Once upon a time, it must have seemed like a dream. A truly egalitarian and inclusive dream, not so much international as transnational, in which information, ideas and opinions could be freely exchanged, discussed, examined and argued. A modern-day agora, where free speech was not so much a right granted from on high, but simply an inexorable condition of the thing itself. This agora would, after all – and unlike that of Classical Athens – be beyond the control of any one nation, state or authority, and therefore beyond the creeping tentacles of censorship. Yes, it must have seemed like a dream, a lovely and perhaps unattainable dream…
…And then it happened, and everyone decided that they hated it after all.
I’ve been thinking a lot recently about the handwringing surrounding the issue of fake news, and how freely the term is bandied about. The left feverishly accuses the right of manufacturing fake news to support its agenda; the right accuses the left of exactly the same thing, and with equal fervour. Established news channels – wary, perhaps, of the bolshie new kids on the block – timidly urge us to put our trust in those sources hallowed by time and tradition, i.e. themselves. The new kids on the block, meanwhile, argue – not without reason, perhaps – that even the most established and reputable of sources have always allowed their bias to distort the truth: not through outright lies, perhaps, but through the more subtle means of presentation, editing, exaggeration and omission.
And where does the truth lie in all of this?
In tatters, some would say: a broken, bleeding victim of the online free-for-all. Others might say that “the truth”, outside such fields as pure mathematics, is, and always has been, elusive: not a commodity to be grasped and possessed, but a finely-balanced point in the ongoing process of social and cultural negotiation.
We are urged to consider the potentially corrosive effects of fake (or supposedly fake) news on the minds of those who consume it, especially the young (“Think of the children!”). The problem, of course, is that the moment the internet became a constant, ever-present aspect of our lives, the possibility of controlling what people see, read or hear became ever more remote. It is possible to block websites; it is possible, in certain circumstances, to forcibly shut them down. This, however, usually just proves to be an endless, dispiriting game of whack-a-mole: no sooner has a site been blocked or shut down than a new one springs up to take its place. Even if we could control what people are exposed to, would this really help in the long term? Banning things has rarely worked particularly well: that which is banned acquires mystique and allure, and human ingenuity – especially when it comes to getting that which we desire – is often astonishing in its capacity to overcome obstacles and outwit authorities.
My greatest concern, I suppose, is that any attempt to contain or suppress fake news runs the risk of turning into an assault on free speech. I’ve already heard the label “fake news” being applied not only to obviously false internet memes – such as the story that once popped up on my Facebook feed assuring me that a massive comet was on a direct collision course with Earth – but to opinions. Some of these opinions may be nauseating, but they are nevertheless opinions, of the sort to which we are all supposed to be entitled.
To the best of my knowledge, no culture or society has ever thrived by becoming ossified, by shutting out or refusing to consider different ideas, however alarming they may at first appear. Most modern westerners, I think, almost instinctively believe that slavery is morally wrong. Just a few centuries ago, it was widely considered a natural, almost inevitable aspect of human life. It took years, and considerable pressure – most of it exerted by people who were at first considered to be crackpots – to change that. (I’m not comparing anyone in the present situation to heroic anti-slavery campaigners, by the way; I’m making a general point.)
Are you convinced that your culture and society as it stands has the right idea about everything? Do you think it should cut itself off from all challenges, all questions, all differences of opinion? Or do you think that it should indeed accept questions and challenges – as long as they are of the kind that you personally approve of? Are you so confident of your own opinions, that you think that you are the arbiter of all that is right and wrong?
I doubt there are many people who are quite so arrogant.
If you believe that an opinion is truly repellent and fails to stand up to scrutiny, then you can indeed take up arms against it – not by trying to ban its expression, but by arguing against it, appealing to logic, reason, humanity. In the age of the internet, you can do this with greater ease, and greater reach, than ever before. You’re no longer limited to writing whiney letters to the papers or grumbling with a few friends over a pint; you can tweet, write Facebook posts, start a blog or a website, write an essay or a book, get together with a few like-minded souls and start a campaign … the possibilities are, if not endless, at least many. The same internet that makes the expression of objectionable ideas possible also hands a golden opportunity to those arguing against them. The best defence against either fake news or repugnant ideas is surely to draw them out into the open and subject them to reason and scrutiny, at which point they should – hopefully – crumble, like a vampire exposed to sunlight.
It seems to me that we need to rely, not upon some benign authority to protect us from dangerous ideas, but upon our own common sense, our own ability to think clearly and rationally, to strengthen our own ideas by subjecting them to scrutiny, and then to turn that scrutiny like a search beam on opposing ideas. If you don’t think we’re capable of that, you probably don’t have much faith in our educational institutions (and you might have a point). If that is the case, you might want to start a campaign to improve them. (And, if I might make a suggestion, you could perhaps start by making Philosophy and Logic part of the foundation of curricula, instead of allowing them to be shunted to the sidelines and treated as the irrelevancies they most certainly are not.)
This has been quite a long post, at least by my usual standards. I hope it’s made at least some sense. If it didn’t, leave a comment. Say whatever you want, even if you think it might offend me.
This blog is, I assure you, a free-speech zone.