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… 😉

 

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:

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Standing Tall

I happened upon a picture of Tank Man (aka: Tank Boy, Unknown Protestor, Unknown Rebel) and got to thinking about the act of opposing tyranny.  Every election cycle it seems that Western nations are inundated with accusations of tyranny aimed at whoever happened to stroll into the land’s highest office.  But it doesn’t take much in the way of objectivity to recognize that the vast majority of these accusations are purely partisan.  That doesn’t mean they should be roundly ignored–just that they should be taken with  a pound or two of salt.

 

To go with that dose of skepticism, one should take a good look at how people conduct themselves while purporting to ‘stand tall’ against such abuses of power.  Too often we see people strip their clothing off in public, cut and dye their hair some uniform manner (while also, somewhat comically I might add, often claiming said cut-and-dye to represent their individuality…), or burning signs in public, somewhat shockingly demonstrating their ignorance of the very issue which they claim motivated their march. Sometimes the harder among such ‘protesters’ will actually engage in physical violence and intimidation–but too often in modern examples of such political protests these acts of violence almost exclusively target other protesters.

 

There’s nothing brave or heroic about squaring off with some rando in street clothes who just happens to think differently from you.  That’s antisocial behavior by any reasonable or colloquial definition of the term.

 

So if there was any question about what Standing Tall in the face of tyranny actually looks like, I’ll do my best to provide a definitive answer with this iconic picture.

 

https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/en/d/d8/Tianasquare.jpg

 

Standing in front of a literal tank column, a day after one of the most publicized displays of tyranny in modern times, and refusing to move aside–and even going so far as to climb on top of one of the tanks!–is certainly a reckless act, and possibly a suicidal one.  But it’s also quite clearly motivated by a deep-seated opposition to tyranny.

 

Dying one’s hair, and hiding behind masks while intimidating your fellow citizens, doesn’t belong in the same discussion as genuine acts of political protest like the one Tank Man treated his fellow humans to on June 5, 1989.

 

Free Speech and the dying ‘Right vs. Left’ paradigm.

The ‘Left vs. Right‘ paradigm is one that’s dying, and its pending demise is necessary if we want to build on the legitimate progress made by our forebears.  But in today’s world, those labels still have meaning and so I’ll discuss them a little before examining (in admittedly verbose and, at times, rambling fashion) their roles in the ongoing Free Speech battle in Western Civilization.

The concept of a linear, one-dimensional political spectrum which starts at the ‘Right’ end of the line and runs to the ‘Left’ is one with which most of us are familiar.  The idea is simple (which is why we all have a meaningful degree of familiarity and understanding with this paradigm): if you’re on the Right side of the spectrum, you’re a ‘Conservative‘ (meaning you err toward caution when presented with opportunities to reform a given facet of society/tradition) and if you’re on the Left side, you’re a ‘liberal’ (though this label no longer means what it ought to, so a better way to think of someone on the Left is as a Progressive).  But what does any of that even mean?  This post isn’t an attempt to answer that particular question–instead, it’s an attempt to determine why that question is one most of us find ourselves asking at one point or another.

There is also a lot of discussion about ‘horseshoe theory‘ when discussing the Left vs. Right (predominantly false) dichotomy. Most of us will hear people say ‘I’m a fiscal conservative, but a social liberal,’ or some variation on that theme, which suggests that in spite of its simplicity a lot of people are still confused by the ultra-simplified Left vs. Right paradigm.

And they should be confused, because asking someone if they are on the Left or the Right of the political is a rigged question for anyone who’s actually interested in learning the answer.  But more on that later.  As the headline suggests, this essay is primarily about the purpose and value of free speech in Western society.

To understand why Free Speech is even a thing, we need to understand our species’ history to a minimum degree.  Throughout human history, there have been people who wanted to dictate, from positions of authority, how others lived.  An accurate term used to describe these people is ‘Authoritarian‘–and the dirty little secret that we’re waking up to is that Authoritarians aren’t uniquely ‘Left,’ or ‘Right,’ or ‘Religious,’ or anything else.  Authoritarianism is hard-coded into human nature, so learning how to deal with it and keep it in check is important.

That’s where Free Speech comes into play.

Back in the 60s the Free Speech movement was most certainly ‘Leftist’ or, more pointedly, anti-Right/anti-Conservative. And they were right to rail against the excesses of state influence over speech, thought, and media. Having been born long after their rebellion’s flames had turned to smoldering embers, I can’t comment directly on the radicals’ motives–thankfully I’ve got people like Camille Paglia and Christina Hoff Sommers (aka, The Factual Feminist), both dyed-in-the-wool feminists  and free speakers from that era, to do that for me.

