The Northern Spy
Charlie? Oui et non.
Our world is connected
as never before. The hyperlinked Metalibrary of all knowledge, works, and opinions that was forecast here decades ago, is now enabled, though not fully realized, by modern computing systems. A few pieces are still missing from the forecast facility--automatic two-way linking of citations, microaccounting to credit authors for items read/cited, storage for home rental/display of high definition two and three dimensional images of museum pieces, the complete transformation of all print media (texts, fiction, magazines, newspapers) to electronic form, and a comprehensive library of 3-D printables. They're all coming. Wait for them. Dead tree format is indeed obsolete.
What is the Spy's report card to date on the Internet as proto-Metalibrary? Here are his letter grades and comments
whiz-bang technology: A; meeting expectations so far
factual data/information: B-; for its age, should be doing better
entertainment value: C+; narrow, limited in expression
general content quality: C; uneasy balance between good and bad
news: B+; Timely, but no more reliable than other sources
journals: C; Student must try harder
magazines: D; student procrastinates
opinion: D+; think before typing
building community: F; must try to overcome sociopathic tendencies
Since this has always been a column about the interactions among social, ethical, and technological issues, it's the last two the Spy wishes to explicate this month. Paris events play a role, but the issues are broader.
Free speech as in liberty
Western liberal democracy has a solid (if not ancient) tradition of its citizens being at liberty to critique their leaders, institutions, religions--even democracy's very foundations. The latter is paradoxical, for liberal democracy cannot exist without giving enemies the right to persuade its citizens that they are backing the wrong horse, and must instead subject themselves to their tyranny. There are always demagogues, peripatetic mouthes foaming complaints, criticism, and caricature, to the point of vilify everything and everyone they fancy not, including all ideas not their own (even if borrowed). To this list, the Internet adds trolls. It also facilitates the expression and spread of criticism.
So, just as we ought not be astonished when we hear that spy agencies are spying, for that's their role, we variously laugh, wink, or cringe at the cartoonist poking fun at...well, anything and everything. It's what they do. Who, growing up on the Vancouver Sun's Len Norris or the Toronto Star's Duncan Macpherson could forget their sharply incisive quills? Who doesn't remember Mad Magazine's brilliant send-ups? (NIXXON re-elected as "the same old gas"). Of course, some alleged humour is merely adolescent tittering behind the outhouse, and deserves as little attention--trolls included. And, we aren't happy when our own favourite ox is painted iridescent purple by the caricaturist, but however sincerely and passionately we hold our beliefs, there can always to someone's perception be something of the ridiculous in the way we practice them, especially in the contradictions inherent in the way we live them out.
Political and religious conservatives, or the slow to change in any human endeavour (especially the fashions, lifestyle, beliefs, politics, grantable academic pursuits, or social causes de jour), will always be held up to ridicule and contempt by the trendy, fashionable, and "politically correct" de jour though even they, in more reflective moments, ought to realize one day they will be on the receiving end of similar abuse from a later generation of skeptics when they become viewed as the conservatives for holding on to their ways. The reverse is just as true, but on the Internet, that later generation could be as soon as next week, or this afternoon, after the "latest" goes viral.
There are always people prepared to seize upon their own or each others' reigning paradigms, uncritically and illogically transform then into rigid and absolute doctrines of their magisterum out of a desire to be "right", then refuse to let go when the originators move on to something else. (Galileo and the church of his day were equally guilty of this.) The difference today is that even the most outrageous statements (well, to someone's eye) can gain an audience of millions in mere seconds. It will gain mockery in equal measure and speed.
