Speak Now

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The thing that hath been, it is that which shall be; and that which is done is that which shall be done: and there is no new thing under the sun.

Ecclesiastes 1:9

There are many non-linear features of a connected world of nearly eight billion humans.

The growing exhaustion from ideas we have each heard too many times to count is one. Fatigue from the seemingly recursive, predictable way that discussions about those topics seem to go is another. So much of our collective deliberation today – our politics, in the Arendtian sense – consists of us quickly recognizing the pattern of a discussion-to-impasse we have had or observed a dozen times, and sighing to ourselves, “So we’re doing this one again?”

The fact that there truly is no new thing under the sun is our modern world’s one new thing under the sun.

Of course there are recurring themes in nature and in our culture, and there always have been. These themes and their quantizing effect on our thinking form a big part of what we write about, after all. But there’s feeling like you’ve heard something before, and then there’s feeling like the only thing you ever hear is something that you’ve already heard before.

It isn’t your imagination.

We are running out of new melodies[1]. We are running out of new ways to combine food ingredients that haven’t been tried before. All those film sequels in the cinema aren’t just a creative compromise driven by economics. The number of places where a person can travel and feel truly out of place, truly foreign, truly disconnected, has dwindled to a handful’s worth. There is much that is still left for us to discover in our natural world and beyond its surly bonds, to be sure, and barring disasters our technological capabilities will continue to grow. In creative fields, in philosophy, and in political thought, however, we increasingly operate in retreads. This is the side effect of a wonderful thing. We have created so much, discovered so much already. We have lived in a world at (relative) peace for decades. We are talking to one another about ideas in ways we have never been able to do across the millennia.  

But it also means that discussion of some of our most cherished ideas and most important ideas has become utterly fatiguing.

I have a question for you.

When is the last time that you had a discussion about freedom of speech without saying to yourself, “Oh, this old argument again?” Think about your discussions on the topic in the last 3-5 years. Can you think of a single one that has not followed a variant of this form:  

A person says something some other party considers offensive. A private institution, such as a business, church, private school or university, censors or otherwise prohibits that person from engaging in that speech. An individual objects to this censorship as a Bad Thing. Another individual highlights that we are only protected from government restrictions, and that freedom of speech doesn’t mean a right to protection from others who want to tell you your speech is bad, then it’s ‘you have the right to not choose that platform’, et cetera ad infinitum.

You are right to be exhausted by this discussion, because you know that it will inevitably either devolve into repetitive tedium you don’t have the time for, or that it will be extrapolated into an existential crisis you don’t have the energy for. It is a symptom of our inability to call things by their proper name, to understand and convey what we mean when we say rights, when we say interests, and even when we say words like should. But if we care at all about freedom of expression or other rights of the sovereign individual – and we should care passionately, as they are the true, rare fundamental rights of humanity – the time to resist that fatigue is now. The time to rediscover how to talk about BOTH our right to freedom from censorship by the government AND our interest in maintaining freedom of expression in all of our major civic and political venues is now. Why?

  1. Because the end-game of the widening gyre will be to advance forms of government restrictions on privacy and acceptable speech.
  2. Because Google, Facebook and (to a much lesser extent) Twitter and comparable platforms which emerge will be primary engines of those restrictions.
  3. Because even before they become part of those restrictions, Google and Facebook are choking the life out of an independent press. Yes, even if you believe that the problem with the media is its heavily biased sociopolitical monoculture, you should care about the advertising duopoly, because it will force remaining publications into more marketable extreme postures.
  4. Because even if it is not a constitutional issue, the ability of large technology companies to punish or limit your access to the foundational platforms for public discussion and communication is absolutely something in which you have a vested interest.  

What else do I think that I know? I know that if we are going to break through on this topic, we must call things by their proper names. I know that we must stop conflating our rights with our interests. I know that we need to be willing to speak up about our interests – even if they aren’t our rights. I don’t know when it will be too late to do so.

But I know that we need to speak now, or be forced to hold our peace.


[1] Save the boneheaded analyses of the possible statistical permutations using traditional chromatic scales. The set of intervals and progressions that should be realistically considered as coherent in any concept of music from the last 600 years is heavily constrained. If you think that a melody that begins with C4-C5-B4 won’t be heard as a retread of Somewhere Over the Rainbow regardless of where it goes from there, you’re kidding yourself.

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Kpaz
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Kpaz

In Healing the Heart of Democracy, Parker Palmer talks about “holding the tension” when in discussions with those we disagree with. This should extend to our reading and listening. So, when you hear or read something that offends you this means listening or reading more closely. Reread it. Play it over and listen again. If it sets you off, there is a reason. It can be the hardest thing to do but if you can hold that tension, there is learning in there.

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Victor K
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Victor K

(Thumbs up button didn’t work so thumbs up!)

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Mark Kahn
Member
Mark Kahn

Based on this piece and Ben’s recent Twitter thread on rights (which shows why long-form arguments are a poor fit for Twitter), my humble but enthusiastic suggestion is for an ET piece on human rights (and, as Ben alluded to, animal rights) – which includes that thing I’ve been struggling with my entire life (because it’s all about me), an explanation or argument for what a true human right is, what the core, base-level ones are and how one tests or proves for both that definition and those canonical/core rights. One part of the rights’ argument that resonated with me the first time I heard it is that a right cannot impose an obligation or duty on another. To be sure, restraining violence (i.e., you can’t shoot me to express your freedom) is not a burden on another as he or she can still pursue his or her life’s preferences unimpaired by not killing me (I’m sure a few people who’ve known me would argue otherwise), but saying another person owes me food, or shelter, or healthcare does burden that person’s ability to pursue his or her own rights. Away from that “test,” my ability to define rights “at the beginning” is muddled, which is why I’d love to see you and Ben tackle the topic. And as we try to live a clear-eyes, full-hearts life (interesting discussion with the girlfriend about that this morning – that ET piece is incredible) amidst the seemingly widening-more-every-day gyre, a core definition of… Read more »

Jim Handshaw
Member
Jim Handshaw

Thumbs up button did not work. So here’s a thumbs up to Mark on Ben’s recent Twitter.

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Victor K
Member
Victor K

Thumbs up!
Humano-centrism, the Rabbit Hole on steroids! Is our survival as curators sufficient, or is local information efficiency the real morality of the universe? The answer is 42!
(Just kidding) It’s astounding that these ET essays can bring Feynman, Sommerfeld, Ecclesiastes, and TNTC cultural icons all together in one place. Most excellent! Thank you

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BobK71
Member
BobK71

You could argue that most of the fundamentals of the Western value system evolved to serve the imperial state-bank alliance of modern times. Think of Enlightenment ideals like freedom of expression and due process of law. During most of the 18th century and before, France had an equal or better claim to global hegemony than Britain. But France was an absolute monarchy during this time. British promotion of individual rights must have formed a good part of its eventual success in overcoming France at the game of global empire, by the early 19th century. (In fact, in France itself, so many people believed passionately in these ideals that a certain General de Lafayette came to America to teach crucial military expertise to the rebelling colonists, thus pursuing both his love of freedom and service to le roi, by hurting the British, at the same time.) The idea of national sovereignty, that all countries, regardless of size and power, deserve independence in running their own affairs, was hammered home at the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648, and it was such a universal and powerful principle that a good part of it survives to this day. Regardless of its intent, its end result was limiting the power of strong countries (and there was none stronger than France at the time,) and protecting weaker countries (such as the Dutch empire, which the best bankers were allying themselves with.) And it just happened, that universal suffrage was not on offer, even in Britain and… Read more »

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