Don’t Be Nazis Y’All

Fresh off our successful defense of Alan Tudge, it’s time to go into bat for a nazi. Sort of.

Last month, Lehigh University’s newspaper, The Brown and White, reported on the removal of a young mathematician, Brian Klatt, from his classes. Klatt’s removal came after “an anonymous complaint that alleged [Klatt] was posting racist, misogynistic and anti-Semitic content from an anonymous Twitter account.” The account, @DumbGeometer, has since been deleted.1

Although no one has formally confirmed that Klatt was @DumbGeometer, it is a pretty safe assumption. The complaint against Klatt, which was apparently sent to The Brown and White, university officials and a number of Klatt’s colleagues, was backed up by a long and detailed PDF, which included plenty of circumstantial evidence that Klatt is @DumbGeometer. We’ll assume that is the case for what follows.

As to the nature of @DumbGeometer’s tweets, the PDF also includes plenty of examples. That’s where it begins to get interesting. Plenty of @DumbGeometer’s tweets are extremely distasteful:

What is unclear, however, at least to us, is the purpose(s) of @DumbGeometer’s tweets. Are the tweets expressing genuine belief, or are they trolling, or are they trying to make a point about speech and culture? Of the final tweet above, for example, the anonymous complainant wrote,

… the number 6,000,000 is a dogwhistle about the Holocaust; when he says “unbelievably big” he is implying that the Holocaust didn’t happen.

Perhaps. But this blunt conclusion seems far from obvious. It seems to us at least as likely that it’s a bad taste joke. One may still argue that the joke is in such bad taste that no one should contemplate making it. Nonetheless, a joke is way, way different from a belief.2

Other tweets of @DumbGeometer’s clearly have a point:

One may disagree with the point or with the manner of making of that point, but there is obviously a point.

Pointless or not, by posting such tweets @DumbGeometer was, well, dumb. He was, at least in large part, intending to offend, he was offensive and, although posted anonymously, it didn’t take a Sherlock Holmes to uncover the author. It was inevitable that someone would do the required detective work and expose Klatt, with plenty of people ready to dance on his grave:3

Brian if you’re reading this please know that your life is ruined forever and I love it

A question remains, however. If it was inevitable that Klatt would lose his job and, presumably, his career, that does not mean this was necessarily deserved. Why, exactly, did Klatt lose his job?

Nothing we have read suggests that Klatt was anything but professional in his work. A group of Lehigh mathematicians released a statement, helpfully noting that they were themselves not racist or misogynist or anti-Semitic, but they were silent on Klatt and his position within the Department. Klatt appears to have been conscientious and respected. And respectful. Commenters who knew Klatt and were happy to see him exposed suggest there was nothing in his behaviour to connect him to @DumbGeometer or anything of the sort:

… I never suspected a thing.

… others have attested that his behavior in general revealed nothing about this.

In summary, it appears that the sole reason for Klatt’s removal was that his being exposed as the author of the anonymous @DumbGeometer tweets made his position untenable. And, Klatt was exposed as the author entirely because an anonymous person(s) worked hard to expose him, worked hard to make his position untenable. Why did they do this? Not, it seems, because of anything Klatt did wrong in his job, but solely because they saw Klatt as a bad person.

One person, in cheering Klatt’s demise, wrote

don’t be a fucking nazi y’all

Indeed. Klatt was hardly an innocent, and it may be difficult to feel sorry for him. But, whatever Klatt’s beliefs, his is not the authoritarianism that is most concerning here.

**********************************************

1) As of a few days ago, the account appears to have been revived, with a single cryptic tweet. The author is unclear.

2) Those who wish for the end of all bad taste jokes should at all costs avoid seeing The Aristocrats.

3) We are avoiding linking the comments. The people making such comments are not the point.

