Tag Archives: free speech

On Ugly Ideas and Intolerance

Ideas are neither benign, nor malignant, out of the context of a specific mentality. They depend entirely on our subjective mental context to affect us. As we respond to ideas in one way or another, as we adopt one idea versus another, the ideas we use to operate in the world alter the chances of a given possibility coming to pass versus almost infinite others. This is how ideas benefit or harm us, which we can only judge by the experience of what we did believe and what did happen. We model the effect — not very accurately — by the metaphor of a polar charge, positive or negative. But ideas themselves are neither.

— Colin Patrick Barth, THE FALL OF THE CULTURE OF MIND

Due to recent events recalling the intolerance of disagreement when it comes to offending and so-called “dangerous” ideas, I want to reproduce here two more excerpts concerned with the ramifications of making this essentialist and moralist philosophical error, which also makes a category error, and an error in logical typing (as the cyberneticist Gregory Bateson might refer to it). Remember always that thinking, at least with what we figuratively term an “open mind,” concerns a process or exercise of improvisation, which leads to many achievable outcomes. It is not some computerized output that given inputs already assure.

The essay I quote from is concerned with becoming capable of the exercise of thought with an open mind, and the social costs of prohibiting “bad ideas” and therefore the exercise of profound disagreement itself.

The nonsense of ideas malicious in themselves, outside the context of a moment in a mind, ignores the multitude of perspectives, the many different lights cast upon circulating ideas by subjective considerations of different and changing individuals. After all in terms of their relationships to people, ideas remain fluid, ever-shifting entities, not constant things. The belief that a given idea is like an atom of evil is not only primitive, it is inconsistent with a free society allowing liberty for individual minds. It shows no faith at all in the principle of free speech, and in the ability of an open mind to separate value from worthlessness. 

If the deniers of a widely accepted theory are wrong, they can and should be proven wrong, again and again, and thereby discredited by the standard of accuracy. If the deniers of a widely accepted ethic seek to overturn it for some dubious motivation, bring all this out into the light, and let them scamper away. To do otherwise is to overestimate their power before any reckoning. It suggests that to do battle with them on the open field of ideas would bring defeat, or perhaps that an open debate would likewise draw unwanted attention to one’s own motives.

If all Holocaust revisionists* are completely wrong and utterly-straightforward bigots, let them make their case, expose them, and devastate them. As with all such cases, we will know more than before. Our refreshed process of thought will lead to other thoughts. And we will avert the danger of censorship, as well as the danger of falsehoods. But, if they are even a few parts in a thousand right (which even a bigot might easily manage), don’t we want their yield added to our truth, as well?

* This is the example already introduced in the essay (because of censorship practiced in Europe), but many other examples of derided ideas could be inserted instead—pulled from contemporary accusations made against wild conspiracy theorists, white nationalists, et al., or anybody inaccurately smeared as such.

The crowd always hates disagreement, strong disagreement most heartily. It does not matter whether the individual who takes exception is a dissident with answers to illuminate humanity in an hour of darkness, or some bigot determined to revise provable facts. 

Of course this is why the founders of intellectual and ideological freedoms — familiar as the slogans and shibboleths of the West and modernity — first protected the disagreeable individual from the crowd. Only a fool asks a mob, or a ruler pandering to the mob to know and do only what is right, and suppress only that which they deem wrong [emphasis added]. This is the wise rationale behind free speech: that only an individual can decide what to like and what to dislike while a mob reacts, and moreover, only an individual child or adult can decide for himself how an idea affects him personally, in his distinct context — as we say, positively or negatively — and nobody else. 

The concept of an open mind freely consuming new ideas is not designed for social groups but individual minds. Only an individual can sift gold from sand. As masses, people seek to conform, to remove difference, and tend towards intolerance. Only an individual can experience and learn the value of internal discord. Social conformity, on the other hand, is the process which counterbalances novelty and differentiation. On a mental level, this produces similarity of thoughts with fewer catalysts in the form of different concepts and contrary information. Left to itself, conformity therefore tends to produce a slow-witted stasis.

