What You Can’t Say

Here’s an interesting article from Paul Graham about what you can’t say. I’ve seen this referenced on a number of blogs and like the proverbial blind men and the elephant, everyone seems to take away a different lesson. Here’s the bits I found important, which I guess says a lot about me:

Perhaps the best policy is to make it plain that you don’t agree with whatever zealotry is current in your time, but not to be too specific about what you disagree with. Zealots will try to draw you out, but you don’t have to answer them. If they try to force you to treat a question on their terms by asking “are you with us or against us?” you can always just answer “neither”.

Better still, answer “I haven’t decided.” That’s what Larry Summers did when a group tried to put him in this position. Explaining himself later, he said “I don’t do litmus tests.”


And pay especially close attention whenever an idea is being suppressed. Web filters for children and employees often ban sites containing pornography, violence, and hate speech. What counts as pornography and violence? And what, exactly, is “hate speech?” This sounds like a phrase out of 1984.

Labels like that are probably the biggest external clue. If a statement is false, that’s the worst thing you can say about it. You don’t need to say that it’s heretical. And if it isn’t false, it shouldn’t be suppressed. So when you see statements being attacked as x-ist or y-ic (substitute your current values of x and y), whether in 1630 or 2030, that’s a sure sign that something is wrong. When you hear such labels being used, ask why.