Heresy, Hate & Disinformation: The prices of free speech

For almost 300 years, the limits of enquiry, debate, and culture, grew ever wider.  The Pope’s ability to shut down debate with cries of ‘heresy’ never recovered after taking the wrong side against Galileo Gallilei (the earth rotates around the sun, not the other way around).  Karl Popper’s  “The aim of argument should not be victory but progress” was accepted intellectually, even if at an emotional level protagonists still wanted to ‘win’.   In Britain censorship of the arts died when the authorities lost the Lady Chatterley’s Lover obscenity case.

Half a century of intellectual freedom, and 30 years without a Cold War adversary about which we want to say. “They are evil because they don’t allow the free speech that our free society promotes”, has lead to profound misgivings about free speech.   Prince Harry, and his Aspen Institute employers, call for the ‘enforceable standards’.   Harry thinks the first amendment of the US constitution, which guarantees free speech, is ‘bonkers’.  But opposition to freedom of speech rests on three main premises, all of which are demonstrably false.

Fallacy 1: The truth is known, understood, & that it is the most useful thing with which to work

Fallacy 2: The truth is fixed, and settled, and that there is no benefit to challenging it.

Fallacy 3:  It is possible for a censor to act as a benevolent philosopher-king impartially promoting truth and virtue.

To traditional three factual fallacies, has now been added the Orwellian idea that Social cohesion and ‘good’ (as defined by the state) behaviour can and should be promoted by suppressing information that would damage trust in institutions, or promote antagonism towards particular groups, or cause people to question the official narrative.  Welcome to ‘True but harmful’ !

Freedom of Speech carries costs. Words have vast real-word consequences: we look at Joseph Goebbels and the impact of his dehumanising the Jewish population.  Words can stir up physical violence, as well as inflicting emotional wounds.  But ‘Disinformation’ and ‘Hate’ speech are the price of freedom.  A significant price, but rather less than the blood with which the freedom was purchased.

The Blair government’s desire to suppress ‘the wrong messages’ lead to bombing Radio Television of Serbia (RTS) offices in 1999. We were not at war with Serbia, no one suggested that the make up artist, and other staff killed were other than innocent civilians, but no warning was given, and they died because Blair disagreed with the editorial line taken by those in front of the cameras and microphones.  War presents these issues at their most stark: is it OK to kill and maim those that in any way contribute to the propagation of a message with which we disagree?  Is Blair’s approach very different from suggesting a child on a newspaper round becomes a legitimate target if the papers they deliver include those with ‘wrong’ editorial positions?

Like Blair, the Zeitgeist fundamentally misunderstands the nature of truth.  Bertrand Russell’s “The whole problem with the world is that fools and fanatics are always so certain of themselves, but wiser people are so full of doubts” could have been written with censors in mind.  Like the Medieval Popes with their ‘Index Librorum Prohibitorum’, (a list of books prohibited for being heretical / immoral), today’s would-be censors have no space for doubt.  But, to advance knowledge, one needs to question the received wisdom.  The strength of science is not that it provides robust conclusions, but that it is a process of repeated checking and re-checking, which tends to expose weaknesses.

The idea that ‘untruth’ should be suppressed presupposes that the truth is known, and that only the truth is useful.  Are citizens better off if protected from people telling them 2+2= 10, or 2+2  = 11?  True, such claims might confuse a pre-teen child.   But 2+2 = 10 in base 4, and 11 in base 3.  2+2=4 is familiar, but it is correct only when dealing in base 5 or higher.  In many, if not most, areas, things that we believe to be ‘The truth’ are, at most, specific examples rather than un-disprovable-universals.

We are taught to believe that truth is the ultimate virtue and yardstick, but, often, the most true answer needs to give way to the most useful answer.  What is the length of the coast of Great Britain? And what is the length of the coast of Australia?  The answer in both cases is ‘it is infinite’.  More fully ‘the length tends to infinity as the interval of measurement tends to zero’ as the geometry of the coast is fractal.   Start with a meter stick and lay it along the coastline, and you will see the crenelations of the coast do not travel neatly along the stick, but take a longer & meandering, path.    Take a millimetre of coastline, and look at it with a picometer ruler, and you would see tens of millions of Silicon atoms each with 111 pm diameter, but apply a Femtometer (10 to the power of -15) scale and you ‘see’ that only 1 / 10,000th of the radius of each atom is solid nucleus, the rest is electron cloud.

