SPIRITUAL SOAP: Weird & Güd - How to Escape the Asylum
Padded walls can protect you from speech, too!
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A life well-lived is a life well-examined. A life well-examined has a little weird and güd within it. This newsletter is an examination of our weird and güd world.
Most conversations around censorship—even with the most well-meaning, well-informed thinkers—contain a glaring rhetorical device that almost always goes unchallenged:
There are the unabashedly authoritarian arguments for censorship based on “bad words” and “unsafe” ideas—nebulous concepts with fewer solid edges than that pink amorphous Pokémon, Ditto.
Then there are the self-proclaimed pro-speech arguments, still uneasy when it comes to defending the speech of those who push the boundary of our comfort—even if that precedes the boundary of our constitution.
The constitutional protection of speech was first conceived in a statement from James Madison that makes today’s debate look like a disagreement at a ladies’ church lunch:
The people shall not be deprived or abridged of their right to speak, to write, or to publish their sentiments; and the freedom of the press, as one of the great bulwarks of liberty, shall be inviolable.
— James Madison, June 8, 1789, speaking before the House of Representatives
Where does the censorship begin and end?
Contrast the American ideal of free speech with one particular speech law in England that existed until 1695 and you’ll see where Madison’s zeal was born.
Seeking to regulate the printing industry, monitor the growth of dissenting ideas, and disempower parliament’s opponents, a state-controlled censorship system was implemented by parliament on June 14th, 1643.
A requirement for licensing before publication.
Registration of all printing materials with the names of author, printer, and publisher.
Search, seizure, and destruction of books deemed offensive.
Arrest and imprisonment of offensive writers, printers, and publishers.
After passing this lovely ordinance, parliament then gave a publishing guild called the Stationers’ Company the power to apply the censorship system, rewarding their loyalty with a monopoly on the printing industry.
You see, the people can’t be trusted to publish their ideas with no oversight. At least, not if there isn’t someone standing by with the ability to punish every misstep.
You might think I’m being hyperbolic, so I’ll let you translate the original writing from the speech ordinance yourself:
…[Very many]…have taken upon them to set up sundry private Printing Presses in corners, and to print, vend, publish, and disperse books, pamplets and papers, in such multitudes, that no industry could be sufficient to discover or bring to punishment all the several abounding Delinquents…
Not the sundry private printing presses!
John Milton: obvious extremist who argued in favor of free speech and against the Ordinance for the Regulating of Printing for clearly devious reasons, such as writing the well-known extremist propaganda, Paradise Lost.
As we all know, after this speech law expired, the whole of England erupted into chaos and sunk into disaster at the hands of delinquents and their sundry printing presses.
I say let’s take these threats seriously, dammit.
Whether it’s delinquents and their printing presses in 1600s England or conspiracy theorists and their smartphones in 21st century America, free speech debates return to the bad actor and the idiot.
The bad actor is a real person, of course. They can be found doing irreparable harm by spreading misinformation that warps your worldview with fear and panic, causing grandmas everywhere to warn us about razor blades in Halloween candy. Shit, sorry—that’s the media.
The bad actor is a real person, I swear. The harm they’ve caused is well documented. From breaching our privacy rights by indirectly maintaining databases of private communications that can be tapped into at any time to blatantly lying repeatedly in public forums and on record, the bad actor—dammit, no, that’s the government.
I’ve got it this time. There are clearly instances of bad actors instigating civil unrest, and I don’t mean the public figures that openly encouraged riots and looting with no repercussions besides disagreement (as it should be).
I’m talking about real agents of chaos; people that use free speech to promote dangerous ideas that can lead people to commit violence.
I’m talking about subversive disinformation, such as:
Alert: You may have been exposed to harmful extremist content.
Nietzsche could be the poster philosopher for how easily an idea can become a “dangerous idea” when received by the wrong people.
The problem with a speech debate centered around the bad actor and the idiot is that both these figures are inevitable parts of every population, though we only see those on the side of our opponents.
Nietzsche didn’t set out to sow chaos with his work, but if a concept in your philosophy is cited as an inspiration for murder, those who oppose your ideas have little incentive (besides that forgotten relic called integrity) to admit a portion of every population contains its idiots.
An infamous murder took place in Chicago on May 21st, 1924.
Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb—wealthy and undeniably intelligent college kids—were in the grips of the kind of luxurious meaninglessness that has lead both kings and celebrities to seek sadomasochistic destruction for millennia.
Brimming with a dangerous kind of delusional arrogance, Leopold and Loeb planned a “perfect” crime that would be solved 8 days later: the murder of a 14-year-old boy.
Why would two men with futures so bright only total self-destruction could have derailed them go from well-mannered upper-class students to depraved child murderers?
Perhaps they had been exposed to harmful extremist content.