The accord of society must be refreshed by the discord prized by open minds. Eventually a closed-minded culture is composed almost entirely of dull, conservative conformists, with many superficial differences that persuade them of their own breadth and tolerance, but a poverty of deep variations in thought. They are bored to tears with their well-worn comfort zone, and manufacture neverending permissible transgressions. Their sclerotic culture struggles to cope with changes their ancestors once weathered merrily. They are frightened by their own lethargy. Dimly recalling debate, they have too much trouble summoning up different points of view to stage a productive argument. Instead they bicker ineptly and tediously about nothing at all fundamental, nothing at all relevant to their predicament [emphasis added].

In their intolerance, those who forget why we need freedom of speech attack the very purpose for which it was created. That freedom of speech might, and does allow objectionable points to be raised in a society of two or two billion is not some price to pay for it, but the soul of the principle. To hear objectionable ideas is the goal! If we no longer value objection, if we do not prize the tutelage of discord more highly than uniform agreement, we are unworthy of this great freedom, and we will surely see the collapse of civilization follow the complacency of its engineers.

Read the whole essay for more development of the meaning of an open mind, and the importance of a culture of debated ideas. I first published The Fall of the Culture of Mind online in 2007, and included it in the print anthology Rising in Words in 2008.

I’m sure I was thinking in part about the intolerance of debate and social criticism I experienced in America that peaked from 2001–2003, which allowed the state’s wars, police state tactics, and surveilling bureaucracies to expand rapidly with few questions asked, persecution of dissidents, and a generosity towards lies and misinformation that fit media narratives.

Recent years again seem no less unhinged, detached from reality, and disinterested in hearing about it from those who know. Now an expatriate, I wonder what the grave consequences will be.

Consider that a generation will lose every worthwhile piece of civilization that they fail to recreate in their own lives, as virtues: showing tolerance, having courage, making peace, suspending judgment, and performing intellectual work, among them.

The “free world” only means the world which has inherited freedom. Those would-be open minds who inherit free thought must perpetually recreate themselves as worthy heirs, and earn their world in order to keep it. An open mind is not a present one can give, but an engine firing that must be maintained.

Excerpt: secrecy versus security; how information protects

Julian Assange WikiLeaks Publisher - The Numbers

It’s early days yet on the following preview excerpt from The Constellation of Man, but I wanted to publish something in support of the world’s greatest political prisoner (if only because the work he began empowers so many other dissidents). He is the founder of WikiLeaks and inventor of the only viable model for a free and independent press I can imagine in today’s world. He saw the need for 1) anonymous and secure submissions by whistleblowers, 2) publishing original source docs (unredacted) “so readers and historians alike can see evidence of the truth,” 3) actively protecting sources like Edward Snowden, and 4) broad, not beholden fundraising. Julian Assange, already of victim of many years of dirty tricks and concerted attempts at suppression by powerful state agencies and major corporations who fear public disclosures, currently languishes in effective solitary confinement in the Ecuadorean embassy in London. For 63 days now, his internet has been jammed and visitors blocked by the government that agreed to give him asylum and citizenship. Of course he is still targeted, surveilled and surrounded by agents ready to snatch him should he go outside. He is trapped, which has been the case for years. This for the crime of publishing freely and effectively on serious matters (unlike media compromised by financial interests). WikiLeaks thereby informs a public often thankless, or easily led to be vindictive, if they gullibly believe standard smears used in psyops against perceived enemies of states. It’s clear that many remain naive about the systems Assange tries to lay bare, clueless about their likewise precarious position, and even servile in the interests of the powerful who rule them. Despite all his maltreatment—which only vindicates and shows the need for Wikileaks’ mission “We open governments”—Julian has persevered, at appalling personal cost and risk. I doubt that any man living is more deserving of celebration as a popular hero. While I allow him human foibles (especially under such pressure), he is certainly a hero to me for what he has accomplished, speaking as a humanist, dissident, and human being. I have no doubt that a future that civilized people manage to create one day will owe Julian Assange a debt. The following excerpt undertakes to explain why he is correct in his theory of information, and the establishment case for secrecy is profoundly wrong. —CPB


GOVERNMENTS CLOSE, and restrict information in proportion to the factors of their centralization, and dominance.

