Intellect: The Universal Solvent

In late December 2015, Scott Alexander’s How Bad Are Things article went massivly viral, with accolades from both right-wing and left-wing communities and forums, which got me (and others) thinking about how Scott is consistently able to transcend the left/right bulwark. Normally, people write articles for a specific audience or clique in mind, and spillovers [1] are uncommon. For the right, it’s National Review and Brietbart articles, for example, which are read and written by conservatives. For the left, it’s Mother Jones and Salon, both read and written predominately by liberals. But Scott’s articles seem to appeal to everyone, with audiences as diverse as NRx on the far-right, to socialist and Marxist communities on the far-left. It’s especially impressive, however, how Scott was ingratiated into the NRx community/movement [2], almost becoming an ‘honorary reactionary’, despite being somewhat critical of NRx and holding political and social views that could be antithetical to NRx.

So how did he do it. It boils down to four reasons, which I will expound on:

1. He’s competent and authentic, which helps him forge bonds with other smart people irrespective of ideology.
2. As well as a good writer, he’s a good ‘listener’, entertaining both sides of an argument instead of bludgeoning readers with only his beliefs.
3. The post-2013 centrism ‘boom’ and the rise of the ‘rational middle‘ and the ‘contrarian mainstream’, in rejecting ‘low information’ partisanship, demagoguery, sentimentalism, and sensationalism from both the left and the right.
4. Related to number 3, a recent demand for more evolved, in-depth discourse.

Consider the L. Ron Hubbard quote above, but replace ‘communication’ with ‘intellect’ or ‘competence’, which are almost interchangeable. NRX, unlike the ‘mainstream/Fox News’ right, is more intellectual, with themes of theology, philosophy, epistemology, existentialism, sociology, futurism, economics, and history imbued in NRx writings, rather than just petulant ‘libs bad/cons good’ screeds. But NRx is obviously right-wing, yet Scott and the ‘rational left?’ are able to forge some middle ground with NRx and the ‘alt right’, with intellectualism as the solvent allows these two groups that are otherwise in many ways ideologically dissimilar to commingle. Ideologically and intellectually, Scott is neither a phony nor a poseur, and he exudes authenticity. Being a mental health worker, Scott bears witness to the ‘human condition’ on a daily basis, lending his firsthand account to issues that are otherwise obfuscated by academia or trivialized, editorialized, or sensationalized by the pageview-powered digital media. It doesn’t get anymore authentic than that. In writing about mental disorders or ingroup/outgroup dynamics, many people – both on the left and the right – can relate, having either experienced ostracization or mental illness themselves or knowing someone who has. Scott is knowledgeable (specifically, in his domain of human psychology and internet subcultures), and that’s how you reach across the aisle – through competence, and being forthright and open-minded, which I discuss in more detail in Why Dale Carnegie is Wrong. While everyone is entitled to their opinion, in our post-2013 centrism boom, arrogant, low-information [3] zealotry is generally frowned upon, especially by other smart people and online. For example, Scott, being a psychologist, has the intellectual credentials to support his opinions, while also being charitable towards his intellectual opponents, and that makes him respected by all sides. [4] It’s virtually impossible to create an argument that is so strong as to be impervious to criticism from the other side, and trying will only make you seem arrogant and unintelligent, not worldly and persuasive.

Scott’s success is also symptomatic or emblematic of a tectonic shift in online media and journalism from sensationalism and partisanship that was characteristic the pre-2013 era, to post-2013 era of centrism, ‘long form’ journalism, and rationalism, filling an insatiable demand by millions of smart, young people, especially since 2013, for the unvarnished, unmolested truth instead of pleasantries wrapped in a pretty bow of political correctness. But at the same time, millennials have also become impervious to sales pitches, hype, and demagoguery. The smartest generation not only detests phoniness and insincerity, but are masters at detecting it. In an era of fact checking and defensive writing, skepticism is the new earnestness. If you think you are going to impress the smartest, most empirically minded generation ever with your bold proclamations, over-generalizations, and partisanship, you will be put in your place (as Malcom Gladwell learned the hard way in an AMA where astute Redditors poked holes in his pseudoscience flim-flam). The purist of truth – the good, the bad and the ugly – is paramount, and this is evidenced by how taboos are being smashed, with the rise of the ‘contrarian mainstream’ – stories and websites such as Slate, Thought Catalog, Wait But Why, Vice, Daily Elite, Quillette, and Scott’s blog, Slate Star Codex, that introduce potentially controversial ideas (such as that parenting may be ineffective, why IQ matters, etc) that may have been samizdat just as recently as a decade ago, but are disseminated to a much larger audience and with much approval instead of offence. Smart people on both the left and the right choose Truth, even if feelings aren’t spared, over being spoon-fed pablum. Taking offence too easily and holding ideological grudges (even if it’s against Hitler) impedes the free flow of knowledge, is un-intellectual (too provincial), and is seen as inauthentic.

