The Future of Nonconformity

Like other realms, American intellectual life has been marked by a series of exclusions. The oldest and vastest was the exclusion of people of color from the commanding institutions of our culture.

Today, there’s the exclusion of conservatives from academic life. Then there’s the exclusion of working-class voices from mainstream media. Our profession didn’t used to be all coastal yuppies, but now it mostly is. Then there’s the marginalization of those with radical critiques — from say, the Marxist left and the theological right.

Intellectual exclusion and segregation have been terrible for America, poisoning both the right and the left.

Conservatives were told their voices didn’t matter, and many reacted in a childish way that seemed to justify that exclusion. A corrosive spirit of resentment and victimhood spread across the American right — an intellectual inferiority complex combined with a moral superiority complex.

For many on the right the purpose of thinking changed. Thinking was no longer for understanding. Thinking was for belonging. Right-wing talk radio is the endless repetition of familiar mantras to reassure listeners that they are all on the same team. Thinking was for conquest: Those liberals think they’re better than us, but we own the libs.

Thinking itself became suspect. Sarah Palin and Donald Trump reintroduced anti-intellectualism into the American right: a distrust of the media, expertise and facts. A president who dispenses with the pen inevitably takes up the club.

Intellectual segregation has been bad for the left, too. It produced insularity. Progressives are often blindsided by reality — blindsided that Trump won the presidency; blindsided that Joe Biden clinched the Democratic presidential nomination. The second consequence is fragility. When you make politics the core of your religious identity, and you shield yourself from heresy, then any glimpse of that heresy is going to provoke an extreme emotional reaction. The third consequence is conformity. Writers are now expected to write as a representative of a group, in order to affirm the self-esteem of the group. Predictability is the point.

In some ways the left has become even more conformist than the right. The liberal New Republic has less viewpoint diversity than the conservative National Review — a reversal of historical patterns. Christopher Hitchens was one of the great essayists in America. He would be unemployable today because there was no set of priors he wasn’t willing to offend.

Now the boundaries of exclusion are shifting again. What we erroneously call “cancel culture” is an attempt to shift the boundaries of the sayable so it excludes not only conservatives but liberals and the heterodox as well. Hence the attacks on, say, Steven Pinker and Andrew Sullivan.

This is not just an elite or rare phenomenon. Sixty-two percent of Americans say they are afraid to share things they believe, according to a poll for the Cato Institute. A majority of staunch progressives say they feel free to share their political views, but majorities of liberals, moderates and conservatives are afraid to.

Happily, there’s a growing rebellion against groupthink and exclusion. A Politico poll found that 49 percent of Americans say the cancel culture has a negative impact on society and only 27 say it has a positive impact. This month Yascha Mounk started Persuasion, an online community to celebrate viewpoint diversity and it already has more than 25,000 subscribers.

After being pushed out from New York magazine, Sullivan established his own newsletter, The Weekly Dish, on Substack, a platform that makes it easy for readers to pay writers for their work. He now has 60,000 subscribers, instantly making his venture financially viable.

Other heterodox writers are already on Substack. Matt Taibbi and Judd Legum are iconoclastic left-wing writers with large subscriber basesThe Dispatch is a conservative publication featuring Jonah Goldberg, David French and Stephen F. Hayes, superb writers but too critical of Trump for the orthodox right. The Dispatch is reportedly making about $2 million a year on Substack.

The first good thing about Substack is there’s no canceling. A young, talented heterodox thinker doesn’t have to worry that less talented conformists in his or her organization will use ideology as an outlet for their resentments. The next good thing is there are no ads, just subscription revenue. Online writers don’t have to chase clicks by writing about whatever Trump tweeted 15 seconds ago. They can build deep relationships with the few rather than trying to affirm or titillate the many.

It’s possible that the debate now going on stupidly on Twitter can migrate to newsletters. It’s possible that writers will bundle, with established writers promoting promising ones. It’s possible that those of us at the great remaining mainstream outlets will be enmeshed in conversations that are more freewheeling and thoughtful.

Mostly I’m hopeful that the long history of intellectual exclusion and segregation will seem disgraceful. It will seem disgraceful if you’re at a university and only 1.5 percent of the faculty members are conservative. (I’m looking at you, Harvard). A person who ideologically self-segregates will seem pathetic. I’m hoping the definition of a pundit changes — not a foot soldier out for power, but a person who argues in order to come closer to understanding.

 

Free Speech Will Not Save Us

But they also include a typical conservative cluelessness about black grievances, a performative and commercialized Americanism that parodies healthy civic life, and the toxic identity politics that Donald Trump is constantly encouraging. And then, of course, the N.F.L. is particularly vulnerable to Trump’s demagogy because its business model depends on gladiatorial combat whose medical risks it has been desperate to hush up.

