Translate this page

Paul Graham: What You Can’t Say - Summary 🔗

This is my summary of the essay, quoting and paraphrasing the content.

Violating moral fashions can get you fired, ostracized, imprisoned, or even killed.

It seems to be a constant throughout history: In every period, people believed things that were just ridiculous, and believed them so strongly that you would have gotten in terrible trouble for saying otherwise.

The Conformist Test 🔗

Do you have any opinions that you would be reluctant to express in front of a group of your peers?

If the answer is no, odds are you just think what you’re told.

Almost certainly, there is something wrong with you if you don’t think things you don’t dare say out loud.

Trouble 🔗

Look at things people do say, and get in trouble for.

The statements that make people maddest are those they worry might be true.

Heresy 🔗

Take a label and try to think of some ideas that would be called that. Then for each ask, might this be true?

Time and Space 🔗

Diff present ideas against those of various past cultures, and see what you get.

Try diffing other cultures’ ideas against ours as well.

Mechanism 🔗

When there’s something we can’t say, it’s often because some group doesn’t want us to.

What groups are powerful but nervous, and what ideas would they like to suppress?

Why 🔗

If, like other eras, we believe things that will later seem ridiculous, I want to know what they are so that I, at least, can avoid believing them.

To do good work you need a brain that can go anywhere. And you especially need a brain that’s in the habit of going where it’s not supposed to.

Great work tends to grow out of ideas that others have overlooked, and no idea is so overlooked as one that’s unthinkable.

There seems a clear correlation between intelligence and willingness to consider shocking ideas. This isn’t just because smart people actively work to find holes in conventional thinking. Conventions also have less hold over them to start with.

Training yourself to think unthinkable thoughts has advantages beyond the thoughts themselves. If you can think things so outside the box that they’d make people’s hair stand on end, you’ll have no trouble with the small trips outside the box that people call innovative.

Pensieri Stretti 🔗

When you find something you can’t say, what do you do with it? Pick your battles.

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. Argue with idiots, and you become an idiot.

The most important thing is to be able to think what you want, not to say what you want. And if you feel you have to say everything you think, it may inhibit you from thinking improper thoughts. Follow the opposite policy. Draw a sharp line between your thoughts and your speech. Inside your head, anything is allowed. But, as in a secret society, nothing that happens within the building should be told to outsiders.

Closed thoughts and an open face. Smile at everyone, and don’t tell them what you’re thinking. Every era has its heresies, and if you don’t get imprisoned for them you will at least get in enough trouble that it becomes a complete distraction.

I admit it seems cowardly to keep quiet. The problem is, there are so many things you can’t say. If you said them all you’d have no time left for your real work.

Have a few trusted friends you can speak openly to. This is a good rule of thumb for choosing friends. The people you can say heretical things to without getting jumped on are also the most interesting to know.

Viso Sciolto? 🔗

Make it plain that you don’t agree with whatever zealotry is current in your time, but don’t be too specific about what you disagree with.

Answer “I haven’t decided”.

If the anti-yellowists seem to be getting out of hand and you want to fight back, there are ways to do it without getting yourself accused of being a yellowist.

One way to do this is to ratchet the debate up one level of abstraction. If you argue against censorship in general, you can avoid being accused of whatever heresy is contained in the book or film that someone is trying to censor.

Another way to counterattack is with metaphor.

Best of all is humor.


Ask anyone, and they’ll say the same thing: they’re pretty open-minded, though they draw the line at things that are really wrong. (Some tribes may use “negative” or “destructive”.)

When people are bad at open-mindedness they don’t know it.

If a statement is false, that’s the worst thing you can say about it. When you see statements being attacked as x-ist or y-ic that’s a sign that something is wrong.

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?

Download my free ebook

Subscribe to my mailing list and get a free email course

* indicates required


Translate this page

Updated on 2018 Nov 26.

DISCLAIMER: This is not professional advice. The ideas and opinions presented here are my own, not necessarily those of my employer.