What you can’t say

Another one of Paul Graham’s essays. A very, very good read, so I’ve quoted extensively from the essay below:

“Let’s start with a test: Do you have any opinions that you would be reluctant to express in front of a group of your peers?

If the answer is no, you might want to stop and think about that. If everything you believe is something you’re supposed to believe, could that possibly be a coincidence? Odds are it isn’t. Odds are you just think whatever you’re told. […]

What can’t we say? One way to find these ideas is simply to look at things people do say, and get in trouble for. [2]

Of course, we’re not just looking for things we can’t say. We’re looking for things we can’t say that are true, or at least have enough chance of being true that the question should remain open. But many of the things people get in trouble for saying probably do make it over this second, lower threshold. No one gets in trouble for saying that 2 + 2 is 5, or that people in Pittsburgh are ten feet tall. Such obviously false statements might be treated as jokes, or at worst as evidence of insanity, but they are not likely to make anyone mad. The statements that make people mad are the ones they worry might be believed. I suspect the statements that make people maddest are those they worry might be true. […]

In every period of history, there seem to have been labels that got applied to statements to shoot them down before anyone had a chance to ask if they were true or not. “Blasphemy”, “sacrilege”, and “heresy” were such labels for a good part of western history, as in more recent times “indecent”, “improper”, and “unamerican” have been. […]

We have such labels today, of course, quite a lot of them, from the all-purpose “inappropriate” to the dreaded “divisive.” In any period, it should be easy to figure out what such labels are, simply by looking at what people call ideas they disagree with besides untrue. When a politician says his opponent is mistaken, that’s a straightforward criticism, but when he attacks a statement as “divisive” or “racially insensitive” instead of arguing that it’s false, we should start paying attention. […]

Moral fashions more often seem to be created deliberately. When there’s something we can’t say, it’s often because some group doesn’t want us to.

The prohibition will be strongest when the group is nervous. […] To launch a taboo, a group has to be poised halfway between weakness and power. A confident group doesn’t need taboos to protect it. It’s not considered improper to make disparaging remarks about Americans, or the English. And yet a group has to be powerful enough to enforce a taboo. […]

I suspect the biggest source of moral taboos will turn out to be power struggles in which one side only barely has the upper hand. That’s where you’ll find a group powerful enough to enforce taboos, but weak enough to need them.

Most struggles, whatever they’re really about, will be cast as struggles between competing ideas. The English Reformation was at bottom a struggle for wealth and power, but it ended up being cast as a struggle to preserve the souls of Englishmen from the corrupting influence of Rome. It’s easier to get people to fight for an idea. And whichever side wins, their ideas will also be considered to have triumphed, as if God wanted to signal his agreement by selecting that side as the victor.

We often like to think of World War II as a triumph of freedom over totalitarianism. We conveniently forget that the Soviet Union was also one of the winners.

I’m not saying that struggles are never about ideas, just that they will always be made to seem to be about ideas, whether they are or not. […]

To do good work you need a brain that can go anywhere. And you especially need a brain that’s in the habit of going where it’s not supposed to.

Great work tends to grow out of ideas that others have overlooked, and no idea is so overlooked as one that’s unthinkable. Natural selection, for example. It’s so simple. Why didn’t anyone think of it before? Well, that is all too obvious. Darwin himself was careful to tiptoe around the implications of his theory. He wanted to spend his time thinking about biology, not arguing with people who accused him of being an atheist. […]
When you find something you can’t say, what do you do with it? My advice is, don’t say it. Or at least, pick your battles.

Suppose in the future there is a movement to ban the color yellow. Proposals to paint anything yellow are denounced as “yellowist”, as is anyone suspected of liking the color. People who like orange are tolerated but viewed with suspicion. Suppose you realize there is nothing wrong with yellow. If you go around saying this, you’ll be denounced as a yellowist too, and you’ll find yourself having a lot of arguments with anti-yellowists. If your aim in life is to rehabilitate the color yellow, that may be what you want. But if you’re mostly interested in other questions, being labelled as a yellowist will just be a distraction. Argue with idiots, and you become an idiot.