All of us imagine ourselves the sage experts of some realm, even if only the table at the local deli where we pontificate to equally idle neighbours. Or, we make a U-Tube video in the hopes of it being a smash hit, even if only for fifteen seconds of fame (minutes have been speeded up)
Such desires can be commendable. Surely the believer, for instance, wants to be expert in what the Bible tells him or her about how their heart, soul, mind, and strength ought all belong to their creator in service to others. Surely the person elected to head a union, society, club, church, or corporation desires to be expertly, single-mindedly, and passionately loyal in promoting the cause of the entity entrusted to them to lead and promote--such is their legal fiduciary duty. Surely the purveyor of a new programming language, communications technology, SF novel, multigigapixel camera, 3-D printable hamburger, life-changing innovation, or great marketing idea wants a believing audience to turn into paying customers--and what better place to fish for followers than on the Internet? Ditto political and religious philosophies of all stripes.
And, any pursuer of followers may cross from the sublime or the practical to the ridiculous when tunnel vision prevents them seeing or doing anything else, so that they act contrary to the broader interests their own stated beliefs teach them to embrace. A religious group or individual can defend even true doctrine in such a nasty-tongued and belligerent manner, accompanied by such mean-spirited actions, that they effectively slander what they purport to believe, yet still imagine their deity will be pleased. A too-passionate politician may incite to hatred, shaming her own cause. The pursuit of money may tempt almost anyone to cut ethical and legal corners.
But laudable desire to be right about our technological, religious or political beliefs too often leads to the vanishingly improbable and borderline psychopathic conviction that we are not only right about everything, but cannot be potentially wrong about anything, and therefore need cultivate zero empathy for others' views or considerations. Love? Don't even ask the question. Here's another opinion on that matter: (1Jo 4:20-NIV) If anyone says, “I love God,” yet hates his brother, he is a liar. For anyone who does not love his brother, whom he has seen, cannot love God, whom he has not seen.
Woe betide the rest of us when we slip up and hand such a person a semblance of authority, for their motto is invariably "When I am in charge I do as I please", and will surely lay waste to everything else to ensure that the survivors of their reign of terror uniformly bow down to them and their ideas--whatever the domain in question. Such a person may debate, but cannot discuss, because winning is everything, and that there can be other points of view is inconceivable. Nor does it help to join the opposition if we play play the game with the same rules--the outcome is likely to be the same. Nasty opposers make nastier rulers.
Such a person "wins" a debate (argument, election, legal case) by time-honed proven adversarial techniques: redefining real issues to straw ones, sidestepping to ad hominem attacks such as slander and ridicule of the other side, and pretending to pander to the audience. Don't like a brand of computer? Call it a worthless toy, and its owners juvenile game players, not to be taken seriously. Don't like someone's opinions or philosophy? Call them old-fashioned phobias, myths, their proponents morons or worse. Negative propaganda works in every realm. To all this the Spy asks--as he does to the saying "he who dies with the most toys wins"--wins what, exactly?
Thus the need for satirists, including cartoonists, to hold up human foibles to ridicule. Indeed the true defender of democracy ought to welcome being the target of same, treat it as a teaching moment to keep them honest and humble, and rejoice that others take us less seriously than our pride wishes, or in the worst case, than our arrogance demands. In this carefully defined and limited sense, l'infiltrant est Charlie (or at least doffs his metaphorical hat and defends the right to speak).
But we tend to forget
in our embrace of free speech as one cornerstone of liberal democracy that this philosophy is a relatively recent phenomenon in human history. Past peoples took for granted autocratic rule by an oligarchy, the divine right of kings, or dictators, or the technological monopolist who could dictate the market price at will to get rich. The biggest stick ruled. Doubt it and do without, or in too many cases, die.
Such is the case in much of today's world, for free speech and its ilk are ostensible values of Western Civilization, but by no means embraced by all, however passionately we might believe that liberal democracy is better than anything else tried from time to time (to faintly evoke but misquote the substance of Churchill).