.. So the N.F.L. owners have a multilayered problem, cultural and financial and political and medical, to which a simple why-don’t-they-respect-free-speech solution seems woefully insufficient.

.. Everything about the intersection of sports and race relations and the Trump presidency is simply toxic, and expecting free speech to flourish where those rivers meet is like suggesting that a Superfund site cleanup begin by planting daffodils in the most polluted stretch.

.. There’s a similar problem with debates about free speech on liberal college campuses. Yes, it’s obviously bad when speakers are denied a platform, threatened and shouted down. But if every protester suddenly fell silent, the atmosphere in elite academia would still be kind of awful — and not only from a conservative perspective.

.. Meritocracy, materialism and smartphones would still induce mental breakdowns among bright young climbers. The humanities would still be in existential crisis and possibly terminal decline. A “hedge fund with a library attached” model of administration would still prevail. An incoherent mix of ambitious scientism and post-Protestant moralism and simple greed would still be the ruling spirit.

Much of recent left-wing campus activism has to be understood in this depressing context — as a response to a pre-existing crisis, an attempt to infuse morality and purpose into institutions that employ many brilliant minds but mostly promote incurious ambition and secular conformity.

Which suggests that the dissident, “dark web” intellectuals who have gained a following by warring with those activists ultimately need (as some of them seem to intuit) a competing moral and metaphysical vision of their own, not just the procedural freedom to say some stuff that is politically incorrect.

A classical liberalism that only wants to defend its own right to argue — because that’s what John Stuart Mill would want or something — will end up talking only to itself. If you want a healthy culture of debate, it’s not enough to complain that Marxists and postmodernists are out to silence you; you need your own idea of what education and human life itself are for.

Jordan Peterson’s Gospel of Masculinity

Maps of Meaning: The Architecture of Belief,”

.. Peterson, formerly an obscure professor, is now one of the most influential—and polarizing—public intellectuals in the English-speaking world.

.. His central message is a thoroughgoing critique of modern liberal culture, which he views as suicidal in its eagerness to upend age-old verities

.. he has learned to distill his wide-ranging theories into pithy sentences, including one that has become his de facto catchphrase, a possibly spurious quote that nevertheless captures his style and his substance: “Sort yourself out, bucko.”

.. For a few years, in the nineteen-nineties, he taught psychology at Harvard;

.. His fame grew in 2016, during the debate over a Canadian bill known as C-16.

.. Peterson resented the idea that the government might force him to use what he called neologisms of politically correct “authoritarians.”

.. “I am not going to be a mouthpiece for language that I detest.” Then he folded his arms, adding, “And that’s that!”

.. To many people disturbed by reports of intolerant radicals on campus, Peterson was a rallying figure: a fearsomely self-assured debater, unintimidated by liberal condemnation.

.. Last fall, a teaching assistant at Wilfrid Laurier University, in Waterloo, Ontario, was reprimanded by professors for showing her class a clip of one of Peterson’s debates.

.. Cathy Newman, asked what gave him the right to offend transgender people. He asked, cheerfully, what gave her the right to risk offending him.

.. David Brooks, in the Times, said that Peterson reminded him of “a young William F. Buckley.”

.. Peterson’s goal is less to help his readers change the world than to help them find a stable place within it.

.. “You should do what other people do, unless you have a very good reason not to.”

.. he is famous today precisely because he has determined that, in a range of circumstances, there are good reasons to buck the popular tide.

.. He is, by turns, a defender of conformity and a critic of it, and he thinks that if readers pay close attention, they, too, can learn when to be which.

 ..  “Religion was for the ignorant, weak, and superstitious,”
.. To ward off mental breakdown, he resolved not to say anything unless he was sure he believed it; this practice calmed the inner voice, and in time it shaped his rhetorical style, which is forceful but careful.
.. a client diagnosed with paranoia. He says that such patients are “almost uncanny in their ability to detect mixed motives, judgment, and falsehood,”
.. “You have to listen very carefully and tell the truth if you are going to get a paranoid person to open up to you,”

.. Peterson sometimes assumes the role of a strident anti-feminist, intent on ending the oppression of males by destroying the myth of male oppression.

.. much of the advice he offers unobjectionable, if old-fashioned: he wants young men to be better fathers, better husbands, better community members.

.. Peterson is an heir, too, to the professional pickup artists who proliferated in the aughts

.. “The highly functional infrastructure that surrounds us, particularly in the West,” he writes, “is a gift from our ancestors: the comparatively uncorrupt political and economic systems, the technology, the wealth, the lifespan, the freedom, the luxury, and the opportunity.”

.. Prime Minister is Justin Trudeau, who seems to strike Peterson as the embodiment of wimpy and fraudulent liberalism.

.. Peterson seems to view Trump, by contrast, as a symptom of modern problems, rather than a cause of them.

.. Peterson seems to view Trump, by contrast, as a symptom of modern problems, rather than a cause of them.

.. Peterson sometimes asks audiences to view him as an alternative to political excesses on both sides.

.. “I’ve had thousands of letters from people who were tempted by the blandishments of the radical right, who’ve moved towards the reasonable center as a consequence of watching my videos.”

.. he typically sees liberals, or leftists, or “postmodernists,” as aggressors—which leads him, rather ironically, to frame some of those on the “radical right” as victims.

.. Postmodernists, he says, are obsessed with the idea of oppression, and, by waging war on oppressors real and imagined, they become oppressors themselves. 

.. When he lampoons “made-up pronouns,” he sometimes seems to be lampooning the people who use them, encouraging his fans to view transgender or gender-nonbinary people as confused, or deluded.

Once, after a lecture, he was approached on campus by a critic who wanted to know why he would not use nonbinary pronouns. “I don’t believe that using your pronouns will do you any good, in the long run,” he replied.

..  “If our society comes to some sort of consensus over the next while about how we’ll solve the pronoun problem,” he said, “and that becomes part of popular parlance, and it seems to solve the problem properly, without sacrificing the distinction between singular and plural, and without requiring me to memorize an impossible list of an indefinite number of pronouns, then I would be willing to reconsider my position.”

.. In the case of gender identity, Peterson’s judgment is that “our society” has not yet agreed to adopt nontraditional pronouns, which isn’t quite an argument that we shouldn’t.

.. He reveres the Bible for its stories, reasoning that any stories that we have been telling ourselves for so long must be, in some important sense, true.

.. a conviction that good and evil exist, and that we can discern them without recourse to any particular religious authority

The Republican Waterloo

Conservatives once warned that Obamacare would produce the Democratic Waterloo. Their inability to accept the principle of universal coverage has, instead, led to their own defeat.

.. At precisely the moment we were urging the GOP to march in one direction, the great mass of conservatives and Republicans had turned on the double in the other, toward an ever more wild and even paranoid extremism. Those were the days of Glenn Beck’s 5 o’clock Fox News conspiracy rants, of Sarah Palin’s “death panels,” of Orly Taitz and her fellow Birthers, of Tea Party rallies at which men openly brandished assault rifles.

.. AEI would provide a home for the emerging “reform conservative” tendency. Its president, Arthur Brooks, would speak eloquently of the need for conservatives to show concern for the poor and the hard-pressed working class.

.. The mood then was that supporters and opponents of the Obama administration were engaged in a furious battle over whether the United States would remain a capitalist economy at all.

.. it was precisely because I appreciated its unwelcomeness where I worked that I had launched an independent blog in the first place.
.. I fruitlessly argued through 2009 and 2010 that Republicans should do business with President Obama on health-care reform.
.. It seemed to me that Obama’s adoption of ideas developed at the Heritage Foundation in the early 1990s—and then enacted into state law in Massachusetts by Governor Mitt Romney—offered the best near-term hope to control the federal health-care spending that would otherwise devour the defense budget and force taxes upward.
.. I suggested that universal coverage was a worthy goal, and one that would hugely relieve the anxieties of working-class and middle-class Americans who had suffered so much in the Great Recession.
.. They had the votes this time to pass something. They surely would do so—and so the practical question facing Republicans was whether it would not be better to negotiate to shape that “something” in ways that would be less expensive, less regulatory, and less redistributive.
.. Increasingly isolated and frustrated, I watched with dismay as people I’d known for years and decades incited each other to jump together over the same cliff.

.. There were leaders who knew better, who would have liked to deal. But they were trapped. Conservative talkers on Fox and talk radio had whipped the Republican voting base into such a frenzy that deal-making was rendered impossible. How do you negotiate with somebody who wants to murder your grandmother? Or—more exactly—with somebody whom your voters have been persuaded to believe wants to murder their grandmother?I’ve been on a soapbox for months now about the harm that our overheated talk is doing to us. Yes it mobilizes supporters—but by mobilizing them with hysterical accusations and pseudo-information, overheated talk has made it impossible for representatives to represent and elected leaders to lead. The real leaders are on TV and radio, and they have very different imperatives from people in government. Talk radio thrives on confrontation and recrimination. When Rush Limbaugh said that he wanted President Obama to fail, he was intelligently explaining his own interests. What he omitted to say—but what is equally true—is that he also wants Republicans to fail. If Republicans succeed—if they govern successfully in office and negotiate attractive compromises out of office—Rush’s listeners get less angry. And if they are less angry, they listen to the radio less, and hear fewer ads for Sleepnumber beds.

