Think Metallica's "Free Speech For The Dumb." Do you, like me, miss the times when people used to die for words? Does the phrase 'talk is cheap' redound badly not just on people who don't think before they speak but rather on social norms as a whole? Was Voltaire's "I may not agree with what you say, but I would die for your right to say it" aphorism really the premonitory death knoll for modern language as we know it?
I can best preface this article by describing what it is not. It is not an indictment of techno-speak, or of the limping illiteracy which pervades the modern world, etc. I am not a prescriptivist SNOOT, as David Foster Wallace would put it, or an English teacher with a vendetta.
What I'm attacking here is free speech itself. I'm attacking the occidental tendency to let anything go. I'm attacking, ironically, the very action which I myself am going about right now; sharing an article without fear of censure or open reprisal. The best merits of the current system are chronically underappreciated because they're the elephant in the room. They hide in plain sight. When they're working, nobody knows that they're working.
Take the infamous Norwegian criminal Anders Behring-Breivek, who shared an erudite 1500-page anti-immigration manifesto before going on one of the deadliest shooting rampages that the world has ever seen. His subsequent circus-trial riveted the world for a year. The manifesto itself is a nuts-and-bolts amalgam of essays by Fjordman, a notable far-right blogger, and various anti-Islam brochures. Breivek himself wrote far under half of it. Yet, the circumstances of Breivek and the dissemination of his manifesto illustrate two things which nobody else seems to get.
Firstly, this is a man who was prepared to die for words. Initially, when reading of his crime and the motives behind it, the plausibility of it struck me as lacking. Here was a thirty-something Norwegian Timothy McVeigh who claimed to hate Muslims, yet murdered a bunch of WASP teens for what seemed to be no better reason than because they were seditionist 'class B traitors' who supported the real enemy. Perhaps he surmised that the mass murder of children belonging to government bureaucrats would generate more media attention. But, that was when the truth hit me. Breivek's primary target, Utoya, was incidental. The fact that I, a nonentity living on the other side of the world, had read and could critically discuss 'his' writing meant that Breivek had succeeded. He probably would have decimated a herd of baby elephants with a bamboo stick if this guaranteed his cause a better chance at renown.
Having never met the man, I don't know his mentality, but I would be very surprised to learn that he was predisposed to be belligerent. In fact, prior to his 2011 arrest, he had no prior criminal record save for a string of graffiti misdemeanours as a teenager. Despite media efforts to stigmatize him as a chronic recluse and deviant, he was in fact a moderately successful businessman, on the surface indistinguishable from many other 'telecommuters' before his murderous rampage. Breivek's mentality, like that of most other idealogical murderers, is defined by three precepts. He saw the world in a very 'black and white' way (had an 'us vs. them' mentality), singled out an 'enemy' (in this case, Muslims) and believed in an imminent apocalypse unless something was done to curtail the progress of this 'enemy.' It followed that he believed in a gradual 'revolution,' which is supposed to take hold on a global scale by 2083. Yet, none of this singles Breivek out. Thousands of similar men and women propound Breivek's ideas, or very similar variants to them, on the internet every single day.
What alarmed Breivek was the lack of solidarity between these dissidents. After the massacre, he was very quick to point out, first of all, that he was not a Nazi. Whether or not this is actually true is another question, although, as someone who has read both Breivek's manifesto and Hitler's "Mein Kampf," I can attest to the fact that there are few ideological similarities between the two. The irony of this is that, since the massacre, Breivek has become the fair-haired boy for just about every graffitti-can-toting movement of violent youth the world over, regardless of their convictions.
Breivek fundamentally wanted a better world. His mentality, as I have said, far predates contemporary times, going back to the 19th century in Europe. Many revolutionaries have always believed that, in order to create a better world, one must first destroy the structures of the current one. No, Breivek reverted to violence for one simple reason; to make his voice heard.
In a different social order, this man may have found another forum through which to redress his grievances. He may have found an outlet through peacable diplomacy, negotiation, etc. Unfortunately, in our present world, he knew that nobody would ever listen to him as he was. He was right. I, again, a nonentity living on the other side of the world, surely never would have read the 1500-page manifesto of 'some guy' on the grounds of sheer curiosity unless that same guy first did something big to get my attention.
'Manifestos' of mass murderers have traditionally been henpecked drivel. It has always broken my heart, speaking from a literary view, to see hundreds of people poring exhaustively over every grammatical nuance in the journals and videos of the Pecca-Eric Auvinens and the Seung-Hui Chos (all right, we'll give Auvinen some credit; his effort was coherent, albeit ephebic, grandiose sounding, and just generally dumb) when most of them are half-baked efforts to vindicate these people. They're just symptoms of a greater illness. With Breivek, though, we see a greater dynamic at play. That manifesto warranted years of work. It was a desired end result in itself, a dogma, a rubric, something that all future revolutionaries were meant to use. Even now, when Breivek is in prison, he sees 'networking' as being of paramount importance. He needs a way to make his own work stand out. As he says, most avenues of legitimate-sector promulgation are closed to him. No school would ever have taken his manifesto as a thesis, no newspaper ever would have published it, leaving him with either the option of fateful obscurity or finding another way to get his point across.
