Thoughts provoked by a Paul Graham piece about privilege

Paul Graham:

There has been a lot of talk about privilege lately. Although the concept is overused, there is something to it, and in particular to the idea that privilege makes you blind — that you can’t see things that are visible to someone whose life is very different from yours.

But one of the most pervasive examples of this kind of blindness is one that I haven’t seen mentioned explicitly. I’m going to call it orthodox privilege: The more conventional-minded someone is, the more it seems to them that it’s safe for everyone to express their opinions.

It’s safe for them to express their opinions, because the source of their opinions is whatever it’s currently acceptable to believe. So it seems to them that it must be safe for everyone. They literally can’t imagine a true statement that would get them in trouble.

And yet at every point in history, there were true things that would get you in terrible trouble to say. Is ours the first where this isn’t so? What an amazing coincidence that would be.

Surely it should at least be the default assumption that our time is not unique, and that there are true things you can’t say now, just as there have always been. …

This is a particular version of the general tendency to believe that now, finally, this or that age-old problem has been solved. In all previous times, speech was unfree. Now, people can say exactly what they like!

One of my favourite of such intractable problems is the one about how to look after the very poor and very unlucky. When the Attlee welfare state got into its stride, the error of supposing “welfare” to have been sorted was rampant in Britain, although it has abated now, following many bitter welfare state experiences. Looking after the poor has always been and will always remain very hard. How to separate the deserving poor from the undeserving poor? How to provide help without introducing moral hazard? These questions are very hard, have always been hard, and will always be hard.

I am listening to two smug young white people on the radio smugly assuming that their generation has a unique ability to sort out racial problems and unfairnesses, unlike all previous generations, who were either too wicked or too lazy. That they might be introducing new race-related indignities and insults and assumptions does not seem to register. You surely know the sort of dilemmas I am thinking of. Solve racism by assuming everyone is equally qualified! Solve racism by talking about it endlessly and encouraging the downtrodden to blame everything wrong with their lives on racism! Solve racism by never talking about racism and just self-fulfillingly prophesying that, now, it’s not a thing anymore! Solve racism by encouraging the downtrodden to find ways through racism and around racism! All these notions have truths in them, and dangers attached to them.

An equal and opposite error to this sort of temporal arrogance is the belief that the wrongs of our own time are unique to our own time. I regularly hear it assumed that there is something uniquely mediocre and corrupt about our current gang of politicians, uniquely trashy and mendacious about our media, uniquely ugly and ridiculous about our art, uniquely huge about the gap between our very rich and our very poor, uniquely bad about the behaviour of kids these days. Wrong again.

Many things have got much better. Many problems are solvable and have been solved, or will be. Some time around 1780, all the graphs of human comfort and wellbeing stopped being damn near horizontal and switched to being damn near vertical, in a good way. Ever more people since that magic moment have been able to do things for themselves and each other that nobody could do for anyone before it. We in Britain call this event the Industrial Revolution and those of us Brits who know about it are very proud of the part our ancestors played in this dramatic and continuing improvement in human affairs. The greatest form of historical myopia in the world now, certainly my part of it, may well be the unawareness of the fact of this amazing transformation. (Caused by the unique awfulness of our education system. Our teachers are the worst there have ever ever been!)

Patrick Crozier and I will be talking about this Industrial Revolution in our next recorded conversation.

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