Right now there are a lot of people out there who believe that they know what is best for you. They believe they know what ideas you ought to be exposed to, what kind of speech you should be allowed to hear, what kind of characters you should be allowed to play in games, what kinds of gods you should worship, what kind of education you should have and on and on… because they think they know what is right.
We call these people “totalitarians”, because they believe they have everything worked out, and understand what is best for other people. They want to change every little bit of your life so that it fits their vision of what is good and right.
They have no room for the possibility they are wrong: if someone else doesn’t agree with them, they believe that it is because that person is backwards and too stupid to see their “truth.” Which means that if you won’t go along with their ideas by hearing what they have to say and agreeing completely then they should use force to make you live life according to their ideas. They figure that if they can stop the people who disagree from speaking out and making their own choices, eventually the next generation wont even be able to conceive of other ideas.
Notice how their idea of what is best cannot possibly include, freedom, free will, respect, dignity, honest conversation or personal rights.
When I was young, totalitarianism was the province of hardcore religious fundamentalists in North America. They believed that their religion was the one true religion, and that it had absolute right to dictate what was right and wrong, good and evil, acceptable and unacceptable. They attempted to ban any media that didn’t reflect their religious beliefs – heavy metal, role playing games, comic books, video games, hip-hop, horror movies, science fiction… it was all targeted. They tried to force people to pray to their god in schools, to ban evolution from being taught (because it was hard to mesh with a literal reading of the bible), and they fought long and hard to prevent gay men from being allowed to marry.
They were happy to lie, use police violence, cook up fake statistics, try to scare the public with phony news stories, and much more to try and control us.
Thankfully, they failed, because people were free to choose their religion. People in government thought of basic rights and freedoms first, and refused to forbid people from buying or selling the media they wanted. they refused to hide an important idea like evolution just because some noisy people disagreed with it.
And we gained for it. Science Fiction films have inspire scientists to invent incredible technologies that we wouldn’t otherwise have today. Heavy Metal turned out to b a powerful tool for created healthy well-adjusted young men. So have role-playing games. Comic books have created a renaissance of new styles of art and expression, especially when mixed with the Internet. Video games, if used in careful moderation can sharpen a person’s mind and help them manage stress: they have helped reduce violent crime to the point where we live in on of the most peaceful societies in history. Understanding evolution revolutionized biological science, leading to new innovative medicines, therapies to cure diseases that once were a death sentence, and feeding millions of people who might have otherwise gone hungry.
It is terrifying to imagine what would have been lost if we’d let them force their “truth” on us.
We cannot know what is right and true with absolute certainty. And we definitely cannot know enough about another person and their experiences to know what is right for them in terms of what they should be allowed to read think or do. We have built our society on this simple premise: we can never be 100% sure what is right, and one person cannot have all the answers. It is better to let people choose on their own, than to force everyone to do something and it to turn out to be wrong, unhealthy, or self-destructive. Some people will have to learn for themselves the hard way what is right for them, and make mistakes, but at least then they have choices and a chance to fix the harm done by those choices. They can’t fix harm done to them when they have no choice.
Some people think that this sounds cruel or heartless: they imagine that giving people the freedom to make their own mistakes, to fail, and then to fix their mistakes under their own steam means leaving everyone to the mercy of bad ideas and bad circumstances. They also argue that this will let terrible, violent, and bigoted ideas run free when we squash them, it won’t.
Free people have a powerful weapon against bad ideas and bad circumstances: The Marketplace. We are free to try living in different ways, and let other people see and judge those lifestyles. If one makes us unhappy or harms us, other people can choose not to do the same – and that lifestyle will disappear. If an idea is bad, ignorant, or biased, then letting people share it out loud and live by it means the rest of us can see how stupid it is, and try living life without that idea, and see how much better it can be. We are also free to argue with it, point out how it is stupid, and shout it and its followers down – the Marketplace kills bad ideas. The same is true of businesses, religions, and everything else – if the people are free to examine it, talk about it, try it, and fail with it, then good ideas and ways of doing things succeed, and bad ones die out because they are unpopular.
In the 1950s, racism started to die on the free market. People could choose whether to treat Black People as inferiors by refusing to hire them, serve them, or goto school with them, or not. The people who served Black folks got more customers and their businesses thrived, while the people who denied them service by choice made less money. The people who were willing to hire Black People often got workers who were willing to make good deals in exchange for their labour, and the businesses that hired them got far more affordable labour and often offered just as good if not better service than businesses that refused to hire them. Communities where Black People were treated well tended to have more art, music, and were often friendlier and happier than neghbourhoods where Black People were treated badly. The Marketplace proved that if you treated people of a different race as your equal, you would be safer, happier, and more successful – this is what great leaders like Martin Luther King Jr. wanted – to give people the freedom to choose to be racist or not, and see where it got them.
Sadly the Marketplace worked slowly, and people got impatient. They passed laws that forced people to hide their racism and treat Black People like equals in pay, hiring, etc. Because of it, black people might have been equals under the Law, but people who might have chosen not to be racist, now could remain hateful and racist, because they didn’t have to learn their lessons the hard way through the marketplace. Dr. Thomas Sowell has some wonderful insights on how using force, even to achieve a good and desirable end, often does as much harm as good in his book Intellectuals and Society. Read it if you have the chance.
The best way to destroy a bad idea is to subject it to the Marketplace. The best way to make a good idea flourish is to subject it to the Marketplace. We may never be sure we know what the absolute Truth is, but we can certainly destroy many lies this way. We might not show people how to live best, but we can show them how not to live. It is a life without certainty, but it is a life where you treat others with basic human dignity and respect. And Market forces tend to build a wiser more prosperous culture over time.
Today, we have a new wave of Totalitarians. This time it is not right-wing religious fundamentalists, it is left-wing social justice warriors, and their ideas are just as bad. The “truth” they want to push is as blind and illogical as the kind of religion that the fundamentalists were pushing in the 1980s and 1990s. Instead of a holy book, they want to push the nebulous and often contradictory ideas of a canon of intellectuals. Instead of preventing people from sinning they want to prevent people from “hurting each others feelings.” Instead of being evil for not worshipping their God, they see people as being evil for being white, male, rich or old-fashioned – which they claim gives you too much “power.”
Their tactics are just as bad and as violent as the totalitarians of the past. Instead of banning video games, science fiction, or comic books, they want to dictate exactly who gets to write them and what goes into them. Instead of holding back biology by ignoring evolution, they instead want to ignore the theories of neuro-chemisty and sexual dimorphism. And they also want to destroy the Chicago and Austrian ways of understanding Economics while they are at it. Instead of getting Heavy Metal off the airwaves, they want to silence everyone who doesn’t share their opinions in Universities, Colleges, and any form of public media through “disinvitations,” “hate speech” laws, “microagression” theory, and “intersectionality” dictating who is allowed and not allowed to speak and in what order.
And as all good totalitarians they have done an amazing job of convincing people that their ideas are about compassion, kindness, high ideals, and protecting children and the weak.
Right now, while their ideas are temporarily popular, they want to destroy the Marketplace for ideas so that no one as a chance to argue against them. They have been happy to publicly shame, exclude, demonize, libel, slander, even use bomb threats and violence to silence people with different ideas. They want people to be afraid to argue. And thy are just as happy to lie, use false statistics, and are far better at using half-truths to make their opponents look bad.
Before anything else, if you want to protect yourself from being suckered in by toxic ideas, ask yourself this: are they willing to listen when people argue against their thoughts, or do they try to tell dissenters to shut up? If it is the latter, if they aren’t willing to stand up in the marketplace, ask yourself “why?”