• We do not censor other people more conventional-minded than ourselves. We only censor other people more-independent-minded than ourselves. Conventional-minded people censor independent-minded people. Independent-minded people do not censor conventional-minded people. The most independent-minded people do not censor anyone at all.
  • Conventional-minded people cannot imagine ideas that are both heretical and true. Because of this, conventional-minded people cannot distinguish between heresy and falsity. To a conventional-minded person, "heretical" and "false" are the same thing. When conventional-minded people try to ban false statements, they actually ban heresy instead.

Any attempt to censor harmful ideas actually suppresses the invention of new ideas (and correction of incorrect ideas) instead. Freedom of speech protects a society from its conventional-minded people accidentally suppressing truth in the name of safety.

This pattern doesn't just apply to freedom of speech. It applies to freedom[1] of everything. Literally every regulation that restricts informed consenting adults from participating in mutually-beneficial activity ends up suppressing (usually in the name of safety).

You might ask yourself "Why would anyone ever want to do ?" and answer "Nobody." But that is because you're conventional-minded. If nobody wanted to do then there would be no need to restrict it. The more independent-minded you are, the more society's restrictions[2] prevent you from creating value. The more conventional-minded you are, the more blind you are to the value that society's restrictions destroy.

When conventional-minded people advocate for restrictions on freedom, they under-estimate the damage these restrictions cause. Most people are conventional-minded. Human societies systemically err on the side of too little freedom. Society is over-regulated[3] in every domain of human experience, except those so new or so weird that the conventional-minded haven't noticed them (yet).


  1. By this, I mean negative rights like freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, and freedom from unreasonable search and seizure. I do not include positive rights like "freedom from want" and healthcare. Negative rights protect weirdos from normies' biases. Positive rights contort the word "freedom". Positive rights demand government proaction, which (except for a handful of self-funded governments like Saudi Arabia's) is an implicit restriction of freedom. ↩︎

  2. I originally wrote "laws" instead of "society's restrictions". There are many ways for for a society to restrict freedom other than via laws. ↩︎

  3. Even domains with externalities tend to over-regulated because instead of imposing a tax (which allows some freedom while pricing in the externality), people tend to support prohibition instead. ↩︎

New Comment
15 comments, sorted by Click to highlight new comments since: Today at 7:42 PM

I think the central argument of this post is grossly wrong. Sure, you can find some people who want to censor based on which opinions feel too controversial for their taste. But pretending as if that's the sole motivation is a quintessential strawman. It's assuming the dumbest possible reason for why other person has a certain position. It's like if you criticize the bible, and I assume it's only because you believe the Quran is the literal word of god instead.

We do not censor other people more conventional-minded than ourselves. We only censor other people more-independent-minded than ourselves. Conventional-minded people censor independent-minded people. Independent-minded people do not censor conventional-minded people. The most independent-minded people do not censor anyone at all.

Bullshit. If your desire to censor something is due to an assessment of how much harm it does, then it doesn't matter how open-minded you are. It's not a variable that goes into the calculation.

I happen to not care that much about the object-level question anymore (at least as it pertains to LessWrong), but on a meta level, this kind of argument should be beneath LessWrong. It's actively framing any concern for unrestricted speech as poorly motivated, making it more difficult to have the object-level discussion.

And the other reason it's bullshit is that no sane person is against all censorship. If someone wrote a post here calling for the assassination of Eliezer Yudkowsky with his real-life address attached, we'd remove the post and ban them. Any sensible discussion is just about where to draw the line.

I would agree that this post is directionally true, in that there is generally too much censorship. I certainly agree that there's way too much regulation. But it's also probably directionally true to say that most people are too afraid of technology for bad reasons, and that doesn't justify blatantly dismissing all worries about technology. We have to be more specific than that.

Any attempt to censor harmful ideas actually suppresses the invention of new ideas (and correction of incorrect ideas) instead.

Proves too much (like that we shouldn't ban gain-of-function research).

