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Astral Codex Ten Podcast

May 13, 2021


[followup to The Rise And Fall Of Online Culture Wars]

1. The Salem Witch Hunts might not be the right metaphor

We usually stick to the same stock examples of repression and retaliation against nonconformists - the Salem Witch Trials, the Red Scare, the Cultural Revolution. These are rightly remembered as awful, and reminders of them make good rallying cries.

But they were also short and abnormal - brief orgies of violence, after which people mostly regretted what they had done. They were bizarre unstable extremes in the history of authoritarianism.

If we zoom out a little, we find that most of human history involved enforced ideological conformity, censorship, and repression. Maybe the most available reference point for this sort of thing is the US in the 1950s. There were certain ideas everyone knew were off limits - atheism, communism, marijuana legalization, gay rights. If you supported those things, you might not go to jail, but you'd be excluded from most good careers and most of polite society. This system was very stable - everyone knew the limits, and people generally didn't push against them unless they really wanted to and knew what they were getting into.