You have the right to disappear
Jeff Atwood, one of the founders of Stack Overflow and Stack Exchange, recently created a blog post about the death of Aaron Swartz and “the end of ragequitting.” While the crux of his post is largely about Swartz’s suicide, his comparison to “ragequitting” his network, or the departure of _why and and Mark Pilgrim from the public internet touched on something I’ve been discussing in smaller circles for some time:
At least one user ragequits Stack Exchange every six months, because our rules are strict. Some people don’t like rules, and can respond poorly when confronted by the rules of the game they choose to play. It came up often enough that we had to create even more rules to deal with it. I was forced to think about ragequitting.
I was very angry with Mark Pilgrim and _why for ragequitting the Internet, because they also took all their content with them – they got so frustrated that they took their ball and went home, so nobody else could play. How incredibly rude. Ragequitting is childish, a sign of immaturity.
Taking the issue of suicide off the table as something I’m neither qualified to talk about nor comfortable doing so, this characterization of normal “ragequitting” mimics a common theme in toxic social environments: whenever someone decides they’ve had enough, it’s their fault. They should’ve “manned up” and took whatever thing got them to pack it up. Whatever issues they had, however legitimate they might be on the face, are squandered because they decided to quit.
This is flat out wrong. You have a fundamental right to disappear, and anyone who tries to strongarm you into thinking you don’t should be ignored. They’re acting like bullies, and bullies are never worth your time.
The right to disappear
It’s important to discuss what the right to disappear is, and why it’s a fundamental right. Plainly, the right to disappear is the right to remove yourself from a situation or a set of circumstances that you personally deem unhealthy, unreasonable, or unacceptable. It’s the right that allows you to pack up all your things and move across the country whenever you want. It’s the right that lets you delete your Facebook account. To change your phone number. To leave old ties behind and form new ones.
To put it another way, it’s your right to do what you believe is in your best interest without unwarranted interference. It’s your fundamental right to self-determination.
This isn’t a minority-held opinion, either: it’s even codified in Articles 18–20 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights:
18. Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.
19. Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.
20. (1) Everyone has the right to freedom of peaceful assembly and association. (2) No one may be compelled to belong to an association.
But to be clear, it’s not a carte blanche to do whatever you want. The right to disappear doesn’t let you walk away from the scene of an accident, the pursuit of justice, or even someone calling you out for something you’ve said. Like all rights, your freedom is curtailed when you significantly or irreparably infringe upon someone else’s rights in exercising your own.
The Categorical Imperative
This is where people who get upset with “ragequitters” get mixed up. They often think that you leaving is infringing upon their rights. Mark Pilgrim disappearing and taking down all of his works somehow infringes upon their right to learn from his knowledge.
This is misguided. Inconvenience is not infringement. One may be inconvenienced, even annoyed, by the fact that someone who provided content or knowledge is no longer around. That inconvenience or feeling of being slighted does not, by any reasonable definition, outweigh the person disappearing’s right to self-determination.
Why is that? One may argue, as people often do, that when someone has knowledge that can benefit a large section of humanity, the benefit of humanity outweighs their individual rights.
But that argument is sociopathic: people are not means to an end, they are ends in and of themselves. The moment you ignore, or downplay, someone’s fundamental right as a human as the basis for justifying your anger or resentment for them doing something that inconveniences you, you’ve lost all perspective. You’re not playing in the same game as everyone else.
It may sound like I’m being hyperbolic or bombastic just to drive a rhetorical point, but think about what it means to interact with someone who doesn’t treat you as an equal, but merely as a tool to further their own betterment or enjoyment. They can’t put themselves in your position, or understand the reasons why you might’ve disappeared: they barely even, if at all, consider you a person.
And the reason why anyone would want to “man up” and stay in such a toxic environment is…?
And that’s what it really comes down to. People who exercise their right to disappear have come to the end of whatever they could possibly get from the situation. They’re not getting anything from it, and in many cases, are suffering by staying.
So what should someone do? Keep doing the same things over and over and expecting they’re going to magically be fulfilled? I’m pretty sure that’s the definition of insanity.
No: rational actors, when they realize they cannot benefit from (or are possibly being harmed by) being a situation, stop. They take stock of their life and change course. One ought not to expect anything less of a person.
And if you happen to be affected by someone who has decided to walk away, why would you expect anything different? If you came to the same conclusion, wouldn’t you expect to be afforded the same level of respect and understanding?