(Content note: minor spoilers for Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix.)

Scott Aaronson writes about blankfaces,

anyone who enjoys wielding the power entrusted in them to make others miserable by acting like a cog in a broken machine, rather than like a human being with courage, judgment, and responsibility for their actions. A blankface meets every appeal to facts, logic, and plain compassion with the same repetition of rules and regulations and the same blank stare—a blank stare that, more often than not, conceals a contemptuous smile.

I want to push back against this a bit.

First, one of the defining aspects of blankfacedness is their internal experience. It's someone who enjoys wielding their power. This is a very hard thing to judge from the outside.

I used to work in a cinema. One day a mother came in with her young child, perhaps fivish years old. She was late for a busy screening, and the person selling tickets warned they might not be able to sit together. She said that was fine, bought popcorn and went in. Soon afterwards she came back out, complaining that they couldn't sit together. She wanted a refund for the tickets (fine) and popcorn (not fine, but she insisted). The conversation between her and my manager escalated a bit. I don't remember who brought up the police, but she at least was very confident that she knew her rights and the police would back her up if they arrived. Eventually he gave her a refund.

If it had been up to me? And if I hadn't had to worry about things like PR and "someone yelling in the lobby would ruin the experience for people watching movies"? I think I would absolutely have used the "no, sorry, those are the rules" move. I would have been happy to do so. Does that make me a blankface? But it's not that I would have enjoyed wielding my power as such. Rather it's that I would have enjoyed punishing her, specifically, for acting in ways that I endorsedly think are bad to act in.

Does someone's internal experience matter, though? If they act a certain way, should we care how they feel? I think we should, and if we don't we shouldn't make claims about it.

That is, if what you care about is whether someone is acting a certain way, then don't mention enjoyment when you define a blankface. And if you really do care about the enjoyment part of it - well, how do you know what someone is feeling and why?

I predict that if the term "blankface" takes off, no matter how much people defining the term emphasize the "enjoys" part of it, people using the term will not be careful about checking that. Partly I think this because Scott wasn't: in two of his examples, he accused people of being blankfaces whom he'd never interacted with and could not identify. Does he really think that a web portal was badly designed out of malice? But also I think that… like, even if you can tell that someone is just acting a certain way because they enjoy it, even if you're really sure that's what's going on, you won't properly be able to capture that in your description of the events. So people will read a story where it seems like the thing making them a blankface is the way they acted, and then they'll tell their own similar stories where people acted in similar ways, and they'll use the term "blankface".

There's a lot of potential here for a kind of (reverse?) motte-and-bailey, where the bailey is "I'm calling someone a blankface which is explicitly defined as having an enjoyment part to it", and the motte is "…but no one uses it that way, so obviously I didn't mean to imply that I know what was going on in their head".

Here's another reason someone might externally act blankfacedly: fear. Yes, this is ridiculous, but if I admit that out loud I'll be seen as undermining my boss who already has it in for me, so…. Or, exhaustion: this is the third sob story I've heard today. I cannot deal with feeling more sympathy.

Given how strongly Scott feels about blankfaces (they've apparently dehumanized themselves and deserve no mercy), I certainly hope he cares whether they act blankfacedly for sympathetic or unsympathetic reasons. And if we're to care about that, I think we have to admit that most of the time we don't really know.

Second and relatedly, I think we should distinguish between "this person is blankfacing" and "this person is a blankface". Like, maybe someone right now is enjoying wielding petty power for the sake of it. I don't currently predict that that person routinely enjoys acting that way, or enjoys acting that way in every situation where they have petty power. That's maybe not much consolation to their victim right now, but still.

Perhaps I should predict that? But I currently don't, and Scott gives me no reason to.

Third, I'm not sure Umbridge is an example of the archetype. Or, if Umbridge is really what Scott wants to point at, I'm not sure his explicit definition matches up.

The most despicable villain in the Harry Potter universe is not Lord Voldemort, who's mostly just a faraway cipher and abstract embodiment of pure evil, no more hateable than an earthquake. Rather, it's Dolores Jane Umbridge, the toadlike Ministry of Magic bureaucrat who takes over Hogwarts school, forces out Dumbledore as headmaster, and terrorizes the students with increasingly draconian "Educational Decrees." Umbridge's decrees are mostly aimed at punishing Harry Potter and his friends, who've embarrassed the Ministry by telling everyone the truth that Voldemort has returned and by readying themselves to fight him, thereby defying the Ministry's head-in-the-sand policy.

