Are We Still Willing to Pay the Cost of Free Speech?

It wasn’t my intention to begin any kind of “series”… but I seem to have written a lot lately about the rising challenges of free expression.  People are on edge.  They don’t want to hear what might be taken (or mistaken) for a middle position.  This is probably because giving any ground at all may be seen as bringing one another few feet closer to the abyss, a tactic used by the opposite polarity repeatedly to suck one in and down.  I know the feeling.  I often share it.  I’m seldom in a compromising mood lately.

With that said, I remain nonetheless shocked at just how edgy my fellow citizens sometimes seem to be.  Earlier this week, a reader on Twitter had “liked” one of my comments; and, as I usually do when I have the time, I studied her profile and some of her posts.  She appeared the sort of person with whom I might make common cause.  (Note: I use Twitter to gather news and to seek after an intellectual community; and, yes, I know how naive that sounds: but what other options do we have in our anti-social nation of e-introverts?)  I returned later that evening to “follow” her and a few others who impressed me (as is also my pattern)… only to find that I had been blocked from her account.

Now that was sudden!  I have to conclude that this person imitated me in reviewing a few of my earlier posts—and saw something of which she disapproved.  So she slammed the door permanently to all further communication.  She didn’t respond to whatever objectionable comment I may have made in explanatory disagreement; and she also didn’t choose simply to read my opinions more selectively—none of which would ever be directed to her personally.  She certainly wasn’t censuring me for slinging about foul language or inciting mayhem, because I never do any such thing.  Just an idea… she saw an idea expressed that rubbed her the wrong way, so my voice has been forever silenced in her universe.

This is a small thing—but not, I contend, an insignificant one.  It’s a sign of the times.  Even as NGOs are busily trying to control our thoughts on every subject from the proper moment to mutilate a human fetus to the permitted circumstances for using words like “owner”, private citizens are beginning to behave the same way.  As individuals, we aren’t putting up a principled resistance.  We aren’t protesting, “I will neither be bullied into condoning baby-slaughter nor shamed into trimming my speech of harmless words.  I have inalienable human rights.  You needn’t listen to me, but you can’t cut my throat.”  No; we’re adapting formal airbrushing and permanent ostracism to our personal habits.

Young singles won’t date a person sympathetic with the opposition political party.  Families won’t hear of a child marrying someone once seen in a MAGA hat.  Social-media users won’t allow a person’s post to crawl across their screen ever again once he disapproves of executing Julian Assange or suggests that Putin might be less our cultural enemy than Angela Merkel.  An editorialist’s home may be surrounded by a mob if he argues in print that CO2 is not turning Earth into a death trap.

Disney, Starbuck’s, and Yahoo are not driving us to do these things.  We do them unbidden: we do them because they are our new etiquette.  We are turning into tribalists incapable of understanding the finer points of the First Amendment, or even the crude parameters.
Also on Twitter (what an eye-opening education in twenty-first century manners is that otherwise great sinkhole of wasted time!), I enjoyed this past week my first experience of being “reported”—or my first conscious experience of it.  (Who knows how many times I’ve made the “bad boy” roll without being informed of my achievement?)  I had repeated, with the brevity inescapable on Twitter, a charge about Hillary’s having accepted a fat Russian donation to the Clinton Foundation in return for using her office of Secretary of State to lubricate access to uranium deposits: the so-called Uranium One Scandal.  Turns out that my information was somewhat old and somewhat exaggerated.  The Russian entity actually failed to secure the kind of access which it had assumed would be the quid pro quo.  A message awaited me the next morning.  It simply read, “Reported.”  Reported.  As if to say, “Your action has not passed unnoticed, K.  A date will be set for your trial.”

Now, in the first place, Clinton remains ill-positioned to be mudslinging at Donald Trump because of a hotel in Moscow; that she cheated the devil by using her office to wring money out of crooks who ended up with nothing doesn’t exactly make her the gold standard of probity.  (For the record, I did not vote for either of these two in 2016: those few words alone will earn me a dozen “blocks”.)  I immediately corrected the excesses in my original statement—which did not include, “POS”, “burn in hell”, or anything in that genre.  Doesn’t matter.  Merely for typing the two words “Uranium One” on Twitter, you’re likely to get yourself “reported”.  No response voicing disagreement with referenced link, nothing even so personal as a complete sentence.  Just “reported”.  That passes in our time as a communication between two human beings.

