On Mottes and Mythologies: An Introduction to The Motte
“The purpose of this subreddit is to be a working discussion ground for people who may hold dramatically different beliefs. It is to be a place for people to examine the beliefs of others as well as their own beliefs; it is to be a place where strange or abnormal opinions and ideas can be generated and discussed fairly, with consideration and insight instead of kneejerk responses.” — /r/themotte’s foundation
I’m not the first person, or the best, to have written about the values at the foundation of /r/themotte. Back in 2014, Scott wrote what would become one of the most famous Slate Star Codex pieces: In Favor of Niceness, Community, and Civilization, written in response to Arthur Chu describing his own approach to the world.
In Chu’s world, the only point of online arguments is “to generate a spark that might catch,” where “to the extent that [his] words have any value at all, they have value to the degree that they helped someone out there get so [ticked] off and so riled up they said “F — — it” and went out to break some [stuff].” He believes that “persuasion mostly doesn’t work,” that the correct approach is to use people as “negative example[s] to hold in contempt and disgust.” His goal with views he disagrees with, in other words, is to push them entirely out of the sphere of conversation, using any tactics necessary. “The purpose,” he says, “is to prevent evil ideas from being exchanged.”
Scott, responding to a similar argument from Chu years ago, carefully outlines the argument that the history of progress and civilization has been one in which people who hate each other’s views find ways to be nice to each other anyway:
Every case in which both sides agree to lay down their weapons and be nice to each other has corresponded to spectacular gains by both sides and a new era of human flourishing.
He outlines his own community philosophy in light of that:
I seek out people who signal that they want to discuss things honestly and rationally. Then I try to discuss things honestly and rationally with those people. I try to concentrate as much of my social interaction there as possible.
So far this project is going pretty well. My friends are nice, my romantic relationships are low-drama, my debates are productive and I am learning so, so much.
And people think “Hm, I could hang out at 4Chan and be called a ‘f — ’. Or I could hang out at Slate Star Codex and discuss things rationally and learn a lot. And if I want to be allowed in, all I have to do is not be an intellectually dishonest jerk.”
The Motte isn’t Slate Star Codex, a community that until Scott took it down centered around discussion of “psychiatry, science, history, culture, politics, esotericism, kaballah, book reviews, and, you know, other things in that category.” Scott Alexander has never been directly involved with it. It’s a splinter group that initially rose organically out of a thread in the SSC subreddit intended to contain “Culture War” issues, the range of social and political topics that involve intense societal disagreement and polarization.
It is a place committed to the goal of allowing fervent enemies to “lay down their weapons and be nice to each other”, where as long as they’re willing to follow strict standards on courtesy, effort, and engagement, people with deep disagreements can candidly present and argue through their perspectives.
That’s its founding ideal. In practice, it tends to attract a distinct and peculiar subset of the population, a group that universally respects Scott Alexander, unconditionally opposes Stalin, and can’t seem to agree on all that much else. No single ideological label covers more than half of the people there, but more than a third identify as any or all of capitalist, classical liberal, and libertarian. Other popular labels include moderate, liberal, centrist, transhumanist, conservative, democratic, civic nationalist, and progressive. Passionate but smaller groups, in turn, identify with a range of more extreme labels, including a handful of anarchists, a couple of communists — and, yes, a few reactonaries and alt-right.
It’s a volatile sort of group to hope to keep together in any real way. The miracle is that it typically works out alright. Every week, the group gets several thousand comments, including a number of well-written, thoughtful ones from a broad range of perspectives. I know of nowhere else where I can jump from reading about the difficulty of recruiting blue-collar candidates in Australian politics to the multi-cultural draw of the major scale, over to the way private property enhanced a socialist video game or the value of true diversity in media, then finish it off by learning about the structure of the Mytelinean Revolt. There are plenty of controversial topics, like a discussion on how Republicans love Trump because he’s willing to punch back, all you ever wanted to know about adolescent gender transition, or perhaps most heated of all, the potential implications if intelligence is genetically determined. There are plenty of points, too, that are simply fascinating for their own sake: the mindset of modern China, a philosophical conversation between a robber and a 7–11 clerk, the ins and outs of the Korean education system.
Those are highlights, of course. While there are dozens of comparable posts each week, the moment-to-moment is much more mundane, full of many of the same small dramas and internet slapfights that characterize any online space. The promise, and the curse, of an open heterodox space like the Motte, is that anyone can make their case on almost anything provided they speak plainly, provide evidence, and minimize antagonism. It provides exposure to the fascinating, the beautiful, and the ugly in the cultural and political sphere. Anyone who pokes around there very long will find commentary that’s well outside the Overton window and at least a few points to vehemently disagree with.
