The Slate Star Affair — How the New York Times Struck One Against Free Thought on the Internet

Or “Why We Can’t Have Nice Things”

A 5-Minuter from Wonk Bridge

The Slate-Star Codex

If you are familiar with the Slate Star Codex, and what has happened to it over the last several days (from the time of writing), then you need read no further — there is nothing in this article, in fact put forth or impression derived, you do not already know.

It is quite possible, however, that you are not familiar with the Slate Star Codex. If you are not, I come to you with the worst news possible — the Codex is dead. Not because the blogspace’s founder, an enigmatic Californian psychiatrist working under the pseudonym Scott Alexander, has himself died — thankfully, he is still well with us. The blog itself, though, is as deceased as any web entity can be. Not only is it newly inactive, but Alexander felt compelled to remove all of the content previously hosted on it also.

Why does the sudden deactivation and, to coin a term, obliviation of a blog unknown to you but 100-words-previous matter? Well, because the Codex may have been the most successful blog on the net dealing with a broadchurch of intellectual matters to be truly pluralistic in attitude. And, also, because the culprit behind the cessation of such an absolute paragon of liberalism was not a troupe of agitators from our balkanised alts, left or right, but the most high-profile (liberal) English language newspaper in the world.

The Principle of Charity

The Codex’s fame and infamy was ostensibly built on doing the most controversial thing a private or public interest can do in times like ours: look at affairs of large interest with disinterest, fairness, a lack of prevailing wish for a certain outcome, and an unwillingness to denounce. Scott Alexander wrote on a vast array of topics for the blog, with the macro-subjects of politics, cognition and psychiatry acting as general fulcrums. True to his vocation, his position was at all times detached, urbane and kindly. His articles were rich and lengthy, and explicitly geared towards stimulating even-handed discussion. As he was a specialist (in competence, though not in mentality), blessed with both a highly literary sense of the inter-connection of disparate subjects and an in-depth technical knowledge of psychiatry, Alexander’s articles were expert in broaching grounds of discussion using subjects of study which did little to admit narrow thinking or undifferentiated argument.

Of course, no Commentariat can be entirely insulated from the axe-grinders and shitposters, which is why Alexander’s approach to the moderation of his audience was so unique. Most moderation regulations are purely negative — to root out contributions which are obviously idiotic, whose only ‘value’ is to cause harm. The Codex’s code of conduct was more progressive, in mandating that all commenters need abide by the principle of charity.

It’s a fascinating subject, the principle of charity, sitting at a nexus of three P’s: philosophy, politics and psychology. It “requires interpreting a speaker’s statements in the most rational way possible and, in the case of any argument, considering its best, strongest possible interpretation.” In other words, it demands the exact opposite virtue of that most prized by the common polemic, which is to root through a bag of presumed motives for your opponent in debate and, upon finding the worst one possible, presume it correct.

The practical result of this was that the Codex could broadly claim to be an environment in which bounds of allegiance — to Left or Right, to Trump or anti-Trump, and so on — were allowed to, to some degree, dissolve. It became a haven for individuals who, regardless of their position on feminism or abortion or trans-rights or vaccination or mental health, were seeking membership of another, more inclusive kind of clan, which we might call ‘new rationalism’. A clan in which contrasting ideas, having been moderated by terms of address and a common agreement to honour all contribution, could meet and be reduced without the promise of warfare.

In such the Codex environment, ideas could be approached in a mechanical and less passionate fashion, leading to more thorough understanding of each idea unburdened by vanity. This is why those below-the-line regulars on the Codex could be described as “new rationalist”; this idea of reductionism comes from Descartes’ assertion “that non-human animals could be explained reductively as automata”.

This would make the site, therefore, an enemy of those who do not admit anything but the most polarised moral positions as proof enough of one’s ethical legitimacy. It was not one of the net’s many highly-organised radical sub-states, however, which ultimately caused the Codex to cave. It was the New York Times.

The Name

The path to hell is paved with good intentions, so that worn-out aphorism goes. When the New York Times moved to publish a piece on the Codex, it was with every intention of shining a warm light on this little corner of Early Digital civilisation. However, the Times writer at the head of the piece was intent on using Alexander’s real name in the article. Alexander had not freely provided it; the journalist had discovered it by his own means. If the article goes on to be published, it will represent the first time that Alexander’s true identity has been made widely known.

Owing to what Alexander perceives — probably quite rightly — as the risks to his comfort, his security, and his ability to perform his day-job which would arise in the instance that his identity be revealed, the Codex was dismembered as a precautionary measure. The Times themselves have begged that their writer was merely acting in recourse to their editorial guidelines of using the real names of their profiled subjects. Quite whether or not Alexander’s claims that the Times’ conduct amounts to doxxing is a matter of debate — although there is certainly a case to be made in that direction.

Nevertheless, the Times’ application of the editorial custom in question has been maddeningly inconsistent. The anonymity of sources can quite reasonably be pursued where there is the possibility of reprisal coming to those who go on the record. That very same protective measure was offered to one potential source for the article in question.

It remains to be seen whether or not the Times will reverse their angle, in which case there is hope that the Codex may yet be revived.

The Name & the Damage Done

I am of the position that the vast majority of disagreeable elements we see now in the world — fanaticism and partisanhood being the primary means of relating to matters large and small; the reign of disrespect as a social mode; the free appropriation of any methodology, whatever its ethic value, so long as it efficiently procures a desired end — fundamentally root in decade after decade of very narrow, skills-and-competenecies oriented education. Why? Surely acquiring skills does not make one narrow-minded and cynical in the ways described?

Why, no, indeed it doesn’t; it certainly hasn’t in Scott Alexander’s case, nor has in the case of countless other men and women throughout history. However, an approach to education which takes only these things, the immediately (i.e. financially) useful, as valuable prevents us from taking up a broad conception of humankind and the world. Instead of being educated into an impartial survey of the vast universe around us, in space and time, we are obliged to become unduly obsessed with the minutiae, the prejudices (in attitude and in regulation), the comings and goings of our own small gardens within that universe, only interested in what we ourselves can immediately affect.

Thus, we exaggerate the importance of the conflicts around us; we exaggerate the critical need to win them; and so we become willing to turn to whatever methods are necessary to do so. The sorting of our fellows by demography and other arbitrations (however well-intentioned), the use of force over persuasion, the appeal to emotionally attractive ideas over reasonable ones, are the quickest and most easily available of such methods.

Slate Star Codex, in its thoroughgoing embrace of the principle of charity, in its commitment to pluralism as manifested both in communal scale and within the respective constitutions of its readers and contributors — to be at once left and right, earnest and sceptical, fierce and fair, right and wrong — was one of our finest outposts purposed in the fight for a freer and kinder approach to thought on the internet. The New York Times, in their naive hubris, have struck a terrible blow against that cause.

Post-Script

I would like, as a means of moisture-sealing the dear reader’s impressions of my admiration for Alexander’s achievement, to briefly touch on the several regions of his thought to which I am broadly or directly opposed. I consider his sense of existential risk from superintelligent AIs wrong-headed, and his motions towards hereditarianism even more profoundly wrong-headed ethically and scientifically, and redundant socially. There is also an Americentrism in his point of view I find as periodically unhelpful as any other such -centricity, and his ambivalence towards sections of his Reddit r/themotte has at times struck me as disquieting.

I disclose these reservations in a spirit of commitment to the principle of charity — that, despite such misgivings, I still consider Alexander’s achievement with the Codex worthy of high admiration, and his summative intellectual profile most worthy indeed.

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