The Rebirth of Heresy

The Rebirth of Heresy. By Paul Graham.

One of the most surprising things I’ve witnessed in my lifetime is the rebirth of the concept of heresy.

Isaac Newton

In his excellent biography of Newton, Richard Westfall writes about the moment when he was elected a fellow of Trinity College:

Supported comfortably, Newton was free to devote himself wholly to whatever he chose. To remain on, he had only to avoid the three unforgivable sins: crime, heresy, and marriage.

The first time I read that, in the 1990s, it sounded amusingly medieval. How strange, to have to avoid committing heresy. But when I reread it 20 years later it sounded like a description of contemporary employment.

Modern heresy:

There are an ever-increasing number of opinions you can be fired for. Those doing the firing don’t use the word “heresy” to describe them, but structurally they’re equivalent. Structurally there are two distinctive things about heresy:

  1. that it takes priority over the question of truth or falsity, and
  2. that it outweighs everything else the speaker has done.

For example, when someone calls a statement “x-ist,” they’re also implicitly saying that this is the end of the discussion. They do not, having said this, go on to consider whether the statement is true or not. …

Back in the day (and still, in some places) the punishment for heresy was death. You could have led a life of exemplary goodness, but if you publicly doubted, say, the divinity of Christ, you were going to burn. Nowadays, in civilized countries, heretics only get fired in the metaphorical sense, by losing their jobs. But the structure of the situation is the same: the heresy outweighs everything else. You could have spent the last ten years saving children’s lives, but if you express certain opinions, you’re automatically fired. …

A heresy is an opinion whose expression is treated like a crime — one that makes some people feel not merely that you’re mistaken, but that you should be punished. Indeed, their desire to see you punished is often stronger than it would be if you’d committed an actual crime. There are many on the far left who believe strongly in the reintegration of felons (as I do myself), and yet seem to feel that anyone guilty of certain heresies should never work again. …

Woke ideology is all the excuse they need:

You need two ingredients for a wave of intolerance: intolerant people, and an ideology to guide them. The intolerant people are always there. They exist in every sufficiently large society. That’s why waves of intolerance can arise so suddenly; all they need is something to set them off. …

The aggressively conventional-minded are the enforcers of orthodoxy. …

The most notorious 20th century case may have been the Cultural Revolution. Though initiated by Mao to undermine his rivals, the Cultural Revolution was otherwise mostly a grass-roots phenomenon. Mao said in essence: There are heretics among us. Seek them out and punish them. And that’s all the aggressively conventional-minded ever need to hear. They went at it with the delight of dogs chasing squirrels.

To unite the conventional-minded, an ideology must have many of the features of a religion. In particular it must have strict and arbitrary rules that adherents can demonstrate their purity by obeying, and its adherents must believe that anyone who obeys these rules is ipso facto morally superior to anyone who doesn’t.

In the late 1980s a new ideology of this type appeared in US universities. It had a very strong component of moral purity, and the aggressively conventional-minded seized upon it with their usual eagerness — all the more because the relaxation of social norms in the preceding decades meant there had been less and less to forbid. The resulting wave of intolerance has been eerily similar in form to the Cultural Revolution, though fortunately much smaller in magnitude. …

There are aggressively conventional-minded people on both the right and the left. The reason the current wave of intolerance comes from the left is simply because the new unifying ideology happened to come from the left. The next one might come from the right. Imagine what that would be like.

Fortunately in western countries the suppression of heresies is nothing like as bad as it used to be. Though the window of opinions you can express publicly has narrowed in the last decade, it’s still much wider than it was a few hundred years ago. The problem is the derivative. Up till about 1985 the window had been growing ever wider. Anyone looking into the future in 1985 would have expected freedom of expression to continue to increase. Instead it has decreased.

hat-tip Matthew