What People Think You Can’t Say in Silicon Valley

Paul Graham, Jessica Livingston, Tim Ferriss, and most recently Sam Altman (but see his clarification) think there are too many opinions that are held to be taboo in Silicon Valley. There has also been a backlash against these posts, to the effect that the only ideas being suppressed are expressions of bigotry that don’t deserve debate and are actively harmful (see, for instance, Anil Dash’s response).

But some people are just confused. What exactly are these supposedly heretical ideas? Parker Thompson tried to collect ideas in a shared Google Doc, but that quickly turned into a dumpster fire. So I decided to try again with an unscientific survey via an anonymous form. I got well over 100 responses. This post summarizes the results.

But first:

What does “can’t say” even mean?

No one has clearly defined this, and people are clearly invoking very different standards.

Obviously it’s not literally impossible to say any of the ideas below. People say them all the time. And the standard isn’t that you’ll be jailed or fined, because we do have free speech in this country.

On the other hand, “can’t say without some people disagreeing” or “without getting some pushback” or “without a little tough questioning” is too weak a standard. Of course some people will criticize you for any controversial opinion, which includes all political discussion. That’s not the point. (Even “I got a lot of really nasty replies to my post” isn’t enough—sadly, that’s just social media and the state of discourse today.)

The interesting category to me is: What ideas can a reasonable person hold, that are considered unacceptable, even immoral to hold? What ideas should be debated, but get you shunned or ostracized instead? In short, what ideas are outside the Overton window, but shouldn’t be? That’s how I phrased the survey.

General observations on the responses

  • The most focus was on topics related to diversity, including racism, sexism, sexuality and gender issues.
  • Most of the issues were about politics and culture, but there was a subset specific to startups and Silicon Valley.
  • Both sides feel oppressed! For example, some people think you can’t question diversity efforts; others think you can’t speak out about racism. Some think you can’t praise capitalism; others think you can’t suggest socialism. It’s theoretically possible that the Overton window could be in the middle and exclude both extremes, but to my mind it’s more likely that people just like to think or claim that their views are an oppressed minority.

The results

I posted the form on Twitter and Facebook, and got 122 responses (119 through TypeForm and 3 social media replies). You can view them all here. Out of this, I omitted 14 for having no real content, not having a clear/specific idea, not seeming serious, or being attacks on a particular individual or organization. So the following is based on 108 responses—not a huge sample but enough to be interesting.

Note of course that there was no attempt to make this a scientific survey, and given that it went out over social media, it represents a biased sample. This should not be taken as representative, and it should certainly not be taken as an opinion poll of the Bay Area or the tech industry.

Some of the ideas people suggested are not really taboo—clearly inside the Overton window. Some are outside of it—and deserve to be. As you read through these, ask yourself if there are any that are outside of it, but shouldn’t be.

WARNING: You will probably encounter some ideas below that you consider abhorrent. That’s the nature of this topic.

Common topics

I tagged all the responses with topics and then grouped the topics into broad categories. Here are the all the topics that appeared 3 or more times:

Full list of topics

Summarizing the results:

Racism, Sexism & Diversity

Many people expressed skepticism of the diversity/inclusion movement:

  • “The most important diversity is NOT racial or gender or sexual orientation. It’s diversity of thought and experience”
  • “People who obsess about white privilege have a victim mentality and are wasting energy on something almost completely devoid of value.”
  • “Companies spend too much money on meaningless diversity efforts.”
  • “‘Diversity’ is overrated. What matters much more for a team is raw talent, communication skills, and shared values.”

In particular there was a lot about sex differences and women in tech. Just a few representative ones:

  • “Cannot have a conversation about men and women being different. Cannot ask the question with honest curiosity.”
  • “Men and women, on average, have different brain structures. this may partially explain men and women’s differing career choices (on average)”
  • “Men tend to be better programmers than women, for innate biological reasons”

Some commented on sexual harassment:

  • “Men are approximately as terrified of being labeled ‘sexual harassers’ as women are of being sexually harassed. In many cases the line between distasteful jokes or even honest courtship and inappropriate behavior is blurry and subjective at best. Please note Weinstein, Lauer, Trump et al are obviously well into the ‘inappropriate/abusive’ territory.”
  • “Many women use their sexuality to achieve goals at work and then claim a double-standard when they get a man excited who acts on it.”

On the other hand, some people thought they can’t call out racism/sexism that they see:

  • “I think by speaking out about racism or sexism that I’ll be labeled as an SJW by potential employers”
  • “Can’t talk about the obvious racism in front of us on a daily basis.”

Or that the diversity movement isn’t sincere enough:

  • “The diversity movement is basically a handout to white women. It doesn’t benefit blacks and latinos, and it isn’t really intended to.”

Capitalism, Socialism & Welfare

Next most popular were issues relating to capitalism vs. socialism and everything in between, including welfare, healthcare, and inequality.

