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:

“The libraries in the municipality of Botkyrka have culled editions of Astrid Lindgren’s ‘Pippi in the South Seas’ where there are obsolete expression that can be perceived as racist, but Botkyrka Library have also bought the publisher’s new edition of the book from 2015 where the obsolete expression have been replaced by more contemporary expressions.”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, ““There’s something in me that says, wait a second now, are we really going to let these things disappear? Shouldn’t they be allowed to survive so that I can tell my child that this is how they talked in those days?”

 

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.

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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.

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.