Burning (or otherwise disposing of) Books

Why burn a book? ¬†Seriously, I’m asking an honest question. ¬†Why burn a book, or throw it in a landfill, or otherwise discard it in such a manner that it becomes extraordinarily unlikely that it will ever be read again?

 

I ask this not because I fail to comprehend the reasons why book burnings generally occur; I ask simply in the hope that someone, somewhere, might present a reasonable argument for destroying a record of information, however dubious its value might be.

 

Recently, 1948 copies of a Pippi Longstocking children’s book were disposed of by Swedish libraries. ¬†The cited reasons include the standard ‘we just needed more shelf space’ deflections, but ultimately they provided the ideological reason in a press release, with the operative (translated) excerpt below:

‚ÄúThe libraries in the municipality of Botkyrka have culled editions of Astrid Lindgren‚Äôs ‚ÄėPippi in the South Seas‚Äô where there are obsolete expression that can be perceived as racist, but Botkyrka Library have also bought the publisher‚Äôs new edition of the book from 2015 where the obsolete expression have been replaced by more contemporary expressions.”

Kinda hard to toe the ‘we just needed more shelf space’ line after that doozy, eh?

 

Look, I appreciate the driving force behind this: people don’t want others to be unnecessarily offended, and flipping open a celebrated children’s book to find words that are contemporaneously offensive isn’t exactly how someone envisioned spending their precious bedtime minutes with their child. ¬†But, as Janne Josefsson put it, “‚ÄúThere‚Äôs something in me that says, wait a second now, are we really going to let these things disappear? Shouldn‚Äôt they be allowed to survive so that I can tell my child that this is how they talked in those days?‚ÄĚ

 

Isn’t that ultimately the point of sitting down and reading a bedtime story to a child: to help expand their understanding of the world they live in, in a relatable and entertaining fashion using memorable characters and scenes as delivery vehicles?

 

Human history is littered with examples of book burning,¬†and each instance has the potential to be nothing short of catastrophic for our entire species. ¬†That should sound insane to anyone who isn’t a hardcore Free Speech supporter, but it doesn’t take too much evidence and conjecture to paint a fairly damning picture when it comes to the destruction of information.

 

The Ancient Greek scholars had so many things figured out thousands of years before their European successors finally put them together.  Basic orbital mechanics, automated machinery, rudimentary chemistry, and (unfortunately) unknowable other fields had already been delved into by the great minds of the Golden Age.  Where might humanity be, today, if we had not discarded the fruits of their learning and experimentation?  Might we already have colonized the Solar System?  Perhaps.  Might we have cured devastating maladies such as cancer?  Perhaps.

 

The point is: we’ll never know, because we literally burned so much collected knowledge and wisdom that there is no way of knowing how far back we set ourselves by doing so.

 

Look, I get it. ¬†It’s Pippi Longstocking, not William Shakespeare. ¬†Except…how do we know which information will prove instrumental in shaping a given mind? ¬†Maybe–just maybe!–reading those old Pippi Longstocking books, with their crass and potentially derogatory phrases from yesteryear, would spur a young, would-be reformer’s mind into changing the world. ¬†After all, do we truly know what spurred some of history’s greatest social reformers to transform the way we think of the world and the people in it? ¬†Even those reformers themselves could not say, with any degree of certainty, which combination of experiences led them to become who they later became.

 

And that’s the danger of burning books. ¬†No matter what the motivation for doing so might be, the risk is simply too great that we might destroy a crucial link in the chain of human knowledge and experience. ¬†Maybe the sanitized version of Pippi Longstocking is less offensive and more politically correct–and maybe, just maybe, that’s the exact opposite direction from which we should be heading.

 

Maybe–just maybe–we should be exposing ourselves and our children to offensive information from time to time, for the direct purpose of kindling whatever sparks might be buried so deep within our minds that even we aren’t aware of them. ¬†Maybe–just maybe–that’s the only way that meaningful change (indeed, meaningful progress) can be made.

 

The real reason people burn books is because they are afraid and lazy. ¬†They’re afraid that maybe–just maybe–the ideas to which they’ve clung for as long as they can remember are not the strongest ones out there. ¬†These people are afraid that if their ideas are challenged, their weaknesses will be exposed and, by extension, the people who promulgated them will lose face.

 

And book burners are lazy because, in the end, the best way to refine ideas is by taking them into battle in the arena of ideas and smashing them against other ideas as vigorously as possible. ¬†This process–called ‘debate’–is how we improve our collective understanding of which ideas are strong and which ideas are weak. ¬†Books are records of such arguments, and as such we do ourselves a grave disservice by destroying such records. ¬†In effect, we force ourselves–or our inheritors–to re-learn lessons which had already been learned by destroying information of any kind.

 

If an idea is harmful, demonstrate its harm using evidence and logic. ¬†And if a book contains weak ideas, don’t burn it–make everyone you know read it, along with a book that has stronger ideas! ¬†Not everyone will come away with the same impression of the information to which they were exposed in the process of such reading, but that’s not really the point is it? ¬†Diversity is our greatest strength since it encourages variation in our strengths and weaknesses; Conformity does nothing more effectively than instill the same weaknesses in everyone. ¬†And there is no greater diversity than diversity of thought.