My summation of Breivek is this; he killed 77 people because nobody would have listened to him or taken him remotely seriously otherwise. But, one might ask, whatever happened to the literary 'free market?' Meaning, if there is a market for something, won't it invariably become successful? Well, no. The middle class standing between writers and market factors is the publishing industry, which naturally comes with its own unique prejudices or vendettas. The main problem for people like Breivek is not lack of talent, but reaching people who actually care. Reading Breivek's work, I explored the mind and motives of a man who might have been extremely successful in life had he not found himself drowned by a milieu of garbage.
Which, again, brings me back to the bread and butter of my argument; specifically, that free speech is bad, or rather is a misnomer. My father, from whom I am now estranged for political reasons, once taught me (over something as trivial as a 'free' hotel video game, no less!) that nothing in the world is free. This is very true. One need go no further than any PHBB-based web forum, or the 'comments' section of any digital newspaper, or for that matter any bookstore, to see just how populated with garbage they are. What constitutes this 'garbage,' IMHO?
Simple. During my time in university, one of my professors imparted a very important quote to me: "say nothing unless you are prepared for it to become a universal maxim." So, say nothing unless, to the best of your knowledge, it may be applied omnisciently, to all extant things. There is a paucity of this in modern lit. The only two rock-solid criteria I have for a 'good' book are as follows: give me something that I *cannot* get from a movie in two hours or less, and give me an anecdotal enactment of a central 'idea,' concrete or abstract. I'm talking to you, the Da Vinci Codes and Twilights of the world! There are a plethora of such books! Small wonder that so many people are turned off reading forever, in between the 'scientific' approach to literature in schools and the multitude of pulp crap out there. I would never devote six hours to reading something when I could watch it in two. Great Literature gives you an experience characteristic of the medium: the Dostoevskies, the Wallaces, the De Lillos, the Vollmans, the Franzens, the Bellows, the Mailers, the Pynchons, all exemplify tremendous investments of books. The reason why so many writers write books ready-cast for movies (was I the only one who saw Tom Hanks as Robert Langdon from the start?) is for the same reason that Breivek blew away 77 innocent people; to land an audience through a far-more-frequent medium; the movies.
By circumscribing 'free speech,' it is not my intention to shut people up. People will always talk in one form or another, and it is useless to try and enforce this through a totalitarian state even were this desirable or feasible. It's my goal here to make people take a good, hard look at the phrase 'free speech,' linguistically speaking. Would you take a 'free' couch if you saw an ad for one in the newspaper? Probably not. You, like I, would wonder what the hell was wrong with it. Would you take a free toaster, or computer, or muffin (possibly yes to the last one, because this is getting long and I'm getting steadily hungrier)? Again, probably not. But, slap a $5 price tag on any of those things (again excepting the muffin, unless it's a really good Timmy's), and you'll have buyers queuing up around the block.
What I want is accountability. Bring the duel back and up the idiot tax (lol). Take 1860s Russia, for example. The reason why people were so 'nice' back then (no swear words in books, no violent exclamations even when people were hopping mad) was because folks knew that somebody else could challenge you to a duel if you pissed them off too much. I'm not saying that duels were good, but they placed a much higher valuation on words than we have now. You would pick what you said a lot more carefully if you knew that someone could blow your mug away for saying it.
I'm not saying that we need 'censure;' we need 'accountability.' Censorship would be a very good place to start, censorship analogous to the sort which existed in Dostoevsky's Russia. An oligarchy of censors will always have biases, because journalistic 'objectivity' went out the window at about the same time as democracy became politically viable.
A really good example to use here would be the Marquis De Sade, nefarious libertine and erotica author. The Marquis spent most of his life on the run from the French authorities. He was supposed to be guillotined at one point, before orchestrating a last-minute escape and fleeing the country. De Sade was persecuted until the end of his life, and spent most of it in jail, largely because of his seditionist writings. Most of his notorious later works were written in prison, and his magnum opus was burned by a son who pretty much disowned dear old Dad.
I've never liked De Sade very much, personally, mostly because an ex-romantic interest of mine was a disciple of his and she turned out to be a heartless bitch. His books can be seen as either high-class erotica or philosophical treatises (I generally opt for the latter). However, I will stake my personal guarantee on the fact that De Sade never wrote a single superfluous word. Every phrase for him was evidence against him, every character a matter of life or death. He couldn't afford to be careless, or overhasty, or thoughtless. You can bet he wrote full well knowing that each and every sentence could be his last. Our world would be far better off if every writer could emulate the sense of purpose, if perhaps not the principles, of the Marquis De Sade.
What states without free speech highlight is the pertinacity, the persistence, of the individual, to make himself heard above the resounding din of silence. It signals a willingness to have everything that one has written be burned, to be burned oneself, to have all traces of one's former existence exterminated, if there remains only the possibility that one's words will be heard and appreciated by others. The journal of Wuinston Smith, of 1984 infamy, is another wonderful example of just that. The ingenious writer, the one who truly deserves to be heard, will always find a way to communicate his message through the censors or circumvent them entirely. Dostoevsky did it. Ayn Rand did it.
So, isn't this fighting fire with fire? Isn't using free speech to condemn free speech a hapless Catch-22? Well, no, for the same reason that Breivek was a poster boy for democracy and the very things he eschewed without ever knowing it. Because democracy is the only political system which theoretically allows a fair hearing even for proponents of opposing doctrines, or at least offers a pretence of such.