De Heretico Comburendo

Hugo Williams 9 November 2020
Image Credit: Luminarium

Contemporary controversies regarding freedom, in particular freedom of speech, suffer greatly from an idea of freedom which is outdated and ought to be abandoned. It is the idea that liberty means lack of regulation. That is not to say that freedom is not intimately tied up with staying-out-of-other-people’s-business – it is – but that is not the full story. Isaiah Berlin’s analysis of freedom into ‘positive’ and ‘negative’ components gives a much richer and much more attractive ideal.

Put very simply, negative freedom is the absence of obstacles whereas positive freedom is having the opportunity to realise your own projects and potential as a human being. A meaningful version of liberty must include both, since each one, without the other, is ineffectual. Freedom of speech is usually discussed in terms of negative freedom alone; the debate concerns the extent and the nature of censorship.

And for good reason, the obstacles that people face around the world when they try to speak the truth are enormous. But in obsessing over negative liberty, we should not lose sight of what meaningful liberty is and what it is supposed to achieve. It should be understood not as a good in itself but useful as a means to an end, that end being human flourishing. The right balance between positive and negative freedoms is the one which best serves this purpose.

In obsessing over negative liberty, we should not lose sight of what meaningful liberty is and what it is supposed to achieve.

To motivate a positive version of free speech, it is helpful to turn your mind to another freedom which gets a lot less attention: freedom of thought. Freedom of speech, at least any version of it worth having, requires freedom of thought, but it is a little tricky to say exactly what it is. The pattern “free speech is being able to say what you want to say” won’t work, since to “want to think something” you already need to be thinking about it; it comes out trivial. The better approach is along the lines of “free thought is being able to think in the way that you would want to”. It is the ability to carry out whatever cognitive functions seem most appropriate to you. For most of us, at least for political and cultural issues, that “way” is best summed up as “rationally” (lots of people may want to include moral issues as well). So freedom of thought is the freedom to make judgements according to our best rational faculties. The negative component is a given – mind control is still the stuff of science fiction – but the positive component requires an opportunity for everyone to put their rationality into practice.

I admit there is something strange about asking for “an opportunity to think rationally”. Given that, broadly speaking, we are the masters and mistresses of our own mental activity, it is not obvious why we need something else to become the kind of thinkers we want to be. But our commitment to think rationally is not a commitment to act in a certain way in a certain situation. Rather, it is a commitment to adopt consistently and persistently a style of contemplation towards general aspects of our lives. Temptations to bypass or bastardise this style abound, luring us away from our preferred course, and there are times when circumstance demands fast instinctive decisions. Both of these are situations where we are not given the opportunity to think properly – or at the very least they are attempts to limit that opportunity.

Our commitment to think rationally is a commitment to adopt consistently and persistently a style of contemplation towards general aspects of our lives.

So let us turn our eyes to these temptations. They lurk, sometimes deliberately and sometimes not, in the very places where we most need our wits about us, and in the very places where we like to think we behave as rationally as of which we are capable. They are, of course, to be found in the public and political forum which is taking place, now more than ever, online.

Two extreme examples will help to illustrate what I am trying to get at. Radicalisation, be it religious or political, shows how glossy production values and a monopoly on someone’s attention can completely neuter their rational faculties, driving them to inexplicable acts of violence. Trolling and online bullying, which in the worst cases have driven people to suicide, show the power of an opinion that everybody appears to hold over something as personal as your engagement with your own emotional life. The internet has a reliable ability to exploit our psychological weaknesses.

Radicalisation, be it religious or political, shows how glossy production values and a monopoly on someone’s attention can completely neuter their rational faculties.

Or consider the billions that are spent on advertising, and the forensic techniques of big data that let whoever is willing to pay enough know exactly how to press your buttons; then how social media jealously design their interfaces to hold your attention most effectively. A whole industry, one that is becoming a bigger and bigger part of our lives, is based entirely on its ability to bypass your rational faculties.

But this is where we now see fit to do politics. It is where we go to have discussion; it is where we go to see what others think, and it is where we go to make up our minds.

