Wed Jun 24
The New York Times is writing a piece about Scott Alexander, a highly influential pseudoanonymous blogger in the broader internet smartie community. In the article, they plan to reveal his real name (to "doxx" him). In response, Scott Alexander has deleted his blog, replacing it with a plea to remove his name from the article. Much furor among internet smarties has ensued.
Scott Alexander is a terrific thinker, writer, and educator. He is easily one of the smartest, kindest, and most articulate voices we have in contemporary America. From his meta-analyses of complex scientific topics, to his deep and thorough reviews of important books, to his exquisite craftsmanship of political philosophy metaphors, he has been a positive influence on a great number of people, including myself and many of my friends. His blog, Slate Star Codex, is a national treasure. He is one of my favorite writers, and I owe a good deal of my own writing inspiration and style to reading several books' worth of SSC posts.
I was outraged when I heard the news. I strongly like Scott Alexander and I strongly dislike the New York Times; SA provides incalculable value through his writing and ideas, and NYT is actively hostile and harmful toward civic democracy. In frank personal terms, I want a network of Slate Star Codex-like blogs to become the "newspaper of record", and I want NYT to go out of business, resigned to the dustbin of history. Furthermore, SA has some proximity to my small social graph; as a friend-of-a-friend, I feel compelled to "have his back", regardless of circumstance.
After being torn up about it for a couple of hours, though, I noticed that I'm actually conflicted about something here. After interrogating my feelings, I realize the situation is not exactly clear-cut. In the spirit of the rationalist community itself, I'd like to explore an outside view of #SSCGate, mostly to clarify my own confusion about it.
[Note; I am not, myself, a rationalist, and I actually don't think it's a good idea to play devil's advocate just "for the sake of argument", especially when someone in your broader community is under direct personal threat. My position regarding Scott Alexander is simple; the NYT should cave, they should not print his name, and then they should go out of business. But the issues at play here are important in the broad discussion of civics in a society with free speech norms, so let's talk about them.]
It's worth starting with an acknowledgement that this is a momentous event for the internet smartie community; serious bloggers of any stripe should now think very carefully about what they write or publish online, even under conditions of semi-anonymity. The chilling effect here is significantly harmful to American civil discourse, and this potentially signals the end of an era, which I deeply, deeply lament. Perhaps this article is a short ode to a culture that raised me when I had little other guidance for my intellectual growth.
There is a strong anti-doxxing norm when writing on the Internet. For decades, the world wide web was a secure place for controversial thinkers and writers to explore pure ideas, share information, and collaborate on useful projects. A lot of that has changed in the last decade. The 2010s saw the rise of cancel culture: The practice of dedicated, angry cultural writers scouring every word a public figure has ever written, in order to pin them down to some unsavory political affiliation. Notably, this practice was pioneered by the tabloid magazine Gawker; may it rest in pieces.
There are several reasons why internet writers prefer to be anonymous. There's a circulated blog post about a prolific Russian mathematician named Andrey Kolmogorov, who lived and worked under several generations of Soviet dictatorship, including Stalin's regime. Obviously, being a sensitive and thoughtful person in the heyday of the USSR is, let's just say, a unique challenge. He shares my views on shutting the fuck up:
Every mathematician believes that he is ahead of the others. The reason none state this belief in public is because they are intelligent people.
Kolmogorov's strategy was a perfect fit for the country and the time he lived in. It's a good position for all thinkers to consider; broadly applicable in a wide variety of situations. My central argument here, however, is that Kolmogorivism is not a silver bullet approach to speech actions in all situations across time and space. For the last decade or two, the wise move for intelligent people in the Western world was to always pick exit and/or loyalty in Hirschman triumvirate of political action. It's worth considering that cancel culture in America may be coming to an end; it's possible that voice is now a legitimate option in the 2020s. If true, this would be a good thing, and it would behoove internet folk to reevaluate their hardened position on anonymity.
The first missing piece in the doxxing bad argument is an exploration of the multiple interlocking risk factors that drive writers to remain incognito. I can count at least six:
Let's start with attention. A small amount of private attention, from people you care about, is awesome. A large amount of public attention, from people you don't know, sucks. It sucks to be famous, or even semi-famous. You can't walk into a cafe and buy a latte without random people walking up to you and saying, "Whoa! Are you such-and-such? I loved your thing!". If you're lucky, you quickly say "thanks", sign an autograph, and move on. Mostly, this is just a minor distraction. But it can balloon into real problems; paparazzi exist, and as you get more famous, your private behaviors become increasingly scrutinized, which can quickly become a major nuisance that prohibits your freedom. I hate paparazzi; I think they are terrible, their actions should be illegal, I feel deeply for people burdened with them, and I wouldn't wish them on my worst enemy.
Fame itself can have other consequences; it can be disastrous for forming new relationships, and it can impact existing ones. It's hard to consider somebody as a real person when they don a mantle of "highly respected authority on such-and-such". From what I understand, this can make one feel very lonely, and feeling lonely is bad.
Secondly, attention can become dangerous. If your work is interesting enough, you can attract legitimately crazy people into your orbit. Affectionately known as stans (from the Eminem song), these people stalk you, consume every work you've produced, fantasize that they're in a personal relationship with you, and the truly crazy among them actually do, in some instances, take actions to cause you harm. Typically, you want to avoid this outcome.
Those are very rare cases, though. Most stans are generally harmless, and although they can be a nuisance, can also be a boon. Everyone has stanned someone at some point or another; it's a normal part of life. I've definitely stanned a couple of people over the years. Overall, though, the asymmetric nature of the relationship can be scary and worrying, and has the potential to make things shitty for you.
Attention can also attract haters. There's some kind of core human dynamic where people just have an irrational hate for other people who are popular. I'm sure there's some good evolutionary reason for this. There is some kind of rhyming pattern between haters and stans; haters will also stalk you, read everything you've ever wrote, and become obsessed with you. Scott Alexander, against all odds, has a good number of haters; as an artist, there's pretty much nothing you can do about them. Summa summarum; attention can attract haters, and haters are bad.
Now let's talk about cancel culture. Cancel culture can refer to many things, and there are many explanations of it. Generally, it refers to a pattern of "investigative journalism", wherein a highly dedicated person or group sniffs out a public figure as being "suspicious", and then proceeds to do PHD-level research on every utterance, action, and affiliation ever attributed to that person, in order to publicly prove that the figure is either thoroughly terrible and reprehensible, or that person is acting as a clandestine operator for some great, malign, world-historical force, like literal naziism. Usually, the prescription is to utterly destroy that person, either by getting them fired, or ensuring through dedicated PR campaigns that person never holds any position of authority or respect publicly for the rest of their lives. Cancel culture, in my opinion, sucks.
Cancel culture itself is usually attributed to some other great, malign, world-historical force, like cultural marxism. I consider it much more banal; in descriptive terms, it was a unique, brief period in American history characterized by three forces:
The specific combination of these three elements produced a uniquely terrible time for everybody, especially for sensitive intellectuals. Understood separately, they seem relatively tractable and benign, but together, they caused much pain and trauma that still sends ripple effects through media and intellectual spaces.
Fortunately, I think this period is over. In my estimation, the heyday of cancelling is long past; it was mostly prominent for about five years, approximately between 2012 and 2017:
Next on, we have professional risk. This is something that is related to cancel culture, but is actually more universal, and extends outside of it. In a nutshell, if you are a prominent leader within a company or institution, your public speech and actions outside of the scope of that organization actually do affect the organization. PR will always exist. If you do things outside of work that people don't like, and it causes consequences for your primary work, you are responsible for those consequences, and the organization should act accordingly. Cancel culture being dead doesn't change that (in fact, a briefer description of cancel culture is just PR risk on steroids).
Unfortunately, this type of professional risk is especially prominent for certain types of jobs, like being a psychiatrist, or being a church leader. There's lots of precedent and discussion for how "free speech" norms pretty much go out the window in these situations. For a legal view, you can look at the Johnson Amendment, but this has been a longstanding debate in American politics, with lots to read about it on both sides. I won't get into it here, but if you practice one of these sensitive vocations, you have extra extra responsibility to be careful about making public waves.
The last two categories are the hardest to define. They essentially revolve around pissing off people in power. They're worth talking about together, because throughout most of history, they essentially meant the same thing. In non-constitutional systems of government, like absolute monarchies, or autocracies, the court and state power were the same entity. Being a cultural dissident was literally a challenge to state authority. If you made a personal enemy of someone in high places, you would fear for the life of yourself and your family. The circumstance of pissing them off doesn't matter; anything from heartfelt public speech with noble intentions, to accidentally sneezing on someone's food at a dinner party, could be punishable by anything from complete social ostracization to swift execution. In Kolmogorov's time, this was obviously the case, and he was right to keep his mouth shut for the entirety of his life.
I'm happy to report one thing, with tears in my eyes, as I salute the nearest flag; we do, in fact, live in America. And America is actually a much better place than Soviet Russia, or Victorian England, or 95% of various political orders throughout history. No matter how much its values seem to have have degraded in recent years, the fundamentals of speech and punishment in the US have not actually changed much. We have a strong constitution, strong norms around the first amendment, strong rule of law and due process, strong separation of civil and criminal disputes, and a healthy culture of criticizing elected leaders to the harshest extent we like. I can say things like "Ted Cruz is a giant crybaby poo-poo butt" with essentially no fear for my personal life.
But let's get dicey for a second. There's a case to be made that there are more "powerful" people than elected officials, whom, if criticized, are less subject to standard protections of free speech, due process, etc. I would be much more worried, for example, of saying something like "Ezra Klein is a total dipshit". It's likely that, if he read this post, he could easily order one of his minions to execute a cancel culture-style mission on me, doing obsessive research to try to destroy my life, completely outside of the purview of the legal system. I don't think I'd like to risk something like that. So, therefore, uh, Ezra Klein is, uh, probably a fine guy, I guess, I've never met him, so I can't judge him, so, like, yeah. But it's worth noting that it's still possible in America to piss off people with cultural power, and they do have the reach and capability to make your life awful. So even if your family isn't in danger of physical harm from the Stasi, it's still wise to avoid making enemies of people in high places.
Finally, there are speech actions that are legally, morally, and practically prohibited. You cannot incite terrorism or call seriously for violent overthrow the government. Basically, just don't do that.
So, we've outlined some reasons why noble people who have something good to say should try to remain anonymous. I think they are good reasons, and we should encourage having distinct forums where people can speak anonymously without fear of reprisal.
The case of Scott Alexander is good for everybody to think about; even beyond the particulars of his professional predicament, we should discuss some general principles for when thoughtful people should in fact not remain an anonymous, faceless voice.
As stated, my view is that the New York Times should not doxx Scott Alexander. There are elementary reasons for this; first, the NYT's policy on doxxing is not consistent. They have published many accounts, profiles, and viewpoints of people who have wished to remain anonymous, up to and including every article containing the phrase "people familiar with the matter" and "sources close to so-and-so authority". Their stated "policy" that they "never" respect a subject's wishes for anonymity is frankly dogshit.
For my second point, I will refer back to the internet's strongly enforced norms regarding doxxing. At least until recently, the Internet had its own, unique, shared cultural norms around expression. And violating someone's identity preference is probably the strongest shared norm in this culture. This goes, like, way back, is a very important and positive norm, and we should try to retain at least some forum where anonymous voices can be heard.
My third point is that Scott is just, like, a great guy, man. Leave him alone.
