What the Haters Hate

Warning: culture war, snarkiness, less charitable than a Make-a-Wish Foundation fundraiser. If you don’t care about the hateful things outgroups do, enjoy this hedgehog and come back next week.

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Ezra Klein’s latest essay on the YouTube right / Intellectual Dark Web is perhaps the voxiest Vox article ever. The Vox specialty is walking 90% of the way towards truth in careful, reasoned steps, and then taking a left turn off a steep cliff.

Klein’s article responds to a challenge by Dave Rubin, wondering how he (Rubin) suddenly became a conservative reactionary:

Rubin Klein tweet

Group Definitions

Klein claims that Dave Rubin is part of some group, and they both agree that it’s a bad group to be part of. The question is: who is Dave Rubin in a group with? And what makes them part of the same group?

You could ask Dave Rubin which groups he identifies with, and he’ll name examples like liberals, gays, Jews, and the Intellectual Dark Web. But Klein notes that even the IDW will “draw a circle around the most respectable subgroup of this world, use their preferred term for themselves, and worry over the unsavory characters they were associating with”. If you trust Rubin to define his own groups, there will be suspiciously few Nazis in them.

Another way to identify this group is via a network graph, a network whose nodes are people Ezra Klein is suspicious of and whose edges are podcast appearances and YouTube interviews. Lucky for Klein, Rebecca Lewis of the Data & Society research institute created a chart of this network using an algorithm, and we all know that algorithms are objective and trustworthy.

youtube right network graph.png

(Of course, after the algorithm had run they still had to manually remove all the inconvenient data points, like Noam Chomsky appearing on Stefan Molyneux’ show).

Here’s how it works: Nazis have a Nazi number of 0. If you interact with someone whose Nazi number is k, your number is at most k+1. I interviewed Geoffrey Miller, who did an event with Sam Harris, who recorded a podcast with Ezra Klein, who interviewed W. Kamau Bell, who interviewed Richard Spencer, who’s a known Nazi. So my Nazi number is 5, and yours is at most 6 by virtue of reading Putanumonit. Congratulations! You are within 6 degrees of separation from a Nazi, and so you’re practically one yourself.

Klein noticed that his own Nazi number is an unflattering 2, and reminds us that “it’s worth being careful with these diagrams”. He then immediately disregards his own warning and claims that Rubin is fair game for the chart because:

He’s part of a social and algorithmic network in which he’s cross-pollinating audiences both intentionally, in terms of whom he has on and what shows he goes on, and unintentionally, in terms of what the algorithm learns to show his followers.

Get it? My link to Klein’s article is “intentionally cross-pollinating audiences” to Vox, and so it turns out that I’m a social justice ally and not a Nazi after all. Whew, I was really worried there for a minute.

Agree not to Disagree

What defines this group besides the number of lines you can draw on a chart? Klein comes up with an important insight:

Ideological coalitions depend on the agreements you emphasize and the disagreements you live with. Sen. Elizabeth Warren supports single-payer health care and Sen. Mark Warner doesn’t, but they’re still both Democrats. If Warner were anti-abortion, had signed Grover Norquist’s tax pledge, and had endorsed Donald Trump, he’d be out of the party. When you’re trying to understand an ideological coalition, you’re looking for those lines.

The ideology that Dave Rubin and his friends can’t agree to disagree on is what defines them as a group. According to Klein, this ideology is reaction, or antagonism to the progressive project :

Their reactionary politics and connections to traditional modes of power show that what they are most often fighting for is actually the status quo—a return to traditional gender and racial norms, or a belief in the individual over an understanding of group oppression.

What is the right-wing status quo that Rubin and the rest of the “reactionary right” are defending? It’s a world of legalized drugs, reformed prisons, gay rights, and abortion access. Klein explicitly excludes all of the above from the pursuit of social justice, and doubles down on “a return to traditional gender and racial norms”, even though all four of Rubin’s stated political stances have to do with race and gender.

Since it’s hard to catch Rubin himself saying anything problematic about women and racial minorities, Klein posts clips of Milo Yiannopolous and Jordan Peterson, two Rubin guests, hating on feminism. The clips intend to show that hating on feminism is one thing the “reactionary right” agrees not to disagree on. What do the self-styled IDWs have to say in their defense?