Instead of an absolute, this describes an intention. The human factors of incompetence to keep secrets or incapacity to control information limit governments to obsessive undertakings. Just as reality has deprived rulers of the absolute power they claimed, when it came to molding the actual world to their desires, even autocratic or totalitarian systems have remained permeable. Certainly, every imperial republic with limited freedom of information and speech has been a sieve. Every breach pokes a hole in the pretense of state omniscience.

Mentality set in motion what incentives and motives perpetuate: the desire for a closed government empowered with secrecy and obfuscation.

The seed mentality for secretive policy was laid down long before any state’s military preeminence over rivals or bureaucratic centralization, because the deceitful rise high in a hierarchy of officials, bureaucrats, or rulers, all those who fancy themselves masters or servants of a public collective.

Their habit is mistrust, befitting those who are never true. They expect similar insincerity, fraudulence, and deception from the world. Remember that a megalomaniac can scarcely infer a mind unlike his or her own. To unscrupulous careerists, all are ambitious, dishonest, and engaged in a slow struggle against the world. Otherwise others must be fools—or relegated to the rank of pawns, among many. Therefore, in their relentless maneuvers they remain wary of shadows and likenesses who cannot be trusted, either. Fearing others’ strength, leery of others’ rise at their expense, they vaunt to mask their own vulnerability, the narcissist’s hollowness which delusions of grandeur and power cannot make replete.

Entrenched, established, they set up concentric rings of mistrust, from their own agitation for aggrandizement versus rivals, further outward, against clique, faction, or party, and further, to unseen enemies abroad, who bear the worst and most exaggerated projections and scapegoating. It is this mindset that sets the tone for an official culture that wishes to hide behind fortress walls, opaque to everyone outside.

The would-be lords of a realm set up means to hoard information like misers, because they seek an advantage over enemies—real or invented, or to hide their own misdeeds from those they claim to safeguard. The ethos of spies and public lies followed as an instrumental necessity of both—and as a consequence of mentality, intensified by fear, hysteria, and obsession echoing within closed halls of power and bastions of bureaucracy.

They claim that secrecy protects—an article of faith. They hold military secrets to be especially sacrosanct, and inviolable on penalty of espionage or treason. Well-trained authoritarian instincts, which become the rule under a domineering state, reflexively proclaim the right and necessity of state security, and cite the exigencies of the military. This obsequious defense answers any doubt.

The logic of public secrecy presupposes that the fates of ruler and ruled are, more than intertwined, a single bloc; as goes the ruling system, so goes the people. Thus “national security,” the security of empire, of imperial interests shared by rulers, is supposed to ensure the security of the people. [In the extremity of this rationale, the doctrine of total war which has been a plank of imperial nationalism, the population form a reserve army of the state, working to supply logistic needs if they do not fight. All share the same destiny or downfall, in this concept. To the contrary, conscripts in a universal army endure much that its commanders do not.]

 

RATHER, the flow of information protects people from their rulers, who occupy an immediate position to do them harm. 

Transparency opens governments to wider criticism, of which they are intolerant, of cruelty, brutality, officiousness, rapacious corruption, and indifference, and of the double standards which the powerful and their enforcers enjoy, such as effective immunity from prosecution under the same laws they use against others.

Official secrecy and privileged access keep the confidence of the furtive state, hiding personal misdeeds and policy failures under the unquestioned protections of classified information. Imbued with seriousness, this works effectively, together with public fear—fear of punishment for knowing, and the vaguer fear of “the wrong hands” to have information. Yet knowledge of the wrong hands who are already in power, already unworthy of the one-sided trust placed in them, would be quite specific and not so speculative.

