Not all opinions

For all readers a bit less “in” the tech scene: an interesting thing happened in the last few days. First Paul Graham tweeted:

Understandably, people asked him to start by denouncing one of his partners, Peter Thiel, a known Trump supporter. Paul refused, saying this is exactly what we do not want. A shoutout to David Heinemeier Hansson (@dhh) for calling this out and not backing down (he now seems blocked by Graham)


In this post I am explaining why Paul Graham’s position based on unfair or untrue assumptions, and it is entirely fine to cut ties with someone if they hold abject opinions, even if you are in your heart an open minded person.

Assumption 1: All opinions should be allowed in public debates

This is an interesting assumption that I find often in more privileged people. We should allow all opinions, because otherwise people will be alienated. This is more or less what Paul Graham argues. But… We can all agree (I hope) that there are some opinions that we think go too far. If someone at a cocktail party proposes to go outside and shoot some people, I think we an all agree that is crossing this line, right? If you agree, you agree to the fact that there is a line that can be crossed. Great! Now we can talk about where the line is.

Assumption 2: People with ‘different’ political views can otherwise be reasonable people

I love this programming related quote by Kevlin Henney:

I think this holds for political views too. We cannot expect people that call news outlets “terrorism” or think women should not be allowed to vote can reasonably leave that opinion at the door at work. I mean, as a VC your job is quite literally to judge other people. Even people who are aware of bias, still have biases, so it is unreasonable to assume that someone with such strong views has less bias, and can judge people based on just merit.

Assumption 3: Reasonable discourse is always educational

This is related to the first assumption by Paul Graham; that we will just lose or alienate people with different opinions if we shun them and stop talking. I think there might be a hidden assumption that is we remain talking, people will eventually get more reasonable. This is somewhat true, I have seen people change opinions and my own on many things has changed. But, to be able to learn there has to be some common ground

Let’s assume we are debating the topic of female participation in the workforce. I am sketching three  scenario’s here.

1) Person A: There should be quota — Person B: Quota are unfair.

This can potentially be a good discussion. Despite the differences of opinion, there is lots of common ground, like: there is an issue here and something could be done. In such a discussion, I think A and B could walk away with a “agree to disagree” and still be friends, they could learn from the other by exchanging arguments “in the current tempo, the situation will only be resolved in 2561” and hypothesizing “but what would happen to qualified men” for example.

Great learning ensues for A and B.

2) Person A: Job discrimination against women is a thing. — Person B: Job discrimination against women is not a thing.

Now, here things are more difficult. Why? There is less common ground. We cannot change B’s mind with arguments, we have to battle with facts. Look, here is a scientific paper that did this and that and measured x. So, learning is not mutual, it goes from A to B. Often I have seen these derail into heckling the methodology of the paper. And while I also like debating scientific methodologies, this is not the discussion I entered, and I am not learning, I am teaching.

Learning could ensue for B, but it might be painful for B and tiring for A.

3) Person A: Job discrimination against women is a thing — Person B: Women should not be allowed to vote.

Okay, now what?Are there any argument that could possibly change B’s mind? Is there any fact? Is there a chance that B will listen? Probably not, and it will be especially hard if is A is female, because the scope is already that her voice is not worth anything.

No learning occur can realistically occur, A feels hurt for not being granted a voice.

So, learning is, sadly, not possible if there is no common ground and no acceptance that the other side might have a reasonable stance. You might draw the line at killing, I draw the line at being denied the right to vote.

Assumption 4: We are keeping everyone in the debate

And this all could be okay, in one of of three cases we could have learning and move people to a middle. But! At what costs? The assumption is also that by having RepealThe19th-ers in the debate, we are retaining everyone. But… allowing one party to stay, means other will leave. The problem is that leaving is silent and not “kicking out”. If I would ever do a startup again, I would not apply to YC, and I am sure other minorities would not either. So, you are disallowing people to participate in the discussion, some might be (medium) vocal like me, many will just silently decide not to discuss issues with you anymore, so the pool of voices will be limited. So you are not even reaching your goal of hearing “all opinions”!

Assumption 5: Reasonable discourse is free

This leads to my final assumption, the one that debating stuff is somehow free (and fun). If minorities want to change the world, they should not leave, but rather educate people about their world views. This is an opinion also often found in people of privilege. But minority means, by definition, there are less of us then there are of you. If I spent my time on writing stuff like this (currently over 15.000 words on this blog alone and countless tweets and live discussions) I am not talking about my research (I research cool stuff about spreadsheets and programming for children) or spent time on talks, while others are. Also, unaffected people can decide to participate in a discussion on, let’s say female workforce participation, or not. They can leave and be unaffected, unhurt, not exhausted. I cannot. If you are saying: you do not deserve the vote, you are dragging me into a type-3 discussion, which I can either refuse (but I will be seen as crazy bitch, or, worse maybe, “free speech hater”) or leave exhausted. So there is a cost for debate, and it is very often on the minority’s plate, not yours.

Addendum because I have lovely smart friends: This is a very good thread on the discourse and the normalization of extreme opinions:


Sadly, I now need disclaimers on posts because I know trolls will start bullshitting me on Twitter or in the comments. So, here goes. A few things I am not saying: we should just fire everyone with a different opinion. I am saying that reasonable, open minded people can decide to stop talking with someone for their opinions without being oppressors/censors/haters of democracy. Please do not bother me with any tweet or comment related to “slippery slope”, because slippery slope is a lazy argument for people that do not want to discuss where the line should be.