What’s Our Problem? by Tim Urban

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I was a fan of Tim Urban and his page Wait But Why, and have been supporting him for years on Patreon. So I was excited to read his new book, subtitled “a self-help book for societies”, which finally came out after years of waiting. Alas, I was very disappointed with it.

My biggest frustration with the book is how he doesn’t live up to his own ideals. He spends the first part of the book describing how we as humans become smarter together by testing each other’s ideas in “Idea Labs” and learning from each other by really understanding different viewpoints. It’s the ideal of how science is supposed to work, as opposed to what he calls “Echo Chambers” where you only listen to ideas that support the beliefs you already have.

Alas, he falls into his own “Echo Chamber” in that his commitment to science and truth leads him to primarily listen to university academics, who have a biased viewpoint. In particular, he uses Jonathan Haidt as one of his main sources, and I have previously written about my issues with Haidt’s biased take on the Coddling of the American Mind. Haidt’s complaints seem like evidence to me of his own coddling, where he’s been treated as special and an expert his whole life, and doesn’t like his perspective being dismissed as irrelevant or out-of-touch.

And rather than engage thoughtfully with the complex problems around historic inequities that activists have brought to light, he doesn’t even mention them, instead focusing on the issues with cancel culture and its occasionally chilling impact on what people say in public. He clearly hasn’t done the work to understand their viewpoint (he only cites Ibram X Kendi and Robin DiAngelo as his sources as well as the Black Lives Matter website), instead setting up a straw man version of their perspective, and arguing with that.

I think the part where I lost it is when he centered the professor experience by lamenting that “dozens of scholars from around the U.S. have had their careers tarred or totally derailed” for questioning the social justice narrative. He doesn’t mention the millions of people who are in jail due to the War on Drugs that disproportionately targeted people of color, preventing them from voting and making it nigh impossible for them to get jobs. He doesn’t mention the millions of women who regularly lose their jobs for not deferring to their white male bosses. He doesn’t mention that just looking different than the standard Stanford graduate can mean not even getting a chance to interview. But professors losing their prestige?! Unacceptable!

While I agree that social justice activists can occasionally go too far and stray into fundamentalism, there are real problems with our society that are a result of never addressing these historical injustices. Urban tries to argue against the so-called gender gap by pointing out that people who do the same job with the same qualifications often get paid the same, but never questions why there’s a different distribution of jobs for women or people of color. He doesn’t acknowledge that after World War II, returning veterans used the GI Bill to go to college, but somehow Black veterans did not receive those benefits. Those newly college educated men used their salaries to secure mortgages to buy houses to increase the wealth in their families; Black families were blocked from receiving mortgages and buying houses. So, yes, two generations later, a child of a college-educated and wealthy family gets better jobs and paid more than somebody who isn’t, but that doesn’t mean it’s fair or just; people from certain populations aren’t just underrepresented, but were historically excluded from opportunities.

The part that’s so frustrating for me is that I was making similar arguments several years ago. I had no visceral understanding of these issues, so I took a distanced theoretical perspective, as Urban does. I did not engage with real people’s experiences that weren’t like mine, because I never had to, growing up in a sheltered suburb (as Urban did), going to Boston for college (as Urban did), and moving to Silicon Valley (Urban moved to New York).

But as the Black Lives Matter movement grew, I started reading. I read Whistling Vivaldi by Claude M. Steele to learn about stereotype threat. I read The New Jim Crow, by Michelle Alexander to understand the prison pipeline. After George Floyd, I committed to educating myself more on these issues and read several more books (and parts of several others like Isabelle Wilkerson’s Caste and Resmaa Menakem’s My Grandmother’s Hands). More importantly, I offered my coaching services for free to Black professionals, and connected with several people who I mentor to this day. By hearing their stories and their frustrations, I have a much more visceral sense of what they face on a day to day basis that doesn’t get captured in statistics or academic studies.

The same applies to what women face in the tech industry. At one point last year, half of my women clients were facing a toxic situation of some sort at work where their boss was questioning their competence, giving their work to a more junior male colleague, or outright gaslighting them; for comparison, this has happened to less than 5% of my male clients. I know one woman of color at Google who was a finalist for nine jobs, and got none of them, and because they were internal jobs, she could see that a white man got the job each time; once or twice could be bad luck, but nine times feels like something more than that. These stories changed my perspective and led to me questioning the capitalist and colonialist narratives that are the inescapable foundation of American culture.

Urban had more resources than I did to do this sort of self-education and network building. He was writing this book full-time for six years, while I was building a coaching business and raising two kids. And for him to not do that work, and to not acknowledge the real problems that the social justice activists are engaging with, is disappointing and borderline irresponsible for somebody who wanted to address what’s wrong with our culture. He complains that the “silence is violence” and “inaction is racism” mottos are unfair, because he feels he shouldn’t be judged as a racist for staying neutral, but as Howard Zinn’s autobiography is titled, You Can’t Be Neutral on a Moving Train.

And that’s the crux of it – this is a several hundred page defense of why Urban (and his professor friends) aren’t racist. He builds the whole book towards claiming that “wokeness” and “cancel culture” are the biggest threats our society is facing. But I feel they are the biggest threats to his own sense of himself as a good person, because in his mind, good people aren’t racists (actual quote: “Growing up in a progressive suburb, I would have rather been labeled almost anything other than “racist” or “sexist” or “homophobic”. In a progressive environment, these terms described the worst possible kind of person.”). Rather than engaging with the structural arguments being made by the social justice movement, he withdraws to “Science is good!” and “Free speech!” (which somehow only white people complain about, because people of color have always had their speech and actions limited in this country as Ta-Nehisi Coates memorably describes).

And despite Urban’s alleged commitment to “Idea Labs” where ideas are stronger when they’re questioned and tested, he has created a self-sealing Echo Chamber where he can dismiss any naysayers as “Low Rung” (less evolved) thinkers. He will only accept peer-reviewed papers as evidence, not people’s lived experiences, and if you get angry about that, it disqualifies you from having an opinion because then you’re an emotional person not a logical thinker, which neatly removes the need for him to engage with anybody disagreeing with him.

There’s an interesting discussion to be had on how to productively address the historical inequities identified by the social justice movement, because I do think that cancel culture can occasionally go too far, and that social justice activists have adopted a “purity” culture where anybody that has ever made an inappropriate comment or action in their life is branded as a bad person, with no chance to recover and learn. But this book is not that discussion, and I wish that somebody with Urban’s platform of millions of readers would have done better.

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