Tim Urban
What’s Our Problem

What’s Our Problem

A Self-Help Book for Societies

by Tim Urban, 746 pages

Finished on 31st of March, 2023
🛒 Buy here
🎧 Listen to the podcast

Author Tim Urban, who runs the popular comic blog “Wait But Why” has published a book about our current societal problems which took him six years to write, because the world changed so much during that time. An important read for everyone.

🚀 The Book in 3 Sentences

  1. Societal and political discourse seems to have changed in recent decades from being centered around ideas to being centered around tribalist efforts of Us vs. Them, making it worse for everyone.
  2. In recent years, this has led to the rise of the authoritarian Social Justice Fundamentalism movement, which doesn’t allow contradicting opinions or ideas by publicly shaming people for sharing those, effectively restricting free speech by stopping public talks from happening and getting key opponents fired.
  3. This primitive thinking ironically prevents us from progressing towards the actual goal of a more just society, so in order to move forward we need to be aware of the movement and be courageous in discussing ideas again without making it personal or tribal.

🎨 Impressions

Before buying the book, I had listened to a bunch of podcast interviews of author Tim Urban and found he was an exceptionally smart person with very interesting ideas. I knew of his blog, Wait But Why, but over the years I’ve only read a couple of posts, I think. They seemed too heavy and intellectual compared to what I can handle. But when he put that style in book form I was happy to dive in and give it my full attention.

The title was already promising, because I think it’s been on my mind for a while now that our Western society seems to be in a regression like a small child as opposed to moving forward and working on solving our big problems together. I’m thinking of the handling of the COVID-19 pandemic and our climate crisis, for example. And when the most powerful country in the world then proceeds to elect an open demagogue into the presidential office, who doesn’t know the first thing about nearly anything and dismisses science like it doesn’t matter left and right, I think I’m not the only one to have been shocked and who was searching for an explanation.

Social media and the profit maximizing algorithms which continue to favor and amplify strong negative emotions and outright hate towards out-groups over productive discourse were long seen as the core of the problem, at least from my perspective, but Tim Urban explains how that’s just been a powerful catalyst for a development which was visible since at least the 1960s.

One of the many strong points the book makes is its introduction of what Urban calls “The Ladder”. In addition to the political spectrum of left and right, he introduces a second axis, the vertical one: top to down. That axis represents the position one can find yourself in in terms of what he calls low-rung versus high-rung thinking. To explain it better, he came up with four representations of positions within that Ladder. Here are the four.

  1. Right at the top, a high-rung thinker, there’s The Scientist. Scientists talk about ideas in terms of experiments. The come up with new ones and will test them together. If an idea fails, it’s out. It’s a collaborate effort which brings forward the truth in the most productive way without anyone attaching their identity to it or trying to protect their own ideas even though they fail some tests.
  2. Next, one step down from the top, sits The Sports Fan. The influence of our tribalist ancestors and what Urban calls “The Primitive Mind” is starting to play a role here. A sports fan really wants their own team / ideas to win, in spite of the sometimes harsh reality. They will be looking for only those arguments which support their own theses and ignore the ones disproving them, because they’re not playing for their own team.
  3. Where the Primitive Mind tops the Scientific Mind on the Ladder, we have The Attorney. Attorneys argue for their defendant / idea, even though they know it’s wrong and false. They want their own side to win just like the sports fan, but it’s not just confirmation bias which is at the front of their brains, it’s downright manipulative behavior just for the sake of winning.
  4. And down at the bottom, with no scientific interest at all, there’s The Zealot. Zealots are dead set on their ideas and don’t accept anyone else even expressing a different view or counterargument. Anything that would disprove them is at least ignored but often even attacked. The more totalitarian the Zealot gets, the more they will even prevent others from just hearing contradicting views, let alone discuss them. There’s no thinking involved at all.

To be honest, I didn’t see coming what Urban then framed as the central problem, Social Justice Fundamentalism. Maybe because it’s not as apparent here in Central Europe where I live as it is in the USA.

