Of guilt by association

Very Important Edit: Since I wrote this article, evidence emerged that Scott Alexander is privately a believer in so called “Human biodiversity”, aka latter day scientific racism. Or at least that he was at some point. I’m deeply saddened by this, and don’t know what else to say except making this correction. C.f. for proof https://emilkirkegaard.dk/en/2021/02/backstabber-brennan-knifes-scott-alexander-with-2014-email/ please note that I am linking to that blog as a convenient source for Scott’s leaked emails. Linking to it is not an endorsement of the content of the blog.

As someone who frequently quotes Slate Star Codex and has been chided for it, I felt that the New York Times article on Scott needs some kind of official response from this blog. Above all, I wanted to give an explanation of why we are not going to stop engaging with Slate Star Codex material. I wanted to focus on one element- the weird obsession with guilt by association, using the stuff about Charles Murray as an example. The article dishonestly insinuates that Scott agrees with Murray’s views -Murray thinks that there is a genetic link between race and IQ- and pushes hard on the idea of a guilt by association. However there are dozens of statements in the article which are either completely false or mostly untrue. Don’t take my silence on those as acceptance by omission.

Forgive the prose, I’ve composed this in haste.

Of guilt by association

I am aware, as a reader of Slate Star Codex and a part of the community, that I am spending time with some people I find very objectionable. For example, Scott is not, to my knowledge, a believer in the race/IQ stuff. However, he is, in my opinion too lenient on those who are.

However, I am not aware of any circle of people who talk about ideas that doesn’t have its objectionable elements. As a leftist I spend time with, and am even quite good friends with people belonging to certain subgroups of leftists who deny atrocities which really shouldn’t be denied. In my defence, Marx and Engels also had a questionable friends- and were questionable people themselves, really. I’m not aware of any genuinely interesting and effective person who didn’t have at least some dodgy chaps in their circle. C’est la vie.

But what angers me about this guilt by association stuff is that it is the New York Times is publishing the article. See, there’s a pattern I’ve been observing for years. I call it the foreign policy exception to cancellation. People who supported the Iraq war, and either did not recant, or recanted only lately and with minimal enthusiasm, never seem to be cancelled for it. In my view, and I will die on this hill, being a prominent supporter of the Iraq war who never properly recanted is at least as bad as being a race and IQ guy. I say that not to minimise how bad being a race and IQ guy is- it’s really bad and threatens, at least, a new and devastating wave of racism. At worst it threatens a genocide. Rather I make the contrast to draw attention to the moral gulf which is being an Iraq war supporter- and the bare thimble of opprobrium it receives. Prominent supporters of the second gulf war have the blood of up to a million dead Iraqis on their hands. They should repent and seek absolution. Instead, it’s treated as a smaller lapse than, say, using a slur.

Why did we forget this? We see the foreign policy positions people take through glass darkly. They don’t attract 1/20th of the fury equivalent positions on domestic questions attract. This foreign policy exception to cancellation is a powerful thing. Maybe it exists because it suits the interests of some powerful people? Something to think about.

Bottom-line, I’m not going to listen to a lecture on the problematic acquaintances of my online friends from a publication that published fucking Bill Kristol, Iraq war ring-leader, as recently as the second half of 2019.

EDIT: Robert Wiblin points out that the New York Times published Peter Thiel, the arch-neoreactionary, as recently as 2019!

Who are the Slate Star Codex readers and how should we relate to them?

But is it not true that birds of a feather flock together? Sure, but if we’re going consider that, let’s at least look at the whole aviary.

Almost 69% of SSC readers as of the last SSC readership survey (sample size, 8000) placed themselves further left than right on the political spectrum. Only 10% of American readers saw themselves as Republican party supporters, compared with about 25% of the population as a whole. A total of about 7.2% of respondents approved of Donald Trump.

Now do I deny that there is an unpleasant fringe to the subculture which finds its representation in Scott’s blog? Heaven’s no. But when there is a community of people who are, very broadly, on the side of the angels when it comes to politics, and there are objectionable right wing elements trying to lure them towards awful ideas, what should you do? Enter the fray. Fight for a better world.

Let me express my incredulity here, at something we have forgotten to be incredulous about. When did we decide that the ethical and reputational consequences of believing awful things should be treated like a virus that can be caught? That seems stupid to me. The aim is to win. Winning means talking to people about your ideas. There’s a reason we use the phrase “preaching to the choir” to signal foolishness. Technological utopians on SSC are no worse an audience for left-wing ideas than just about any other subculture, including punks, vegans, metalheads etc. You fight for what you think, that’s how you play the game. Yes, there are limits- it would be foolish to address a conference of fascists for example, but the moral failings that attach to cruel and ignorant politics are not a wafting miasma. It’s just that everyone seems to have held a meeting I wasn’t invited to and decided that we should treat these things exactly as if they were a miasma.

Part of being a functional adult is tolerating a certain degree of moral complexity and confusion whilst keeping a stable sense of who you are and where you stand on things. Managing this is the key to not going supernova with rage under the torrential pressure of information, irritation and uncertainty.

Anyway. I echo Scott’s call not to hold this against the specific journalist responsible, but fuck the NYT for causing so much stress and angst to a fundamentally good dude, and that’s the official position of de Pony Sum.

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Anyway, that was all very stressful so here’s my favourite song in the world, a capella. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pvsEG77sAcY&ab_channel=UBCACappella

Image result for Miasma

6 thoughts on “Of guilt by association

  1. > As a leftist I spend time with, and am even quite good friends with people belonging to certain subgroups of leftists who deny atrocities which really shouldn’t be denied.

    If you decided that 69% of SSC readers were further right than left, you’d be calling for their heads. You have no right to judge others being “too lenient” on anyone, and probably deserve to suffer the atrocities your scumbag friends endorse.


  2. Most of the anger at HBD people is justified by the concern that they push their worldview. Why do you judge someone who privately thinks “this is unproven and may well be true”?


  3. I’m surprised your deeply saddened by the fact that, six years ago in a private comversation, Scott said that “HBD is probably partially correct or at least very non-provably not-correct.” Something he clearly did not believe in enough to take a position on publicly.

    Surely, someone should be allowed to entertain even odious ideas privately without being condemned for it? Otherwise, how could anyone ever decide to reject something on their own terms?

    Obviously, that’s my position, and I look down more on the man who leaked the conversation. At least Scott doesn’t publicly deny the holodomor.


    1. I’m not interested in having a go at him or anything. I guess the main reason I, personally, am saddened by it is because I wrote this essay arguing that it’s unfair to imply he’s a supporter of HBD, and then found out he’s- at the very least deeply ambivalent and probably at least a partial supporter. I think anyone would find a process like that saddening.


      1. I see, I understand where you’re coming from. My comment was more of a knee-jerk response to the tone of your note at the top of the article, but your reasoning makes sense. At least take heart in the fact that your stand against guilt by association is still the right one to take, even if in this case the guilt-by-associators turned out to be right.


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