Saturday, 12 December 2015

The strange desire to squash freedom of speech

People seem split about US presidential candidate Donald Trump. His hair, sorry, his policies neatly separate the left from the right, not only in the US, but in every country pretending to care about the pre-primary silly season currently hogging the airwaves.

In a perfect world, I wouldn’t need to speak about Mr Trump at all. He wields no power and is unlikely to secure any despite what his supporters claim. But this is not a perfect world, and Mr Trump represents a deep problem also found in New Zealand society that’s worth discussing – as opposed to yelling.

I am not interested in Mr Trump’s ideas about forcing the Mexican government to pay for a security fence to keep illegal immigrants from stealing across the border. Neither am I interested in his attacks on the politically-correct “regressive”-left (as Muslim author Maajid Nawaz so eloquently recently called the progressive left). He may as well command the sea to stop being wet.

I am not even interested in his back-of-the-envelope proposal to stop all Muslim immigration to the US. Presumably this unworkable policy precludes Muslim Americans on holiday or working overseas from re-entering the US too. Never mind that the idea rips up the US constitution, how exactly will Mr Trump screen for such people?

No, what concerns me is every side’s attempt to stifle the other’s words. Being offended isn’t a nice feeling, we can all relate to that. But it does not mean we should force other people to be silent simply to feel good. It is a direct attack on freedom of speech – the only thing that makes Western civilisation worth protecting.

Or maybe it’s not worth protecting? That’s what a Martian watching the developed world’s politics would think. It’d guess that the silencers represent the majority of their fellow citizens, but it would be wrong. There has been no country-wide referendum in any developed nation over the outlawing of particular words or ideas. It is only assumed that causing offence is worse than crushing freedom.

If there had been a democratic process asking whether the central tenants of freedom of speech should be retained or rejected, and the majority of New Zealand or US citizens chose the latter, that would probably be acceptable. But the powers that benefit from these outrages prefer to say the attacks on words do not erode freedom of speech. And we believe them.

Mr Trump is only the most visible example of someone attacking freedom for ideas and speech. Millions of people of different countries agree with him. Many people were breathlessly waiting for an opportunity to compare the man to Hitler. But this exact response – spitting nastiness and hatred – is the problem. I can spot narcissism at 1000 paces.

The thread connecting everyone in the Western political spectrum is a desire to negate “bad” speech. The excuse is that some speech causes offence and the world would be better if no one was allowed to say those things. Fine. But where does this desire come from? And, more importantly, who will be empowered to choose which words stay and which will go?

Understand first that narcissism is not just a psychological affliction anymore. In the Western world, and across most developing human societies, it is a full-blown social ideology.

Perhaps this is the inevitable consequence of mixing capitalism with democracy, or perhaps it’s an integral part of the human condition. Either way, the society in which we live can only exist if the key driver is identity, not community.

This is why those who wish to outlaw speech and ideas gain such impressive traction. Narcissism can be difficult to recognise, the clue is that it functions outside of time. In narcissism believing in something is superior to acting because the former is about you and the latter is about everyone else.

A narcissistic culture is obsessed with broadcasting personal identity, requiring not just external validations but validations visible to others of a person’s individual value. If what we’re witnessing is narcissism, then its purpose is to protect identity at the expense of everything else. The questioning of a person’s assumed identity is an insult – a narcissistic injury.

There are three ways humans deal with narcissistic injuries: rage, displaced rage or (the one that ruins you) making the offence about yourself until it becomes your “fault”. People increase their pain to save their identity. It is clear that Mr Trump’s single-mindedness of purpose ignores each of us as individuals.

But give him the benefit of the doubt that he’s doing what he think is best for society, for America. What the listeners hate is that it isn't for them, for you, or for me. People hate the seeming indifference to their individual worth and sense of importance. Votes don't count. Everything is about religion and race. Where in all that is the individual?

Voters are only tools to a politician’s "higher cause." Of course people say they’re angry at the cause, but I think it's really anger that they're being used for something that doesn’t confirm that the individual is the central character in their own story. It means he exists independently of the person. The individual is not the main character in the movie. Mr Trump has his own movie and we’re not even in it. That's a narcissistic injury. It is the worst calamity that can befall a narcissist.

And if all rage comes from narcissism and narcissism is the social broadcasting of a person’s chosen identity, what identity is the average person broadcasting in this particular political era?


This is politics everywhere. Modern people don't want the political solution to be “about the next generation” because they’d prefer the answer to be about them – their own fulfillment, happiness, safety and sanity.

But the more regressive manoeuvre is to define oneself in opposition to things. “I can't tell you what I want for dinner,” says a toddler, “but I am certain I don't want that. Or that. Or that.” Then the contents of the bowl paint the walls.

The introspection and demand that personal thought bubbles not be polluted with different thoughts leads to the desperate desire to skip right over healthy debate and straight to rage. For instance, this week people in the UK thought Donald Trump shouldn’t say such nasty things about Muslims, so now they want to bar him from entering their country. This is a defence of identity resulting in rage. Take a look at the Twitter universe if you don’t believe me.

People who truly understand and value free speech say the only cure for bad speech is more speech. The idea that this world might be better if certain concepts are no longer around is utopian. In other words, it is undesirable. After all, utopia comes from the Greek words for “no-place”. If this isn’t a red flag, you haven’t been paying attention.

What’s frightening about the responses to both Mr Trump and the “regressive” left is how few people want to do the work to debate constructively. The preferred response is hatred and control (rage and displaced rage). Healthy debate is a combination of effort with empathy, and neither is possible in a society obsessed with broadcasting identity, defined only by what they oppose.

If we engage others with reasoned debate, might poisonous speech disappear? Of course not. But we must not believe the old adage that it is impossible to reason someone out of a position they did not reason themselves in to. I have seen this succeed many times.

Only you, dear reader, can turn this franchise around.

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