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Motte & Grateful

[Originally posted on Singal-Minded back in October & now unlocked. Sorry for telling the normies about this place!]

It's an homage to a philosophical pitfall, but the name is also thematically fitting. It conjures up a besieged underdog, a den of miscreants, an isolated outpost, or just immovable stubbornness.

It's The Motte.

This is an obscure internet community wedded to a kinky aspiration --- that it is possible to have enlightening civil conversations about desperately contentious topics. Previously a subreddit, it finally made the exodus to its own independent space following mounting problems with Reddit's increasingly arbitrary and censorious content policies. The Motte is meant as the proverbial gun-free zone of internet discussion. So long as everyone follows strict rules and decorum, they may talk and argue about anything. At its best, it is the platonic ideal of the coffeehouse salon. This tiny corner of the internet has had an outsize influence on my life and yet despite that, I've always struggled to describe it to others succinctly.

In order to do so, I'll have to explain medieval fortification history briefly. Picture a stone tower, sitting pretty on a hill. It may be cramped and unpleasant, but it's safe. Likely impenetrable to any invasion. This is the motte. One cannot live on a diet of stone fortification alone, and so immediately surrounding the motte is the bailey --- the enclosed village serving as the economic engine for the entire enterprise. The bailey's comparative sprawl is what makes it more desirable to live in, and also what makes it more vulnerable, as it can be feasibly fortified only by a dug ditch or wooden palisade. So you hang out in the bailey as much as possible until a marauding band of soldiers threatens your entire existence and forces your retreat up the hill, into the motte. Bailey in the streets, motte in the event of cataclysmic danger, as the kids might say.

We don't have a lot of real-life mottes and baileys these days, but we do have a rhetorical analogy that is very useful: the motte-and-bailey fallacy. Someone bold enough to assert something as inane as "astrology is real" (bailey) might, when challenged, retreat to the infinitely more anodyne "all I meant by astrology being real is that natural forces like celestial bodies might have an effect on human lives" (motte), and who can argue against that? Once the tarot-skeptical challenger gives up on charging up the rampart, the challenged can peek from behind the gate and slink back to the spacious comforts of the bailey, free to expound on the impact of Mercury in retrograde or whatever without any pesky interruptions. Once you recognize this sleazy bait-and-switch, you'll spot it everywhere around you. Other examples are motte: common-sense gun control; bailey: Ban all civilian firearm ownership. Or motte: addressing climate change; bailey: Voluntary Human Extinction Movement. On and on.

Back to the history of my favorite online community: In the beginning, before The Motte was The Motte, they were the Rationalists (a.k.a. "rat-sphere" or just "rats"). These are a bunch of painfully earnest and lovable nerds unusually mindful about good epistemological hygiene.

Across their odyssey, they gather around various Schelling points, with the blog-cum-encyclopedia LessWrong as one of their most prominent congregation points. Whatever hurdles to logical reasoning (confirmation bias, availability heuristic, or motivated reasoning, to name very few) that you can come up with are guaranteed already to be extensively cataloged within its exquisitely maintained database.

It is understandably suspicious when a group names itself after what is presumed to be a universally lauded value, but you can see evidence of this commitment in practice. My favorite vignette to illustrate the humility and intellectual curiosity of the rat-sphere happened when I attended my first meetup and overheard a conversation that started with "Okay, let's assume that ISIS is correct... " with the audience just calmly nodding along, listening intently.

Even if you don't know about the rats, you may have heard of the psychiatrist and writer Scott Alexander. His blog remains a popular caravanserai stop within the rat-sphere. While his writing output is prodigious in both volume of text and topical scope (everything from mythological fiction of Zeus evading a celestial amount of child-support obligations to a literature review of antidepressant medication), what consistently drew the most attention and heat to his platform were his essays on culture war topics, perennial classics like Meditations on Moloch or I Can Tolerate Anything Except The Outgroup to name a select few.

Culture wars are best understood as issues that are generally materially irrelevant, yet are viciously fought over as proxy skirmishes in a battle over society's values. (Consider how much ink is spilled over drag queen story hours.) But something can be both materially irrelevant and fun. And inevitably, like flies to shit, people were most drawn to the juiciest of topics --- the proverbial manure furnaces that generated the brightest of flames. Scott *tried *to keep all this energy contained to a dedicated Culture War Thread on his blog's subreddit, but the problem was that it worked *too well *in encouraging unusually intelligent and cogent articulations of "unthinkable" positions. In part because Scott has made some enemies over the years, and said enemies have eagerly sought opportunities to demonize him as his star has risen, the internet peanut gallery frequently (and disingenuously) attributed the most controversial opinions on the subreddit to Scott himself. This in turn directed ire at the host for "platforming" the miasma. And so in early 2019, Scott emancipated the thread, and a crew of volunteers forked the idea away onto its own subreddit and beatified it with its new name: r/TheMotte.