As I say, Twitter has been an education.  I use the past-present tense because I think daily now about severing all ties with it.  I suppose I’ll continue until my first actual suspension; I’m kind of curious to see when that comes—if one idiot’s “report” of one slightly inaccurate (but not fundamentally wrong) news summary will suffice.  A single suspension will terminate my connection.  I’m too old to be nagged by a nanny, and too punctilious about my own conduct (John Cleese would consider me an anal-repressive) to tolerate an arrogant corporation’s moral halter in my mouth.

It’s a shame, though.  You can’t talk to people in the streets.  You can’t talk to your own relatives.  On the job, you risk termination for voicing an honest opinion.  For mainstream publishers, you have to propagandize suitably for your niche of the market.  You might risk talking to the trees… but an old Irish proverb warns, “The walls have ears, and the field has eyes.”

The Neurosis of E-Life: An Addendum

What happens when messages can be conveyed easily from one party to another? Messages proliferate. What happens when messages proliferate? Everyone becomes saturated in “information” of widely varying quality. What happens when the good stuff and the bad is all stirred together in the same dumptruck-load of malodorous “communication”? The good stuff gets neglected with the bad. What happens when negligence becomes epidemic? People start feeling isolated and depressed, or even getting chippy and rude. What happens when depression and rudeness suddenly spike? People grow plangent—they want more attention, and they want everyone to apologize to them. What happens to a society of hurt, whining children and sullen, smarting victims? It fragments. You have the children who continue to whine and form groups of whiners; you have withdrawn clams who tune everything out, including the desperate sufferers who are in anguishing need; and you have the whackos who decide to blow themselves and everyone around them to hell since they can’t find an audience.

Welcome to our world.

In a professional context, you also see the multiplication of petty tasks to virtual infinity. Since it’s now so easy to demand that minions and underlings do thus and so, demands grow more numerous. The manufacture of demands, indeed, becomes itself an arduous chore: the tinpot dictators snuggled behind their keyboards actually manage to overwork themselves. They need more supporting staff, so more funds must be allocated to more hiring. At the other end, the minions grow more stressed-out because the day’s hours have not been multiplied to keep up with the rising volume of minute tasks to perform. They cut corners on the work they were intended to do in order to complete absurd surveys, questionnaires, and tutorials. The threat of harsh consequences if they do not accede to every latest demand wears upon their health, as well; for the demands are entirely impersonal and often, therefore, imperious. When you can order someone about remotely, never seeing the person’s face or hearing the person’s voice, you tend to order a little more often and a little more peremptorily. One thinks of the subjects of the Milgram Experiment, turning up the “pain” button on their tortured victims (who, unknown to them, were just acting), because they nestled behind the anonymity of a command chain and a two-way mirror.

Give a man a hammer, it is said, and everything looks like a nail. Give people the capacity to send messages simply and quickly… and you have a society of people who do nothing but “message”, to the extent that they haven’t enough time to live something worthy of report. As a society, the model is pretty crappy, really. I could almost wish for an EMP to wipe it all away; but then, most of us would die in the process.

Then again, are we alive right now?

Hollywood: Feeding On What It Most Hates

I doubt that the creators of War Dogs are remotely aware of the title’s Shakespearean allusion, which is as accidental as every other connection with the past in our post-culture.  You probably saw the commercial fifty times in October.  A couple of punks are getting rich selling arms to the U.S. government that they’ve bought from shady sources all around the world (e.g., Albania, awash in Chinese weapons and ammo after the Cold War).  The central plot is supposedly factual.  The Bush Administration deregulated arms sales in a manner that would allow small dealers to pursue government contracts… and this blow on behalf of efficient spending of public funds and against crony contracting with mega-corporations is–of course–represented by the film as corrupt and incompetent.  The two f-bombing idiots might have stepped straight out of the scenes of at least half a dozen recent Wall Street/Jordan Belfort movies: thinking of nothing but money, doped up for half their waking hours, and aware of what they’re doing only to the extent that they understand themselves to be doing nothing–to be playing a shell game with no pea under any of the husks.

My son wanted to watch the flick over Christmas break, and I have to disclose that I myself didn’t make it through to the end.  I’m really more curious to know what impact this kind of fare has on his generation than to find out how the cartoon ends.  (As a student of cliche, I pretty much know that after twenty minutes.)  When popular culture surrounds you with images of businessmen either boring each other to death in gray flannel suits or snorting coke and plotting how to get at the pensions of widows, how can your impression of reality not be affected?