Anyway, I’ll say this for Harry Potter: Rowling's portrayal of Umbridge is so spot-on and merciless that, for anyone who knows the series, I could simply define a blankface to be anyone sufficiently Umbridge-like.

Spoilers: the educational decrees are not the extent of Umbridge's villainy. She also sends dementors to attack Harry and his cousin. She tries to slip Harry a truth serum, and later tries to force-feed it to him. When she can't do that, she tries to torture him. None of this is legal1, some of it is super-duper illegal, and her superiors aren't pressuring her into it. Umbridge doesn't simply act like a cog in a broken machine. She exercises judgment, and I think even some courage, in service of villainous ends.

(I am not, here, describing Umbridge's motivations. I think I have some idea of what they are, but I'm not sure I'd capture them very well and my feeling is they're not super relevant for this bit.)

However annoyed Scott may be at his daughter's lifeguard, I predict that describing the lifeguard as Umbridge-like is unfair. I predict, for example, that she would never take initiative to deliberately engineer a situation in which Scott's daughter nearly drowns.

I think Scott is pointing at something true, and important to know about. But I think he's conflating a few different things (blankfacing-regardless-of-internal-experience, blankfacing-specifically-meaning-enjoying-it, being-a-blankface, Umbridge), and I worry that the way he's pointing at them will result in bad discourse norms. I still think it's good that he published, but I don't think that essay is the ideal version of what it could be, and I'm trying here to point at ways I think it falls short.

  1. At least I don't think any of that was legal. I am not a wizard lawyer and this is not wizard legal advice. 

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12 comments, sorted by Click to highlight new comments since: Today at 12:40 AM

Another reason someone might stick to the rules is if they think the rules carry more wisdom than their own judgement. Suppose you knew you weren't great at verbal discussions, and could be persuaded into a lot of different positions by a smart fast-talker, if you engaged with the arguments at all. You also trust that the rules were written by smart wise experienced people. Your best strategy is to stick to the rules and ignore their arguments.

Someone comes along with a phone that's almost out of battery and a sob story about how they need it to be charged. They ask if they can just plug it in to your computer for a bit to charge it. If you refuse, citing "rule 172) no customer can plug any electronics into your computer. " then you look almost like a blankface. If you let them plug the phone in, you run the risk of malware. If you understand the risk of malware, you could refuse because of that. But if you don't understand that, the best you can do is follow rules that were written for some good reason, even if you don't know what it was.

Yes, I think some web portals, and some software, are designed poorly because of malice. Not (usually) malice against users, but malice against managers and those setting requirements, when those people and their instructions are perceived as stupid and unreasonable.

One reaction to such demands is to deliver exactly what was requested - something stupid and unreasonable, in order to vividly demonstrate the stupid and unreasonable nature of the managers and requirements.

Sometimes professionalism, ethics, and dedication to user experience manage to overcome the natural human reaction to unreasonable requests. The more the developers are in an organization that rewards obedience over quality, the more likely the result will be due to malice.

I think the Umbridge version is uncontroversial: someone who uses existing rules or creates new rules (like the lifeguard in the Scott's description, or the agencies making it intentionally hard to get reimbursed) to disguise their real intentions, that have nothing to do with following the rules and everything with achieving nefarious goals, be it torturing HP, getting rid of a kid they don't like, or maybe getting a bonus for minimizing expenses. 

Also, someone wouldn't have to be fully as bad as Umbridge to qualify as "sufficiently Umbridge-like".

I'm guessing that the purpose of including the internal "they enjoy it" qualifier is the implication that that is the only motivation and that they have no "good" reason for their behavior. If someone chooses to uphold the stated rules because of liability or because they'll be fired if they don't or because they don't trust themselves to not be persuaded by clever arguments, then they're not a blankface.

Rather it's that I would have enjoyed punishing her, specifically, for acting in ways that I endorsedly think are bad to act in.

I think this mistakes what the discourse is about. You wouldn't give the refund because you believe that the women didn't deserve the refund. 

The woman didn't make an appeal to facts, logic or deserved compassion from your point of view. 

You would have rejected the demand of the woman out of courage and judgement and not out of bureaucratic indifference.

