Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Election 2016 - A Plea for Understanding


I grew up in a religious cult where disagreement with the doctrines was punished with ostracism. As a smart and honest kid, this was terrifying. I saw flaws in the doctrines of my faith, but I kept them to myself. I feared losing everything if I stated my doubts.

I couldn’t comprehend what it would be like to be cut off by everybody I knew. Would I be homeless? Would I starve? I was just a kid. I lived with a primal fear, paralyzing me, rooting me in place.

Officially, the Jehovah’s Witness organization prides itself on allowing open inquiry into its doctrines - which are collectively referred to as “the truth”. But it’s a farce. Every question has an official answer disseminated by the organization. Once you’ve received the official answer to your question, you’re not allowed to keep questioning. “This book’s argument for Creationism seems to have a flaw in its attack on evolutionary genetics on page 5” - nope, you're outta here.

You are also not allowed to seek the answer to your question in materials written by people of other faith backgrounds. JWs keep a closed information ecosystem.

As a teenager I lived a paranoid double life for years. In my secret thoughts I was an atheist. On the outside I continued to support “the truth” as Jehovah’s Witnesses taught it. I even dutifully evangelized it to others, as was required. Each day was torture. I fantasized about suicide.


There are a very few injunctions in the human art of rationality that have no ifs, ands, buts, or escape clauses.  This is one of them.  Bad argument gets counterargument.  Does not get bullet.  Never.  Never ever never for ever.”- Eliezer Yudkowsky

When I read Sam Altman’s election piece, I gave half a cheer. As President of YCombinator, he came under pressure to oust Peter Thiel from his advisory role due to the latter’s support for the candidacy of Donald Trump (see here and here). Sam bravely refused.

In response, some in the tech press called for Sam to lose his position. He’s held on, but it wasn’t a sure thing. The tabloid press have claimed its share of heads.

Thank the God I don’t believe in that Sam refused. It’s tempting to mete out punishment to people that disagree with you if you have a large majority on your side. Few people in coastal California would blame you for ostracizing a Trump supporter and few will praise you for refusing to do so. The tech press seems unanimous against Sam Altman and Mark Zuckerberg for failing to cut off Peter Thiel.

But when disagreement is met with punishment, it’s bad for society. It creates an illusion of unanimity through a climate of fear. The collective intelligence of the social group is sacrificed as collateral damaged. Society grows stupid and narrow-minded as each member fears saying something which might offend the orthodoxy. The emperor can go right on having no clothes forever. This is exactly what happens in bizarre cults.

Peter Thiel can take a few bullets. He has a billion dollars. But he's not the primary target of his own attempted political assassination. It sends a message to everybody who is watching. Most conservatives in Silicon Valley can’t afford to lose their jobs. The rent here is damn high.

There’s not a central governing body deciding doctrine for the California tech industry but it feels like that sometimes. It seems dangerous to have conservative beliefs, even if your views are supported by half the country.

For me, personally, the firing of Brendan Eich in retaliation to his conservative political activities was a watershed moment. Other politically right-leaning people had been fired, but usually because they misstepped and said something offensive that got picked up by the clickbait press. Eich was never anything but professional, polite, and good to people around him.

With Eich’s firing, I got the message - the message of power. I panicked and endured some sleepless nights, thinking of blog posts I had published. I don't label myself a conservative, but I certainly entertain some conservative ideas. The fear won and I took down posts on controversial subjects like immigration or abortion.

Over the years I saw more persecution of right-leaning people: the firings, the conference disinvites, the attempts to kick them off of open-source projects. I learned to censor myself. I even deleted my favorite links page, fearing the contagion of linking to people who had themselves suffered punishment. It felt a lot like being 15 years old again.

I recognize that as a cult survivor I’m prone to feel the same patterns of thought control and persecution. I have to fight against a tide of paranoia and fear whenever I find myself on the wrong side of a passionate majority. I try to be self-aware to the fact that this is a triggering of my past trauma and not present reality.

But I think what's going on in the tech industry isn't only in my head. I don't see anyone threatened with professional consequences for supporting Hillary Clinton.

My past experience is a burden but also a gift. It brings the moral clarity that these tactics are bad. Even in service of a good ideal like creating an inclusive society, wielding power against heretics will corrupt you. It scoops out your brain. It turns you into a zombie pawn in the hands of people who generate outrage. If you succeed at manufacturing unanimity through use of power, the intelligent and curious people will stay silent or leave your group.

So thank you Sam Altman for preventing things from getting worse than they already are.


