Saturday, September 29, 2012

Censorship, Indignation, and our Hopes for Freedom

Banned Books Week (September 30 – October 6) celebrates the freedom to read and to express ideas…even those that others might find objectionable. Classics that have been banned or challenged over the years include:

The Jungle, Catch-22, The Great Gatsby, The Grapes of Wrath, Beloved, Lolita, A Clockwork Orange, The Satanic Verses, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, and To Kill a Mockingbird. 

Just in the last decade, campaigns have been waged against The Catcher in the Rye, Harry Potter, The Giver, and The Golden Compass. And, ironically... Ray Bradbury’s powerfully evocative Fahrenheit 451. 

On a broader scale, censorship is an issue both topical and redolent, given President Obama's recent United Nations address about free speech and global turmoil over an amateurish, but provocative anti-Islam video. That YouTube video, “Innocence of Muslims” that has provoked riots and violence in Libya and 
many other Muslim lands, leading to calls for governments to block access to the website. Meanwhile, YouTube issued a statement, 
"This can be a challenge because what's OK in one country can be offensive elsewhere. This video -- which is widely available on the Web -- is clearly within our guidelines and so will stay on YouTube." 

No issue better illustrates what I consider to be the real “war” going on, over the future of Planet Earth. And so let me offer an aside: Despite shrill rhetoric from the extremes, it is not about “Islam” at all, any more than the Cold War was about differeng models of economic theory. The great propellant of the Cold War was a personality trait called Russian Paranoia that dominated thinking in the Soviet Union no less – and very little different – than during the era of the Czars, and that only started to fade (somewhat) when a generation of Russians finally rose to power who had never known war. Likewise, it is not Islam, per se, that opposes the Western Enlightenment.

 Rather, it is a deeper worldview or zeitgeist whose core features are machismo, romanticism and the assumption set that’s called the Zero Sum Game.  

In the words of Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas, “Restriction of free thought and free speech is the most dangerous of all subversions. It is the one un-American act that could most easily defeat us." True enough. And opponents of the Western Enlightenment know this. They know that if they can scare us into repressing open information flows, enlightenment processes will wither and fester and fail. 

The top four of those processes – democracy, markets, science and justice – all flourish and succeed in direct proportion to how well most of the participants can know most of what’s going on, most of the time.  This core truth is the reason why I wrote The Transparent Society: Will Technology Make Us Choose Between Privacy and Freedom? 

Freedom of speech is not a gift from on high. It was not declared by God. It is not holy, or even natural. No other human society ever practiced it. Even we, who are loony enough to consider it sacred, don't practice it very well. Yet, although it runs against every tyrannical impulse of human nature... impulses to suppress whatever that loudmouth fool over there is saying... the fact is that we try to live by it. 

Not because free speech is holy, or natural, but because it works. Because it is pragmatic. Because it allows the rapid generation of a multitude of ideas, most of which are chaff, and then allows those notions to be criticized by other egotistical people, so that a fair percentage of the best ideas rise, and most garbage eventually sinks.

In other words, free speech encourages criticism, like a human body's immune system, to seek out and attack possibly cancerous or fatal ideas. Those which survive open debate are (at least in theory) those which deserve to thrive.

The biggest reasons to support it aren’t idealistic, but practical! Because the processes that brought us vastly more wealth, progress, knowledge, peace and human happiness than all other societies combined can only remain fecund and productive in a transparent, open, freely competitive and egalitarian world. The second part of the irony? That we can only defend freedom of speech with adequate vigor if we treat it as if it were a platonic ideal. And fundamental.

Naturally, any attempt by leaders or public institutions to pre-judge or pre-approve concepts will be self-defeating. Decrees by aristocrats or intellectuals or demagogues will always be less efficient than the free interplay of ideas. If you doubt this, try picking and choosing which antibodies your immune system should produce!

Now, all of this obviously applies to the future of the information network. Like the sun, the earth, and the human body, in the long run, stability is achieved not by laws or rules, but through self-regulating, adaptive systems that allow large forces to balance each other out. In this case, in the World Information Net, this balance will be driven by the power of ten billion voices, ten trillion ideas.

