Paul Graham on What We Can’t Say

One of my favorite web essayists, Paul Graham, has a new essay: What You Can’t Say. He brings up the idea of moral fashion things that we believe only because that’s what the people of our times believe, and wonders what things we believe now will seem ridiculous when viewed historically from the future. His idea is that the things that we believe solely out of fashion are often the things that people get in trouble for denying — heresy, blasphemy, sacrilege, and their modern equivalents:

What scares me is that there are moral fashions too. They’re just as arbitrary, and just as invisible to most people. But they’re much more dangerous. Fashion is mistaken for good design; moral fashion is mistaken for good. Dressing oddly gets you laughed at. Violating moral fashions can get you fired, ostracized, imprisoned, or even killed.

If like me, you’re hoping for him to give some examples of current moral fashions, to list some ideas that are likely wrong but that can’t be questioned in our society, you’ll be disappointed. The essay discusses these kinds of ideas entirely in the abstract, or with references to moral fashions from the past. It’s an interesting essay nonetheless. A choice quote:

Although moral fashions tend to arise from different sources than fashions in clothing, the mechanism of their adoption seems much the same. The early adopters will be driven by ambition: self-consciously cool people who want to distinguish themselves from the common herd. As the fashion becomes established they’ll be joined by a second, much larger group, driven by fear. This second group adopt the fashion not because they want to stand out but because they are afraid of standing out.

So if you want to figure out what we can’t say, look at the machinery of fashion and try to predict what it would make unsayable. What groups are powerful but nervous, and what ideas would they like to suppress? What ideas were tarnished by association when they ended up on the losing side of a recent struggle? If a self-consciously cool person wanted to differentiate himself from preceding fashions (e.g. from his parents), which of their ideas would he tend to reject? What are conventional-minded people afraid of saying?


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