The book’s nearly 800 pages are daunting at first, but the way he set up the chapters, building a solid knowledge base in the first few hundred pages and then continues to explain the problems on top of that make it easy to get into. His stick figure drawing style which has been a trademark of his blog makes these tough topics a lot easier to understand, I think. And also, about one hundred of the pages are footnotes and links to studies or other scientific explanations. So in the end, you’re reading more like 500 pages instead of 800. It still took me a while to get through it, because the book requires you to think along. If you drift away for one page you’re going to miss the connection to what comes next.

All in all I’m glad I read this book and I’m glad Tim Urban wrote it. And I think it’s a book that everyone would profit from reading.

🍀 How the Book Changed Me

  • The idea of The Ladder is very helpful in spotting low-rung and high-rung thinkers, I think. Of course we all should aim towards the top and behave like Scientists when we are presented with new ideas which could solve any of our most important problems, but it’s not always easy to do so. As a personal example, I would like to see more progress in environmentally friendly personal transportation and I really like driving Tesla EVs. The high-rung aspect here would be looking for the best ideas of possible solutions to the climate crisis, which includes moving away from fossil fuel powered vehicles. Battery-powered EVs are a step into the right direction, but it’s not yet clear if it’s enough of a step, since building these EVs and sourcing the necessary materials for it take a toll on the environment, too. I myself have been behaving like a Sports Fan towards Tesla and BEVs in general for a long time, because it seemed obvious they are superior. But since conservative voices are getting louder rejecting this move, the book made me look up the reality of it, including the facts surrounding the environmental impact which building a battery-powered vehicle has. Turns out, it’s very hard to measure and there are not many good studies comparing both options. All in all it’s clear though that BEVs are a better option, and the most recurring numbers I could find suggest that over their lifetimes, a BEV will have about as much impact as 2-3 traditional combustion-engine cars of comparable size. Honestly, that’s a lot less great as I thought, but it now helps me understand the problem better. The gist is that moving away from fossil fuels and towards battery-powered cars is still a good choice, but inventing something even more environmentally friendly or cutting our driving habits down to 20-30% of what we’re used to might be even more impactful. This is just to give you an example.
  • Another thing that the book changed in me is that I now have a heightened sense of spotting Echo-Chamber-y arguments and tribalist thinking when hearing or reading others, but also including myself.
  • And I think I have gained some awareness for when controversial but possibly correct opinions are repressed and I will now try to stand up for those who are the victims of that repressive behavior when I spot it.

📔 Highlights & Notes

The Big Picture

Humans are supposed to mature as they age—but the giant human I live in has been getting more childish each year. Tribalism and political division are on the rise. False narratives and outlandish conspiracy theories are flourishing. Major institutions are floundering. Medieval-style public shaming is suddenly back in fashion. Trust, the critical currency of a healthy society, is disintegrating.

Unlike technological growth, wisdom seems to oscillate up and down, leading societies to repeat age-old mistakes.

Chapter 1: The Ladder

We all self-defeat in our own way—in each case because our Higher Minds lose control of our heads and send us flapping our moth wings toward the streetlights.

Given all of this, the last thing the Primitive Mind wants is for you to feel humble about your beliefs or interested in revising them. It wants you to treat your beliefs as sacred objects and believe them with conviction. So the Higher Mind’s goal is to get to the truth, while the Primitive Mind’s goal is confirmation of its existing beliefs.

[..] everything you see or read in the news or on social media, every tenet of conventional wisdom—it’s all indirect knowledge. That’s why perhaps the most important skill of a skilled thinker is knowing when to trust.

Thinking like a Scientist isn’t about knowing a lot, it’s about being aware of what you do and don’t know [..].

Weird things happen to your thinking when the drive for truth is infected by some ulterior motive. Psychologists call it “motivated reasoning.” I like to think of it as Reasoning While Motivated—the thinking equivalent of drunk driving.

Confirmation bias is the invisible hand of the Primitive Mind that tries to push you toward confirming your existing beliefs and pull you away from changing your mind.

High-rung thinking is productive thinking. The humility of the high-rung mindset makes your mind a permeable filter that absorbs life experience and converts it into knowledge and wisdom.

People are meant to be respected, ideas are meant to be batted around and picked apart.

An Echo Chamber is what happens when a group’s intellectual culture slips down to the low rungs: collaborative low-rung thinking. While Idea Labs are cultures of critical thinking and debate, Echo Chambers are cultures of groupthink and conformity.

