The trouble with aggresive conformism

I sometimes ask students what their position on slavery would have been had they been white and living in the South before abolition. Guess what? They all would have been abolitionists! They all would have bravely spoken out against slavery, and worked tirelessly against it. (Robert P. George)

Here is a must read by Paul Graham: THE FOUR QUADRANTS OF CONFORMISM. Writing about free inquiry and how to protect it from the current wave of (rampant) aggresive conformism…

In the last few years, many of us have noticed that the customs protecting free inquiry have been weakened. Some say we’re overreacting.

He is at the same time talking about ideas, new ideas in particular (he is one of the cofounders of Y Combinator), how they gain support and find their way inside the mindsets which nurture and support them. (And I’ve got the feeling he is close my own view about the importance of ideas and how little we know about them and how they determine what we are and do).

Here is a excerpt (my bias and bold type added to Graham’s. Oh, and the chart with the 4 quadrants):

One of the most revealing ways to classify people is by the degree and aggressiveness of their conformism.

In adulthood we can recognize the four types by their distinctive calls, much as you could recognize four species of birds.

  • The call of the aggressively conventional-minded is “Crush <outgroup>!”
  • The call of the passively conventional-minded is “What will the neighbors think?”
  • The call of the passively independent-minded is “To each his own”
  • And the call of the aggressively independent-minded is “Eppur si muove”

The four types are not equally common. There are more passive people than aggressive ones, and far more conventional-minded people than independent-minded ones. So the passively conventional-minded are the largest group, and the aggressively independent-minded the smallest.

I’m biased, I admit, but it seems to me that aggressively conventional-minded people are responsible for a disproportionate amount of the trouble in the world,

Why do the independent-minded need to be protected, though? Because they have all the new ideas. To be a successful scientist, for example, it’s not enough just to be right. You have to be right when everyone else is wrong. Conventional-minded people can’t do that. For similar reasons, all successful startup CEOs are not merely independent-minded, but aggressively so. So it’s no coincidence that societies prosper only to the extent that they have customs for keeping the conventional-minded at bay.

When the conventional-minded get the upper hand, they always say it’s in the service of a greater good. The conventional-minded say, as they always do, that they don’t want to shut down the discussion of all ideas, just the bad ones.

There are two reasons why we need to be able to discuss even “bad” ideas.

The first is that any process for deciding which ideas to ban is bound to make mistakes. All the more so because no one intelligent wants to undertake that kind of work, so it ends up being done by the stupid.

The second reason it’s dangerous to ban the discussion of ideas is that ideas are more closely related than they look. Which means if you restrict the discussion of some topics, it doesn’t only affect those topics.

Go read the whole post here.


  1. Interesting, but I do not fully agree:

    1.- What evidence do they have of that classification? Of course, it is very easy to divide the world up if you invent 2 characteristics. You can easily have 4 quadrants. If you invent 3 you have 8, and so on, but this may not be really relevant since you cannot isolate and measure those defining parameters.

    2.- Certainly, discussion is good,… sometimes. But perhaps not always. If someone uses violence to defend his ideas, then his position is less attractive. This may happen to people in that “beautiful” 1 quadrant (supposing it is relevant,…)

    • I’m not sure if I follow your reasoning…

      1. You’re right for sure. Arbitrary, subjective, difficult to measure. Like all consultant’s work. But provocative. That’s the virtue (thought provoking)
      2. The beautiful quadrant (for Paul) is “Eppur si muove”. I understand you mean they are also “aggresive” and that’s not good (independently of their mind). it’s a good point, however I think Paul is (implicitly and subtely) playing with the meaning of aggresiveness… or so I want to read it.

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