Because the space was rat-adjacent from the beginning, it had a solid basis to succeed as an oasis of calm. Even with that advantage, the challenge of building a healthy community almost from scratch should not be underestimated. Props to the moderators, who kept the peace with both negative and positive reinforcement. As you might expect in a community dedicated to civil discussion, you could get banned for being unnecessarily antagonistic or for using the subreddit to wage culture war rather than discuss it.

But equally important was the positive reinforcement part of the equation. If anyone's post was particularly good, you would "report" it to the mods as "Actually A Quality Contribution," or AAQC. The mods collected the AAQC and regularly posted roundups. Consider for a moment and appreciate how radical a departure this is from the norm. The internet has developed well-worn pathways from the constant barrage of wildebeest stampeding to the latest outrage groundswell, famishing to feast on its pulped remains. This machine increasingly resembles one purpose-built for injecting the worst, most negative content into our brains every second of every day. And instead here were these dorks, congregating specifically to talk about the most emotionally heated topics du jour, handing out certificates of appreciation and affirmation.

The AAQC roundups were a crucial component of the community, particularly when they unearthed hidden gems that would otherwise have remained buried. Reddit's down/upvote feature is often ab/used as a proxy for dis/agreement (leave it to the rats to create two-factor voting for internet comments), but the mods made sure to highlight thought-provoking posts especially when they disagreed with them.

Part of the draw was just how unassuming it all was. A small handful of people who wandered in happened to already have well-established writing platforms built elsewhere. But by and large, this was an amateur convention attended by relative nobodies. And yet some of my favorite writing ever was posted exclusively in this remote frontier of Reddit.

The highlights are numerous. How about a grocery store security guard talking about his crisis of faith about modern society that happened during a shift? Or the post that forever changed how I viewed Alex Jones by reframing his unusual way of ranting through the prism of epic poetry tradition? Or the philosophy behind The Motte, where Arthur Chu is cast as the villain? Or how people talk past each other when using the word "capitalism"? Or an extended travelogue of Hawaii's unusual racial dynamics? Or this hypothetical conversation between a barbarian and a 7-11 clerk? Or how Warhammer 40k is a superior franchise to Star Wars thanks in part to higher verisimilitude in its depiction of space fascism? Or this effortlessly poetic meditation on Trump's omnipresence? Or an ethnography of the effectiveness of rifle fire across cultures? Or how the movie Fantastic Mr. Fox straddles the trad/furry divide? Or this catalog of challenges facing a Portland police officer? Or this dispatch from an overwhelmed doctor working during India's horrific second COVID-19 wave? Or a technical warning about Apple's ability to spy on its customers? Or why the major scale in music has such broad multicultural appeal? Or a man brought to tears by overwhelming gratitude while shopping at Walmart? Or how the decline of Western civilization can be reflected in the trajectory of a children's cartoon series? Or how RPGs solved a problem by declaring some fantasy races to be inherently evil only to create another issue? Or how about the potential nobility of --- get this --- indiscriminate retributive homicide from the standpoint of a Chinese military officer going on a shooting rampage after his wife died of a forced abortion?

The structure of the community was such that it gained a sort of natural immunity to trolls. The community was primed to take the arguments trolls made seriously, and this meant drafting intimidating walls of text in earnest. And that wouldn't be the end of it, because you could reliably expect the community to obsess and mull over that same topic for weeks on end, churning out thousands of words more in the process. Most bad-faith actors find it impossible to keep up the charade for that long, and it's just Not Fun™ when a troll's potential victim reacts by obliviously submitting immaculately written essays in reply. Consider an example of the type of discourse that gets prompted by something as wild-eyed as the question of "when is it ethical to murder public officials?". The goal of trolling is to incite immediate, reactive anger, and it must've been dispiriting to enter the space solely to cause trouble, and to slink out having encouraged more AAQCs instead. Anyone dumb enough to try a drive-by bait-and-snark quickly found themselves exhausted and overwhelmed.

Places that explicitly herald themselves as an offshoot to the mainstream quickly gain a reputation as a cesspit of right-wing extremists. Setting aside the question of overall political dominance, it remains true that major institutions (media, finance, tech, etc.) are overwhelmingly staffed by liberal-leaning individuals. Conservatives who feel hounded by the major institutions can opt to carve out their own spaces, and yet nearly every attempt to create the "conservative" alternative to social media giants ends up a toxic waste dump (See Voat, Parler, Gab, etc.).

