11 Comments

"selling secrets to the Soviets"

youre kidding right? you want to go through a list of people who did just that, authorities KNEW, and nothing f ever happened to them and they died fat and happy? come the f on. Whereas if your second cousin thrice removed once accidentally knew a hate fact about black and white IQ or homicide rates....

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I think the question is really one of wildly misusing the "unforgivable" heuristic.

In the heuristic's favor, people usually go out of their way to hide the awful things they do, particularly if it is something that would get them driven from their career or social group. The implication of that tendency to actively conceal is the rule of thumb "if you see one cockroach (sin), there are probably 10 hidden in the walls you can't see." If you catch someone doing something very bad, chances are they did or will do lots of very bad things, and just happened to get caught that time. When you can't monitor people's behavior well, you have to rely on that sort of stochastic "Screw up that badly and get caught once and you are done," strategy.

The misuse comes in when the things considered unforgivable are not awful, are not very bad things. As you say, if we ignore whether or not some particular taboo is in fact pretty common behavior, all we have done is create a sword of Damocles over everyone's head. Sure, everyone who uses the wrong pronouns for someone in some public manner has probably done it hundreds of times. The trouble is that so has everyone, and so it comes down simply to who those in power, whomever has the ear of the mob, decide to cast into the flames that day.

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You wrote:

"In the Eighties, the top unforgivable offense was a Nazi past. I mean that literally. If someone could prove that you ever belonged to the Nazi Party, your name was forever mud. When the Cold War was still ongoing, the U.S. put Austrian President Kurt Waldheim on a war criminal watchlist – and almost every country in the world declared him “persona non grata.”

That statement seems to me to be incorrect. Karl Carstens joined the SA in order to get a scholarship and later, in 1937, applied to join the Nazi party so that his carreer will not be hurt by his failure to do so. In 1979 he was elected president of Germany. Wikipedia does not have a Word about international condemnation, let alone a boycott.

Kurt Waldheim was placed on a war criminal watchlist, becuase he served as an officer in a unit which performed war crimes, meaning murdered many innocent people, and lied about his past. I think claiming that that one horrifying fact is unforgivable, is reasonable.

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This first chapter of this is the best I've ever read on Unforgivable:

https://thenewpress.com/books/allow-me-retort

Highly recommended.

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The underlying principle seems to be: The wrong things you do hurt your reputation more than the right things help.

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This reminds me of a game I used to play with friends, wherein I would name someone famous who is generally perceived to be good then give a couple reasons as to why they were bad, I also attempted to do the opposite where I named someone generally perceived to be bad and gave reasons as to why they are good. I found the former quite easy however the latter near impossible, in such cases I'd need to argue that the bad thing they are perceived of doing either did not happen or was actually good, as simply listing very good things even in the context of a counterfactual was never enough.

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But is overuse of the 'unforgivable heuristic' itself unforgivable? Is someone to be judged petty and conforming as a character trait for doing this once, twice, ten times?

I broadly agree but is it fairer to say that the heuristic is wrong, and that using the same logic we can't say much about the nature of the people using it?

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If you meet a Nazi, you should hug them. It is probably the only chance you have of changing their mind...

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Your final line makes me think of Wittgenstein's Ruler.

https://wisdomsummary.com/the-wittgensteins-ruler/

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