Free Speech, Dignity and Tolerance
In free society, there are two counterbalancing sets of rights and duties.
Firstly, the right of free speech allows me to speak my mind without fear of
reprisal. This places a duty of tolerance on those who may dislike what I say.
On the other hand, there is also a right of dignity, whereby speakers have a
duty to be considerate in their speech, self-censoring before speaking.
This creates a continuing tension, where we want to express ourselves while
repressing others. This can be seen where opposing people each claim the right
and impose the duty that suits them best. A common instance is in religion,
where people of one faith are intolerant of people with different beliefs, yet
expect tolerance of their own outspoken views
There is a point in here about power, including personal power to speak and
act at will, as well as formal power of authority and law. The right of free
speech assumes those insulted are powerful enough to silence or take harmful
revenge on controversial speakers. Laws of free speech hence give protection to
speakers and place a duty on listeners to hold back any desire to attack. On the
other hand, the right of dignity assumes many are powerless to defend against
those who cause distress or orher harm by what they say. Laws here include those
around libel, harassment, equality and incitement.
It is a sad indictment of the human condition that we tend to selfish lack of
consideration. When insulted, we feel justified in responding harshly. Worse,
bullies gain pleasure in the distress of others as they boost their own sense of
control and power. To counteract this tendency, social norms and formal laws
form a structure that seeks to balance freedom and protection, moderating more
powerful people from using harmful speech or revenge against speakers.
There has in recent years been a steady increase in laws and norms that
support dignity over free speech. While the rights of the vulnerable are of
course important, this has transferred power to their protectors, some of whom
abuse this power as they seek to silence their critics while trumpeting their
own cause. The move to dignity rights has also led to increasing sensitivity,
where people take insult more easily. Paradoxically, this leads to a more
paranoid and less tolerant society. Indeed, the outrage that intolerance
provokes can be linked to much modern conflict.
For people of different beliefs to coexist, perhaps we need to rebalance a
little, allowing more insult and expecting more toleration than outrage. The
happy medium should be both a right to talk without fear of reprisals, and a
duty to be tolerant of those who speak their minds. When we express our views,
we should be both fearless and considerate, not just one or the other.
How do you deal with someone who has a
I sometimes respond to questions on Quora,
in which I try to encourage people to be positive and thoughtful. Here's one I
wrote recently on the question of how to handle people who always seem to act in
a superior way, as if they are better than you and you are inferior. It's an
annoying situation that we all face, some on a daily basis.
First watch them. Do they act superior with everyone, or mostly you? If the
latter, then look for things you do that unintentionally encourages them. For
example do you feel inferior at any level? You can also ask a trusted friend who
can see both of you in action.
Also think: what exactly do they do that bothers me? Why does it bother me?
The above may offer you a way to change how you react to them that helps you
You can also try to understand what is driving them to act this way. It may
be a reaction to them feeling inferior and over-compensating. If you can get a
better handle on how they are thinking and feeling, you will have a far better
chance of managing the situation.
Much human behaviour is based in the desire for status. You can see it in
many everyday conversations and the way we try to impress people and get their
approval. You also see it in the way people try to push others down so they can
(relatively) rise. This can lead to status battles, where the real issue is not
about business and not about respect. The pattern is often win-lose. At best
both people get a little out of most encounters. At worst it is lose-lose.
Try to step away from status and win-lose thinking. Try moving the
conversation and situation towards win-win. They will often resist this as they
see you winning as them losing. Persist with adult, peer interactions (not
parent-child) with them. Be authentic. Be patient. Avoid being negative.
You can fight back, but only do so when you have given the positive approach
a good go. Only do so when you are ready. Do not pick a fight you will lose. Aim
for short, sharp responses that will make them think hard about what they are
doing (and give them time to do this).
In the end, if they cannot move from their superiority position and insist on
taking more than they give, then go elsewhere. If they are friends, dump them.
