Nassim Taleb is quiet angry at a history professor for stating facts. What are history professors supposed to do? Pretend that slavery wasn’t that big a deal in ancient Greece and sing obsequious praises of the past? At the same time Taleb states without any sense of irony that morality progresses. You can’t claim progress without naming that which was regressive in the first place.
Taleb isn’t alone in throwing temper tantrums whenever certain regressions are identified and given a name. In this he is part of a new ideological coalition that seeks to shut down social critiques of certain kinds – the kind that asks you to be critical of the things you like or admire. We humans are prone to hero worship. If we like one attribute of something, we tend to like the whole of the thing. So when some other part of the thing is critiqued, we get defensive and angry.
Gamergate is a prime example of this kind of anger. Anita Sarkeesian calmly critiqued some video games, with the repeated caveat that you can like video games and still look at them from a critical lens. But wide swaths of gamers frothed with rage and went about bullying her and anyone who agreed with her. For such gamers, their personal sense of worth is intricately tied up with the games they play. If someone says the games aren’t good in some aspects, it’s an attack on their own personhood. Such rage is a characteristic feature of many fandoms which perform mindless hero worship.
Looking at the past with a sanitized lens is another form of hero worship. It used to be that it were religious fundamentalists and nationalists who predominantly engaged in such hero worship. The past either was all perfect, or if it wasn’t we are not supposed to judge it based on modern values. But of late, classical liberals have joined in such hero worship. Until the past decade or so, certain secular beliefs have escaped critical examination. As the rational toolkit was being applied to many a “golden” periods in the past, it has triggered a fair amount of anger among a liberal class that grew up worshipping those golden pasts. As an example you can see Claire Lehmann, founder of Quillette, lamenting on not being able to hero worship the past.
It is ironical that the classical liberals who cry “presentism” and apply moral relativism to the past also have no qualms in giving absolute judgments about present day societies which haven’t had the opportunity to progress. Even going by past standards, while some past societies practiced slavery, other contemporary societies didn’t. Humans have a shared biology and emotions that haven’t changed much since we formed our first civilizations. So victims of bigotry would feel the same whether they lived in the past or today. Those who piously recite evolutionary psychology as a justification for inequality conveniently ignore our biology while defending the recent past from critique.