Sam Altman complains about political correctness in San Francisco, says it’s hurting innovation

To hear Y Combinator President Sam Altman tell it, the future of innovation is at stake because free speech is dead in San Francisco.

Altman has been known to float what some might call crazy ideas: universal basic income, giving all American adults a share of the GDP.

But his latest idea strikes a different tone, one with a certain oppressed-silent-majority ring to it.

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“It’s possible we have to allow people to say disparaging things about gay people if we want them to be able to say novel things about physics,” he wrote in a blog post this week.

In that post, he said he felt freer to speak his mind in China: “I realized I felt more comfortable discussing controversial ideas in Beijing than in San Francisco.” He also said he is “now seeing many of the smartest people I know move elsewhere” because they feel stifled in the Bay Area.

He then went on to say something that is sounding more familiar these days, and is easy for someone in his shoes — rich, male, white, powerful — to say: “Political correctness often comes from a good place—I think we should all be willing to make accommodations to treat others well. But too often it ends up being used as a club for something orthogonal to protecting actual victims.”

And that, aspiring entrepreneurs, is how the president of one of Silicon Valley’s most respected tech incubators — which has helped the rise of Airbnb, Dropbox, Stripe and more than a thousand other companies — feels.

Think of it as the perfect cherry on top of Silicon Valley’s year of culture wars, from Peter Thiel’s support of President Trump to James Damore’s famous Google memo to all the sexual harassment scandals.

Now the question is: Is the next big app to help you… say, share your location with other smartphone users, worth slamming a gay person, woman or minority near you?

Oh, but Altman gave more high-minded examples in his post: “If SpaceX started in San Francisco in 2017, I assume they would have been attacked for focusing on problems of the 1%, or for doing something the government had already decided was too hard. I can picture Galileo looking up at the sky and whispering “E pur si muove” here today.”

Altman is getting some pushback, especially on Twitter, where the tech industry and its observers come to think out loud when they’re not writing controversial blog posts.

Susan Fowler, the former Uber engineer whose blog post earlier this year sparked the sexual-harassment reckoning in tech, said on Twitter: “I dunno if China is the shining example of “free speech” and “lack of political correctness” we should be striving for.”

Erica Joy, former Googler and now senior engineering manager at Patreon, also weighed in: “Sam. Really? Genetic engineering is a controversial idea. Bitcoin is a controversial idea. Putting them on the same footing as ‘gay people are evil’ legitimizes the latter as something that is worthy of consideration and debate.”

By the way, Altman attached a footnote to his comment about letting people say bad things about gay people:

I am less worried that letting some people on the internet say things like “gay people are evil” is going to convince reasonable people that such a statement is true than I fear losing the opposite—we needed people to be free to say “gay people are ok” to make the progress we’ve made, even though it was not a generally acceptable thought several decades ago.

In fact, the only ideas I’m afraid of letting people say are the ones that I think may be true and that I don’t like. But I accept that censorship is not going to make the world be the way I wish it were.

The influence of Altman, 32, extends beyond the tech world, too. He has launched a search for political candidates in California, and has also reportedly flirted with the idea of running for governor but later decided he wouldn’t be running for office.

And with that, here’s a roundup of reactions to Altman’s post:

And back to Joy for the last word.

Photo: Y Combinator President Sam Altman speaks during a Fireside Chat at TechCrunch Disrupt SF at Pier 48 in San Francisco on Sept. 19, 2017. (Dan Honda/Bay Area News Group)


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  • Jones

    Queue the lynch mob in 1, 2, 3….

    • Interesting verb choice. Do murderous mobs typically stand in lines?

      • joelhfx

        No, they are predictably irrational. Hence the count in. You are really slow today aren’t you?

  • Francisco Cardoza

    What is it with these tech guys thinking that they are suddenly the next Trump or Obama. Just because you invented or invested in some idea doesn’t make you the savior for America.

  • jillkennedy
  • AlanInSF

    The notion that the suppression of hate speech can stifle innovative thinking about science is a very interesting one. Maybe the next time Altman sounds off on this subject, he can provide an example of where that actually happened.

    • JoelHFX

      “hate speech” = opinions you don’t like

      • There is an actual legal definition of hate speech, which is a combination of disparagement of a class of people and an imminent threat of violence to them. The fact that you ignore this straightforward definition to type dismissive lies instead says more about you than about anything of substance.

        • joelhfx

          If you had more than two brain-cells to rub together you would know that I am referring the fact that the “hate speech” label is being conflated to include anyone who doesn’t agree with democrats or social justice retards. Essentially, all of silicon valley.

  • StevieRay

    What I think he’s trying to say is that we are forming protective classes in which criticism of any sort = heresy (hate speech).

    This social heresy comes with immediate consequences that range and grow exponentially according to how many “warriors” join the posse.

    Just check the incendiary responses against in his feed to get a taste, and this was for simply posing an open style question…quite a few ugly personal attacks, the tip of the iceberg.

    • Tigger

      What he is saying is obvious and obviously true. People are either too dense to understand it or unwilling to admit to its truth. So they do mental gymnastics to misidentify the argument.

      • StevieRay

        People do love their proof positives.

    • Elie Challita

      Turns out that people tend to take it personally when you adopt or defend viewpoints that categorize them as deficient or subhuman. Who knew?

      I agree that the general sentiment can sometime feel like a witch hunt, especially if it triggers off of a poorly worded statement rather than an actually harmful view, but the outrage is still legitimate in the majority of cases.

  • JoelHFX

    Twitter erupts with the exact kind of idiocy he was complaining about, proving his point.

    • Elie Challita

      So any opposition or rebuttal to his position is proving his point?

      • joelhfx

        Your words, not mine. But you knew that. So typical.

  • racerxonthe8th

    After Levi states Sam’s concern, he quickly proves Sam right with the rest of his article. He also quickly categorizes Sam as a “rich, white, powerful male”, (the most hated genre of pop culture), to discount any opinion he may have. Wow. Levi is filled with such racial Prejudice and Hate that he would tell his readers to ignore a man’s opinion based on his race and sex. Thank you, Levi for clearly highlighting the problem

    • Levi Sumagaysay

      Mentioning that Sam Altman is rich, white and male points out his position of privilege. Complaining about “political correctness” is easy for those who are in a position of privilege, while many of us who aren’t those things rely on “political correctness” so we can study, work, live and exist without being excluded, demeaned, harassed, abused or worse.

    • levisu

      Mentioning that Sam Altman is rich, white and male points out his position of privilege. Complaining about “political correctness” is easy for those who are in a position of privilege, while many of us who aren’t those things rely on “political correctness” so we can study, work, live and exist without being excluded, demeaned, harassed, abused or worse.

      • racerxonthe8th

        Sorry, Levi. You don’t discount a person’s viewpoint based on the color of their skin, or their gender. You don’t fix racial discrimination by choosing to racially discriminate against white men. You’re only perpetuating the problem. Remember when MLK said, ” not judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character”? Try to keep that in mind. As far as “political correctness” goes, it starts out as a good idea that then gets taken to absurdity. John Cleese makes an excellent observation on this during his interview in The Vulture.

        • Elie Challita

          No, but you do get to point out that their background can and probably does color their view of a particular situation.

          Pointing out that someone is rich, white, and male doesn’t disqualify their point of view, but it might explain why they have trouble recognizing the additional difficulties faced by someone who isn’t part of those descriptors.

          It’s like saying that a non-handicapped person doesn’t know the struggles faced by someone in a wheelchair as well as an actual paraplegic.

    • So you’re complaining about Levi using his freedom to say something that is incorrect in your own political estimation, and personally attack him for it.