Summary: Rationalist Taboo is the skill of being able to talk about the same concepts using different words. Taboo Wall is open discussion, but as the discussion goes on more words get stricken from everyone’s vocabulary.
Tags: Very Experimental, Medium
Purpose: To practice the ability to communicate what you mean without using specific phrases or concepts.
Materials: A large and easily visible space to write words on. A giant whiteboard works, as does a projector displaying a word document on the wall.
Announcement Text: “Rationalist Taboo” is the skill of explaining the ideas you mean to communicate without the use of specific words. It’s a tool with many uses. Sometimes your conversational partner doesn’t know a particular word, so you want to be able to smoothly switch to vocabulary they are familiar with. Other times you and the people you’re talking to have subtly different definitions or associations with a given word, and so you can clear up some confusion by mutually setting that word aside. (Consider: “If a tree falls in a forest and nobody hears it, does it make a sound?” That’s a potentially difficult question! “If a tree falls in a forest and nobody has an auditory experience of it, does it make vibrations in the air?” That is less difficult!)
Today we’ll be practicing this skill, but mostly we’ll be having conversations about whatever we’re interested in. The trick is, throughout the meetup we’ll be adding words to a “taboo list” that we’re not allowed to say. Please continue your conversation around this slight impediment!
Description: Put one word on the wall, and explain that people are free to talk about whatever they’re interested in but that they are not allowed to use that word. Periodically (I suggest intervals of fifteen minutes, based on a wild hunch) words will be added to the list, and those words are also not allowed. Wave your arms to point out the additions of new words. If anyone notices someone using a word you shouldn’t, they should make a buzzing noise, point out which word was used, and they get a point. (The points do not mean anything.) Don’t worry too much about making sure people know when new words are added; they’ll learn fast enough to keep an eye on the big whiteboard.
Variations: One variation here is the Lightning Talk version. Have people give short talks on a subject, only they’re not allowed to use a bunch of words that would normally come up a lot in that talk. This can be about different subjects, or the same subject with an increasingly restrictive list of taboo words.
You can, of course, suggest people talk about some kind of group reading like the latest Astral Codex Ten article or the next chapter in your Rationality: AI to Zombies reread, and then seed the taboo word list with words related to the subject of the reading.
Another variation is to invert the vocabulary list. “Only monosyllabic words” is one system, and “Only these five hundred words” is another. Note that this is generally harder to keep a large list in working memory than it is to avoid some set of words.
Another source of variation is what happens if someone messes up. I put “...and they get a point” above, but there’s only an implied idea that you can “win” at this meetup and I say out right the points don’t really mean anything. If you won by simply having the most points at the end of the meetup, then the winning strategy is never to speak except to point out someone else’s error. That’s boring. The problem is having other ways to get points. If you use the Lightning Talk variation, simply award people points for standing up to give a short talk.
Alternately, give up on the point thing entirely. It was kind of a throwaway line above. My actual suggestion if your group is comfortable and you meet in someone’s apartment is you get to whap people with pillows if they say a taboo word, because whapping people with pillows is fun but being whapped with pillows isn’t that much of a long term or competitive discouragement.
One more variation is where the words come from. A suggestion system for attendees to suggest words that should be tabooed can be fun for all concerned, though you do probably want to rate limit new suggestions.
Notes: Being honest, the original idea for this came up when I was contemplating how to have less discussion of AI at my social parties. (I’m not opposed to ever talking about AI! I just think I would enjoy individual meetups more if there was like, 40% less talk about foom.) This is a fun (for me, the organizer) way to put a kind of tax on talk about things I want less of. In particular, having less endless interminable arguments about poorly defined things like “intelligence” and “free will” and “charity” would be nice.
I expect as you target specific words that people will figure out functional synonyms for that word. That's kind of okay? If they go from "baseball" to "An artificial group conflict in which you use a long wooden cylinder to whack a thrown spheroid" then, you know, mission accomplished. I've found my own conversations just sometimes work better if everyone is using their own definition of "justice" or "intelligence" rather than trying to round things off to those words that we all mistakenly think obviously we all understand the same.
Credits: This is an obvious spin on Eliezer’s “Rationalist Taboo.” This is also a spin on Poetry for Neanderthals, which introduced me to the “Monosyllabic words only” rule and also the idea of whapping people with a soft object if they make mistakes.