On the Question of Free Speech - Part I

Given the difficulty inherent in the topic, I want to further clarify my position on free speech.

Personally, I am absolutely behind the idea in abstract.  I support the creation of an open exchange of ideas, wherein every single idea is first heard, and then given the weight it deserves.  I support, as John Stuart Mill once described, the consideration of every opinion - good or bad - before it is either discounted or rejected.  By debating even the most vile concepts, we further our search for the truth.  I make a continual effort to do this, and I feel it is essential (along with the skepticism required to filter through the seemingly-infinite number of ideas which pass our way) to our functioning as reasonable human beings.

But there's a related philosophical problem I have with the arguments you most often hear in favor of free speech.  It seems to me that in modern society we have lost the idea what it means to 'have a voice'.

In my recent, non-exhaustive post on free speech, I mentioned that groups who focus on speech have lost the battle for an open discourse, and now focus primarily on protecting speakers from criminality.  That is: rather than advocate for equal speech, they simply defend speakers from government restriction.  This approach has led many to accept the idea that every possible restriction of speech is harmful, and in turn that corporations and other powerful private interests should be protected from governments cracking down on their ability to spend money to influence public opinion.  It only seems like a stretch of logic because it is.  It requires you to believe that any disruption of free 'speech' is going to lead to totalitarianism.

By accepting this reasoning a legitimate, we betray the most basic definition of speech - that of communication.  Humans did not develop language to speak with the air, or the trees, or ourselves.  Our thoughts alone would have sufficed for these purposes.  No, we did so to communicate our thoughts, emotions, and ideas to other human beings - to be heard.

After all, what is the point of speaking if not to reach an audience?

When framing free speech as the ability to say certain things, rather than as the ability for voices and ideas to reach other people and to travel freely, the most significant restrictions on speech are completely overlooked.  Missed are the myriad of ways in which the powerful shape opinions, manufacture consent, suppress uncomfortable ideas, and misled people to the point they can no longer decipher good ideas from bad.  Missed is the fact that the most effective means of controlling speech is not to ban it, but to train people not to want to speak in the first place.

So, instead of defining free speech as all people being able to say what they want, I define it as all voices having an equal chance to be heard.  Which isn't to say I believe that everyone should be forced to listen to the same ideas over and over, or that people should constantly be heard if their ideas lack merit.  Only that there should be a system in place to ensure society at-large filters through ideas just as we do individually in our brains.

Unfortunately, this is more difficult than it might sound.  There are numerous obstacles in the way, some conceptual and some practical, all of which are deeply embedded in the framework of the modern liberal state.

Free will and the 'self'

Speech is widely restricted in every society on earth today.  Some regimes are harsher than others, of course, but the contrast is not nearly as stark as it tends to be presented in Western media.  Despite what you might read there, the main factor differentiating one state from the next isn't whether or not those in power aim to control the general public - they do so everywhere - it's how they aim to control the general public.  Specifically: what type of control do they exert, the carrot or the stick?

It's easy to identify and condemn overtly authoritarian governments across the world, whose abuses are obvious to anyone who's looking.  Those states seem backwards to those of us raised in liberal democracies - like something straight out of the torturous dark ages.  They're usually monarchies or single-party dictatorships, regularly suppressing political action and maintain social inequality through draconian law.  Thanks to the endless repetition of these 'classic' examples of tyranny and oppression, most Americans believe they're trained to spot the chains of bondage coming a mile away.  But nothing could be further from the truth.  Solely focusing on the obvious examples, we overlook those which are more subtle in nature.

Perhaps the largest difficulty in our ability to see our binds for what they are stems from a classic misinterpretation of free will.  It is natural to want to think we each have a 'self', separate from all of the conflicting forces that seek to influence us, which always wins out and makes a decision on what to do.  We certainly all want to believe that we have open minds.  We think we're constantly filtering through each and every idea we encounter, our 'self' deciding which are best to keep.