I only gave half a cheer for Sam’s piece because it fails to embody another value that’s important to me - a good-faith effort to understand all sides of a debate. In some circles they call the practice of arguing convincingly for the other side the “ideological Turing test”. This is nothing new to someone who’s has been in a writing class or a debate team. Sam almost reaches for it:

“We should all feel a duty to try to understand the roughly half of the country that thinks we are severely misguided.  I don’t understand how 43% of the country supports Trump.  But I’d like to find out, because we have to include everyone in our path forward.”

What’s stopping him from understanding Trump supporters? I don’t find it terribly hard to write an argument for either of the major candidates running for office and Sam is certainly as clever as I am. People are writing about it on the internet (here and here). Trump himself is doing all he can to tell people about what he believes. That’s what a campaign is for!

Maybe Trump supporters think uncontrolled low-skilled immigration hurts the most vulnerable members of the population and that it isn’t worth the net economic benefit.

Maybe their livelihood has been lost due to the globalization of labor and capital while the country has failed to provide any significant support. Futureshock is real.

Maybe they favor a conservative Supreme Court, and they fear what a 5-4 leftist majority will do to free speech, free association, property rights, and gun rights. With Peter Thiel’s extensive background in law, it wouldn’t surprise me if this was a big concern for him.

Trump sometimes has supported a more isolationist foreign policy. I am in favor of that. It seems to me that US military intervention created a power vacuum in the Middle East that left space for the rise of radical Islam.

Maybe Trump supporters fear the power of a President so cozy with the mass media as Clinton seems to be.

Western society is in a double-bind with regard to maintaining its liberal values while crafting an immigration policy for troubled muslim countries. Restricting immigration from these places as Trump proposes offends liberal values by discriminating against millions of innocent people. But a country is made of its people, and illiberal immigration creates an illiberal country. Also, more terrorist incidents committed by a tiny minority of muslim immigrants will increase demand for total state surveillance. Reasonable people holding similar values can disagree on which immigration policy is least bad.

Besides these very straightforward reasons for Trump, there are strategic and esoteric reasons. For example, I think Democrats are much more likely than Republicans to oppose state surveillance but that they are unlikely to do so with one of their own at the head of the executive branch. A President Trump would unleash the most anti-surveillance activism in history.

So why didn’t Sam come up with any of these ideas? My read on it is that people in our cultural group are so harshly condemning Trump that even demonstrating an understanding of Trump supporters seems contrarian and a little dangerous. Politics is the mind killer and ideas are soldiers. Entertaining the ideas of “the other side” is like giving aid to the enemy.

The group mind, as represented on my facebook feed, has judged Trump as racist, sexist, xenophobic, Islamophobic, and the American Hitler. Trump voters, like Thiel, are guilty by association.

I’m morbidly impressed with Hillary Clinton’s campaign, they have run a fantastically effective effort of demonization. More fevered mainstream commentary predicts that Trump’s election will ignite pogroms against Jews and people of color or perhaps bring back Black slavery. An old peacenik at a local coffee shop near me told me unbidden that he would shoot Trump in the head if given the opportunity. He was the second person to do so.

Sam Altman, like a lot of people in progressive industries, can’t understand conservatives because they aren’t making their voices heard. They have successfully been painted with the image of every demon in the American canon. It’s no surprise if they keep their heads down.

To use the language of my progressive friends: progressives are unconscious of the privilege they have to participate openly in political debates without fear.


I am not endorsing Donald Trump for President of the United States.

If he wins, which seems unlikely at this point, some part of me will rejoice. That part of me is the young boy who feared punishment for thinking and speaking the truth as he saw it. A Trump win will mean the tactics of demonization and punishment will have failed. In public we will be allowed to think a broader range of thoughts. As Trump himself shows, not all of these thoughts will be worthwhile. But my feeling of freedom will include the freedom to oppose the bad ideas of a President Trump.

But that is far from thinking that Trump will be a good President. I don’t have a good handle on what he actually believes.

In American politics, I find that things are never as good as I hope or as bad as I fear. A Hillary Clinton presidency will strengthen some values that I am opposed to, but life is long and there is plenty of time for political fashions to change. I don't desire a Clinton presidency, but neither do I fear it.

Venkatesh Rao makes a good case that voting for idealistic reasons, rather than strategic ones, is more in line with the culture of Silicon Valley. His argument made me feel like voting for Gary Johnson. I guess you could say I'm undecided.


I feel a call to live my own values and try to understand the viewpoint of people calling for Trump supporters to be punished.

