Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Simon Says

It's likely that at some point in your life, you've been on at least one side of a discussion like this:

Okay, so tell me again why you put your head into that pipe?

(Sheepishly) Um... Alex told me to...

I see. And if Alex told you to go jump off a cliff, would you do that, too?
These conversations are interesting in that it's one of the few cases in which we postulate that doing something self-injurious because someone else told you to do it makes you an idiot, rather than a victim. Sure, we might label Alex a "Bad Influence," but everyone (even the parents, in their unguarded moments) agrees that the kid who manages to wedge their head into a pipe after listening to one of their peers is a moron who really needs to learn better than to uncritically listen to others. (Okay, not always, but close enough.) But if Alex grows up to be an advertiser, or some sort of celebrity, suddenly they develop mind-control powers that the general public simply can't be expected to resist. Except that is, for a chosen few, and they, therefore, should be the gatekeepers of what messages the rest of us can hear. After all, we wouldn't want Alex convincing anyone to shove their head into a pipe. Or spending money they might need later on something frivolous or that is bad for them. Or shooting someone over politics.

Welcome to the dark, unspoken-of underbelly of the constant debates over not simply incendiary political rhetoric, but modern advertising and the media sphere as a whole. If you listen to such discussions carefully, you can always hear the following argument - this person or group of people are constantly telling other people (who aren't very bright) to do bad things. Things that are bad for them, bad for society, bad for the environment; just plain bad things. Some of us are smart enough to know better, but these other people aren't. (After all, they aren't very bright.) So we need to carefully control the speech of these people who are smarter than the public at large, but don't care about them the way that we do - otherwise they'll keep leading people into doing bad things. Now perhaps we don't think that all of the public is in danger, just those people who haven't the sense to come around to our way of thinking.

Perhaps the idea that large numbers of people are simply too uncritical to be allowed to hear certain messages is simply a facet of human nature. After all, censorship or suppression (not always by governments) of things that are perceived as Bad Influences is more or less a worldwide phenomenon. I guess it's simply another facet of the idea that Evil is attractive. But it's one that we here in the United States would likely do well to put aside. The single best way to attack freedom of well, anything, is to argue that someone will get hurt - that's why we always fall back on the example of yelling "Fire!" in a crowded theater. But the idea behind the restriction on falsely telling people that they're in a burning building is based on the idea that if you think the building is on fire, you can't be bothered to verify that before stampeding for your life. Of course, this is also why pulling the fire alarm is a foolproof way to empty a building so that you can get in unseen - at least in Hollywood. But most of the real world doesn't work like this. Cigarette ads and calls to take back the nation aren't things where a delay of 30 minutes, or even an hour, spell the difference between life and death. People should be expected to think about them, and suffer the consequences themselves if we don't. Just because Alex is now pulling down the mid-6 figures or more doesn't make us any less idiots when we let them convince us to put out heads into the pipe again.

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