That’s all very well, but the inaccurate 11,072.76 miles listed by the Ordinance Survey is usually more useful than saying that the length of every island coast, whether GB, or Australia, is infinite.

Scrape the surface of fractal geometry or particle physics, and almost anything that a layperson using the naked eye thinks of as a ‘physically observable truth’ is a long way from reality. As truth gets ever more esoteric, we are forced to admit that we are often guided by useful fictions.

Or, consider an eye witness in a legal case, swearing that for the hour in question the accused person never moved. They could believe what they are saying to be true, and it could even help a jury reach a fair decision, but it is untrue.  Or,  at least, an odd way of describing someone spinning round the centre of the earth at 650 miles an hour (assuming they are in London, on the equator it would be 1,000 miles an hour), while the earth itself orbits the sun at 67,000 miles an hour, and the sun orbits in the milky way galaxy at 483,000 miles an hour, and the milky way galaxy moves at 1.3 million miles an hour towards the Virgo cluster, and so on.

The idea that a censor could rule that the witness in the above case was ‘lying’ seems entirely unreasonable.  It would be equally unreasonable for a censor to so censure a different witness whose take on the matter was that the accused was moving the entire time.

The pro censorship crowd often say ‘oh but we did not mean to treat different takes on the truth as disinformation/misinformation, we only want to censure words/publications that fly in the face of things that are known beyond doubt to be true, where there is settled science, or photographic evidence, etc’.    But photoshop makes talk of ‘photographic evidence’ seen decidedly old fashioned, with CGI even video ‘evidence’ may not be what it seems.  As for ‘settled science’ the very idea is the antithesis of science.

Our progress is built on the scientific method: start with a hypothesis, test it, if it survives it is stronger, if to failed, we can search from something closer to the truth.   The idea that there are areas where we now ‘know the truth’ and that continued questioning is wrong, is tempting for those that are doing well from the status quo.  The church was a bit miffed when Galileo Gallilei evangelised for the heliocentric view (the church had been very happy with the received wisdom that ‘the sun revolves around the earth’).  If something is true, truth-seekers should be fine with it being questioned, truth will prevail.  And far fewer things are definitively settled than one might think.  We have already mentioned that the ‘obviously true’  ‘2+2=4’ can coexist with 2+2=10 or 11.  And, when we become teenagers, we find that only on an entirely flat surface (ie virtually never in the real world) does our primary school lesson on ‘the internal angles of a triangle add up to 180’  hold true.  When even well known and loved ‘truths’ in the ‘objective’ scientific sphere fall short of being unqualified universal truths, the chances of objective certainly in contentious matters of philosophy, politics, or optimal human behaviour, can be set aside.  Take the comforting idea that moderate drinking of alcohol is good for you: it is prime confirmation bias territory, backed up by the folk wisdom of ‘a little of what you fancy does you good’,  and there is that well known graph plotting life expectancy for 40 year olds against weekly units of alcohol consumed, that ‘proves’ what we want to believe, by showing that the best outcomes arise to those consuming 100g of alcohol a week.  Any less than that (ie the teetotallers) had a higher risk, and (sadly) any more than that, risk also increases.

But it is not that simple, the current 40yr old teetotallers comprise both lifelong non drinkers, and reformed former alcoholics who now stay away from the booze.  It is the damage done before they were 40 to the ex-alcoholics that drags the teetotaller life expectancy down below that of the moderate drinkers.  Lifelong teetotallers will live at least as long as the 100g a week moderate drinkers.

Although it is most obvious in the sciences, progress through questioning also occurs everywhere else: in philosophy, in theology, and in politics.  The Church is a great what-not-to-do example, with a long list of things that have gone from prohibited to compulsory.  Having the Bible and liturgy in the vernacular was thought so dreadful that in 1384 the Church burned John Wycliffe at the stake for translating the Bible into English, now the Pope threatens to excommunicate those using the traditional Tridentine rite: The once compulsory Latin is now banned, and the once banned vernacular is now compulsory.  The CofE refused to ordain women between 1534 and 1992, moments later, then Archbishop of Canterbury, George Carey, decreed that it was ‘heresy’ to oppose female ordination.   Both theologically and politically most of our current orthodoxies began as radical new ideas violently opposed by the authorities.  Campaigning and debate gave us (limited) democracy, then votes for women, then legalisation of homosexuality, etc.   Does anyone believe that we have now reached perfection and the current vogue should be set in aspic?