Such a system cannot be designed in detail, but the right mix of basic elements can be planned in advance, to keep it healthy so that this maelstrom of ideas and myths will be fecund in its creation of vast quantities of metaphors, but also sane enough to ultimately reject bad notions in a fair market, clearing the way for new ones to take their place.
One principal element must be openness. In the human body, nutrients must flow, and white blood cells have to reach their targets. In the Net of tomorrow, the light of criticism must shine everywhere, or secrets which lay hidden will fester into new crises, new weapons, new errors.

In an information society, secrecy is the equivalent of cancer.

== The great enemy of reason == 

Some say the foe of thought and reason is fear. You have seen me inveigh that the ancient bane of freedom and markets – (and Adam Smith agreed) -- has always been oligarchy.  

Only when you dig deeper, the clear thing at fault lies deep within human nature. Our propensity for addiction. 

Others are catching on. Gary Longsine and Peter Boghossian, in Indignation is Not Righteous: The Twin Fallacies of Appeal to Righteous Indignation and Appeal to Sanctity ( in Skeptical Inquirer) appraise the difficulty we face, when trying to use evidence or reason in the face of strongly-held and emotionally supported beliefs.  Taken from among the long list of logical fallacies, two in particular stand out as empowering a person to absolutely refuse to consider opposing evidence or arguments: Appeal to righteous indignation (argumentum ad probus indignatio); and Appeal to sanctity (argumentum ad sanctimonia).  

"An Appeal to Righteous Indignation is a logical fallacy in which a person claims to be offended, insulted, or hurt by criticism of a proposition they hold, or by the advancement of a proposition with which they disagree. The expected consequence of the demonstration of the verbal or physical behavior associated with righteous indignation is that no further discussion or criticism is allowed.

An Appeal to Sanctity is a logical fallacy in which a person attempts to deflect criticism of an idea by claiming that the idea or argument is holy, sacred, sacrosanct, or otherwise privileged and immune from critique."

This very interesting appraisal: Indignation is Not Righteous! cites Jonathan Haidt and other major researchers exploring an exciting and promising new field, using fMRI and other methods to follow both logical and illogical thought in real brains.  It even cites my own paper, delivered to the National Institutes on Drugs and Addiction, concerning the way indignation all too often becomes a cycle of self-doping addiction, reinforced by regular "highs" of dopamine and other self-secreted psychotopics. Indeed, it is probably the most abused drug of choice in America today, helping to propel our current, deeply counter-productive civil war.  


David Brin said...

If indignation is an addictive mental process, then what might happen to our politics in the most-indignant in any political movement were viewed with the suspicion merited by drunkards?

Gary W. Longsine said...

Your conjecture, that addition may influence the nature of righteous indignation in politics, was one of the most interesting ideas I've encountered of late. I wasn't able to find any indication that it's yet been studied, directly. Are you aware of any such research ongoing, into The Brin Conjecture?

Jumper said...

And like any other drug it is often combined synergistically with others.

David Brin said...

Alas, while my conjecture is widely cited... I know of no direct research that it inspired. Sigh & alack.

Jeff Swim said...

I love the way you dealt with this issue in your novel "Existence". I was wondering if you would ever discuss the topic in a blog. Oh, if only that drug used on the politician really existed.

Blarkon said...

David you always mention that we should challenge *everything*

If all ideas are open to challenge and reevaluation at any time, how do we analyze the truth of the statement "unrestricted free speech is beneficial"?

Isn't that something we just have "faith" in? A "core assumption"?

Ian said...

I have a number of thoughts on topics raised and will probably post several of them as time permits.

Firstly, I strongly suspect some of my views may prove controversial and apologize in advance for any offense I may cause.

Having said that, blarkon provides the perfect lead-in to my first point.

Americans, across the political spectrum, tend to argue for that a particular interpretation of free speech and to view this as a maximalist reading of free speech and to view this as a. desirable and b. integral to American democracy.

Ironically, in doing so they effectively invoke the appeal to sanctity which David discusses.

Let's being by noting that America limits free speech in numerous ways: trade secrets; national security, obscenity; defamation laws; “fighting words”. In several of those areas, American restraints on free speech are, in fact, more severe than those in various other liberal democracies.

Conversely, if we look at what might be described as the poat-enlightenment cultures of western Europe, the US, Canada and various minor appendages such as Australia and New Zealand, the limits on free speech are more severe in relation ot incitement to religious and ethnic hatred and violence.

