Hall’s Law

Godwin’s Law is a theory of internet interaction which postulates that the longer an online discussion continues, the more likely it is that someone will make a Hitler or Nazi comparison. Today, I’d like to propose a new law – the more someone wants to win an emotional argument, the more likely is that person will compare the object of their outrage to cancer. We’ll call it Hall’s Law of Crisis Management.

Tim Cook, CEO of Apple, is the latest (albeit far from only) person to make such a comparison. On ABC last night he said, “The only way to get information — at least currently, the only way we know — would be to write a piece of software that we view as sort of the equivalent of cancer.”

No, sir, software isn’t cancer.

Cancer is a devastating disease that ravages a person’s mind, body, and spirit. The only treatments we have are affectionately known as “slash, burn, and poison.” Unfortunately, that is not hyperbole. It can ruin finances, relationships, and alter the trajectory of your life in unpleasant ways. It kills people. Lots of people. Like more than half a million in this country alone last year.

I see two big problems with such hyperbolic metaphors.

First, to compare any situation to cancer is to cheapen the actual experience of cancer. Anyone who actually believes that any sort of privacy slippery slope argument is the same as having cancer really doesn’t understand this complex set of diseases at all. And if people don’t understand it, who is going to push for it to be cured and prevented? I call this problem Oh, You Have Cancer? I Know What That’s Like Because The Government Might Want To Read My Text Messages Someday After I Become A Mass Murderer. 

Second, this sort of comparison only reinforces the fear around cancer. We know that when someone compares a situation to cancer, that situation is really, really bad. Because cancer is bad and scary and unknown. Then, next month, when you get a cancer diagnosis, that fear is magnified by all the bogeyman talk. And fear can get in the way of making rational decisions relating to your treatment.

I see Cook’s comment as a sort of modern-day twist on the “give me liberty or give me death” slogan. This is what people are talking about when they throw out the term privilege. Such sloganeering is only applicable if the choice is real.

I can choose whether to communicate via cell phone. I can choose whether or not I want to become a mass murderer.

I was not given such a choice about cancer. If I had been, I would have turned over my phone, my laptop, my kids’ phones, and any other electronic devices I could get my hands on. If the government wants to read my recent text messages with my son regarding a sleepover he wants to attend, I’d trade that for the slash/burn/poison that has altered my own life in unwelcome ways.

All day long.

So, Mr. Cook, I ask you to take it down a notch. Find a better metaphor. And, perhaps most poignantly ironic, remember how you got your job in the first place.

5 thoughts on “Hall’s Law”

  1. Because diversity is axiomatic, we know that preference for liberty and freedom (to be used interchangeably here) varies among individuals. You may be willing to surrender your freedom for particular forms of safety, such as security from disease. In fact, you may be willing to force others to labor in support of keeping you secure.

    Other individuals are not willing to make that trade. They value freedom so highly that they are prepared to accept painful consequences in order to preserve it. Some may be unwilling to compromise liberty regardless of cost.

    To those with low preference for freedom, the tyranny, cancer, or death analogies are incomprehensible because, as you demonstrate, exchanging freedom for measures of security seems straightforward and sensible. To those with high preference for freedom, the analogies accurately reflect the extreme price that they associate with surrendering liberty.

  2. Because diversity is axiomatic, we know that preference for liberty and freedom varies among individuals. You may be willing to surrender your freedom for particular forms of safety, such as security from disease. In fact, you may be willing to force others to labor in support of keeping you secure.

    Other individuals are not willing to make that trade. They value freedom so highly that they are prepared to accept painful consequences in order to preserve it. Some may be unwilling to compromise liberty regardless of cost.

    To those with low preference for freedom, the tyranny, cancer, or death analogies are incomprehensible because, as you demonstrate, exchanging freedom for measures of security seems straightforward and sensible. To those with high preference for freedom, the analogies accurately reflect the extreme price that they associate with surrendering liberty.

    1. I don’t agree with that. I can have a high preference for freedom and liberty and still understand that phone hacking and cancer are wildly different.

      On one hand, you have a person who can choose to use certain forms of technology knowing that it’s possible that the data can be accessed. A person can choose to act in ways that will make it highly unlikely that anything going on on his or her phone would be of interest to anyone (ie Don’t Kill People). Or a person can refuse to use cell phones, use burners, or go off the grid entirely.

      On the other hand, a person with cancer has no choice to accept or reject cancer. The analogy is incomprehensible not because I don’t think freedom is important, but because it is completely beyond the reach of reality. My comment about trading my cell phone to have my cancer disappear, while hypothetically true, illustrates that the two situations are far from comparable.

      I could round up every electronic device in the US, drop them on the FBI’s doorstep, and I still would have had cancer.

      You can use your phone or not use your phone and you still won’t have cancer.

      It’s a bad, over-the-top analogy that serves no one. Let’s stick with facts and leave the cancer talk to the oncologists’ office. I think people are smart enough to make up their own minds here without hyperbolic fear mongering.

      Note well that I am saying nothing about the case itself that Apple is trying to make. I am simply commenting that Cook’s attempt to scare everyone with the cancer talk is ineffective and, to me at least, offensive.

      k

      1. Unless I misunderstand his remarks, Cook is not saying, as you seem to imply, that simply getting one’s phone hacked is equivalent to cancer. He is saying that the ‘cancer’ involves being nudged or perhaps forced by govt to do something that could result in invasion of privacy of i-phone users. This would not only be cancerous to his business, but cancerous to people’s 4th amendment rights. Most certainly cancerous to liberty.

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