Free speech and free will

I’ve always believed that a healthy society encourages free and open debate among its citizens, and am a strong supporter of technology and trends that support free and independent speech. At its heart is a belief in the Darwinism of ideas — that out of a cacophony of voices somehow the the good ideas will beat out idiocy and lies. Between the incredibly polarized US politics and the rising prominence of Islamic and Christian fanaticism, the past few years have seriously tested my faith in this belief. The myth of the Internet and the free speech movement in general is that by allowing many voices to flourish the good ideas and behaviors will push out the bad — that the best way to fight the harmful effects of “bad” speech is not through censorship but through still more speech. I think it’s important to question that assumption from time to time, especially for those like myself that design technology to make communication even more frictionless.

My recent thinking has been shaped in part by two editorials. One is the recent op-ed in the NYT in which John Tierney calls on the media to show a little restraint in reporting on suicide bombings to “give the public a more realistic view of the world’s dangers.” To this, security expert Bruce Shneier responds that reports on suicide bombings may make us feel more insecure than we should, but that

…the danger of not reporting terrorist attacks is greater than the risk of continuing to report them. Freedom of the press is a security measure. The only tool we have to keep government honest is public disclosure.

The second editorial is Mark Danner‘s chilling analysis of the political positioning that led up to the Iraq war, based on the recently leaked secret Downing Street memo. One quote from that piece that’s relevant is by Dr. Joseph Goebbels, Hitler’s propaganda minister:

Arguments must therefore be crude, clear and forcible, and appeal to emotions and instincts, not the intellect. Truth was unimportant and entirely subordinate to tactics and psychology.

I’m now starting to see speech as a duality, made up of information on the one hand and emotion on the other. Information is communication for the head — the factual, objective component of what is being communicated that speaks to the analytical parts of our minds. Emotion is the punch that goes right to our guts — the difference between a logical but dry speech and a rousing call to arms. All communication has aspects of both. While a particular speech, document or medium may emphasize one more than the other, human-to-human communication necessarily is encoded in ways that speak to both our heads and our hearts simultaneously.

Both information and emotion are used to convince, seduce, cajole and manipulate others, either to their benefit or detriment. It’s beneficial to society and to the people being convinced when parents raise their child to be a responsible and caring adult, when religion convinces a criminal to lead an honest life and when a book inspires someone to go out and follow his dreams. It’s detrimental to society and the person being manipulated when a con artist bilks a widow out of her life savings, an advertiser fosters the addictions of new potential customer and a politician lies to hide the fact that he’s working against the voters’ best interest.

On the whole I still believe the myth about many voices favoring good ideas when it comes to the information part of speech — just look to The Pajamahidin of bloggers who fact-check a news story to death as soon as it hits the Net. My fear is that a plethora of voices does not have the same filtering effect when it comes to the emotional impact of society’s various conversations, and if anything has a magnifying effect on powerful, wrong ideas.

Assuming I’m correct, I can see two possible reasons the emotional speech that is most healthy for society doesn’t rise to the top. The first is that, at least in the US, our primary emotion these days is fear. Terrorism is the obvious fear, of course, but that also functions as a proxy for all sorts of other fears: fear of losing our jobs, our investments and our retirement; fear of a housing bubble, or that we’ll never be able to afford a house at all; fear that the world has shifted in fundamental ways, that our old ways of thinking are becoming obsolete and that we’ll never be able to adapt. Our natural human response to fear is to emphasize our connection and similarity to those most like ourselves — to speak as one voice rather than question what is said by members of own tribe. Fear is also a strong and infectious emotion, and tends to overwhelm less primal ones. The net result is that the communication that is rising to the top varies in informational content, but speaks with one voice when it comes to emotional content. It’s “Social Security is going bankrupt! Boogah boogah!” versus “The Republicans are trying to dismantle Social Security! Boogah Boogah!”.

The second reason is more subtle: our society is very bad at recognizing or even admitting the role emotion plays in determining our beliefs and behaviors. We cling to the myth that man is a rational creature, the truth is that man is a rationalizing creature. But because our society values rational response over emotional reaction, when we do get carried away by our emotions us we rationalize excuses for our behavior rather than take a step back and examine how we’re being manipulated.

I agree with Shneier that the solution is not censorship, even self-censorship. Any system that relies on individuals to police their own ideas is doomed to fall to the first idiot with a strong belief in a stupid idea, or more likely to someone with something to gain by gaming the system. What we need is a better way to defend ourselves, as individuals, from this kind of manipulation. Educating ourselves in how manipulation works is a good first step, but to avoid just fooling ourselves that education itself needs to be both informational and emotional in nature. I don’t know whether such a thing would look more like logic, religion, psychology, self-help, yoga or stand-up comedy, but I know we could certainly use more of it.

Update 7/26/05: Eric Nehrlich weighs in that emotional speech may have a natural tendency to die out due to “emotional speech exhaustion.” I think that’s true at the individual level (certainly I’ve become much less emotional by politics in the past year). I have to wonder whether emotional exhaustion can be directly applied when looking at a culture as a whole though, given that there are always new young hot-headed 20-year-olds to replace the burned-out 30-something activists that preceded them. Certainly society goes in cycles with regard to polarization and emotional thinking, but when looking at patterns over years or decades I expect that’s much more due to demographics, economics and insecurity than one generation becoming worn out by the previous generation’s passion.