It’s important not to romanticize it too much. The ideal is always in mind, but reaching towards it is a constant process and the community is not immune to criticism. As is to be expected from a group of detail-obsessed contrarians, much of the most pointed criticism comes within the group itself. To reduce things to the American political spectrum for a moment and to bring out the most common arguments, left-leaning people regularly report the feeling that the group is drifting, or has drifted, too far right and too reflexively against left perspectives. Right-libertarians there object to the frequency of bans and strictness of the moderation, particularly of people espousing right-coded views. People who support locally unpopular views can rightly notice the difficulty of swimming against the stream, even in a culture aimed at encouraging openness. Since the simple demographic reality of the group is that the bulk are younger nerdy white American atheists skeptical of identity politics, it can accurately be criticized for being a deeply non-representative slice of the world, with the inherent limitations that brings.
If you fundamentally believe that there should not be open discussion spaces for candid discussion and disagreement on controversial issues, you simply will not be happy with The Motte. To the rest who go there and notice ways the group falls short of its claimed ideals, I present the same, admittedly cliche, challenge I’ve given before: Be the change you want to see. It’s a small community eager for high-effort, informative, fresh content. If you have something to say, something you think people there are overlooking or should prioritize more, put in some time and research and say it. The community will thank you. One of the most valuable features of the space is its open audience, willing to discuss almost anything that can be made compelling. If you’d like to see better topics, give people something better to talk about. The Motte is far from perfect, but its ideals are sincere.
That all describes what The Motte hopes to be. Why do I, personally, stick around there?
I’d like to go on a tangent and get personal for a moment.
There are more people I know of with attitudes similar to Arthur Chu’s, people who are certain in their own morality and willing to openly condemn, mock, and cut off all who disagree. I’m lucky that my family members reject Chu’s philosophy. If they did not, I would likely never see them again. I’m lucky, too, that I reject Chu’s philosophy. If I accepted it, I would still be a Mormon (and a noxious one at that), and never would have met my boyfriend.
I’d like to take a moment to describe two schools of thought within Mormonism, the faith and culture in which I was born and raised:
One prominent 20th-century Mormon leader, Bruce R. McConkie, was very much of the mold of Chu. He wasn’t afraid to make enemies, confidently calling out Catholicism as “the great and abominable church", calling the intellect of Mormons who believe in evolution “weak and puerile", and confidently explaining how Mormonism showed black people to be inferior. When a member asked him to explain a disagreement, he responded, “It is my province to teach to the Church what the doctrine is. It is your province to echo what I say or to remain silent,” and made it clear to the member that his soul’s salvation depended on accepting McConkie’s guidance.
One of his contemporaries in the faith, Hugh B. Brown, had an approach more in line with Scott Alexander’s argument. Here’s what he had to say on truth:
I hope that you will develop the questing spirit. Be unafraid of new ideas for they are the stepping stones of progress. You will of course respect the opinions of others but be unafraid to dissent — if you are informed.
Now I have mentioned freedom to express your thoughts, but I caution you that your thoughts and expressions must meet competition in the market place of thought, and in that competition truth will emerge triumphant. Only error needs to fear freedom of expression. Seek truth in all fields, and in that search you will need at least three virtues; courage, zest, and modesty. The ancients put that thought in the form of a prayer. They said, ‘From the cowardice that shrinks from new truth, from the laziness that is content with half truth, from the arrogance that thinks it has all truth — O God of truth deliver us’.
McConkie was confidently wrong time and time again, pressuring many into echoing his ideas or staying silent, creating an atmosphere where to question is to be wrong. People who followed him into dead-ends were left holding dogmatically to absurdities, bullying those who dared notice the reality of evolution or other inconvenient truths, and creating deep divisions. When McConkie’s approach fails, it gets ugly, and causes a lot of pain in the process, usually turning someone to the polar opposite of the belief they once had. Brown’s approach, by contrast, leaves sufficient room for humility and error, allowing people to stand firm in their morals and beliefs while respecting differences. When it fails, you’re left able to adjust thoughtfully and without excess pain.
I was lucky to have family and friends who listened more to people like Brown than they did to those like McConkie. It meant that, growing up, I never got stuck on particularly hardline beliefs like young-earth creationism or anti-evolution. I was encouraged to take science seriously, to pursue truth, to ask questions. We laughed and groaned together when people brought up McConkie-style approaches. When I started spending more time around non-Mormons, I didn’t feel constantly pressured to convert and argue with them.
