Thursday, 23 April 2015

Over-Rated (On Freedom of Expression, Part 1)

Freedom of expression is overrated.

Freedom not to listen to over-rated expression is under-appreciated, and under-exercised.

When I read that some 17-year-old (later revised to 16-year-old) twit had posted a Youtube video deriding Lee Kuan Yew, I thought to myself, what does a 17-year-old have to say about Lee that would be insightful, inspiring, thought-provoking, interesting, erudite, fresh, or significant?

There are only so many hours in a day. Five minutes wasted on dumb things are five minutes of your life you will never get back.

I read Colin Goh's take on the issue which I thought was the right, nuanced approach.

He is just an attention-seeking kid and giving him attention is precisely the WRONG thing to do. The fault lies with the media firstly for reporting it. The next party at fault were those who searched for and watched his video because of the news report. The third group of people at fault were those who made police reports after watching the video. As Colin wrote, 20 wrongs piled on one wrong does not make it right.

Unfortunately, all those "faults" were almost... inevitable.

(I've been using that word a lot.)

The news HAD to report it because it IS news (and because, well, Freedom of the Press). People were BOUND to watch the video because of its subject matter. And those people who were sufficiently infuriated, could NOT DENY THEIR NEED to report it to the authorities (Because, well, Freedom of Expression of disgust to the authority... that is a REAL Freedom right?). And then the Police HAD TO ACT on the matter because they are public servants and "an offence has been disclosed to them" (They had NO FREEDOM NOT to Act).

There was no choice. And so it was inevitable.

Or is it?

There are precisely two points in that chain of events where we (the people) entered the picture, where we had a choice.

We could have chosen NOT to watch the video. Those of you who did, were your lives improved by it? Did you expect it to improve your lives before you watched it? Did you think your perspective of the world would be enlightened? Or your perspective of Singapore? Of Lee Kuan Yew? Of Singapore Youth's insightful view of national events?

And those who did watch and were incensed by the video could have chosen NOT to be incensed by the video, or chosen NOT to make police reports about it, or to do anything about it.

And what is the message this attention-seeker is getting? That he is able to get attention by his actions. Wonderful.

Be assured that he, and attention-seekers like him, will do the same in the future.

It takes a village to raise a child (and just one child to raze a village). And part of raising a child is letting the child know that attention-seeking simply for seeking attention, will be ignored.

Unfortunately, the adults were suckered into acting as the child wanted.

A principled stand

Conversely, the US is doing what I wished people had done for the above issue, but for terrorists website. Which is the WRONG thing to do.

Singaporeans are practical people and we concern ourselves with the practical effects of actions, rather than the principle of actions. For example, if we have a war on terrorism, we would do all that is necessary to oppose terrorists, terrorism, and terrorists' websites and new media communications.

Not the US.

For the US to take the position that "Freedom of Expression is an inalienable right which extends to all people, even those who would do us harm" is a very principled stand.

Now, there will be some who will laud the US for their principles. I agree that they should be lauded. For their principles.

Not for their common sense.

Nor their ability to think clearly. Or logically. Or their ability to get things done.

There will also the more pragmatic people who will say that what the US is doing is self-defeating, self-handicapping, and self-sabotaging. And I agree with their assessment.

David Brooks suggests that in the past individuals were more wary of self-interests and more trusting of external institutions. Now, he thinks, society (meaning American or US society) is more trusting of individuals or the self, than institutions. (Which explains conspiracy theories.)

The US is therefore wary of shutting down alternative views. And a terrorists website is about as alternate as it gets.

While in many cases the US may act rather arrogantly, their Freedom of Speech may perhaps be seen as an act of humility. As Mr Stengel (US Under-Secretary of State) explains, Freedom of Speech means protecting "the speech that we hate" and not just those that we agree with. Implicit in this is the concession that what we hate may be true, or correct.

At least, I think that is ONE possible concession.

