The Freedom To Lie

Francisco Goya’s Two Old Men.
Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

I’ve been considering the proliferation of hatred and how it has been affecting countries as of late. The shootings in Christchurch and Pittsburgh came from hatred of foreigners and anti-Semitic sentiment. But violence isn’t the only thing hatred spawned. Donald Trump ran on a platform fueled by hatred of whatever was on hand. Brexit appears to be influenced by anti-immigrant fears. These are just a few examples. There are many more to be had.

Curbing this trend is complicated. The world is more connected than conventional wisdom might suggest. We influence each other across language, time, and space. Complicating the matter is the fact that free countries don’t arbitrarily censor speech. This creates a unique problem. Speech is a problem, but it has to be treated with care. One commonality in hate- and fear-based speech is that it is based on false information. While people should have freedom to speak, they cannot have the freedom to lie.

Image courtesy of Stockvault.

The world is a little more connected than I think.
Recently New Zealand announced changes to its gun laws. Bernie Sanders, a candidate for President here in the States, expressed support for the changes, implying the U.S. should follow New Zealand’s lead. Naturally, organizations like the National Rifle Association expressed opposite opinions. All of a sudden, New Zealand domestic policy is discussed in American public spaces.

I wanted to be surprised by this. Many Americans couldn’t find New Zealand on a map. Now the only thing they know about New Zealand is that they don’t like the country’s new gun laws. None of this will affect them (unless they work in a gun factory, maybe).

Then again, the result shouldn’t be so surprising. It’s not like people outside the U.S. have been reluctant to react to U.S. domestic policy. People love judging each other. Otherwise, we wouldn’t be such fans of petty competition. With mass media able to report on things in real time and across languages, the connected world can only react to what happens everywhere. The only way to get around this is to become authoritarian and manually control speech, like North Korea or Russia.

Image courtesy of Stockvault.

Talk is cheap, and it’s only getting cheaper.
Mr. Sanders is a U.S. Senator. He can actually write law. He can vote to pass laws. He can even vote to override executive approval on laws. What this means is that his comment on Twitter turned New Zealand domestic law into a U.S. domestic policy issue. Now, there gets to be American-style political discussion over it.

If foreign policy can spread like this – even from small countries to large ones – then what does it say about other things? It would be nice if only decency and sensibility flowed between borders. As I’ve mentioned previously, this isn’t the case. Nasty things like irrational fear and ignorant hatred also go from place to place. I don’t think any one place can be said to have invented it. I can say that each place has people who have swaddled themselves in it.

And once again, how does someone stop the speech that spreads these ideas without becoming Russia or North Korea? Making speech illegal is a big deal. Done poorly, it can stop much more than just hateful people. In the ideal, it will only stop people who say things that can get other people hurt or killed. To make matters worse, in my country the President signed an executive order about free speech on college campuses(whatever THAT means). The general idea behind it is that conservative students are being censored more often by liberals. That idea is not true.

Image courtesy of Stockvault.

That lack of truth is something I think can be regulated.
Social media needs the most work on this. Companies like Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube started their sites without any idea of how hate speech could proliferate on them. In hindsight, it shouldn’t have been surprising that bad ideas can spread just as quickly as good ones. Lies go around faster than truth. Facebook in particular was aware of this.

Right now, social media isn’t regulated on how it magnifies false speech. Ideally, they could find ways to teach their algorithms to diminish the impact and spread of false information. It would be like surgeon general’s warnings on cigarettes. “WARNING: This hate speech is not true and may end up getting you killed or incarcerated.”

Outside of that, I think other media needs to work on how it portrays speech that’s factually untrue. There is no debate between a flat-earther and reality as we know it. Even equal time spent debunking it gives it more weight than it deserves.

On an individual level, I think the greatest difficulty is in trying to reconnect people who insist their lies are true and valid to the rest of humanity. The urge is to ostracize and dismiss individuals. That dismissal just makes them ripe for feeling like they belong in hate-filled communities. What they believe is not true, but it doesn’t devalue them as human beings. In this way, I think ideas have to get separated from identity.

Lies are not equal to facts. Speech is not equal to identity. Humanity can’t afford to pretend to be isolated. What happens to one of us happens to us all.

10 thoughts on “The Freedom To Lie

  1. “I think the greatest difficulty is in trying to reconnect people who insist their lies are true and valid to the rest of humanity. The urge is to ostracize and dismiss individuals. That dismissal just makes them ripe for feeling like they belong in hate-filled communities.”

    That’s what we call separating the wheat from the chaff.

    The mouth breathing morons who subsist on Faux News and other sources of alternative facts will not be swayed by reality. Yes we cannot devalue their humanity, but we can call them effing stupid.

    There is an entire subculture of conspiracy theorists, rabble rousers, religious cults, anarchists, bigoted racists, anti vaxxers, chemtrail-ers, neo nazis, right wing radio hosts, good old redneck Billy Bobs, and everything in between out there sopping up the lies like a plate full of biscuits and gravy. Free speech has met its match.

    It has to come to a point where anything entering the realm of non factual content will need to come with a warning label indicating the dubious nature of its claims. Either that or we will continue to see the divide widening between the gullible simpletons and the somewhat edumacated. I don’t know what the critical mass point will look like, but I fear I really do not want to see it.


    • How likely are you to listen to someone who insists on calling you a dumbass before going into what he or she has to say? Do you think calling someone a “mouth breathing moron” helps or hurts the chances of persuading that person to change his or her perspective?


      • If all they have to say is what Faux News told them to think, or parrot any of the sort of sources I pointed out, there is no talking to them. Which was sorta the point. Those people are beyond reason.

        If someone is honest to goodness sitting on the fence and is open to learning something about the reality they have been taught to deny, I would of course not be so coarse in a response. I’d do my best to lead them to reliable sources to investigate, and not try to push it on them. Don’t want to scare away that one.

        …and sometimes being brutally honest is what it takes to jumpstart a thought process that can lead to some introspection. I know it has worked on me in the past in certain situations.

        Liked by 1 person

      • Please allow me to simplify what I’m driving at here.

        Which do you think is more important:
        (1) Figuring out ways to encourage people to not indiscriminately hate others and isolate themselves;


        (2) Viscerally reacting to the hatred of others and giving in to behavior that helps them remain unaware of the effects of hate on others.


      • First of all I don’t think it’s that simple of a situation. Corralling this issue into an either/or thing is problematic in any logical sense.

        As for number 1, the people in their alternate reality group probably already hate everything or everyone who would disagree with them. I can’t stop something that’s already been baked in.

        2, I’m not quite sure what you mean here but if you are suggesting we should all pussyfoot around and try to reason with these people by playing nice, that would depend on the person, the situation, and how they react.

        I’m too damn old and to damn ornery to put up with much BS from any conspiracy nut.


      • I didn’t ask you if you thought it was that simple of a situation. I am asking if you had to pick one, which would it be? It’s an attempt to get a statement of intent out of you.

        To put it even more simply, is it better to verbally abuse people into submission, or is it better to at least try to convince them otherwise? All I’m asking you to assume is that you’re in a situation where you can reasonably expect talking to them without abuse will change their mind.


      • I do have rules for comments, and your last one got deleted because it was the third time you ignored what I said. Essentially you’ve been responding to yourself. As such, it was unresponsive to me. If you go back and read my last comment to you, I didn’t accuse you of anything. I was asking a general question.


Comments are closed.