There's probably a concept in jurisprudence, where, when norms and laws regarding a particular case have yet to be fully formed, the particular defendant should be found not guilty, but at the same time, the case should establish a precedent that the prevailing norms going forward should be changed. In this case, we should find Scott not guilty, but we should think about three points regarding how cases like this should be treated in the future.
As I explore in postlude 1, writing as an art has two relevant properties: Humans are highly susceptible to the written word (young minds in particular), and that writing is a double-edged sword, capable of causing harm and good to the reader in equal measure. It doesn't matter how noble or careful you are; if you're an excellent writer, and you publish your work broadly, you will necessarily garner influence over a great number of people and affairs. And, as the saying goes; with great power comes great responsibility.
It's kind of a weird concept in our free speech-loving culture to think of writers wielding a large amount of responsibility. Typically, if a work of art causes someone distress or anxiety, it is seen as the consumer of that art's fault. I find this weird, abnormal, and I'm not sure what to think about it. But if one's position is "I'm just putting ideas out there; if someone uses them wrong, that's on them", I'm not sure I totally agree with this at a gut level. I don't have much more to say about this; it's is a huge, society-spanning question, that's beyond both my pay grade and the scope of this post. But ultimately, Scott should have some responsibility for the things he writes, and anonymity could potentially be used improperly, as a shield against this responsibility.
Secondly, Scott's job as a psychiatrist. This one is a really tough call, but I feel like my own personal opinion on this one is clear: When you take a position as any kind of mental caretaker over other humans, you forgo certain rights to become an influential public figure in your spare time. This should apply to church leaders, school officials, counselors, psychiatrists, etc. This is a harsh rule, and one that I will have to think about more. I just think it's bad for society to mix particular vocations and public advocacy in weird ways like this. Again -- I think it would be unnecessarily cruel to strip Scott of his career at this point, given the aforementioned strong cultural norms on the internet of even-freer-than-usual-speech. Going forward, I assume Scott is already thinking about which is more important to him; I strongly hope that he gets to make that choice, and not an unelected board of wayward cultural authorities.
The last has to do with civic duty, specifically referencing Hirschman's concept of voice as a political action. At a certain point, it is your duty as a citizen to speak up, publicly, about critical issues that affect the entire nation. I think refusing to do so, even at substantial personal cost, could be considered a regrettable form of cowardice. For the record, I am not saying Scott Alexander is a coward; I am speaking in general terms, for others who practice Kolmogorov complicity without considering their own role and responsibility in shaping our collective future. I do suspect that the collective failure of intelligent voices to use voice over the last decade or two has contributed, at least in small part, to the substantial degradation of our public sphere. There is an alternate universe where perhaps cancel culture could have been stopped in its tracks, if enough influential people had stood up and condemned it during its worst years.
Finally, if you do choose to use your voice publicly, I do think you should be held accountable for your speech. That means knowing who you are, what you do, where you come from, what you represent, etc. To use a cheap example, there are absolutely foreign operators working within the US to influence public opinion this way or another, sometimes to the detriment of the US. If all significant voices remain anonymous, it will be impossible to piece out whether an opinion represents a truly American-interested perspective, or is just harmful noise propagated by faceless agitators.
There is a tension here with my views on cancel culture, which, as stated, I think sucks hard. I haven't thought this through entirely, and might just be one of those fundamental paradoxes that everyone has to wrestle with forever. My feeling right now is something like; if your work is deeply influential to tens of thousands of readers, people ought to know basic things about you (who you are, where you've been). But scouring a person's entire corpus of utterances for perceived cultural infractions is way over the line. There's some kind of balance here, and it's something that will have to be constantly negotiated in every culture and polity with strong free speech norms.
My final word on this: If you have considered all the above, and still wish to remain anonymous, you should take it seriously; use cryptographically ensured masking protocols, only communicate through secure channels, and consider publishing on digital platforms that understand and respect your particular sensitive needs.
Thank you for reading; I thank Scott Alexander deeply for his work and wish him the best.