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.

41 thoughts on “What’s Our Problem? by Tim Urban

  1. Hey Eric,

    Thanks for this review. I haven’t quite finished the book, but after three full chapters about “social justice fundamentalism” I have found myself wondering ‘doth he protest too much’.

    I found the start of the book quite interesting and enlightening. The concept of adding “high/low rung” thinking to the traditional left/right categorisations seemed a useful way to bring perspective to the current political environment in the USA, although it still felt to be a bit too generalised for my own liking.

    I do think there are likely good points being made about the times that social justice goes too far, and I’m glad to be reminded to be vigilant when it comes to social media and click-bait type alarmist headlines – eg don’t just blindly retweet or shout disapproval without actually reading into things a bit more and reaching your own educated conclusions, but just have found myself wanting him to finish with the lengthy catalogue of SJF issues. I’ve still got quite a few pages to go in Chapter 7, so I guess I’ll get there eventually, but I do appreciate your reasoned review here as a good way to keep my perspectives intact and hopefully maintain my critical thinking!


    1. I agree that the high/low rung distinction is interesting, but as I’m seeing it applied, it’s being used as a way to dismiss any thinking people don’t agree with, which is another form of self-sealing echo chamber. “I don’t have to listen to that low-rung thinker” is functionally equivalent to “I don’t have to listen to that person not in my tribe”.

      For what it’s worth, I thought Jon Ronson’s book So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed was a much better exploration of “the times that social justice goes too far”.

  2. Thanks for the review of this book, Eric.

    I agree with you that there are many other important issues and problems facing society today. I read Urban as highlighting that the underlying mindset of liberal society is in the process of being hijacked by an illiberal, semi-religious ideology which appeals to our base instincts. If this continues to grow as it has for the past two decades and it permeates all our major institutions, the results could be catastrophic.

    Urban isn’t addressing specific problems, he is targeting our social problem solving system itself — our operating system. For historical analogies, consider the ideology of Fascism in the 40s, Communism in China after WWII, or the religious extremism in Iran which took over in the 70s.

    There are at lest two different ways this can lead to catastrophe. First, is obviously that we can no longer function as a healthy society once our institutions operate on a divisive, illiberal ideology of victimhood. Any society which denigrates rationalism, logic, color-blindness, punctuality and such as racism (the supposed ultimate bad) and which promotes victimology is not going to thrive for long in any complex world. And unlike Fascism or Marxism or religious fanaticism, this ideology is infecting the frontier societies of the global order. Thus it will undermine science, free enterprise and technological progress.

    Second, is the response of the golem of the right to the threat of this golem of the left. Evangelical Christians and conservatives are never going to accept this ideology. Thus (if these trends continue) they will be ejected from polite society and no longer welcome in schools, colleges, or large business. This will result in them becoming second class citizens at war with the left. The net result will be the emergence of a red gollum to fight the blue golem. Think Hutus and Tutsis. The last few year in the GOP has highlighted how realistic this fear is.

    Urban is highlighting an existential threat to modern society. If this golem continues to grow, it is over. He is writing this book as a warning to avert disaster.

    1. I understand that’s his perspective. And I explained in the post why I don’t agree.

      Where you say “the underlying mindset of liberal society is in the process of being hijacked by an illiberal, semi-religious ideology which appeals to our base instincts”, I see as an attempt to actually reckon with the ways in which our society fails to live up to its goals to treat all people equally.

      It’s also hilarious to me that you equate what Urban calls social justice fundamentalism to fascism and the Rwandan genocide. Who has been killed as a result of these activists? A few hundred people have lost their jobs, and some have lost their reputations. As I mentioned in the post, this is not equivalent to the millions of people who are in jail today as a result of a system that disproportionately prosecutes and convicts people with black or brown skin. Or the millions of women who lose their jobs regularly due to discrimination, or because they don’t have the support to care for their children and families after being abandoned by the men who created those families.

      My question to you is why are you so threatened by these trends? The people I know who feel such threat know at some level that things are not fair or just in our current society, but don’t want to engage with that, so they find ways to dismiss it. They use motivated reasoning to come to the conclusion they want, which is that they don’t have to change, and everybody else should change.

      That’s my problem with this book What’s Our Problem? The whole book is an exercise in motivated reasoning, where he picks the stories and studies that support his point and makes a compelling narrative populated with Golems and Genies to support the story that he wants. It’s a persuasive book, and that is its danger. He dismisses the stories and studies that don’t fit his narrative (as I replied in the other comment I just made), and doesn’t engage with what social justice activists are actually saying. I like Charlie Munger’s advice that “I never allow myself to have an opinion on anything that I don’t know the other side’s argument better than they do” and Urban fails on that metric.

