A man named Larry Elder, sometimes known as “the sage from South Central”, and sometimes called “the Antichrist” — and often called any of a number of things between, including “the Oreo” — wrote a book titled The Ten Things You Can’t Say In America. Of course, the title is slightly misleading: the word “The” at the beginning of it implies a certain exclusivity to these ten things that doesn’t exist. Not only are there other things (which I know for a fact, despite never having read the book, because I can think of more than ten right now) beyond his ten, but among his ten are some things that simply aren’t nearly as culturally unspeakable as some things he certainly would not have said.
If he’d said the sorts of things that are truly unspeakable, his book would have been pretty much universally panned, libertarians (among whom he is typically counted) all over the place would have denounced and disowned him, his book would never have been published, and people would have broken into his house with the express intent of burning the manuscripts.
I’m a pretty in-your-face kind of guy when it comes to controversial opinions and thought-provoking statements, but there are things even I won’t say in the cultural climate of the United States. If you think the stances I openly take on intellectual property law, the mechanics of jurisprudence, and taxation are shocking, you’re like most United States citizens: waiting to be sheared. I know, I know, that was shocking. Free speech doesn’t exist merely to let people talk to their buddies, though — it is written into the Constitution to provide the means by which someone willing to think truly controversial thoughts can get others to think the same thoughts, at least experimentally. If you’re not willing to try a new, contrary thought on for a day, or an our, or at least a minute or two, without immediately dismissing it, you’re wasting that Constitutional protection of free speech.
When I dismiss a thought out of hand, it’s generally because I’ve taken the time to try believing it for a little while in the past, and the current presentation of the old thought doesn’t provide anything new to consider. I’m not perfect: while no specific examples occur to me now, I’m pretty sure there are times I’ve dismissed something without ever having thought about it. Despite my conscious attempts to truly open my mind to every thought at least once, I’m sure some get by me — I grew up with these cultural norms too, after all, and they affect me as well. Years of practice at challenging my own mind’s status quo have probably made me better at it than most.
My favorite example is from the summer of 2003, when a friend challenged, by way of idle discussion, my assumptions about intellectual property law. At the time, I disputed what she had to say to some extent, describing my own thoughts on the matter. I found myself strangely unable to provide an immediate counter-argument with any substance, though. I’m not sure what her current beliefs are about the subject, but thanks to her beliefs at the time at least, and her willingness to discuss them with me, I spent some time thinking about it, and eventually discovered that I had been basing my opinions on a “reasonable” watering-down of logical invalidity, not on a strict examination of what would be logically valid.
I must be getting better at explaining my views on intellectual property — and, likewise, I think socioeconomic realities are cornering people in their own minds sufficiently that more and more of them are feeling the urge to fight back to the extent that perhaps my ideas don’t sound so outrageous that they simply can’t consider them any longer. This is a pretty significant change for a three-year period. The reason I believe these two changes in circumstance are coinciding is simple: more and more people are conceding more and more points, and expressing more and more agreement with me, when I engage them in discussions of intellectual property law. On one hand, I’m tending to broach the subject when someone already, obviously, is uneasy with the status quo, with increasing maximization of intellectual property law: my arguments tend to support their disputations of such things as software patent abuses, which gets them enthusiastic about what I have to say, and this lures them into consideration of what I present as the logical underpinnings of those arguments. On the other hand, circumstances and changing popular opinions are creating more opportunities for me to do so.
. . . but what about those really unspeakable things?
I make a conscious decision to avoid some subjects. I suspect that Larry Elder does as well: the pattern of thought that leads him to challenge Americans to consider their opinion taboos in precisely the way he does seems conducive to realization he’s only scratching the surface. There’s another person who has written about the fact that he does similar things, for conscious and logical reasons: Paul Graham. He advocates choosing your battles. Simply running around spewing ideas as controversially as you can possibly conceive is a good way to get all of your ideas ignored entirely. If you want change in your lifetime, and want to contribute to that, you need to aim lower. I know, based on what Graham has to say, that he intentionally gentles his approach to saying controversial things enough to keep people from running off on tangents over statements that aren’t central to his point. Even so, he ran into some difficulty with his comparison of physicists and French professors, when his comparison struck me as almost a tautology. I’ll leave it to you to read the essay from the above link to sort out what I mean, but I’ll offer this hint: I’m far more likely to be capable of getting a degree in French literature than in quantum theory. I could probably do either, but the likelihood of failure on the physics side is rather greater, I think.
Whether Larry Elder is making a conscious decisions is, form where I’m sitting, up in the air — but I think he is. The alternative is that he’s not even conceiving of the potential correctness of more-controversial statements because, like the rest of us, he’s immersed in the culture that declares them taboo, mostly through silent ignorance of the possibility that such things could even be thinkable. Either way, he ended up challenging a reasonably optimal set of cultural taboos, things that really need to be challenged right now, and things that can be challenged productively without getting one simply ignored for heresy. The Amazon page for his book mentions some of these “ten things you can’t say in America”, and they’re worth thinking about with or without the book to help. Unfortunately, I tend to suspect he did not include intellectual property law in his list. C’est la vie.