So today’s defeat for free-market economics and Republican values is a huge win for the conservative entertainment industry. Their listeners and viewers will now be even more enraged, even more frustrated, even more disappointed in everybody except the responsibility-free talkers on television and radio. For them, it’s mission accomplished. For the cause they purport to represent, it’s Waterloo all right: ours.

.. Over the next seven years, Republicans would vote again and again to repeal the Affordable Care Act. Total and permanent opposition to the law would become the absolute touchstone of Republican loyalty. Even Donald Trump, who dissented from so much of the old orthodoxy, retained this piece of the doxology.

.. Some of the conservatives who voted “no” to the House leadership’s version of repeal may yet imagine that they will have some other opportunity to void the law. They are again deluding themselves.

.. Too many people benefit from the law—and the Republican alternatives thus far offer too little to compensate for the loss of those benefits.

.. America committed itself for the first time to the principle of universal (or near universal) health-care coverage. That principle has had seven years to work its way into American life and into the public sense of right and wrong. It’s not yet unanimously accepted. But it’s accepted by enough voters—and especially by enough Republican voters—to render impossible the seven-year Republican vision of removing that coverage from those who have gained it under the Affordable Care Act.

.. Paul Ryan still upholds the right of Americans to “choose” to go uninsured if they cannot afford to pay the cost of their insurance on their own. His country no longer agrees.

.. Health care may not be a human right, but the lack of universal health coverage in a wealthy democracy is a severe, unjustifiable, and unnecessary human wrong.

.. As Americans lift this worry from their fellow citizens, they’ll discover that they have addressed some other important problems too. They’ll find that they have removed one of the most important barriers to entrepreneurship, because people with bright ideas will fear less to quit the jobs through which they get their health care.

.. They’ll find they have improved the troubled lives of the white working class succumbing at earlier ages from preventable deaths of despair.

.. What I would urge is that those conservatives and Republicans who were wrong about the evolution of this debate please consider why they were wrong: Consider the destructive effect of ideological conformity, of ignorance of the experience of comparable countries, and of a conservative political culture that incentivizes

  • intransigence,
  • radicalism, and
  • anger over
  • prudence,
  • moderation, and
  • compassion.

Why I Was Fired by Google

James Damore says his good-faith effort to discuss differences between men and women in tech couldn’t be tolerated in company’s ‘ideological echo chamber’

How did Google, the company that hires the smartest people in the world, become so ideologically driven and intolerant of scientific debate and reasoned argument?

.. We all have moral preferences and beliefs about how the world is and should be. Having these views challenged can be painful, so we tend to avoid people with differing values and to associate with those who share our values. This self-segregation has become much more potent in recent decades. We are more mobile and can sort ourselves into different communities; we wait longer to find and choose just the right mate; and we spend much of our time in a digital world personalized to fit our views.

 .. Google is a particularly intense echo chamber because it is in the middle of Silicon Valley and is so life-encompassing as a place to work. With free food, internal meme boards and weekly companywide meetings, Google becomes a huge part of its employees’ lives. Some even live on campus. For many, including myself, working at Google is a major part of their identity, almost like a cult with its own leaders and saints, all believed to righteously uphold the sacred motto of “Don’t be evil.”
.. Echo chambers maintain themselves by creating a shared spirit and keeping discussion confined within certain limits. As Noam Chomsky once observed, “The smart way to keep people passive and obedient is to strictly limit the spectrum of acceptable opinion, but allow very lively debate within that spectrum.”
.. But echo chambers also have to guard against dissent and opposition. Whether it’s in our homes, online or in our workplaces, a consensus is maintained by shaming people into conformity or excommunicating them if they persist in violating taboos. Public shaming serves not only to display the virtue of those doing the shaming but also warns others that the same punishment awaits them if they don’t conform.
..In my document, I committed heresy against the Google creed by stating that not all disparities between men and women that we see in the world are the result of discriminatory treatment. When I first circulated the document about a month ago to our diversity groups and individuals at Google, there was no outcry or charge of misogyny. I engaged in reasoned discussion with some of my peers on these issues, but mostly I was ignored.
.. Everything changed when the document went viral within the company and the wider tech world. Those most zealously committed to the diversity creed—that all differences in outcome are due to differential treatment and all people are inherently the same—could not let this public offense go unpunished. They sent angry emails to Google’s human-resources department and everyone up my management chain, demanding censorship, retaliation and atonement.
.. Upper management tried to placate this surge of outrage by shaming me and misrepresenting my document, but they couldn’t really do otherwise: The mob would have set upon anyone who openly agreed with me or even tolerated my views.