      As I said, it’s a pity, because there is a thoughtful discussion to be had on how to balance competing tensions between “truth” and “free speech” where people want the freedom to say whatever they want, and justice, where we address the inequities that are already present in our society as a result of hundreds of years of discrimination and that affect tens of millions of people on a daily basis in the US alone.

      I care more about justice these days than the theoretical concerns of people who are so worried about losing their current place that they equate an investigation and reckoning into the fairness of our society as “an existential threat to modern society”.

  3. This is certainly a different perspective. I myself loves the book and I’ll take this review to my friends to examine (they also like the book).

    Still, I think Tim would respond by saying that he won’t (or at least try to not) create the echo chamber you say Tim is creating.

    He also tackles the fact that there are fewer women in STEM fields. I’m surprised you didn’t notice this at all:

    “PISA is a well-known test taken by 15-year-olds across over 70 countries and economies. [note here that there’s supposed to be a graph, but it doesn’t work in this comments section so I removed it, you can find it in the book, it’s chapter 6]

    So women sometimes scored higher than men at math and science, but they always scored better at reading. The reading numbers are so skewed that even in the countries where women outperformed men in math or science, they outperformed men in reading by even higher margins.

    Data from a 30-year examination of SAT/ACT scores reveals the same pattern. On average, men do a little better on the math/science sections of the test, women do a little better on the verbal/writing sections.

    This is just one of many areas where male and female strengths differ. In an article about the Summers controversy, Steven Pinker lists some more: “Men are, on average, better at mental rotation and mathematical word problems; women are better at remembering locations and at mathematical calculation. Women match shapes more quickly, are better at reading faces, are better spellers, retrieve words more fluently, and have a better memory for verbal material. Men take greater risks and place a higher premium on status; women are more solicitous to their children.”

    While these discrepancies may partially account for the gender ratio disparity in STEM professions, social psychologist Sean Stevens notes an additional possibility: Of all people qualified to work in STEM fields, “the women in this elite group generally have much better verbal skills than the men in that elite group. This means that these women may be better employees than men who match them on quantitative skills, but because they have such superior verbal skills they have more choices available to them when selecting a profession.” Qualified women, perhaps with a more diverse set of cognitive talents, may distribute themselves among fields more widely than their male STEM equivalents.”

    So from Tim’s view he already addressed why there is a discrepancy.

    1. That’s one study. And it doesn’t explain the results we actually see. If it were truly a matter of natural strengths, we could say it’s a pipeline problem. But that’s not an accurate way to describe the situation, where a certain % of women start in STEM fields, but a disproportionate number of them quit the field. I imagine that you would explain that by saying that is because they don’t have the natural strengths, but the studies you cite are a few percentage point effects _on_average_. They do not explain the massively disproportionate results we see over time, where single digit percentage of women are at the highest levels of these fields.

      I notice how you don’t engage with what I shared that 50% of the women I talk to at tech companies are dealing with toxic situations with their manager, where their manager is literally undermining everything they do, blaming them for any problems while taking credit for their successes. If you talk to women in tech companies, you would hear these stories. And those effects seem far more credible to me as an explanation for the results we see than the trivial natural differences you are citing.

      This is the problem I have with Tim Urban’s book. There is now extensive literature to document the experiences of women and minorities in the workplace, which is far more compelling to me as an explanation for the underrepresentation results observed.

      For instance, Claude M. Steele’s book Whistling Vivaldi cites research showing that believing that one will be discriminated against leads to 30% poorer performance on tests and other evaluations because of stress about the discrimination. The most compelling example to me was a math test where women performed much worse than men. Their ingenious idea was to give a difficult math test, but explained that “on this particular test, women always do as well as men.” And indeed, “among participants who were told the test did not show gender differences, where the women were free of confirming anything about being a woman, women performed at the same high level as equally skilled men. Their underperformance was gone.”

      Which studies the author includes (and you cite) indicate what you are paying attention to. And when you selectively choose studies that support the conclusion you want, that is the definition of an Echo Chamber. That’s my disappointment with the book – Tim Urban does not do a good job of getting out of his own echo chamber and actually engaging with the work of the people he dismisses as Social Justice Fundamentalists.

