CLEARER THINKING

with Spencer Greenberg
the podcast about ideas that matter

Episode 169: What's wrong with society, and how can we fix it? (with Tim Urban)

August 3, 2023

What's wrong with society? And what can we do to fix it? Centuries ago, a person's grandparents lived in a world that was basically identical to that person's world; but what are the implications of living in a time when the rate of technological change is such that our grandparents' world was almost nothing like ours, and ours will be almost nothing like our grandchildren's? How do Tim's concepts of the "primitive mind" and the "higher mind" map onto System 1 and System 2 thinking types? What thinking styles exist along the spectrum from primitive mind to higher mind? Why are there either lots of Nazis or virtually none at all? Are there more "golems" or "genies" in the world right now? Are the American political left and right wings just equal but opposite groups, or are there significant asymmetries between them? How does social justice activism differ from "wokeness"? What is "idea supremacy"? Does liberalism need to be destroyed and rebuilt from scratch (perhaps as something else entirely) or merely repaired and revamped? Is illiberalism the biggest threat facing the world right now — bigger even than AI, climate change, etc.?

Tim Urban is the writer/illustrator and co-founder of Wait But Why, a long-form, stick-figure-illustrated website with over 600,000 subscribers and a monthly average of half a million visitors. He has produced dozens of viral articles on a wide range of topics, from artificial intelligence to social anxiety to humans becoming a multi-planetary species. Tim's 2016 TED main stage talk is the third most-watched TED talk in history with 67 million views. In 2023, Tim published his bestselling book What's Our Problem? A Self Help Book for Societies.

JOSH: Hello, and welcome to Clearer Thinking with Spencer Greenberg, the podcast about ideas that matter. I'm Josh Castle, the producer of the podcast, and I'm so glad you've joined us today. In this episode, Spencer speaks with Tim Urban about primitive mind versus higher mind, personal and societal motivations, and modern political division.

SPENCER: Tim, welcome.

TIM: Thank you.

SPENCER: I think that a lot of people today believe that something is wrong with society, that somehow, through some combination of political misinformation, institutional decline, polarization or some other things related to these, that society is in kind of a tailspin. And you've written this really wonderful, interesting book, trying to look at what is wrong with society, and how do we go in a better direction. Why don't we start with just what inspired you to write this?

TIM: I always wanted to not write about politics. It was the thing that I wanted to write about least, because it just feels like, out of all the topics I could choose, there's this one topic where you're going to get people's craziest side when you talk about it, and there's all this crazy orthodoxy. And people are going to hate you for talking [about it]. Why? Why would I write about that? And also, I just looked at actual politics. I looked at the politicians and they seem so clown-like, and I think, "These people are boring. They're like clowns. Why would I want to waste my time weighing in on, like the MSNBC versus Fox News debate du jour?" That's how I always felt. And then, at some point, I started to realize that the way I felt was actually an interesting topic in itself, like a lot of people felt that way. And a lot of people were really turned off from politics and driven away from it. They were partially driven away from it by the fact that it's gotten kind of scary to talk about. My aversion to it was maybe an important thing. If this topic is such a nightmare to talk about, but it's important — it's politics, it's how we run our society — well, what's going on there? Is that always how it is or has it gotten worse? And it felt to me like it was getting worse. However unexcited I was to write about politics in 2013 when I started "Wait But Why," I was even more unexcited in 2016. It seemed even worse. And then the other thing is just that I'd like to write about future tech, future stuff. I like to visualize utopia that we could all live in. I get very excitable about this stuff. I'm optimistic. I love the idea of 2050: How cool could it be? And as someone who writes about AI, I obviously can't avoid also feeling a lot of fear about how bad it could get. And so it feels like the stakes are quite high. We have this potential utopia we could be going towards, and also a potential awful dystopia. Meanwhile, it seemed like our society was getting worse at discourse and worse at actually being wise together, and that seemed important. So basically, between those two things, I was like, "Screw it," and I started writing about it.

SPENCER: This reminds me of a quote which I think is quite an interesting one, which is, "The real problem of humanity is the following: we have Paleolithic emotions, medieval institutions and godlike technology." I think that was E.O. Wilson who said that. Do you relate to that quote?

TIM: Oh, yeah, it's a great quote. It actually reminds me of another quote also. Isaac Asimov said, "The saddest aspect of life right now is that science gathers knowledge faster than society gathers wisdom." And he's calling it the saddest aspect of life, and I think that's reasonable, because what are the implications of that? You picture you're giving an organism increasingly powerful weapons but it's not getting smart enough. Of course, disaster, right? We are in this situation. If you just look around, this is the reality. That quote you said? That's not just a nice poetic thing; that's real. It's crazy but it's true, that we actually are like a species of forest primates (or great plains primates or whatever we are) that has been dropped into an advanced civilization made by their collective cooperation, and it's not our home planet. We're dropped into this thing, and with way more power than primates were supposed to have to impact things. It seems like it really could be the recipe for utter disaster. It's crazy because we look at our world around us and it's this wonderful, amazing world of comfort and safety in so many ways, and high quality of life, because that's the other side of the coin. But that same thing should scare us because of the dark side potential there.

SPENCER: It's funny how we built civilization when we were just barely capable of building civilization. We were just kind of plodding along. We barely had this capability at all, for almost any time in the grand scheme of history, and we made this civilization so fast.

TIM: Yeah, I'm reading about ancient China. Any civilization you read about, whether it's Mesopotamia or China or India, any of these old civilizations, were basically these villages starting to form into larger places. It's 50 lifetimes ago? 50 to 100 human lives of time, or you could say a couple 100 generations. This is all brand new, a totally new experiment. And, yeah, it just moves way quicker than any one generation can adapt to. So maybe this is the big Great Filter, and we're just witnessing it. Or maybe not.

SPENCER: There are a lot of debates these days about, well, how fast is technology really progressing, has it slowed down since the 70s, and so on. But that's a very micro view, comparing now to the 70s. If you just look at the last 200 years compared to all of human history, it's clear that civilization is advancing ridiculously fast.

TIM: Well, if you look around your house, all your appliances, I saw this graph, and it was basically showing when the refrigerator and the microwave [appeared] and then the TV and internet and all these things. These are all new; the life we're living is brand new. You hear about your grandparents' upbringing and it's a completely different world. And their grandparents, forget about it, totally different. That's not normal. In human history, your grandmother's life was supposed to be very similar to yours, and go five, seven generations back, and maybe you're in a different piece of land or whatever. Maybe your myths have evolved a little or someone's gotten a little better at tying up arrowheads to a spear. But this idea that every generation can barely understand what the hell is going on in the next generation because we live day by day, it doesn't feel fast, but it's like the car is accelerating to lightning speed, and we're just in the middle of that.

SPENCER: Would you say that partly why this is such an important topic right now is that, one, our technology is so much more advanced than it's ever been, but two, it's going so quickly that, if we don't get wiser faster, then things could go off the rails?

TIM: Yeah. Our species can be really wise and we can put our heads together and have far incredible knowledge and wisdom. And also we can be extremely dumb. We can put our heads together and form a big dumb mob and be really, really destructive and unwise. We have the capability to do both. And it's really important as we get godlike technology, whatever it is that triggers collective wisdom that is being enhanced, is going in the right direction.

SPENCER: Let's talk about this idea that you introduced in the book of the primitive mind versus the higher mind.