Or it may be misplaced arrogance and confidence on the part of the US.
Mr Stengel felt that social networks can be harnessed to disseminate “credible voices” rejecting terrorism...  “(Social media) is a powerful tool for them, but it should be an even more powerful tool for us.”
In other words, in a democracy with freedom of speech, we can be sure that for every non-credible voice (terrorist), there should be more than one credible voice (anti-terrorist) rejecting the lies of the non-credible terrorist voice.

Mr Stengel (and Americans, if his view is representative of most Americans) either misunderstands or underestimates, or has no understanding of how contemporary terrorism works. Or for that matter, how the internet and new media works.

In the Ideal Democratic Utopia (c), contrary views are aired, debated logically, and reason, rationality, and objective truth will prevail in the end.

Reality is a lot messier. And stupider.

Take any "Classic" debate about value-laden positions - Abortion (in the west), for example. In the real world, opposing views are presented, debated, then opposing views and their supporters are labelled, and reason and rationality goes out the window, and the respective parties entrenched their position and seek to outmanoeuvre the other in making pre-emptive legislation in order to present the opposing side with a fait accompli. Except with the way the US politics is set up, nothing is ever "accompli".

And with terrorism, a hundred voices may debunk a non-credible voice, but all that non-credible voice wanted was to be heard, for just one susceptible, gullible, credulous, dissatisfied, disenfranchised, discriminated soul to listen, believe and decide that there is a call to action that involves strapping on a suicide bomber's vest and taking out some of his "persecutors".

In fact, that is not even how the internet or the new media works! In reality, the terrorist will set up a website and people sympathetic to their views, their politics will visit the site and find affirmation for their beliefs or views. Any "credible voice" (i.e. non-terrorist or anti-terrorist) who goes to the website, read the appalling untruths posted there, and post a reasoned rebuttal of the points, will be ignored (at best), or drowned out by the flood of opposing views and comments (most likely).

And these people should have Freedom of Speech?

Because the problem isn't debunking the false speech with an avalanche of credible voices. The problem is preventing the false speech from being transmitted and infecting, influencing even ONE person into taking harmful actions, with catastrophic results (i.e. death) for many.

Isn't there some responsibility to ensure that the speech one is being freely allowed to speak is true, relevant, and beneficial? Or at least not likely to cause harm or death? Isn't there a valid argument for why Freedom of Speech should be denied for such cases? Shouldn't the US deny their self-declared enemies a platform to propagate terrorism against the US?

Apparently not. At least not according to the US.

The Freedom of Noise

False speech also generates more noise than signal, and can drown out true speech.

Google "filibuster".

"Freedom of speech" in Congress has prevented others from speaking, and the government from carrying out its duties.

Of course, the problem with deciding that Freedom of Speech should be practiced responsibly, is that who should decide what is responsible and what is not?

As I said, the US is to be lauded for its HIGHLY PRINCIPLED STAND that ALL Speech should be protected. Even the freedom of expression of Terrorists.

Or they decided that the question of what speech to be protected is too problematic to answer and just took the easy way out.

Or it decided that Freedom should not carry responsibilities. That is the antithesis of "Freedom". Responsibilities are such a downer.



In the case of the banana-eating 'Tuber, we should have just ignored him. Like the US is trying to ignore the terrorists hosting websites from the US. Because he is irrelevant, insignificant, and a waste of time. And we have all played into his stupid gambit of trying to attract attention. We should be smarter than that.

In the case of terrorists hosting websites in the US, the US should take action to close them down. Because they are NOT irrelevant, NOT insignificant, and it is NOT a waste of time to close them down because they are DANGEROUS, and the US is playing a stupid game with their lives. And ours. Unless of course the US is trying to be clever and is thinking "Keep your friends close, and your enemies closer".

Sure. Play that game. If you think you are a player.

As for the filibuster... well, we should not tell the US what to do. That is something only a truly arrogant nation can do.

[Part 2]

No comments: