politics

Scott Alexander of slatestarcodex.com says the New York Times has threatened to reveal his name – this is effectively doxxing him

In an incredibly disappointing development, Scott Alexander of slatestarcodex.com has taken down his blog after a discussion with a New York Times reporter. According to Scott, the reporter told him that his real name will be published in a planned upcoming article. Scott made it clear to the reporter that he has received many death threats during the time he has been writing his blog, and did not want his full name available (Scott Alexander is not his actual name). The reporter apparently did not see that as a sufficient reason not to publish his name.

I have no particular opinion on the New York Times, apart from being aware that it is one of the most popular US news outlets (I’m not American). However, this sort of behaviour is surely one of the reasons people are losing faith in ‘mainstream’ journalism. This is a disaster, because a truth-seeking and impartial Fourth Estate is a vital prerequisite of a functional democracy. Yet when news outlets intimidate independent voices, deliberately or not, trust is lost. The trust lost in the New York Times here will be significant – Scott’s readership is large and most are very intelligent. The overwhelming majority don’t have a grudge against the NYT – at least they didn’t before this incident. The NYT stands to lose a thousand times what it might gain from one unreasonable article. This seems utterly mad!

I do have strong opinion about slatestarcodex.com on the other hand – that it’s one of the most worthwhile and valuable sites on the net. In several years of reading the site, I’ve formed an impression of Scott as an incredibly articulate and reasonable centrist with a compassionate, fact-based and mild-mannered style. His work engages with topics of great importance – futurism and AI-risk, social trends (from a more scientific perspective than most), his own profession of psychiatry, and establishing reason and respect in our current climate of political and social toxicity.

The most common criticism of the site is that it’s comment section includes a minority who hold to extreme politics views (depending who is criticising, this is either far-left or far-right). Although the comments section is hardly representative of Scott’s work (like many readers, I consider Scott’s thoughts more interesting than the comment sections) technically this claim is true, but it is also misguided. I don’t like some views expressed in the comments and probably wouldn’t like the people that express them, but any person that wishes to silence the entire site for this is incredibly ignorant. Besides, slatestarcodex.com contains not only these people’s views but incredibly sophisticated rebuttals of these views. Scott himself has written several incredible articles doing so – the anti-neoreactionary FAQ is a great example addressing problematic far-right claims, and the far-left has equally had several of it’s arguments torn apart, particuarly their recent record on social issues. Scott has received and published extensive lists of death threats from both these groups.

The truth isn’t afraid of falsehoods in a fair fight. That’s what slatestarcodex.com is (at least more than any other site I’ve encountered) – an arena for arguments where the rules are logic, evidence and respect. Extreme views aren’t always censored there, but they’re almost always ADDRESSED AND REFUTED. Instead of censorship which does everything short of proving what the extremist is arguing, they’re silenced only if they step over the line into personal attacks or strictly defined hate-speech (incitation to violence, aggressive or threatening behaviour is not tolerated). The rest of the time, they get to find out how poorly their arguments hold up under real scrutiny. Which approach is better if you’re really looking to convince intelligent people of the truth?

Silencing the entire site like this shows the increasing lurch towards information-totalitarianism shown by both the left and right in recent years. And the total disregard for the collatoral damage of those interested in apolitical and non-partisian topics (Scott and his contribution to AI-risk discussions is a very prominent example) won’t achieve anything good – aside from interfering in important topics, it will just bring anyone that tries these tactics the resentment by a circle of reasonable and thoughtful people that anyone intelligent person would want on their side!

For what it’s worth, I recommend my small readership tap any contacts they might have if they think it could help Scott and slatestarcodex.com in the current situation. This might all just be a mistake on the part of the New York Times – they still have a chance to prove it so!

Official slatestarcodex.com closing announcement

Don’t De-Anonymize Scott Alexander petition site

Reddit discussion thread

The far-left and the far-right seem to be increasingly using each-other as an excuse to trash democracy

It might not be an especially noteworthy incident by world standards, but events like the sad occurrence in Charlottesville, US today, that is to say street clashes between relatively radical groups (which in this case appeared according to news reports to involve the tragic death/murder of a protester by a 20-year old with opposing views), seem to be creeping back into Western politics at the moment. A few violent nut-cases trying to cause harm and havoc is probably nothing to be overly alarmed at, but there is something just a little reminiscent of inter-war Germany in the flavor of this kind of street violence. Prior to and during Adolf Hitler’s rise to power, far-left and far-right groups clashed on the streets of the shaky Weimar Republic, further alarming an already nervous populous and inflaming political tensions enough to create an “in” for one of history’s most genocidal leaders.

The modern West isn’t 1930s Germany, but it does worry me a little that as a society we’re not more wary of the basic pattern than these sort of things seem to take. Being a little philosophically inclined I tend to think about these sorts of things fairly abstractly – what seems to be the case in all these kinds of things is that far-left and far-right both foster support by using the crimes and flaws of the other as an excuse for harmful behavior and a lack of self-scrutiny. The violence is in a sense just the symptom of an escalating illness, an illness who’s ultimately end point is the idea that one’s evil acts don’t erase or even detract from some absolute righteousness of one’s cause. Criticizing the core ideas of the in-group, in this way of thinking, is the exact same as directly aiding the “enemy”. Once this thinking takes hold, it’s much easier for well-meaning or justified concern to slide down a slippery slope into extremism. There’s nothing so advantageous to a homicidal leader than having a unquestionable cause to hide their evil behind. That’s one reason I’ve learned to be very suspicious of unquestionable causes.

I don’t know what can be done to prevent these kinds of incidents, but I think we in the West could do more to try to avoid polarization from occurring. To start, maybe we could all (whether we’re left, right or center) try to avoid using the actions of our opposition, especially the most extreme fringe of our opposition, to justify dropping our own moral and intellectual standards (here’s a couple of nice Slatestarcodex articles that are related to this problem – 1 & 2). That also means criticizing those in our in-group that drop their standards. Secondly, we can make a effort to listen to the concerns of our opposition (because chances are we underestimate their legitimacy – I’ve written about that before), and realize that listening authentically isn’t the same as agreeing with somebody. And I guess lastly we should try to learn from history by reading a little on how authoritarian regimes came to power, and try to keep watch against that in our own camp as well as our opposition’s.

This goes regardless of whether you’re left or right wing – each is typically too busy complaining about the authoritarian tendencies in the *other* camp and so they are blind when it comes to their own. Yet both the extreme left and extreme right have typically brought ruin, or at best a lot of misery, upon any country they’ve come to power in. And on a small scale it leads to the sort of senseless death that seems to have occurred Charlottesville today. The best way to oppose that sort of misery is, in part, to promote open minds and free and fair discussion, but it also means discouraging people on our *own side* of politics using opponents as an excuse for rubbish moral standards, violence or unquestionable causes.