Like A Girl

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Paul Graham blocked me on Twitter

I don’t think I’m alone in saying that Paul Graham used to be one of my heroes.

My memories of my first steps into the world of software development are no longer crisp. The texture of it, the day-to-day, the mechanisms by which my skills solidified —that’s all faded. Mostly what I remember is the people I looked up to, people whose writing shaped my understanding of software culture and served as rose-tinted windows into a culture I wanted so desperately to be a part of. Some of my favourites: Eric S. Raymond’s The Cathedral and the Bazaar; Neal Stephenson’s In The Beginning was the Command Line; Lawrence Lessig’s Free Culture; Jeff Atwood’s Coding Horror blog. Most of all, Paul Graham’s essays, because he had managed to translate software competency into real-world success.

I remember two Paul Graham essays that particularly resonated with me — Hackers and Painters, and Why Nerds Are Unpopular. They were the gateway to a more vibrant and meaningful world that I, trapped in a high school I hated and feeling alienated from my peers, could only dream of. They appealed to me on a level that I can’t really put into words and frankly feel embarrassed thinking about, even now. Here was this brilliant and successful person telling me that I was special, and that immersing myself in this fledgling community would be my ticket to success. A community whose figurative leaders included Paul Graham. How could I not have looked up to him?

Yesterday, Paul Graham blocked me on Twitter.

I can only assume it was because of this tweet:

The next day, he posted this:

Of course he thinks of people who criticise him as malicious or intellectually dishonest. It’s a natural reaction. It’s a coping mechanism.

But then, so is irony. It’s a way of distancing yourself, coping with the disappointment. Because beneath the blasé attitude, beneath the jokes, beneath the surface layer of sarcasm, there’s nothing but pure, unadulterated sadness, and it’s crushing.

The reason I’d rather roll my eyes and make silly jokes about Paul Graham it is because it’s hard to truly accept what has become of someone I used to admire. Because it hurts. It hurts to see someone you used to respect cementing his place on what looks like the wrong side of history.

But at the same time, irony isn’t a real solution, either. I tried it and all I got was a bunch of quote-tweets with broken links. Whom does it serve except myself and the people who already think negatively of him? If I want to do more than just cope — if I want the possibility of actually changing anything— I have to rise above it.

So this is my sincere attempt at trying to engage without hiding behind the veneer of irony. Without malice. Without intellectual dishonesty. Just the quiet hope of someone who is disappointed by what he’s become and thinks he could do better.

Here’s the original tweet that I took issue with:

Let me put on my intellectually honest, non-malicious hat for a minute. What is the most generous way of interpreting what he is saying?

The best I could come up with is this: on average, when someone is trying to argue a point, but is unable to do so calmly, it’s because they don’t really understand the point they’re making, or at least not as deeply as someone who is able to speak more calmly. So you should take that into consideration when listening to them.

And look, it’s plausible, as a theory. But that doesn’t make it a fact, the way his framing of it implies. Whether or not it’s true, though, almost doesn’t matter — who cares what the average trend is? It’s obviously not true axiomatically, and it’s not hard to think of counterexamples. What matters is the fact that Paul Graham really does seem to believe it. Which says something really troubling about Paul Graham himself.

Because the real motive behind this aphorism is to quash dissent. If you believe that someone speaking emotionally is just uninformed, you can invalidate their argument without even considering it. Convenient for you, harmful for anyone who has a reason to be emotional about something. You know, anyone who might be facing any sort of threat or oppression or injustice, who is unable to detach from their pain enough to speak about it calmly. Anyone who might threaten your worldview.

And so the result of this line of thinking is to justify the status quo. A status quo which, right now, is riddled with injustice.

This isn’t just an overreaction to a single, harmless tweet. I’ve been following Paul Graham’s trajectory — his writing, interviews, tweets — over pretty much the last decade, and I’ve slowly watched him turn into someone whose views I find increasingly bizarre. Someone who seems to be turning inward just when the rest of the world is starting to wake up.

You know the expression “kill your heroes”? It’s one of those expressions that kind of doesn’t need a definition — the metaphor’s pretty clear. To kill your heroes means killing the idea that they are heroes. It means destroying the pedestal you’ve put them on in your head and seeing the real, infinitely complex human being instead. It means realising that they are human, with flaws and weaknesses like everyone else, doing their best to navigate this perplexing world.

I went from admiring him to scorning him to, finally, accepting the cold, stark truth: that he is a fallible human being like any other, just trying to live his life. Trying to cope with the fact that he has done quite well for himself, having accumulated massive amounts of wealth, respect, Twitter followers — whatever measurement you want. And all of a sudden people are coming out of the woodwork to criticise him.

Put yourself in his shoes. How would you react?

You could open yourself up to criticism. You could recognise that your critics might be right. You could subject yourself and your beliefs to a harsh cross-examination.

It’s not an easy thing to do. Especially if you’ve done well in life, because then you feel like the world has validated you, and so your whole self-image is thoroughly and inextricably entangled in your success. You end up believing that the world is meritocratic and that you succeeded because of something immanently great about you. You’re left believing you’re a kind of hero, making the world a better place by unleashing the wealth creation power of startups. Anyone who challenges this narrative is challenging your very conception of who you are.

No wonder he chooses to shut out the critics, who tell him that he didn’t really earn his success, that the world in which he made his mark is vastly unfair and oppressive, that his understanding of inequality is harmful and ultimately wrong. Ignoring it is much easier than having to confront his self-image.

But I think that on some level, deep down, he’s afraid that the criticism is right. I think that part of him looks around from his rarefied heights at what he’s accumulated and accomplished, and suspects that he owes something to the world, not the other way around. I think that he’s worried that he might really be the villain people make him out to be. And no one wants to be the villain.

So he buries his fears and tells himself that the critics are dishonest or uninformed. You can see traces of this in his recent post about Hillary Clinton:

I don’t think there is any solution to this problem. It’s human nature. The best we can do is to recognize that it’s happening, and to understand that being a magnet for criticism is sometimes a sign not that someone is the wrong person for a job, but that they’re the right one.

Sometimes, sure. But there’s a simpler reason for being a magnet for criticism.

Of course, this is all just conjecture. But I don’t think I’m all that wrong.

I know a lot of people in this younger generation of programmers — people who, like myself, once idolised him — who now see him as kind of a dinosaur, clinging on to sclerotic and self-serving views on inequality. He’s so attached to the old world order that he can’t see, or doesn’t care, that the world is moving in a new direction and that if he doesn’t watch out, he’ll soon find himself on the wrong side of history. And it’s so frustrating to see him behave this way, when it feels like he should know better.

But I don’t think it’s hopeless. Because here’s the other thing about killing your heroes. Once you see them as human beings, once you truly see them as selves, you also recognise that they can change. That they’re redeemable.

I don’t know if I can reach Paul Graham — he has no reason to care about the opinion of someone he’s blocked — but maybe someone he does listen to will get through to him one day. I really hope so, because he has the power to do a lot of good in this world, if he only chose to.

All I can do is hope.