Leopold (top) and Loeb (bottom)
Before the murder, Leopold had taken a heavy interest in Nietzsche and wrote to Loeb about one of Nietzsche’s famous concepts, the Übermensch, or Super/Overman:
“A superman...is, on account of certain superior qualities inherent in him, exempted from the ordinary laws which govern men.
He is not liable for anything he may do.”
You can smell the rotting scent of rationalization even with only a mild familiarity with Nietzsche’s work.
Leopold interpreted what’s closer to the opposite of the Übermensch concept. Rather than be free from liability for your actions—a state that renders a person more like a child or animal—the Übermensch is the person who takes extreme responsibility for their actions.
Nietzsche’s concern about where humanity would go without our gods to guide us lead him to imagine the Übermensch—a human that could act in the good interest of both themselves and the world without needing the fear of fire and brimstone.
In committing murder justified by this misinterpretation, Leopold and Loeb gave a dark urgency to the truth behind Nietzsche’s fear that modern man will fall into chaos, unable to navigate a world where the morality religion once imposed instead becomes an option.
How can we prevent the depravity of Leopold and Loeb’s crime from ever happening again? What must we do to ensure no other person takes the same reading from Nietzsche’s work and is inspired to commit murder?
There’s one obvious answer to these questions and it culminates in a society where the work of a brilliant philosopher ceases to be read by all people—many who have created powerful art and ideas in response—because of those inevitable idiots.
But for the most complicated subjects, it is possible to ask the wrong questions.
The case of Leopold and Loeb is a perfect example of why society should never be built around the dangers posed by its most depraved.
To focus on the material that will inspire a person to do harm is to ignore the obvious prerequisite to harm—a state of being that turns a book, a song, a movie, or a religion, into a rationalization for harm.
And yet, free speech debates constantly return to the idiot, tirelessly seeking what the next possible inspiration for their malicious actions might be, steadily turning society into a padded room.
At one time it was books that would degrade the structure of society, then it was dancing that would unravel our culture, then it was jazz music that would inspire degeneracy, then it was premarital sex, then it was psychedelics, then it was homosexuality, then it was rock music, then it was rap music, then it was books again, now it’s unmoderated social media content that will turn us all into cliff-loving lemmings.
We worry that our fellow citizens will see a Facebook post and be filled with a sudden thirst for chaos, rising up like sleeper cells, waiting only for the right trigger.
We swap knives for sporks, treating the society we work in, build relationships in, go to restaurants and concerts in—hundreds of millions every day cooperatively sharing space and resources—like an asylum instead of the miraculous, more-functional-than-not civilization we raised out of nothing but nature.
Our disdain for each other costs us our own dignity.
As we steadily remove all the opportunities for harm—a task only accomplished by prisons—we’ll come to realize it’s not the idea or the item, but the individual that determines whether they’ll do harm.
Anything can inspire a person to destruction once they’ve reached the lowest levels of alienation and contempt.
There’s a positive and negative path for reducing the harm people cause in society.
We can treat each other like prisoners in an asylum, suppressing the suffering and removing anything with a sharp edge, or we can treat each other like human beings, each with the potential to contribute to the civilization we’ve built thus far.
Only an asylum values safety above freedom.
The truth shall set you free.
One of those bangers from the bible, this phrase has shown up everywhere from classroom quotes to Lamb of God lyrics.
The meaning might seem obvious: pursue the truth and you’ll be free from guilt. That’s how I would’ve interpreted this line as a younger, cynical atheist, unimpressed with the bible’s platitudes. Now that I’m older, less cynical, and less of an atheist, I’m a lot more impressed with everything I once regarded as hollow tradition.
All good art has multiple meanings, often accidentally answering other questions while seeming to answer only one.
Poetry on how a tree’s branches sway in the wind is pretty, but poetry that uncovers the way a tree’s movement mirrors the movement that underpins all life will rekindle your love for life.
“The truth shall set you free” can so easily stand outside its biblical context because it’s poetry and profound, but like all good art, it’s not obvious.
I’ve been thinking about authenticity a lot. When you carry concepts in the back of your mind as you go through daily life, you’re running a cognitive chemistry experiment, giving that concept a chance to spark a reaction with something else in everyday life.
I’d seen that bible verse a few times recently, but not while considering authenticity. This time, the two substances sparked and I saw something beyond the literal meaning of the truth [something that is true] setting you free [freeing you of something else].
Truth doesn’t just release you from something, the truth releases you.
When the pressure to conform to certain beliefs and hold certain opinions has undeniably skyrocketed over the last few years, who we are becomes more influenced by what’s outside us than what’s within.
Conformity is not truth.
While there can be many things we conform to, if the driving force is acceptance or ease rather than our own conscious choice, we’re pursuing those ends before truth.
To pursue acceptance means to sell a stake in who you are to someone else.
This is the tragedy of a culture that enforces conformity above all else; without a dedication to truth, many people will never meet themselves.
I hope this makes your week a little weirder and a little güder. Now go forth, be weird, and above all, be güd.
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