The most important thing is to be able to think what you want, not to say what you want. And if you feel you have to say everything you think, it may inhibit you from thinking improper thoughts. I think it’s better to follow the opposite policy. Draw a sharp line between your thoughts and your speech. Inside your head, anything is allowed. Within my head I make a point of encouraging the most outrageous thoughts I can imagine. But, as in a secret society, nothing that happens within the building should be told to outsiders. The first rule of Fight Club is, you do not talk about Fight Club. […]

The trouble with keeping your thoughts secret, though, is that you lose the advantages of discussion. Talking about an idea leads to more ideas. So the optimal plan, if you can manage it, is to have a few trusted friends you can speak openly to. This is not just a way to develop ideas; it’s also a good rule of thumb for choosing friends. The people you can say heretical things to without getting jumped on are also the most interesting to know. […]

Who thinks they’re not open-minded? Our hypothetical prim miss from the suburbs thinks she’s open-minded. Hasn’t she been taught to be? Ask anyone, and they’ll say the same thing: they’re pretty open-minded, though they draw the line at things that are really wrong. (Some tribes may avoid “wrong” as judgemental, and may instead use a more neutral sounding euphemism like “negative” or “destructive”.)

When people are bad at math, they know it, because they get the wrong answers on tests. But when people are bad at open-mindedness they don’t know it. In fact they tend to think the opposite. […]

To see fashion in your own time, though, requires a conscious effort. Without time to give you distance, you have to create distance yourself. Instead of being part of the mob, stand as far away from it as you can and watch what it’s doing. And pay especially close attention whenever an idea is being suppressed. Web filters for children and employees often ban sites containing pornography, violence, and hate speech. What counts as pornography and violence? And what, exactly, is “hate speech?” This sounds like a phrase out of 1984.

Labels like that are probably the biggest external clue. If a statement is false, that’s the worst thing you can say about it. You don’t need to say that it’s heretical. And if it isn’t false, it shouldn’t be suppressed. So when you see statements being attacked as x-ist or y-ic (substitute your current values of x and y), whether in 1630 or 2030, that’s a sure sign that something is wrong. When you hear such labels being used, ask why.

Especially if you hear yourself using them. It’s not just the mob you need to learn to watch from a distance. You need to be able to watch your own thoughts from a distance. That’s not a radical idea, by the way; it’s the main difference between children and adults. When a child gets angry because he’s tired, he doesn’t know what’s happening. An adult can distance himself enough from the situation to say “never mind, I’m just tired.” I don’t see why one couldn’t, by a similar process, learn to recognize and discount the effects of moral fashions.

You have to take that extra step if you want to think clearly. But it’s harder, because now you’re working against social customs instead of with them. Everyone encourages you to grow up to the point where you can discount your own bad moods. Few encourage you to continue to the point where you can discount society’s bad moods.

How can you see the wave, when you’re the water? Always be questioning. That’s the only defence. What can’t you say? And why?”

May 23, 2012 - Posted by | disagreement, Psychology

1 Comment »

  1. Yes, that’s a great essay. I stumbled upon it when i found this some time ago.

    “Now why would I be reviewing this book, which was published by the Neo-Nazi National Alliance and that I acquired via some shady Internet bookseller? After all, I am hardly the Aryan prototype.

    For one thing, I’ve followed the Alliance for years, through some combination of curiosity, pity, and entertainment. I was listening to Dr. Pierce’s Internet broadcasts since the late 1990’s, what we now call “podcasts.” Pierce died in 2002 and the Alliance has undergone the usual tumult, power plays, and backbiting that occur whenever a personality-driven organization loses its leader.

    Secondly, I have for years put effort into exposing myself to politically incorrect, unconventional, or unfashionable thought, as there is often some truth in there. According to Paul Graham, intelligent people tend to do this and it is overall a good thing.

    Third, the author of Which Way Western Man?, William Gayley Simpson, looks like an agreeable chap.

    So, I waded into the 1070-page treatise with full enthusiasm. The book consists of modified essays that Simpson originally wrote in the 1940s (and in most cases updated in the 1970s) and the writing has an erudite, early-20th-Century style to it. Simpson was born in 1892 and spent the 1910s and 1920s as a minister (he gave up the frock by 1918,) laborer, and general-purpose liberal, pacifistic Christian. Much of the book gives personal testament to his activities during these years and how they molded his worldview into what it was at the time of the writing(s).”

    Comment by Emil | May 31, 2012 | Reply

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