      As I noted in my post, I agree there’s issues with overzealous cancel culture. And I can acknowledge that those who are advocating for social justice are addressing very real issues that I don’t think can be explained by a couple university studies done by out of touch professors.

      1. A few other perspectives that seem relevant here.
        A conversation from a DEI practitioner on why even skeptics agree with the principles of DEI. In their words, “DEI is about finding out and fixing those root causes of inequality and potential discrimination. Sometimes, it’s intentional and overt racism, for example. Other times, it’s biased policies, the lack of process, or accidental exclusion. Whatever it is, we fix it, with the goal of building a workplace free from discrimination, that works for everybody.”

        an explanation from a Black woman researcher on the different ways in which she and other Black women get treated in the workplace.

        A numbers based argument for why inclusion matters

        My post about inclusion and the stress felt as an outsider that doesn’t belong, which doesn’t let people be their best self at work.

      2. Good response. Few people on the internet these days make counter-counter arguments. It’s usually an argument, then a counterargument, then that’s it.

        I’m convinced by what you said. Keep in mind that I wasn’t expressing my personal opinion, but rather what Tim said to see what you have to say about that.

      3. Sorry for a late reply.

        It is true that people who believe that a test is discriminated against them are likely to do worse. However, Tim says that SJF is saying a test is discriminates without actually providing evidence it is.

  4. Good review. I disagree with you on one point though.

    I think Tim does understand that there have been historical inequities and inequalities, and I do, too. That’s what Liberal Social Justice is for.

    The social justice Tim has issue with, however, is Social Justice Fundamentalism, that causes the issues you have problems with.

    Tim recognizes the problems you mentioned but that isn’t what he has issue with.

    Candidly speaking I’m still a little iffy on the idea that the gender pay gap doesn’t exist.

  5. Thanks for the critique. I agree that ‘something is lacking’. I was enamored with the new vocabulary and systems thinking but I feel he is a bit too much in a bubble. Like he could benefit more from a break from the workings of his mind and get out and connect with the actual people and why their experiences have shaped them. ‘Primitive’ mind is likely oversimplified and my suspicion is that that there is an intermediary state between higher / primitive that might capture more if the ‘lived narrative’ trauma of real human experience

      1. I am referring more to a Z-axis that says ‘personal trauma’ with four segments similar to the Y-axis. There is a ‘rationally irrational’ state that humans find themselves in. Said another way, I will quote GK Chesterton ‘Courage is almost a contradiction in terms. It means a strong desire to live taking the form of a readiness to die…. A soldier surrounded by enemies, if he is to cut his way out, needs to combine a strong desire for living with a strange carelessness about dying. He must not merely cling to life, for then he will be a coward, and will not escape. He must not merely wait for death, for then he will be a suicide, and will not escape. He must seek his life in a spirit of furious indifference to it; he must desire life like water and yet drink death like wine.’ I don’t feel ‘sports fan’ and ‘attorney’ capture the essence of this quote. Thinking like a scientist is not what I recommend to my friend whose daughter was at Sandy Hook

        1. I don’t know how to answer that. Your points are important to be considered. I’ll probably ask Tim in his next Q&A.

  6. ‘ 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.’

    My only issue with this is I never ‘observed’ Urban actually doing this or ‘thinking’ this way. You are describing what somebody *could* do who perversely applies his framework. I agree wholeheartedly with your main thesis but I give him ‘the benefit of the doubt’ as an individual. That said many folks will likely ‘think this way’—as you describe—after reading his book. He aptly described how SJF *can* operate as an echo chamber but not all folks actually operate that way. You seem to be throwing the baby out with the bath water here

    1. Exactly. Tim doesn’t do that. His ideas can be used to create them, but you shouldn’t blame him.

  7. The thing is though, Tim does use people’s lived experiences. Look back through chapters 6 and 7, you’ll find more than one example of teachers/students/workers saying (mostly anonymously) saying how they’re afraid of SJF.

    And Tim doesn’t actually use low rung thinking to create an echo chamber. You didn’t back that up with any evidence. Making claims without evidence is at best poor arguing and at worst dishonest arguing.

    And when did Tim compare SJF to fascism and the Rwandan Genocide? Straw manning.

    1. That was another commenter (Swami) that compared SJF to Fascism, Communism, and Hutus and Tutsis (Rwanda). I agree that’s ridiculous, but is it a straw man if this is how people are using Urban’s description of Social Justice Fundamentalism? That’s why I responded strongly to it, because I actually do want to engage with the ideas.