Even were the truth uncomplicated, un-improveable, useful, and easily understood, enforcing that truth by creating the power to censor alternatives would be a bad idea.  Because the power, once it exists, has to be exercised by humans, who are fallible. Recent history yields an embarrassment of riches for anyone wanting to discredit the censors, not because our present gatekeepers are uniquely bad, but because little has changed in the c2,000 years since Juvenal’s ‘Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?’.   Grant someone the power to censor, and all of a sudden, inconvenient truths (for example details of an affair that one of their friends is having) get banned as ‘misinformation’ or an invasion of privacy.  Lies that are helpful to official policy are never suppressed, but truth that is unhelpful may well be. ‘regulatory capture’: the phenomenon of powerful incumbents capturing officialdom & regulators, and using them to prevent competition, is so widespread as to be the default, rather than the exception.  The 2023 film ‘Bank of Dave’ was a semi-comic take on it.    And Covid saw Government-mandated ‘de-platforming’  even of Dr Robert Milne, who invented mRNA vaccines, because he suggested that there were some cohorts (in particular the young) for whom the risks of vaccination might outweigh the benefits.  Dr Milne was pro-mRNA vaccines but his message interfered with potential sales of a very profitable product.  Government-supported big Pharma also succeeded in censoring those calling for patent laws to be waived to allow the developing world to get vaccines affordably and quickly.  I suspect that waiving IP laws would cause more harm than good, but it is difficult to see that there is any public benefit in preventing the idea being discussed. Censorship may reduce a possible risk to Pfizer-Moderna profits, but it takes a lot of expensive K-street Kool aid to believe that  ‘bad for Pfizer-Moderna profits’ is indisputably the same as ‘bad for the people of the world’.    The point here is not that Pfizer-Moderna and their government backers were being particularly evil or egregious, they were just doing what the very rich, powerful, and well connected always do, which is to bend the rules to their advantage. When the power to censor exists, it will always be abused.  The only way to stop that abuse is not to have that power in existence.  A ministry of truth, inevitably becomes a ministry to protect vested interests and the government message.

It was ever thus, even before the ’True but harmful’ innovation that has become the most chilling chapter of the censorship story.  Modern censorship is implemented by ‘de platforming’ and ‘de monetising’ publishers & writers.  The Twitter files show government ‘anti disinformation’ units also demanding censorship of ‘True stories that might lead to vaccine hesitancy’. Thus, for publishing an unquestionably true family story, a publisher whose child took the vaccine and was harmed, has their content ‘demonetised’ ie their livelihood removed, just as they have to deal with a family tragedy.  The result of such a regime is that everyone other than the independently wealthy ends up having to self-censor for fear that the factual stories they post may trigger demonetisation and impoverishment.  Air BnB have taken to suspending the accounts of people related to controversial personalities: Lauren Southern is a commentator whose work is all entirely legal, but AirBnB suspended her account, and those of her parents.  At this rate water companies will cut off the water supplies of people who vote the ‘wrong way’: will opposing the establishment line only be possible for those living off grid and not using fiat money (or CBDC)?

We now know not only that Dr Robert Milne was right about vaccine risk/reward for children, but that the different vaccines had widely varying risks, and different rates at which protection waned over time.  Open discussion could have been very helpful, but was impossible because such discussion would have required departing from the 100% safe, 100% effective narrative. Most often, calls to censor ‘True but harmful’ information are rooted in the protection of the powerful and privileged.  Talk of suppressing information that would damage trust in institutions  /  promote antagonism towards particular groups is music to the ears of corrupt police officers, paedophile priests, errant royalty, criminals from minority groups, and those behind illegal government actions/programmes.  Eloquent lobbyists will explain how exposing the shocking acts of X will harm an important institution, or public life, or social harmony.  It is argued that these things should be handled discreetly, away from the public gaze, the individual matter resolved, individual culprits punished, without disrupting public confidence in our institutions or fanning populist outrage.  This seems to be wrong for several reasons.  Firstly, the information usually gets out eventually, and, when it does, institutions are damaged far more because they are guilty not just of having had some flawed members (inevitable in any organisation of size) but of being complicit in a cover up that has inevitably harmed victims and created many more of them.  Secondly, the tendency of an institution to cover up attracts into it wrongdoers, and creates an underlying ethos where members are thought of as ‘one of us’, and thus to be helped, even when the individual errs.  This is particularly corrosive because it is runs with the grain of collegiality and support of colleagues who share stresses/dangers in an important job, such default to excuse-making is only overcome when an institution’s ethos is grounded in promoting its highest values and thus creates an atmosphere where any slip ups are seen as letting the whole side down and warranting banishment.  If we want a country in which we bring children up to go to a police officer if they are ever frightened, or in danger, then it will not be achieved by suppressing coverage of cases where police murder, rape, assault, or frame people, it will be achieved by having a police force in which any officer even suspected of being tempted to do such things will be given a firm talking to by their colleagues, and any signs of these temptations being acted upon resulting in a rapid exit from the force.    This is not always the prevailing attitude in understaffed police departments filled by stressed officers, but the temptation to take tactical convenience (keeping an experienced if imperfect person because there is a lot of work to do) over strategy (building an organisation people trust completely) might me diminished by considering the success  Warren Buffett has had with "Lose money for the firm, and I will be understanding. Lose a shred of reputation for the firm, and I will be ruthless.”.  Buffett’s other homily on the subject is “"It takes 20 years to build a reputation and five minutes to ruin it. If you think about that, you'll do things differently.”, if you think that a single bad priest/officer sets back decades of good work by the 90% who are trying to do the right thing, you will probably conclude that you need to root out the bad apples rather than lazily think that it is possible to suppress news of the crimes.  It is not difficult to guess what Warren Buffett would be advising the monarch to do with Prince Andrew.

