You're Calling *Who* A Cult Leader?



Followup toWhy Our Kind Can't Cooperate, Cultish Countercultishness

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

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

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

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

  • Paul Graham has written a word or two about rationality... in a much more matter-of-fact style.
  • Paul Graham does not ask his readers for donations.  He is independently wealthy.
  • Paul Graham is not dabbling in mad-science-grade AI.  He runs Y Combinator, a seed-stage venture fund.
  • Paul Graham is not trying to save the world.  He's trying to help a new generation of entrepreneurs.

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

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

So when I read someone:

  1. Comparing the long hours worked by Y Combinator startup founders to the sleep-deprivation tactic used in cults;
  2. Claiming that founders were asked to move to the Bay Area startup hub as a cult tactic of separation from friends and family;

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

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

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

Behold the following, which is my true opinion:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Oh!" he says, "You're a writer?"

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

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

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

The teenager nods, looking very serious.  "Any of these books," gesturing around, "that you'd recommend?"

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

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

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

The teenager furrows his brow.  "Well, sure."

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

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

"What?" says the teenager.

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

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

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

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


Part of the sequence The Craft and the Community

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