Re: What You Can't Say

Why didn't you say some of the things you can't say?

The most extreme of the things you can't say would be very shocking to most readers. If you doubt that, imagine what people in 1830 would think of our default educated east coast beliefs about, say, premarital sex, homosexuality, or the literal truth of the Bible. We would seem depraved to them. So we should expect that someone who similarly violated our taboos would seem depraved to us.

If I said this kind of thing, it would be like someone doing a cannonball into a swimming pool. Immediately, the essay would be about that, and not about the more general and ultimately more important point.

Another alternative would be to say milder, moderately controversial things, like those Larry Elder wrote about in The Ten Things You Can't Say In America. I haven't read this book and have no idea if it's any good, but these are certainly not the ten things you can't say in America. I can easily think of ten that would be more shocking.

If I stuck to this kind of mildly shocking statement, it would give people the comforting illusion that these ideas, which you hear often enough on talk radio and in bars, represent the outer limits of what you can't say.

In fact, finding the outer limits is very, very hard. Popular controversialists just go for the low hanging fruit. To really solve the problem would take years of introspection. You have to untangle your ideas from the ideas of your time, and that's so hard that few people in history have even come close. Isaac Newton, smart as he was, wasted years on theological controversies.

I disagree with your generalization that physicists are smarter than professors of French Literature.

Actually, for illustrative purposes I did include a few things you can't say, but I stuck to domain-specific ones. Within university faculties, this is the great unmentionable. And look at how much trouble I got in for bringing it up. (So far no one from the US car industry has complained though, perhaps because I mentioned explicitly that a heresy was coming, instead of just inlining it.)

Try this thought experiment. A dictator takes over the US and sends all the professors to re-education camps. The physicists are told they have to learn how to write academic articles about French literature, and the French literature professors are told they have to learn how to write original physics papers. If they fail, they'll be shot. Which group is more worried?

We have some evidence here: the famous parody that physicist Alan Sokal got published in Social Text. How long did it take him to master the art of writing deep-sounding nonsense well enough to fool the editors? A couple weeks?

What do you suppose would be the odds of a literary theorist getting a parody of a physics paper published in a physics journal?

The Conformist Test doesn't consider a third possibility: that you simply don't care what anyone thinks.

True enough. But considering how very hard it is to disentangle yourself from the thinking of your time, someone who comforts himself with this thought is almost certain to be mistaken. It's not enough to be an ornery cuss. You have to be Voltaire, and then some.

We are the product of the our experiences, so of course you're going to have similar morality to people around you, but that doesn't mean you're not independent.

Sure it does. Independent people transcend their time. Copernicus realized the sun didn't go around the earth when traditional teachings, everyone around him, and even the evidence of his senses said that it did. At the time the idea was such a stretch that he had a hard time believing it himself: he was forced into it, because it was the only way to make the numbers come out right.

It may be hard to transcend your time, but I think one should at least aspire to, instead of comforting oneself with the thought that being the product of a particular time and place excuses one for being mistaken.

The fact that you can't say something doesn't mean it's true.

I believe this is implicit in "So it's likely that visitors from the future would agree with at least some of the statements that get people in trouble today." In an earlier version I made this point explicitly, but it seemed repetitive, so I cut it.

The reason I forbid my children to use words like "fuck" and "shit" is not that I want them to seem innocent, but because these words are ill-mannered and contribute nothing to communication.

If these words didn't serve a purpose, they wouldn't exist. One of their purposes is to express strong displeasure. It may be ill-mannered to be constantly expressing strong displeasure, but there are cases when it's warranted.

I would not consider someone ill-mannered for saying "oh shit" when told that their house had just burnt down. I wouldn't consider a drill instructor ill-mannered for saying "what the fuck do you think you're doing?" to a recruit on a firing range who inadvertantly pointed his weapon at another person. In these situations, "dear dear" (the alternative my parents taught me) would be insufficient-- it would be inaccurate.

Here's a thought experiment you can try to examine your motives. Is there any situation in which the idea of your children using these words would not seem repellent? There are probably moments of strong displeasure in everyone's life. So if you dislike the idea of your children using such words regardless of the circumstances, then probably you do, in fact, simply want them to seem innocent.

You claim that it's lazy to label ideas as x-ist, and yet you say "many otherwise intelligent people were socialists in the middle of the twentieth century."

This is not using a label to suppress ideas. They called themselves socialists. Saying that Sidney Webb was a socialist is like saying that Myron Scholes is an economist. It's just a statement of fact.

How can you dismiss socialism so casually?

I've thought a lot about this, actually; it was not a casual remark. I think the fundamental question is not whether the government pays for schools or medicine, but whether you allow people to get rich.

In England in the 1970s, the top income tax rate was 98%. That's what the Beatles' song "Tax Man" is referring to when they say "one for you, nineteen for me."

Any country that makes this choice ends up losing net, because new technology tends to be developed by people trying to make their fortunes. It's too much work for anyone to do for ordinary wages. Smart people might work on sexy projects like fighter planes and space rockets for ordinary wages, but semiconductors or light bulbs or the plumbing of e-commerce probably have to be developed by entrepreneurs. Life in the Soviet Union would have been even poorer if they hadn't had American technologies to copy.

Finland is sometimes given as an example of a prosperous socialist country, but apparently the combined top tax rate is 55%, only 5% higher than in California. So if they seem that much more socialist than the US, it is probably simply because they don't spend so much on their military.

There are indeed things you can't say in Holland.

Oops, yes, I forgot about the fate of Pim Fortuyn.

What does ABQ stand for?

Always be questioning.