Centrism neither new nor original; it’s a device Bill Maher has used for comedic effect, for years, poking fun at demagogues on both sides, but it seems to have taken the internet by storm since 2013 or so, probably as part of the post-2013 SJW backlash, and with the rise of ‘rationalist culture’ which rejects emotive demagoguery. In the years following the election of Obama, the pendulum swung too far to the left and now it’s returning to the middle (or at least online it is). This reversion to the middle is not only observed on popular social news site like 4chan, HackerNews, and Reddit, but in even academia; for example, the liberal bias in the social sciences, which for years went undetected or ignored, is finally getting much needed coverage. This ‘reversion to the middle’ could explain is why there is a backlash by ‘normal’ liberals against SJW-liberals. People see that the ‘rational middle’ is about empiricism and facts rather than being wed to a flimsy ideology. That’s why in recent years ‘social news’ sites like Reddit, 4chan, and HackerNews have become so popular – going so far as threatening the turf of the dumbed-down mainstream media – and even though these sites have different subcultures (some of them possibly quite offensive to the uninitiated), they all converge in rejecting partisanship, sentimentalism, and sensationalism in favor of nuance and intellectualism – specifically, truth and understanding.

Between 2008-2012, both the right and the left were duking it out over Obama, Obamacare, and OWS, but with Obamacare not going anywhere, OWS a failure, and with the economy and nation in autopilot mode, perhaps a pervasive, almost cynical, centrism has dawned, almost a resignation that change is impossible. From 2008-2012, both the right and the left had high hopes, but now empty handed, with gridlock, the status quo, and ‘politics as usual’ winning. As a result, ‘Preaching to the choir’ seems to be going out of fashion, whereas in the pre-2008 era people were more inclined to obediently rally behind causes. With the back-to-back disappointments of Obama and Bush, the choirs have disbanded, and people are disaffected and tired of the shallowness and pandering that constitutes much of modern American politics. Instead of dumbing it down, you have to smarten things up. There is a budding demand for more evolved political discourage, and people, particularly smart, well-informed people online on either side of the political spectrum, are tired of the stale, insincere platitudes, factual inaccuracies, and pandering from politicians. [5] But, interestingly, they are tired of low-information pundits distorting or oversimplifying the views of politicians, which is why some on the ‘left’ are defending Donald Trump, arguing that Trump is more than just a hairpiece, but rather a brilliant tactician who is playing the media rather than the media playing him. Scott Adams, another major figure of the ‘contrarian mainstream’, also argues this point.

From The Archdruid Report, Donald Trump and the Politics of Resentment:

The centerpiece of most of these insults, when they’re not simply petulant schoolboy taunts aimed at Trump’s physical appearance, is the claim that he’s stupid. This is hardly surprising, as a lot of people on the leftward end of American culture love to use the kind of demeaning language that attributes idiocy to those who disagree with them.

This agrees with how smart people, on both the left and right, are tired of puerile, immature discourse in the media’s coverage of politics and politicians, even if such language is directed at politicians they [these smart people] don’t personally endorse. In the post-2013 era of centrism and intellectualism, ‘truth’ and ‘understanding’ transcends political ties. Being childish is the antithesis of being smart.

Despite the empty rhetoric about hope and change that surrounded his 2008 campaign, after all, Obama continued the policies of his predecessor George W. Bush so unswervingly that we may as well call those policies—the conventional wisdom or, rather, the conventional folly of early 21st-century American politics—the Dubyobama consensus.

And this second passage shows the failure of both the left and right, paving the way for centrism.

This bipartisan dissatisfaction is echoed in a column America the Unfair, by Nicholas Kristoff, and in a Forbes article Why ‘The System’ Is Rigged And The US Electorate Is Angry:

“A common thread,” writes columnist Nicholas Kristoff, “is that this country is no longer working for many ordinary citizens.” The anger is bipartisan, although the lists of suspected villains differ.

This rise of centrism is exemplified in a blog post on Medium, The “Other Side” Is Not Dumb, which went viral, about how understanding your opponent is as important, if not more, than understanding your own views, and how merely understanding is perhaps better than trying to change minds.

As any debate club veteran knows, if you can’t make your opponent’s point for them, you don’t truly grasp the issue. We can bemoan political gridlock and a divisive media all we want. But we won’t truly progress as individuals until we make an honest effort to understand those that are not like us. And you won’t convince anyone to feel the way you do if you don’t respect their position and opinions.

A dare for the next time you’re in discussion with someone you disagree with: Don’t try to “win.” Don’t try to “convince” anyone of your viewpoint. Don’t score points by mocking them to your peers. Instead try to “lose.” Hear them out. Ask them to convince you and mean it. No one is going to tell your environmentalist friends that you merely asked follow up questions after your brother made his pro-fracking case.

For example, Scott doesn’t pigeonhole either side, instead considering the merits and faults of both, with perhaps a small bias of his own, but otherwise letting the reader decide and not making his bias so obvious that it draws too much attention to itself. In a 2015 article LOOKING A GIFT HORSE IN THE MOUTH, one of Scott’s most popular articles ever, he weighs both the merit and the faults of anti-SJW moment, and how the anti-SJW movement may have overplayed its hand by crossing the line into extremism at the cost of credibility.

First, he considers the merits of the anti-SJW argument – how the SJWs are behaving like bullies by going after innocent administrators and teachers:

Or to be even more cynical: social justice was supposed to be Yale’s weapon against Caltech and Podunk. But now Yale students are using it against Yale professors and administrators, and now it’s a problem. It’s like the police beating up city council members with the truncheons they usually reserve for poor ghetto-dwellers; you can bet there will be a newfound concern about police brutality at city council meetings.

But then he criticizes anti-SJW extremism, arguing how extremism backfires by becoming the medium instead of the message:

I think that is the problem. When creepy white supremacists criticize social justice, they’re at no risk of taking over the wider SJ-critical movement. As the old saying goes, white supremacists are the best argument against white supremacy, and most of them couldn’t take over a blanket fort with a flamethrower. But rhetorically-gifted Yale professors who get thinkpieces published in The Atlantic are exactly the sort of people who would take over the wider SJ-critical movement, become its most important voice, and define what it means both to the rest of the world and to its own members.

He doesn’t even call it anti-SJW, but rather ‘SJ-critical’ which, perhaps, is less politically polarizing. Of course, it doesn’t hurt that Scott’s articles are thoroughly researched and well-written – pretty much on par with professional journalists, whose job is it to write articles that have broad enough appeal to sustain a large readership, but still edgy or contrarian enough to keep people curious and coming back, and yet not so partisan or judgmental as to alienate too many potential readers. Professional writers have a knack for creating content that appeals to a lot of people – almost by anticipating the reader, tapping into the reader’s thoughts, fears and desires, while composing the message in such a way as to cross political and economic barriers, almost like walking an ideological tightrope. With subtlety and tact, playing the ‘middle ground’ or ‘splitting the difference’, can help spur discussion on issues or perspectives that are overlooked, or to introduce new, potentially controversial ideas to an audience that is not yet inculcated. Using this incrementalist approach, Scott has been effective at nudging the Overton window on certain issues, particularity in raising valid criticisms of SJWs.

But also, Scott and his blog can be likened to the hub of a giant bicycle wheel with each spoke representing a viewpoint or ideology that he links out to, similar to Marc Andreessen on Twitter:

….Mr. Andreessen is like the hub of a wheel with each spoke representing a differing view/perspective that links back to him, creating a symbiosis of sorts between the hub (Andreessen) and all the people (spokes) he interacts with. But also, Mr. Andreessen cannot be pigeonholed as either being resolutely ‘left’ or ‘right’, as his views encompass the full-range of the political spectrum…

Instead of being insular, by constantly linking out, you become the source or the hub. People come the the ‘hub’ to see whats trendy, what’s important. Another example of a successful hub is Peter Woit’s immensely popular physics blog, Not Even Wrong, which everyday is visited by leading physicists and mathematicians, as well as thousands of science enthusiasts the world over, because Mr. Woit has positioned himself as a ‘go-to’ source for the latest happenings in physics, by constantly linking out, even to things he doesn’t agree with. Personally, he’s skeptical of string theory, but he links to eminent string theorists all the time, demonstrating not only open-mindedness on his part, but how intellectual bonds are stronger than ideological ones. Two physicists who disagree about the structure of the universe can find common ground in their high intelligence, their appreciation of science, and their quest for truth and understanding.

[1] There is perhaps a bigger spillover for left-leaning content than right-wing content. Conservatives like iSteve, for example, share Salon, Slate, and New York Times articles a lot, but liberals seldom share National Review, Breitbart, or iSteve articles. Conservatives may be more likely to entertain opposing views than liberals.

[2] Some argue NRx is not a movement, because a ‘movement’ implies revolution, and NRx is supposed to be counterrevolutionary.

[3] Although one could consider the likes of Vox Day and Moldbug to be zealots, they are very well-informed of the issues and competent, which make them authentic and intelligent, and not ‘low information’. As I explain below, people, especially online, are tired of low-information zealotry. Also, many on the ‘alt right’, as opposed to the ‘mainstream right’, do a pretty good job entertaining opposing viewpoints. The ‘rationalist left’ also does a good job in this regard, too, compared to the ‘mainstream left’.

Take, for example, the Frankfurt School, which many on the right dismiss as simply ‘Cultural Marxism’, and this is largely correct, but there is a small upwelling among the ‘alt right’ to re-examine it, as Frankfurt School, despite being ‘leftist’, is critical of both mainstream liberal and conservative critiques. Low-information, mainstream liberals just blindly assume democracy and freedom will fix everything, and the Frankfurt School is critical of this reductionist view.

[4] How about Paul Krugman? Isn’t he competent and an expert? He’s not a hub, only entertaining views he agrees with, with a tendency of turning his ideological opponents into straw men. Also, he’s too liberal, too indoctrinated to a preexisting orthodoxy to appeal to rationalists.

[5]That’s why Hillary’s recent ‘Hispandering‘ was met with so much derision, even from the left, whereas if this occurred in 1996 there probably would not have been much of a backlash. Nowadays, people see right through it.

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