Rubber hits the road

It’s sometimes easy to forget that ideas matter. And maybe that’s a good thing.

When nothing is immediately at stake, you can have a lighthearted and entertaining debate with someone about rationality and irrationality, about the value of human life, about expertise and governance, about moral obligations and societal expectations.

In those situations, the people with the most extreme and unconventional views can be the most stimulating to debate, the funniest, the most thought provoking. I believe that these sorts of conversations probably have a place, and can be valuable experiences as a person matures and learns how to think.

It’s striking, though, how quickly things look different as soon as people start following through on their convictions in environments where their actions might have real consequences.

I took an epistemology class once in which we spent a week or two discussing conspiracy theories. It was fun to argue both sides, to experiment with daring postures.

But when you have actual friends believing actual conspiracy theories that do actual harm, it doesn’t feel as fun anymore. I was listening to an interview the other day about someone whose romantic partner went all the way down the QAnon rabbit hole and became a very different person. It’s frightening, nauseating stuff.

I think it’s a good thing to be able to explore new ideas in a setting where the biggest thing to fear is the disapproval of one’s peers. I think it is also really important to see, later, how those ideas really matter, and to reevaluate them in light of their effects on the world and the people you love.

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