If your desire to censor something is due to an assessment of how much harm it does

Isn't that basically always what's claimed, yet rarely the case? It's likely either because people cannot tell the difference between their dislikes and what's harmful to society, or because the correct answer is unintuitive. In either case, as long as a topic is taboo, one is banned from figuring out what the real answer is.

It wasn't intuitive that legalizing porn was the way to go if you wanted a society with less sexual crimes. It wasn't intuitive that legalizing alcohol was the way to go. It wasn't intuitive that legalizing drugs somehow reduced drug-related problems, it wasn't intuitive in the past that making mental health issues taboo wasn't a good solution, etc.

"X is bad, we should ban it so that it goes away" is a naive way of thinking. An extremely open-minded person with low intelligence might arrive at such a conclusion if he believes it to be correct, though, but he won't have all those negative emotions which are associated with pro-censorship viewpoints, and these mentalities are more of a problem than the actual censorship.

we'd remove the post and ban them

I believe there's a murky border between "speech" and "action" which is not obvious. I'm for free speech in an absolute sense, but if somebody yelled into my ear and caused hearing damage, I wouldn't consider that "speech"  but "assault". It's not enough to name concrete examples like "slander", "threatening" , and "yelling fire in a theatre", there's bound to be a simple explanation which separates speech and malicious actions clearly. I believe that such a clear definition will reveal censorship to be objectively nonoptimal

Did you read the Paul Graham article I linked? Do you disagree with it too?

I hadn't, but did now. I don't disagree with anything in it.

Fascinating. You're one of the names on Less Wrong that I associate with positive, constructive dialogue. We may have a scissor statement here.

The reason my tone was much more aggressive than normal is that I knew I'd be too conflict averse to respond to this post unless I do it immediately, while still feeling annoyed. (You've posted similar things before and so far I've never responded.) But I stand by all the points I made.

The main difference between this post and Graham's post is that Graham just points out one phenomenon, namely that people with conventional beliefs tend to have less of an issue stating their true opinion. That seems straight-forwardly true. In fact, I have several opinions that most people would find very off-putting, and I've occasionally received some mild social punishment for voicing them.

But Graham's essay doesn't justify the points you make this post. It doesn't even justify the sentence where you linked to it ("Any attempt to censor harmful ideas actually suppresses the invention of new ideas (and correction of incorrect ideas) instead.") since he doesn't discuss censorship.

What bothers me emotionally (if that helps) is that I feel like this post is emotionally manipulative to an extent that's usually not tolerated on LessWrong. Like, it feels like it's more appealing to the libertarian/free-speech-absolutism/independent-thinker vibe than trying to be truthseeking. Well, that and that it claims several things that apply to me since I think some things should be censored. (E.g., "The most independent-minded people do not censor anyone at all." -> you're not independent-minded since you want to censor some things.)

We only censor other people more-independent-minded than ourselves.

This predicts that two people will never try to censor each other, since it is impossible for A to be more independent-minded than B and also for B to be more independent-minded than A. However, people do engage in battles of mutual censorship, therefore the claim must be false.

Independent-mindedness is multi-dimensional. You can be more independent-minded in one domain than another.

If you are predicting that two people will never try to censor each other in the same domain, that also happens. If your theory is somehow compatible with that, then it sounds like there are a lot of epicycles in this "independent-mindedness" construct that ought to be explained rather than presented as self-evident.

Downvoted.  This states an overgeneral concept far more forcefully than it deserves, and doesn't give enough examples to know what kind of exceptions to look for.  I'm also unsure what "censure" means specifically in this model of things - is my comment a censure?

I also dislike the framing of "conventional-minded" vs "independent-minded" as attributes of people, rather than as descriptions of topics that bring criticism.  This could be intentional, if you're arguing that the kind of censure you're talking about tends to be directed at people rather than ideas, but it's not clear if so.

Your comment is not a censure of me.