4 Replies to “Don’t Be Nazis Y’All”

  1. A remarkable story, even with some important questions being left in the dark at the moment: How did the university proceed in severing its ties with Klatt? Did he feel he got a fair hearing (which he was definitely entitled to, needless to say)? How much of a role played the possible concern of the university about reputational damage? The “doxxing” PDF does not seem to download beyond the first six pages or so. The idea of some sort of personal attack on Klatt seems more plausible given the apparent unwillingness of the accuser to use the – certainly well-staffed – channels of the university for his alert. I think the publisher(s), and those aiding this, of the PDF “dossier” should also be held accountable, as should be possibly unrelated internet commentators if they are threatening, or even just verbally bashing Klatt – this could not be taken lightly.

    It is to be feared that the incident will be fodder for stereotypes about talented white male mathematicians who eventually develop a thinking akin to that of the Unabomber. Not only would such positing be absurd; it would also be very harmful to the image of mathematics as a profession. It is to be hoped that Klatt will contribute in the future with what appears to be considerable mathematical (including educational) talent, and able to live with the mistakes he made, for which he will not receive more than the appropriate measure of punishment.

    An unrelated but perhaps still interesting sidenote: Klatt’s supervisor Huai-Dong Cao garnered some notoriety for his allegation of incompleteness of the work by Grigori Perelman on the Poincaré conjecture and beyond (Cao was soundly rebutted on this, with his PhD supervisor and mentor, Shing-tung Yau, receiving a bit of collateral damage).

  2. Thanks, A. I don’t have much in the way of answers, but in response:

    *) On the presumed dismissal of Klatt, I know nothing. The linked articles reports Klatt as having been removed from his classes, and this apparently occurred in mid October. I don’t know anything of whether Klatt was sacked, or was paid out, or is continuing with non-lecturing duties. I would imagine that, even in the proud American home of free speech, there are clauses in university contracts about such conduct on social media.

    *) Did Klatt get a fair hearing? Again, no one outside seems to know what hearing Klatt got, but I don’t see that Lehigh had any choice but to remove Klatt from his classes. There are obviously incredibly thorny questions about employers having a huge say over employees’ extra-professional conduct. But in this case Klatt was discussing, mostly in broad and caricature terms but sometimes in specific terms, his colleagues and his students.

    *) I know the doxing PDF is very slow to load, if it loads at all, although I succeeded in grabbing it. I have pondered uploading the PDF to this site, but the thought of doing it makes me feel greasy.

    *) You are correct, it is notable that the decision was to post the doxing PDF to multiple people, rather than simply to Klatt’s university officials. One can only assume the goal was to not simply have Klatt removed from his Lehigh classes, but to destroy his reputation and his career.

    *) Obviously, I do not condone the doxer’s conduct; I regard it, and the cheering of Klatt’s fate as disgraceful. That is the point of the post. Nonetheless, I have avoided identifying the people involved (and will delete any comments directed at such identification). People do dumb things, and mean things, on and with social media, and it’s a massive problem. But I don’t see that the public shaming of such people is helpful, or different in kind. I am focussed on the behaviour, and the culture and the mindset that views such behaviour as acceptable and good, not on the individuals.

    *) I very much doubt that the incident will encourage any Unabomber-like stereotyping. Indeed no one cares, except LeHigh, Klatt and the people who were pissed off with @DumbGeometer’s tweets. And me. There have been no further news reports. The whole presentation of Klatt as a racist lunatic, as a “nazi”, seems implausible to me. The tweets aren’t crazy, even if tweeting them was undeniably crazy.

    *) That’s interesting that Klatt was supervised by Cao. I thought the name rang a bell, but I didn’t know why.

  3. Thank you Marty for your reply. I agree with you, even while still wanting to submit these points:

    1) I would be surprised if the university was removing Klatt from teaching duties while retaining him in some other form. In my opinion, for the charges at hand, it is unlikely that such a compromise is reached, sensible as it may be.
    2) When bringing in the Unabomber case into this, I was referring to an extremely narrow minded view of mathematicians. I think we all have met approximations of such people (or seen them on TV). As you say, it may be unlikely that such a connection (even if not explicit) will be drawn, and I hope this will prove correct.

    1. Thanks, A. Re (1), I would also be surprised if Klatt was still employed. I’m just making the point that nothing official has been said.

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