TIM: There's a lot of people that have talked about two different minds, two different ways of thinking. I'm not necessarily talking about different parts of the brain. Sure, you can say the limbic system maps on to the primitive mind more than prefrontal cortex or whatever, but I'm not trying to be necessarily exactly scientific about it more than just trying to give another way to talk about these totally different modes that humans can be in. And what I think of the primitive mind is, it's our ancient software that is just programmed for 50,000 BC or 10,000 BC, and it is now in an advanced civilization and it can't see in real time. It's the part of us that will binge on Skittles. You'll just, "Oh, I want to go for more Skittles. I just want to have a few more. I'm just gonna eat the whole bag," and then you regret it. What the hell is going on there? Why are you self-defeating? Why are you doing something that you know you're gonna regret, and then you do regret, and then you do it again the next day? We self-defeat. That, to me, is the primitive mind misunderstanding the world around you and thinks that this thing is good to eat because it was good to eat chewy, high-calorie things. And then there's this other part of your brain. Unlike other animals, we have that other part that says Skittles are a bad idea. Sometimes that part wins and you don't eat the Skittles even though you're dying to eat them. And sometimes that part loses and it's sitting there screaming, "Why are we going back for more? Oh, no, we're going into the fridge for cake now," and it's watching you lose the battle and then you regret it later. To me, those are two voices in my head and it's a power struggle. Again, just to use candy, sometimes you eat the candy, sometimes you order the really unhealthy meal and you know you shouldn't be and you feel like shit later and you're mad at yourself. And sometimes you don't, and you're happy you didn't. So I think that can be applied to a lot of things, and not just the obvious thing like eating unhealthy food, but it can be applied to a lot of different things in our psychology and our society. And so I think that's a useful kind of mechanism to think about why we're acting the way we are.

SPENCER: Cognitive scientists a long time ago introduced this idea of system one versus system two, where system one is our intuitive thinking that's fast and automatic and effortless, like if you had to add one plus one, your brain just spits out two, versus system two thinking which is slow and cognitively effortful. It's the part of your mind you would use if you had to figure out what is 57 times 94. And obviously, this idea of system one, system two don't perfectly map onto the primitive mind and the higher mind, but I'm curious what you see is the relationship. Is all system one stuff in the primitive mind or is some of it in the higher mind? How would you relate them?

TIM: I don't know. I honestly don't think I have a good enough handle on really the science behind exactly what system one and system two and the differences are. I would let someone else who really understands what I'm saying and then knows that really well, make that comparison better than I can. I don't think it maps on perfectly. I don't know. In the Skittles situation, what would you say system one and system two would say about eating a bag of Skittles?

SPENCER: Well, right, our intuitive mind would say, "Yummy," and our reflective mind might say, "Hmm, maybe that's not a good idea." So I think in that case, it might map reasonably well onto system one versus system two. But I also think that system one can have a lot of wisdom where, for example, let's say you just get a really bad feeling about a person but you can't quite put it in words why you think that they're not to be trusted. There can be wisdom in that and your system one can do a lot of complex processing.

TIM: Totally. And I think that's my discomfort with comparing it too much, because I also think of the primitive mind as motivating our reasoning a lot and driving us towards confirmation bias, because that part of your brain, that ancient way of thinking, truth was less important than believing the sacred beliefs and whatever. And I think actually, system two probably does a lot of that work of convincing yourself to align with... I think sometimes system one might actually be uncomfortable with tribal alignments, and system two would do a lot of work to try to make them get your conclusions to where you want them to be. So I don't know, I'd be curious to hear from someone who has read through what I have to say about this, and someone who really understands this. I'd be curious to hear what they have to say, and whether the overlap is 90% here, or whether it actually is like my primitive mind or higher mind is a total mixture of both of these in a way.

SPENCER: Yeah, I guess I think of your idea of a primitive mind as relating to both intuitive urges we have, like, "I want those calories. I want to have sex," that kind of thing, but also relating to wanting to win or wanting to be right, and lumping together those primal urges and desires that we have. Does that seem right?

TIM: Yeah, totally. It maps on to impulses that don't actually make sense in today's world that we're doing for some reason. And oh, by the way, that happened to be a great way to survive 10,000 years ago, to be super tribal, to be super arrogant about what you believe. Having immense conviction regardless of whether you're right or wrong, I think, was probably a good survival tactic a long time ago, and doesn't actually make sense in the world today, where it's like, why would you want to not look for the truth? Why would you not want to be delusional? So again, to bring the Skittles thing in, it's like when I would apply that, because I see why we have Skittles, because it signals to our brain that this thing is dense and has a lot of calories and that is what we want. Why do we want to be in echo chambers? Why do we want to enforce echo chambers on each other? Why do we (again) drive ourselves to incredible delusion with our desire to be right, our confirmation bias? To me, this is the same struggle going on. It's a very automatic impulse, which I think is just survival behavior. I think both binging on Skittles and defending your ideas like you're defending your body, and conforming with the beliefs of the people around you, I think that's also survival behavior. I think that your brain is in survival mode when you're acting that way. I think that probably system one and system two are on board for survival behavior, is my suspicion. But again, I don't understand that dichotomy well enough to know.

SPENCER: Is it fair to say the primitive mind from your point of view is not bad, per se? It's just that it can misfire, be used at the wrong time, right? Like, if you're actually in the wilderness and trying to survive, it's probably really, really helpful. But if you're trying to figure out what policy to implement on behalf of society, it's not the right mindset to be in.

TIM: Yeah, so if we have the apocalypse, you're gonna want that side of you to start becoming ruthless and trying to survive, probably. But forget the wilderness, just living your life in society. The ideal state, I think, is not trying to repress this part of us. We still want to enjoy shitty food sometimes and have sex and go be a tribal sports fan. There's a lot of ways to have fun with your primitive mind. What you want is that your higher mind is running the show, has the reins, and primitive mind's like a pet that it allows to enjoy itself and have fun, but not to a self-defeating degree. And when we get into trouble is when basically that higher mind loses control of the reins. And now instead, it's sitting there screaming that we've got to work, why are you procrastinating, we shouldn't be eating this, let's not order this unhealthy food for the third night in a row. And yet, you're doing it. So now you've lost control of the reins, like it has too much power in your head. I think of it as a tug of war, and I think it's good to focus on that and realize, okay, I'm losing the tug of war right now.

SPENCER: So what's the ladder?

TIM: Well, the ladder is basically this spectrum, this tug of war. When the higher mind is really running the show, running your thinking, running your actions, you are at the top of the ladder. And then, as you get more conflict, and you're torn between these two and you're having trouble in whatever your self-defeating battle is, now you're down to the middle of the ladder. And when you've totally lost control, and you're doing that super self-defeating thing, and you know you're gonna regret it and sometimes you're not even really conscious when you're doing these things, you're just doing them, and then later, you're saying, "Oh, my God," then you're down at the bottom of the ladder. Just even as simple as people who are chronically late, it doesn't make any sense. You know you're gonna be miserable if you have to rush to this meeting. And you know it just makes every part of it make sense to leave at a certain time. And yet again and again and again, you leave 15 minutes later, and now you're super stressed, and sometimes you'll show up late, look like an asshole, and you're pissing people off, and you're so regretful. And then you do it again, like, "What the hell? That's crazy!" And then what happens often in that situation (as someone who has done this a lot), is that you literally lose consciousness when you know you should leave, and then you start to look at the clock, and you gasp, "Oh, my God! Oh, shit!" That, to me, is a moment when you're at the bottom of the ladder. That higher mind that has this executive function that can act like a grown-up has just been completely silenced. It was probably trying to scream but it's totally drowned out by this fog that you're in, and that to me is just that moment when someone who has an anger problem, they lash out and they hurt someone they love. And then they regret it so much later, because they were in this craze at the moment, they were fully lost. That to me is the bottom of the ladder, and it's just when you're really down there, you're not even torn because you're almost totally unconscious. Middle of the ladder, you're making bad decisions. Maybe you're struggling not to, but you're very self-aware that you're making a bad decision. And on top of the ladder, you're overpowering that party, you're making better decisions. That's the basic idea and then I apply that to more specific things.

SPENCER: I like the words that you use to describe the different points of the ladder. If I recall correctly, it was scientist, then sports fan, then lawyer, and then zealot at the bottom to emblemize the different types of thinking. Do you want to just talk about that for a moment?