Scott Alexander described this best when he wrote:

The moral of the story is: if you're against witch-hunts, and you promise to found your own little utopian community where witch-hunts will never happen, your new society will end up consisting of approximately three principled civil libertarians and seven zillion witches. It will be a terrible place to live even if witch-hunts are genuinely wrong.

So it's unsurprising that people have criticized The Motte for being a den of right-wing rogues. For what it's worth, a survey of the community found the modal user to be a libertarian Hillary Clinton voter. But homogeneous thinking is explicitly not the goal here, and the point of the entire enterprise is to have your ideas challenged. Sterilized gruel is the antithesis of critical thinking and the reason why we need places like The Motte.


That's the backstory, and here's how it impacted me personally.

I've always been insatiably curious. But communicating in writing was a momentous struggle for me. Although I coasted through college, writing assignments were virtually the only source of anxiety for me. I once described the writing process as "struggling to take a painful shit." Eking out anything remotely worthwhile was a cataclysmic struggle. I'd stare at a blank page with dread, draft voluminous paragraphs, find myself meandering into gratuitous prose, delete passages until I forgot the point I was making, and then sift through the remaining dessicated husk wondering why anyone would give a fuck. Years ago, before I found my groove in my current job as a public defender, and outside the veil of school-mandated writing, I had ideations of making a living as a writer. A few more of the above-described painful shit sessions conclusively disavowed me of that delusion.

In contrast, though, talking about ideas came naturally to me very early. I was always indefatigable and relentless and confrontational and (with all due humility) easily ran laps around people who had the misfortune of engaging in discussion with me in real life. Few were surprised that I became a lawyer.

My frustrations with writing never sapped my passion for reading, but consuming others' work left me feeling forlorn about my own inadequacy. It was hard for me to admire prominent writers without also feeling pangs of envy. But browsing The Motte only sharpened my frustration because these weren't big-name writers churning out incredible posts --- they were random nobodies. So when it first started, I mostly lurked and did not write much, because I did not believe I had the requisite caliber to contribute anything worthwhile.

I changed my mind about contributing after getting drunk with a friend in the backyard of a bar while a Bernese dog eyed our uneaten sandwiches. My friend (a bona fide socialist) and I got into a passionate but civil discussion about the ideal contours of free speech. The specific disagreement doesn't matter, because that afternoon reminded me how invigorated I feel by in-person discussions. It dawned on me how I could properly contribute to The Motte. A few weeks later I memorialized my pseudonym with a fresh new account, and my immediate goal was to start a podcast. Naturally, it was called The Bailey.

Our release schedule may not be the most reliable, but we have put out 29 episodes so far (for the record, that's more than the hilarious and informative legal podcast ALAB). In between recording episodes, I wrote posts on The Motte, almost as an afterthought. But the point here is that I wanted to start a podcast because I thought my writing sucked.

I always knew I could anticipate some vociferous pushback at The Motte. The pushback was crucial, as it was the whetstone to my rhetoric. I knew that if I were going to do something as foolish as post on The Motte, I had to be loaded for bear. I'd sling the grenade by hitting "post," but the notifications that followed promised some reciprocated shrapnel. All the better.

Posting on a dusty corner of Reddit about some culture war bullshit was obviously very low-stakes, but then a very curious thing happened: People noticed my stuff. I'm only slightly embarrassed to admit how gleeful I was telling my girlfriend that something I wrote was recognized as an AAQC and included in the roundup. And it kept happening, again and again. Eventually I was picked to be one of the moderators (joining veterans like podcast apprentice Tracing Woodgrains) in a process that mirrored how the Venetian Doge was selected. I realized over time just how much of a gargantuan amount of writing I had absent-mindedly accumulated over the years just by posting on The Motte, and so when I started my own Substack almost a year ago, its only purpose was to find a home for that compendium.

I kept writing there for years, obliviously using its space to workshop my writing craft and barely noticing. It wasn't until some of my writing escaped into the wild earlier this year (assisted by a certain sentient fox) and received recognition by the powers that be that I realized how grateful I am for the precious space cultivated here.

I could not have accomplished any of this without The Motte. I owe that space --- especially the jerks who deigned to disagree with me --- so much.

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Well written. I always wondered how much Jesse and Katie knew about @tracingwoodgrains's connection to this place when they took him on.