      The reason I think Urban is creating an Echo Chamber is that he is not engaging with people in the Social Justice movement. Yes, he includes the lived experience of people who are afraid of Social Justice Fundamentalists, because that supports his point that it’s a great threat to society. He is not including the lived experiences of others who are suffering in the current society, those experiencing poverty or racism or sexism. Why are those voices not represented in his book? Because they don’t support his point. I see him acting as an Attorney, dismissing and arguing against experiences like the gender pay gap, etc. He’s starting from the conclusion he wants to prove, using motivated reasoning to get there, and I am calling him out on that.

      You say that “His [Urban’s] ideas can be used to create them [Echo Chambers], but you shouldn’t blame him.” And yet that’s what Urban does in blaming Social Justice activists for the zealots using those ideas to create the SJF Echo Chambers. Saying that ideas are only dangerous when used by the other side again feels like motivated reasoning to me.

      1. Eric Nehrlich I valued your perspective and personally used your criticism to drive deeper introspection toward my experience of the book. I think you make perfectly reasonable points which is how I started thinking about the missing Z-axis and the Chesterton quote I shared. I am Ryan by the way. Posted as Anonymous but will fix that as I continue in the discussion going forward

      2. Glad we agree that SJF isn’t as bad as fascism or genocide.

        Onto other points:

        For your second paragraph, I think what you say is actually quite valid. I’ll discuss it with my friends to see what they think of it. Thanks for the observation.

        For you third paragraph, Tim admits that SJF might be useful and that it isn’t necessarily low rung, which I agree with. He just has issue in how it’s expanding (in a low rung way). Both Tim’s ideas and SJF can be used to create Echo Chambers. But Tim didn’t do that, which was my point.

        1. Just to clarify, when I said “helping with that” I meant “helping them out of oppression”.

      3. Now that I think about it, I think I have an answer to why Tim Urban did not include perspectives from those of the oppressed.

        In chapter 7 Tim said that SJF is bad for almost everyone, including those who are oppressed.

        So in Tim’s view he didn’t include the view of anybody who is oppressed because SJF isn’t helping with that anyway.

        1. As you pointed out above, Urban repeatedly mentions the people who have been allegedly harmed by SJF (it’s funny how many people complaining about “cancel culture” don’t seem to have a problem finding platforms to speak from). By featuring one set of experiences, and not another, he is saying those are the experiences that matter, more so than the people who are suffering and oppressed under the current system.

          Why are the people “afraid of SJF” more worthy of featuring in his book than the people who are experiencing the tangible effects of racism and poverty I described? Because they support his point. That’s his bias. I’m just pointing it out.

          1. As Tim noted in chapter 7, just because famous people like him can speak out doesn’t mean everybody can (keep in mind in Changing Course he does note that the internet does give people a platform anyway).

            Why are the people afraid of SJF more worthy of being featured?

            I disagree with your reason why.

            The people who are experiencing the tangible effects of racism and poverty are bad, but SJF DOES NOT help with that.

            That’s what Liberal Social Justice is for.

            From chapter 5:

            “Using different rules and lower standards for children makes sense. But when you apply different standards to different demographic groups in a society, you’re treating groups of adults like children. Which is awfully patronizing.

            This is what some call ‘the soft bigotry of low expectations.'”

            Sure, you mentioned the personal experiences of those oppressed by racism and poverty. But you haven’t given me an example of SJF spercifically solving those problems.

            And from Tim’s view, SJF doesn’t solve those problems.

            You didn’t really give a counterargument to my (and Tim’s) claim that SJF doesn’t actually help those oppressed.

            If you could give me such an example, of SJF helping someone oppressed, than I will concede defeat.

          2. I’m not trying to defeat you. I’m not trying to argue that SJF always works as intended in helping those it says it wants to help.

            What I’m saying is that Tim’s book centers on the problems SJF causes for a a few hundred people, who are mostly white privileged people who don’t have any other problems. That’s fine, that’s what he chooses to care about.

            I think there are much bigger problems in our society than SJF, like the people who are facing the real effects of racism and poverty and other structural issues. Urban’s book, a “self-help book for societies”. barely mentions those problems in passing, instead focusing on SJF as the primary problem. I disagree with that prioritization.

          3. Since the conversation stopped:

            I think Tim is trying to bring attention to SJF because his main audience, people on the left (including me) are/were unaware of this.