TIM: Yeah. Basically, I just applied the ladder to being late or to eating and you can apply it to anything. What I focused on (because I think it's relevant to the topic that I was in) is how does this affect our thinking? What does it mean to be thinking from the top of the ladder versus thinking at the middle or the bottom of the ladder? To me, at the top of the ladder, when you're forming beliefs, forming a political belief or forming a conclusion about anything, top-rung thinking is simple. You're just going for truth and you're acting the way someone who is motivated purely by truth would act, which means you're not attached to your ideas. Why would you be? You know you're often wrong and you're totally agnostic about the evidence that comes in. If evidence proves something wrong, you say, "Oh, okay, good thing I found that, because I was wrong, and now I'm less wrong." And you love debate and discussion because you like when someone challenges your idea because they're going to try to show you its flaws. Thank you. It's a service. And maybe they can't show you any flaws. They're trying. "Wow, I just learned something new about how strong my conclusion is." This is all very rational. This is great. We'd all love to be up there all the time. I call that thinking like a scientist, not because real scientists think that way; they often don't. It's because Carl Sagan says, "Science is a way of thinking more than a body of knowledge." So it's the scientific method applied to all kinds of thinking. And then as you get on the ladder, that to me is, your higher mind is large and in charge. And your primitive mind is just not even in the picture right there. So then as this primitive mind enters the picture, you start to have this emotional attachment to your ideas, you start to identify with your ideas, and you start to really have this desire to have them be correct. And, of course, that's confirmation bias. And so, the next few rungs are sports fans and attorneys. And what I mean by that is, because both of those rungs are in the middle — there's four rungs — so these are both torn between the tug of war, it's a struggle. But for sports fan, the higher mind has the edge still. I use the example of a sports fan, because they're gonna see the call going their way when it's a controversial call. But when they see the replay and it's clear, they accept the outcome. They don't want corrupt refs. They want their team to win, but they still care about the integrity of the game more. And I think that's how it is. You still deep down when you're thinking this way, you have all this motivation suddenly, and you do have a lot of confirmation bias. But in the end, when someone shows you really strong evidence, you are going to grudgingly accept. The attorney, I use that example because they're actually representing a side. An attorney in a courtroom, they are on the "client is innocent" side, period, and they're not going to listen to the prosecutor and say, "Oh, wow, that prosecutor made a good point, I guess my client is guilty." They're gonna keep fighting their case. So it's different than a sports fan, in that, the primitive mind actually has the edge. You will make all the arguments and you'll act like you're looking at evidence and you'll seem like you're open to argument, but actually, there's nothing that could change your mind. If there's nothing that could change your mind, you're below that halfway point and you're on the lower rungs. And then the final rung is just zealot, when you're not even torn anymore. You don't even pretend to look for evidence. You know you're right like the sky is blue. "Why would I need to argue that? And anyone who thinks I'm wrong is not just an idiot. They're probably a terrible person." And you're in that kind of thinking, which is just so far removed from the top rung, when you're actually looking for truth.

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SPENCER: It seems to me that there are a handful of different factors that determine where we are on this spectrum, and that we're all at times at different points on the spectrum. For example, if you're running really late to something, you're trying to figure out directions, you're probably more at the scientist point of view, where you're just like, "I gotta figure out the truth about how to get to this place the fastest," and there's not much bias going in there. On the other hand, if we're defending our child who is accused of wrongdoing, we're probably more like the zealot. By default, we're gonna take our child's side. We have so many biases pushing towards that. And so it seems like a few of the factors here might be things like, one, how strong of an urge do we have to have that thing be true? Two, how strong are the social forces around that? And three, how much is our identity wrapped up in that? I'm wondering what would you point to as the big factors or forces that push us to different points on the spectrum?

TIM: There's an interesting study, a 2016 study, that had an fMRI plugged into the participants and they were monitoring brain activity and they challenged (I think) 20 viewpoints of participants. For half, the viewpoints were political, and for half, the viewpoints were apolitical. So one is, you're challenging your viewpoints on whether Thomas Edison was a good person or not. Another one was challenging your viewpoint on abortion or something like that. And the non-political viewpoints lit up different parts of the brain, lit up the parts of the brain that are typically associated with rational thinking. And people were likely to change their mind when they were presented with this evidence. With the political viewpoints, it lit up the parts of their brain more associated with their amygdala, for example, or associated with this kind of emotional thinking, but also the default mode network, this set of parts of the brain that are associated with introspective thinking, thinking about your identity, thinking about yourself. Lo and behold, those people were way less likely to change their mind about those topics. That was really interesting because I'm like, this isn't just a hunch or whatever. We were doing our thinking on certain topics with a totally different part of our brain, which is accessing the lower level limbic type parts, our more emotional parts, the fight or flight parts, and also the parts that are looking internally at ourselves and are thinking about our identity. I think it's topics that we have associated with our identity, basically, that are part of who we think we are, are those viewpoints, and who we think our people are, people like me, my type of people, we think this. Those viewpoints, it's a whole other part of your brain — which again I would say is the primitive mind — becomes attached to those. And when that happens, when you identify with ideas, the parts of your brain that defend you when you're getting attacked by a tiger, are active when those ideas are being attacked. In other words, your brain mistakes your identity and the things you believe, that you associate with your identity, with your body. I think a lot of it has to do with, it starts with what do we identify with? What do our people identify with? And then all these other things go from there.

SPENCER: Yeah, that makes a lot of sense. I also see social status as being connected to this. For example, if someone is wrong in public, they may be really resistant to admitting they were wrong or backing down from what they've said publicly.

TIM: Yeah. And this is, by the way, also why I think a lot of real-world scientists don't think like scientists. A lot of them become really zealot-like about their theories and people say that science advances, not because scientists are good at changing their mind, but because all scientists die and new ones are born, and so the fields can advance. And that's because their reputation's on the line, their careers are on the line here. And I think in those cases, they also will identify that their self-esteem is built on the fact that these theories are correct, in a lot of cases. So it's a double whammy. But yes, I think it can be something where you're identifying with it or, like you gave the example, it can just be any other motivation. You talked about public embarrassment or whatever, that's also something that our primitive minds are terrified of. The worst thing is being publicly shamed, publicly embarrassed, publicly criticized, widely criticized. We are terrified of that, not because anything awful is gonna happen to our bodies if that happens, but because our primitive minds think there will be because, at the time it was wired for, if you're publicly humiliated in your tribe, first of all, lower status, you might starve, you might never mate again, because you're now a lower-status male or lower-status female, whatever. It is disastrous. So now we haven't updated. That part of our brain is still absolutely horrified of social negativity. Again, I think, for the same reasons, it really taps into this ancient part of our brain, public stuff. So yeah, I think any kind of motivation, but especially these things that really tap into our very, very primitive kind of mentality.

SPENCER: Right, because in an evolutionary context, our team, our in-group losing actually might spell death. But also our position in our in-group falling dramatically could also spell death. So these are actually things that could have caused our genes to die out and may have been very strongly selected against in terms of motivation.

TIM: Exactly. It's two things: my in-group winning means I'm now high-status and I have resources and, by the way, my in-group losing, my wife might get taken to be raped by their men and I might be murdered, whatever. But also, yes, status within the in-group, we are terrified of our own in-group. That's why I would always want to be surrounded by friends who aren't tribal-like. They don't have that vibe. Because that vibe is contagious, and when you start to be in a group that acts like middle schoolers — middle school is full of this because actually, literally, there's science that shows that the middle school brain has the certain parts (I forget the official part of the brain) — but certain parts of our limbic system develop, have growth spurts before the rest catches up, so we become very primitive-minded in middle school, and status is everything, and it's who's the cool kid, and who's the loser. And you want to suck up to the cool kids so you're in the cool group. And grownups can act like that; we still have that in us. And so if you surround yourself with people who are acting that way, it doesn't matter how grown-up you are; you're probably going to start playing the game and being terrified to be uncool in that group. Of course, we talk about social media and this is, I think, what this is doing to a lot of people, is snapping people, grown-ups, back into middle school mode. What that is, is it's not really about the out-group as much as it's about your status within the in-group.

SPENCER: I think in many ways, it's much scarier to have the in-group turn on you than the out- group because, generally speaking, you don't live with the out-group, you don't interact with the out-group regularly. You don't think of the out-group as your friends and they're not the people you're trusting in. Whereas if the in-group turns on you, that's like your friends turning on you. It's the people you bump into all the time turning on you. It's the people you consider yourself part of turning on you and so on.

