Jesse Singal on Coleman Hughes vs. TED

September 30, 2023 • 11:30 am

By now most of us know that Coleman Hughes, a heterodox black thinker, got into trouble when he gave a preapproved TED talk echoing Martin Luther King’s “don’t judge a person by their skin color” trope. Hughes’s point wasn’t that we shouldn’t be aware of color, but what we need to do is concentrate on fixing general societal inequalities, and should do that by a form of socioeconomic affirmative action versus pure race-based affirmative action.

As I said, this talk was approved by TED well in advance. I didn’t realize this, but giving a short TED talk involves months of preparation, which includes interacting with TED people so that they know in advance and approve of everything that is going to be said.  So they knew what Hughes was going to say! Then a group called Black@TED, made up of TED employees, objected to the “let’s not concentrate on race but on well being” trope.  As has been described by Hughes and verified by Chris Anderson (TED’s boss), post-talk objections by this group (and others) to what Hughe saids led to TED’s attempt to put video “asterisks” on the talk.

First TED asked Hughes to okay the release of a single video that included both original TED talk as well as a moderated discussion of it. Hughes naturally bridled at this. It’s unheard of!

TED then offered a deal in which Hughes’s talk could be released as a standalone video, but then there would be a long “debate” released separately (it was, with Jamelle Bouie as the interlocutor).  But TED broke its part of the deal by not promoting Hughes’s talk like other TED talks, so it got relatively few views. (TED talks are, of course, very important for young people’s careers, and Hughes, though spectacularly smart and accomplished, is only 27).

As Jesse Singal describes in his analysis of this fracas below (click on screenshot; you may have to subscribe), TED (or at least its head Chris Anderson) screwed up big time. Given that Hughes’s talk was vetted extensively beforehand, there is no excuse for publishing it with post facto conditions.  This was done solely because Black@Ted (which refused to meet with Hughes) said that the talk would cause “harm”, a palpably ridiculous assertion. What it would cause was discussion.

The other issue came from the social scientist Adam Grant, who, after the talk, claimed that Hughes ignored a meta-analysis by Leslie et al. showing that a “color blind” attempt to achieve equality was less effective than one based on racial awareness. I haven’t read that paper yet, but Hughes has. Here’s his reaction, which I present without agreeing or disagreeing:

I read the paper that Grant referenced, titled “On Melting Pots and Salad Bowls: A Meta-Analysis of the Effects of Identity-Blind and Identity-Conscious Diversity Ideologies,” expecting to find arguments against color blindness. I was shocked to find that the paper largely supported my talk. In the results section, the authors write that “colorblindness is negatively related to stereotyping” and “is also negatively related to prejudice.” They also found that “meritocracy is negatively related to discrimination.”

Singal, in his Substack piece below, says he’ll provide an analysis of the Leslie et al.  paper later, and I’ll be sure to call that to your attention. If you want to read it now, be my guest. At any rate, even if Grant is right, his objections came post facto, and why didn’t TED, which is supposed to vet all the empirical claims of a talk in advance, know about it?

Singal is really angry, especially at Anderson, and it shows. I’ll give a few substantial quotes from Singal if you can’t read his site (but do subscribe; he writes about important stuff):

First, Singal on Adam Grant:

Grant is a superstar within psychology, and he claimed that Hughes’s argument was “directly contradicted by an extensive body of rigorous research,” linking to this meta-analysis. I’m hoping to do a more in-depth piece on this particular facet of the controversy soon, if I have time to do enough reading about it. But based on my own knowledge of the field of diversity trainings, I think Grant is badly overstating (1) the strength of the evidence that any one particular approach to framing these issues “works” better than others (though different people define “works” differently, which is part of the problem); and (2) the extent to which that meta-analysis could in any sense “directly contradict” Hughes’s argument.

Singal is good at dissecting papers, so I sure hope he take a look at this one.

But Singal reserves his ire for Anderson, who, he claims, dropped the ball, and that that is irrelevant to what Grant claims. A few quotes:

This was already a ridiculous story, and the available facts suggest Chris Anderson botched it every single step of the way. As anyone who has read about the polished, whirring machine that produces TED Talks knows, the organization does not leave anything to chance in terms of quality and content. TED Talk participants run a bit of a gauntlet, and that includes, obviously, TED knowing exactly what’s going to be said during the talk long before the speaker actually steps onstage. This is far from a poetry slam open mic night.

