You’re Calling *Who* A Cult Leader?

Fol­lowup to: Why Our Kind Can’t Co­op­er­ate, Cul­tish Countercultishness

I used to be a lot more wor­ried that I was a cult leader be­fore I started read­ing Hacker News. (WARNING: Do not click that link if you do not want an­other ad­dic­tive In­ter­net habit.)

From time to time, on a mailing list or IRC chan­nel or blog which I ran, some­one would start talk­ing about “cults” and “echo cham­bers” and “co­ter­ies”. And it was a scary ac­cu­sa­tion, be­cause no mat­ter what kind of epistemic hygeine I try to prac­tice my­self, I can’t look into other peo­ple’s minds. I don’t know if my long-time read­ers are agree­ing with me be­cause I’m mak­ing sense, or be­cause I’ve de­vel­oped creepy mind-con­trol pow­ers. My read­ers are drawn from the non­con­formist crowd—the athe­ist/​liber­tar­ian/​technophile/​sf-reader/​Sili­con-Valley/​early-adopter cluster—and so they cer­tainly wouldn’t ad­mit to wor­ship­ping me even if they were.

And then I ran into Hacker News, where ac­cu­sa­tions in ex­actly the same tone were aimed at the site owner, Paul Gra­ham.

Hold on. Paul Gra­ham gets the same flak I do?

  • Paul Gra­ham has writ­ten a word or two about ra­tio­nal­ity… in a much more mat­ter-of-fact style.

  • Paul Gra­ham does not ask his read­ers for dona­tions. He is in­de­pen­dently wealthy.

  • Paul Gra­ham is not dab­bling in mad-sci­ence-grade AI. He runs Y Com­bi­na­tor, a seed-stage ven­ture fund.

  • Paul Gra­ham is not try­ing to save the world. He’s try­ing to help a new gen­er­a­tion of en­trepreneurs.

I’ve never heard of Paul Gra­ham say­ing or do­ing a sin­gle thing that smacks of cultish­ness. Not one.

He just wrote some great es­says (that ap­peal es­pe­cially to the non­con­formist crowd), and started an on­line fo­rum where some peo­ple who liked those es­says hang out (among oth­ers who just wan­dered into that cor­ner of the In­ter­net).

So when I read some­one:

  1. Com­par­ing the long hours worked by Y Com­bi­na­tor startup founders to the sleep-de­pri­va­tion tac­tic used in cults;

  2. Claiming that founders were asked to move to the Bay Area startup hub as a cult tac­tic of sep­a­ra­tion from friends and fam­ily;

...well, that out­right broke my sus­pen­sion of dis­be­lief.

Some­thing is go­ing on here which has more to do with the be­hav­ior of non­con­formists in packs than whether or not you can make a plau­si­ble case for cultish­ness or even cultish­ness risk fac­tors.

But there are as­pects of this phe­nomenon that I don’t un­der­stand, be­cause I’m not feel­ing what they’re feel­ing.

Be­hold the fol­low­ing, which is my true opinion:

“Gödel, Escher, Bach” by Dou­glas R. Hofs­tadter is the most awe­some book that I have ever read. If there is one book that em­pha­sizes the tragedy of Death, it is this book, be­cause it’s ter­rible that so many peo­ple have died with­out read­ing it.

I know peo­ple who would never say any­thing like that, or even think it: ad­miring any­thing that much would mean they’d joined a cult (note: Hofs­tadter does not have a cult). And I’m pretty sure that this nega­tive re­ac­tion to strong ad­mira­tion is what’s go­ing on with Paul Gra­ham and his es­says, and I be­gin to sus­pect that not a sin­gle thing more is go­ing on with me.

But I’m hav­ing trou­ble un­der­stand­ing this phe­nomenon, be­cause I my­self feel no bar­rier against ad­miring Gödel, Escher, Bach that highly.

In fact, I would say that by far the most cultish-look­ing be­hav­ior on Hacker News is peo­ple try­ing to show off how will­ing they are to dis­agree with Paul Gra­ham. Let me try to ex­plain how this feels when you’re the tar­get of it:

It’s like go­ing to a library, and when you walk in the doors, ev­ery­one looks at you, star­ing. Then you walk over to a cer­tain row of book­cases—say, you’re look­ing for books on writ­ing—and at once sev­eral oth­ers, walk­ing with stiff, ex­ag­ger­ated move­ments, se­lect a differ­ent stack to read in. When you reach the book­shelves for Dewey dec­i­mal 808, there are sev­eral other peo­ple pre­sent, tak­ing quick glances out of the cor­ner of their eye while pre­tend­ing not to look at you. You take out a copy of The Poem’s Heart­beat: A Man­ual of Prosody.

