What You Can't Say

posted by Jason Kottke Jan 05, 2004

What You Can't Say. An essay about "how to think forbidden thoughts, and what to do with them"

Reader comments

KaijimaJan 05, 2004 at 2:50PM

I think there are astute points about "moral fashion", to coin a phrase. People do quite frequently (and with firm convinction) mistake arbitrary morality for Truth and treat it as an absolute guide. Though I'm also somewhat ambivalent about the solution which is presented as "think outrageous things, but never let them know what you're thinking". The caveat of "okay, you can have a tiny group of friends to discuss with in secret" is a bit lame to me, depending on the circumstances. It's probably true that violating and offending arbitrary morality and taboos, no matter how ridiculous they might be, could get you in constant trouble in public. But you also have a choice to make there - are there some idea that are *worth* the trouble to put forth? There definetely are. Great amounts of social and scientific progress (for scientists are also not as open-minded and willing to challege their aesthetic preconceptions as the essay seems to suggest) have only been made because some people were willing to be "unpopular", in order to talk about something they felt it was very important to talk about. It's not just about covering your own arse.

I think the essay misses a great point and opportunity to talk about the Internet in relation to this. The internet can provide a buffer to talking about outrageous, taboo, and unpopular ideas; semi-anonymity is a wrench thrown into the gears of cultural repression. There area great many ideas that fit the above criteria which are commonly discussed and distributed among many people thanks to the Internet and this likely never would have happened without it. (I should know, of all people, being so involved in areas of alternative spirituality, philosophy, and transhumanist ideas about identity.)

Jonas!Jan 05, 2004 at 3:05PM

The point might have been an interesting one, but the essay was not. The author equivocates words, confuses scopes, and at many occasions, make simply baseless exertions (the bit about science people smarter than humanities people is utterly hilarious). I guess it's fine as some sort of twisted observation, but definitely not an argument for whatever he is claiming.

shaunJan 05, 2004 at 9:25PM

I think the essayist has is being a bit nearsighted. The "taboos" he talks about are not nearly as universal as he seems to think--political correctness, for instance, may well be laughed at in the future, but it's laughed at now, too. Even at the height of the slave trade there were people opposed to slavery, and though we learn now that people in the Middle Ages thought the earth was flat, many people knew it wasn't. The Greeks knew it wasn't, three thousand years ago.

Morality isn't quite as much as at the whim's of fashion as all that. It has always been based mostly on the idea of respect for human life and society--thought the defintions of human, society, and respect all vary from place to place and age to age.

mptJan 08, 2004 at 7:22PM

Shaun, Paul refers to “the high water mark of political correctness in the early 1990s’. I don’t remember many people laughing about it back then — back then, we didn’t even have a name for it.

Sure, given the size of the population, you will always find some people who oppose a moral fashion. But that doesn’t stop it from being a fashion. The following ideas are morally unfashionable, for example, though they are not obviously wrong (in the sense that 2+2=5 is wrong), and there are some people who subscribe to each of them:

  • polygamy is natural and desirable for humans, as it is for many other species;

  • average intelligence, like skin color, varies between races;

  • a woman’s place is in the home;

  • civilization is not a good model of society for humans.

(Note to the reading-impaired: my use of these as examples does not mean I subscribe to any of them. Nor does it mean I do not subscribe to any of them.)

This thread is closed to new comments. Thanks to everyone who responded.