            I agree that racism and poverty are big problems, but I think Tim believes that SJF is an obstacle many people (including me) don’t know about that hinders attempts to solve these problems. I don’t think Tim prioritizes the problem of SJF over racism and poverty (I sure hope so anyway, because that’s what I believe).

            I agree that maybe Tim wrote a little too much about SJF.

            Now that I think about it, “A Self-Help Book for Societies” might be not have been the best title.

            After all, it didn’t list all the problems facing Earth (of which there are hundreds), nor would it have made for a good book.

  8. I posit a Z-axis is needed with 4 rungs similar to the Y-axis. At the lowest rung of the Z-axis would be: ‘trauma experienced by another individual in a ‘warring’ tribe’

    The second rung would be ‘trauma experienced by another individual in my tribe’

    The third rung would be ‘trauma experienced by my immediate family and friends’

    The fourth rung would be ‘trauma experienced by things that happened directly to me’

    Obviously I need to clean this up some and polish it. Just trying to get others thinking

    1. Yeah, definitely needs some polishing up.

      If the X-axis is “what you think” and the Y-axis is “how you think” then what part of thinking does the Z-axis cover?

      1. Great question. thanks for not shitting all over it, but giving me something to consider. I appreciate it. The initial thought I have is the Z-axis is ‘where you think’; but i need time to develop that thought more. by ‘where’ i mean ‘where inside of your history and story that your quantum computer ‘brain’ is pulling from. not ‘where’ in terms of space and time. Where inside *how you ‘identify’* with yourself and the world.

        1. For example, my brain is conditioned to resist the certain identities others might project upon me or confront me with. I can experience this ‘resistance’ framing it in the form of an “I am…” statement and deeply considering the ways I resist this identity. For example, since I have immutable characteristics, the language i and others would use to describe me is White Male. If i consider the following identity: “I am a white supremacist”. *where* do I go ‘inside’ my brains narrative of myself to form a response to this. I might query my history of ‘truth’. One such truth or ‘fact’ I must consider: when i was a Freshman in high school, i shared a deeply racist joke at the lunch table (somehow somebody gave me a book and I read it, i had just moved from Louisiana to Houston in the summer of my 8th grade to Freshman year). There was one Black Male at the table, and I distinctly recall the memory whereby he laughed at the joke–he didn’t like it–but he laughed and said “i can see where you find that funny”. Where on my Z-axis might I be? “Trauma experienced by another individual in my tribe”. In this example, “Trauma experience” might be the Black Male sitting at the table. He is ‘in my tribe’ insofar as he is a fellow classmate in the same grade as me. In this case, the tribe = Taylor High School, Class of ’93. In this instance it is *I* who am the one causing / inflicting the damage, but I could share numerous stories of bullying I received earlier in my life–growing up in Elementary school in the 1980s in Southern Lousisana as a way to ‘combat’ or somehow ‘excuse’ my behavior. But I will resist that temptation. I share it merely to convey my Freshman year version of myself was operating in that moment on level 2 of the Z-axis. My 6 year old version of myself got the shit beat out of him by a young black Male. This version of me experienced Level-4 rung “personal trauma” which I internalized and likely subconsciously let it contribute to the horrific words I shared at the table in the 9th grade version of me. All of these are ‘facts’ in so far as this literally my experience. Sooooo, back to the Z-axis and the concept of ‘where I think’. Where do i choose to go in my personal narrative and story matters deeply in how I identify and present myself to the world. The adult version of my typing at this keyboard in this very moment, must consider this ‘truth’ of mine when I decided my relationship to the following “I am” statement: “I am a white supremacist”. Hope that makes sense, i had to be vulnerable, but it is the best I can come up with to express myself right now. Please be respectful and know that I am not ‘trying to persuade’ anybody here. I am seeking an ‘Idea Lab’ and collaboration, not trying to litigate this concept.

          1. The z-axis might have ‘positive’ and ‘negative’ polarities where + = any accrual of ‘perceived harm’ I experienced and – = any dispensation of harm to others. In my story, the 6 yr old me had a + charged experience, meaning it *harmed me*. The 9 yr old me had a – charged experience, meaning *I* harmed another.

            Sorry for all the typos in the above, i can’t edit to fix. Hope you can do the autocorrect when reading.

          2. Hi, I think I understand it now. It’s definitely more complicated than the other axises. I think it can work.

            A question though:

            What happens if no one in your tribe nor yourself have experienced trauma relating to that topic? Where do you go on the Z-axis there?

          3. What happens if no one in your tribe nor yourself have experienced trauma relating to that topic? Where do you go on the Z-axis there?

