Earlier this week, Chamath Palihapitiya, a billionaire venture capitalist and part owner of the Golden State Warriors, ignited controversy with blunt comments about the Uyghur genocide on his podcast, All-In. If you want to hear all the comments in context, you can watch them here. I’ve cued the video to the moment when the relevant conversation starts.
If you don’t want to click, here’s the exchange that triggered the most outrage:
Palihapitiya: Nobody cares about it. Nobody cares about what’s happening to the Uyghurs, okay? You bring it up because you really care and I think—
Co-host Jason Calacani: What do you mean, nobody cares?
Palihapitiya: The rest of us don’t care. I’m just telling you a very hard—
Calacani: You’re saying you [undecipherable] don’t care?
Palihapitiya: I’m telling you a very hard, ugly truth, okay? Of all the things that I care about, yes, it is below my line, okay? Of all the things that I care about, it is below my line.
Twitter users spliced the interview into videos focusing on that section, but I’ve seen enough mistaken-outrage cycles to know that there might be more, that the section could somehow be misleading. So I watched it all, and the context doesn’t really help.
The most charitable possible explanation for his remarks is that he was describing a hard reality—that most folks (including him) simply don’t care about atrocities abroad and that he’s far more concerned about injustice here at home. Here’s another key exchange:
Palihapitiya: And I think a lot of people believe that, and I’m sorry if that’s a hard truth to hear, but every time I say that I care about the Uyghurs, I’m really just lying if I don’t really care. And so I’d rather not lie to you, and tell you the truth—it’s not a priority for me.
Calacani: And my response to that is I think it’s a sad state of affairs when human rights as a concept globally, you know, falls beneath tactical and strategic issues that we have to have.
Palihapitiya: That’s another luxury belief! That’s another luxury belief!
Calacani: I don’t believe believing in the human declaration of human rights that Eleanor Roosevelt is—
Palihapitiya: It’s a luxury belief!
Calacani: I don’t think it’s a luxury belief to believe that all humans should have a basic set of human rights.
Palihapitiya: I think it’s a luxury belief, and the reason I think it’s a luxury belief is we don’t do enough domestically to actually express that view in real tangible ways. So, until we actually clean up our own house, the idea that we step outside of our borders with, you know, with us sort of, like, morally virtue-signaling about somebody else’s human-rights track record is deplorable.
While the first segment is outrageous, the second segment is interesting, and by “interesting” I don’t mean that I agree. But his comments about luxury beliefs are worth unpacking in some detail. (My Atlantic colleague Conor Friedersdorf also weighed in with a characteristically thoughtful piece.)
If you’re not familiar with the term, it was coined by Rob Henderson, a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Cambridge, and it refers to “ideas and opinions that confer status on the rich at very little cost, while taking a toll on the lower class.”
An example of a luxury belief would be supporting a movement to defund the police when you live in a privately guarded, gated community. You’ve ensured your own security, yet you advocate a position that would diminish security in less-privileged neighborhoods.
A number of educational reforms—including eliminating gifted-and-talented programs and standardized testing—are also often luxury beliefs. Wealthy, connected advocates have no trouble securing a top-tier education for their kids while ending the testing or other opportunities that middle-class and working-class kids of all races have used for years as a means to achieve their educational dreams.
I see luxury beliefs in play in Palihapitiya’s comments, but not in the way he suggests. He’s the one guilty of the harmful stand.