To say that the entertainment media are undermining the morale of Western capitalism is itself a cliche, I know.  It would be far more interesting to spend some time reflecting on how capitalist greed and amorality have created the entertainment industry.  All I feel inclined to jot down for the moment, though, is that I can’t really see any coherent, premeditated conspiracy behind the demoralization.  People tell me that academe is also trying to subvert our way of life, and I respond the same way: I believe the “establishment-bashing” is more accident–more being part of the club (the anti-establishment establishment) than deliberate sabotage.  It’s the sort of ganging together that you observe on any playground.

Hollywood’s case is uniquely interesting to me, however, in that it makes enormous profits off of what its operatives see as humanity’s worst tendencies.  Violence is evil–but a film without violence is a bore and a bomb; so Hollywood creates visions of violence that exceed almost anything perceptible in real life, and then either blames the causes of violence on the “evil class” or celebrates the violent rebel for blowing up that class.  Exploiting the vulnerable is evil… so Hollywood exploits females in sexual displays approaching or surpassing the pornographic and the sadistic in order to paint the exploiters as arch-villains.  You live only by representing the thing that you most hate, so that you may both legitimize it as a real and formidable presence in the world and cast yourself as the constant, faithful crusader against its dark power.  Like the Puritan censor whose job is to smell out smut and send its producers to jail, you keep your nose in the dirt 24/7.  If the dirt should suddenly go away, your perverted vital energies would gnaw themselves into oblivion.

Will we ever take a good, hard look at how we amuse ourselves, how our amusements are leaking into our souls, and how we allow clowns and impersonators to have such influence over our cultural life?

The War on Thinking (Continued)

I may have left the wrong impression yesterday in writing that readers detest big words and closely reasoned arguments nowadays–that there’s a kind of war on thinking, and that some of us who like to think things through (even if we don’t always do so effectively) are starting to feel lonely.  “Targeted” may be too strong a word; and as soon as a word like that flickers across my mind, I shift to recollections of self-perceived victims saying that newly empowered Trump supporters are threatening them on the streets.

So let me be clear.  I didn’t vote for The Donald–honestly, the final vote I cast last year was in the primaries.  (Verbum sagacibus sufficiat.)  But I am not a Trump-a-phobe, either.  My latest encounter with big-league suppression of speech was in a class of English majors last fall.  Annoyed that so many of the group consistently skipped our meetings and/or didn’t produce homework, I tried to pave over my irritation on one mid-semester occasion.  I remarked, “Well, I guess we have ten students missing today because Question Four drove them to suicide.”  You would have thought that I had uttered the “n” word or announced that the Holocaust was a Jewish-devised myth, judging by the reactions of three or four girls.  I was so stunned and appalled by the willfully uncharitable interpretation of my little bid for levity (one girl charged that I was “satirizing suicide”) that I devoted most of the following class to a defense of the First Amendment… to no avail.  I didn’t move any of those who had pounced on me with both feet.  Instead, they trotted out some rather Maoist arguments about how people need to think before they speak and society (read “government” as the Will of Society) should enforce the consequences of “not thinking” (read “not kowtowing to the hyper-active sensibilities of protected groups”).

Late in the semester, much water having flowed under the bridge, the same class was working in groups on a challenging task.  One girl declared very audibly in frustration, “I think I’ll just shoot myself.”  I peeked around for any hint of a response.  All heads remained lowered with utter fixity.  I couldn’t make out whether nobody had registered even a blip on the indignation screen or whether–just as likely–they all realized that one of their one had done exactly what I’d done, and nobody wanted to acknowledge it.

So… please accept my clarification.  The political ideology that imagines itself the home-sweet-home of deep thought is, in my experience, the most repressive of openly shared ideas.  I do understand the complaints of those who’ve been hooted at by rednecks in pick-up trucks.  Every time I try to use my old-fashioned push-mower in the front yard, someone drives by and shouts, “Faggot!” at me out the window of that invariable, stereotypical pick-up.  I don’t know why.  So it’s more manly to park your gluteus maximus on a riding mower and burn gallons of gas than to force a manicure upon your grass with brute strength?  As a walker of long miles in my youth (I once covered 600 miles around Ireland in a month), I’ve also had projectiles hurled at me from passing vehicles that might have killed me outright if they’d landed a headshot.  Apparently, pedestrians are also “faggots”.  Non-faggotry clearly has something to do with gas consumption.

Yes, homo inerectus is among us: I get it.  And he always will be–you need to get that.  My beef is that people who used to think and converse in a calm, civil manner are cutting each other off now.  That’s a crying shame.