Knowledge would be a means to gain insight into the nature of those who seek to rule others, instead of governing themselves. To know rulers with sufficient knowledge is to dispute their fitness to rule. Therefore, ruling systems employ misinformation and propaganda systematically to exclude “their own people” from inside knowledge, more than an enemy. 

Even insiders isolate themselves from [contradictory] knowledge and self-knowledge; for they are too closed in, and too comfortable with loyal falsehoods. An indoctrinated propagandist does not have the clear, cynical awareness of fooling other people, despite keenness to say (and half-believe) whatever serves their cause. Rulers themselves believe in their own mythology. Note that it is very possible for those with no aptitude for truthfulness, and no reinforcement of telling the truth at a personal cost, to believe in specific lies they tell. They will bow to a mandatory correction of transparency if they must, just as matter-of-factly as they will tell uncorrected lies when they are allowed.

 

OPENNESS additionally provides strategic protection at a broad scale, precisely the security that institutions modeled on comprehensive secrecy are supposed to provide for a society, by bracing for conflict across territorial or factional lines. 

The flow of information protects all people, whether they fall under the designation of “ally” or “enemy,” from dangerous uncertainty over military intent and relative power, which is caused by keeping secrets. It is they who will be the casualties of wars sought out of grave miscalculation. In the history of militarized states, the greatest defeats and mutual disasters of all have demonstrably happened from miscommunications of intent, and poor estimates of strength, not from clearer and freer knowledge. Ultimately, the flow of information protects people from accidental extinction through military miscalculation, the foolish end which may easily befall a group, or the species, until the de-militarization of human society.

Even in decentralized society, it is knowing the threat posed by an individual or organization that saves others from harm, and those who seek to do harm with impunity will try to keep secrets for the purpose. A murderer tries to keep his intent secret. One with malicious intent can be overwhelmed by many. Imagine also a scenario of local people relying on themselves, instead of a state. A gang among them who sought to dominate their pacific neighbors by force would surely make use of conspiracy, knowing they would likely be thwarted if there were warning to form a defensive league against their plans.

Much the same applies to large-scale society broken up by states, each with rulers proposed as “government.” In conditions in which intentions and capacities are more likely known far and wide, instead of walled off elaborately, they are more likely to find balance in mutual security, because those who are threatened have the ability to collaborate with alacrity. Identification of aggressors is more possible with knowledge of the intentions of rulers, and the relative capacities of state militaries. Combined defense against aggressors is more likely possible. Those who cannot defend themselves are more likely to know whom they must accommodate in order to survive. Futile wars happen out of ignorance.

The degree of centralization under a hierarchy is a societal flaw and strategic liability that obstructs the corrective network of information-sharing, and undermines the available distributed means for security, which include mutual collaboration, and awareness of genuine threats. At the same time, leaders’ infectious mindfulness of insecurity and concomitant pursuit of military dominance jeopardize peace through the provocation, or creation of enemies. Military antagonism demands secrecy, and an organization better able to constrain information, through centralization. The combination builds dangerously, like a runaway mechanism. Imperial states are the most unsafe, cursed with both (top-heavy bureaucratized states, and supreme, blundering military ambitions). About empires, the most tumultuous history has been written.

The logic that secrecy protects must be turned on its head. The advantage conferred by secret tactics in the field should not be mistaken for a comprehensive policy which is strategic for a society’s way of life. The same strategy of espousing communication that opens cloistered and controlled societies to commerce, trade, and prosperity also contributes to literal survival.

Global and regional security is not a game played by opponents, who must deceive each other. That is a lesson of conquerors and political rivals, brutes and paranoiacs, and the world they made. For people who are not concerned with their own power, mutual security is put at risk by the very presumption of opposition, instead of the construction of mutual interests in peace—through trade, communication, and other means to facilitate interaction and familiarity.

A universal society of people espousing shared information works to include more people, and de-emphasizes enmity. A closed society defending distinctions and lines with secrets and lies exacerbates it.