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Elon Musk’s Compelling Case for Worst Human of 2023

There’s a saying that you never want to be the main character of Twitter. If you are, it usually means you’ve humiliated yourself in a particularly embarrassing way.

The exception to this rule is Elon Musk, who seems to thrive on attention, positive or negative. As has been widely reported, Musk threw an epic temper tantrum when the President of the United States was receiving more attention than he was in making a tweet about the Superbowl, and responded by ordering Twitter engineers to massively amplify the reach of his tweets.

Most normal human beings would be embarrassed to be seen as using their wealth and power to nakedly boost their visibility. Not Musk. He posted a meme that’s both extremely creepy (and arguably a reference to white nationalism) to defend his practice of bottle-feeding Twitter users his very important reflections and perspectives.

But Musk’s ability to self-own is exceeded only by his capacity for cruelty. When an employee took to Twitter to ask Musk to confirm whether or not he’d been fired – because Twitter’s decimated HR department could not answer his questions – Musk proceeded to offer a brusque exit interview on his very public Twitter feed. The fired employee had the temerity to be a designer, a class of people Musk perceives as parasitic bottom feeders, and so perhaps the hostility of the interview was to be expected.

One of Musk’s followers found the exchange humorous and told Elon as much. Elon explained his wise management decisions: since the guy was claiming a disability, surely he couldn’t be typing tweets to him. And anyway, he didn’t do any work (remember, he’s a designer) and was independently wealthy anyway.

In a turn of events that must have come as a surprise to absolutely no one, it turns out that the employee Elon was abusing for his amusement was an actual human being. His name is Haraldur Thorleifsson, and he has a fascinating backstory, a very real disability, and a fairly wicked sense of humor.

The bathroom reference refers to Elon posting unfunny memes about spending an hour on the toilet reading Twitter. Halli, as he prefers to be called, goes on to explain that his muscular distrophy makes it difficult for him to manipulate a mouse and that he no longer works as a production designer, but focuses on strategy. He can type for periods of time, particularly on his phone (making it possible to tweet at an employer who is no longer providing the very basics of HR services to his employees.)

As for the “independently wealthy” thing:

Twitter, under Jack Dorsey, bought Halli’s firm and he survived several rounds of layoffs, until – perhaps? – this most recent one. (I loved the emerald mine dig in there. It followed several lines about how Halli gets along with his wife and enjoys time with his kids.)

So yes. Elon Musk picked a fight with a wheelchair-using Icelandic entrepreneur with muscular distrophy on a public twitter thread, hoping to humiliate a parasitic do-nothing employee, and instead revealed the damage done as he continues to smash his $44 billion toy against the pavement because it doesn’t make him feel as good as he hoped it would.

Why is this particular bit of Muskiness worth even paying attention to?

In a 2018 essay in The Atlantic, Adam Serwer coined the phrase “the cruelty is the point”. Serwer was talking not just about Trump, but about a larger pattern of dehumanization in which people – almost exclusively white men – bond through “…intimacy through contempt. The white men in the lynching photos are smiling not merely because of what they have done, but because they have done it together.” Serwer’s phrase has become a point of conventional wisdom about the contemporary Republican party, and rising star Ron DeSantis seems to have embraced cruelty as a governance strategy, kidnapping migrants to the US and depositing them in a small Massachusetts community with few resources to help them. (Rather than freaking out as DeSantis hoped, the citizens of Martha’s Vineyard mobilized to feed and shelter the mostly Venezuelan migrants and help them find paths to settling in the region.)

Musk was once a widely admired business leader: Gallup’s Most Admired Man and Woman poll in 2020 had him ranked 6th, just behind Pope Francis. (He edged out the Pope for 5th in 2019. The poll was not held in 2021 or 2022, likely because there is no longer anyone worth admiring.) Even as he took over Twitter, there were cadres of Musk fanboys willing to defend his management genius in excising the fat from the community and giving the remaining engineers (mostly those unable to leave due to visa issues) space to shine. My guess is that some continue to feel that Musk’s cruelty reflects his ability to see the world as it “really is”, where useless people like designers and disabled people drain energy from the engineers who really build things. (Try building usable technology without designers.)

Anil Dash, who’s much closer to these things than I am, observes that Elon’s pivot to fascism echoes behavior he’s seeing in several other tech entrepreneurs and VCs. These people genuinely believe that attempts at creating better workplaces for employees, to increase diversity (in part to increase cognitive diversity and better solve problems) are attacks on their “rights” to manage their enterprises in arbitrary and cruel ways. What’s more disturbing to me than billionaires losing their mind is the young people who aspire to similar success and embrace similar attitudes as part of idolizing Musk. (British educators are finding rising misogyny in their male students based on their admiration for MMA fighter, asshole and likely sex trafficker, Andrew Tate.)

At moments like this, it’s worth recognizing people who actually deserve to be admired. Consider this guy: when he sold his company to an American firm for millions, he chose to take the payment as salary, rather than as capital gains so he would be taxed at a higher rate, pushing money into his country’s economy. He is spending some of the money he earned building wheelchair ramps to make public spaces in his city more accessible. His country, Iceland, voted him Person of the Year in 2022.

His name is Haraldur Þorleifsson and Elon Musk just fired him over Twitter.

17 thoughts on “Elon Musk’s Compelling Case for Worst Human of 2023”

  1. What a story. What a contrast between the best and near-worst of humanity.

    Plus it’s a loud flashing sign of how inverted our societies’ selection processes are. The Hallis should be running Fortune 500 companies. The Elons should be the runners bringing takeout fast food to disabled people in their vans.

  2. The employee took to twitter (instead of private office email) asking Musk a question. He promptly (commendable) answered her back;at the place from where she asked. I fail to see that he did anything wrong. It is not Musks fault that the childish and manipulative actions of the employee backfired on her.

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  4. It’s crazy how this story kind of omits the real lede: Twitter bought Halli’s company for a huge sum (at leat 8 if not 9 figures) and Halli, instead of taking the min-maxed financially-most-rational payout involving stock options or whatever, instead to pay the least possible tax; chose to take the payout as a salary over a period of years, specifically so that he would pay the most possible tax on his income, to support the social programs he had benefited from and pay them forward.

    Elon then comes along, knowing nothing of this, and sees a guy getting a huge salary for not doing much, and decided to fire him, because all the people who would have been able to tell him why not to fire that guy have already been fired.

  5. ‘The poll was not held in 2021 or 2022, likely because there is no longer anyone worth admiring.’ ;-)

    Thanks for this blog. Another truly awful, cruel story. Amazing people are still on Twitter. Pity Musk ruined it.

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  7. In Halli’s response, the mention of the emerald mine caught my attention as the only inconsistent element. According to Snopes (https://www.snopes.com/news/2022/11/17/elon-musk-emerald-mine/), Musk’s father had a partial ownership in an emerald mine and earned around $400,000 over five years. However, he eventually filed for bankruptcy, and Elon did not inherit anything from the mine. While Elon certainly enjoyed significant privilege, referring to him as an “emerald mine heir” could give the impression that his background is comparable to someone like Trump, which just don’t seem to be the case. By bringing up this detail, there’s a risk of giving Elon’s defenders an opportunity to discredit valid criticisms, which are plentiful enough without it.

  8. Of course, once he learned that he’d have to pay out the remainder of the money Twitter owes to Halli from the purchase of his company if Twitter fired him, Musk video chatted Halli and begged him to stay. Halli said he’d consider it.

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