The Priest in the Arena
Theocratic capture campaigns rule everything around me
The phrase man in the arena has recently been doing the rounds. It comes from a 1910 Teddy Roosevelt speech, and points to an archetype of a risk-taking doer who is in the fray making the hard decisions, even as self-important spectators keep up ceaseless unhelpful commentary. It is an elevated version of the more familiar solutionist/doerist/builder (buidler in Web3) archetype.
In theory, the man in the arena has the highest agency in a situation, and is positioned to either reap the biggest reward in case of success, or pay the highest cost in case of failure. At their notional best, men in the arena are warrior-saint-heroes who take on great risks on behalf of humanity, and steal promethean fires from the heavens for the rest of us to enjoy. Even if it means risking eternal torment of the sort Prometheus had to endure. Though the archetype does not address accountability to others, it has strong connotations of virtuous responsibility and conscientiousness. The man in the arena believes in noblesse oblige.
In practice, the typical man in the arena is usually executing a cunning heads-I-win-tails-you-lose gambit, and isn’t quite the saint the pious startup discourses makes him out to be. But that’s fine. The man in the arena is after all merely human, with very human levels of lust for rewards and aversion to losses.
I’m generally sympathetic to people in the arena, even if I don’t take their self-serving accounts of themselves at face value. I like making Arena Man jokes (by analogy to The Onion’s stock character, Area Man) to poke fun at their self-importance and pious posturing, but in general, I am not ill-disposed towards them. Of course Arena Men look to privatize gains and socialize losses, and try to come across as martyrs to greater causes whatever the outcome, but then, so do most people in most situations.
But I want to talk about a different archetype today, one for which I have almost no sympathy: the priest in the arena.
The priest in the arena is the principal author of a toxic process I call theocratic capture, by analogy to the more mundane process commonly known as bureaucratic capture. Unlike that competing capture process, theocratic capture is not redeemed by any kind of useful procedural know-how or demonstrably valid knowledge (ie expertise).
Unlike Arena Men, priests in the arena are neither useful to the world, nor even particularly funny. It is rare for me to adopt a strong normative stance against a type of person, and I generally default to the view that it takes all sorts to make a world, but priests in the arena worry me enough that I don’t feel like making jokes about them. They are dangerous.
I think they need to be stopped from entering consequential arenas. I think the theocratic capture campaigns they lead need to be stopped cold, before they can take over any institutions they target. If they do succeed in capturing an institution, that institution needs to be immediately and systematically abandoned and stripped of as much power as possible by other institutions. Any cultural capital in it needs to fly away.
This is one reason I’ve all but quit Twitter. Elon Musk generally plays Arena Man in all his efforts, which I generally support, but his takeover of Twitter was a case of him playing priest in the arena, and leading a theocratic capture campaign (albeit with some reluctance once the price tag became clear). And he is showing signs of playing a similar role in the AI arena (which he abandoned a few years ago in a move that will likely be viewed as far costlier than his acquisition of Twitter).
I am mostly a live-and-let-live type, and I’m generally happy to think and write in a pluralistic milieu where I am mostly ignored. Read my stuff if you enjoy it, ignore it if you don’t. I have a certain implicit trust in the wisdom of pluralistic discourses, and their ability to uncover greater and more powerful truths than any individual or institution can. To the extent I subscribe to an explainable ethics, it probably boils down to “live and let live; most people are mostly harmless most of the time, including me.”
But this is precisely why I am so wary of theocratic capture processes and priests in arenas. They do not live and let live. They are hostile to pluralism. And they are not mostly harmless most of the time.
So what is theocratic capture, what role do priests in the arena play in it, and most importantly, how do you identify it in progress and stop it?
Theocratic capture occurs when an institution surrenders itself to a cult demanding unaccountable authority and agency on the basis of claims to privileged knowledge about the world, unaccompanied by demonstrations of the validity of that knowledge. A priest in the arena is a charismatic figure leading a theocratic capture campaign.
While they sometimes present in a somewhat messianic mode, priests in the arena are distinguishable from messiahs by their systematic pursuit of institutional hard power over public influence and soft power. Specifically, they aim to usurp authority and agency (but not responsibility or accountability) from those who have more legitimate claims to it. Often these are men in the arena.
If they cultivate public influence at all, priests in the arena typically limit themselves to marginal subcultures of self-selected acolytes who are rewarded for such self-selection by being recognized as somehow special by the head priest. The deal is simple: you get status and validation from the priest for visibly believing in the official theology, and only engaging with it in approved ways. The acolytes constitute a cult of orthodoxy, by which I mean a privileging of a “one true way” rather than age or tradition (etymology: orthos: right/correct doxa: way/opinion). The role of the acolyte subculture is an instrumental one: the priest parleys a small following into mass influence via captured institutions.