If restricting hate speech by, for example, the Westboro Baptists church is such a threat to democracy, why is it that most liberal democracies are functioning quite happily with such laws?

Finally, for now, I'd point out that the US “imminent unlawful act” standard for incitement is not some fundamental and immutable principle of of the US political system. It derives from a court case in 1969 (Ohio Vs Brandenburg). The prior standard – which in effect applies for the first 190-odd years of US history – was much closer to the standards currently applied in most other liberal democracies.

David Brin said...

Blarkon: I don't recall saying "challenge everything" except that as a matter of general principle, pragmatism and (in my case) personality, I think all assumptions should get challenged now and then.

I definitely believe there is a HIERARCHY of things needing challenge! Scientific matters that have a long record of past tests certainly need challenge, but at the level of assigning some grad students every now and then to check if the speed of light is STILL invariant in all reference frames. (We should keep rechecking THAT piece of utterly true nonsense just out of sensible orneryness!) Where science has gaps or fuzzy boundaries, challenges should abound... but with the courtesy and reasonable willingness of challengers to accept that, when defying the experts, the challenger bears the burden of proof. (Hear that, climate denialists?)

I never said that all speech should always be unrestricted. What I have said is that restrictors bear a huge burden of proof. Nor is my justification platonic-essence of principle. It is 90% the pragmatic realization that all of our Enlightenment methods for overcoming the great flaws in human nature rely on reciprocal accountability. And that cannot operate without freedom to know and to criticize.

Ian as well. I think you miss the point. Someone, somewhere, has to be confident enough to fetishistically defend the right of morons to be morons. America has the track record. In the 1930s, we too had radio demagogues. Unlike Europe, we told ours to get bent WHILE leaving them on the air. Europeans did not. And hence they do not trust themselves. With good reason.

But oh, how I want the Fairness Doctrine back!!!!!! If Stations carrying Rush Limbaugh had to allow reply time from TOP opponents of Limbaugh, even on a One-to-ten ratio! OMG how he would fry.

Ian said...

Which radio demagogues did Europe order off the air, David?

Hitler certainly wasn't one of them.

(Father Coughlin, of course, WAS ordered off the air - but by the Catholic Church not by state action.)

David Brin said...

See this Salon article:

Here is the comment I wrote to the Salon article. Alas, I could not navigate their comments section or find any way to join or log in... and I am one of their frequent essayists! -- Here goes:

There are several plausible ways that "ostrich" Republicans (the sincere and intelligent heirs of Goldwater and Buckley) might finally stand up and wrest the GOP away from the crazies.

1) End gerrymandering. Several blue states, including California, have seen citizen rebellions against this vile crime by BOTH parties of the political caste. Two reforms - redistricting and top-two run-offs - have already had stunning effects. Now, politicians no longer are beholden to their district's radical base. Instead, democratic "safe districts" see two dems seeking support from moderate republicans... more attention than Republicans ever got before in those districts. And vice versa in GOP majority areas.

If gerrymandering were treated as the criminal conspiracy that it is, then radicalism in American politics would suffer its worst blow. Alas, this supreme court will never rule against it. But maybe the court will change. Meanwhile note this. ONLY in (some) blue states have citizens found the gumption to rebel against this crime. Only blue states. Not one red state. Not one.

Pres. Obama should make it an issue. He should.

2) The Libertarian Party, for the first time this year, is led by two moderates, instead of lapel-grabbing Ayn Randian kooks. And Gary Johnson's poll numbers are rising. If he climbed high enough to get into a debate, he could prove to be a death blow to Mitt Romney, by offering those Ostrich (sane but in denial) Republicans a place to flee the madness that has taken over the Party of Lincoln.

3) The GOP may act crazy, but the craziness is stage managed by a coterie of billionaires. If a bigger, richer coterie decided they had had enough of the horrifically lobotomizing Culture War incited by Rupert Murdoch and the Kochs and the Saudi princes, then... well... it is a scenario under which Buckley types might be subsidized (it would be expensive!) to stand up and finger-wag the movement back to some degree of genuine patriotism and sense.

Hey I didn't say it was likely, just possible. But there is a special interest group that will fight against any reform of conservatism or banishing of its insanity. What interest group? Why the State of Arizona's electric utilities companies!