            My initial thought – technically, we are inescapably tied to at least 1 tribe – the human race. This is the ‘mother of all tribes’ and hence nobody is technically tribeless assuming they identify as being a ‘human being’. If the ‘topic’ involves some dimension of human experience, then it seems to be ‘in game’ that my Z-axis comes into to play. Having a ‘zero’ coordinate for the Z-axis might be something such as ‘2+2=4’ or ‘2+2=5’ but if strongly believed and ran around society like a madman yelling ‘2+2=5’ then others would likely experience *me* as mentally ill. and the moment *another person* experiences *me* in public yelling that loudly or calmly, their Z-axis comes into play because it is now an ‘experience’ another human being has of *me*.

          4. Every human to human interact on this planet that occurs, involves some dimension of the Z-axis. A kind of ‘quantum exchange’ takes place, most often it is so infinitesimally small so as to go unnoticed.

          5. Mr. Rommel, I woke up this morning with an awareness: switch the rungs. The Level 4 Rung on the Z-Axis would be trauma experienced by another individual in a ‘warring’ tribe’. The ‘higher’ the rung on the Z-Axis the more the ‘containment’ of empathy is accrued and able to be released into the world. I had it reversed in my first draft. The Z-axis represents ‘where to think’ as in ‘where do i go inside my personal ‘truth’ of my life’ when constructing both my identity and how i ‘see’ the world. This is what Eric ‘called out’ and his insight was incredibly valuable to build upon Urban’s work. Urban misses the Z-Axis entirely in my view. I tried reaching out to Urban on linkedin but I am a mere “pleb” and have no way to get his attention and actually have a discussion.

          6. Thanks for replying.

            I guess it is true that since we are all part of the human race, someone in our tribe has experienced trauma. I think switching the rungs is a good idea.

            Yeah, Tim is very busy. He didn’t respond to me despite my best efforts to get his attention on a Reddit AMA (ask me anything). There were thousands of comments.

            Anyhow, Tim doesn’t seem to be talking about his book much anymore. He hasn’t brought up what people thought of this book (like Amazon reviews, Nehrlich’s review, or all the other reviews) on Twitter or elsewhere. He’s more focused on other things to talk about in life that aren’t politics.

            He’s writing a book about the universe, which is consuming a lot of time in general, along with advertising his new blog post about being a father on Twitter (he had a newborn the day after the book release).

            Sorry I rambled there but Tim’s busy. I doubt we have a chance of reaching him.

            As (I think) Volitaire said “I didn’t have enough time to make this letter shorter”.

  9. Eric, thanks again for taking the time to write this critique! What is fascinating is that I had no idea what ‘motivated reasoning’ was. That word wasn’t in my vocabulary; however I found myself enamored with Urbans book and I was using my metacognition to begin to wonder ‘what is happening inside me that is causing me to be so enamored’. I held that awareness and continued plowing through the book, but kept it as close to my consciousness as possible if I ever needed to access it. Upon completing the book, I concluded that I ‘highly recommended it’ (and I still do) however I knew I needed to do more: I needed to seek out critical viewpoints and expose myself. After a google search of some kind I started going through links. Some critiques I would stop reading halfway through as I concluded ‘the critic obviously missed the whole point’. I had no desire to try to persuade them otherwise so I went to the next link. I ended up landing on this post of yours somehow. At first read of your original post there were moments were some of the language you used were activating me toward resistance— however I stuck with it. The point about not including the lived experiences of those oppressed stuck with me as an indisputable point. While Urban drilled home to me the stories of SJF ‘victims’, there was nothing on the trauma of those oppressed. This got me thinking about the Z-axis and my Courage quote. I have reread this entire thread and have started exploring ‘motivated reasoning’ and I believe that word describes exactly what was happening to me with my ‘being enamored’. The reason I am saying all this is that I have benefited greatly from your links and material—starting with the essay you recommended from you 2020 Covid blog. I encourage you not to dismiss all ‘enamored fans’ of Urbans book as I believe there is still a huge population of folks that might be like me—the rule rather than the exception. I might but wrong on this but for me Urbans book has been a kind of ‘gateway drug’ to explore a whole new set of ideas. In many ways it gave me ‘hope’ to read a thinker that—however flawed—made a courageous and earnest attempt to ‘put himself out there’. I have now moved onto to the many materials you curated for me as you enumerated your journey and it is richly satisfying to begin a new chapter of my self-interrogation! Thank you man!

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