What I Think We’re Talking About When We’re Talking About What We Can’t Talk About

It’s no longer worth it to vocalize controversial beliefs. Silicon Valley has become a PC echo chamber. I can’t say what I think without fear of reprisal.

These are not convictions I personally hold but ones which I’ve heard expressed with increasing volume from people I know well and people I don’t know as well, in public spaces and in private conversations. Often these sentiments are voiced by 30 – 50 year old white men (and women) of economic privilege. I say this not to discredit their feelings or observations but because (a) it does seem to be relevant and (b) that’s the group which dominates my own social circles, which means that my POV is constrained by limitations in perspective.

But obviously since you’re reading this, I felt confident enough I had something to say that I’m wading into this conversation. Not to dissect a blog post. Not to provide sufficient evidence that anyone is right or wrong in their assertion. And certainly not to call out any one person in particular. Rather, here’s my grand unified theory as to why this We Don’t Tolerate Unpopular Beliefs Any Longer feeling exists.

Tech is No Longer the Underdog And We Still Haven’t Fully Grokked What Power Means.

The oversimplified historical founding myth of the technology industry was that a critical mass of nerds found themselves in SV and built a beautiful meritocracy, where good ideas and data win the day. And where wealth was almost a bug not a feature – a byproduct of being right, rather than the goal itself. Of course much of this is false but it’s powerful. Fast-forward to modern day and you have an industry amassing tremendous amounts of power and money which hasn’t yet fully come to grips with these circumstances – the responsibility, the gravitas. So we can see ourselves as well-intended underdogs while the reflection in the mirror is no longer as simple. It’s sorta like when people complain that it matters what the President says – that there are no throwaway lines when you have that role.

Information Broadcast Means More People Have Voices and We’re More Often Speaking to People Who Don’t Know Us.

Maybe segments of the population always had strong reactions to controversial ideas but those people (women, non-whites, the poor) didn’t have a microphone. Perhaps nothing has changed other than giving voice to a broader set of the population? This is a good thing by the way and does lead to the increased exposure and examination of racism, classism, misogyny, and so on. Some of those “unpopular ideas” are just plain wrong, lead to real harm for people and work only to preserve an existing power structure (which actually *constrains* innovation versus allowing new ideas, voices and people to rise).

Additionally, broadcast technologies allow us to reach larger groups of people than ever before. People who often don’t know the speaker or who are receiving a snippet, our of context. I’ve had words of mine ‘blow up’ in communities of people who don’t know me – it sucks and doesn’t feel great, but in some ways it’s the tradeoff for using these tools right now. If the tools and our desire to use them constructively continue to evolve, it’ll get better (hopefully).

There’s an Outrage Economy

Because there’s a surplus of content but finite attention, one currency of these broadcast platforms is emotion, and outrage is a strong magnet. “RT With Comment!!!!” SNARK GETS LIKES. Any white male tech worker who fucks up is either a “Google Executive” (when he was really just a middle manager) or a “Tech Bro.” It’s weary, it’s tiresome, it’s unnecessarily broad and it divides people. Try not to participate.

Opinions Are Like Assholes. And Groups of Assholes Are Your Tribe.

Since when do you need to have an opinion or be an expert on everything? Sometimes you need to STFU. But of course one of the best things about the internet is the ability to find a critical mass of people who think the same way you do. So having opinions actually increases the surface area of your ability to be part of a group, to be accepted, to feel secure. These are very basic human needs and emotions. So there’s opinion inflation where it feels better to have one and find your tribe.

You’re Supposed to Be Willing to Take Heat for a Belief. 

Ok, unlike the previous concepts this one isn’t specifically linked to the technology industry but somewhere along the way we wanted there to be zero cost to have an unpopular belief but I’m not sure zero cost is optimal. Maybe a bit of friction is what forces you to consider why people disagree with you? Maybe a bit of friction helps you prioritize what’s worth your time and energy? Maybe there are hills worth dying on and hills that aren’t even worth scaling? Oh wait – hot take: because social spaces have been primarily built for us to react with support (LIKE, FAV, THUMBS UP), we’re now skittish and soft when it comes to DISLIKE, THUMBS DOWN. There, I knew I could find a tech angle.

Now, let me transition to the responsibilities I think we each have as part of the SV community.

Softer Eyes

When someone says something you disagree with or you see a tweet that sounds dumb as fuck, what if you read the whole thing in context? Or assumed the person behind the idea isn’t a terrible racist, SJW, tech bro, whatever but a person. A work in progress. Someone who probably has some redeeming qualities too. Doesn’t mean you need to engage them. Doesn’t mean you need to be their buddy. Doesn’t mean you need to tolerate despicable beliefs, but let’s try to separate limited worldviews or naïveté from truly horrible individuals. [note: I’m a bit of a hypocrite here because ideas such as “not all Trump voters are racists but they didn’t find his racist beliefs or enablers to be disqualifying for their support” personally resonate with me. So yeah, it’s an aspirational responsibility but tough to implement fully.]

You Don’t Have to Fucking Talk About Everything to Everyone

You’re not a fucking expert about everything. Maybe sometimes it’s ok to listen, to read, to evolve and experience versus pontificating. Communication is listening, not speaking. Your desire to share might be rooted in your own desire for attention not always some joyous quest for knowledge or intellectual rigor. “I tweeted something dumb and now people are mad at me.” The problem might not be the second half of the sentence.

We Can Disagree About Many Things and Still Be Friends

Yeah, it’s possible. We don’t have to be ideological perfect matches in order for me to work with you, respect you, or be interested in your ideas.

Do the Work to Understand Why You Might Be Wrong

It’s so healthy to ask someone why they believe what they do – not because you’re looking for a way to attack them to win the argument but because you want to inhabit their eyes for a moment. Present your point of view and ask them where they believe you’re wrong or why they feel differently. Never assume your truth is an unqualified truth.

There. This is what I think we’re talking about when we’re talking about what we can’t talk about.