They are currently drawing 17% of Arizona's power - for free - from magnets and coils arranged around the spinning in Barry Goldwater's grave.

Michael C. Rush said...

William O. Douglas also said:

Oppression, like darkness, does not come upon us suddenly. It creeps upon us step by step virtually unnoticed until suddenly we recognize that twilight has passed and it is nighttime and we are not free.

Ian said...

We now have 40+ years of empirical evidence is there any proof that:

- Americans are more free now than before Ohio Vs. Brandenburg?

- American political discourse has been improved?

- Europeans, Canadians and Australasians are less free?

America has been engaging in an experiment in expanding free speech to permit racial and religious vilification, the results to date appear to have been the increasing polarization of American politics and the increasing extremism of the American right.

you can argue that Americans are more free to incite religious and ethnic hatred and in a sense this id true -just as it is true that if we made it legal to shit on the sidewalk people would be more free as a result since they could shit on the sidewalk.

(A final aside: while Australians and Americans have a great deal in common there are fundamental differences in attitudes between us. What we have here is an example of one of these differences: Americans are much more idealistic than Australians when it comes to politics: you as a group tend to argue from first principles. Australians tend as a group to argue from pragmatism. this, I think, is why we hand on to bizarre anachronisms like the monarchy. They don;t seem to do any actual harm so why scrap them?)

David Brin said...

Ian I am well aware of national personality quirks. For many years, US extreme libertarians have moved to Australia because of the image of rugged, independent spirits - which is absolutely true -- then learned to their dismay that you blokes are also perfectly okay with labor unions and what US conservatives call "socialism."

I find it delightful. But some of those fellows come slinking home in disappointment... and have to take them back, dammit.

sociotard said...

If an Australian Punk Rock group broke into a famous Australian church an made a big anti-government-and-religion performance, could they expect 2 years in prison for that? Or would Australians view that sentence as a bit excessive, even for the insult against a religion, and a popular religion at that?

If you would agree that the sentence was excessive, then I would posit that Russia has laws proscribing inciting religious and ethnic hatred and that there is evidence that Russia is less free.

This seems like a case where we are cherry picking examples, no?

Ian said...

Sociotard, last time I checked blasphemy and related offenses including "disrupting a religious service" were still criminal offenses in most states of Australia.

My understanding is that they were last applied in the 1920's but they are still on the books.

The application of the law matters as much as the letter.

Had the Putin administration not been able to prosecute Pussy Riot under that particular law they would simply have found another pretext.

Paul451 said...

"If an Australian Punk Rock group broke into a famous Australian church an made a big anti-government-and-religion performance, could they expect 2 years in prison for that? Or would Australians view that sentence as a bit excessive, even for the insult against a religion, and a popular religion at that?"

Comparative example:

The magic phrase is "He was arrested by police and later released without charge."

Tony Fisk said...

A New Scientist article a couple of weeks ago was
discussing the nature of addiction.

The hypothesis it described was that habits are a result
of a deficiency in a particular dopamine regulating receptor.
(MD2 for the curious)

What is observed in many cases is that one habit may be cured
through abstinence
...but only by taking up another habit as a substitute!
(well... the notion that heroin cravings can be replaced trainspotting is an interesting one!)

Paul451 said...

Or more political stunts, less delusional attention seeker... well, different anyway...

Tony Fisk said...

...Anyway, my hypothesis is that many recovering drug addicts seeking support through religious institutions might be inadvertently getting it via indignation highs during prayer sessions.

(the old saw about new converts to Mother Church being 'more Catholic than the Pope' springs to mind)

Andrew Kieran said...

Some good has come out of this whole muslim-video-riot thing.

In Benghazi citizens were so enraged at the militias they held responsible for organizing the embassy attack that tens of thousands of civilians, backed up by police and the national army held rallies this month to call for the disbanding of the militias and the formation of a national army. These civilians then marched to the headquarters of the main militias in Benghazi and occupied them, forcing the militias to withdraw before handing over the fortresses to the national army.

Now the country has begun the process of disarming the rogue militias.

Amazingly enough, Libya may turn out to be the poster boy for spontaneous democratic national reconstruction, with a people sick and tired of first the arbitrary nature of Gaddafi's rule and then the lynch-mob mentality and chaos of the reign of the militias choosing stability and peace over ideaology and violence.