While Idea Lab culture encourages intellectual and moral growth, Echo Chamber culture discourages new ideas, curbs intellectual innovation, and removes knowledge-acquisition tools like debate—all of which repress growth.

If the genie is the product of human collaboration, the golem is the emergent property of human obedience. Golems are what happen when humans act like ants. Ant behavior has two components: strict conformity within the colony and total ruthlessness when dealing with other colonies.

Interlude: The Liberal Games

The animal world is a stressful place to be because there are no morals, no principles, no one to make sure things are fair. The rules are simple: Everyone can do whatever they want, if they have the power to do so.

Everyone can do whatever they want, as long as it doesn’t harm anyone else. Or, as it has been said: Your right to swing your arms ends just where another person’s nose begins.

The Liberal Games are driven by human nature, just like the Power Games are. But in the Liberal Games, a key limitation is added into the environment: You can’t use physical force to get what you want.

Chapter 2: Politics on the Ladder

Low-rung thinking, low-rung morality, and low-rung tactics all stem from the same concept: When the Primitive Mind is running the show, our minds are in ancient survival mode, and politics becomes a vehicle for tribalism.

To maintain the trust of the golem’s members, these media sources must filter stories in a way that aligns with the golem’s interests.

To straw man your opponent, you invent a weak counterargument to your position and pretend that it’s your opponent’s position, even though it’s not.

Philosopher Nicholas Shackel popularized the motte-and-bailey as a metaphor for a cheap argument tactic, whereby someone holding a convenient but not-very-defensible “bailey” viewpoint could, when facing dissent to that viewpoint, quickly run up the motte and swap out the viewpoint with a far stronger “motte” position. Kind of like in 2003, during the arguments about whether to invade Iraq.

The motte-and-bailey is often used alongside the straw man fallacy. Political Echo Chambers use the straw man to make their opponent’s position seem weaker than it is, and they use the motte-and-bailey to make their own position appear to be more ironclad than it is.

When our heads are in Political Disney World, deep-down belief in the narrative and self-esteem go together.

Chapter 3: The Downward Spiral

[After 9/11] New Yorkers were suddenly [living out a more tribe-oriented us-versus-them mentality by] holding doors for each other, showing concern for each other’s well-being, and even hugging each other in the street. While an alien attack would suck overall, it would do wonders for species solidarity.

As soon as you realize that news media is also entertainment media, the constant coverage of conflict and drama makes perfect sense. In the U.S., many of us are addicted to a trashy reality show I call The Real Politicians of Washington D.C.

Disgust fills our mind with a special kind of primitive fog—one that turns ordinary humans into psychopaths who can commit or condone unthinkable harm without remorse. Scary shit.

Hypercharged tribalism turns thinking, feeling human beings into loyal colony ants, overriding their intellect, their humanity, even their love of family and friends. It’s a form of group madness—a contagion that spreads like an epidemic, awakening the ancient survival instincts in millions of minds all at once [..].

Chapter 4: Rise of the Red Golem

But in the realm of low-rung politics, there’s also a third option [in addition to standing firm on your political position or compromising your position and move more towards the mainstream]: Change the rules of the game to a different one that you can win. If your ideas can’t win a fair fight in the boxing ring, start taking cheap shots and see if you can get away with it.

Republican Fundamentalists shaped the YR platform to mirror their own, advocating extreme policies like abolition of the federal income tax and U.S. withdrawal from the United Nations, and expressing support for racial segregation in the South.

(In 1990, [Republican proponent of changing the game Newt Gingrich] sent a memo to Republican candidates recommending specific adjectives for them to use in their description of the Democrats: “betray,” “decay,” “anti-flag,” “anti-family,” “pathetic,” “lie,” “cheat,” “radical,” “sick,” and “traitors,” among others.).

But the thing is, [Republican president] Reagan hadn’t used this tone at all. He had asked, “How can we love our country and not love our countrymen?”

“The Republican Party, both in this state and nationally, is a broad party. There is room in our tent for many views; indeed, the divergence of views is one of our strengths. … Unity does not require unanimity of thought.” The Republican Party of the 1990s was doing the opposite, treating Reagan’s platform like the party’s 10 Commandments and enforcing fealty to it with loyalty oaths.