The twentieth century saw many monopolies, and numerous ideological dictatorships on the "left" and "right" (quoted because in practice they shake hands on methodology and are indistinguishable in their outcomes for hoi polloi). There are still plenty of military, civilian, or quasi religious dictatorships, and kleptocracies like the newly emerging second Soviet Union. More, the legislative houses of our western democracies are fractiously dividing over political ideology to the point of angry paralysis. Purity in technological ideology is of the same ilk, but in general a risk only to the pocketbook. The fact is, most of the modern world has no history of and is unlikely any time soon to pay even our lip service to free speech.
Indeed, speech is not so free in the western nations as we like to pretend. Charlie Hebdo is a publication of atheist leanings and specializes in lampooning political and religious ideas it holds in contempt. Fair enough. But imagine a publication similar in style and bite whose targets were capitalism, secularism, establishment science, progress, environmentalism, other sacred cows of the politically correct and their causes--even liberal democracy itself. Would the nations' intellectual and political leaders rally to support it? Not likely.
After all, the logical end of the secularism liberal democracy has recently come to embrace isn't two non-intersecting magisteria, but the entire expungement of all religious thinking from the social corpus, and the replacement of moral principles as the foundation for ethical behaviour by purely pragmatic (and therefore arbitrary) legalism. In the marketplace, this means profit is the only measure of right and wrong--good for shareholders, but not for the rest of us, as the recent redistribution of wealth has highlighted. And in the political realm it means the strongest fighter or most persuasive demagogue wins. Minorities? Who are they to question?
After all is not saying that all religions and moralities are equally relative the same thing that saying none are valid? So, remove them, and silence their adherents on any available pretext. If rhetoric does not suffice, take stronger action.
Nor can even we always say whatever we please
because there are situations when we voluntarily give up that right in whole or part, for a time. A cabinet minister (even an party's MP, representative, or Senator) yields the right to criticize his government, a corporate fiduciary can be nothing but publicly loyal, an organization's chair cannot even raise issues at a Board meeting, much less outside it, and a person who enters a silent cloister gives up most speech altogether. A soldier says "yes Sir", an employee does what she or he is told (subject to whistleblowing laws) a lawyer, priest, accountant, or doctor is bound to silence about her clients, and a teacher about her students, except as allowed by privacy rules (and none of these may romance those under their care). Spies pry, but they and their targets keep their mouths shut or pay the consequences. One can't get away with threats against the President or Prime Minister. If you work at Apple, you don't get to use one of those PC thingies at your desk. There are many circumstances in which expression is not entirely unconstrained.
Nor is speech always "free" as in "without cost" (free candy)
because every speaker bears responsibility for what he or she says (yes, Virginia, despite today's myotic focus on "rights" there are such things as "responsibilities"). The director who criticizes her own organization in public gets dismissed from the board. The General who bypasses six ranks to discipline a private she dislikes is court martialed and faces harassment charges. The cabinet minister who votes against her government gets relegated to the back bench, the accountant or lawyer who gossips about her clients loses her licence, the priest who blabs what was heard in the confessional gets defrocked, the Apple employee who leaks the next product specs without explicit orders gets fired, and the person in authority who uses it to advance their own sexual, financial or other agenda ends up in jail for breach of fiduciary duty. No, one cannot say or do whatever one wants without consequence.
Moreover, there are defamation and libel laws. Malicious attempts to blacken another's reputation may feel purging, but the price is damages and court costs extending into the tens to hundreds of thousand loonies--depending on how the courts establish motive, truth content, habitual offender status, and actual damage done. (A habitual offender pays more, and a truly outrageous one whose falsehoods the judge determines no one would believe anyway, might also pay more on the punitive side, but less for no real damage done.) Likewise, someone who appropriates trade secrets, patented or copyrighted IP is forced to pay the owner back--if they can afford a lawsuit. Such speech/action is freely uttered, but utterly costs.
Incendiary speech in particular generates its own set of problems, for if a demagogue incites hatred against religious, ethnic, or colour group, the consequences could range from murders to riots to genocide, and the inciter cannot deny partial responsibility. Ask your neighbourhood Nazi what his solutions to the world's issues are. In the past, such speech was free but localized, so attracted few consequences requiring restraint, but in the day when it can be broadcast to millions with a tweet, most liberal democracies do restrain it on the grounds that hate speech now can too easily lead to action, making the risk to life and limb too great to ignore.
