Free speech does not permit us to yell ‘Fire!’ in a crowded theatre; but what if we are only yelling ‘Firetrap!’?
Free Speech Limits
I have noted before that anger sells. I have no data, but I would guess that anger also sells any merchandise which accompanies the anger; that, while the carny is pushing viper venom he can sell a little snake oil, too. If that is true, it means that anger carries a strong economic incentive, in addition to the political expediency we noted earlier. Media that sells anger will be more profitable, attracting yet more anger mongers, creating an accelerating tailspin.
There are very few limitations on free speech. Dishonesty is not allowed if it targets an individual or groups of individuals; and so libel, slander, and in some countries hate speech, are not allowed. And of course, the legal trope is that no one may yell ‘fire’ in a crowded theater. I have wondered if this applies even when there really is a fire; it would probably not qualify as illegal under the criminal code, but civil claims might be made against a perpetrator for acting in ways that exacerbate the problem.
There are other possibilities of course. What if someone whispers ‘fire’, knowing that others will yell it and create a stampede? Or to the point of this article, I have been wondering what we should do when someone yells, “This place is a firetrap!”
Particularly if the person yelling ‘Firetrap!’ just happens to own a competing theater?
Right now in the US Presidential elections, both parties are dealing with revolt from voters, and unorthodox candidates are marshaling strong challenges on both sides. At the moment this problem is worse on the right, but in the post I linked to in the opening sentence, I showed that such a strategy is effective independent of ideology. But the important point from that earlier post is that selling anger, including yelling ‘Firetrap’, is poisonous, and can come back to poison the anger monger.
Various media have found it very profitable, financially and politically, to whip people into a frenzy by yelling ‘Firetrap’, and drive them to a new theater; or if I might mix metaphors, to drive them from a big tent into a series of smaller camps. But as they move, voters carry their anger with them. So it’s only a matter of time before one or more people stand up in the new camps and scream, “This place is also a firetrap!” So anger can feed off of itself and produce yet more anger, more impatience, more intolerance, more closed-mindedness. In the long run, this hampers our competitiveness.
And in the short run it can be ruinous. Many people on all positions of the political spectrum are worried about the future of our country if one of the angriest candidates wins this election. But recently, I have begun worrying about something else:
What if they lose?
The anger will not go away, and quite likely become worse. As I noted in the post on agitprop, victory can placate people and allow the group to navigate through social strife. But what happens if they are defeated?
The problem with yelling ‘Firetrap’ in a crowded theater is that it can become a self-sustaining reaction, a political China Syndrome, something that cannot be contained nor restrained. As long as our nation’s social and economic fabric holds intact, I think we will be OK, and the situation will remain stable.
But if either our social order or economic stability begin to fray, we could quickly end up with the same mindless anger, intolerance and hatred which gripped Germany after WWI, and which led to the election of Hitler as Chancellor of the Third Reich.
Picture of Burning Books courtesy of Flickr.com.
Picture of Nazi Bookburning at Bebelplatz, courtesy of Wikimedia.org.