Leaders Say They Want Nonconformist Employees. They Sure Don’t Act Like It.

A few simple strategies can ensure that your employees know their voices are valued

Ask most corporate leaders what kind of employees they want, and the answers will be nearly uniform: They crave creative workers who think outside the box, who speak truth to power, and who are always looking for better ways to get the job done.

That’s what they say, anyway. What they do, however, tells a whole different story

.. perhaps the most basic strategy is for executives to wear their nonconformity on their sleeve, and encourage others to follow their lead. For starters, they should act in ways that seem to defy common expectations for the role they have.

.. Similarly, in brainstorming meetings, a leader might say, “This may be a crazy idea” as a way to invite other people to share their own “crazy” ideas, without fear of judgment. In meetings where a leader is the only voice on an issue, he or she might highlight it explicitly by saying, “It’s a bit lonely dangling on this branch alone, but I feel strongly about this issue.” This way, leaders make it clear they know they’re taking a risk, and are willing to stand out, giving others permission to do the same.

The ‘H-Bomb’ Fizzles: The Harvard Brand Takes a Hit

There exists a species of person — typically a well-groomed overachiever — who, when asked where he or she went to college, rather than state its name directly, will provide a Russian nesting doll set of geographical responses.

In New England. Massachusetts. Well, Boston. Um … Cambridge.

Finally, sotto voce, with an apologetic wince or sheepish smile, anticipating the word’s being volleyed back in an affected

.. that formerly contrived embarrassment may be ceding to sincere shame and a reassessment of the merits of a Harvard education.

.. Harvard had the sixth-most-reported rape cases on campus in 2014, and its law school figured prominently in the controversial documentary about campus sexual assault

.. Daniel Golden’s 2006 book, “The Price of Admission,” about how the rich buy their way into elite schools, has become newly relevant for its disclosure that Mr. Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, received acceptance to Harvard despite an unremarkable academic record, possibly thanks to his father’s donation of $2.5 million.

.. A spokeswoman for Mr. Kushner denied the allegation, noting that Mr. Kushner graduated with honors; Mr. Golden observed that, in a climate of rampant grade inflation, so did about 90 percent of Mr. Kushner’s graduating class of 2003.

.. The acquisitive-rather-than-inquisitive Harvard grad is not a baseless stereotype: Nearly two-fifths of the class of 2016 said they were going into finance or consulting

.. By comparison, just 6 percent went into nonprofit or public service work, and 4 percent into education.

.. In fairness to Harvard, it asks no contribution from families making less than $65,000 per year and provides sliding-scale tuition for those earning more. The New York Times 2015 College Access Index, measuring schools’ efforts to promote economic diversity, ranked it 11th over all and fourth among private colleges, far ahead of places better known for their diversity, such as Oberlin (ranked 132nd).

However, its ratio of federal Pell Grant recipients (for low-income students) to endowment per student is much less impressive.

.. over a third of the student body comes from families earning more than $250,000 a year (the wealthiest 4 percent of households), with more students from the $500,000-and-up 1 percenters than $40,000-and-below families.

.. A 2005 book, “Equity and Excellence in American Higher Education,” determined that, all else being equal, top schools do not offer any admission advantage to low-income students, despite lip service to the contrary.

.. Some parents, though, including alumni, are rebelling against the Harvard-or-bust mentality, not only because of the stresses it places on their overworked children, but from misgivings about the conformist and careerist atmosphere of the Ivy Leagues.

.. “I would like my kids to find their passion, take risks and be curious, engaged, educated people,”

.. “Elite schools discourage kids from being that; they want them to build résumés, to build careers, to be cautious. The kinds of people who go to Harvard tend to be people who succeed by traditional metrics, and that continues after Harvard. I’d like my kids not to be so beholden to those metrics.

.. “only privileged people” like himself “can afford not to be concerned” about the attainment of privilege.

.. he encounters more students who question whether going to a prestigious school “is something that’s really going to make me happy and lead to a fulfilling life.”

“But there’s a feeling like you don’t have a choice” in an increasingly aristocratic society in which one’s college is a primary determinant of status, he added.

.. what privilege says about each of our characters — makes us uncomfortable. Our privilege forces us to question our worthiness and our merit, two of the things most highly valued at an institution like this one.”