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.
What would someone coming back to visit us in a time machine have to be careful not to say? That’s what I want to study here. But I want to do more than just shock everyone with the heresy du jour. I want to find general recipes for discovering what you can’t say, in any era.
obviously false statements might be treated as jokes, or at worst as evidence of insanity, but they are not likely to make anyone mad. The statements that make people mad are the ones they worry might be believed. I suspect the statements that make people maddest are those they worry might be true.
What if no one happens to have gotten in trouble for a particular idea yet? What if some idea would be so radioactively controversial that no one would dare express it in public? How can we find these too?
Another approach is to follow that word, heresy. In every period of history, there seem to have been labels that got applied to statements to shoot them down before anyone had a chance to ask if they were true or not.
So another way to figure out which of our taboos future generations will laugh at is to start with the labels. Take a label—”sexist”, for example—and try to think of some ideas that would be called that. Then for each ask, might this be true?
Just start listing ideas at random? Yes, because they won’t really be random. The ideas that come to mind first will be the most plausible ones. They’ll be things you’ve already noticed but didn’t let yourself think.
I suspect the only taboos that are more than taboos are the ones that are universal, or nearly so. Murder for example.
How do moral fashions arise, and why are they adopted? If we can understand this mechanism, we may be able to see it at work in our own time.
Moral fashions more often seem to be created deliberately. When there’s something we can’t say, it’s often because some group doesn’t want us to. The prohibition will be strongest when the group is nervous.
When you find something you can’t say, what do you do with it? My advice is, don’t say it. Or at least, pick your battles. … I admit it seems cowardly to keep quiet. … The problem is, there are so many things you can’t say. If you said them all you’d have no time left for your real work.
A lot of the questions people get hot about are actually quite complicated. There is no prize for getting the answer quickly.
It’s not just the mob you need to learn to watch from a distance. You need to be able to watch your own thoughts from a distance.
Source: What You Can’t Say by Paul Graham