And then he reveals what I think is the real reason Hughes was given an asterisk:

I can’t say for sure, but based on what we know and the approximately zillion other instances of this sort of dysfunction seizing liberal institutions in the last few years, I would bet that Chris Anderson is far more concerned about an internal revolt, about “Black@TED,” than whether Coleman Hughes’s talk was perfectly in line with a nerdy meta-analysis. And, supporting this theory, his botching continued Wednesday, in a follow-up piece in which The Free Press allowed him and Adam Grant to respond.

Anderson explained that Coleman’s talk “was received with huge enthusiasm by many in the audience. But many others heard it as a dangerous undermining of the fight for progress in race relations. So yes, there was controversy. When people on your own team feel like their identity is being attacked, it’s right to take pause.”

In recent years radical types within liberal organizations have realized that if they utter certain magic phrases, they can extract sympathy and sometimes other concessions from management regardless of the merit of their claim. It has the effect of turning off management’s brain and getting the organization’s leadership instead to react from a fearful, gut-oriented place. A common tactic is to claim that the presence of some person or idea in their workplace constitutes “harm” or makes them less “safe.” In many cases, these claims are on their face ridiculous, but I think the choice of words evolved because some phrases contain implicit threats that whatever the employees are freaking out about could cause legal problems for management. An unsafe workplace summons HR, and once HR is involved, who the hell knows where things could end up?

Yes, it’s the “harm” trope again, a trope that for some reason the Left takes way too seriously.  To think that Hughes’s talk would harm people is ridiculous. In fact, Singal says that if you think you’ve been harmed by that talk, you need therapy. (It’s true unless you’re simply doing performative outrage.) Or, if you don’t want therapy, get another job:

But if these TED staffers aren’t just being strategic in their language — if they genuinely, viscerally feel like “their identity is being attacked” by a black man advocating for a color-blind approach — that’s something they should take up with their therapists.

This is not mean-spirited, for Singal says he’s in therapy, too, partly as a way to dampen his overreactions. He continues:

 . . . If you work for an Ideas organization and you can’t psychologically handle your organization platforming someone expressing a popular view, and you don’t want to seek out therapy to gain more resilience, then you should honestly consider a different line of work. It’s just not a good fit, in the same way journalists who get deeply upset when their colleagues refuse to toe the activist line 100% on some fraught subject should go into PR instead. Jobs like “being a journalist at a major outlet” or “working for TED” are cushy by any sort of international or historical standard, to be sure, but for some people they’re not cushy enough, and such folks should seek out a job that will fully embrace their delicate nature: a big, comfy, plush sofa of a job.

Anyway, back to Chris Anderson. As these employees’ boss, he should obviously not say the mean-sounding things I’m saying.He also shouldn’t suggest his employees go to therapy or find different work. (Though I would reiterate that telling someone who might need therapy to consider it is not, in fact, inherently mean, and the fact that it’s taken as such points to the ongoing stigmatization of mental health care).

But he very easily could have effectively ended this conversation by telling his disgruntled staffers something like this:

We appreciate your feedback and we have heard it, but at the end of the day, as an organization sitting at the intersection of ideas and public speaking, we simply can’t outlaw or restrict speakers’ ability to express popular but contested views — even views some of us disagree with strongly. Heck, for this to be a truly robust and useful and thriving organization, we might have to sometimes platform people expressing certain unpopular views. But this particular case isn’t a close call, frankly. All the available evidence suggests Hughes’s views are popular, his talk was well-researched enough to get a green light from our fact-checking team, and while we seriously value you all as staffers and always welcome your feedback — TED is stronger when you provide that feedback — we simply can’t grant you veto power over individual talks, nor the power to alter preexisting editorial and production processes, especially after an approved talk has already been filmed.

Instead, Anderson appears to have been held hostage by a group of employees making rather hysterical claims — again, sorry for the harsh language, but that’s what this is. And not only did he fail to compassionately but firmly push back against these hysterical claims for the health of his organization (and to prevent the negative PR event that subsequently occurred, which I’m happy to contribute to given how ridiculous this is and how sick I am of these sorts of incidents), he went out of his way, in his response, to reemphasize how seriously he was taking them:

Many people have been genuinely hurt and offended by what they heard Hughes say. This is not what we dream of when we post our talks. I believe real progress can be made on this issue by each side getting greater clarity and insight from the other. We share more in common than we know. We all ultimately want a just world in which all can thrive.

The problem is simply one instantiation of why wokeness has prevailed even though most people aren’t down with it: people are simply too afraid to stand up to accusations of “harm” or “racism”, even if those accusations, like the ones we’re discussing, are ridiculous.

The solution, of course, is what John McWhorter suggested in his anti-racism book: ignore these people and stick up for your principles, which is what Anderson should have done. Singal’s suggested speech for Anderson is right on the money.

In the end, this too will pass, but it’s already besmirched the reputation of TED. And it will only create a Streisand Effect for Hughes, as all the press this kerfuffle is getting can only be good for him,  Even if he got the data wrong about ameliorating equity, which we’ll know soon, he didn’t know about the paper (and TED should have), and the “colorblind” discussion is still relevant in many contexts.

23 thoughts on “Jesse Singal on Coleman Hughes vs. TED

  1. Unless intentionally misrepresented, colorblindness is the preferred framing of racial equality across all demographics, and it’s not even close. SJW academic Ian Haney Lopez notes this in a pretty good piece that was ignored because he exposed the fact that minority parents do not want their kids trained to think of themselves as members of the oppressed class. They prefer a message of agency to victimhood.

  2. I’ve been reading that Leslie etal paper. It’s hard to assimilate since, being a meta-analysis, one really needs to also read dozens of other papers, but:

    It is definitely not a refutation or colour-blind or meritocratic policies. Indeed, the authors say that their findings are ambiguous:

    “The social categorization perspective suggests that both identity-blind and identity-conscious ideologies may improve intergroup relations, but findings are contradictory … We find diversity ideologies have more complicated and nuanced effects than prior work can account for.”

    Indeed, pretty much their main criticism of identity-blind policies is: “Indeed, the only consistent effect is that all identity-blind ideologies are negatively related to diversity policy support.” By that they mean that colour-blind and meritocratic policies don’t lead people to value and support “diversity” as a good in itself. But that’s a contentious thing to mark policies down for!

    So it is just wrong to point to this paper as refuting Coleman Hughes, and thus as a reason to not promote his talk.

  3. I must say, Singal’s proposed response for Anderson to have given is beautiful, almost statesmanlike writing. I doubt Abraham Lincoln could have written a more even-handed (proposed) response to the situation. Imagine if business leaders and politicians and journalists and academics communicated (and thought) in ways reflected by those words!

    1. Yup, Anderson should have said precisely that.

      Gender-critical feminists are also pointing out that whilst many TED talks in favour of “gender-affirming care” having been presented, precisely zero have offered an alternative point of view.

  4. This is fundamentally confusing. TED released the video – they might not have, I guess.

    Modern censorship / protest of speakers on video:

    “context” (YouTube does this)
    “broader significance”

    … generally dilute the talk with ample insinuation. Maybe TED will apply this to all talks eventually – I doubt it.

    But is this a way to penetrate / reach an audience that might otherwise ignore it? Manufactured controversy?

  5. The predominance in wokely speech of the words “harm”, “care”, “safe” or “unsafe”, etc. explains why medical schools are the path by which wokeliness is creeping into STEM (see, in particular, the excellent book by Stanley Goldfarb of Penn). The therapeutic mindset even turns up in slightly comical bureaucratic forms. At my former institution, the office of Associate Dean for Faculty Well-Being exists in the medical faculty, of course, rather than in the colleges of Forestry or Engineering. I naturally inquired whether there was an opening for an Associate Dean for Faculty Bowel Regularity, but received no reply.

  6. I like your typo, Jerry: “…judge a person by their sking color.” If “sking is wrong, shall it be “skin” (which I expect you meant) or “skiing” which gives us a brand new way to divide people up and make them hate each other!
    And even I, a cross-country skier, would belong to an underclass s far as downhill skiers were concerned, never mind what colour expensive garmets we bought from the sportswear store.
    Equally(!), it could be skint, which isn’t a colour, but definitely a cause of discrimination, which I am also becoming used to after retirement.

    1. I can say from some considerable Skiing experience, that downhill skiers tend to look up at cross-country skiers. They tend to be in better physical condition than downhill skiers and downhill skier know this.

  7. As a thought experiment, I tried to come up with a hypothetical TED talk (or anthropology paper) that I could see a good case for shutting down because it’s “harmful” to a vulnerable group and the ideas it proposes hinders progress and understanding in the field and among people. Could it ever be a reasonable reaction?