The opposite of the spirit Jefferson wrote about is what we might call “legal cheating.” Legal cheating doesn’t break the written law—it finds the soft spots held up only by unwritten rules, and it breaks those rules.

Modern U.S. politics has seen a steady increase in both parties swapping out Liberal Games norms for Power Games ruthlessness, breaking long-established customs for a short-term edge and leaving both parties as prisoner’s dilemma losers.

As another indicator, a large 2013 survey of county-level party leaders found that while Democratic leaders preferred extremist candidates to centrist candidates at a ratio of 2:1, the ratio for Republican leaders was 10:1.

Reagan’s aim to appeal “to your best hopes, not your worst fears; to your confidence rather than your doubts” had, 30 years later, become Trump’s demagogic appeal to the lowest parts of human nature.

I mistakenly thought that what I objected to was “the Right.” But the Right wasn’t the problem. The problem was the Lower Right. The problem wasn’t too much conservatism, it was too little conservatism.

Chapter 5: Social Justice, High and Low

Modernity replaced faith-based thinking and divine authority with the idea of a single objective truth and a universal process for discovering it. Postmodernist thinkers take issue with this.

To postmodernists like Michel Foucault and Jean-François Lyotard, religions, political theories, and even science were bad, nonsensical metanarratives—systems of thought that serve the interests of the powerful and legitimize their dominant position.

SJF [Social Justice Fundamentalist] activists look at societal institutions through a zero-sum lens. Groups that are overrepresented got there by oppressing those who are underrepresented, and the only way to help those at the bottom is to take from those at the top. Ensuring equal outcomes trumps individual rights.

[Talking about ‘Wokeness’] In more recent years, the term has evolved from the way Lead Belly was using it—warning Black people to stay alert to dangerous situations that might arise—to a broader meaning about staying aware of racist systems of oppression. After the release of Erykah Badu’s 2007 song Master Teacher, with a chorus that repeated the line “I stay woke,” the term exploded into the mainstream.

The fundamentalists believe in a single narrative, and their movement is premised on shared certainty in that narrative. To be woke is to believe.

“Stay in your lane” means: If you’re white, your words carry little authority on race issues. If you’re a man, you should refrain from weighing in about women’s movements like #metoo and the debates around rape culture on campuses.

At the humility sweet spot, a person gives themselves the right amount of credit for what they do know about someone else and also the proper level of respect for what they don’t know.

[..] a common item on lists of sample microaggressions is, “As a woman, I know what you go through as a racial minority”).

Ultimately, what makes a speaker of any group valid in the eyes of SJF is agreement with SJF. That’s the definition of an Echo Chamber.

One mark of high-rung morality is tolerance consistency. Humans are hardwired to be hyper-sensitive to the concept of fair vs. unfair, so whatever a society’s or community’s specific rules around what’s tolerable or intolerable, it’s usually a good sign if the same rules apply to everyone.

Saying you’re a crusader against hate and oppression doesn’t mean that you actually are. Being tolerant, fair, and humane to some people and not others is the definition of intolerance and inhumanity.

Not only does the Constitution not forbid tribal Echo Chambers—it actively protects them. In a liberal country, any group can believe any damn thing they want and that’s okay… as long as they don’t force their views on anyone else.

Interlude: The Tale of King Mustache

We think of censorship as control over what people can say. But the concept of emergence reminds us that human giants only “think” by way of conversation—which means that censorship is really control over what the giant can think. For a giant, censorship is mind control.

Throughout human history, clever opportunists have discovered that if you could control what people say, you could write the story people believed. You could dictate the values, the morals, and the customs.

In 1958, almost everyone in the U.S. bought into the “interracial marriage is immoral” viewpoint. Today, most of us see that fringe 4% as the wise ones, but this was anything but obvious at the time. Without free speech, that extremely unpopular viewpoint may have never been publicly expressed.

In a dictatorship, gay rights advocacy, considered deeply offensive to most people in 1960, would probably have been censored. But in a country that protected free speech, Rauch talks about how things changed:

In ones and twos at first, then in streams and eventually cascades, gays talked. They argued. They explained. They showed. They confronted. … As gay people stepped forward, liberal science engaged. The old anti-gay dogmas came under critical scrutiny as never before. “Homosexuals molest and recruit children”; “homosexuals cannot be happy”; “homosexuals are really heterosexuals”; “homosexuality is unknown in nature”: The canards collapsed with astonishing speed.

