Cover art for Hackers and Painters (2004) —

“Argue with idiots, and you become an idiot”

Thoughts on Hackers and Painters, and whether keeping your mouth shut is really the wisest thing to do

I’ve just recently finished the book Hackers and Painters by Paul Graham. The book covers a number of different topics, much of which I can appreciate, but not all of which I agree with. In one particular chapter, Graham discusses “moral fashion”, which he takes to be the deliberate creation- and enforcement- of some set of values or views. He suggests that we should always question popular views, and decide for ourselves whether or not we agree with them. In this, I could not agree with him more.

However, Graham goes on to advise the reader that if their conclusions do not align with the current moral fashion, it is best for the reader to keep their mouth shut. He then presents us with the following:

Suppose in the future there is a movement to ban the color yellow. Proposals to paint anything yellow are denounced as “yellowist”, as is anyone suspected of liking the color. People who like orange are tolerated but viewed with suspicion. Suppose you realize there is nothing wrong with yellow. If you go around saying so, you’ll be denounced as yellowist too, and you’ll find yourself having a lot of arguments with anti-yellowists. If your aim in life is to rehabilitate the colour yellow, that may be what you want. But if you’re mostly interested in other questions, being labeled as yellowist will just be a distraction. Argue with idiots, and you become an idiot. — Graham, 2004

On the surface, this seems like a reasonable statement. However, I am inclined to think that it is somewhat harmful. Humour me with a thought experiment.

Let us say that computer science courses are male dominated. Let us then say that (for some hypothetical reason) the popular view in computer science courses is that there is lack of females because females do not like computer science, or perhaps do not possess the requisite skills. Say you — as a male computer science student — realise that there are a number of females that are interested in computer science, and are in good at it, but are dropping out due to bullying, or for lack of a sense of belonging. What should you do with this knowledge?

It seems to me, by Graham’s logic, that you should keep this information to yourself, lest you spend the rest of your days trying to convince your fellow students that women really do want to study computer science, but don’t due to the existing culture of the course.

Personally, I would argue that you should share this knowledge. I don’t mean to imply that you should become a fiery activist for The Representation of Women in Computer Science. I do, however, think (and have generally observed) that starting a non-confrontational conversation with someone about issues such as these, can have positive follow-on effects.

I recently listened to a Rationally Speaking podcast [transcript], where Julia Galef talks with David McRaney about the difficulties of changing someone’s mind. Toward the end of the podcast, McRaney posits that most people hold their views at a very superficial level.

We carry around what you would almost consider a meta belief. We have a belief about our belief, and that belief that we have about our belief is that we have acted like Gandalf and gone down into the bowels of whatever academic source and we’ve pored over the data and we’ve looked at all the original documents and we’ve written in our journal, a‐ha, this is what I think about this. But we’ve never really actually done that for most things. Instead, we just had a belief that we’ve done that, and we have this emotionally charged opinion that is almost ‐‐ it seems the purpose for having this opinion is to not have to spend time thinking about it. It’s heuristical. — McRaney, 2016

McRaney references an experiment performed by the Leadership Lab in Los Angeles, where representatives go door knocking and ask people about their opinion on a certain issue. Instead of trying to change the mind of the person they are interviewing, they simply ask them a series of questions about their opinion in an attempt to get the person thinking about why they hold the views that they do.

[During this conversation] usually the person will see that it [their opinion] is received wisdom, that it was something they were taught often as a child. Their opinion is not something that they completely own. It’s something that maybe was handed to them from an outside source. — McRaney, 2016

McRaney goes on to say that it was somewhat effective to gently make the person aware of the lack of depth to their views, without attacking them for the views they currently hold. For example, instead of saying to your friends “you’re wrong, women want to be studying computer science” and walking away, it is likely more effective to ask them the reasons why they believe that women are underrepresented, and then logically deconstruct those reasons. In this way, you perhaps get one more person thinking about whether or not they do actually agree with the current moral fashion, which we decided early on was a fairly good thing.

What they found with this method, at least, it works a lot. The actual percentage that is [is] a moving target right now, but it’s not like 80%. It’s going to be on the low end. It’s like in the 12%, 15%… It’s a low percentage, but as the political scientists who study this tell me, anything above 0% would be pretty amazing because people don’t typically change their minds at the front door in a short conversation especially about a wedge issue. — McRaney, 2016

Personally, I am inclined to believe that if you can get someone thinking about their views by having a short, non-confrontational conversation with them about your own morally “unfashionable” views, then that really only has a net positive effect. In some cases, the person you are talking to may not even have a concrete view about the thing you are talking about — you will be their first exposure to the issue, and you can therefore raise awareness for an important cause with relatively little effort on your part.

As an example, a lot of my male friends in computer science and engineering weren’t aware that there were still some bad actors harassing or degrading females in these fields. By having a short conversation with a few of these people, we were all able to contribute to the awareness of this issue, and positive action was able to be taken.

I feel like if you can get enough people thinking and talking about morally “unfashionable” ideas, then change can start to occur. So in this way, I think sometimes it really is worth telling people that you’re a yellowist, and that blanket statements such as “argue with idiots and you become an idiot” are really very unhelpful. Just because someone holds a different opinion to you doesn’t mean they are an idiot. Just because something is not The Most Important Issue In Your Life, doesn’t mean you should never dedicate any time to it. Having conversations about contentious issues is how we grow and learn in all aspects of life.

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