Tag Archives: conformity

Paul Graham

When people are bad at math, they know it, because they get the wrong answers on tests. But when people are bad at open-mindedness, they don’t know it. In fact they tend to think the opposite. Remember, it’s the nature of fashion to be invisible. It wouldn’t work otherwise. Fashion doesn’t seem like fashion to someone in the grip of it. It just seems like the right thing to do. It’s only by looking from a distance that we see oscillations in people’s idea of the right thing to do, and can identify them as fashions.

Time gives us such distance for free. Indeed, the arrival of new fashions makes old fashions easy to see, because they seem so ridiculous by contrast. From one end of a pendulum’s swing, the other end seems especially far away.

To see fashion in your own time, though, requires a conscious effort. Without time to give you distance, you have to create distance yourself. Instead of being part of the mob, stand as far away from it as you can and watch what it’s doing. 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.

Especially if you hear yourself using them. 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. That’s not a radical idea, by the way; it’s the main difference between children and adults. When a child gets angry because he’s tired, he doesn’t know what’s happening. An adult can distance himself enough from the situation to say “never mind, I’m just tired.” I don’t see why one couldn’t, by a similar process, learn to recognize and discount the effects of moral fashions.

You have to take that extra step if you want to think clearly. But it’s harder, because now you’re working against social customs instead of with them. Everyone encourages you to grow up to the point where you can discount your own bad moods. Few encourage you to continue to the point where you can discount society’s bad moods.

How can you see the wave, when you’re the water? Always be questioning. That’s the only defence. What can’t you say? And why?

Paul Graham, Hackers & Painters: Big Ideas from the Computer Age, Sebastopol, California, 2004, pp. 48–49

Paul Graham

If you believe everything you’re supposed to now, how can you be sure you wouldn’t also have believed everything you were supposed to if you had grown up among the plantation owners of the pre-Civil War South, or in Germany in the 1930s—or among the Mongols in 1200, for that matter? Odds are you would have.

Back in the era of terms like “well-adjusted,” the idea seemed to be that there was something wrong with you if you thought things you didn’t dare say out loud. This seems backward. Almost certainly, there is something wrong with you if you don’t think things you don’t dare say out loud.

Paul Graham, ‘What You Can’t Say’, January, 2004

John Stuart Mill

[I]t is not the minds of heretics that are deteriorated most, by the ban placed on all inquiry which does not end in the orthodox conclusions. The greatest harm done is to those who are not heretics, and whose whole mental development is cramped, and their reason cowed, by the fear of heresy. Who can compute what the world loses in the multitude of promising intellects combined with timid characters, who dare not follow out any bold, vigorous, independent train of thought, lest it should land them in something which would admit of being considered irreligious or immoral? Among them we may occasionally see some man of deep conscientiousness, and subtle and refined understanding, who spends a life in sophisticating with an intellect which he cannot silence, and exhausts the resources of ingenuity in attempting to reconcile the promptings of his conscience and reason with orthodoxy, which yet he does not, perhaps, to the end succeed in doing. No one can be a great thinker who does not recognise, that as a thinker it is his first duty to follow his intellect to whatever conclusions it may lead.

John Stuart Mill, On Liberty, in The Collected Works of John Stuart Mill, Toronto, 1988, vol. 18, p. 242

Robert Paul Wolff

In politics, as in life generally, men frequently forfeit their autonomy. There are a number of causes for this fact, and also a number of arguments which have been offered to justify it. Most men, as we have already noted, feel so strongly the force of tradition or bureaucracy that they accept unthinkingly the claims to authority which are made by their nominal rulers. It is the rare individual in the history of the race who rises even to the level of questioning the right of his masters to command and the duty of himself and his fellows to obey.

Robert Paul Wolff, In Defense of Anarchism, New York, 1970, p. 16

Thomas Nagel

It is clear that the power of complex modern states depends on the deeply ingrained tendency of most of their members to follow the rules, obey the laws, and do what is expected of them by the established authorities without deciding case by case whether they agree with what is being done. We turn ourselves easily into instruments of higher-order processes; the complex organizational hierarchies typical of modern life could not function otherwise—not only armies, but all bureaucratic institutions rely on such psychological dispositions.

This gives rise to what can be called the German problem. The generally valuable tendency to conform, not to break ranks conspicuously, not to attract attention to oneself, and to do one’s job and obey official instructions without substituting one’s own personal judgment can be put to the service of monstrous ends, and can maintain in power the most appalling regimes. The same procedural correctness that inhibits people from taking bribes may also turn them into obedient participants in well-organized official policies of segregation, deportation, and genocidal extermination. The problem is whether it is possible to have the benefits of conformity and bureaucratic obedience without the dangers.

Thomas Nagel, Equality and Partiality, Oxford, 1991, pp. 149-150

Mary Midgley

I am simply pointing out what the history of ethics shows all too clearly—how much our thinking has been shaped by what our stages omit to mention. The Greek philosophers never really raised the problem of slavery till towards the end of their speech, and then few of them did so with conviction. This happened even though it lay right in the path of their enquiries into political justice and the value of the individual soul. Christianity did raise that problem, because its class background was different and because the world in the Christian era was already in turmoil, so that men were not presented with the narcotic of a happy stability. But Christianity itself did not, until quite recently, raise the problem o the morality of punishment, and particularly of eternal punishment. This failure to raise central questions was not, in either case, complete. Once can find very intelligent and penetrating criticisms of slavery occurring from time to time in Greek writings—even in Aristotle’s defence of that institution. But they are mostly like Rawls’ remark here. They conclude that “this should be investigated some day”. The same thing happens with Christian writings concerning punishment, except that the consideration, “this is a great mystery”, acts as an even more powerful paralytic to though. Not much more powerful, however. Natural inertia, when it coincides with vested interest or the illusion of vested interest, is as strong as gravitation.

Mary Midgley, ‘Duties concerning islands’, Encounter, vol. 60, no. 2 (February 1983), pp. 36-43.