On Opinions Which Differ from Norms
In which I attempt to explain why I have found it so troubling to think differently
I recall a time, not many years ago, before I had the vocabulary to adequately defend the ideas I encountered. In particular I remember once, in Dallas, I was with a group of friends and mentioned I was interested in anti-natalism. It’s a difficult philosophy, to be sure: there is a weak form, which would be something like “it is immoral to knowingly and intentionally have children” all the way to a stronger form: “humanity ought not continue any longer than the current generation.”
I should clarify at the outset that I have never believed the strong form of anti-natalism, although I must admit there are parts of the weak form that I haven’t entirely shaken off. On two occasions I’ve read through Benatar’s Better Never to Have Been, which I regard as the proper introduction to this issue for anyone curious, and I’ve enjoyed both read-throughs as objects of deep contemplation. But let’s not worry ourselves with the particulars of the philosophy here, because I don’t bring it up to defend it—it simply serves my purposes here as a particularly uncommon set of ideas which, when I was three days into studying it on that unfortunate Dallas day, I couldn’t possibly explain adequately, much less defend against critique.
So it was an awkward conversation in which my friends dismissed me out of hand, and it left a bad taste in my mouth. Since then, I’ve remembered the moment as a puzzling bit of dissonance for me: why did I care whether they understood or accepted a rare philosophical position that I wasn’t even done investigating? What possible harm could they have done me by dismissing the matter, especially given that I had no arguments holstered to make any resulting conversation interesting?
Only today, around eighteen months later, did I stumble across an answer. I was bothered by the fact that my friends seemed to dismiss the philosophy before they understood it—which was clear to me at the time despite that I couldn’t explain it myself—and seemed to assume that it was silly a priori. It went against my sense of intellectual curiosity, and it made me feel nervous that they would take me less seriously in the future as a result. Below, we’ll get into why I’m sensitive to this possibility.
So why did they do this? A few immediate possibilities:
Conflation of the messenger with anti-natalism itself: I did a bad job explaining it, and so it appears less credible;
Moral repugnance at the main theses of anti-natalism; or
The idea is uncommon and currently exists outside the Overton window, so to speak, which means it is less likely to be valid, consistent or compelling than ideas inside the Overton window.
And now we arrive at my problem.
Is the third bullet point above true? Do ideas outside the range of polite discourse tend to be less correct, less defensible or more repugnant? Well, I can’t generalize about a mostly-unexplored infinite array of conflicting ideas, but I can say that I definitely believed this proposition for most of my life. It’s easy to come across an interesting idea, try to discuss it with people around you, realize everyone receives the idea negatively, and drop it. But with the benefit of the internet, it’s possible to find people who share characteristics and ideas that take root too infrequently to find with other means. So you Google something like “anti-natalism reddit” and come across a subreddit of 123,000 members and realize “oh, maybe this phenomenon isn’t so small after all.”
But then it becomes clear that the subject of the forum is “anti-natalism,” so any topic other than “anti-natalism” rarely gets discussed, so you only talk to these mostly one-dimensional voices that seem to know more than you about “anti-natalism” but never want to broaden the conversation, and you meet none of these people in real life, so then your world is bifurcated into this one subreddit, where you can talk about this one niche topic in depth, and the rest of your life, where you drop it entirely.
The subreddit never maps onto the real world. Everyone is faceless and none of them live in your neighborhood. One of them is probably a teenager in Italy who you wouldn't meet if you searched for half a century, but if so you’d never know it.
All the while, a slow creeping belief takes hold that the idea cannot be shared with your real life friends. After all, only internet weirdos care about analyzing niche ideas that much—never mind that you’re one of those weirdos!
In the end, perhaps a day comes when you decide to mention the subreddit in real life anyway: to let just a little bit of the online world bleed over into the real one. Suppose that you’re dismissed or criticized for that. Then the online community really does feel like a group of weirdos, and you realize you’re one of them and don’t want to be, so you start ignoring it or you leave it right away. At some point it is as though the community never happened, except for a slightly reinforced belief that it’s not worth the trouble to investigate fringe philosophies because most people think they’re silly anyway.
I ended up with a long list of ideas that I dismissed purely because I felt socially incentivized to do so at some point in the past, and I felt that way because I mistakenly believed that a belief being popular is the same as—or very close to—the belief being defensible. Crucially, I also believed the inverse. I regret that now.
