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.

 

Pang Tong & The Power of Humility

Anyone who has read my fiction knows that I have a soft spot for the literary masterpiece, Romance of the Three Kingdoms, which is counted as one of the Four Classics of Chinese literature.  For those unfamiliar with the novel, or with Chinese culture in general, it’s worth investigating (though there are no official subtitle tracks of acceptable quality for the latest television version, Three Kingdoms (2010), so you’ll have to watch it on YouTube where the Jiang Hu translation was hardsubbed into the video itself).

The clip I’ve linked within this article requires a little backstory to fully understand.  Pang Tong is a hideously ugly man with one of his era’s brightest minds, and is therefore highly sought after by all of the warlords of his day.  To avoid being imprisoned and compelled to work for one of the less high-minded warlords, he spends most of his life wandering under various aliases in search of a worthy lord and master.

His search first brought him to Sun Quan, the lord of the second most powerful kingdom of the day.  But Sun Quan was persuaded by his court (and his mother) to shun Pang Tong due to Pang’s obtuse, drunken belligerence at a state funeral for Sun Quan’s deceased Grand Commander, Zhou Yu.  Pang Tong’s belligerence and drunkenness were considered to be insults of such magnitude that he was rejected from a face-to-face meeting with Sun Quan, at which point Pang Tong sighed and left Sun Quan’s kingdom in search of a worthier lord.

He arrived in Liu Bei’s relatively small, but quickly-growing kingdom and presented himself as a potential clerk or low-level magistrate.  He barely managed to simultaneously avoid detection and also get a job as a magistrate of a small village/township on the outskirts of Liu Bei’s kingdom, and after he got the job he descended into drunkenness and belligerence yet again.  He also refused to do any administrative tasks for his first month (edit to correct: it was actually his first 100 days) on the job, drawing the ire of the feisty Zhang Fei–Liu Bei’s sworn brother–who paid Pang Tong a visit with every intention of cracking his skull for insubordination.

Pang Tong, still drunk and belligerent, dismissed Zhang Fei’s concerns.  He said that the work of a low-level magistrate was beneath him, so why should he bother to work every day when the job could be done much more efficiently?  Zhang Fei commands him to ‘put up or shut up,’ and over the course of the ensuing afternoon Pang Tong completes all of the unaddressed administrative tasks–all while drinking like a sailor–and, after completing these tasks, retires to his room for even more drunkenness.

Zhang Fei, who is far from the sharpest tack in the box, runs back to his brother Liu Bei and pleads with him to come see Pang Tong (who is still operating under an alias) for himself.  Liu Bei drops everything he is doing, rushes off to meet with Pang Tong, and patiently waits outside Pang Tong’s residence until the spud-faced genius finally emerges in a hangover–and naturally he demands someone refill his wine.

Liu Bei recognized the value of such a brilliant and eccentric person, and bent over backwards to try to recruit him.  He ignored his own sick child, he ignored the matter of his noble rank and Pang Tong’s commoner status, he even went so far as to try to give his horse, Hex Mark (which had saved his life) to Pang Tong as a parting gift.

Pang Tong pushed Liu Bei as far as he could in trying to determine whether or not Liu Bei’s ‘eye was on the prize,’ as it were.  A truly worthy leader needs to think of nothing but success for himself and the people who are with him.  Pang Tong’s point is simple: if a leader is willing to pass up the opportunity to pluck a diamond from a pile of manure simply because the act of doing so might somehow sully him, he is unworthy of the diamond.

Humility, as Liu Bei demonstrates time and time again throughout the Romance of the Three Kingdoms tale, is a potent weapon which can often prove decisive in crucial matters.

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.