Tuesday, October 24, 2017

The Things You Can't Say

Scott Alexander speaks to us of the mechanisms of oppression:


You should totally read this. Like everything he writes it is insightful and very well-written.

See also:

Both glorious essays, well worth reading. Three of my favourite bloggers.

And I respond (a comment on the slate star codex subreddit. essays seem to be flying fully-armed from my forehead as reddit comments, whereas whenever I sit down to write an essay I spend all day on it and then get discouraged for no reason):

Err, what?

I loved this post on the object-level. Like, screw-you catholic church. You stripped and gagged my hero Giordano Bruno and you hung him upside-down and you lowered him alive head-first into a huge fire for saying bad things. And you don't get off just because the things you objected to weren't the things we thought they were, but were in fact some silly made-up fairy story nonsense that wouldn't fool a five-year old. You still retarded the progress of science (a bit) (probably enough that I am a generation short of immortality, which I take very personally). So screw you. Also you have totally lost and everyone despises you now. Ha ha ha ha ha.

On the meta-level, what the hell? We live in a society where we can pretty much say what we like. Without even the slightest comeback. America actually has a constitutional guarantee of absolute freedom of speech. And it seems to me to be very solidly upheld.

I can think of a number of issues that are controversial in American politics. I am not going to invoke their names here, but not because I think that the CIA might hunt me down, but because I do not want to get banned from this subreddit for starting discussions which aren't allowed by the moderators of this subreddit (i.e. Scott!).

The reason that I can think of these issues is because I can hardly open my morning internet without reading about them, both sides passionately advocated by clever and articulate people. It is fun.

The penalty for saying the things you can't say is usually (if you say them well) fame, and best-selling books. Which don't seem to get burned much. About the worst you can say is that it can be difficult to get state funding to research things that the state doesn't particularly want to know the answer to.

Luckily, I live in England, in a society where there is no such guarantee. We don't want one. We don't like absolute freedom of speech. We never have. Bad people will say bad things and cause trouble and we would rather they shut up.

We actually have laws prohibiting certain kinds of political speech! Can you imagine?

So I have some actual legally enforced taboos that I can violate without touching on your silly "Culture War".

One of them is about inciting racial hatred.

Another is about glorifying terrorism.

And just for good measure, not here, but in some parts of the European SuperState in which I live it is illegal to deny the holocaust.

I don't really know the details of these laws because there is not a plastic cat in hell's chance of me being prosecuted under them. A bit like the blasphemy laws, which we also still have, I think.

So here goes:

White people are evil. We should make a big bonfire and burn them all. If you don't think that's good enough, suggest another race and I'll repeat the comment with that race inserted. (Unless it's "bargee travellers/water gypsies/or, as we prefer to be known, floating pikey scum", in which case fuck you).

Terrorism is totally glorious, it works, and it does a lot of good in the world. Good old terrorism. Glory to it! Up the IRA! Remember Skibbereen! Also ISIS. Great guys, doing the Lord's work, would invite them round for a beer and a bacon sandwich any time.

And the holocaust didn't happen, or if it did it's been totally exaggerated. Hitler was a good man who was sincerely trying to make the world a better place and it is simply unfortunate that he was so very wrong about the sorts of things that would help.

There we go.

I am commenting in a pseudonymous forum. But I have neglected properly to ensure my security because my pseudonym is also my real name, with my middle name in there so that it is a globally unique identifier.

I am going to dox myself to save everyone else the trouble. I live in Cambridge, UK, on a narrowboat called "Katy". In the middle of town, close to the Fort St George pub. Call round for a cup of tea if you're in the vicinity, or maybe call round and attack me with an axe or something. Whatever floats *your* boat.

This is a rationalist forum. Bets or at least predictions on my fate, please?

And yes, I do get the impression that the "Culture War" thingy is getting a bit out of hand stateside. You should probably all calm down a bit. But Jesus, Americans getting all worked up about ideological issues is hardly a new thing. Yall don't seem nearly as mad as usual.

Also, just in case the problem is grammar-nazis, "yall" is a wonderful word. Ever since we dropped thou and thee from standard English we have needed a distinct second person plural and "yall" is great and should be used everywhere. (Is there an accusative?)

So what are the things I can't say, exactly? Because I don't think I'm clever enough to work out what they are.


  1. This feels a bit like someone objecting to George Carlin's list of seven naughty words by pointing out that you can totally say Scunthorpe on TV.

    That is: I don't think the above *actually says* any of those disputedly dangerous things -- because, while you have indeed written down words that could say them, everything about how you expressed them and the context you put them in indicates that you aren't saying them *because you believe them*. So yeah, you can write down those words. You could also write a play in which a minor character (clearly not an author mouthpiece) says them. But you haven't actually *said* them, and I claim that's a large part of why you are unlikely ever to get any actual grief for saying them.

    I do agree with you, though, that the unsayability of certain things is often exaggerated. They may possibly be more unsayable for the sort of person who writes famous things about what you can't say -- the more visible you are, the more reputation-damage can hurt you and the more risk there is that someone decides that merely being rude about you on the internet isn't enough.

  2. PG is vair sensible; I came to his blog late, so have never read that one. But his "would have gotten me in big trouble in most of Europe in the seventeenth century, and did get Galileo in big trouble when he said it—that the earth moves" is probably wrong. G was stomped on for a variety of complex reasons; e.g. https://thonyc.wordpress.com/2014/05/29/galileo-the-church-and-heliocentricity-a-rough-guide/. And he loses points for linking to Crichton, of course.

    Is Galileo a side issue or not? Maybe; but people using him as an example and getting it wrong deserve correction. scottaaronson also gets him badly and naively wrong. Note that Galileo's only "firm" proof of the Earth moving (as opposed to a Tychonic system), the tides, was bollox.