If they are people at work, move to another position or get another job
Populism and terrorism: two trends with a common
There has recently been a spate of populist
politics around the world, from Syriza in Greece to Podemas in Spain to UKIP in
the UK. It works with individuals too, and the popularity of Donald Trump and
Bernie Sanders in the USA presidential primaries plays to the same basic
Imagine you are young, possibly unemployed and finding life incredibly tough.
Your pay is low, rents are high and rocketing, and the general gap between where
you are and where you would like to be seems to be widening way faster than you
could ever catch up. Your future, if you ever had one, seems to be fading even
before you got going. You see older generations or middle classes who are doing
ok and feel you will never have it as good as them. You see fat cats in business
who pay themselves enormous salaries and even bigger bonuses. Politicians
naturally suck up to these richer voters and seem to have all but abandoned you.
And, for that matter, your friends and maybe your entire family.
Imagine alternatively that you have moved to a new country, or perhaps your
parents did. From birth, you are an outsider. Yes, you have your local
community, but the older people just hark on about the old country which you
know little about. You faced bias and bullying when growing up. Then much of the
jobs market seems closed to you. And when some idiot who only has the same
religion as you commits a terrorist act, you are suddenly a prime suspect, being
stopped or ignored even more. You feel abandoned, outside the system. Even if
you were doing well within the system, perhaps working towards a well-respected
profession, you know you will always be treated with suspicion.
Then somebody comes along who understands your plight. They criticize the
corrupt establishment who do not understand you and care even less. They promise
to make things better. They say your world will be so much nicer, if only you
follow them. So you do. You like them. You may even get to love them, for at
last here is someone with who you can connect. And when their rhetoric is
criticized by outsiders, this only serves to intensify your connection with
them. Of course those establishment people will criticize, just like they always
have. What do they care about you? Not like your new leader, who truly
understands you, who will fix things for you, and for who you will do goodness
Populism and terrorism are not the same, but they target very similar
audiences and hook them in the same way, by first empathizing and then
converting. It is not surprising that outsiders going to Trump rallies have
found them pretty scary, or that Trump scares many establishment Republicans.
The same is probably true within religious groups, where the radicals attract
the disaffected and terrifies the mainstream.
Terrorism, radicalization and the polarizing
politics of outrage
There has recently been another terrorist attack, this time in Brussels, and
not so long after the simultaneous gun and bomb assaults in Paris, both of which
left many dead and injured, and millions horrified.
Why do they do it? It's a common cry.
Aside from martyrdom, the real reason is to escalate their cause, which is to
spread their fundamentalist religion and ultimately to destroy western
civilisation. They believe in a prophecy of Armageddon and are working to create
How do they do this? Through the politics of outrage.
The first step is to outrage
their enemy, who they largely see as western governments. This is the first
purpose of the terrorist acts. The governments of course show public outrage
(they would be castigated if they did not) and respond in
various ways, from rounding up suspects to intensifying proxy wars in regions
where those who seem to have energized the terrorists operate.
Outraged citizens may also take the law into their own hands, attacking
innocents who are seen as linked to the terrorist group, typically by religious
affiliation. The media join in too, for example pressing for total condemnation
by people of the religion and then condemning them for an insufficient response.
The terrorist organisation then amplifies and plays this back to their
potential supporters, highlighting the oppression of their people, outraging and
in the process. It's a game of
dividing and pushing either side to extremes, where outrage is used to justify
And so the cycle spins. With a few acts of barbarity, the terrorists create
huge chaos, fear and knee-jerk reaction that is food for their cause. They will
use understandable reprisals to persuade more to radicalism.
They also cause cause massive ongoing security costs and other disruption
that costs billions and so weakens their target enemies.
If we want to break this cycle of hate, outrage and reaction, we each must
step back from recrimination, even verbally so. We must try to understand
realities and beware of demonizing the innocent majority. We must work to change
minds rather than fall prey to outraged polarisation.
It may be hard, but it is the best way to peace.
The Striving Mentalist
I was on a cruise ship recently and went to a show by a young man who goes by
the stage name of 'Phoenix'. He was good, but he could have been better.
