freedom of communication will stop wars
Kragen Javier Sitaker
kragen at pobox.com
Fri Feb 15 04:37:17 EST 2008
Until now, I've mostly thought of freedom of communication as being
practically important because it is necessary for the investigation of
truth. But now I think there is a second reason, which may be more
important: the avoidance of conflict. First I will explain the view
I've traditionally held, and then what changed it.
Freedom of communication is necessary for the investigation of truth
Freedom of communication is necessary for the investigation of truth,
by which I mean collectively finding out which ideas about the world
are true and which are false. Some ideas, for example the idea
that the sun is a hot object, are true; other ideas, such as the
idea that the sun is made of stone, are false. Most ideas are
partly true and partly false --- they are not a perfectly accurate
description of the real world, but they bring us closer to
understanding them. For example, the idea that the sun is made of
stone is partly correct in that it considers the sun as a material
object, rather than a god riding across the sky in a chariot.
Generally people come to believe ideas as they learn about the world
by being exposed to evidence for different ideas, including the
evidence that other (presumably reasonable) people have believed
certain things, and believing the things that seem to have the
strongest support. Everyone believes some true ideas, some false
ideas, and a large number of ideas that are partly true and partly
(Some ideas that cannot be said to be either true or false to any
degree, such as the idea that dragons exhale fire, or the idea that
sushi is tasty. I am not talking about ideas of this class here.
There are some people who believe that all ideas belong to this class.
That is an example of a false idea, I believe quite strongly.)
Some ideas that are rather controversial include the idea that
democracy inevitably results in material ruin through increasingly
generous government donatives (paid for by increasingly heavy taxes);
the idea that giving more investigative power to the police inevitably
makes everyone safer; and the idea that any individual person in
Australia is much more likely to get shot in a street crime than to
experience a military coup in their country during their lifetime.
Our ability to distinguish candidate ideas that are true instead of
candidates ideas that are false depends on our access to the relevant
evidence. For example, if a person has no way of finding out how
frequent military coups are in world history, or how frequent
street-crime shootings in street crimes are in Australia, then their
beliefs about the relative probabilities of the two events will
inevitably derive from less reliable evidence, such as the beliefs of
the people they respect, or what they see on TV.
In a society with limited freedom of communication, powerful people
can limit the availability of evidence that supports beliefs that they
do not want other people to hold.
For example, in a democracy, gun control policy is largely determined
by whether people think it's more likely that the availability of guns
will benefit them (for example, by preventing a military coup or
foreign conquest) or harm them (for example, by making it easier for
criminals to shoot them). Police work is dangerous; strict gun
control policies make police work much safer. Police departments and
police unions invariably favor strict gun control policies, in my
experience. Perhaps this is is because strict gun control policies
dramatically reduce their members' risk of dying by violence.
It would be easy to imagine a person who believed that strict gun
control policies were good and very important --- for example, because
many of their friends were police officers, or because their husband
had been shot in a street crime --- encouraging the public to worry
about the danger of being shot in street crimes, regardless of the
magnitude of the actual danger. If that person were in a position of
power to interfere with free communications, they could use that power
to make it more difficult to find out that the risk is extremely small
in their country, or to learn about the existence of countries such as
Switzerland and Israel with high gun ownership and extremely low
homicide rates, or to learn about the historically relatively large
risk of military coups; because people with access to that evidence
are less likely to support strict gun-control policies.
In case you're wondering what I'm talking about, according to
the WHO's 2004 Burden Of Disease report, the homicide rate in
Australia in 2002 was 1.5 per 100 000 population; in the US it
was 5.4; in South Africa, 43.2; in Brazil, 32.6. Some of
these deaths aren't from guns. If you were immune to aging and
all other causes of death other than homicide, your life
expectancy in a country like 2002 Australia would be 67000
years; in the 2002 US, it would be 18500 years; in 2002 South
Africa, 2300 years; in 2002 Brazil, 3100 years. Even South
Africa can expect military coups much more often than every
2300 years. The only countries I could find with higher
homicide rates are those in the middle of some kind of war.
Consequently, it is much more likely that an average resident
of any of these countries will live through a military coup
than that they will be murdered, unless the murder rates
increase to rates not currently present anywhere in the world.
See the Geneva Institute of International Studies's Small Arms
Survey for details about gun ownership.
The gun-control advocate might actually have an incentive to persuade
people to believe ideas that they themselves do not hold, in order to
support policies that the gun-control advocate thinks are good and
My point in this essay is not to attack gun control; this part of the
essay is concerned with people's ability to form correct ideas about
the reality of the world. Whether strict gun-control laws are good is
not a question about the reality of the world at all; people who agree
about all the facts may still come to different conclusions on the
matter due to differences in values.