I didn't feel the need to distinguish between censorship of ideas and censorship of independent-minded people, because censorship of ideas censors the independent-minded.

give enough examples to know what kind of exceptions to look for

I deliberately avoided examples for the same reason Paul Graham's What You Can't Say deliberately avoids giving any specific examples: because either my examples would be mild and weak (and therefore poor illustrations) or they'd be so shocking (to most people) they'd derail the whole conversation.

Without examples, I have trouble understanding "censorship of independent-minded people".  It's probably not formal censorship (but maybe it is - most common media disallows some words and ideas).  There's a big difference between "negative reactions to beliefs that many/most find unpleasant, even if partially true" and "negative reactions to ideas that contradict common values, with no real truth value". They're not the same motives, and not the same mechanisms for the idea-haver to refine their beliefs.  

In many groups, especially public ones, even non-committal exploration of these ideas is disallowed, because at least some observers will misinterpret the discussion as advocacy or motivated attempts to move the overton window.  In these cases, the restriction is distributed enough that there's no clear way to have the discussion with the right folks.  Meaning your use of "we" and framing the title as advice is confusing.

Another way of framing my confusion/disagreement is that I think "independent-minded" and "conventional-minded" are not very good categories, and the model of opposition is not very useful.  Different types of heresy have different groups opposing them for different reasons.

We only censor other people more-independent-minded than ourselves. (...) Independent-minded people do not censor conventional-minded people.

I'm not sure that's true. Not sure I can interpret the "independent/dependent" distinction.

  • In "weirdos/normies" case, a weirdo can want to censor ideas of normies. For example, some weirdos in my country want to censor LGBTQ+ stuff. They already do.
  • In "critical thinkers/uncritical thinkers" case, people with more critical thinking may want to censor uncritical thinkers. (I believe so.) For example, LW in particular has a couple of ways to censor someone, direct and indirect.

In general, I like your approach of writing this post like an "informal theorem".

I appreciate your earnest attempt to understand what I'm writing. I don't think "weirdos/normies" nor "Critical thinkers/uncritical thinkers" quite point at what I'm trying to point at with "independent/conventional".

"Independent/dependent" is about whether what other people think influences you to reach the same conclusions as other people. "Weirdos/normies" is about whether you reach the same conclusions as other people. In other words, "weirdos/normies" is correlation. "Independent/dependent" is causation in a specific direction. Independent tends to correlate with weirdo, and dependent tends to correlate with normie, but it's possible to have either one without the other.

You are correct that critical thinkers may want to censor uncritical thinkers. However, independent-minded thinkers do not want to censor conventional-minded thinkers.

I appreciate your compliment too.

You are correct that critical thinkers may want to censor uncritical thinkers. However, independent-minded thinkers do not want to censor conventional-minded thinkers.

I still don't see it. Don't see a causal mechanism that would cause it. Even if we replace "independent-minded" with "independent-minded and valuing independent-mindedness for everyone". I have the same problems with it as Ninety-Three and Raphael Harth.

To give my own example. Algorithms in social media could be a little too good at radicalizing and connecting people with crazy opinions, such as flat earth. A person censoring such algorithms/their output could be motivated by the desire to make people more independent-minded.

I deliberately avoided examples for the same reason Paul Graham's What You Can't Say deliberately avoids giving any specific examples: because either my examples would be mild and weak (and therefore poor illustrations) or they'd be so shocking (to most people) they'd derail the whole conversation. (comment)

I think the value of a general point can only stem from re-evaluating specific opinions. Therefore, sooner or later the conversation has to tackle specific opinions.

If "derailment" is impossible to avoid, then "derailment" is a part of the general point. Or there are more important points to be discussed. For example, if you can't explain to cave people General Relativity, maybe you should explain "science" and "language" first — and maybe those tangents are actually more valuable than General Relativity.

I dislike Graham's essay for the same reason: when Graham does introduce some general opinions ("morality is like fashion", "censuring is motivated by the fear of free-thinking", "there's no prize for figuring out quickly", "a statement can't be worse than false"), they're not discussed critically, with examples. Re:say looks weird to me. Invisible opponents are allowed to say only one sentence and each sentence gets a lengthy "answer" with more opinions.