Paul Graham writes about heresy, forbidden thoughts, and fashion (not hot fashion, well not only, mostly moral fashion.)
The core of the essay is that there are many unfashionable things that can be said today. And there are many things that were once unfashionable that are now perfectly fine today. Looking to the past can be very entertaining, and if you think about this enough–as Graham encourages you too–you might find a way to not be laughed at in your future.
It seems to be a constant throughout history: In every period, people believed things that were just ridiculous, and believed them so strongly that you would have gotten in terrible trouble for saying otherwise.
Is our time any different? To anyone who has read any amount of history, the answer is almost certainly no. It would be a remarkable coincidence if ours were the first era to get everything just right.
It would be almost unimaginable for any intelligent person to suppose that we had everything right and it would never change. In fact, it would be wrong. This is the foundation of an Open Society and the ideas of Karl Popper. Totalitarianism and communism are not bad because they’re “evil,” they are bad because they think that that are completely right. Change is constant and it is important to live in a society that encourages and accepts this.
So you may be starting to think, well I’m not like this at all. Paul poses a test:
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 is beneath this question is that because certain ideas are unfashionable you don’t say them because social norms will close in around you. People are pressured to not say those things that you’re not supposed to say. Every time you tell a friend that you can “Say Anything to them,” you are acknowledging that there are things that you think that would be uncomfortable with others.
While all this is mostly meaningless when it comes to things like fashion, where there is obviously no right answer. It becomes more dangerous when there are things we can’t say that are true. Galileo was saying something that was true, but unpopular, and he got the short end of the stick today.
Certainly, as we look back on the past, this rule of thumb works well. A lot of the statements people got in trouble for seem harmless now. So it’s likely that visitors from the future would agree with at least some of the statements that get people in trouble today. Do we have no Galileos? Not likely.
So if you want to find out what things are probably true that people are not allowed to say, then you want to look at those instances where an ad homimen attack or any other attack not based on the accuracy of an idea.
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.
I’ve long had a saying with some of my friends. I might have heard it from someone else, but I don’t think so. If you disagree let me know. The saying: “Tradition is an excuse to do the wrong thing.” What Graham is saying was at the foundation of that. If you are trying to convince me to do X when I want to do Y, don’t tell me that “X is the tradition.” Tell me that “X is right.” And then prove it to me. It is very much like the issue of “electability”, by attacking a candidate’s “electability” you are saying that here is a better candidate, but they can’t win. We should also be looking for the best solutions, those closest to the truth.
Next, Paul starts to talk about how these fashions start. One of his strategies through the essay is to avoid being attached to a particular taboo idea is to only talk about the past:
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. Coprophiles, as of this writing, don’t seem to be numerous or energetic enough to have had their interests promoted to a lifestyle.
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.
A taboo is such a weak attack, that is so easy to subvert (as evidenced by the fact so many have been broken in recent years,) that it is only used as a dire measure… one piece of straw on the camel’s back, and one more hope to crush it. The problem is, that when the group that establishes the taboo wins, the taboo does not die.
Generally when a group tries to create a taboo, they wrap it up as the group “standing for an idea” or fighting for an idea bigger than the real issues at hand. Paul comments,
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. And just as there is nothing so unfashionable as the last, discarded fashion, there is nothing so wrong as the principles of the most recently defeated opponent.
We now return to why this is a good idea. Paul says that looking for what you can’t say and questioning those things is a way of flexing your mind. When you think out of the box it is the one time you are actually thinking, and not accepting that which has been told to you by others. Also, it’s great in business:
Training yourself to think unthinkable thoughts has advantages beyond the thoughts themselves. It’s like stretching. When you stretch before running, you put your body into positions much more extreme than any it will assume during the run. If you can think things so outside the box that they’d make people’s hair stand on end, you’ll have no trouble with the small trips outside the box that people call innovative.
So, now that we’re thinking all these “inappropriate” thoughts, should we go around fighting every instance of taboo? Destroy all the cages that others have created and are trying to impose on us? No matter how small or insignificant? Paul’s advice:
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.
You must choose your battles with your actions and always be intent on keeping your mind free. Graham says that what is important is that you try to find people who are actually open-minded and can talk to you about these forbidden things that don’t exist outside your mind normally. But, Paul has an interesting comment with regards to “open-mindedness”:
Certainly the fact that they value open-mindedness is no guarantee. 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.
One of the great things about Paul Graham is that he’s always writing these things that are on the tip of my tongue or that I’ve been talking to people about for a while but haven’t found a way to write out in a decent form.
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?