TIM: The out-group turning on you makes you more popular with your in-group. It's not scary at all, unless they have some serious power to hurt you. If they don't have power to hurt you, there's nothing scary and that's why people should be clear that, when you see someone publicly out there criticizing their out-group, there's nothing courageous about it. Maybe they're trying to make points, real points, okay, make an impact. But often what they're doing is, they're showing off to their in-group, how good an in-group member I am. I'm gonna get out there and you're all gonna cheer for me as you watch me insult the out-group. And now I'm coming back, I'm gonna get a huge party for me. That's often what it is. What's courageous is people who stand up to their in-group. That is fucking scary, and it feels awful and it takes actual courage.

SPENCER: This reminds me of something I think about with regard to Twitter, which is: why is it that many people view Twitter as a cesspool and find it really bad for their mental health and so on? And I think if you look at what's actually on Twitter, a bunch of it is people saying interesting things or people posting cute animals or people joking, and none of that is causing the problem. I think what's actually causing a lot of the problem is people attacking other groups, essentially, and then people jumping in to defend the people being attacked, and then people counter-attacking and so on. It's this sort of tribal attacks against the out-group that essentially are making a lot of the toxicity.

TIM: No, when people see that, it brings back middle school nightmares for all of us. When I'm seeing either myself or a friend being attacked, even if I'm just watching two people I don't know and I don't care about, attack and one is really getting shamed, it literally triggers a kind of icky fear that I felt when I was 13, that a lot of us felt at 13. And so I think what it does is, that part of you is not a very smart part of you and it's way too scared of something that's not actually scary, but it feels scary to you because that's a very primitive part of you is scared, and it makes you want to be a coward. When you're feeling that kind of fear, it makes you either want to jump into the mob or just stay the fuck out of it and be super quiet. Twitter, like you said, and I totally agree, it's this funny dichotomy, because I think Twitter is amazing. It's the best way to get news, I think. I follow so many accounts that I learn from. I think it's a great, amazing place to just have interesting discussions with people that you might not have access to otherwise, you might not know otherwise. But then why is it also a cesspool? And it's because I think what you can call this middle school mentality, this ancient tribal us versus them mentality, is contagious, and Twitter is a global super spreader event for going 24/7. So when one of these shaming campaigns is going on, it actually spreads through the airwaves, through the internet, and it can start an epidemic of that feeling and so that's the issue.

SPENCER: Yeah, I made it sound like it's just in-groups attacking out-groups, but actually, also part of it is in-groups attacking their own members and suddenly turning them into out-group members or telling all the other in-group members, this is actually a bad person who's not really part of our in-group.

TIM: That's what feels scary.

SPENCER: Yeah. And then I think often when that happens, even if many people disagree, they're just afraid to jump into the fray. The people who agree, I think, often are in a much safer position than those that would defend the person and so often, people don't come to the person's defense.

TIM: Right. What you end up with is, a lot of the people who aren't in the tribal mentality are also just not that disagreeable. They're not going to want to go and get in an online war. They don't want to be the next target. It's just unpleasant. Why would you put yourself on the line? Now who does put themselves on the line? The really disagreeable people, and I don't mean that in the negative, just the people that are willing to really go to battle, they're thick-skinned, they don't mind getting criticized. And so now even the people that are defending a target, they can get nasty, or they're really brave or whatever. I just think it often correlates that the loudest voices are also going to be the ones that happen to be really wrapped up in a tribal thing. And the ones that aren't wrapped in a tribal thing often are the types that are just not really wanting to get in any kind of online war, even if they feel bad for that [person]. So then what you have is, there can be the majority of people that don't agree with this kind of tribal thinking. And because they're all silent, it seems like everyone must think this. And it really can feel that way. It can feel that way in a comments section, it can feel that way where it's like, "Wow, everyone hates this thing," and it's like, actually, 10% of people hate that thing. And those 10% of people are all talking loud, because they're wrapped up in a tribal thing so they're more likely to maybe be disagreeable. But they're also safe; it's safe when the mob is all doing it. And those 10% make up 80% of the people talking. By the way, I've also noticed this on my own tweets, or really on anyone's. It's interesting where it's very binary. There's not that many tweets where I have like three people hating on me and ten that are saying nice things. Either it seems like everyone hates me, or no one hates me, and it's because there's not necessarily courage in the tribal people. It's when everyone's in the comment section piling on, that's when they jump in. But when there's not a bunch of people doing that, they don't wanna be the one to do it and they get criticized. So it's very binary. That's why it gives me hope that these things can flip in the other direction, because those people can get very scared, too.

SPENCER: And this goes to another factor that we didn't really directly talk about, which is the safety in herd behavior. And if you're thinking of us being in this primitive mind, a big part of the primitive mind is, don't put yourself at unnecessary risk. If you're doing what other people are doing, it's relatively safe.

TIM: Yeah, exactly. What's scary about humanity is that, if the safe thing to do is to be kind, both the high-integrity kind people will be kind and all the people who just want to be a part of the herd, so you'll have a lot of kind people. As soon as it becomes cool to be bigoted, whether it's political bigotry or racial bigotry or anything else, you'll see the high-integrity kind people will still be being kind, but the much larger group of herd people will all swing together. If it's safe to be a Nazi, you'll see a lot of Nazis suddenly. Right now in our society, it's incredibly unsafe to be a Nazi and so you don't see any Nazis. But I don't credit that to us being better than Nazi Germany. I credit it to that's not what's cool right now. On the other hand, what is cool is political bigotry. If you just think about what is bigotry, it's giant, negative generalizations and dehumanizing stereotypes about a big group of people who you probably don't know very well, and you probably don't know many of them. And that is exactly how I would define a huge swath of American political discourse. It's just rank bigotry, but we don't see it as bigotry because it's not one of the things our society has decided qualifies as bigotry, because it's not racial, and it's not ethnic, and it's not religious so whatever. The herd mentality is one of the scariest things about our species.

SPENCER: What you said made me think about moral circles and the way that we humans always have some things that go in the moral circles and some that don't. And when something is outside of our moral circles or distant from them, then it's okay to harm that thing. A classic example would be insects. For most people, it's kind of okay to hurt insects. Maybe they're sentient, possibly, but we're not really sure, and they're so different from us, and they're also annoying. So it's like, okay, you can crush an insect, whatever. You can't do that to a human. You can't go crush a human skull the way you'd crush an insect skull. That'd be really bad. But we can see throughout history that these moral circles are malleable. They change all the time. For some people today, we're starting to see maybe cows coming into their moral circle. And for most people in America today, dogs are in their moral circle. But with people, different groups of people can fall in and out of the moral circle, depending on their beliefs, like if you think that they are part of the bad group, you might no longer have empathy for them, and now they're outside your moral circle. And I think we're getting a lot of that today with other political groups where people are starting to put them outside of their moral circle and say, "Oh, it's okay to punch someone who believes X because they're bad." Or "It's okay to treat all people who believe X as all being the same as each other and just treat them as a single unit, even if in reality they have a diverse set of beliefs.

TIM: Yeah, it's like the higher mind will automatically put all humans in their moral circle, right? If we're talking about animals, it's like humans and then apes, and then we can debate where it ends and where it becomes okay. Some would say never, some would say it's somewhere in the middle of the animal chain, whatever. But humans — a human's a human — so when you're talking about this phenomenon of people putting, not just animals but other humans, so outside their moral circle that it's fine to completely dehumanize them, in a lot of cases in human history, murder, genocide, you're talking about people believing it's okay. They believe it's right. That is madness. It's like humans can go completely mad. And to me, that is primitive mind. If you think about tribes, again, what was helpful? If there's one tribe that has this capacity to dehumanize people and to think it's okay to kill them, and another tribe thinks, no, of course not, well, which tribe survived better? Which tribe killed the other? We are the descendants of people who had this mechanism in their brain where they could pretty horrifyingly put other humans as far outside of their moral circles as we put insects, and one of the telltale signs of this is the emotion disgust. When in the presence of disgust (and there's lots of studies on this), disgust turns normal people into psychopaths and when you are not just hating someone, but you feel disgust for a whole group of people, when you hear that word going around, what you're seeing is a really, really ugly side of our human nature active. And that's, of course, why the Nazis used disgusting images for the propaganda against the Jews and the Hutu used the cockroaches against the Tutsi, but you see it all over the place. England was using spiders to describe the Germans in the war. This is for a good reason. It's because it triggers actually, it turns us into monsters. And so, to me, this is another classic example of human madness. This is like primitive mind stuff activating the same way that fMRI activated crazy parts of our brain when our political beliefs are challenged. I think a lot of those same parts of our brain are suddenly super active.

