The Null Device

What you can't say

An interesting essay on the subject of taboos and intellectual fashions, by Paul Graham:
The word "defeatist", for example, has no particular political connotations now. But in Germany in 1917 it was a weapon, used by Ludendorff in a purge of those who favored a negotiated peace. At the start of World War II it was used extensively by Churchill and his supporters to silence their opponents. In 1940, any argument against Churchill's aggressive policy was "defeatist". Was it right or wrong? Ideally, no one got far enough to ask that.
Moral fashions don't seem to be created the way ordinary fashions are. Ordinary fashions seem to arise by accident when everyone imitates the whim of some influential person. The fashion for broad-toed shoes in late fifteenth century Europe began because Charles VIII of France had six toes on one foot. The fashion for the name Gary began when the actor Frank Cooper adopted the name of a tough mill town in Indiana. 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.
Suppose in the future there is a movement to ban the color yellow. Proposals to paint anything yellow are denounced as "yellowist", as is anyone suspected of liking the color. People who like orange are tolerated but viewed with suspicion. Suppose you realize there is nothing wrong with yellow. If you go around saying this, you'll be denounced as a yellowist too, and you'll find yourself having a lot of arguments with anti-yellowists. If your aim in life is to rehabilitate the color yellow, that may be what you want. But if you're mostly interested in other questions, being labelled as a yellowist will just be a distraction. Argue with idiots, and you become an idiot.

(Via Slashdot, where it has devolved into the usual melange of Hitler references, Libertarian/Objectivist railings against the collectivist tyranny of taxation, flames directed respectively at Bush/neoconservatives and effete Europeans/elitist liberals, assertions that global warming is a lie perpetuated by a powerful environmentalist conspiracy, unsubstantiated claims about Israeli involvement in 9/11 and rants about why feminism and the homosexual agenda have ruined America; and not a word about Bill Gates being a Sith lord either. Looks like Slashdot has turned into talkback radio.)

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