What took place was not just empirical learning but also moral learning. How can it be wicked to love? How can it be noble to lie? How can it be compassionate to reject your own children? How can it be kind to harass and taunt?... Gay people were asking straight people to test their values against logic, against compassion, against life. Gradually, then rapidly, the criticism had its effect. You cannot be gay in America today and doubt that moral learning is real and that the open society fosters it.

In Echo Chamber cultures—where harsh social penalties are imposed for saying the wrong thing—freedom of speech all but vanishes, along with the presence of the marketplace of ideas.

Chapter 6: How to Conquer a College

So in an honor culture, the cool kids go apeshit when their enemies insult them. In a dignity culture, it’s cooler to show a thick skin and shrug off disrespect.

Victimhood culture “rejects one of dignity culture’s main injunctions—to ignore insults and slights—and instead encourages at least some people to take notice of them and take action against them.

And victimhood culture differs from both honor and dignity cultures in highlighting rather than downplaying the complainants’ victimhood.”

In their book Dying to be Ill, Marc Feldman and Gregory Yates explain that people who pretend to have cancer or other illnesses cannot “resist the pull of obtaining attention or sympathy … these patients fabricate disease and illness in order to reap the rewards of the sick role, which include entitlement to support from others, exemption from social obligations, and a general state of being in need of help, or deserving of special allowances.”

We have fake hate crimes in the U.S. because they’re socially rewarded by a culture in which victimhood enhances one’s status.

The bandwagon effect kicks in, in which lots of people believing something seems to be evidence that the belief must be true.

As increasingly homogeneous campuses become increasingly difficult places for conservatives to work, fewer conservatives go into academia in the first place, further enhancing homogeneity.

It’s only the idea supremacist on campus who says, “No one on campus is allowed to express ideas I find reprehensible, whether I’m in the room or not.” Which is another way of saying, “No one on campus is allowed to hear ideas that I find reprehensible.”

Frederick Douglass once said, “To suppress free speech is a double wrong. It violates the rights of the hearer as well as those of the speaker.”

And in a 2020 survey of over 20,000 students at 55 top U.S. colleges, FIRE found that 60% of self-identified “extreme liberals” believe it is acceptable to shout down a controversial speaker on campus, compared with 15% of “extreme conservative” students.

A sixth of America’s 400 top colleges have implemented “free speech zones” on campus—implying that speech is not free elsewhere on campus. But even in these zones, speech that conflicts with campus orthodoxy has been banned.

“The truth cannot be offensive. Perhaps the hypothesis is wrong, but how would we ever find out whether it is wrong if it is ‘offensive’ even to consider it?"

When [science writer Ann Gibbons] wrote about migrations that happened 15,000 years ago, it probably didn’t go over well with fundamentalist Christians who believe the Earth was created 6,000 years ago. But science isn’t concerned with feelings, it’s concerned with truth. The history of science is a history of upsetting people by overturning their existing beliefs. A scientific community not willing to do that would not have come very far. Now though, research that might similarly upset indigenous groups—groups low down on SJF’s Intersectional Stack—is being halted.

Gerson likens the students whose sensitivities forbid the teaching of rape law to medical students who insist on being shielded from the sight of blood.

Today’s college students are tomorrow’s leaders. Depriving students of a rigorous intellectual boot camp doesn’t hurt only them, it makes tomorrow’s society a less informed, less intelligent place for everyone.

The research institution becomes an instrument of the golem, serving not the veritas plaque above its gates but the needs of its new golem boss: feeding it with confirmation and protecting it from doubt. This cripples our society’s ability to learn new things.

Interlude: The Digital Cudgel

Our Primitive Minds crave attention and status, and the new, evolved social media platforms now offered both of these in the form of a quantifiable gamified system.

Unfortunately, a sizable body of research suggests that the best way to win the social media game is to post things that trigger people’s emotions, especially strong emotions like anger, and especially tribal anger at the out-group.

As Ronson puts it: “The great thing about social media was how it gave a voice to voiceless people, but we're now creating a surveillance society, where the smartest way to survive is to go back to being voiceless.”

