Truth v. Repetition

Something curious is happening in Berkeley. Protestors keep shutting down speeches. The irony is that Berkeley is home of the "Free Speech Movement", and even of the "Free Speech" café. What is it that makes a place like Berkeley celebrate free speech, even while they try their very hardest to stop others from having it?

In America, free speech has a specific protection under the Bill of Rights, but it has a less-specific and more important meaning that everybody knows: you should be able to speak your mind without fear, because that's a good principle for a society to have. Until recently I would've called this a universal American principle.

You can track the erosion of free speech through the Wikipedia edit history. Recently, free speech was a "political right to communicate one's ideas", ensconced in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights; up until it became merely "the right to articulate one's opinions and ideas without fear of government retaliation or censorship". The subtext being: if you say something I don't like, the government still won't beat you, but now the mob I join might. It takes a lot of contortionism to put this forward as an ideal anyone has had ever, but the regularity with which you see people attempting it makes you wonder what's going on.

Naturally, few want to admit that they are straight up violating the principles of free speech. Each time a speaker is shut down, we're reminded that the speaker can speak, just not there (where they have an audience), on this occasion, and with those words (words somebody finds disagreeable). As with any good lie, the individual instances border on the believable, yet over time a pattern emerges that shows that, no, this is really just about suppression of speech.

It is an innate human reaction to want to wall off depictions we don't like, as natural as feeling hungry at the start of the day. And this innate urge is in direct contention with the need for free speech in a "free" society.

Whether or not this urge had any evolutionary purposes, it has a very specific effect: in shutting down speech, you alter public perception. And by altering public perception, you can bend reality to your will. Controlling perception literally makes the world more in line with your desires, as unbelievable as that sounds.

The reason this works at all is the public is pretty bad at separating truth from falsehood. What the public is good at is weighing which claims are repeated the most and accepting those as the truth. When citizens are honest and given equal representation, this system works well. When they are dishonest and disproportionately represented, the system breaks down and the lies outweigh the truth.

What gets repeated most often is what the public accepts as fact. If you are trying to get the public to accept a lie (or to accept the truth for that matter) you can do one of two things: you can either say your message over again, or you can try to silence the message of your opponents. Either way it's your message that fills the airwaves.

This is a starkly different worldview than we're used to. What this says is that the public forum is an arena where messages, often deliberate lies, compete to be the loudest. What we're used to is something different entirely: it is the idea that the public forum is a cooperative endeavor where good-faith ideas jockey to determine the truth, and the winner is selected based on accuracy, and some likelihood of furthering a shared agenda. This idea is core to the Anglo-American tradition. It shows through in a remark from 1942 by Justice Murphy:

...such utterances are no essential part of any exposition of ideas, and are of such slight social value as a step to truth...
Justice Murphy delivering the U.S. Supreme Court's majority opinion in Chaplinsky v. New Hampshire, 1942

This statement, which I assume was valid in 1942, is outdated. Today's participants come to the forum deaf to any truth but their own self-interest. Whatever time isn't spent on trumpeting their message is spent on suppressing the actual truth. The forum is not a marketplace of ideas anymore: it is a one-way conduit for misleading the public.

By the 1970s Buckminster Fuller sensed that something had changed. He went so far as to suggest that World War Three had started at the close of WW2, that its means were "invisible psychological warfare", and that it was ongoing to the present. Now Buckminster Fuller, while a genius, was also an eccentric, and his idea sounds a tad tinfoil-hat. We are tempted to dismiss it outright, that is, until we remember how often the tinfoil-hats have been right lately.