Back in the 60’s, it seems to me that a major (probably even primary) reason for the government stepping in as hard as it did in attempting to influence culture, thought, and speech, was deceptively simple: the global rise of communism. The government, falling into a trap as old as vested power itself, decided against battling the core *ideas* of communism in the marketplace of ideas and instead decided to apply state force to keep communism from gaining purchase. Those in power, be they in the government, media, or even the business world, opted to employ Authoritarian tactics to coerce conformity in the 1950’s rather than waging the harder, but more meaningful battle in the arena of ideas.  Their intentions might have been good, and it’s hard to argue with any chosen course that seeks to eradicate the real-world horrors of communism from the face of the planet, but you probably already know where a road paved with good intentions might lead…

Fast forward to today and the script has flipped 100% on just about every single issue. The hard ‘Left’ activists are pro-communism, and they gain immense support in the media and popular culture while people who want the country to go back to the way it was are sneered at by virtually everyone with a microphone or live camera feed. The pendulum swung too far to the Right in the 50’s and 60’s, and now it’s gone too far to the Left to lead off this century.  And the most powerful, nonlethal weapon in our arsenal which we can use to dampen the eccentricities of that pendulum’s increasingly severe movement is Free Speech.

The good news is that we’ve been through cultural upheavals like this before. We’re all still here, the skyscrapers in our metropolises are still standing, the heartland continues to be the beating heart of both our economy and identity, and all in all life keeps a-goin’. So with that in mind it becomes important to recognize that cultural revolutions are not only acceptable, they’re NECESSARY. Such revolutions are a core reason why the First Amendment got top billing over the Second Amendment. It’s better to wage a war of ideas than it is to wage a war of arms, so Free Speech got primacy over all other itemized freedoms in the USA’s founding principles. But in order for a real war of ideas to commence, all involved parties need to have the unrestricted ability to transmit, receive, and process information independently.

It’s probably obvious by now that Free Speech and Authoritarianism cannot coexist.  Free Speech was specifically designed to prevent Authoritarianism from dominating society by distributing information-processing throughout society rather than keeping information-processing (and, by extension, decision-making) sequestered within the Corridors of Power.  So naturally Authoritarians want to be able to control what is or isn’t said by the general public–because they know, just like Mr. Style Over Substance Noam Chomsky himself knows, that language plays a crucial role in shaping much of how we think.  So if an Authoritarian can control how a person speaks, he/she also gains control over how that person thinks.  None of this is rocket surgery, but I think it warrants stating anyway.

I’ve got more to say on the subject, and I expect I’ll do just that in the weeks to come, but for now I’d like to end on a conciliatory note.

We all get into discussions with people, and where those discussions take place (on the internet, around the water cooler, in the bleachers while we watch our kids perform/compete, or anywhere else) is less  important than how we conduct ourselves during them.  Authoritarianism isn’t the only hard-wired piece of social psychology each of us is born with–tribalism is another one, and it’s probably even more prominent than the desire to exert power which underpins Authoritarianism.  Free Speech and tribalism, however, are almost as incompatible as Free Speech and Authoritarianism–and if they’re not incompatible, per se, then they’re far from synergistic.

When we talk with like-minded people (meaning people who largely share our views) we often improve our understanding and perspective but, perhaps alarmingly, we also put ourselves in a position where we might fall victim to confirmation bias.  Speaking with people who disagree with us is difficult-bordering-on-impossible, but it’s only by speaking with people who don’t share our views that we can genuinely expand our horizons and determine which ideas are strong and which ones are weak.

So the next time any of us feels like rolling our eyes and dismissing a conversation partner with whom we’ve stumbled into one of the proverbial political landmines of our time, and with whom we disagree on an important issue, take a second to realize that you have an opportunity not to win an argument or debate with that person.  Instead, recognize you have a chance to lay bare each others’ ideas and supporting thoughts, evidence, and experiences in the hope that you’ll come away with a stronger understanding of the subject than you had going in.

If you can do that, you’ll recognize that precious few people are ‘Right’ or ‘Left,’ and that most of the people around you with whom you engage in vigorous, spirited, and meaningful discussions are clustered tightly around the Center–just like you.

Don’t let wedge issues divide us into a false Left vs. Right conflict.  If you can avoid that particular pitfall, the Authoritarians who hail from all extreme points of the political spectrum will be every bit as powerless as Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, George Washington, and John Adams wanted them to be.