The person who first styled himself IDW is Eric Weinstein, a five-time guest on the Rubin Report. Here’s what Eric had this to say on a show with “reactionary right” superstar Joe Rogan:

  • Women should be paid more by STEM companies as a policy, to account for the fact that men are more aggressive in salary negotiations and that women are better at many non-STEM things than men.
  • Men are overrepresented among Silicon Valley founders because they “overpromise”, a euphemism for “bullshit and hope it doesn’t catch up with you”.
  • Fields like economics and physics are losing out on valuable contributions by women because of their overcompetitive macho culture.
  • The greatest “oilfield” of untapped potential in the world is the minds of Asian women.

I don’t think that Weinstein, husband to a successful Indian woman, will find much agreement with Jordan Peterson on any of those. And yet, the two have appeared on stage together multiple times. So what do the two of them, and everyone else in the group, have in common? I can think of two things:

  1. They’re both committed to the free expression of ideas, and so are their interviewers. This is why Rubin and Rogan rarely push back hard against any opinions expressed on their shows, even opinions diametrically opposed to each other.
  2. They’re both sick of Vox’s shit.

I already expressed my wish, on the most IDW-aligned magazine, that they focus more on free speech and bold ideas and less on booing the outgroup. I explicitly identified Vox and Ezra Klein as symbols of the outgroup.

Klein also couldn’t help notice that a lot of people kinda hate Vox, ranging from the “reactionary right” to leftist podcasters Chapo Trap House. But while Chapo are probably just allies joining the good fight with a few misguided assumptions, the fact that the right “can’t be in sympathy with the SJWs” means that they’re against race and gender equality.

And this is where Klein falls off a cliff – thinking that hating a certain tribe means that you oppose the stated goals of their ideology, even when the two have very little to do with each other.

Small Minds

In The Ideology is not the Movement, Scott Alexander lays out the following model of how tribes form:

1. Let’s get together to do X
2. Let’s get together to do X, and have drinks afterwards
3. Let’s get together to discuss things from an X-informed perspective
4. Let’s get together to discuss the sorts of things that interest people who do X
5. Let’s get together to discuss how the sort of people who do X are much better than the sort of people who do Y.
6. Dating site for the sort of people who do X
7. Oh god, it was so annoying, she spent the whole date talking about X.
8. X? What X?

In Scott’s main example, he claims that it’s not very useful to understand “Shia Muslims” in 2018 as “the people who believe that Ali ibn Abi Talib was appointed the rightful Caliph by Muhammad at Ghadir Khumm”. Shia are the people who do Shia stuff, who date other Shias, and who outgroup Sunnis. Very few of them devote any mindspace at all to debating the Caliphate ascension.

It was saidGreat minds discuss ideas, average minds discuss events, small minds discuss people. I don’t think that’s entirely fair – we are social monkeys with elephants in our brains; discussing people and events is what we’re made for. I would perhaps grant that small minds discuss ideas 0.5% of the time, and great minds do so 5% percent of the time, but all of us spend at least 95% of our thoughts on people and events. Muslim history is complicated, and people got shit to do.

Tribes drift away from the flags they originally rallied around, especially political tribes since politics is about tribes. Imagine any of the political leaders from 50 years ago trying to fit in with the modern incarnations of their movements. And if people spend so little time pondering the central ideas of their own tribe, how much less effort do they spend on the ideology of their outgroup?

The great mind of Brian Caplan coined the concept of the Ideological Turing Test – being able to represent your outgroup’s ideology so faithfully that they could think you are one of them. Passing the ITT is galaxy mind level: it is hard, it is rare, and a lot of people aren’t even aware that it’s a thing.

For example, Ezra Klein:

The unbridgeable divides today, the ones that seem to define which side you’re really on, revolve around issues of race, gender, identity, and equality.

By Klein’s logic, everyone who dislikes SJWs only does so because they perfectly understand SJW ideology of race, gender, identity, and equality, in SJWs’ own language, and then chooses to just do the opposite. Klein’s ingroup certainly defines itself by what they say on race, gender, identity, and equality. But Klein’s outgroup mostly defines itself by despising Klein’s ingroup. They just don’t care that much about race, gender, identity, and equality.

Klein not only is incapable of passing the IDW’s Ideological Turing Test, but he also seems unaware of the fact that someone can fail to pass his own. The only way I can imagine this happening is that Klein is so absorbed in his ideology that he can’t fathom other minds being different.

(I guess I can imagine another option: Klein is knowingly lying for what he thinks is a worthy cause. )

As for the IDW: some of them are fighting for progress on gender and race equality but disagree with Klein on the way to get there (e.g., the Weinsteins), some are in fact opposed to the progressive fight (e.g., Ben Shapiro), and some do their best to ignore this entire topic and focus on other things (e.g., Sam Harris). Very few of them I think would get a high score on a Social Justice ITT, and neither would I. On the topic of whatever “post-modern cultural neo-Marxism” is, I’m more inclined to trust a transgender YouTuber in a wig than Jordan Peterson, who uses it as a catch-all term for his outgroup.

Jihadis don’t hate “American freedom and democracy”, they just hate Americans. How many of them do you think have read The Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights? Neoconservatives don’t hate Islam, they hate Islamists. How many of them do you think have read the Qur’an? Do you think that the Nazis had theological quibbles with Judaism or did they just need outgroups? 

Quick segue away from Hitler. I was at a party on Saturday, and a man was introduced to me as: “a really smart person who hates Rationality”. And yes, this is a humblebrag – I’m very proud of having cultivated a reputation such that friends will introduce me to someone who deplores my ingroup and expect a fun and curious conversation.

What did this gentleman hate about Rationality? He couldn’t stand the insufferable arrogance of Eliezer, who in his opinion isn’t only wrong on quantum theory but has the gall to denigrate physicists for disagreeing with him. Also, a rationalist was being a dick to him at Burning Man once and wasn’t condemned quickly enough by other rationalists around them.

I tried to push for disagreements on core issues, and those turned out to be either minor quibbles or misunderstandings. For example, he thought that LessWrong espouses a strict and wrong definition of “intelligence” (most of us don’t). He said we’re unaware of the tortured history of “rationality projects” (some of us are). We don’t even disagree much on the individuals: I agree that Eliezer is arrogant (which doesn’t change the fact that he’s usually right), and I agree that the other rationalist is a dick (although I see our community’s tolerance of weirdos as a positive, not a negative).

There are whole online communities dedicated to detesting rationalists, but they’re not doing it because they think sunk cost bias doesn’t exist or that Bayes’ Theorem is wrong or even that Scott’s model of tribe formation is misguided. They’re certainly not doing it because they hate “clear thinking and true beliefs”. I hang out in those spaces occasionally for the perverse pleasure it gives me, and most people are there because they met or read a few rationalists and had a strong personal aversion to them.

If you enjoyed reading this essay because Ezra Klein is your outgroup, make sure not to make the same mistake he does. I dislike Vox because what they do has the effect of suppressing individual expression of ideas in favor of anti-cooperative narratives. But I don’t think that Klein wakes up in the morning thinking: How can I best empower Moloch and promote intergroup conflict by suppressing the exchange of ideas outside of gated institutions? Not because he’s on my side in the fight against Moloch, but because he doesn’t even know what this framework means.

But that means he’s also not diametrically opposed to everything I believe in. This is heartening because it leaves room for cooperation and agreement; we are not merely fighting in a zero-sum game. But cooperation requires learning to speak the same language and passing each other’s Ideological Turing Test, and that is not easy to do.

15 thoughts on “What the Haters Hate

  1. This is a good post. But I think it misses that rarely a group solely defines themselves by hating the outgroup, and they often do hate the ideas of the outgroup.

    e.g Jihadists are bound together not just by hating America, they’re also bound by their love of the Quran. And I believe they do hate some aspects that are standard in American culture, e.g sexual freedom.

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  2. It seems to me that the unbridgeable divide today, the one that seems to define which side you’re really on, revolves around the issue of seeing your opponents as full human beings with rich inner lives and their own reasons for believing what they believe.

    Am I up my own ass? How could I even tell if I was?

