"Few people are capable of expressing with equanimity opinions which differ from the prejudices of their social environment. Most people are even incapable of forming such opinions."|
There has been a lot of talk about privilege lately. Although the
concept is overused, there is something to it, and in particular
to the idea that privilege makes you blind — that you can't see
things that are visible to someone whose life is very different
But one of the most pervasive examples of this kind of blindness
is one that I haven't seen mentioned explicitly. I'm going to call
it orthodox privilege: The more conventional-minded someone is, the
more it seems to them that it's safe for everyone to express their
It's safe for them to express their opinions, because the source
of their opinions is whatever it's currently acceptable to believe.
So it seems to them that it must be safe for everyone. They literally
can't imagine a true statement that would get them in trouble.
And yet at every point in history, there were true things that would
get you in terrible trouble to say.
Is ours the first where this
isn't so? What an amazing coincidence that would be.
Surely it should at least be the default assumption that our time
is not unique, and that there are true things you can't say now,
just as there have always been. You would think. But even in the
face of such overwhelming historical evidence, most people will go
with their gut on this one.
The spectral signature of orthodox privilege is "Why don't you just
say it?" The more extreme will even
accuse you of specific heresies they imagine you must have in mind,
though if there's more than one heresy current in your time, these
accusations will tend to be nondeterministic: you must either be
an xist or a yist.
Frustrating as it is to deal with these people, it's important to
realize that they're in earnest. They're not pretending they think
it's impossible for an idea to be both unorthodox and true. The
world really looks that way to them.
How do you respond to orthodox privilege? Merely giving it a name
may help somewhat, because it will remind you, when you encounter it,
why the people you're talking to seem so strangely unreasonable.
Because this is a uniquely tenacious form of privilege. People can
overcome the blindness induced by most forms of privilege by learning
more about whatever they're not. But they can't overcome orthodox
privilege just by learning more. They'd have to become more
independent-minded. If that happens at all, it doesn't happen on
the time scale of one conversation.
It may be possible to convince some people that orthodox privilege
must exist even though they can't sense it, just as one can with,
say, dark matter. There may be some who could be convinced, for
example, that it's very unlikely that this is the first point in
history at which there's nothing true you can't say, even if they
can't imagine specific examples.
But except with these people, I don't think it will work to say
"check your privilege" about this type of privilege, because those
in its demographic don't realize they're in it. It doesn't seem to
conventional-minded people that they're conventional-minded. It
just seems to them that they're right. Indeed, they tend to be
particularly sure of it.
Perhaps the solution is to appeal to politeness. If someone says
they can hear a high-pitched noise that you can't, it's only polite
to take them at their word, instead of demanding evidence that's
impossible to produce, or simply denying that they hear anything.
Imagine how rude that would seem. Similarly, if someone says they
can think of things that are true but that cannot be said, it's
only polite to take them at their word, even if you can't think of
Once you realize that orthodox privilege exists, a lot of other
things become clearer. For example, how can it be that a large
number of reasonable, intelligent people worry about something they
call "cancel culture," while other reasonable, intelligent people
deny that it's a problem? Once you understand the concept of orthodox
privilege, it's easy to see the source of this disagreement. If
you believe there's nothing true that you can't say, then anyone
who gets in trouble for something they say must deserve it.
Thanks to Sam Altman, Trevor Blackwell, Patrick Collison, Antonio Garcia-Martinez,
Jessica Livingston, Robert Morris, Michael Nielsen, Geoff Ralston, Max Roser, and
Harj Taggar for reading drafts of this.