Surely it’s clear by now how much of this is autobiographical, even though I wrote it in the second person for some reason. I’m not really sure how relatable this is to others, but I think I went through this process several times, always ultimately dismissing the online community when I no longer felt I needed an outlet for a given set of particular ideas. I ended up with a long list of ideas that I dismissed purely because I felt socially incentivized to do so at some (now-irrelevant) point in the past, and I felt that way because I mistakenly believed that a belief being popular is the same as—or very close to—the belief being defensible. Crucially, I also believed the inverse. I regret that now. I wish I spent more time exploring interesting ideas rather than worrying what others would think.
Today I find myself less self-conscious about all this. Now I dive into existentialist texts from the 1940s and soak them up. I find one such text filled with terms that haven’t been in popular use for sixty years, packed with meaning and ripe for analysis. I read Immanuel Kant and discover that the argument for the existence of categorical imperatives is much more compelling to me than it is to anyone else I know. I realize I’m rather more of an empiricist than a rationalist. I encounter downstream conflicts between these ideas, like how Kant’s contention that lying is always bad in every circumstance without exception flies in the face of de Beauvoir’s idea that no values exist a priori and that we are free to—and, in fact, inevitably must—create our value structures ourselves, on an individual basis.
I don’t know where I stand on all these propositions. But I know I stand somewhere other than the standard beliefs that define our zeitgeist. This is inherently an uncomfortable position: can you imagine standing in a grocery store checkout line and explaining to a curious stranger your belief that the deepest truths about humanity can only be told in the form of jokes?1 Every uncommon or complex belief you hold close to your chest creates some distance between yourself and other people: just as the hardcore anti-vaxxer may find it hard to get along with those who disagree, perhaps there is some tension in trying to be friends with people who define themselves according to academic philosophies that almost nobody cares to think about, and that a tiny sliver of that group actually reads.
The exception, of course, is that some small set of people with uncommon beliefs capture cultural attention enough to widely spread their beliefs, and hopefully to defend them rigorously. The worst of these become strange daytime TV interviews. The best of these become prominent public intellectuals for many years, sometimes for the rest of their lives. For a recent example, consider the rise of Jordan Peterson.
If I’ve lost you in the cerebral discussion above, consider a more practical application to all this: as of now, I’ve chosen to live in Hawaii. By all accounts, and as some of my friends like to tell me, this is quite an irrational choice if I’m optimizing for any of the things people typically optimize for: cost of living, career opportunities, proximity to family and friends, and so on. Perhaps, then, it shouldn’t come at a surprise that I’m not viewing it in terms of optimizing for any of those things—on the contrary, I didn’t have to switch jobs to move here, I actually pay much less in rent than a comparable apartment in my old city of Austin would’ve cost, most of my friends on the mainland are keen to visit, and I would argue that my performance and general life satisfaction have improved significantly since I got here. My choice was independent of any of those optimizing dimensions, or perhaps in some sense to repudiate them. Frankly, my choice didn’t make sense from the outside at all. But I am still the one who made the choice, and it need only conform to my own values and priorities in order to be justified, and I believe that it did conform to my own values and priorities, and my closest friends do understand this. But it’s still a choice that most people don’t make, and yet I’m one of the people who did. Just like flirting with anti-natalism, that’s potentially confusing to other people in my life, and it creates some distance. The most important difference now, of course, is that I’ve developed a vocabulary to explain myself.
There are a lot of topics on which I am like this. There are a lot of ways in which I notice that, although I don’t do so deliberately, I make radically different choices in my life than most other people. In the past, for reasons largely explained above, this has made me really uncomfortable. But less so now. I feel I’ve only recently freed myself of the idea that all my beliefs need to be common ones or they’re likely wrong. An exploration into philosophy will do that, and so will encountering Gwern’s analysis of GPT-3 and realizing that it’s important even if most people haven’t come across it. So will doing much of anything that most people don’t do.
At some point, you dive deeply enough into a domain of ideas that it’s hard to communicate with people who haven’t done at least some degree of research into them. The only way I know around this problem is to give lectures or write articles or otherwise produce creative output that synthesizes these ideas. Similarly, sometimes I commit myself to an uncommon course of action and risk alienating other people. The only way I know around this problem is to produce some creative output that synthesizes my ideas.
I still tense up when I realize I’m approaching an area of ideas that might be uncommon. But this tension cannot make me change course. I simply cannot modify my intellectual curiosity, or my resulting behavior, solely to suit other people or conform to norms. I’m just living my life, exploring the world in the only way I know how. I hope that my articulations of my own feelings are sufficient for others to understand, or at least to seek to understand, rather than to judge.
See: Wittgenstein, Ludwig; also note that I don’t believe this, but it’s a fun example.