SPENCER: We talked about this ladder, from the primitive mind up to the higher mind. And we've also talked about groups. So let's tie this into your idea of golem versus a genie.

TIM: Yeah, I said at one point, we have the capacity to be collectively amazing. Look at the civilization we've built and all the technology we have. No one human can do that. That is collective genius. What is the emergent property of humans communicating ideally, optimally? And I call it a genie. It's like this super being gets created and it can build buildings and skyscrapers and it can build iPhones and cross the oceans and go to the moon. No human is smart enough to do that. But genies did that. Genies built our civilization and it's awesome. And then I say, "Okay, well, so what happens when hotwire sometimes there's a mob of people lynching someone onto a tree in a total craze. What the hell is going on there?" I don't think any one human really in that group alone is probably evil enough to do that. It's this crazy thing that happens when humans can collectively get into a frenzy and do evil, deep evil. That's a whole different mode. And so, collectively, I feel like we can be smarter or dumber and more evil than any individual human. And I say that the emergent property of this collective human madness is a golem because it's a big, dumb, lumbering giant, and it's easy to see, if you're in a group of people, you can see whether they're in genie mode or golem mode, just based on, is conformity cool or uncool? In genie mode, what makes a genie smart is a bunch of individual humans putting their minds together like neurons in a larger brain, which means you want each individual independently thinking so you get the benefit of all. You get all this independent thinking, collaborating together through stuff like devil's advocate and debate and proving each other wrong and whatever, and conformity there — insulting someone who disagrees or trying to enforce orthodoxy — would be really uncool in that group. People would be like, "Why is this person being such an asshole? What are they doing?" That's genie behavior. Golem behavior is just so easy to see because it's when everyone gets really in the tribal haze, and everyone gets really scared to be different and if you disagree with the orthodoxy, you're out, you're one of them. And so everyone suddenly gets into middle school mode and they want to be in the popular group, so you're gonna see a lot of conformity. You're gonna see a lot of people virtue signaling to each other, performative virtue signaling, to show the group how much they're in, how much they're one of us, and everyone is just sitting there agreeing, agreeing, agreeing, agreeing about how bad those people are, and how good we are and how right we are. That's not how normal humans act. These people are caught up in a shitty thing. It doesn't seem this way, but they are making a golem. Now what happens on mass scale is you have armies marching against, committing atrocities against other countries, or you have mobs lynching people. So I think once I started to think about these emergent properties and make characters, I just started to see them and realize, okay, this is, I think, a good way to describe what I think I see in our society, which is a rise of golems, lumbering golems that are bigger and getting huge and like Godzilla tramping through society.

SPENCER: Would you say that golems are rising in power relative to genies?

TIM: Yeah, I think currently we're living in one of these phases. It's like a golden age for golems. I think that you look at the early 50s and you had the Red Scare. That was just a big scary golem tramping around, and everyone was scared of it. Anytime it becomes really scary to live in a liberal society, which it's not usually, like in the 90s, it wasn't a scary place to live or to be a writer. You always have some social pressure. You always can gaffe and say the wrong thing. But it oscillates up and down. And over the past few years, this is part of what made me want to write. Something was off, and I think that once I defined the term golem, I think it helped me see, like, "Okay, that's what it is." I'm not scared of this big lumbering golem, which I feel is threatening me all the time as a writer, and basically saying, "Don't you dare write about these topics! And if you do, don't you dare have the wrong opinion." And I'm thinking, what's that made of? What's that scary thing? It's a bunch of people in crazy herd mentality right now. And so good liberal society — liberal, lowercase L, liberal — is always gonna have these things, these golems, these mobs, these tribes, and you're always gonna have us versus them mentality, but there's an immune system that's supposed to keep them in check so they can't totally take over the country, and usually it does. To me, I think that something's wrong with that immune system right now. Maybe social media started it. Maybe it's the way that our politics have shifted over the last 30 years. But something has triggered this weakness in the immune system so that golems are rising up in a way where they're not getting pruned down by the immune system and kept in check the way they normally are.

SPENCER: Now how do you see this as being different in the Left and the Right? Do you think that each of them has a golem from your perspective, or do you see some important differences in what's happening on each side?

TIM: They're completely different, but actually, I do see an underlying thing that's very similar, which is, I think that Trump formed a big golem under his banner, and this concept that this is one politician who we are behind, and this demagogue was able to rouse a group of people to follow him anywhere without necessarily any actual guiding principles. And this was much scarier, the Trump golem, for non-Trump Republicans, anti-Trump Republicans than it was for anyone on the Left. It's not a good time to be an anti-Trump Republican. If you look, the ones who have spoken out in Washington, they've been kicked out of office often or just ostracized by the rest of the Party. To me, there's this golem tramping around the world of Republicans that has become scary enough. You don't hear that many prominent politicians on the Right saying, "Yes, January 6 was stupid and wrong, and Trump obviously lost. Biden is the right president." It's so conservative to be really into the peaceful transfer of power, right? Reagan would love to talk about that. The fact that they can't say that right now, to have all these conservatives afraid to say the most basic conservative statement right now about the integrity of the election is, to me, evidence that they are scared of a big golem. On the Left, it's a totally different kind. It's not in Washington nearly as much as it's out in the culture. But what people call wokeness is a golem. It's a big, scary golem, and that's the one that I was scared of, because most of my readers are on the Left, or at least three-quarters of them. The Trump people are closer to my out-group. Your out-group isn't what's scary. What was scary was defying the woke golem. And I think it's really important. You don't want to throw the baby out with the bathwater and say, "Yes, social justice is a golem," because it's not. Liberal social justice, the kind that values free speech and is open to debate and open to changing its mind and speaks with common humanity rhetoric, not common enemy, us versus them rhetoric, and doesn't try to get people fired for disagreeing, etc., that is the great tradition of the US. That's what's behind women's suffrage and civil rights and gay marriage and all these other things. And this is, to me, something that wears that uniform and trades off the good name of these things, but it has nothing to do with it. It's regressive, and it acts like a golem. It acts like a big, scary primitive tribal golem. And in that regard, I don't see it that different from the other golem. To me, the underlying thing is the same psychology and the same behavior.

SPENCER: I imagine that for a listener who really believes in social justice, they might be responding in their mind, thinking, "But social justice is just about fighting for people who have been underprivileged. It's about pushing back against power. You're calling it woke but that's just a nasty way of referring to this group that's actually fighting for good." So could you explain a little bit more about what you see as the distinction between the good sides of that, and what you see as the harmful sides of that?

