Wednesday, March 09, 2011

Free Speech 'Killer App': Jason Nemec's View

Free Speech Movement, 1964
(Image from UC Berkeley)

Jason Nemec, one of my old friends from back home in the Ozarks, whom I've always called "Jay," emailed to express agreement, albeit nuanced, with my post on free speech:
[I read] this particular blog with a bit more interest than some others, and I wholeheartedly agree free speech should be included. In my opinion it could even be #1 on the list. One could argue all of the other six have a direct connection to success by having free speech and open dialogue without fear of reprisal. Look at how the Russian and Chinese societies have taken off in all categories when the restrictions on free speech and free thought have been reduced.

I am not quite as sure about the highlighted part below though.
Freedom of speech means the right to express oneself freely without censorship, but for the "app" to become a "killer," it needs to be embedded in a culture of discussion where reason and evidence, rather than the positional status, guide listeners in their evaluation of what the speaker says.
I have yet to find a developed culture, real or imagined, where status did not, or should not, play a role in how an individual will evaluate what is being said to them. Personal biases are too strong to totally disregard them when listening to the ideas or opinions of others. It could be something as small as not liking how the speaker wears their clothes or combs their hair. Conversely, if a well dressed, well groomed person tells us something, I can pretty much guarantee we would be more willing to accept it as "fact", reason or evidence aside, than if a rumpled disheveled person told us the exact same thing. This is kind of a funky example, but even in the "totally" logic and reason based Vulcan society of Star Trek, Spock and others put more value in the words of their leaders/parents than of their peers or lower ranking Vulcans, and certainly ahead of any non-Vulcan.

I think the word discussion is key to what you wrote, because it is through the discussion part of free speech where we can get past the initial biases and first impressions all of us form. Discussion cannot happen by just listening to a speaker and finding reason or evidence. Discussion is communication between two or more individuals, so I would respectively suggest changing the comment above to something like:
Freedom of speech means the right to express oneself freely without censorship, but for the "app" to become a "killer," it needs to be embedded in a culture of discussion where reason and evidence, rather than the positional status of the speaker, guide listeners in their evaluation of what they have heard or witnessed.
Maybe I am rambling too much here as it was a long weekend for me where I was at work more than I was at home. I did want to comment on the blog and felt this would be too much to include in the comments section itself. If you want to put it in there and respond or not, feel free to do so.
I replied to Jay, rather inadequately:
You make good points, and we basically agree. I was interested to see that you focused on my reference to "the positional status." I had originally included "of the speaker" but then considered that "and of the listener" also applied, so I left both out to include both but neglected to remove the "the" in "the positional status." I had just deleted it before reading your email. Fascinating . . . as Spock might say.
But that reply doesn't do justice to Jay's observation. I haven't altered what I posted on positional status, but Jay is right about the role of discussion, and he makes two good points that show why discussion is necessary. One point concerns our deplorable, if inevitable, tendency to stereotype others based on their appearance. The other point concerns our justifiable tendency to defer to authority, justifiable because it is authority. But we can be wrong about our stereotypes and deference, hence the need not only for free speech but also for discussion in which the appeal to reason and evidence can help us to "get past the initial biases and first impressions all of us form."

Jay's opinion is interesting to me because he has had a long, successful career in business, yet expresses views consonant with my own, and our agreement despite different experiences in life suggests to me that free speech really is a "killer app." I should perhaps note, however, that Jay is also an actor and thus might have more personal interest in the issue of free expression than the average businessman . . . and he has expressed himself rather well.

By the way, I looked up "killer application" in Wikipedia:
A killer application (commonly shortened to killer app), in the jargon of technologists, has been used to refer to any computer program that is so necessary or desirable that it proves the core value of some larger technology, such as computer hardware, gaming console, software, or an operating system. A killer app can substantially increase sales of the platform on which it runs.
I now know more precisely what Niall Ferguson meant, and it's not just about smart phones . . .

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At 7:00 AM, Blogger Kevin Kim said...

As mammals, we have an evolutionary tendency to self-organize into dominance hierarchies, but as rational mammals, we know-- or should know-- that lending credence to (or withholding credence from) someone's claims merely because of our assessment of their status is an example of the genetic fallacy (e.g., "I don't believe him because he's homeless," or "I believe her because she's a CEO"). That we often do this is trivially true; that we shouldn't do it is an ideal to strive for.

At 7:08 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

What you say is correct, Kevin, but I don't like your gravitar, so I'm dismissing your point anyway.

But seriously, what you say is correct. However, the point of a hierarchy is that those in authority are supposed to be in a position to know, so our default reaction is to give them creedance.

Yet, we know that authority is often misinformed, so our default reaction needs the corrective of open questioning of authority through free speech and discussion.

Jeffery Hodges

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