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    1. I think that’s always been a problem. Maybe it’s worse today, although I think it’s very hard to know. It was definitely a problem in the past however; the Founding Fathers went to great lengths to try to prevent party politics only to fail almost immediately. The Roman Republic, once it entered the beginning of its decline, semi-regularly outright killed political opponents and people formed mobs to intimidate politic opponents. I don’t think humans can kill other humans they’ve recognized as full people with rich inner lives(without some very extenuating circumstances).

      Maybe it’s just very easy to see today that half the population doesn’t respect the other half since the more extreme members of either half who have no manners can easily voice their opinions, and people aren’t condemning people on their “side” for being horrible.

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  3. I went and read the Data & Society report and Klein’s essay and then this. There’s so much in here that strikes me as, well intentionally misleading and missing the point and severely defensive.

    I guess I’m supposed to dislike Klein and Vox because, like, SSC does, and so, haha, look how wrong they are, let’s all agree on that. But Klein sounds abundantly reasonable in that article.

    “What is the right-wing status quo that Rubin and the rest of the “reactionary right” are defending? It’s a world of legalized drugs, reformed prisons, gay rights, and abortion access. Klein explicitly excludes all of the above from the pursuit of social justice, and doubles down on “a return to traditional gender and racial norms”, even though all four of Rubin’s stated political stances have to do with race and gender.”

    It’s a classic motte-and-bailey. You take defensible progressive positions and then go do lots of things that are way more questionable, but harder to point at as explicitly bad because they don’t make quotable soundbites. Basically the point of the D&S report is to point them out concretely because otherwise they’re really hard to keep track of.

    Rubin’s actual behavior, not his easily-rattled-off progressive stances, is what is being criticized here. Something like half the D&S report is about this: how his hosting, recommending, providing a platform for, lending legitimacy to, etc supports extremist views on his show. For instance read the entire section leading up to the line “By letting him speak without providing a legitimate and robust counterargument, Rubin provides a free platform for white supremacist ideology on his channel.”

    (You may not agree that he is providing a free platform for ideology, but you can’t have missed the simple point that nodding along to extremist views without disagreement is a lot like supporting them, except it makes you more immune to vilifying quotations.)

    “By Klein’s logic, everyone who dislikes SJWs only does so because they perfectly understand SJW ideology, in SJWs’ own language, and then chooses to just do the opposite”

    This… isn’t Klein’s logic in the slightest. The whole point is that Rubin someone like Rubin can be pro-legalization, prison reform, whatever, and still be extremely reactionary and have (or support / proliferate) fringe views in other ways, because the drug- and abortion- stuff isn’t your political identity anymore.

    In that paragraph and the preceding one, and has nothing to do with how perfectly you understand SJW ideology. It has everything to do with exactly what you said next: that (and Klein understand this) the unbridgeable gap is whether you’re in Klein’s ingroup (vis-a-vis gender, identity, etc) or not. Klein said exactly the thing you’re saying is correct. So you’re saying Klein has his head up his ass because he doesn’t see the truth, and that the truth is — what Klein said.

    At least that’s how it read to me.

    Apologies, I’m writing this in a hurry, but it seemed negligent to let this post go uncriticized. You’re doing some serious in-group fanfaring, let’s hate on Vox and Klein, and not engaging at all with the thing you’re criticizing or (as far as I can tell) even reading what it’s based on.

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    1. Hi,

      Can you please point me to the relevant video(s), or section(s) of video, that show Rubin doing this? Because I have been looking for it and I am really struggling to find hood examples of him doing this.

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    2. I agree with this take on this exchange. In fact, I’ve not understood the Rationalist hate for Vox+Klein, which seems the media outlet most amenable to their perspective (save for, perhaps, 538).

      It has always seemed like the vanity of small differences: an angry reaction to the fact that Vox still seems tribally aligned, while giving insufficient acknowledgement to the difficulty of not being tribally aligned. Many of the tribal failings of Vox seem, frankly, equally common amongst those with who Rationalist-types identify. My interpretation of this is that, as a European outsider, I’m failing to correctly read your respective group-identification-signals. To me, you both seem to occupy a pretty narrow stretch of identity-space, and an only slightly wider expanse of intellectual space.

      By contrast, the IDW seems, every time I tune into it, to be the most outgroup obsessed movement imaginable. It’s a stock in joke that Dave Rubin is constantly using the term ‘Regressive Left’ – an overuse that reveals the extent to which opposing “Leftists” is core to his identity.

      What am I missing here? Why does this blog, and others like it, seem more invested in defending the IDW and attacking Vox than vice versa?

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      1. I don’t disagree that much with either your or Alex’s comments, which means I didn’t explain myself very well in the post itself.

        We all agree about what Rubin actually does, which comes in two flavors:
        1. Hosting people from all over the non-left spectrum and not challenging their views.
        2. Yelling about the regressive left.

        This matches up pretty well to the two central components of the IDW I identified:
        1. Protecting free speech.
        2. Outgrouping SJWs.

        Like I said, I think #1 is good and #2 is bad. #2 is actually the reason why I don’t spend a lot of time listening to Rubin or Rogan, I prefer the rationalists and GMU Econ crowd. I do believe that #1 is a real thing and not a cover: IDWers regularly speak out against censorship of SJWs, e.g., Randa Jarrar and Fresno State.

        Whatever you think the actual mix of #1 and #2 is, Klein is making the claim that they both are a smaller part of Rubin’s real motivation than “reaction”, i.e., protecting the old regime status quo against progress. This by the logic that anyone against progressives must be a conservative reactionary. Since the IDW has many other reasons to dislike progressives (such as free speech), and it promotes many ideas that very much challenge the status quo (including, e.g., climate change), I find this logic quite lacking. It begins to look like simple guilting by association, and it’s quickly followed by calls for censorship and deplatforming.

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        1. Thanks for the considered reply. My feeling is our difference, in that case, lies in our interpretation of the structure of beliefs of the IDW. I see belief #2 as fuelling belief #1. I think if that were not the case, you’d see a greater variety of free-speech concerns reflected in their output. For example, Ag-Gag laws or restrictions on the BDS movement seem like banner cases of free-speech restriction, which are certainly not given primacy in their work.

          I interpret this lacuna as being a result of their own identity position, which I think you correctly summarised as being dissenters in a liberal social sphere. From what I’ve seen, this identity of anti-liberal dissenter comes first, leading to a set of intellectual positions that bolster this identity. Klein’s view seems to go a step further, arguing that the anti-liberal dissenter identity itself stems from reactionary instincts.

          For me to change my view, I’d want evidence that the IDW took free speech just as seriously in cases where it was not salient to their identity. Ken White, for example, seems like an example of what a less identity-politics obsessed free-speech advocate would look like.

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      2. A big part of the IDW’s schtick is about being on the outside looking it, so I don’t see how wouldn’t look relatively obsessed with certain actors and organizations responsible for their current location in the conversational ecosystem. The IDW is not in a position to ignore the people and places in the mainstream; the mainstream however can mostly ignore the IDW.

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    3. I agree. I feel like this article (and SSC, and everyone else) says I’m supposed to hate Ezra and Vox, but I just…..don’t? Ezra comes across as pretty reasonable in the linked piece. I don’t think his head’s up his own ass. The IDW he points to says outright they all hate social justice, I feel like he understands the disagreement there pretty well.

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  4. Klein’s whole idea makes sense only because the corporate progressive take on X Issue of the Day has become so obvious and omnipresent – and achieves this in pretty short order – that a failure to be on board has actually become conspicuous. It’s these people conspicuously off the reservation who are all being lumped in together. And this mere absence of something is actually informative about their priorities.

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    1. Klein not only is incapable of passing the IDW’s Ideological Turing Test, but he also seems unaware of the fact that someone can fail to pass his own. The only way I can imagine this happening is that Klein is so absorbed in his ideology that he can’t fathom other minds being different.

      (I guess I can imagine another option: Klein is knowingly lying for what he thinks is a worthy cause. )

      A fourth possibility is that Klein honestly believes everyone is heavily influenced by their own tribe/ position/ race/ culture no matter if they’re aware of it or not, which is I think the position he was arguing for in the Sam Harris podcast.

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