TIM: I'll say there are two big distinctions. One is in their tactics, and one is in their intent. So I hear people say something like what you just said, and I want to say to them, "I'm not criticizing you. If you're someone who's out there trying to make the country more liberal and fighting against oppression, great. You're a liberal social justice activist, and I support you, and I think that you're doing great work." That's why the distinction is critically important. So here's the two things: there's the intent, and the way I would view this is, imagine liberalism. When I say liberalism, I mean classic liberalism, I mean free speech, free markets, individualism, just basic enlightenment liberalism. If that's a house, you have progressives and conservatives in that house, and they totally disagree on means but they have the same goal, which is the integrity of the house. They like liberalism. They want the country to be a perfect liberal utopia. And conservatives think that they're concerned with change that they think is not good. These two groups argue about a ton of different issues, and some of them are about [whether] to change or not to change. The Conservatives are more concerned with the strength of the house, making sure the strengths of the house don't erode. And the progressives are more concerned with looking at the flaws in the house and trying to fix them. Name an issue and they disagree on it, and they're arguing about it, but they have the same overarching goal, which is they think the liberal house is good, and they want more of it. They want the liberal house to be good and strong. Now, outside the house, you have other movements with wrecking balls whose goal is to destroy the house. I don't even mean that necessarily negatively. I don't happen to agree with that, but if you think liberalism itself is a flawed political philosophy and governing structure, and you think that it's bad, then the right thing to do is to have the wrecking ball. Again, I disagree with that. But wokeness, there's actually a very clear philosophical DNA to it and it derives from Marxism. And the fundamental idea is that liberalism is inherently exploitative and will end up entrenching the power of the powerful and creating inequality and that what you need is more enforced equality of outcome, which is the antithesis of a liberal society, which is all about equality of opportunity. And then the woke person would say, well, equality of opportunity is a myth and that groups are the same. And so if you see unequal outcomes, it inherently means it must be an unequal opportunity. These are one and the same, so let's ensure equal outcomes. Again, you have to destroy liberalism to really do that fully. And part of the Marxist mentality is dividing, really binary divide, a society, and you have the powerful and the powerless and everything's power. Power, power, power. There's not charity and forgiveness and love and all these other forces that can actually move things in society. The woke ideology really talks in terms of power, so we need to break this house. As Audrey Lorde says, "You can't dismantle the master's house with the master's tools," so they reject both the liberal house and the means inside of it. So fuck free speech, free speech is dangerous. When my opponents can talk, they're actually causing harm and danger. That's wokeness. That's anti-liberal. It's openly anti-liberal because free speech is one of the most sacred tenets of liberalism. So there's the intent. Liberal social justice, like Martin Luther King — the quintessential example — wanted more liberalism, said liberalism is great, and our country is breaking some of those promises; let's fix that. Let's find places where liberalism isn't happening, and let's do it better. And so that's a fundamentally opposite intent. Liberal social justice of wokeness, which is saying, "The liberal house itself is bad, rotten to its core, and needs to be broken and we need to be liberated from that and have a whole new thing, have something totally different." So the intent is opposite; not just different, but opposite, opposite goals. And then secondly is the tactics. Liberal social justice uses liberal tactics to get what it wants, persuasion, and it speaks with common humanity rhetoric, because it's a good way to persuade people to build a big coalition. Again, you look behind gay marriage, it was when they started using real common humanity rhetoric, talking about love in 2011, 2012 that things really changed fast. And the civil rights movement is all about polyamory. Civil rights activist says, "When my opponents tried to draw a circle to exclude me, I'll draw a bigger circle to include them," classic common humanity rhetoric. That's how they speak and they value free speech, and they have an irreverence for liberal rules. They don't want to silence and censor and stuff because that's illiberal. It makes sense, by the way; this is consistent. They don't like liberalism. It wants to break the liberal house. They also don't care about the liberal tools in it, or the sacred liberal things. So that's where cancel culture comes from. It's this idea that, if you say something that disagrees with our ideology, there's not going to be forgiveness, we're not going to say, "Well, I don't like your Op-Ed. I'm going to write an Op-Ed saying why it's wrong." Or I'm not going to read the Op-Ed; instead, it says, "I'm going to try to get the Op-Ed editor who allowed the Op-Ed to be published, fired." Again, the premise is because it's dangerous, but I think what underlies that is just not much respect for the principles behind free speech. And so, there's a lot of Mafia-like bullying. If you cross us, we will smear you, regardless of whether it's true, and it will be guilty because accused and if someone defends you, we're going to use guilt by association. This is all classic mob mentality that goes back 1000s of years, and liberal social justice doesn't do any of that. So basically, my problem with wokeness is that I don't agree with the intent, the goal. I don't think it's effective for social justice. I think there's a lot of evidence that it's bad for Black people, bad for women, that these have negative effects. Woke activism hurts the people that it's trying to help. And I don't agree with the tactics. I don't think any movement should be able to act like that in society and be a bully movement, and we shouldn't have mobs. That's not the way to make progress, and I disagree with people who think that that's how progress has always happened. And if you look at US movements, it's not how progress has happened. It's happened the liberal way almost every time.

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SPENCER: It seems like there are two different critiques going on here. One is, well, you believe in liberalism, and you're saying that they don't. And so you're saying you think that they're mistaken on that point. But that's one philosophical position versus another. But then I think there's this other point, which is, I think you're saying that, in effect, there's this golem that's forming that's not thinking with the higher mind and if so, could you unpack that a bit? Where do you see the golem coming into play rather than just a group that has a philosophical disagreement with you?

TIM: Yeah. And you're right. I can name 100 philosophical groups in the US and I probably agree strongly with 30 of them and disagree strongly with 20 of them and I don't know what I think about the rest. And that's fine. That's a liberal society. You're gonna have a giant mishmash of philosophies and groups and movements, each one very passionate, and they're going to vehemently disagree with each other and great, that's good, I have no objection to that. A guy used the term social justice fundamentalism as opposed to wokeness because wokeness is loaded with baggage. I don't mean ever to insult people. I actually think there's not really bad people in any of this. I think it's a misguided philosophy. And I think that we shouldn't be using the words that are really loaded with baggage. But yeah, my problem with it is its tactics. And so there's a few layers of this. I talk about an illiberal staircase. You're going down the staircase, and each step you go down, even more illiberal things are happening. And so step one is trying to use coercion instead of persuasion to control the public opinion, and to control what's being said publicly. So what a liberal says is, "Oh my God, the mainstream is so wrong about X,Y and Z. So I'm going to start a mind-changing movement. I'm going to change minds. I'm going to tell everyone why it's wrong. And we're going to embarrass those ideas by showing just how wrong they are." That's just the game and, if I can't do that, if I can't persuade people, then maybe either I'm wrong, or I need to be better at persuasion. And that's just how it goes. What wokeness and what I would call low-rung movements do, is they use coercion. They don't play fair. They will use coercion to basically say, instead of trying to show why these ideas are wrong, we're going to punish anyone who says them. And that's this mentality. I call it idea supremacy, which is not just that I won't go see the talk of the person who I think is wrong. I'm going to need to shut the talk down. No one on this campus is allowed to hear this talk. That's fucked up. That's illiberal bullshit. In a liberal society, if you think your ideas are strong, and you don't like that speaker, do your own talk and show why it's wrong. Write an article about why it's wrong. Talk about it. Talk to your friends, and try to spread the word about why this speaker's wrong. Go to the talk and, in the Q&A, ask a pointed question. To say that, not only am I not going to go, and I'm not going to change my mind, or even be open to it, but I'm gonna deprive my fellow students of hearing it because of what I think is a bullshit excuse of 'this is dangerous to have here,' I just don't believe that. I have more faith in humanity, to think that this speaker is going to come and say such evil things that these other students at Yale are going to be convinced to do bad things, I just don't think that's really what's going on. I think it's a mentality that the right thing to do with ideas you hate is to punish people who say them and to silence them versus trying to win in the marketplace of ideas. So that's the first thing, speech control, controlling what's being said forcefully instead of persuasively. The next level is like indoctrination. I've looked at a ton of curricula. I don't have any problem with teachers teaching students about the Black Lives Matter movement or about any element of wokeness. What I have a problem with is teaching them that this is correct. This is a specific political view. Black Lives Matter is not just the idea that Black lives matter which, of course, any liberal will get behind. It's a very specific view rooted in Marxism. The leaders of that movement are self-proclaimed Marxists. If you're going to teach a radical ideology in school, fine, but teach it alongside what people who disagree with this movement say. What are some other ways to do social justice? What are different kinds of anti-racist activism that differ from each other? But again, that's the liberal way. The woke way is to say, "This is correct, and anyone who disagrees is, not just wrong, but a bad person." That's indoctrination. It's not teaching. And again, it's illiberal teaching. And then you have things like silence is violence. That's next level. That's saying, it's not even just about what you're hearing or what you can't say. You better outwardly proclaim allegiance to our movement, or else, you're violent. Silence is violence and therefore, you must be punished if you're violent. And so you see this all the time. You have CEOs of companies saying to employees after George Floyd, "You haven't written anything on your personal social media about this and that's a problem," or in class, going around and having every student talk about their White privilege and saying, "We really need to hear from you," to students who haven't spoken up. That is compelled speech. It's illiberal, it's just so not what liberal-minded America is, regardless of what's being said. Again, I don't care if this is about social justice or about MAGA or about Christianity or about libertarianism, I don't care what the ideology is. When it's acting like the Mafia and it's going around and using coercion and indoctrinating and it's forcing compelled speech on people with threats, every liberal must stand up and push back against that. Again, it becomes unimportant what the underlying ideology is. When someone is actively using those kinds of tactics, if you value liberalism and you value a liberal society, you have to stand up to that.

