Protection from Bad Ideas

In the first episode of HBO’s miniseries Chernobyl, the most important things lead up to a meeting of the local Committee of the Communist Party. Something bad has happened, word has been passed up and down the chain of command, and the higher-ups have decided to let the locals deal with the problem, while also sending a couple thousand “police” and military. The inference is that the police are the NKVD as well as the military. The party committee members gather in a bunker to decide what to do. Should they evacuate? No, because there’s not really any radiation, according to the available dosimeters [which have all maxed out at 3.6 Roentgen, because that’s as high as they go.] The glow in the air is harmless.

The senior party member reminds them that their duty is to serve the people, and to protect the people. The best way to do that is to prevent panic and suppress false information. He orders the phone lines cut and the area completely isolated. The people will be grateful for the Committee’s actions when they see how well the Party protected them [the people] from bad rumors and hysteria. Viewers know that, well, it’s not going to end that happily.

The Soviets were not the first to want to protect people from dangerous ideas and bad data. The Imperial Chinese censored things, lest otherwise virtuous and moral people be corrupted. Most (in)famously, the first Emperor is said to have burned books and executed authors and philosophers, since no one needed to know the old things or anything that he disagreed with. Since the history was written by someone who disagreed with Qin Shi-Huangdi’s policies, there’s some doubt about the story.

Various governments medieval to modern, also censored people and things, blocked the publication of books, ordered plays to be changed to better suit proper morals and politics, and so on. The princes of Kiev, in the late 900s-1100s, censored various books and works of art. In Early Modern Russia, Peter the Great censored books, forbidding those that demeaned the government, and even ruling that monks did not need to write things privately in their cells. The Russian Orthodox church also censored incoming books, Russian or otherwise, to ensure that foreign or heretical ideas did not lead to people being damned by bad information and ideas. The Roman Catholic church had the Index of books considered to be in gross error, heretical, salacious beyond the usual, and other things. Getting on the Index often meant that the book would sell better, at least pirated editions, because someone is always going to want to know what’s so bad about it, or to rebel by reading naughty literature.

This sense that the mandarins (to abuse a Chinese term) know better and have a duty to protect people from bad ideas did not go away with the 1900s. Certain media platforms routinely censor material, sometimes leading to great ire, as when YouTube decided to remove lots and lots of NSDAP stuff, including university professors’ class materials. Trust me, a lecture on wartime production and economics that includes clips from propaganda films is not going to encourage people to become NeoNazis. Other platforms do the same thing with materials that “contradict the science” or “deny the scientific consensus” about various topics. China has its “Great Firewall.” There are always going to be people or institutions that are certain that some information is too tempting, scandalous, or offensive for ordinary people to be exposed to. Just as a parent protects children from things they are not ready for, so too should the state/church/wise leader/bureaucrats protect the public.

Me personally, I’d rather have Alex Jones as well as Al Franken on-line for people to read. Let the ideas compete. OK, step by step instructions for making a breeder-reactor in your back yard might be going a wee bit far, and I disapprove of doxxing people no matter their ideologies. Iran’s theocratic government considers the US “the Great Satan” because we tempt Iranians into straying from proper beliefs and behaviors. The Imperial Chinese censored materials so ordinary people without the proper education to resist bad knowledge would not fall into vice and corruption. Russian schools teach that Russia won WWII with barely minimal assistance from the US and Britain, and discourage people looking for other sources and stories. The Greek government used to prohibit the importation of Bibles, especially Bibles in Greek, at the behest of the Patriarch of the Greek Orthodox Church. Which . . . made studying the New Testament a bit of a challenge for laypeople.

The Party will protect the People from accidentally destroying the fruits of their [the People’s] labor. It will be the great heroic moment for the Pripyet Subcommittee of the Communist Party, and the People will thank them for their labor.

Except for that glow in the sky over the power plant, and the men coming out of the plant. With fresh sunburns. At night.

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12 thoughts on “Protection from Bad Ideas

  1. Saw a news/opinion article about some idiot on MNBC (IIRC) complaining that Musk might/would use his control of Twitter to “destroy” democracy by “silencing” people on Twitter.

    Never mind that Twitter has already “silenced” the “Wrong People”.

    Not sure if to laugh or to cuss. 😦

  2. By the way, somewhere I heard that the Roman Catholic Church’s “Index” was more of a “Warning List” and actual “banning” of books on the list were more a local matter.

    IE The Catholic Church wasn’t able to actually ban books on the list “world-wide”.

  3. People are better served by some of the fact-checking organizations, that fact-check and explain why they came to a particular conclusion. Then, if you disagree with their conclusion you can check their sources of information and compare the sources with your own . Assuming you are willing to put in the effort. Much better than just saying, “Nuh-uh!”
    And assuming you want to serve people, and not some ideology.

    • Yes. I like historians like Sean McMeekin, because he says, “Here’s a new theory about why something happened. Here are all my sources. Here’s what we’re still not certain about. This is what it might mean.” He lays his cards on the table for other people to check.

    • Oooh, yes.

      I like fact-checks. I like the internet– part of why I started reading blogs is because it’s *possible* to literally cite by click-through wahtever thing one is talking about.

      One of the tactics I *hate* is the “watch this video, it will make my argument for me!” form of citation when someone is asked for sources– video is nice, and I know many people are audio learners, but if someone can’t be bothered to either write down the part they want to cite or at least point to a transcript, I tend to figure they’re more interested in clicks than in supporting their arguments. 😀

      It’s slightly better than the “read this article which cites no sources in a manner that can be checked, and then interprets it for you” method, which is itself slightly better than the “interpret a thing, give a link, but the link doesn’t say what you just interpreted it as saying” thing.

      • Oh yes, the “Watch This Video” school of evidence. 😆

        One idiot claimed that the ancient Jews used “pot” in their holy oil and pointed to a video “documentary” proved it.

        Of course, the idiot didn’t provide any historical documents that supported the so-called “documentary”.

        • I don’t want to watch a 45 minute video to see your source. I want a footnote. If you cannot provide a timestamp to the exact point in your video to back your cite, then I disbelieve your source automatically, and assume you did skim until offended, or skim until hearing something you assume means you’re right.

      • Or worse, their evidence says exactly the opposite of what they present it as. And they’re too ideologically blinded to see it.

  4. I *like* the fire-hose of information, the more sources you can get (and the more those sources post) the better you can figure out who knows what they’re talking about, and who is blowing smoke.

    Sure, it doesn’t fix the problem of “I don’t even know enough to tell if this guy is making it up,” like when some reporters were reading joke summaries of Lord of the Rings and didn’t realize it WAS a joke, but it strips the power one can get from taking over an information source– or from being “the” provider of Secret Counter Information– which makes it more likely folks will be motivated by getting out accurate information, rather than make-people-respond-as-desired information.

  5. And now we’re back to the first principal of what IS truth… And that depends on what is used to ‘determine’ that truth…

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