Are you a blankface?

Photo by Christian Lue on Unsplash

Rarely does a single word invoke such emotion in me. This has been something that has been bothering me for a long time. I complain about it endlessly to anyone that will listen. But I never had a word that succinctly describes the problem.

Now, I do.

Blankface.

I’m due for a non-quantum-physics-related rant.

Blankface is a word that entered the lexicon on 2 Aug 2021 via Scott Aaronson:

Woah.

But, hold up. Blankface — this is an insult. As Aaronson rightly acknowledges, “blankface is a serious accusation.” Do we really need more insults in the world?

Sticks and Stones

As children, we were told not to “call names.” Adults like to give children simple reasons such as “it’s not nice” or “it’s bullying.” For me, I can recall hard lessons from the Golden Rule, treat others as you would like others to treat you. Being called names doesn’t feel good. That was enough for me. (Of course, I’ve never been perfect — but this isn’t storytime.)

As you get older, you can appreciate that some names are much worse than others. Calling someone “jerk” when they have done an inconsiderate act is “better” than calling someone “idiot” for making a mistake. Why? In the former case, the target of the insult has already chosen to act in a way that violates the insulter’s values of morality or social convention. While, in the latter case, the target has received an attack on their intelligence through no fault of their own. You might hear someone say something like the first target “deserved” the insult, while the second did not. This language implies that insults are punishments that absolve some offense, but I strongly disagree with that. What, then, is the point of insults?

Occam’s bullet

Freud wrote, “the man who first flung a word of abuse at his enemy instead of a spear was the founder of civilization.” I am a scientist. According to popular culture, that makes me meek and timid — the least likely person to wield a spear. However, it wasn’t a hundred or so years ago that scientific debates were settled by duels! No thanks — I’ll happily take a few insults over dodging some bullets.

The point is, we need some way of expressing hostility, and insults are an extremely efficient way to do that since they also signal our most sacred values.

Values vary across time and culture, but these days (in Western countries anyway) insults signal one of four values: power, intelligence, morality, and normality. For example, someone that values power may call someone “weak” to signal the target lacks worth (see Twitter for more examples). Or, they may value intelligence and call someone “dumb” to communicate the target’s lack of brainpower (see Twitter for more examples). Violations of morality could be met with “deplorable,” and violations of normality are tagged as “odd.”

I don’t want to dwell on this too much, but I’d like to assume that most people reading this would value morality most of all and then social convention before intelligence and power. Before you object, I want to defend this assumption with an illustrative example that’s extremely relevant today. We might consider calling an anti-vaxx conspiracy theorist “stupid.” Though this signals an attack on their intellect, I would argue that it comes more from reacting to violations of our values of morality or normalcy. It might be better than to label them “willfully ignorant” — choosing to ignore facts and scientific consensus. Smart people can act foolishly when guided by ideology.

Isn’t it a pain, though, that the appropriate insults have much less bite and too many syllables to do the job? For example, “willfully ignorant” just doesn’t seem to score as many points as “stupid.” However, insulting someone’s intellect rarely has the intended effect, which brings us back to blankface.

Computer says no

Suppose you purchased a pair of shoes from a store with a 30-day return policy. You neglected to try the shoes on until the 30th day only to find out the wrong size was in the box. No worries, you can return them, right? As it turns out, the store where you bought them is closed today because of concern over a gas leak. That’s annoying, you think — but you’ll try again tomorrow. The next day you walk into the store and explain the size discrepancy problem. The only person working in the store says, “You can’t return these because it’s been 31 days since you purchased them.”

Accurate. You expected this, of course. You smile and say, “I know. But yesterday your store was closed, and I could not return them.”

They reply: “You bought these 31 days ago and the return policy is 30 days. You can’t return them.”

Odd, you think, they just said that. “Right. However, I tried to return them on the 30th day, but your store was not open because of the gas leak. If you were open, I would have been here on the 30th day.”

Was that a hint of anger or desperation they detected? They pause to hold back their sadistic ecstasy. In an intentionally ironic tone, they say, “I wasn’t here yesterday, sir. But I can count that it has been 31 days since you made this purchase, and our policy only allows returns up to 30 days.”

You clench your fists hoping it will quell your frustration. It doesn’t work. You reach for your spear and remember this is 2021 and you don’t have a spear. Instead, you toss a “fuck you, idiot.” Smart move? Probably not. But that was before you knew about blankfaces.

Just as in the case of anti-vaxxers violating your values of morality and normalcy, the person in this example has made a willful act of social deviance. Before, you had no acceptable words to vent your frustration and signal your strong disapproval of their actions. Now, you do. They are definitely not “stupid” — they are blankface.

Dystopian heroes

I often half-heartedly joke that the world will not end with a pandemic, climatic catastrophe, or other cataclysmic events but with the slow suffocation of bureaucratic compliance. I’d like to think it’d make for clever fiction, but make it interesting, and you basically have a conventional corporate dystopian plotline. The only thing that is missing is the hero.

That’s you, by the way, the hero. Though, unlike actual dystopian fiction, you can’t save the world — but you can save yourself. There are two strategies in dealing with a blankface. The first is simple: go around them. Sometimes “the policy” is actually their worst enemy. The policy most likely states that the buck doesn’t stop with the blankface. Either read the policy yourself or ask where exactly the offending actions are referenced in the policy.

“Could you show me the policy document you are referring to? Ah, it says here that a manager can choose to not enforce this mandate at their discretion. Could I please speak to them?”

The other strategy is bolder — take the blankface’s power away. This is not always possible and best illustrated by an example.

“I understand. But, I intend to follow up on this, so I need some evidence that you have made this decision. I’d like to record the rest of this conversation or get what you said earlier in writing?”

Basically, you want to turn the tables so that the blankface is on the hook for their decision not to honor your request.

A word of caution here. This is obviously assuming your request is reasonable and offered in good faith. I am assuming you are the hero, not a blankface yourself! Remember the Golden Rule. If at any point the supposed blankface demonstrates some humility, stop! This person is not a blankface. Just because you don’t get your own way doesn’t make the people preventing it blankfaces. Sometimes, the other person really does have no power to honor your request.

“I’m really sorry, but I’m new here, and I was told not to let people bully me into giving them discounts or returns. I’m worried that I’ll get fired. Could you please come back this afternoon when the manager will be here?”

See that? You didn’t get what you wanted. Your logic and reason did not persuade. Yet, this person is not a blankface.

“Thank you for your understanding and for the information about when the manager will return. I hope you enjoy the rest of your morning.”

Putting a face on

Aaronson and I are academics — elitists sitting comfortably in our ivory towers. What do we really have to complain about? Indeed, as universities become more and more corporatized but are beholden to none of the accountability of a business, they become overrun with blankfaces. If you want to interview someone that has to deal with blankfaces on a regular basis, find a university academic.

A better — but way more difficult to find — person dealing with blankfaces is government employees that actually want to get shit done. This is the true dichotomy between blankfaces and the rest of us. Blankface is not meant to be some new buzz in the culture wars. The opposite group to blankfaces intersects every cultural, racial, economic, political, and ideological boundary you can draw.

The non-blankfaces are people that understand that there is a difference between policy and procedure, between customer and person, between regulation and suggestion, and between busy work and progress.

Help other people get shit done. If you can’t, the least you can do is commiserate with them about the absurdity of it all.

Quantum theorist by day, father by night. Occasionally moonlighting as a author. csferrie.com