SPENCER: Do you see Trump and his close supporters as using the same tactics?

TIM: Yes, in some ways, in that, any candidate in the 2022 midterms that spoke out against Trump, Trump basically would say, "I'm gonna blacklist you and I'm gonna support the other candidate," and there has been a mentality where all these candidates — Rubio and Ted Cruz, Rand Paul — that were openly very anti-Trump suddenly were on board with him. That tells me that they're scared. They're hurting their own integrity out of fear. So yes, in some ways, I think Trump would use any of these tactics if he could, and I think he thinks he's a little bit like the Mafia. He will use blackmail, he'll threaten, he doesn't argue in good faith, he lies openly, there's a lot of similar things. But it's a little bit different, in that, I think the Right, at least in the circles I'm talking about, doesn't have the cultural power to inflict fear, which is why you have so many people, outwardly, happily, without any fear, go and say Trump is the worst, who, if they also felt that wokeness was the worst, won't jump on that and say that, because there's more fear culturally. Now, I'm saying this from someone who's probably surrounded by Left-leaning circles more often. I think if I went to northern Texas, and I went to a church group, and I started talking about how the election was actually fair and Biden won, I'm probably going to experience a very similar thing, which is I'm going to be excommunicated. I'm going to be kicked out. There is definitely a Right-wing cancel culture. I just don't think that they've had as much power to do it in that regard.

SPENCER: Some people hearing this might think, "Oh, Tim is a centrist." How would you respond to that?

TIM: I think there's a lot of confusion about this word. First of all, there is a concept of centrist and it means someone who, when they hear about abortion, they're gonna likely say, "Well, I think actually the pro-choice people are right, but they go too far and I think it should be 15 weeks only," or something. And then they hear about immigration, and they think we should be somewhere in between. So yes, there's a lot of people who just happen to fall in the middle on positions, and they tend to think both sides have a good point, and that we need to mix. And that's fine. And I probably do qualify, at least on some issues, as a centrist. But it's just a totally different thing than what I'm talking about. I'm talking about being pro-house (liberal house), anti-wrecking ball. And so I'm anti-wrecking ball. And if there was just a wrecking ball from the Right, I would still be anti-wrecking ball and people would think I'm a Leftist. And if there were just a wrecking ball on the Left, people would think I'm a Right-winger. And when I see two big wrecking balls in wokeness and in MAGA and I criticize them both, that doesn't make me a centrist. It makes me anti-wrecking ball. And it happens to be that there are wrecking balls on both sides right now. And I think that the way you feel about the wrecking balls says nothing about where you are inside the house. So you can be conservative, centrist, or progressive on your political views inside the house and still think, "Well, the wrecking balls are bad because I'm a liberal." So I think that's what I would think, is just we should have two different discussions here. I mean, first, are you pro-house or anti-house? That's a big question. If you are pro-house and you like liberalism, you're probably anti-wrecking ball. That's one discussion. Now after that discussion, and I think less important in a way because the first discussion is existential, it's the ultimate existential debate. And then once we've established, "Okay, now, if you're pro-house and you like liberalism, now, where are you in the house?" Maybe you're Left, Right or Center. And I think those are two totally different discussions.

SPENCER: So would you say that, in a way, you feel like you have more in common with people who are on the opposite side of the political spectrum from you but pro-house than you do with people on the same side of the spectrum but anti-house?

TIM: Absolutely. You can just do any kind of example here. Just say I am pro-choice and there's someone who is pro-life or anti-choice or whatever you're supposed to say, and they are arguing in good faith with me about why and they are trying to lobby politicians to do things their way and they're doing their protest in the street. I see them more as in my boat than a pro-choice person who was trying to punish anyone who's not pro-choice, and trying to basically silence the discussion and use threats and blackmail to try to advance the pro-choice agenda and who is trying to tell children that pro-choice is the one correct answer, and if your parents are pro-life, your parents are bad people. That person and I, I would tell that person that I don't care what they think. That's what I was saying; there's a hierarchy here. The first, bigger issue is pro-house/anti-house and, if you are pro-house, you have to step out of the Left, Right, Center thing when it comes to wrecking ball movements. You can't say, "Well, I believe in social justice, and I don't like Trump, and I don't like Fox News, and Tucker Carlson doesn't like wokeness, so I must like wokeness." I need to put aside Tucker Carlson and social justice for a second and just say this movement is trying to break the foundation of the house we're all in, and doesn't believe that liberalism is good. And I do. And by the way, I'm not even saying that's necessarily better. I happen to be pro-house. I think it's totally fair for someone to say this house sucks. Go, be a Marxist, try to revolt and try to overthrow the country. That's your right. I just am going to push back on you. You are not someone I think is correct, and so I'm going to try to push back and that comes first. That has to be pushed back before I argue with the Right-winger about immigration or about pro-choice, because the entire house will fall if the wrecking balls get their way, and then we have no debate anymore.

SPENCER: So bring this back to the primitive mind versus higher mind idea. Would you say that, in part, what makes someone pro-house is that they're agreeing on a certain method for discussion or method for deciding, and that method involves the higher mind; it involves debate, logic, reason, evidence. And that's what ties you together with these people and makes you feel in a certain way, more connected to them than people outside of it?

TIM: I think it's more like, what does the primitive mind do when it's on a collective scale? What does a group do when the primitive mind mentality, that middle school tribal mentality, gets a hold of a whole group? And to me, it plays what I call the power games, where everything becomes about power and there are no rules outside of that. They see the entire world in terms of power, and they will try to do whatever they can. They'll cheat, if they can gerrymander their way into something, if they can overthrow an election result using force, they will. If they can indoctrinate kids to recruit kids into their army, even if it's not the right thing to do... There are no actual principles; it's just about power. And you'll see that by deep hypocrisy. You'll see people, see these groups have one view on an issue. And then when there's a new president in office, they switch entirely. Or they'll apply things to one set of groups in society; one race, they'll have one set of rules, and another race will have a totally different set of rules. Just rank hypocrisy. This is all the sign to me that the primitive mind is active, and it's banded together. Primitive minds have banded together and are doing a very ancient ritual and ancient survival ritual of building a golem and trying to overpower society to their will. When I talk about high-rung politics, and again, this is separate from the anti-house/pro-house discussion, because it's not that Marxists are primitive, and liberals are...you can have both in both. So again, this is a separate discussion. But when I talk about high-rung politics, like the higher mind, people mistake it for, "Oh, so he wants civility. He wants people to sit there and have intellectual discussions. And then they say, "Well, the people dying in the streets don't have that luxury." And it's a privileged position to be able to do, but I'm not talking about civility. And I'm not talking about emotionless, rational discussion. High-rung movements can be incredibly impassioned, and can go nuts trying to get what they want. It's just that they don't do it in a tribal way. They are going to be common humanity about it. They're not going to do things via this mechanism of dehumanizing an out-group, and getting into that mode where everything we do is perfect, righteous and correct, and everything they do is evil and bad.There are just telltale signs of which kind of movement it is and that's what I think, one is when the higher minds in the movement, in the group, have banded together and are running the show. And the primitive minds are there with passion but they're kept in check. They can't go into full crazy tribal mode.