We should applaud their efforts, and offer them all the assistance we can in rebuilding their own country and creating a beacon of popular democracy in North Africa.

Jumper said...

On "fighting words" legality in U.S.

Speaking of addiction, rock critic Lester Bangs was the first writer from whom I learned the concept of "amphetamine fascism." He was writing metaphorically as well as strictly factually but I began to see that pattern from famous ideologues from the past. Ayn
Rand took a daily hit of speed for some 30 years. Hitler likely used speed. Charles Manson took speed more often than he did the other stuff; he and Tex Watson consumed most that they ran across, apparently. I believe L. Ron Hubbard took speed for some years. So did, I think, RAH which likely contributed to that PORTION of his thinking labeled "fascistic" by some. Then there was Jim Jones.

This theory has impressed me enough (anger addiction mixed with speed causes right-wing thought to increase) that I likely see it everywhere, more than it is true. Or maybe not. I wonder who in Congress is on Adderoll.

Carl M. said...

In addition to getting rid of Gerrymandering, here are a couple more measures to put the sane centrists in power:

1. Get rid of seniority in the House and Senate. The seniority system puts the safe district/state legislators in power. Seniority reform in Senate could be very easy: for the first two years of your current term, you are junior. For the second two years, mid grade. You are senior for the last two years of your term. Get re-elected, and you go back to junior.

2. Range Voting instead of plurality voting. Range Voting favors the "least bad" overall vs. the candidate with the strongest faction. And you might find that going negative backfires when there are more than two viable candidates in the race.

Political TroubleMaker said...

Boom! Cheesh! BA-Boom-Boom Cheesh!


sorry I been gone

not hang'n with teh blokes,

from teh Brin to teh Ian

'n teh tard d'soc

but i been busy

mak'n some hay

trouble'n the world

with what I got to say

so if you you been wonder'n where I been at

head on over here an check this that:

you might be interested to also read

the things I got to say about his deed

'tis there is a place that's but a but a little seed

a new blog where I speak to express my creed

p'haps it can fill an opinion need

I'm sorry I got to hide my identity

but some things must be said from anonymity

an ironic thing to say to a community

focused on sousveillance transparency!

Dwight Williams said...

I note that, in Canada, blasphemy is still entrenched in our Criminal Code (right along with a section on "crime comics"), although the last time any Crown tried to send a defendant to jail on such a charge was about 70 years ago. It might have been mildly entertaining to try the Westboro Baptists' delegation to Canada about a decade ago on such a charge. It would certainly have been educational in its consequences, though for good or ill...?

I daren't guess.

rewinn said...

Here in Washington state, thanks to our top-2 primary, in the 43rd district Democrat Frank Chopp faces Socialist Kshama Sawant. Sawant has roughly 0 chance but at least she is now in the debates. I have no doubt that some races on our Eastside could be GOP v. Libertarian if the latter cared to try. The first few would be sacrificial lambs but who knows? with a little practice, the electorate might enjoy having a broader range of choices. Bernie Sanders demonstrates that a minority can usefully expand the conversation in a legislature.


Indignation Addiction, while conjectural as a matter of fact, seems as a matter of politics to be a very useful disorder since it seems to be contagious. As Rick Santorum has shown, the course of treatment could include a healthy does of mockery, e.g.: "Martyrbation (n): The pleasure of complaining about being persecuted, when practiced by people who aren't actually being persecuted. Example: In an orgy of martyrbation, the fundamentalists complained that they were being persecuted for not being allowed to use tax dollars to promote their brand of religion."

Laughter may not be fatal to tyrants but a good stiff dose may knock back the infection sufficiently to allow natural defenses to finish the job.

Ian said...

Now for one of those signature contrary Brin swerves:

Belgium is actually building an accelerator-moderated nuclear reactor which using a particle accelerator to inudce fission in normally non-fissile isotopes.

These designs have several big potential advantages over current designs - you can fuel them with waste from conventional reactors and convert them into short-lived isotopes while generating power. Also, most accidents should simply result in the accerlator going offline and the reactor shutting down.

Unofrtunately, the schedule bears out my concerns about the impracticiltiy of rapidly brining new reactor designs on line. This first reactor - with around a 200MW thermal capacity - isn't expected to come on line until 2024.