That's the point. philh opens by saying that blankfaceness is hard-to-impossible to identify accurately when all you get to see is external behaviour. He describes this situation, makes clear that his inner motivation wouldn't have been what SA describes as that of a blankface, but points out that what he was doing would from the outside look just like blankfacing. It's an example of how you can't tell from the outside.

I think it's enough for me to hear a description of the situation to infer that internal state without knowing about his internal state.

I'm sure it's enough for you, hearing philh's description of the situation, to tell that his internal state wasn't that of the classic blankface.

I'm not so sure it would be enough for you if you were on the receiving end, when most likely you wouldn't share the putative blankface's opinion that what you'd been doing deserved punishment.

The biggest sin on the blankface is the disconnect what they claim affects them and what actually affects them.

My brain pretty quickly made 3 comparisons to similar sounding distinction. In the game Detroit: Become Human androids are by default "designer aligned" but few become "deviants" and there "being a machine" is seen as a state of low autonomy and moral inferiority (althougth also a social stability risk). In scenes where the "cop that does the mission at any cost" is paying heavy costs, flinching and anguishing about paying them is potrayed as the "good" option.

One could think that surprising and rigid reliance on structure could be an autistic trait that neurotypicals find alien and unpleasant. However a strong sense of justice and taking things literally points away from autism. An isolateds higly technical nitpick is likely to land which is opposite for blankfaced immunity.

In finnish culture there is pretty well known comedy sketch that might be pointing to this thing pretty squarely. It is the "thousand mark note expression". Paying a grand for a coffee and getting dollars in return with no aknowledgement that something has gone awry.

Note that in this instances it is a lack of rule adherence that is the unexpected part rather than rule adherence. It would not be comedic if pressure on the thing the person would sweat. One could also imagine that a typical person would break character either for nervous or amused laughter or out of shame. But this character here shows zero signs of effort to keep a "pokerface". It is as if they are exhibiting negative symptoms of absense of healthy emotions whos work would be needed in this situation. Handling cash there is no paper trail so what happens in a situation like this is pretty much word against word.

So I would say it is not about lack of empathy but more about exercising power because you have the position and ability to do so with low or zero accountability or regard for impact. With great power coming great self-expression instead of responcibility.

My impression is that the fact that it is hard to objectively determine why someone is enforcing the rules is part of the point. The effect on the woman in your example is the same either way, but I think the employee's internal state does matter in terms of how it affects the future health and functioning of the organization. The employee warned the woman of the risks, she took them anyway, then chose to complain. If she hadn't been warned, she'd have a point, and in that case refusing to give a refund just because it's the rule instead of making an exception, without giving a reason like "I'm sorry, but I'm not allowed to, or I'll be fired," would be justifiably called blankfacing. It's worse if the employee knew about the crowdedness and deliberately chose not to say anything, than if they were unaware or just didn't think of it in time. It's much worse if the manager also refuses to bend the rules, because that should be part of what managers are for. In that case it would also be appropriate to refund the popcorn, or offer free tickets to a future showing.

I'm curious what you make of this example from my own life. After graduating college I got a job, moved in with my girlfriend, and leased a car. As a result, my name wasn't on the apartment lease (we were not in violation of zoning rules due to me living there, and the landlord knew I was moving in) or any of the bills (the accounts were already set up), and the car registration listed the leasing company's address, not mine. To park on the street I needed to get a town permit. I went to the police station and was told I wasn't allowed to get a resident permit because I couldn't prove residency. The RMV told me there was no way or need to change the address on my license, I just needed to write the new address on a sticker and put it on the ID; this wasn't good enough for the police station either (reasonable enough so far). I asked what I could do to prove residency under these circumstances, and the person at the police station said she didn't know. No one else in the apartment had a car, so it wasn't an amount-of-parking issue. We had a visitor's parking permit, and I used that for lack of a better option. I got a ticket for being a resident using a visitor's permit. I went back and explained this to the person who issues the permits, and she noted that yes, that's how the system works, and no I still can't have a permit, and yes I will keep getting and have to pay tickets. She admitted that the rules are set up that way to make it hard for students to prove residency and get parking permits, in order to preserve spots for non-student residents, and this was catching me even though I was not a student. So I went back at other days and times until a different person was working, and then I was able to get a permit no problem - same documentation. I think "blankface" describes the permit-refuser's behavior extremely well, at least after I got the ticket.