Bradley Manning, Julian Assange, and Edward Snowden, have all fallen foul of government departments that criminalise whistleblowing, while covering up criminality by senior government / military officials.  If every blown whistle had been taken as a cue to purge the system of those that undermine its founding values, the ‘free world’ might be rather more free.  Even when things come to light, they are glossed over, lessons are not learned.  Obama gave us a ‘mea culpa’ apologising “we tortured some folks”, but none of the torturers, or those directing them, were prosecuted, or even fired, in fact Gina Haspell’s involvement in illegal torture & its cover-up was regarded as ideal qualifications to head the CIA.  A CIA that is still redacting the freedom-of-information responses on JFK’s assassination (but it’s a conspiracy theory to suggest that this might be down to the CIA taking a fifth amendment approach).   After the fall of the iron curtain, the prospect of a unipolar US-NATO lead world seemed like a relief after the suffering, starvations & terror meted out by the Soviet Union, by PolPot in Cambodia, Mao in China, Castro in Cuba, Ortega in Nicaragua, and lots of African Despots on Moscow’s payroll. How wrong we were: we became used to being ‘the good guys’ by default and because the other guys were genuinely horrible.  But when not forced to abstain from torture and book burning as part of showing the difference between us and ‘them’, we lost sight of the idea that to be ‘the good guys’ we actually had to be good (or, at least, not do bad things). The problem is not the release of ‘true but harmful’ information, but the underlying not-so-good official action.

Calls to censor disinformation, or ‘true but harmful’ information, are rooted in a mistrust of the citizenry.  More optimistic souls prefer that we all build up our ability to discern truth from fiction, and our understanding (which is backed up by the three Abrahamic religions and many eastern ones too) that we are all created in God’s image and should have regard for the divine on each of our fellow human beings.  Relying on flawed gatekeepers to shield us from error and hatred is no substitute for having minds capable of critical reasoning and hearts large enough to find space for those who are not like us.   One can’t build utopia on a lie or on the infantilisation of the population.

The Devil’s usual trick when persuading us to do really bad things is to paint them as a way to escape some dreadful alternative.  The Catholic Church burned heretics to ‘save their souls’ (and those of others who would see the burnings and cleave to orthodoxy in order not to join them).  As with  immortal-soul-endangering Heresy in Middle Ages, so modern ‘Hate Speech’ is a bogeyman used to tempt us into the modern equivalent of burnings at the stake. The devil has a lot of material with which to work. 1930s Germany, & 1990s Rwanda show the power of hate speech, when wielded by governments, and coupled with incitement to violence.

Toleration of incitement to commit violence should probably be reduced further: publishing the home address of a person, or details of where their children go to school, may, in some contexts, be encouraging people to commit violence, even if ‘attack them’ is not stated explicitly.  Think of someone addressing a KKK rally, saying “Mr X, the black boyfriend of Miss Watson lives at 1009 E Main Street, Mobile AL”:   given the KKK policy of lynching black men who date outside their own race, it looks remarkably like incitement.

But, when there is no incitement to violence, banning ‘hate speech’ is usually just a backdoor way for people to limit philosophical debate.

