Space to Think

Two weeks ago, I read Paul Graham’s new essay “The Four Quadrants of Conformism,” and it’s stuck with me since.

As usual, Paul points to something hidden in plain sight — something many of us have probably felt, perhaps without consciously noticing it.

The question he poses is whether and how much the space to freely share and debate ideas has shrunk in recent years; the answer, it seems, is quite a bit.

Anecdotally, and in my own experience, this is true: in the decade or so since I was in college, I’ve noticed (mostly subconsciously) how many fields of discussion are basically closed, how many more require caveats, and how many of those caveats are premised on “Speaking as a …”.

That’s a tough way to carry on a conversation at any level, but it’s also notable how much that was once acceptable to discuss but not to believe can now be said with a straight face. (So far as I know, none of my classmates marched and heiled with tiki torches.)

Banning ideas tends not to work. Identity shapes how we see the world, but not the basic facts of life. (Imagine Galileo’s op-ed today: “As an astronomer, I am compelled to report what I observe ….”)

And, above all, it’s hard to see how we might conform our way out of our problems.