Chapter 7: How to Conquer a Society

Mentioning the n-word, regardless of context or intent, was now a fireable offense—retroactively. In the world of Social Justice Fundamentalism, there’s no use-mention distinction, and no forgiveness for well-intentioned mistakes.

What [former Google employee] Damore objected to wasn’t diversity itself but 1) the means Google uses to achieve diversity and 2) the notion that Google’s gender disparity could only be caused by discriminatory practices and sexist culture.

In Universe 1, firing Damore for criticizing company policy in an internal memo was unthinkable—the kind of authoritarianism Google had historically disdained. In Universe 2, firing Damore, the misogynist author of the anti-diversity tirade that made Google an unsafe place for women, was the only reasonable option. Google fired Damore.

[..] mobs clamored for punishment—but it was leadership at The New York Times, Google, Amazon, the American Heart Association, and others, by actually carrying out the punishments, that turned the clamors into a very real cudgel.

Each punishment is a warning to everyone else in the institution: “You are no longer in the safety of an Idea Lab. You are now in an ideological Echo Chamber whose rules will be heavily enforced.” In that kind of environment, most people simply go silent.

We’ll never hear about the article that sits on the editor’s desk and never gets published, or the movie that never gets bought. The science too risky to research. The book too risky to write. The memo too risky to send. The op-ed too risky to pen. The opinion too risky to voice. George Orwell called this “the sinister fact” about censorship: “Unpopular ideas can be silenced, and inconvenient facts kept dark, without the need for any official ban.”

When you leave the “of ___” unspecified, [philosopher Karl] Popper’s Paradox is inevitably twisted by political or religious groups into some version of: In order to maintain a tolerant society, the society must be intolerant of [people, ideas, and practices that we don’t like]. By labeling their ideological opponents as “intolerant,” whoever has the most cultural power in any environment can use Popper’s reasoning to justify authoritarianism.

Popper was specifically concerned by those who refuse to engage in rational argument, instead using intimidation to respond to criticism of their ideas.

This highlights the massive difference between criticism and cancel culture. Criticism attacks ideas, cancel culture punishes people.

Unfortunately, a robust and ever-growing body of empirical literature suggests that diversity-related training typically fails at its stated objectives. – Sociologist Musa Al-Gharbi

Study after study after study have come to the same conclusion: there is little evidence that diversity trainings work. On the other hand, there is significant evidence that the trainings can be counterproductive. Diversity trainings can reduce sympathy, reinforce bias and stereotypes, cause claims of discrimination to be taken less seriously, drive a wedge between demographic groups, and decrease morale.

This program, though, teaches children that Black Lives Matter is the one and only correct approach to social justice. [..] The part of the curriculum designed for preschoolers and kindergarteners states its goal as “students will understand that our country has a racist history that is grounded in white privilege.” Most Americans would have no problem with their children being taught, unequivocally, that Black lives matter, that racism is an enduring problem, and that racial equality is a goal we should all be striving for—because these reflect broad liberal values. But it’s something very different when students are taught that the particular neo-Marxist, postmodern political lens of the Black Lives Matter movement is the only acceptable worldview, as opposed to one of many competing ideologies.

When students are taught, their minds expand and open. When students are indoctrinated, their minds narrow and close.

The problem in all these cases is not the inclusion of SJF ideas in a student’s education—it’s the teaching of those ideas as if they’re Bible verses in a religious school, not to be challenged or questioned.

As you might expect, many teachers have furious objections to this rapid onslaught of changes to how children are taught. But like the once-vocal dissenters in academia, media, and tech, most teachers have learned to shut their mouths [..].

[Paul Rossi, a New York City teacher writes] Students are pressured to conform their opinions to those broadly associated with their race and gender and to minimize or dismiss individual experiences that don’t match those assumptions.

A few days after publishing the article, Rossi says he was reprimanded by a school official, and says the head of the school “ordered all high school advisors to read a public reprimand of my conduct out loud to every student in the school.” Then he was relieved of his teaching duties and eventually left the school.

Infusing schooling for children as young as four with politics, using one and only one political lens, is not basic social progress.

You either engage in activism using Ibram X. Kendi’s precise worldview, precise politics, and precise way of diagnosing and solving problems—or you’re racist. You’re either a vocal, active member of the SJF army—or you’re a harmful person.

