of bugs and quirks and unanticipated side-effects resulted in peoples’ real names getting leaked around variously. According to some forum posters, one woman had her name and work phone number circulated broadly among kids playing on that server. (True or not? We don’t really know. Seems likely enough.)

Blizzard can never, ever, admit that this was a side-effect of their idiotic idea of pushing real names on people — that could give them liability. So no matter how stupid it is, they have to stick with pretending that everyone wants to be known by their real names in video games, and there’s no risks or downsides, and that if you use them wrong, it’s your fault.

We end up with their mantra that this system is intended “only for people you know and trust in real life”, which is about as truthful as the warning on cotton swabs saying they aren’t intended to go into the ear canal. Of course they are; that’s what they’re [b]designed[/b] for. It’s just that, if you do it badly, it could be dangerous. So they have to tell you you shouldn’t, so they aren’t liable if you do.

We do a lot of harm by expecting people to lie to avoid liability. I think, though, one of the greatest parts of it is that we leave a whole lot of people unable to be honest with others, or themselves, about what they’ve done — and thus, deny other people the chance to have their complaints honestly acknowledged. That is a great way to divide people and make them distrust each other. I don’t think it’s helping.

Peter Seebach

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