Finding freedom in strange places

A tweet by Timur Kuran on a ranking claiming greater critical thinking being taught in Saudi schools than in French, Italian, or Spanish had me thinking back to an earlier incident - where Sam Altman reflected on a trip to China:

Earlier this year, I noticed something in China that really surprised me. I realized I felt more comfortable discussing controversial ideas in Beijing than in San Francisco. I didn’t feel completely comfortable—this was China, after all—just more comfortable than at home.

That showed me just how bad things have become, and how much things have changed since I first got started here in 2005.

It seems easier to accidentally speak heresies in San Francisco every year. Debating a controversial idea, even if you 95% agree with the consensus side, seems ill-advised.

Altman later tried to clarify his views but I think that both this incident and the later ranking of critical thinking skills point to something a little different12. It seems to me important to emphasize that different societies have different taboos. What one can speak about in one society one might not be able to speak about in others and vice-versa.

This post started with one tweet from Timur Kuran and it seems only fitting to end it with another:

  1. It seems also worth noting that some of Altman's treatment might also be due to differential treatment of foreigners - how societies can frequently seem to impose higher penalties on ingroup members who dissent than upon outgroup members who do. Interestingly, and perhaps semi-relatedly, the Saudi government seems to be relaxing restrictions on dress and gender segregation in the tourism sector↩︎

  2. Another interesting oddity is some of the recent research on the Chinese government's approach to censorship as you'll find expressed here. Basically it's an argument that "Contrary to previous understandings, posts with negative, even vitriolic, criticism of the state, its leaders, and its policies are not more likely to be censored. Instead, we show that the censorship program is aimed at curtailing collective action by silencing comments that represent, reinforce, or spur social mobilization, regardless of content." One of the things that might stimulate some sort of collective action, of course, being dissemination of details of a certain virus ↩︎