Mini Review: “What’s Our Problem?” by Tim Urban

I’ve just finished Tim Urban’s “What’s Our Problem?” and am somewhat conflicted by the experience. I can’t remember how I first came across his blog “Wait, But Why”, but I think it had something to do with his blog post series “The Story of Us”, which was actually the initial steps in a journey for him that ultimately became this book.

The initial concepts in that blog series had tweaked my interest enough that when I heard he had turned it into this book, I was eager to read it.

And I must say for the first three chapters my eagerness was mostly satiated. Broadly speaking the concept is thus:

We need to not just view the political spectrum on a horizontal left to right sliding scale, but also on a top to bottom vertical scale (which he names “The Ladder”). The topmost rung on this ladder represents our critical mind at its best, open to discussion, receptive to new ideas, able to critique them and weigh them up objectively. The bottom-most rung on the ladder is the domain of what he calls the “primitive mind” – tribalism, polarisation, confirmation bias, us vs them, echo chambers etc. It is of course another sliding scale, and he acknowledges that there are all sorts of positions in between (although he roughly breaks it down into 4 ‘rungs’ on the ladder).

There’s a lot more to it than that, and he discusses in detail how this viewpoint can help us understand the political climate in the US.

Lower Right and Lower Left

After this he spends Chapter 4 discussing the problems caused by the bottom-right of the spectrum: “Republican Fundamentalism” as he calls it which was a pretty fascinating chapter as well. However, he then goes on to spend the following 3 chapters discussing in immense detail the bottom-left of the spectrum, what he calls “Social Justice Fundamentalism” (SJF). I had a quick look just now and if we break it down by pages we have about 189 pages on the overall thesis of what our problem is (including his short section on what we can do about it), then we have 48 pages discussing the bottom-right of the spectrum, and then 353 pages discussing the bottom-left.

And I must say this is where I struggled. There are undoubtedly a number of points which he makes which are compelling within this, and it’s a great reminder to question things and retain critical thinking, but there were also a number of things he questions that gave me pause.

Tim seems to have a big problem with identity politics and the more extreme viewpoints of social justice, and I get it. I remember reading “The Once and Future Liberal: After Identity Politics” by Mark Lilla – something I found quite well-reasoned and enlightening and highlighted the problems with over-emphasising identity politics, and Tim rightly points out that many of the more extreme social justice approaches could very well be self-defeating in their outcomes.

But spending 60% of the book focused entirely on this topic smacks a little of “doth he protest too much”? Everything he discusses does appear to be well backed up but I don’t know enough about these topics to really offer a counter argument when I doubt his reasoning.

There are a few stark examples though, and the one which stuck with me was when he pointed out that between 2016 and 2022 there were police killings of 326 unarmed white men but only 232 unarmed black men. He then talks about the disparity of media coverage of said killings and how this causes a vast reality distortion and shift towards ‘delusion’ in “The Thought Pile”. Now, perhaps I’m wrong or missing something, but he appears to have completely ignored the fact that these unarmed black people belong to a minority? A quick check shows the racial breakdown in the US to be roughly 60% white, 12% black. So by a back-of-the-napkin review of things, surely there should be roughly 5x the number of unarmed whites being killed by police, not 1.4x?

Anyway, as I said, I’m not really looking to dissect at depth the various points, the above example was just the one that jumped out at me the most. If I’m correct in my critique, it makes me wonder what other criticisms he has made which have a somewhat distorted viewpoint?

In conclusion

The overall concept of the book is appealing, and outside (and sometimes inside) the 60% of relentless criticism of the more radical approaches taken by the social justice movement, the message is a positive one:

  • to be aware of other viewpoints and not instantly dismiss things because on the surface it’s the viewpoint of the other side;
  • to remember the humanity of the people you disagree with and that whilst you don’t have to like everybody, don’t let yourself start being disgusted by people – otherwise we just end up in a big tribal mess of people hating each other (when in all likelihood if you put these people from opposite sides into a different situation outside of the polarised political sphere, they could very well get along just fine and be helpful and supportive to each other).

Ultimately, he’s calling for us to remember our shared humanity (which interestingly is exactly the point that Mark Lilla was making if I remember correctly), and I can definitely get behind that.

On the other hand, I’d say the book is far too heavily focussed on US politics, and as mentioned above, extremely heavily slanted on the lower-left criticisms. Perhaps this just comes from the “write about what you know” approach, and certainly Tim expresses his preference for the progressive side of politics (of course the US view of the left is probably somewhat different to the European view of the left 😁).

Also within the opening three chapters, I did feel myself being aware that despite the effort to better categorise the political spectrum beyond a simple left vs right scale, this was still a very generalised view of things. And further to that, I did wonder about the validity of the psychology behind the whole “primitive mind” concept – perhaps again this is just a generalised construct, but it might have been interesting to assess that concept from a more specific scientific basis.

Then, whilst I understand the raison d’etre of Wait But Why is quirky graphics and somewhat tongue-in-cheek ‘funny’ names, I did find the repeated adherence to a Capitalised Naming Approach to really wear thin early on in the book (The Thought Pile, The Illiberal Staircase, The Power Games, The Genie, The Golem etc etc). Whilst some he used were already accepted terms (eg echo chamber), others felt a bit weak, and ultimately were a bit grating.

Finally, and this is a minor point, but one that often irked, was that he uses the term liberal in two very different contexts, one being the frequent use for describing a progressive political viewpoint, but the other in the classical sense of ‘a commitment to individual freedom and to several elements thought to be crucial for sustaining that freedom’. He clarifies this early on, and does point out a number of times in which context he is using the word, but I think it would have been much better to just select a different word entirely to avoid confusion 😊

Ultimately whilst I do believe the intent was a positive one, I did find that middle 60% really wore me down, and left me feeling somewhat depressed and anxious. Perhaps that is a side-effect of examining some viewpoints to which I would generally subscribe, but I think it was also a side-effect of feeling dragged into the current and extremely polarised US discourse, which whilst we all need to be vigilant of and of course often rears its head all over the world, does not directly impact my day to day life as it might if I lived in the US.