Of course, human nature invariably leads to abuse of legalism, so such restraints against irresponsible speech can themselves be turned into contradictory weapons, by the simple expedient of reclassifying speech the majority dislikes as "hatred", thus banning it. For example, statements made concerning morality--or consequences of same--can now be punished as though they were "hate" or "phobias" despite that they are neither. Thus, those who would make moral or ethical statements (whether religious or not), or political pronouncements, that the majority hate to hear, may freely do so, but at the possible cost of their own financial or personal peril. After all, even in the west, "tolerance", which once meant a benign acceptance of differences has lately been redefined to demand the celebration of whatever the majority wants, and the rejection of all else, and in other places, replace that with "minority".
The last word
The Spy is not suggesting that Western society's own failings to practice consistently what it freely speaks on such matters provides excuses or remediation for those who cannot hear disagreement or see their passions caricatured without indulging homicidal rage. Nor is he suggesting that part of the cost of "free speech" is retaliation. Far from it. The murders at Charlie Hebdo and the actions of ISIS are heinous crimes in every absolute sense--a sane person cannot imagine the remotest possibility of paradise as reward for such actions.
Speech has the right to be free, must be free, even when it does gore the Spy's own ox. However, he declines the opportunity to caricature violent zealots who act on vicious propaganda, not because of fear of the consequences, but because they ought already to be viewed as their own caricature. So are those who indoctrinated them into hatred of the freedom to disagree, and incited them to kill to implement their narrow version of a dictatorship of the mind. Besides that, he passionately believes (though he'll force no one else to agree) that even idle words and actions will receive their due judgement in the end of time. For one who produces words in the multi-hundred thousand job lot as he does, that's a scary thought. In this also carefully defined sense, il n'est pas Charlie.
Scarier still was his prediction in this space back in the early 1980s that far from global connectivity promoting universal understanding, happy community, and global peace from the spread of knowledge and liberal democracy, it was more likely to highlight differences and hatreds from the spread of ignorance, thus exacerbating the instances and depth of conflict. So far, so bad.
Is there a solution short of wearing civilization down in wars that cease only when no one remains to fight? He asks this question in his novels. There he posits at least one alternate-earth society that has a nearly universal sense of morality (and therefore ethics), a government with a rigid (though of course imperfect) set of checks and balances, a separation of law and state, but not entirely of Church and state. You see, they've been through a near collapse of their entire civilization once in nuclear and biological warfare, and are wary of it happening again. After all, one of the other earths is a radioactive wasteland. But betimes, they must fight to keep what they have from the hands of would-be genocidal tyrants. Hey, they're Irish, so that's what they do--fight. (Self-stereotype here, not hate speech.) What of this earth? Have we the philosophical and moral backbone to defend our values, including free speech, from within the natural boundaries of a liberal democracy, or face either losing to its enemies, or worse still, becoming like them?
Quo vadis? And how will we employ technology to get there?
--The Northern Spy
Opinions expressed here are entirely the author's own, and no endorsement is implied by any community or organization to which he may be attached. Rick Sutcliffe, (a.k.a. The Northern Spy) is professor of Computing Science and Mathematics at Canada's Trinity Western University. He has been involved as a member or consultant with the boards of several community and organizations, and participated in developing industry standards at the national and international level. He is a co-author of the Modula-2 programming language R10 dialect. He is a long time technology author and has written two textbooks and nine alternate history SF novels, one named best ePublished SF novel for 2003. His columns have appeared in numerous magazines and newspapers (paper and online), and he's a regular speaker at churches, schools, academic meetings, and conferences. He and his wife Joyce have lived in the Aldergrove/Bradner area of BC since 1972.
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