Yet, in reality, we are much more a sum of our experiences than anything, shaped and molded by our surroundings into the person we are at any given moment in time.  What we chalk up to free will is more of an inability to understand the impossibly complex nature of how those outside forces acting upon us react with the sum of our knowledge and biological framework to create each particular response.

Because this is such a non-intuitive concept, it's easy to get caught thinking that each of us is in constant control of our thoughts and actions.  All humans, after all, seek to life their lives on their own terms.  This is why even in a world where advertising covers nearly every surface imaginable, people willingly delude themselves into thinking they aren't affected - that they've risen above it.  A noble goal, no doubt, but for those truly aware enough to try and condition themselves against the most blatant intrusions on their personhood, there is the stark realization that one can never become fully immunized.

We will always be affected - in some way - by those seeking to control our every action.  This much is unavoidable.  The best we can do is attempt to understand exactly how we are molded and shaped, so we can better put up a resistance to the more vile attempts at influence.

The mind is the most effective restriction
"Those who do not move, do not notice their chains."
                 - Rosa Luxemburg
The control apparatus in the liberal democracy of today uses the same general concept as advertising does (indeed, it utilizes advertising itself in the process) - that of programming the mind without the mind even realizing its happening.  Simply by being a part of society from birth, one learns to consider some ideas to be acceptable, and others to be outside of the mainstream (thus deserving of ridicule).  This feels entirely natural, and it seems like we are coming to our own conclusions, but in actuality most of these ideas can only be considered reasonable because the information given is purposefully inadequate.  For example, while most Americans end up believing - after supposedly learning history - that America is a peace-loving country with noble intentions, the reality trends more toward the opposite.  America has been at war for the vast majority of its existence, and in nearly every case it was its own doing.

The means of control which has led to so many people reaching what should (at the very least) be a controversial conclusion is quite interesting.  The law never directly tells us we aren't allowed to question certain beliefs.  Neither does it say we can't loudly criticize the prevailing wisdom on any given issues: we're all aware that we can openly dissent if we so please.  Yet, in the end, most simply feel as if they do not want to do so.  This result is commonly excused by "Well, everyone is free to believe however they want."


By the time our minds form an opinion, a myriad of forces have converged upon us, corralling and directing our thoughts onto certain paths.  The strongest of these - those which play to our sense of self-preservation - all move the same way.  Deviate from the mainstream and you will become a social outcast; refuse to accept the prevailing orthodoxies, and your economic well-being will suffer.  Becoming successful in nearly every career requires you embrace the status quo.  Economists who reject most of capitalist theory are doomed to obscurity, while journalists who speak truth to power find themselves without a platform to do so.  Even those in wage and debt slavery are subject to this coercion (and in many ways, more so than others).  As Upton Sinclair said: "It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon his not understanding it."

Beyond this, there is also the power of consensus.  If nearly everyone you've ever met accepts a specific idea - say, that such a thing as a god exists - then you're much more likely to accept it as well.  There may be no obvious feeling of pressure on you to do so, just as we don't feel pressed to accept , but the effect is the same in the end.  Even if you're skeptical, strong-willed, and fiercely independent by nature, perceived consensus still weighs on your mind.  No matter how we may feel at times, we cannot escape our social nature.

Thus, those believing in America's inherent goodness are not expressing an opinion they happened to have reached through critical thinking, independent inquiry, and solid reasoning based on factual evidence.  They were not free to reach whatever opinion they wished.  Quite the opposite, in fact: they were manipulated into accepting that position through both societal pressure and a selective withholding of information.  Thanks to these more subtle forms of control, they were never able to question the idea in the first place.

And yet most believe they have questioned it.  Every controversial action taken is a time for questioning after all.  The Iraq War was a powerful one (and it certainly radicalized quite a few of us), but the very nature of American politics ensured that most would end up asking the wrong questions.  Blame was placed solely on the Bush administration, which was seen as bumbling, inept, and full of greedy thugs.  The more apt realization - that the Iraq War fit right in with the history of American foreign policy - was only found deep underground in the lairs of Chomsky and Blum.  This narrow framing of the debate set the stage for Obama to step in right where Bush left off, pursuing the same type of policies only to be praised by many of the same people who were seemingly antiwar a decade ago.  The overarching American myth thus remains intact.