 

So seriously: stop burning books. ¬†Stop censoring books. ¬†Stop stifling speech. ¬†If you think that words are irksome, or an idea that someone expresses is ‘problematic’ or otherwise weak, do some research, collect some data, compose your arguments, and go compete with them in the arena of ideas. ¬†Don’t censor their words, burn their books, or otherwise erase a portion of our collected human knowledge. ¬†And if you don’t feel up to the challenge of personally debating someone on an issue, your research will invariably lead you to people who can wage–and already are waging!–this particular battle for similar reasons to your own.

 

Who knows? ¬†You just might encounter some information that challenges your underlying assumptions during your exposure to this new information. ¬†Or you might encounter something that galvanizes your thoughts and resolve in such a way that you feel emboldened to personally wade into battle in the arena of ideas. ¬†Maybe you’ll win more than you lose, and maybe you’ll lose more than you win, but no matter how the score card looks you’ll end up with more information, and greater perspective, than you had going in. ¬†Is that really such a bad thing?

 

Or you could just burn the books and prevent that kind of Dangerous thing from ever happening–for anyone.

 

We get to make the world we live in so, in the end, it’s up to you.

The Fantasy of Injurious Words

Censors and others who oppose Free Speech will often declare, straight-faced and with absolute sincerity, that speaking (certain) words is analogous to perpetrating physical violence against another human being. ¬†While I’m sympathetic to some of the concern regarding the negative impact of abusive speech on long-term cognitive development, especially during childhood, I’m rather less inclined to support the notion that the impact of Bad Words on the life of an adult can be analogous to a physical (or sexual) assault.

 

Even the NYT author’s lead-in example in the first linked article above, of a threat of violence vs. the actual violence itself, is misleading: the whole reason a person would fear, and/or be ‘traumatized’ by, a threat of violence is because the violence itself is a very real possibility. ¬†Under these circumstances, we call such words ‘intimidation,’ and they fall outside the umbrella of protection afforded by the First Amendment.

 

So yes, intimidation is bad. ¬†The Supreme Court agrees that it’s bad, and consistently rejects threats of violence, or intimidation, as being covered under the Free Speech clause in the USA’s Constitution. ¬†It’s not the words themselves that are harmful, but rather the message that the words communicate (in the case of intimidation, the threat of harm). ¬†Just like with any other form of idea.

 

And fundamentally that’s what the Free Speech argument has been, is, and will always be about: the communication of¬†ideas. ¬†The words used to convey ¬†ideas are merely vehicles, but they are crucially-important vehicles because, without them, humans could not meaningfully exchange information with one another. ¬†And this leads to an age-old dichotomy: centralization vs. de-centralization.

 

In the wonderful world of the internet, the earliest Tech Titans cut vast swaths through the data wilderness by centralizing the processing and disbursement of information at various nexus points (Amazon, Facebook, Google, Yahoo, etc..). ¬†These Titans understood perfectly well that we live in an Information Age, and that whoever controls the flow of information controls the economies which invariably spring up around it. ¬†For decades now it has seemed immutable that the Big Tech companies would continue to get bigger as they metastasize and insinuate themselves into seemingly irrelevant markets, eventually consuming everything–including each other.

 

But now there seems hope that, instead of this singularity of centralization, the internet is about to take a hard turn toward decentralization. ¬†Blockchain is just one mechanism which might provide for a greater decentralization of information dissemination and processing–and, as the Founding Fathers of the USA so epically demonstrated in accordance with Western Civilization’s long history of pursuing and promoting liberty, decentralization of government, markets, and pretty much every other human endeavor benefits more members of a society than any other framework available to us.

 

Now, naturally, the Powers That Be will not approve of such a radical decentralization. ¬†The Powers That Be are¬†never in favor of anything which curtails their own power and prestige, and that’s natural. ¬†In a way, it’s even good since it forces reformers to make sure their ideas are ready for showtime before they wrest control over whatever endeavors were previously governed by the Central Authorities.

 

So, I said all of that to say… ūüėČ

 

Each of us humans is, in essence, an information processing node. ¬†We each encounter and digest unique buffets of experience and information, and we do our best to make use of that information in our daily lives. ¬†None of us are perfect at this–in fact, many of us are downright terrible at it. ¬†But when millions of us get together and collectively make decisions, using our unique experiences individually as frames of reference, we tend to do pretty great things¬†and then build on them with even greater things. ¬†It may sound trite, but without the decentralized nature of a free marketplace none of the advances which propelled humanity forward over the last couple centuries would have been possible.

 

Thomas Jefferson once said, “Whenever the people are well-informed, they can be trusted with their own government.” ¬†He was arguing for greater dissemination of information from person-to-person, and he believed (as I believe) that the best way to disseminate information is from one person to another, not from a central apparatus. ¬†How hard do you listen to the nightly newscast featuring a story on local crime? ¬†And how hard do you listen to a trusted friend’s story about encountering local crime? ¬†The difference is obvious to any reasonable person, which is why we must insist, categorically and without fail, that Freedom of Speech be upheld and defended every time it is attacked. ¬†Words convey ideas and, in the absence of intimidation, those ideas have the potential to improve humanity’s overall enlightenment–albeit one person at a time.

 

Which leaves the ‘words as weapons’ trope firmly in the realm of fantasy–where it belongs: