The “please stop” utility exploit


On the webcomic Hyperbole and a Half, there was once a story called “Please Stop”. As children, the author and her classmates made a game of gathering in a circle and beating someone with a stick. They found it to be great fun, provided you weren’t the one in the middle of it all. Soon, one of their victims brought this to the attention of a teacher. The kids were told that they just have to say “please stop”, and if someone says “please stop”, everyone else has to quit bothering them.

This severely hindered their game of beating each other with sticks. But they quickly learned to use “please stop” in new and creative ways. For instance, if another child wouldn’t give them a toy, they would say “please stop”, and the toy would now be theirs. It soon became an easy method of getting their way in any disagreement: if you said “please stop”, the other person had to stop. Eventually, they made the connection of using “please stop” recursively to keep others from using it, and the power of “please stop” was lost forever.

What’s most interesting about this story is that a phenomenon very similar to “please stop” often crops up in real ethical issues. It’s rooted in the general agreement that we should avoid causing harm to others. And while there are certainly other considerations to be made, such as what constitutes harm and how to weigh potential harms against each other, it’s a useful starting point for making ethical choices. Of course, this also assumes that everyone involved is acting in good faith. But what if they’re not?

When we agree to refrain from harming people, and adjust our behavior in order to avoid this, this provides an almost irresistible opportunity: some people may choose to recalibrate their definition of what constitutes harm to them, and use this as a way of exerting control over others. Since the need to avoid harming people is used to define acceptable conduct, the rest of us would therefore be obligated to do whatever they say. In other words, “please stop”. Of course, other concerns are still in play, such as whether accommodating this requirement would be an even greater harm, but those who wish to exercise control in this way might simply declare this alleged offense to be so harmful to them that nothing could justify it.

This isn’t just a theoretical concern. This kind of behavior factors into plenty of real-world situations. For example, in debates over depicting the prophet Muhammad or defiling the Qur’an, it’s often said that this is so offensive to Muslims that nobody should do it. It supposedly causes great harm to them, and so the rest of us have to avoid that. Some people have even taken this so far that they blame anyone who draws Muhammad or burns the Qur’an for the violent reactions of extremists who attack and kill people. They’re the ones who are held accountable for this, and even blamed for threats against their own life for drawing a cartoon. Apparently they should have been aware that this is simply the natural consequence of their actions.

How did this come to be the case? Why should this be so offensive to Muslims? And how is it that these extremists have lost all responsibility for their actions, thus making the rest of us responsible? Quite simply, it’s an artificially inflated harm. They’ve built it up into much more than it ever really was, both by portraying something they dislike as being actually harmful to them merely because they dislike it, and by intentionally neglecting to exercise self-control. And since they’ve given up on controlling themselves, whether by refusing to question why depictions of Muhammad should be so offensive, or by refusing to refrain from violence, they’ve made us the ones who are at fault for their behavior. All they had to do was choose to be irresponsible, and now we’re the ones who are forced to accommodate them. In other words, “please stop” – please stop doing that because we don’t like it and we can’t be responsible for our actions.

People have chosen to be complicit in this and support this reassignment of accountability because they don’t understand the dishonest strategy at work here. It’s a moral hostage situation: they’ve decided that harm will be inflicted if we do something, so we better not do that. People have accepted this as the reality of the situation, without questioning whether the ones behind it are acting in good faith. By any sensible standard, they’re not, and these alleged harms are of their own creation.

Another example is that of post-op trans women and whether they should disclose their medical history to prospective partners. This certainly isn’t as clear-cut as the previous situation, and there are numerous factors that may vary according to individual circumstances, but the “please stop” strategy can still make an appearance. Plenty of men have said that if they had sex with a trans woman without knowing it, even if she was externally indistinguishable from any other woman, they would be immensely harmed by this when they found out. Some have even gone so far as to compare it to being raped.

Given that they consider this to be incredibly damaging to themselves, they’ve often proposed that trans women should disclose the fact that they’re trans prior to getting into a relationship with anyone. However, this can come into conflict with the interests of trans women, who have made an extraordinary effort to ensure that their bodies reflect their identity. For them, disclosing their history can be like marking themselves as not really a woman, when this is what they really are and what they’ve spent their entire life working towards.

There are other considerations to be made here, such as the potential difficulty of disclosing afterward if a serious relationship develops, as well as dealing with the tendency of some men to react violently when they find out their partner is trans. It’s been suggested that any men for whom this would be an issue should simply ask if someone is trans. If it’s pertinent to them, they should bring this up with their partner ahead of time. It seems like an easy solution, and yet some men will refuse to do this. They insist it’s not an option because it would ruin the mood and potentially deter any women who aren’t trans. Essentially, they’re unwilling to take even the most basic and obvious precaution to avoid the situation that they claim would be terribly harmful. For them, ensuring sexual success with other women is more important than preventing what they’ve sometimes depicted as the equivalent of being raped.

What does this say about the authenticity of the alleged harm they’ve portrayed? If taking steps to avoid this isn’t quite as important as getting some, it’s hard to believe that this is really as bad as they say. It seems likely that this is another artificially inflated harm: they’ve made it a requirement for trans people to out themselves, simply by being uncomfortable with trans people. They’ve chosen to ignore any other ways of handling this, like recognizing that trans women aren’t men, so sleeping with them doesn’t pose a threat to your sexual orientation and it doesn’t need to trigger a full-blown identity crisis. The only option they’ve left open is that everyone else must accommodate them on their terms.

So how far does this go? Are people expected to disclose anything that could be remotely objectionable before they sleep with someone? Are they required to share their surgical history, their religious and political views, or their ethnic heritage, just in case their partner finds out afterwards and has a breakdown? Or should their partner be the one to ask about this first if it’s going to be a problem? Expecting people to disclose their history, when you yourself can’t even disclose your own desires and don’t believe you should have to, seems very much like an exaggerated harm that serves to control others.

None of this is a problem with the notion that we should avoid causing harm to people. It’s only a problem with those who would dishonestly exploit this concern to insist on getting their way. It’s crucial that we be able to discern whether someone is being beaten with a stick, or they just want to take our toys. And in the latter case, it’s clear that they’re the ones who should please stop.