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THE PROBLEM WITH FREE SPEECH

April 9th, 2021

 

”If you can make a trend, you can make it true.” – Renee Diresta

 

There is a lot of dialogue around free speech.  There always has been.  But there does not seem to be any discussion about one particular sub-category of free speech:

repeated speech.

 

Before we parse and tie these two concepts, its fundamental to think about another concept:

 

The word ‘obvious’

 

The word obvious is defined as ‘easily perceived or understood; clear, self-evident, or apparent’

 

What is more interesting is the implications of the etymology.  From the late 16th century in the sense ‘frequently encountered,’ from the Latin phrase ‘ob viam’ meaning ‘in the way’.

 

 

We might spend a moment thinking of things that are frequently encountered that fall into the negative category of ‘in the way’.   Many people  would probably agree that digital advertising fits nicely into this category.  Because of the addictive nature of screen technology, it provides an attention portal through which companies can bombard someone’s consciousness with ads for a particular product or service.  How many times do we see an ad before clicking on it?  If encountered enough times, the probability of clicking on that add goes up and up.

 

Any person or company that can outspend the competition on the battle front of digital advertising will win, simply because their product become –literally- the obvious choice.  It’s important to note the insidious connotation this phrase has.  The Obvious Choice, is not necessarily the best choice, though this is exactly what the phrase means in our current cultural parlance.  It goes to figure that if the obvious choice were always the best choice or the right choice, we would all be living much better lives and presumably we would not bicker and whine at each other.  But this counter-intuitive concept is, appropriately enough, not too obvious. This is why the meme “common sense is not so common” evokes the hypocritical response of general agreement and head-nodding from all alike.

 

So we return to the concept of free speech versus it’s potentially insidious subcategory: repeated speech.

 

Is it ethical to control someone’s attention for self-aggrandizement?  Phrased this way, it’s reminiscent of a kind of slavery.  But we can flip this situation and ask: what if the influence achieved through such attention benefits the person whose attention has been hijacked?  Any self-respecting writer or creative of any type is playing this game.  

 

A sizable percentage of the people who have something to say over and over are convinced that their message will help the people it’s directed towards.  The Tinkered Thinking platform certainly fits this bill.

 

And such a notion seems to be at the heart of thinkers like Seth Godin who approaches the concept of ‘marketing’ with an overwhelming sense of generosity.  The concept of generosity itself is very interesting if picked apart.  At it’s heart, generosity is simply what you can generate for others.  Now what if that generated item can be instantly mass-produced, replicated and spread across the globe?

 

 

On the other side of the spectrum we might identify the concept of a Ponzi scheme as the antithesis to this generosity.  These schemes are generally regarded as entities that take advantage of lots of people for the aggrandizement of a very select few.  Though this loose definition also seems to reference most large corporations and even individual writers.  A Ponzi scheme, however results in some clear detriment to the many, and this is ideally not the aim of a writer or solitary creative.

 

The phrase ‘getting the word out’ is an essential act that comes up with any business or venture.  But what does this mean?  This is essentially invoking that subcategory of free speech that we’re referring to here as repeated speech.  Many businesses that ‘succeed’ in a financial sense do not necessarily add positive value to people’s lives but they can succeed because the ability to ‘get the word out’ has been hypercharged with a new efficient connection to money via the relative affordability and speed of digital advertising.  Like a large corporate structure that is reminiscent of a pyramid, this advertising ability presents a phenomenal power to direct or redirect a huge amount of human attention and resource at the turn of a dime, or as fast or slow as the person making the decisions at the top chooses.

 

 

“Goebbels defined radio as the main instrument of his propaganda policy, and Germany began broadcasting across the border to Czechoslovakia's 3.5m German speakers almost as soon as the Nazis came to power.” – The Guardian

 

 

The Nazi’s rose to power, not just because of free speech, but because of this insidious subcategory of free speech,  repeated speech.  The radio was the technology that they legally leveraged to replicate their message in the minds of millions at a speed that had little comparison in the past.  It is eerie to think about the political scandal from a few years ago involving Facebook, the Russians and the election in the United States.  Regardless of the veracity of such claims involving these institutions, what is more important is that the potential utility of Facebook as a technology is identical to the use of radio in the late 1930’s.  It provides instant, widespread replication of message for those who know how to use it and afford it.

 

It’s worth it to point out that Hitler rose to power in a democracy, a fact that is perhaps is not repeated enough.  It wasn’t a coup.

 

The tension between democracy and fascism becomes particularly poignant here.  The word tension, does, after all come from the Latin meaning to ‘stretch, or strain’.  In the late 1930’s we have a perfect example of a democracy stretching and straining towards fascism.  Another important point is looking at the word fascism.  This word is thrown around so often as to require a ‘sit-down-and-understand-the-word-that-you-are-saying’ moment.  Fascism comes from ‘fasces’ meaning a bundle of rods or sticks.  In Ancient Rome such a tightly bound bundle of sticks had an ax head mounted on the end and was carried around as a symbol of magisterial power.  If it doesn’t seem clear how this connects, we need only think of that bundle of sticks as a bundle of people which form the governmental entity that the magistrate or emperor oversees.   Strangely, such an image is reminiscent of a democracy, which is composed of many people.  The only crucial distinction is how decisions are made.

 

In a fascist regime, this decision making power is relegated to a tiny, tiny majority, often a single person.  In a democracy, this decision making party is theoretically allocated to the majority people.