[..] both the Black poverty rate and the Black unemployment rate have dropped to all-time lows, while both the Black incarceration rate and the disparity between the Black and white incarceration rate have been steadily declining over the past 20 years. But the SJF narrative tells the opposite kind of story, and this could be contributing to a sharp reversal in Black Americans’ sense of empowerment in recent years.

When the big brain [of an open and uncensored society] isn’t working correctly, zealotry can look like righteousness. Nuance can look like bigotry. Free speech can look like violence, and violence can look like free speech. Fairness can look like discrimination, and discrimination can look like fairness.

Tech companies, with the ability to block people from reaching their followers, selling their books, marketing their restaurants, or accepting payments for their business, have the same kind of blacklist power. America doesn’t have a social credit score—but these are stories of people effectively being blacklisted.

This is the distinct feeling I’ve had reading about what’s happening at companies and institutions across society—from Harvard to the New York Times, Disney to Google, the American Medical Association to the American Booksellers Association. So many institutions are suddenly behaving nothing like themselves—and often in direct contradiction to their stated values.

An institution is only what it is willing to stand up for. If it lets an unscientific, anti-free-speech, morally inconsistent, illiberal ideology take over, the institution itself becomes unscientific, anti-free-speech, morally inconsistent, and illiberal.

Successful American movements have been fueled by optimism and hope. But there’s no place for positivity in SJF, which is rooted in the idea that liberal societies are hopelessly and irreparably oppressive.

When it came to white voters, the less educated the neighborhood, the more likely they were to vote for Trump. And the districts where Trump made gains over Romney were in notable economic despair. But SJF, with its single-axis lens, saw only one story: White people voted for Trump. The privileged part of the country voted for the racist, xenophobic candidate. Clean and simple. The fact that it was specifically the least privileged whites who voted for Trump didn’t register.

There’s also SJF’s attitude toward free speech. As Jonathan Rauch wrote in 2013, “History shows that, over time and probably today more than ever, the more open the intellectual environment, the better minorities will do. It is just about that simple.”

In their book The Coddling of the American Mind, Jonathan Haidt and Greg Lukianoff share a list of “common cognitive disorders” that Cognitive Behavioral Therapy [CBT] practitioners believe cause anxiety and depression, and they note that many of today’s young people are actively being trained into the precise kinds of thinking CBT aims to eradicate—like overgeneralizing, all-or-nothing thinking, blaming others, and focusing on the negatives.

The spread of baseless conspiracy theories within the Right's bubble is a dangerous trend. An authoritarian response by the Left only makes the problem worse.

U.S. history is a roller-coaster of oscillating power between left and right. It would not surprise me if a decade from now, the lion’s share of cancel culture stories were the work of the political Right and it was the Left electing the demagogue president.

Changing Course

We really can’t afford to get ourselves from foolish to wise the usual way, via bad times. Somehow, we have to figure how to become wise people directly.

Companies that have held strong in the face of SJF pressure, like tech giant Shopify, have not only survived but thrived.

How does a society get out of a downward spiral of confusion and fear? With its opposite: an upward spiral of awareness and courage.

The most important thing for us to remember is that we do our rational and moral thinking with a not-that-smart tool that was designed to keep an ancient primate alive.

Your Primitive Mind thinks your beliefs are sacred objects carved in stone, but they’re not—they’re hypotheses written in pencil, and if you’re thinking up on the high rungs, you should probably be pretty active with the eraser.

Read about the universe. Nothing makes hatred seem more ridiculous than internalizing how vast time and space are.

If you find yourself being forced to speak up in a training or classroom in a way that will misrepresent yourself, or being pressured to apologize about something you don’t think you should have to apologize for, see the situation for what it is: a Maoist-style struggle session.

Start saying what you really think, in private, with people you know well. [..] It’s not only great for everyone involved, helping to fast-track personal growth, it can help the group become more of an Idea Lab and less of boring Echo Chamber.

Us vs. Them is always a delusion. The Story of Us isn’t a story of good guys vs. bad guys but one about the tug-of-war that exists within each human head, each community, each society. In this epic story, heading together toward an uncertain fate, there is no Them. Just one big Us.

How do you feel after reading this?

This helps me assess the quality of my writing and improve it.

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