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Slate Star Codex Podcast

Jul 14, 2019


In the old days, you had your Culture, and that was that. Your Culture told you lots of stuff about what you were and weren’t allowed to do, and by golly you listened. Your Culture told you to work the job prescribed to you by your caste and gender, to marry who your parents told you to marry or at least someone of the opposite sex, to worship at the proper temples and the proper times, and to talk about proper things as opposed to the blasphemous things said by the tribe over there.

Then we got Liberalism, which said all of that was mostly bunk. Like Wicca, its motto is “Do as you will, so long as it harms none”. Or in more political terms, “Your right to swing your fist ends where my nose begins” or “If you don’t like gay sex, don’t have any” or “If you don’t like this TV program, don’t watch it” or “What happens in the bedroom between consenting adults is none of your business” or “It neither breaks my arm nor picks my pocket”. Your job isn’t to enforce your conception of virtue upon everyone to build the Virtuous Society, it’s to live your own life the way you want to live it and let other people live their own lives the way they want to live them. This is the much-maligned “atomic individualism,” or maybe just liberalism boiled down to its pure essence.

But atomic individualism wasn’t as great a solution as it sounded. Maybe one of the first cracks was tobacco ads. Even though putting up a billboard saying “SMOKE MARLBORO” neither breaks anyone’s arm nor picks their pocket, it shifts social expectations in such a way that bad effects occur. It’s hard to dismiss that with “Well, it’s people’s own choice to smoke and they should live their lives the way they want” if studies show that more people will want to live their lives in a way that gives them cancer in the presence of the billboard than otherwise.