SPENCER: I'm wondering, so you put out your book and you, in a sense, are critiquing a lot of people in society. Typically when that happens, you get a lot of pushback. I'm wondering what kind of pushback you've gotten, and also just what your experience of getting the pushback has been?

TIM: Yeah, it's actually quite interesting because obviously, this has been on my mind the whole time writing and I was like, "Alright, well, what's the shitshow gonna be when I publish it?" And in my book, I knew that the Right wouldn't really care because I do criticize Trump and some of the things I said here, I have a chapter on the decline of the Republican Party and all of that, but I just don't think my audience is as much Right-wing and the ones that are, I just didn't think that that would be a big thing. I've gotten some but I thought it would mostly be from the Left. I'm criticizing wokeness. I'm criticizing what I call social justice fundamentalism and trying to distinguish it from liberal social justice, and that's a hot topic. In the book, I talk about three Obama voters, and I say, "Okay, so 2012, take three Obama voters, and they all agree." They don't like to write, and they're pro-gay marriage and they don't like evangelical Christianity. They don't want it in politics. And they love Obama. So they're aligned. And now I see that those three have fractured. I see totally different camps among people who used to be politically united around this topic of wokeness. One camp has gone super woke. They're fully in it. Another camp is super anti-woke, and they think, "Well, this is really bad and regressive and dangerous." And then you have this big third camp, that I think is a lot of people, and they think wokeness is too much of a good thing. It's social justice gone too far. The pendulum's swung too far but they're still the good guys, and it's over the top, but the anti-woke people have also lost their mind. And they think the anti-woke people are annoying. And so they're not woke themselves, but they don't think it's that big a deal. And that, by the way, that's the group I was trying to reach the most because, if someone's really hardcore woke, they're probably not going to read my book. And I do hope to change some minds there, too, but I think the place that I can make an impact is trying to convince people that this is not what you think it is. I thought what's interesting is, I always pictured the pushback coming from wokeness, people calling me White privilege, people calling me bigoted or a Right-winger, and I haven't seen much of that. It might just say that my audience is not very woke, or maybe that woke people aren't likely to read my book. Or it says something about how maybe that's not as cool of an insult anymore, and people are less likely to go for that, so I don't know. But either way, I've been pleasantly surprised there. And the truth is, it's been mostly positive feedback. But the negative feedback I have gotten has mostly been from that middle group. It's been the person who said, "Sure, this is over the top. But this guy spent so much focusing on this thing when there's so many bigger things to be worrying about. The country's under threat from fascists and nuclear and AI and all these things. And he's focusing on wellness." And I get it, I get where that mentality comes from. I think often those are people who have not read the book also, because I make it pretty clear in the book, I address that. My point is that, when the liberal house foundation cracks and starts to weaken, all of those bigger things, all of those threats, they are way bigger threats. It's a sign that our society is losing its ability to do things together and think together and be wise, so we're going to fuck up all those things. So I see it as an underlying root existential thing that's the foundational threat underneath all the other threats, and that's why. So anyway, that's what they say and that's my response to it.

SPENCER: Would it be fair to say that, just in a nutshell, you're seeing this as a battle between letting golems run society versus letting genies run society? And if we slip into letting golems run society, whether it's on the Left or on the Right, we're basically going to drop the ball when it comes to dealing with these incredibly important topics of our time that are thrust upon us through our incredible technology.

TIM: Yeah, I think between the media, social media and just the way politics has realigned in the last 60 years in America, we've gotten so all-consumed, so obsessed with the Republican versus Democrat, red versus blue color war, that it has allowed us to sleep on this threat that's happening. So then you have a blue golem and a red golem, and all these reasonable people, these liberal- minded people, are so fixated on the Left versus Right thing that they fail to see the threat from the wrecking balls outside the house. And it reminds me of Game of Thrones when they're saying, "Oh, we're doing all this infighting but we should be focusing on the White Walkers." It's a little like that to me. We're so consumed with the battle in the house that we've forgotten to check our left and right flanks for these lumbering golems who are forces of destruction. And if you think liberalism is bad, and you want to overthrow the government, then great! Golems is the way to do that for sure. You need violence. If you're not that and you think the US Constitution is good and, like Martin Luther King, you think it's a good promise the country made and we need to be better at fulfilling that promise — when there's a lot of social justice work to be done, but liberalism itself is good — then yes, I think that people should be unbelievably concerned about golems and illiberalism in general and mobs and mob mentality and rising all-consuming tribalism and wrecking balls, things that are destroying institutions, that destroy trust, that destroy the integrity of institutions (which is a lot of what has happened). And yeah, I think that is connected to all the other existential threats. I think we will be making better decisions about AI and better decisions about nuclear and better foreign policy decisions if we can do what the US has traditionally done, which is use the immune system to push back against these things and simmer the madness a little bit.

SPENCER: Before we wrap up, obviously, you're trying to raise awareness of these ideas with your book, and you want people to be thinking about these things. But what else can be done to get society in a better place to make these incredibly important decisions that society is facing? I mean, where do we go from here from your perspective?

TIM: Well, I mean, I think the good news is, it's harder to be a wrecking ball movement in a way where, if I thought that the society was rotten to the core, I would say that we have to have a revolution. I think that the house is good and the wrecking balls are bad. And so therefore, I actually don't think we need a revolution. A revolution is the upheaval of everything. I think that we have the answers. It is the Constitution. It is the Enlightenment kind of wisdom of general liberal principles. We have that and we have all these long-trusted institutions that have built up trust and built up journalistic integrity and scientific integrity and whatever, and they just need to start acting like themselves again. We need courage. We need courage from people who know what the right thing is to do, and who have been staying silent about it, which is a much easier thing to call for. And the good news in the US, you don't have these groups actually murdering people very often. They're not Maoists. They're not the Nazis. They're not not going to lynch you for disagreeing. It's a soft cudgel they have that relies on fear, social fear. And if people just start saying, "You know what, I'm sick of this and fuck it. The sky won't fall when I speak out. And other people have done it." And people start, I think the tide can turn very quickly. Remember what I said about Twitter. You see the comments section can go from nasty to totally the opposite because the mob is also full of cowards. And when it becomes less cool to be mob-like, then people will quickly stop doing it. And I think this thing can flip very quickly back the other way, with just a little bit of courage.

SPENCER: It sounds like you actually have a lot of hope, that you don't think we're in such a bad place. It's more about defending the house rather than reformulating it or something.

TIM: Yeah, I think the challenge is huge. And the fact that this has happened, the fact that golems are rising up, it's scary. Is that just something that's going to happen more and more now or what's going on? Is there a flaw in our current society that's allowing this? And I am scared of the existential risks but I do see a route. I don't feel hopeless, I guess I would put it that way. I don't feel hopeless because I think that the liberal infrastructure is the answer, and I think that we have a pretty good one. And I think that there's reason to believe it could prevail, like it has many times in the past. McCarthyism was crazy, the Red Scare, but it ended. Things could end and then we go back to a little bit more grown-up society, and maybe then we can tackle these existential risks better.

SPENCER: Tim, thanks so much for coming on.

TIM: Yeah, thanks so much for having me.

[outro]

JOSH: A listener asks: What change to the government do you think would have the biggest positive impact on the world?

SPENCER: What comes to mind for me there — obviously there are a lot of different things that can be done to improve the government — but one thing that comes to mind is it feels like it's way too easy for the government to implement something that is proposed to be a solution, but then nobody really ever follows up to see if it solved the problem or how cost effectively it did it. So I think if there was some way to more clearly bind the government's actions to, "Okay, did it actually solve the problem? To what extent?" I don't know what that would look like in practice. It could look like another government agency that's supposed to evaluate the actions of the other agencies to see if they actually achieve the intended effect. Because I think a bunch of regulations will come out claiming to solve a problem, but then there's really no follow-up to tell if a solution actually worked. You can end up with tons and tons of pointless (quote unquote) "solutions" that haven't actually solved anything.

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