David Heinemeier Hansson

April 27, 2021

Mosaics of positions

If you learn enough about someone, you'll eventually be disappointed or dismayed. This is nature, this is normal.

While some conservatives love to throw the word snowflake around as an insult, I take it as a compliment. The most interesting people I know really are unique, quirky, and even contradictory.

To illustrate, I'm going to list some political statements that I agree with, and you try to form an opinion of who I am just based on those:

  1. Israel's occupation of Palestine is an apartheid regime.
  2. Abortion should be legal and accessible, with some restrictions.
  3. Structural racism is a big problem in America.

Those are three political topics that have been lightning rods  in America for decades. And if you take just those three, you're going to form an impression of someone on Team Liberal/Left (although even those terms and their fit to these issues have their own controversies to untangle!).

But let's keep going. Let's do another three:

  1. Russiagate was a mass delusion.
  2. Parler's eviction from the internet was wrong.
  3. Trump was mostly right on trade with China.

Now things are getting murky! Those all sound like Team Conservative/Right positions? If you draw a Venn diagram for those six positions, the area that overlaps is going to be pretty small. The number of people who'd agree with me keeps shrinking for every controversial position taken.

Now imagine instead of six positions, we eventually end up examining many more. I've been writing on the internet for over twenty years, so in my case, I've probably publicly endorsed hundreds if not thousands of controversial positions. And in that time, surely changed my mind on more than a few as well.

How many people do you think would agree with me on everything I've ever written? Nobody, that's how many. (Not even me!).

That's without even considering a current set of positions that many would consider contradictory in terms, like:

  1. Cars are really fun. Cars don't belong in cities.
  2. Climate change is a catastrophic problem. I like burgers.
  3. Encryption is good. Bitcoin is bad.

These three contradictions probably rank lower on the scale of existential stress for most people than do the first six (except maybe saying Bitcoin is bad 😂), though, so you can discuss them casually with more people without ending up hitting identity bedrocks.

But those first six? There are very few people who I'd willingly sit down to have a good-faith, substantial discussion with about those. Because the odds are that we'll run sour quickly. Those debates need the right context, the right people, the right frame of mind.

And at work? No, never. Especially at work! Especially because work involves all sorts of delicate power balances already. If I end up in a debate with an employee at Basecamp that hits identity bedrock, we're both going to be put in a hard situation (and the odds are low that any of the rocks are going to move).

Does that mean nobody should ever discuss these big, important topics? Of course not! We need vigorous debate in a free society. But as the joke goes, "Sir, this is a Wendy's". Not every place is the right place. Not every time is the right time.

The way some people deal with this is by accepting an ideological package deal. Then you can adopt a whole slew of orthodoxies that a certain group has agreed upon being The Correct Takes. This gives a real sense of belonging and security. We're good and right, they're bad and wrong. Easy!

Well, easy deal, hard bargain. Not only will the ideological package deal keep evolving, usually without affording you much control or say in the matter, but it'll also stoke all the tribal proclivities you're hardwired for. And that'll take most people to an increasingly rigid and intolerant place.

It'll also increase the feeling of betrayal if you thought someone was on your team, but then they reveal a blasphemous position that runs counter to the orthodoxies. That traitor! They must only believe this because [list of speculative, terrible reasons].

We all have our own red lines. Positions we find so beyond the pale that they're instant deal breakers. Good, fine, break those deals. But the more lines you accumulate, the more cross you're going to get. The more constrained your tolerance for coexisting with others. So at very least ask yourself: did I collect too many? Are these the right ones?