Again we have people feeling oppressed on both sides. Some people think you can’t praise capitalism or oppose socialism:

  • “Capitalism has been net positive for world over past several decades”
  • “Forced wealth distribution is unacceptable”

Others think you can’t criticize capitalism, or suggest socialism:

  • “Capitalism isn’t the best option”
  • “Private property is theft from the public”
  • “95% of wealth should be seized by the government”

The comments on homelessness are similarly opposed:

  • “The fact that homeless people are homeless does not a impose a duty on us. We have the right to clean, safe streets even if this means excluding or inconveniencing homeless people.”
  • “Homeless people deserve housing and we should expropriate vacant and luxury buildings to do so. (The ‘politically correct’ answer is that the ‘free market’ will somehow do it even though it hasn’t.)”

Most of the comments on specific issues were generally anti-welfare:

  • “Healthcare is not a right. Universal healthcare is a terrible and dangerous idea. We should be moving towards free medicine, not socialized medicine. This isn’t callous any more than saying we need a free market in food, clothing and shelter.”
  • “Income inequality is not problem we should ‘solve for.’ Humanity will be much better served by optimizing for happiness index, cost of living, etc. Many of the things that improve these metrics will create greater income inequality, and that’s okay.”
  • “Universal Basic Income is just a trendy name for welfare. The idea that it will result in some explosion of creativity from the oppressed poor is a nice fantasy story people tell so that it doesn’t just sound like an old, tired idea. We should be making it easier for people to earn a living (e.g., end occupational licensing) rather than just redistributing money.”

Startups

I wasn’t expecting this, but also wasn’t surprised: Some people think there are taboo topics around startups and they way they’re run:

  • “Being an early stage startup employee is a horrible deal in almost all cases. This feels ‘unspoken’ in SV and is ‘sold’ to outsiders in an almost fraudulent way.”
  • “On average, equity is worthless. Most startups fail, and most equity holders at startups that don’t completely fail have tiny slivers of equity — if they purchase it at all.”
  • “Building a company where you put revenue first”
  • “Most successful entrepreneurs are simply lucky.”

Environmentalism

  • “Global warming might not be a disaster; it might be mild and manageable. We should be burning more fossil fuels, not less, and just deal with any consequences.”
  • “‘Renewable’ energy is way overhyped. Solar is unlikely to become our main energy source. The only viable energy sources right now are fossil, hydro and nuclear. If we have to move away from fossil fuels, nuclear is the only real option. (And we should probably be building a lot more nuclear.)”

Sexuality & Gender

  • “A transgender man/woman is not the same as a biologically born man/woman”
  • “With better technology, homosexuality could be reversed, and a lot of people would want that technology”
  • “Trans women are overrepresented in tech for some kind of real reason, and we can’t ask why because it touches on some sacred values.”

Conservativism, Republicanism & Trump

  • “You can’t reveal you’re conservative.”
  • “Supporting Trump doesn’t make you a terrible person”
  • “Abortion is immoral.”
  • “Being accepting of conservative/Republican values as a whole”

Other political topics

  • Net Neutrality: “Opposing Net Neutrality (not subject to shaming, but it’s unthinkable for most people)”
  • Immigration: “Immigrants might not uphold traditional Western values, and that poses a risk to democracy”
  • Housing: “Inclusive zoning and subsidized housing are a poor substitute for building more housing, and just serve to restrict supply and thus drive up costs. Low-end, cheap, ‘substandard’ housing should be legalized.”
  • Guns: “Liking guns, or pro gun rights (or rather anti gun control)”
  • Terrorism: “Radical Islam terrorism is falsely equated with ‘white domestic terrorism’ all too often.”
  • Vegetarianism: “Eating meat is a great unnecessary evil of humanity.”
  • Vaccines: “Being anti-vax seems to be pretty quickly shut down”

Other tech / Silicon Valley issues

  • Meritocracy: “Meritocracy does not exist in SV” but also (from someone else): “You can’t say that your company is a meritocracy”
  • Tech unions: “Software engineers should unionize” (there were a few of these)
  • Social media and its power: “Creators should be at least partially accountable for what people do with their platforms.”
  • AI: “AI poses a serious threat to the future of our race. It’s worth significantly more attention than it gets.”
  • Bitcoin: “Bitcoin is a ponzi scheme (literally, not dismissively)”

Conclusions

A lot of the ideas here will not actually get you ostracized from Silicon Valley society. A lot of this is just people wanting to express their political opinions. So mostly this is just a list of controversial political topics.

But I hope this can end the question of “what could these taboo opinions possibly be?” If there are any, some of them are probably listed above (or at least in the full list). If everything here is reasonable discourse, then Silicon Valley is actually super open-minded! If not, then we can have a meta-conversation about which of these positions can be held by reasonable people, and which deserve shaming instead of debate.

And if we can’t even talk about that, then we really have a problem.