At once one of the oth­ers pre­sent reaches to­ward a differ­ent book­case and pro­claims, “I’m not read­ing The Poem’s Heart­beat! In fact, I’m not read­ing any­thing about po­etry! I’m read­ing The Ele­ments of Style, which is much more widely recom­mended by many main­stream writ­ers.” Another steps in your di­rec­tion and non­cha­lantly takes out a sec­ond copy of The Poem’s Heart­beat, say­ing, “I’m not read­ing this book just be­cause you’re read­ing it, you know; I think it’s a gen­uinely good book, my­self.”

Mean­while, a teenager who just hap­pens to be there, glances over at the book. “Oh, po­etry,” he says.

“Not ex­actly,” you say. “I just thought that if I knew more about how words sound—the rhythm—it might make me a bet­ter writer.”

“Oh!” he says, “You’re a writer?”

You pause, try­ing to calcu­late whether the term does you too much credit, and fi­nally say, “Well, I have a lot of read­ers, so I must be a writer.”

“I plan on be­ing a writer,” he says. “Got any tips?”

“Start writ­ing now,” you say im­me­di­ately. “I once read that ev­ery writer has a mil­lion words of bad writ­ing in­side them, and you have to get it out be­fore you can write any­thing good. Yes, one mil­lion. The sooner you start, the sooner you finish.”

The teenager nods, look­ing very se­ri­ous. “Any of these books,” ges­tur­ing around, “that you’d recom­mend?”

“If you’re in­ter­ested in fic­tion, then definitely Jack Bick­ham’s Scene and Struc­ture,” you say, “though I’m still strug­gling with the form my­self. I need to get bet­ter at de­scrip­tion.”

“Thanks,” he says, and takes a copy of Scene and Struc­ture.

“Hold on!” says the holder of The Ele­ments of Style in a tone of shock. “You’re go­ing to read that book just be­cause he told you to?

The teenager fur­rows his brow. “Well, sure.”

There’s an au­dible gasp, com­ing not just from the lo­cal stacks but from sev­eral other stacks nearby.

“Well,” says the one who took the other copy of The Poem’s Heart­beat, “of course you mean that you’re tak­ing into ac­count his ad­vice about which books to read, but re­ally, you’re perfectly ca­pa­ble of de­cid­ing for your­self which books to read, and would never al­low your­self to be swayed by ar­gu­ments with­out ad­e­quate sup­port. Why, I bet you can think of sev­eral book recom­men­da­tions that you’ve re­jected, thus show­ing your in­de­pen­dence. Cer­tainly, you would never go so far as to lose your­self in fol­low­ing some­one else’s book recom­men­da­tions—”

What?” says the teenager.

If there’s an as­pect of the whole thing that an­noys me, it’s that it’s hard to get that in­no­cence back, once you even start think­ing about whether you’re in­de­pen­dent of some­one. I re­cently down­voted one of PG’s com­ments on HN (for the first time—a re­spon­dent had pointed out that the com­ment was wrong, and it was). And I couldn’t help think­ing, “Gosh, I’m down­vot­ing one of PG’s com­ments”—no mat­ter how silly that is in con­text—be­cause the cached thought had been planted in my mind from read­ing other peo­ple ar­gu­ing over whether or not HN was a “cult” and defend­ing their own free­dom to dis­agree with PG.

You know, there might be some other things that I ad­mire highly be­sides Gödel, Escher, Bach, and I might or might not dis­agree with some things Dou­glas Hofs­tadter once said, but I’m not even go­ing to list them, be­cause GEB doesn’t need that kind of mod­er­a­tion. It is okay for GEB to be awe­some. In this world there are peo­ple who have cre­ated awe­some things and it is okay to ad­mire them highly! Let this Earth have at least a lit­tle of its pride!

I’ve been flip­ping through ideas that might ex­plain the anti-ad­mira­tion phe­nomenon. One of my first thoughts was that I eval­u­ate my own po­ten­tial so highly (rightly or wrongly is not rele­vant here) that prais­ing Gödel, Escher, Bach to the stars doesn’t feel like mak­ing my­self in­fe­rior to Dou­glas Hofs­tadter. But upon re­flec­tion, I strongly sus­pect that I would feel no bar­rier to prais­ing GEB even if I weren’t do­ing any­thing much in­ter­est­ing with my life. There’s some fear I don’t feel, or some norm I haven’t ac­quired.

So rather than guess any fur­ther, I’m go­ing to turn this over to my read­ers. I’m hop­ing in par­tic­u­lar that some­one used to feel this way—shut­ting down an im­pulse to praise some­one else highly, or feel­ing that it was cultish to praise some­one else highly—and then had some kind of epiphany af­ter which it felt, not al­lowed, but rather, quite nor­mal.

Part of the se­quence The Craft and the Community

Next post: “On Things that are Awe­some

Pre­vi­ous post: “Tol­er­ate Tol­er­ance