m. c. de marco: To invent new life and new civilizations...

The Tragedy of the Cancels

I was an occasional reader of Slate Star Codex, the pseudonymous blog and community of Scott Alexander which he took down yesterday because a New York Times reporter intends to doxx him as part of an (allegedly) otherwise positive story about his (now removed) coronavirus posts [archive.org]. I spotted the story this morning on Hacker News, but there’s a more focussed discussion in the Slate Star Codex subreddit which includes Scott Alexander himself.

Many of his readers see culture war in the action, though Scott only sees “dumb and evil.” On the culture war side, the notion is that Scott’s recent (failed) defense of Steve Hsu was the real motivation behind the allegedly positive article, and the true article will be a hit piece over his defense of a cancelled “racist.” On the dumb and evil side, the reporter’s hands are somehow still tied by the New York Times’s dumb, evil, and inconsistent anti-pseudonymity policy. Only time can tell: if they repent of either the entire article or the doxxing (or doxx him in an otherwise puffy piece), it was stupidity all along, but they attack and doxx him, then he was just the next cancellation of the culture war.

I’d been reading a lot of reddit lately to keep up with the coronavirus news, and at some point last week the excess of crazy over there got to me. I decided to read something more rational with no trolls, no insults, and no commenters quite so blissfully unaware that preaching isn’t science (even if you’re preaching what you happen to think is the science—in fact, especially when you’re preaching what you’ve fetishized as The Science). I was very excited to see one of my favorite para-crackpots, Julian Jaynes, had merited a very posthumous book review, and read every comment. Being rather late to the thread, I never got into my take on it: another commenter was quite right that Jaynes went into a good deal of detail about what he meant by consciousness, which Scott skips over to the detriment of his analysis. Perhaps more importantly, this omission led to no end of confusion from commenters who think without benefit of an inner monologue—something mentioned by Jaynes as both possible and not at all an objection to his theory—without any discussion of the impossibility of experiencing actual consciousness (under Jaynes' definition) without an inner monologue. There was an equal amount of confusion over deception in early Greek literature, a source Jaynes acknowledged was quite mixed, rather than adequate discussion of the breadth of his Bronze-age sources.

In passing through, I skimmed the post about Steven Hsu and thought it was fairly weak sauce considering the huge problem for rationalism posed by cancel culture. Only in today’s threads have I encountered the notion that Scott backed off of culture war a while ago, perhaps foreseeing that in the long run no rationalist will be safe from the culture mob, but choosing the short run nevertheless. It was an unexpectedly short run. (I believe this regardless of the innocence of the journalist, because I think the journalist’s callous-seeming disregard for Scott qua practicing psychiatrist could not have happened outside of the pervasive destructiveness of cancel culture.)

Since my PlagueBlog note about it this morning, both social media and the actual news have picked up on the issue. Whether this attention will make for more Streisand effect or for the return of Slate Star Codex remains to be seen.