My point is that many people have incentives to make other people
believe ideas that aren't true, for perfectly honorable reasons; and
consequently, that giving one group of people the power to deny to the
public access to evidence is likely to result in the public believing
a lot of things that aren't true.
I think that people believing things that aren't true is a bad thing,
but I am not going to defend that point here. I am only pointing out
that, if you believe that it is good and important for people to
believe things that are true instead of things that are false, you
should also believe that freedom of communication is good and
The counterargument is that perhaps people in power (either in
general, or in some particular situation) are better equipped to weigh
the evidence than the people whose perceptions of the world they are
controlling. There are counterarguments to this in many situations,
but my purpose in this part of the essay has been to outline my
previous beliefs about the importance of freedom of communication, and
this part is already too long.
Freedom of communication avoids conflict
I just watched the TED Talk announcing Pangea Day, in which the
filmmaker Jehane Noujaim passionately advocated that we speak to one
another in film so that we can empathize with one another. She
pointed out that the emotional power of images allows us to see the
world through one another's eyes, and that war arises because of a
lack of this empathy.
Perhaps this sounds like a fuzzy liberal idea, but last year I read
Robert McNamara in Foreign Affairs advocating a very similar idea.
War, he said, comes from a lack of empathy between the leaders on the
opposite sides of the conflict; if they understood one another's
mentality, they would be able to avoid it. He said he has spent a
substantial amount of his time recently engaged in adversarial oral
history exercises, where leaders from different sides of past
conflicts meet and discuss what really happened. The film "The Fog of
War" explains much of this as well.
Given McNamara's well-known biases in favor of violence and objective
facts, I assert that this is not merely a fuzzy liberal idea.
Noujaim talked in particular about the absurd picture of the Iraq war
presented on US news channels in the lead up to the war --- how the
upcoming conflict was portrayed as bloodless, and how the Iraqi people
were expected to welcome the Americans as liberators --- and how
dramatically it differed from the picture seen by her family members
living in the Middle East watching Al Jazeera.
I also recently read an extremely right-wing 2006 article entitled,
"The Counterrevolution in Military Affairs: Fashionable thinking about
defense ignores the great threats of our time," by Ralph Peters, in
the Weekly Standard. (2006-02-06, volume 11, issue 20.) Before he
begins inveighing against Marxist European intellectuals and their
supposed collusion with Islamist terrorists, Peters repeatedly laments
the failure of the intelligentsia to understand the feelings of
religious extremists and "our" failure to understand the heroism of
suicide bombers, and argues that it will be our undoing.
So if this kind of empathy --- the kind of cross-cultural
understanding that would allow people to empathize with their
counterparts in other countries --- can avoid war, then what is
preventing it from happening today?
Al-Jazeera is difficult to get in the US (most cable networks don't
show it, and when they first launched their English web site, Akamai
pulled out of their hosting contract at the last minute under
political pressure) and CNN and Fox News are illegal in large parts of
the Middle East. Some places, they aren't even available. This is
the primary obstacle we face in cultivating cross-cultural empathy:
the communications facilities capable of showing these images are
under the control of small elites, and those elites are using that
power to limit what can be seen.
It may be that, even if Al-Jazeera were available on every cable
network in the US, it still wouldn't be enough. Maybe not enough
Americans would watch it, or maybe the English version would be so
different from the Arabic version that they wouldn't really
understand, or maybe mass media alone isn't enough.
But we have other media available today. YouTube is a first step,
although it readily responds to spurious claims of copyright
infringement by peremptorily censoring whatever material is claimed to
be infringing, a dismayingly common practice; and for reasons of
network efficiency, the video quality is very poor. Online
communities allow us to form relationships with people elsewhere who
share interests with us, and to travel without breaking our ties with
those we have left behind. BitTorrent allows us to reliably share our
own films at full resolution with tens of thousands of people, with
the cost of distribution being equitably spread among the people who
participate, rather than falling largely on a single entity as with
These peer-to-peer, decentralized media allow us to share experiences
with people in other parts of the world as never before. I don't know
if this will bring an end to wars in the world, but it will certainly
There are those who would limit the reach, the effectiveness, and the
reliability of these new media. Comcast, a large US ISP, has recently
been caught forging packets in an effort to disrupt BitTorrent
traffic, perhaps because the easy sharing of video footage competes
with the cable TV service they also sell. The governments of Saudi
Arabia, China, Iran, England, and Australia, among others, maintain
lists of web sites that domestic ISPs are obligated to block access
to, often because they provide windows into experiences those
governments do not want their people to empathize with.
These restrictions on the freedom to communicate impede cross-cultural
empathy, and thus make war much more likely. So every man, woman, or
child who dies in a future war will have died in large part because of
restrictions like these on the freedom to communicate.
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