Then, all being well, it'll take another couple of years to finalise the design for a full- sized power reactor - followed by another decade to build it.

Short of a trillion dollar investment in untried technology there's no way this reactor design is going to make a major contribution to world energy supply before 2040-2050.

BCRion said...


You speak of these schedules as if they are inherent, laws of physics or engineering barriers to deploying such a technology. They're not. Shippingport demonstrates this to be false. This was the first commercial US reactor, 60 MWe, built in a little over three years for a fraction of the cost adjusted for inflation. Remember, this was built before we really knew how to build and operate these things.

I honestly think you focus on the wrong things. The problem is not nuclear per se, it's that the system is pretty much rigged against it. We obsess over the safety and externalities of nuclear energy, while giving fossil energy (especially natural gas) a free pass. Both, in my opinion, are too far, but in opposite directions. I've met a few people who have have tried to do tech startups for small nuclear reactors. The main problems are not technical, it is that the upfront costs to getting anything nuclear certified in the US are prohibitive. I'm all for safety and oversight, but the rules as written stifle all innovation. We can surely do better.

Sad thing is the established electric power industry likes it this way. They get to sell cheap natural gas (at our long-term expense!) and make lots of revenue from existing nuclear plants. They don't have to worry about some pesky innovator bringing a disruptive, flexible technology like a small-modular reactor to market.

Rather than focusing on large costs and schedules of whizz-bang technologies, I feel it would be more productive to focus on things we can do to reform the system to maximize innovation and safety while minimizing environmental impacts of all sources of energy.

Acacia H. said...

As a quick aside before going on to Dr. Brin's article on Exceptionalism, there is actually one method that the U.S. could torpedo Iran's nuclear ambitions. What President Obama should do is state internationally "Iran is correct in that it has a right to nuclear power... but the U.S. and its allies are likewise correct in their concerns about the potential abuses of nuclear technology. Thus I propose an alternative nuclear program for Iran that will allow it to have a functional nuclear power infrastructure while lacking the capability of nuclear weapons... and also allow Iran to be in the forefront of nuclear power research.

"Thus I extend my hand to Iran to build a nuclear Thorium reactor to provide nuclear power for Iran. We will help provide funding and expertise for this reactor and work with Iran to create the first large-scale fully functional Thorium reactor in Iran. As it is nearly impossible to safely and clandestinely remove weapons-grade fissionable materials, there should be no complaints to Iran possessing this technology."

Just saying.

Rob H.

David Brin said...


Anonymous said...

My opinion:

People can certainly be addicted to mental process of indignation, but that doesn't mean that the emotion of indignation is necessarily bad or harmful.
After all, indignation is a defensive emotional response to what an individual feels is emotionally or morally offensive.
We evolved with these negative emotional responses for individual and species survival.
Our challenge is to effectively control these negative emotions and addictions.
We do not need to completely erase negative emotional responses from
the human brain. If we did so, we would end up with an individual who couldn't survive a hostile environment.

Anonymous said...

Both political parties are indignant about what the other party wants to do.

The main problem is not that indignation can be addictive in itself.
The core problem is the possibility that an "addiction to indignation" could, coupled with a rigid, non-flexible belief system, effectively keep affected individuals from wanting to consider the possibility that their own views might be wrong.
In psychological terms, an addiction to righteous indignation could be considered as a compulsive disorder akin to obsessive-compulsive scrupulosity.

I may be wrong here, but what I believe could happen is this:
When a rigid belief system is adopted by an individual with a natural tendency to addictive and compulsive disorders such as an excessive addiction to indignation, this could create something akin to fundamentalist or extremist thought.
A belief system itself can be harmful or irrational. However, when an addictive or compulsive personality adopts irrational beliefs, such a personality can become addicted to defending and holding on to those beliefs.

Of course, the politicians on either side of the political spectrum do not seem like they have mental disorders.

Dwight Williams said...

I have a question for the room: could barring the likes of Jerry "Mr. Burn a Qu'ran Day" Jones from entering Canada be considered a fair attempt to block certain groups of domestic indignation-addicts from getting their fixes? Or is it merely toxic in its own right for me and my country-folk?

Dwight Williams said...

My apologies for getting Terry Jones' name wrong in the above comment.