    “Rape ‘Victims’ Secretly All Want It: How Science Reveals Women Evolved to Like It Rough” might qualify.

    I mean, we’d have to assume it somehow got through all the preliminary processes. Comparing and (especially) contrasting that to the benefits of color-blindness and the classification of bones is now possible. IMO, not similar.

  8. Glad this is all out in the public eye. I hope Coleman gets a boost from it.

    I should run around calling myself ‘Brown@USA”. Creepy and grandiose. How about we all *just* start seeing ourselves as human, fallible, unique and (if American), then *just American*.

    Coleman is a national treasure. We need more of him and less of TED.

  9. Anderson has sent out 2 long tweets (x’s?) after the fracas explaining himself and you judge. The pasted tweet below also takes you to the first one. And they really should be read, along with the comments.

    BTW folks, Is psychology a respectable field like neurology or astrophysics, etc? I mean I think about lobotomies, its hostility toward women and homosexuals, recovered memory, and now the “gender affirming” chalupa and I wonder.

  10. This illustrates another classic problem :

    Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?

    Specifically, who will write “context” for the “context”?

  11. Here is my suggestion. Don’t trust Adam Grant. Check out Scott Alexander on Adam Grant. See “Contra Grant On Exaggerated Differences”.

  12. Every time I see claims of “harm” as being caused by speech alone, my inclination is to doubt the veracity of the writer/speaker. When the word “violence” appears (as it does often), I know that the speaker has gone over the top. If there’s an argument to be made, make it on the facts. If not, you’re done.

  13. “Yes, it’s the “harm” trope again, a trope that for some reason the Left takes way too seriously.” – J. Coyne

    Indeed, the woke left takes harm very seriously, and inflationarily.
    By the way, yesterday I learned a new word —”zemiology” (not to be confused with “semiology”). Zemiology is the study of social harm, and it’s a leftist thing. (For example, there is a “Palgrave Handbook of Social Harm” in the series “Palgrave Studies in Victims and Victimology”.)

    “…the study of social harm, or the development of an alternative discipline, zemiology. The word was adopted in 1998 from the Greek word for harm, Zemia, during the Annual Conference of the European Group for the Study of Deviance and Social Control on the Greek island of Spetses. Months later, a conference, “Zemiology: Beyond criminology?”, was held in Dartington, England. …Subsequently, some of these papers, along with commissioned essays, were published as “Beyond Criminology: Taking Harm Seriously” (Hillyard et al. 2004).”

    (Hillyard, Paddy, and Steve Tombs. “Social Harm and Zemiology.” In /The Oxford Handbook of Criminology/, 6th ed., edited by Alison Liebling, Shadd Maruna, and Lesley McAra, 284-305. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017. pp. 285-6)

    “The principal aim of a social harm approach is to move beyond the narrow confines of criminology with its focus on harms defined by whether or not they constitute a crime, to a focus on all the different types of harms, which people experience from the cradle to the grave.”

    (Hillyard, Paddy, Christina Pantazis, Steve Tombs, and Dave Gordon, eds. /Beyond Criminology: Taking Harm Seriously/. London: Pluto Press, 2004. p. 1)

    “Zemiology…shifts the focus to institutions, structures and ideology.”

    (Hillyard, Paddy. Preface to: Victoria Canning and Steve Tombs, /From Social Harm to Zemiology: A Critical Introduction/. Abingdon: Routledge, 2021. p. xv)

    “[T]he key aim of zemiology is social justice.”

    (Canning, Victoria, and Steve Tombs. /From Social Harm to Zemiology: A Critical Introduction/. Abingdon: Routledge, 2021. p. 3)

  14. The arguments against “racial colorblindness” seems to be “that it denies lived experiences of people of color” and that it is support for “structural and systematic racism” and that “racial colorblindness serves as a device to disengage from conversations of race and racism entirely”. If you bring up “racial colorblindness” in public as a positive thing you will be labeled racist.

    I think these arguments are not valid and I believe it is for everyone not difficult to see what’s wrong. And it explains why most people don’t want to talk sincerely about discrimination anymore, at least not in public.

  15. Research in the Social Sciences deserves extraordinary skepticism. Studies require narrow focus; the conclusions will have limited applicability. Coleman’s attention is on a very broad social issue. There appears to be a growing trend in corporations that DEI programs are often ineffective and large investments are not justified.

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