In a case of reductio rather beyond absurdum, in some parts of the USA, calling a biologically male person ‘Him’ is now deemed hate speech with career-ending implications for the ‘perpetrator’.  Forget getting mere pronouns wrong, I get nouns wrong all the time, calling my daughter by my son’s name, or vice versa.  Whether or not this is down to early onset Alzheimer's may be debatable, but treating such errors as a moral failing would be preposterous.    The term ‘hate speech’ is now so elastic as to be almost meaningless, as it has come to encompass almost anything a listener finds offensive.  People now expect to be addressed using the title/name of their choice, and consider it offensive/hate speech when someone ‘deadnames’ or ‘misgenders’ them: is it hate speech to refer to Megan Markle as a ‘Duchess’ when she prefers to think of herself as a ‘Princess’?  It is ‘hate speech’ to quote extracts from the Bible, or the Koran that criticise homosexuality, it is also ‘Hate speech’ to criticise the teachings of the Koran or of the Bible.  Thus debate of the issue is shut down, and we promote neither truth, nor peace, nor understanding. As explored in more detail at

We have gone from ‘Love the sinner, hate the sin’ to ‘Criticising the sin is being hateful to the sinner, which is offensive and must be banned’.  Thus, we have a kafkaesque world in which sinners can cite their ‘being offended’ as a reason to silence those pointing out their crimes.

How long before discussion of the Holocaust is banned for being ‘anti German hate speech’? That seems absurd, it is absurd, but, other than the lack of an organised lobbying campaign to protect the image of 1930s-40s German National Socialists, why is it different from San Francisco’s bay area public transport authorities ‘Withholding crime surveillance videos to avoid racial stereotypes’ , or UK authorities in Rotherham suppressing data and debate about gangs of rapist paedophiles because the information would ‘harm community relations’ (or, a demographic that consistently voted for the local ruling party).  The underlying debate is between those that worry about an image being damaged by publicity, and those that think the best way to avoid bad publicity is by not committing genocide, not raping, etc.  (and who believe that the greater the prospect of exposure, the lower the risk of the crime in the first place)

One notch up from ‘hate Speech’ and we have support for / ‘glorification’ of Terrorism.  Actual promotion of real terrorist violence would be covered by the ban on inciting violence, but going any further would be dangerous.  No one supports ‘Terrorism’, because it has gone from something with an objective definition (covert forces attacking civilian targets to incite fear/terror in the general population), to being how we describe political violence by those we don’t agree with.  Not content with that level of subjectivity, the 2023 GOP primary contenders vying to appear ‘the toughest’ on crime now has them designating Mexican drug gangs as ‘terrorist’ organisations: ‘Terrorist = very bad’,  therefore ‘Very Bad = Terrorist’.   Perhaps the cartel bosses will not progress from being called ‘terrorists’ to being Nobel peace prize winners / heads of states (a la Nelson Mandela, Yasser Arafat, David Ben Gurion,  Martin McGuinness), but giving officials/politicians the right to disapply the bill of rights by saying ‘terrorism’ only guarantees that they will say it a lot, however tenuous the link to actual terror-inducing-bombing-of-civilians terrorism.

Justifications for Censorship are rooted in the belief that the orthodoxy being protected is so obviously true that there is no reasonable justification for any contrary view.  The urge to censor comes from the popular approach of ascribing any disagreement to the other party being either a fool or a knave.   Galileo Galilei was deemed a fool for denying the sun revolved around the earth, John Wycliffe was a knave for allowing people to read the bible in English, DH Lawrence was a knave for writing the obscenity in Lady Chatterley and a fool for suggesting it would not corrupt its readers.  The suffragettes were fools for thinking that women could be trusted with the vote.  Lord Melbourne observed wistfully “What all the wise men promised has not happened, and what all the damned fools said would happen has come to pass.”.  Free Speech lets ‘the fools’ speak, we can always choose to ignore whatever is unpersuasive.  Let us rediscover political discourse.  Censorship is a vote of no confidence in the ability of people to discern the truth, a vote against the scientific/dialectic process that has advanced technology, understanding, and ideas.  and a vote in favour of empowering a corruptible authority that wont be putting the public interest first.  Rather than that, lets live with offence (disagreeing with something some people hold dear) , ‘hate speech’ (disagreeing with something some people hold dear)  and ‘disinformation’ (disagreeing with something some people hold dear).  Because that thing that ‘some people hold dear’ may be wrong, and may disagree with something that we hold dear.

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