First of all, I recommend reading “Sapiens. From Animals to Gods: A Brief History of Humanity «, by Yuval Noah Harari. A suggestive book that I do not think seeks so much to confirm theories as to raise possibilities. And, although it is full of errors (in my understanding), it is also full of excellent successes.
The main success is to understand what is the basis of the success of our civilization, its differential force: the ability to collaborate in a common goal, to align the actions of many individuals. And how it is achieved: through the shared belief of fictions.
According to his approach, it is likely that Neanderthals were stronger, smarter and more efficient than Sapiens. But they did not have the ability to align their actions beyond collaboration between acquaintances. Something that would limit action groups up to a maximum of a few hundred individuals. The sapiens, as a difference, as a cognitive revolution to put it in Harari’s words, incorporated the group belief in ideas, in fictions. Thus, for example, an idea of the type: God has created us, the Sapiens, to dominate the world and we must exterminate Neanderthals, would be a fiction that would have the ability to become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Sapiens could lose many battles against Neanderthals, but their stubborn insistence on attacking them and their ability to rally thousands of individuals for battle would end up exterminating them.
Part of these shared fictions are what we call beliefs or ideologies and they are usually accompanied by a supporting symbolism (flags, colors, icons …).
It must be clear that this ability to share fictions is oriented to unity of action, not to individual benefit. It can provide evolutionary advantages to the species, as we saw for Sapiens against Neanderthals. But it can also cause personal damage, such as the one suffered by the thousands of sapiens launched into wars that were often unnecessary. It makes it easier to achieve goals, but goals don’t necessary have to be beneficial to individuals, they can also be detrimental.
That’s why it is important to measure up shared fictions not only for their group mobilizing capacity but also from the personal practical effects point of view. Analyze not only how much they move us but also where do they take us to.
And they can be valued without having to believe in them. For example, someone might believe that Christianity is a practical ideology and support it without being a believer. Or reject other ideologies for their proven poor results while still appreciating their attractive elements. The ability to move of an ideology shows its strength as a group fiction, but not its usefulness to live well in terms of security, economic wealth or personal development possibilities.
It is convenient to differentiate the two facets of group fictions. How much they mobilize us, what will have do with its emotional power, and what effects they produce, which is more rational, related to a practical analysis.
History shows us examples of societies governed by fictions of all kinds, constructive and destructive. With consequences that are sometimes very positive in personal terms and other times dramatic. We all know examples of periods of welfare and safety and examples of brutal genocide and regimes based on terror. That is why it is also important to pay attention to how these shared fictions are spread.
Freedom of speech refers just to that. It has to do with preventing a specific group of people from controlling which fictions can and cannot be expressed. Because whoever controlls what can be disclosed, could drag the whole of society wherever they wanted. No matter how absurd and self-destructive the fiction might be. Moreover, the monopoly of expression tends to lead to self-destruction, since threat and violence is useful to strengthen the capacity to monopolize.
Freedom of expression is what allows a society to contrast fictions and have the opportunity, not always taken advantage of at intial, to value them in practical terms. The monopoly of expression, no matter how good it may seem when we are convinced by the message expressed, is always a danger.
So, as we see, there are fictions that are beneficial to us and others that are not. And few fictions are as practical as freedom of expression, one more idea. As Popper said, the advantage of democracies it is that they generate open societies, that is, open to change. They generate systems in which the chance of expressing different fictions makes it possible to contrast them and to gradually modify the direction of the group. Closed societies are vehicles without a steering wheel, which can pick up a lot of speed given their great unity of action, but cannot correct the direction when they advance towards the abyss.
Freedom of expression is usually understood as that all ideas can be expressed and spread. But in reality, as a another conceptual fiction that it is, it is not usually fulfilled in an absolute way. In practice it tends to consist rather in the absence of a monopoly of ideas, the absence of unquestionable truths. And there is always a risk that one of those ideas deployed, many of which will have the aim to monopolize expression and end freedom, manages to silence the rest.
The danger is not that much in bad ideas but in the possible success of one of them in monopolizing the expression. Individuals are not impractical and usually end up dismissing damaging ideas… as long as the group’s ability to relativize and contrast fictions is maintained. As is often said, freedoms are lost when individuals stop defending them. And sometimes societies are carried away by prosperity or anxiety and forget to keep defending freedom of expression, the first freedom and the basis of all others.
All of this has to do with something we can see these days in Western democracies. Political correctness, understood as a set of unquestionable truths always supposed to be based in a superior common good. The opinion monopoly in media and Big Tech companies. Censorship and silencing being increasingly accepted as a tool (cancel culture). The use of schools, universities and public institutions in general to consolidate partisan fictions as incontestable, making an ideological marking of the territories through partisan symbolism, manipulation of history or imposition of languages as doctrinal standards… There are lots of signs of erosion of freedom of expression.
And to avoid this risk it is essential that no one can monopolize the communication tools. That whoever thinks differently cannot be muted and cornered, silenced in practice. There will always be those who censor and threaten who oppose them, but it is convenient to prevent them from dominating the communication environment. I’ll illustrate it with two present-day images:
- There should not be Twitter without Parler. Regardless of how beautiful and altruistic seem to be the values that the Media and Big Tech claim to be defending. No matter how high it is the hatred they have made us feel against the Trumps or whoever. And never forger, those ideals and hatreds are nothing more than other fictions, usually deployed by private interests.
- There is no nation without national media. The full transfer of control (property) of the media to foreign companies, as it happens in Spain, leads to self-dissolution as a nation. It is the current way to conquer countries without the need for armies, a way to colonize territories..
Freedom of expression should be defended whether we like it or not what is expressed. Censorship should be vigorously rejected, without letting ourselves be lulled when the dominant idea used to censor seems very correct. And that is only possible with a balance of powers in the media environment, without de facto monopolies in property capable of standardizing the correct opinion. And I am afraid that this defense of freedoms no longer exists or, at least, that the highly beneficial fiction of freedoms is at serious risk.