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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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.