Cancel culture reared its head in crypto recently with Ethereum Name Service (ENS) director of operations Brantly Millegan fired on the back of a 75% majority vote to remove him.
The cause? An inflammatory 2016 tweet from the devout Catholic.
But crypto camps were quickly divided over the story.
Vitalik Buterin ultimately created Ethereum because Warcraft nerfed his character: “I cried myself to sleep, and on that day I realized what horrors centralized services can bring. I soon decided to quit.”
Was this a case of cancel culture and censorship finding its way into the world of web3 — something that in many respects goes against the ethos of decentralization?
Was this just a case of DAOs working as expected, with governance procedures and majority rule quickly settling matters?
Vitalik Buterin on Cancel Culture and the Ethereum Ecosystem
Buterin weighed in on this question in a recent episode of The Defiant podcast with Camila Russo.
He made the following carefully considered and nuanced points, refusing to take sides on what is a complicated issue.
1. Leadership requires engagement and political maneuvering
Buterin dismissed the notion that Millegan wasn’t fired because of the quality of his work, suggesting that a leader’s job is to manage controversy, engage with opposing views, and navigate murky waters successfully.
Contrary to this, Millegan doubled down on his position while downplaying the concerns of people within the ENS community around ‘inclusivity and openness’.
2. Beware of the US-centric aspect to the Ethereum’s culture
Buterin warned of the US-centric aspect of the Ethereum culture that is liable to alienate non-US community members.
For example, he argued that people from China, parts of Latin America, or Russia, are more likely to rail against any form of de-platforming because “they escaped cancel cultures that were more intense than the United States”.
He suggested that de-platforming Millegan may have set normalized such behavior and set a dangerous precedent in a way that could backfire in the future against the same groups of people rallying against Millegan.
“It’s important to communicate the values behind what is being done in a way that doesn’t set dangerous precedents”, he said.
3. Introduce 14-day cooldown periods
Instead of falling victim to our most primitive emotions, Buterin suggested that a 14-day cooldown period could help to allay people of kneejerk reactions and facilitate more considered deliberation before deciding whether or not to remove someone from a DAO.
Human beings are susceptible to all kinds of cognitive biases that can plague our decision-making and lead us to make what seems like a good decision in the moment, but might turn out to be a bad one in hindsight.
4. Subcommunities shouldn’t dictate the values of the whole
“Ethereum is not any one of its subcommunities… I don’t think either myself or any Ethereum subcommunity have the right to define what all of Ethereum stands for, and I think it’s healthy that’s the case.”
Here Buterin echoed sentiments I shared on The Metavise Podcast.
When you bend over backward to include one group or pander to one set of values, you might be inadvertently excluding other groups and other sets of values.
This is something James Damore argued upon being ousted from Google for that memo. Damore said that the move, popular Silicon Valley’s left-leaning hordes, signaled that conservative values are not welcome. Given the size of the conservative constituency in the United States — such a move could be considered very exclusionary.
Some Questions to Ponder
In light of all of this, some questions that web3 builders might want to consider include but are definitely not limited to:
- Who decides what the overarching values of a group are?
- Should this be decided up front, and communicated to all new and prospective members?
- Where do we draw the line? Do we take a Brian Armstrong-inspired anti-politics and religion stance, or do we take a more activist approach?
- Do any of the above decisions leave us susceptible to controversies similar to ENS within our own communities or DAOs in the future?
Building stuff is great. Building stuff that can improve the world is better.
But who’s doing that building? People. And people are complicated.
Losing touch with this simple fact and categorizing complex issues into neatly demarcated buckets risks doing more harm than good in the long term.