Add to this a couple of well-funded vested interests and the potential for Cambridge-Analytica style villainy is enormous. Whatever you think about Brexit you must surely agree that the most effective parts of the campaign were not Boris Johnson’s appearance at the televised debate, or a critical exegesis of the Maastricht Treaty, it was, instead, short-form media which pulled on people’s heart strings (in both directions). The most recent US election is a wonderful example. Even those (and there were remarkably few of them) who went out in search of a serious discussion of the vices and virtues of each candidate were sorely disappointed. The two televised debates, being almost completely devoid of content, were received as a damning report on the health of american democracy precisely because they showed how much politicians have abandoned any attempt to win people over by reason. (Of course the US election took place as much on television as it did online, but online practices have spread now, even to the broadsheets.)

But the crucial point to note is that no malicious actors are required for our freedom of thought to be undermined. How these platforms are designed make staying level-headed extremely difficult. Firstly, it is almost impossible to see a piece of information or an opinion without first seeing how popular it is (popular, at least, according to the platform and profiles you encounter), since every post has the number of likes or up votes printed directly alongside it. I take it that humanity’s tendency to conformity is well-documented and well-understood. The recurrence of the same post being shared has a similar effect. The worst totalitarian of them all saw the power of repetition.

The crucial point to note is that no malicious actors are required for our freedom of thought to be undermined.

Secondly, the tailoring of content to the apparent interests and prejudices of the user means that any view which doesn’t fit your own is unlikely to find its way onto your feed. Those preconceptions that ought to be at the centre of rational dispute are hidden in the monotony of an output curated by algorithms. And if you have never had to consciously commit to your biases, how can you be fully committed to their conclusions? Without a balanced diet of fairly presented opinions we are denied the opportunity to think in the way we would want to.

Thirdly, the immediate demands that these platforms make on the user to make up their minds, often in a very public way, pressure you into making ad hoc decisions. It took only a couple of hours for the internet to turn decidedly against J.K.Rowling, even though the issue at hand was, for many people, an unfamiliar one and one that is certainly not trivial. And you can hardly say that the state of affairs several hours on was fertile ground for informed decision-making. The hashtags, the temporary profile pictures, the ‘cancellations’, all force us to pick a side before we have had the opportunity to work out what the argument is really about.

This is no platform for rational argument. This is no way to make reasonable judgments. And it is no place for a free-thinking person. What an empty promise is the lack of censorship when our views are being shaped amidst this cacophony and when strange forces are alienating us from those forms of thought which we have committed ourselves to, and denying us the opportunity to fulfil our potential as rational agents. Do not be deceived by a libertarian approach from Government; do not be deceived by an apparent plurality of publications; if there is no public forum that facilitates and encourages rational thought, then we do not live in a free society.

If there is no public forum that facilitates and encourages rational thought, then we do not live in a free society.

This is why people with some power over what is read or heard have a duty to their audience not to censor opinions they might disagree with. The commitment to informed and logical decision-making must be prior to political or cultural commitments since we like to think we make those commitments after careful consideration (I suspect that for lots of people it is also prior to moral commitments for the same reason). If people aren’t given the opportunity to hear why they might be wrong then they won’t have the opportunity to think about their own views in the way that they aspire to. It is too easy to convince yourself that you hold your prejudices for all the right reasons when you never come across anyone who thinks the same about theirs and theirs happen to be different from yours. Would-be media moguls who shy away from controversy are therefore not just cowards, but the handmaidens of psychological slavery. It is also why a reactionary readership, up in arms at an offending article from a once-respected source, should be grateful for the chance to read something they think is beyond-the-pale. The article is letting them flex their mental muscle and justify their opposition in a more profound way. Paradoxically, communion with heresy is the surest way to deeper faith.

Would-be media moguls who shy away from controversy are therefore not just cowards, but the handmaidens of psychological slavery.

Free speech is not about saying whatever you please whenever you please, it is not about the right to offend or the right to make a joke. It is part of a wider humanist project, and a very old one at that, which sees reason as the guiding light of humanity, freeing us from the tyranny of ignorance and superstition. It dreams that humanity might be a race of free agents, acting in accordance with their own unique ends and eccentricities and following their own rational will. If orthodoxy of any kind prevails and we are not given the privilege of hearing voices of dissent, then that dream is dead.