 

But the majority in the case of democracies is a blatant problem.  51% percent is hardly a majority and it’s incredibly worrisome that decisions are achieved with such division.  If this laughable metric isn’t clear just consider this thought experiment:  What does a 51/49 majority decision look like between just two people?  In order for two people to be in enough agreement to work towards a common goal or task, there has to be a much higher majority opinion than 51/49, so why doesn’t the same apply when we scale up decision making to include hundreds of millions of people?  The tiniest requirement for majority does not ensure the best decision is being made.  It only ensures that after the decision is made, you will have a very divided set of people, a good half who are opposed to the new course of action. 

 

We may look at the current sphere of aggressive conversation and ask the question: how often does logic prevail in a lover’s quarrel?    The pessimistic and impulsive answer is ‘never’, but this is not necessarily true.  Often, if two people are able to let their emotions settle in solitude, there is a higher probability that a more productive conversation will take place when such people reengage on that contentious issue.  And here’s an interesting question for that situation:  what if one party in this two person dialogue simply repeats the same thing over and over?  Is progress made?  No.

 

We can zoom out to the larger picture and ask the same question of warring political parties: do they every achieve anything together by merely repeating the same things at each other?

 

Such stalemate is incredibly stressful, not just on a political level, but also on a personal level.  Few things in modern society are more uncomfortable than going home to a silent home full of tension.  We can think of a truly toxic relationship where one party does not even realize how bad the situation they find themselves in really is.  Such individuals often experience a sort of post traumatic shock at the magnitude of their past situation when they finally find an exit from that situation.  Can we find a link between the perpetuation of such toxic relationships and the superior linguistic abilities that the inflicting party might have?  Such an inflicting party might just need to repeat the same thing over and over in order to get the victim in such a relationship to believe things that are very counter-productive to their own health.  We call this gaslighting.  If you tell someone they are crazy enough times, there’s good chance they’ll eventually start to believe it.

 

This might seem ridiculous or unlikely to someone who has never experienced or witnessed such a situation, but we need only run a simple thought experiment:

 

What would happen if you were placed in maximum security lockdown with no contact with the outside world and the only experience you were subjected to is a loud speaker that repeats ‘you are crazy’. 

 

Even IF some people imagine that they might have the mental strength to put up with this forever, which is highly unlikely, no one would disagree that this is a terrible situation that would probably have a fairly negative effect on someone’s psychology.

 

Fascism is simultaneously more seductive and efficient than democracy for a similar reason:  decisions are made much faster and new and potentially progressive changes seem to take place at a speed that is very refreshing compared to the stalemated snail pace that democracy usually has.

 

Pivoting via a decision in the moment is much easier and faster when you don’t have to organize the vote of a group of people.  Any group larger than one automatically has a higher probability of taking longer to reach a consensus, and it’s usually a lukewarm, diluted plan which strangely seems to undermine the efficacy and efficiency of any given strategy. 

 

With these elements in place, it seems like the 51/49 majority tendency creates an open door for fascism if any ambitious individual can leverage a new technology to repeat their message and candidacy with greater proliferation than all other candidates.  As we can see with the rise of the Nazi regime, it’s imperative for the ambitious entity to continue using the new technology to leverage a message so that it continues to proliferate and soak into the public imagination.  We might imagine some kind of inflection point where the aggregated personal fear of most individuals initiates a culture of silence and inaction in the face of bewildering change initiated by the government.

 

How does democracy safeguard itself from encasing itself in this fearful, self-built cocoon that quickly gives rise to the evil butterfly of fascism?

 

While the United States has been referred to as the ‘American Experiment’ since it’s inception, its funny how little experimenting there has been over the years with the touted plasticity of that government.

 

We might wonder delightfully what would happen to the American system if a requirement of 85% majority of the popular opinion suddenly became a standard.   What if, in tandem to this, there was also a restriction on repeated speech?  This is often limply batted about as a cap on financial contributions, but we might imagine in today’s highly digitized society, being able to come up with reliable metrics for how much time each candidate and main political idea gets with regards to a population that is impregnated with smartphones and screens.  This might sound like an invasion of privacy, but isn’t it already an invasion of one’s attentional privacy to firebomb someone’s social media and internet browsing with targeted ads and messages?  It’s somewhat akin to Coca-Cola coming into your house unannounced and plastering your walls with Coca-Cola advertising that you cannot remove.  How would that not be an invasion of privacy?  And yet that is exactly where we are.  Except to a larger extent.  Corporate entities are plastering every moment of your screen life, whether home or not with such influences.  

 

To explore the 85% majority a little further, it’s obvious to predict that everyone would balk at such an idea saying that the government would go into a freeze and potentially be permanently stalemated.  But such people may forget what the mounting stress of a governmental freeze would do.  This occurrence would be a super concentrated version of the slow pace that democracy already has.  And if the need for progress is strong, it’s simply not possible for such a circumstance to perpetuate for very long.  Freezes simply never last.  But usually things return to the same conditions after the thaw. 

 

There is a chance that each party could eventually see this as an opportunity to become a super party, but this IS what the nation state is already trying to do.   Freedom, whether for the individual or the populace is a tricky idea, and living a satisfied life always requires certain parameters in order to live by and feel productive.   Perhaps, in order for democracy to be more efficient and active in a productive direction, it needs new parameters in order to foster the  move.  

 

While everyone bickers about the meaning, uses and borders of free speech, it’ll be those who understand the power of repeated speech who will have the highest probability of making decisions, both big and small.


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Podcast Ep. 1090: The Problem with Free Speech

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