Those who continue to accept the myth despite these events come away even more sure that they've reached a carefully formed, enlightened opinion - and even less likely to entertain ideas of true dissent.  In this way - by constraining debates to a select range of opinions, and restricting the flow of information - powerful interests have successfully funneled most speech into safe-zones.  They've learned that there's less need to control individuals' ability to speak when you've already created a timid populace which has no desire to engage in subversive behavior.  Why resort to aggressive state action to maintain discipline when you can use more 'civilized' means instead?

The carrot is more effective than the stick

Contrary to popular belief, the secret to the level of control in totalitarian societies isn't how they suppress speech through law and the threat of punishment.  That effort actually comes secondary to the other types of regulation I've outlined above.  This is because when you seek to outright ban certain types of speech, the law 'moves' far before society itself does.  People still want to say the things that have been banned, and so they will continue to do so in private.

The far more effective plan is to gain support through a populist movement, start to create a cult of personality, and then (once most of the public has become receptive to the idea) begin cracking down heavily on dissent.  In that case, by the time you begin the more inhumane actions, dissidents have already been marginalized to the point they are seen by Good Citizens as 'others'.  This - far more than brute force - is how leaders succeed in achieving total control.  It's easy to focus on the draconian nature of the law in, say, North Korea, but the simple fact is that most citizens have absolutely no intention of criticizing Dear Leader in the first place.  The military and more punitive measures are but failsafes.

Any real deterrent criminalization provides can only be seen as effective if you're not looking deeply enough.  Taking a glance at how large movements form in some of the most repressive societies, it often seems like everything happens overnight.  The recent 'Arab Spring' is a great example of that.  Unnoticed, 'illegal' private conversations had been going on for years in those countries, spreading the ideas fomenting the eventual revolution.  People did not just accede to the whims of leaders out of some natural respect for law.  They kept the ideas in their minds throughout, and when the time was right they came out of their homes en masse and brought down the systems which had long kept them in bondage.

Liberal democracies have so perfected the art of influencing opinion that they have little need to settle for the crude and unseemly methods of the totalitarian state.  The ruling classes in these societies have gained a willing consensus: the masses have little desire to dissent in the first place, and most troublesome ideas are already deemed sufficiently taboo that they never gain traction.  In America - which practically invented democracy-in-name-only - an atmosphere has been created where all but two extremely similar political parties have been rendered meaningless.  Yet, by maintaining some option to choose from, and hyping elections up to be life-or-death decisions, people are misled into believing they are participating in a functional democracy.  In this way, the powers that be have restricted speech far more effectively, with far less backlash, than if they had banned all other parties outright.

If America has shown us anything, it is that if governments truly want to curb speech, the illusion of freedom is a much more effective means of control.  Not only is type of backlash seen after aggressive crackdowns avoided, but more people completely buy into the resulting society.  While the most effective form of short-term control may be to ban all political parties, demonstrations, and speech criticizing the ruling class and their policies, the most effective form of long-term control is instead to influence public opinion and manufacture consent.  The latter also has the added benefit of parents passing down their ideas to receptive children, further entrenching the 'correct' ideas in the mind of each coming generation.

This is why even though I consider myself a proud defender of civil liberties, I find it difficult to rally behind each and every free speech cause.  In my judgment, we lose far more in denying the very nature of what speech is and how it is controlled, than we do when a hate group or corporation has its 'speech' restricted.  Worse yet, ideological extremism on the issue has actually caused serious harm by allowing speech to be defined in ways which are detrimental to the public good, and actually exacerbate the problems outlined above.

In part two, coming sometime in the next week, I'll expand on this duality and look at some of the tactics used by the ruling class to decide who is given a voice and on what terms.

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