If I talk to an average enforcer of political correctness, I’m sure that they are not opposed to open debate. It’s a fundamental American value. The liberal philosopher John Stuart Mill used the term “the marketplace of ideas” to describe how open debate allows the best ideas to win and spread.

Libertarian-leaning people like myself shout this line of reasoning over and over at progressives as if they don’t get it. I think they do get it. But they notice that the ideas flying around in this marketplace are not neutral in the effect they have on society. Sometimes words hurt people.

For example, when we have public debate over what to do about Muslim terrorism, it might make people more biased against Muslims, the vast majority of whom will never be terrorists. That’s probably why the Obama Justice Department at first redacted mentions of “Islam” and “ISIS” from the transcripts of the 9/11 calls made by the Orlando nightclub shooter.

I bet that progressives don’t believe in punishing their political opponents, even if that’s what I perceive them to be doing. Rather, they believe that some ideas hurt people, and we should stop spreading ideas that hurt. This class of ideas is called things like “racism”, “sexism”, “homophobia”, “transphobia”, “Islamophobia” and “xenophobia”.

At the root of political correctness is a desire to care. Caring is noble. Caring makes it nice to be human.

This becomes problematic when it gets hijacked by politics. Partisans have a huge incentive to argue that the ideas of the other side aren’t merely wrong, but actively harmful. The American Left has been incredibly successful at making this case against Trump this year, who has done his best to make it easy for them.

Politics further corrupts care by limiting it to people on your side. Like the kind peacenik at the coffee shop who told me he would gladly shoot Trump in the head.

If you care about political correctness because you care about people, I want you to keep your caring. But I challenge you to expand it. This is hard. Empathy gets more complicated the wider you expand your circle of care. But this is the most noble challenge you can accept. It is the challenge of the bodhisattva.

There is another problem with preventing hurtful words. What if hurtful words are also true? For example, the Orlando Nightclub shooter really was inspired by Islam and claimed allegiance to ISIS. Learning this fact might make people biased against Muslims, but it is a fact. What are we supposed to do about unpleasant truths?

The divide over unpleasant truth is the most essential ideological divide between internet communities today. At the age of 18 I left behind everything and everybody I knew because of an allegiance to truth that wouldn’t let me stay a Jehovah’s Witness. I have a strong bias towards the side with an absolute commitment to truth.

But I understand the value of caring. So far there is no mass movement that has a good protocol to bring the two values into harmony. The internet right-wing revels in unpleasant truths and paints the left as budding totalitarians. The internet left maintains a scrupulous niceness and paints the right as brutes.

Perhaps Buddhism can offer a way. In the Buddhist tradition my girlfriend is studying, they are taught to speak kindly as a moral precept. But they are also taught not to judge or criticize how other people are living up to moral precepts. At the same time, Buddhism has a strong commitment to truth. Seeing things for how they actually are is pretty much the whole point of it. It seems to have the right ingredients for making kind truth-tellers.

Rationalism offers another way. Rationalists practice and celebrate changing their mind. The world could use more rationalist virtues.

I hope that we can grant each other a little patience, a little understanding, while we find a way together.


  1. "At the root of political correctness is a desire to care."

    That's always the last part of the faith to go, when you leave the cult. Have you watched the videos of them screaming in people's faces and beating a homeless woman for supporting Trump?

    The only root of political correctness and all left-wing tactics is a thirst for power over people. Not just the power to control their actions, but what they can allow themselves to think.

    Have you read Václav Havel, btw?

    1. Yes, I have seen the videos of Trump supporters being hit with rocks and eggs. I have seen them bleeding and pushed to the ground and I know of the arson and property damage directed against some of them. These are the fruits of the politics of demonization.

      I think there are mixed motivations for political correctness. Few people, nobody really, explicitly think "I want to exercise power over people". Most individuals are unwitting followers in political correctness enforcement because they want to be good people. Political correctness is weaponized caring.

      Once people recognize that their best instincts are being used as a weapon by others, I hope this awareness gives them freedom to respond in other ways.

      People always seek power and status. It's part of the way we're built. It's the job of a good society to direct these drives towards productive ends. I don't hate people for wielding political correctness. I assume none of the people doing so have bad intentions.

      I haven't read Havel. But I love Soviet dissidents. The Soviet world always seemed like an instantiation of my worst nightmare. And I worry about it coming here. The temptation of closing the free society is always present. There is short-term power to be gained from controlling people's thoughts.

  2. Wow, fabulous article, I wish I had spotted it months ago.

    "Thank the God I don’t believe in that Sam refused"

    I LOL'ed, and as an atheist I either write more or less exactly that at times, or occasionally "Thank God (Cthulhu) that this happened..."