Despite that openness, and despite constant exposure to arguments against Mormonism online from ex-Mormons or onlookers, I took almost a decade from the time I started questioning parts of the Mormon narrative to the time I left. Why? Part of the reason is that the church inoculates you against “anti-Mormon literature." They tell stories of people who leave the church for petty reasons, they point to the worst arguments against them (and if you don’t believe there are bad arguments against Mormonism, take a look at this site or imagine walking past a bunch of guys with signs like this on your way to church gatherings), and they talk up just how misled and bitter those who leave the church are. Even clicking on a questioning website as a Mormon gives you a horrid feeling of disgust of the sort Arthur Chu describes as synonymous with morality. How could you ever trust anything from people so evil?
But that wasn’t the whole problem. The other problem was that I kept running into ex-Mormons who confirmed this preconception in my mind. See, a lot of the people who care enough to track down every conversation about a religion after leaving it are the ones who really, really hated it. More often than not, they share Chu’s mindset. So they bully, and they shame, and they mock, and they bring up every nasty part of Mormonism, and they push Mormons out of polite conversation, and they feel *incredibly righteous* while doing so. Does it work? Well, it sure gets Mormons to stop speaking out as much, so perhaps by Chu’s standards it does. But for me as a Mormon growing up, it played right into the narrative I was looking for. I saw my boogeymen come to life and cuss me out. Meanwhile, my Mormon community would constantly bring dinners and cookies to each other, help each other move, and plan group service projects for the old lady down the street. I saw a bunch of kind, loving, thoroughly decent people around me, and what looked and felt like a heartless, bitter crew of leavers, and so it felt perfectly obvious which path was better.
It took years to work up the courage to seriously engage at length with the possibility my faith might be false. When you’re told your whole life that an idea is evil, it’s hard to shake. You can feel the evil when you see it. Every time I saw “anti-Mormon literature”, I physically flinched away and seized on whatever apologetics I could find, no matter how convoluted, to “debunk” it and recommit myself to the narrative of my faith. After I reached the breaking point that allowed me to seriously engage with them, I had a few memorable conversations. You can actually see the last discussion I had as a still barely-believing Mormon, the one that finally pushed me over the edge. What worked more than anything else in the end? A polite, thoughtful ex-Mormon who took me seriously, responded carefully point-by-point, and left me no room whatsoever to see him in the narrative of misguided or evil people leaving the truth out of spite.
Afterwards, I got to deal with all the fallout, from two camps: the Chu/McConkie school of thought, and the Brown/Alexander school of thought. Like I said above, I was lucky with my family and friends. Every single one of them took the kind, understanding approach. They remained precisely the people I thought they were; I remained precisely the person they thought I was. They supported and loved me, even knowing that I was taking a path of irreconcilable disagreement with their core beliefs. I wasn’t so lucky with the Arthur Chus of the Mormon world. To their credit, none was quite as vitriolic as Chu, but they had their dogma and they were sticking to it. One told me I was likely possessed by the devil. Another worried about my tender feet being led down the thorny path to Satan’s grasp. None of them could ever have a normal conversation with me or treat me like a regular human again. Those relationships, some quite close, were irreparably damaged.
By the time I was ready to drop a second bombshell on my family after realizing I was gay, there were no more Arthur Chus in my life. To this day, I’ve never faced a word of real-world abuse about it or had a single friendship damaged because of it. The people around me, Mormon and not, have been universally loving and understanding. Up through today, I have close friends both inside and outside of Mormonism, people I can trust with my life. They’ve seen me make some of the most dramatic ideological changes someone can make, and they’ve trusted and respected me enough to treat me like a human the whole way.
With that long digression out of the way, let me return to the question I posed: Why do I stick around at The Motte? Again, if you click around for long, you’re going to find some ideas you find abhorrent. I do. If you don’t find them organically, you have a group of people like Chu, constantly at the ready to notice and highlight the worst points, finding them for you. And you have voices like his saying, loudly, confidently, with the full force of moral certainty on their side, that giving air to those opinions, even letting them into the conversation, is evil and should be shut down. Why hang around an atmosphere like that?
It’s pretty simple. I remember the kid I was, born into and seriously committed to a set of beliefs that I would need to seriously examine and step away from later in life. I remember just how rare it was to have a candid, good-faith discussion with people on the other side. I remember just how damaging the Arthur Chus both in and against my community were, how much unnecessary pain they caused. And if there’s any chance in an increasingly polarized world to build a space that allows that kid to honestly discuss his most controversial, difficult opinions and get sincere engagement and pushback instead of being shut down or mocked?
I will drag myself across broken glass to maintain that space, and all the Arthur Chus in the world aren’t enough to convince me otherwise.
That’s The Motte for you. It’s not perfect. It doesn’t always live up to the ideals Scott Alexander and others have championed. But it comes closer to being a working discussion ground for people who hold dramatically different beliefs than anywhere else I’ve found, and that’s just not the sort of thing you give up on.