Theocratic capture cults often emerge around genuine larger issues that trigger widespread anxieties. What makes them notable is that they demand not just to be heard on those larger issues, but treated as authoritative voices, elevated above others, and deferred to. Four such cults dominate the institutional landscape today, and each is fueled by a larger genuine issue.
The DEI cult is fueled by the genuine issue of social justice
The ESG cult is fueled by the genuine issue of climate change
The trad cult is fueled by the genuine issue of the meaning crisis
The AI safety cult is fueled by the genuine issue of AI regulation
The last of these is an outgrowth of the somewhat broader cult of “humane technology” fueled by the problem of social media regulation, but ironically itself got captured by the more acutely salient AI safety cult within it. The AI safety cult (which is responsible for the 6-month moratorium petition doing the rounds) in turn is itself vulnerable to capture by the smaller but vastly more radical AGI risk cult, whose chief priest in the arena, Elezier Yudkowsky, has started calling for airstrikes on data centers that get too big by his eschatological reckonings.
Each of these cults has theocratically captured one or more real and valuable institutions. The DEI cult has captured several major corporations. The ESG cult has captured several investment firms. The trad cult has captured the US Supreme Court and most state-level legislatures. The AI safety cult has captured several research institutions and wields significant external influence over many of the largest companies developing AI technology.
Each of these cults has a preferred capture playbook. The DEI cult likes to target HR processes in organizations. The ESG cult likes to take over company boards and shareholder meetings. The trad cult likes to bring legal and legislative pressures to bear on institutions. The AI safety cult likes to target engineering functions for takeover.
Each of these cults also has a target sincere individual type within target organizations that it knows how to appeal to and co-opt. The DEI cult likes to target empathetic individuals who sincerely want to work towards justice and equity. The ESG cult likes to target sincerely environmentally conscious people with a scientific sensibility. The trad cult likes to target people sensitive to aesthetics and with a strong need for community and belonging. The AI safety cult likes to target easily nerdsniped engineers with a weakness for fragile grand-unified theorizing and statistical reasoning larps.
Because the underlying genuine issues are so universal, the conflict boundaries among these cults are somewhat blurry. All four cults are often racing to capture the same powerful institutions, and end up adopting combative postures on all the underlying issues. So the DEI and ESG cults, for example, have hastily adopted stances on AI informed less by curiosity about the technology than by the tactical goal of blocking capture by the AI safety cult. You may have heard the phrase stochastic parrots in relation to AI recently. It is from the title of a paper about AI by Timnit Gebru, a DEI priest in the arena who achieved social media martyrdom by being fired from Google, and has since apparently deputized herself to run interference against “longtermists” (her term for her adversaries in a broadened conceptualization of the AI safety cult).
If you’ve been reading me for any length of time, you will know that it is not like me to name names. I generally stick to the principle of praising specifically and criticizing categorically. So I suppose it is a sign of how seriously I take the problem of priests in arenas that I am willing to name a few.
The trad cult, as you might expect, is often the weakest of the bunch, and the last to get activated on any given genuine issue. But like gravity, it is in some ways the most powerful force in the arena, since it can draw on immense reserves of political energy. The fact that it has already captured some of the most strategic institutions, like the US Supreme Court, capable of shaping all the ongoing theocratic capture races, makes it a seriously advantaged contender if it a theocratic capture endgame ends up in the courts, as many do.
I’m using the word cult for these capture campaigns deliberately because that’s exactly what they are.
Societal responses to the larger genuine issues they want to claim for themselves typically exist as richer, more pluralistic conversations with many voices. Theocratic capture cults typically want to monopolize these conversations, not by presenting the most persuasive arguments and winning opponents over, but by capturing powerful institutions. The basic plan is to use the borrowed authority of captured institutions to present the most official arguments, thereby browbeating opponents into submission.
Capturing the conversation is usually an important secondary goal of theocratic capture, especially in democracies. The primary goal, of course, is to take control of whatever agency and resources the institution possesses.
Often the moral justification presented for such capture bids is the (luridly overstated) threat of hostile “enemy” forces that might exploit a pluralistic dissensus. Usually, the enemy is some composite of competing theocratic capture cults and perceived existential threats.
The public scaremongering proceeds in lockstep with backroom usurpation machinations.
It is worth surveying the broader conversational landscapes to take note of the relationship of the cult to other voices, especially ones that seem loosely aligned with the cult’s cause, and would in theory make for worthwhile allies.
Invariably you will find that obvious allies are usually treated with more hostility than actual adversaries. Even loosely aligned views, which might differ from the cult’s only in terms of having slightly re-ordered priorities, are painted as “dangerous distractions” from the “real” issues.
That then, in a thumbnail sketch, is the phenomenology of theocratic capture.
What can you do about it? How do you resist the machinations of priests in the arena?
We’ll tackle that question next week.