He started with a memory display where he remembered the sequence of cards in
a deck. The set up to this was messy, with getting various audience members to
split and shuffle cards. He dropped a couple of cards along the way. Was this a
part of the act? It didn't add anything so was just a minor irritation.
I got dragged up on stage for the prestige (serves me right for sitting in
the front row) as the shuffled pack was split in two and he pointed to the
person who had each card. Frustratingly, the other person got confused and
didn't remove one card, hence messing up the end of the trick ('I've got a card
left over!'). I thought this a little unkind. Don't expose the performer even if
you can see the trick. And if you are the performer, handle such events with
elegant grace, perhaps even turning into another amazing event.
He also did a good 'psychic' mind-reading trick, telling members of the
audience marvellous facts about their lives. It worked well as the people seemed
genuinely startled, though the hand-to-head 'It's coming to me' stuff was a bit
The main illusion was a complex show that involved guessing words that
members of the audience had put in an envelope. The overall trick was again done
well and I've no idea how he did it. Yet again, it could have been more
coherent, talking more and being clearer about what he was 'doing'. Audiences
need a strong story they can follow.
I think he is good but is still learning stagecraft. He made an impact on
Australia's Got Talent and is now stepping up. He referenced the UK's Derren
Brown and is clearly influenced by him. I've seen Derren who is very polished.
An illusionist friend noted that he knows how Derren does most of his tricks,
but what impresses him is the way Derren turns a relatively basic illusion into
an amazing performance.
There's an important point here for all of us. Whether you are performing or
just chatting, a key task is guiding what your audience thinks and feels. In
this, do not expect them to understand everything you say, and do not expect
them to remember what you said a minute ago. Always be clear and expect to
repeat yourself. Notice how rapt or distracted they seem as you steadily reel
them in. Only when you have their expectant attention should you deliver the
The Greatest America?
Donald Trump is still doing well, with his sweeping statements gaining
remarkable influence. Recently, he said '...we are going to make America great
again. Maybe greater than before.' Hmmm. Maybe he's on to something there.
No matter what you think of him, Trump is playing a fine game of cards,
bluffing and bamboozling his opponents and stealing their oxygen, their media
inches and minutes, with his outrageous rhetoric. He opens his mouth and
seemingly random stuff comes out, yet his audience laps it all up. Why this
happens is another conversation (go see Scott Adams' blog for neat views on
this). Today, I have a suggestion that could help him. Not that he's listening
to me, but never mind.
It's that 'great' thing. I am British, and kind of like that I live in Great
Britain, not just Britain. Why? Because it makes me feel superior. Not that this
little island is the superpower it once was, but the great name is still there
and I can still pretend. There is a similar thing in America, where it's
citizens like the feeling that it is the world's greatest place, and perhaps
feel a little rankled that it isn't as great as it once was.
This cultural desire for greatness is what Trump taps into. It's a Republican
theme in particular (hence their hawkish tendencies). So why not major on this?
Talk not just about making America great again, but push beyond to 'the
greatest'. Make this a key word. Adopt the strapline 'The Greatest America'. A
bit arrogant, perhaps? Yet tapping into deep American feelings. Which is all
And along with it all is the rubbing off of 'greatest' onto the man himself.
Step aside Muhammed Ali, here comes Donald Trump!
The Power of Populism and Recent Global Politics
Populism, of late, seems to have got quite popular, in particular in the firm
of political parties on the extremes of left and right. For example Syriza in
Greece and Podemas in Spain play to left wing anti-austerity views, promising a
utopian welfare state (though as Syriza has found, creditors are not that easy
to ignore). On the other side, UKIP in Britain and PVV in the Netherlands play
to nationalist and anti-immigrant bias. And, in the US presidential elections,
Trump and Sanders have been doing doing remarkably well, though each is at
either end of the political scale.
So what is populism and why has it emerged now?
Populism in politics generally involves making statements and policies that
appeal to a wide audience. Typically they take a problem experienced by many
people, escalate it to a primary priority and then promise to solve it. The
problem is that proposed solutions are either so vague they are largely
meaningless or, if implemented, would cause more problems than they solved. But
this is not a worry to populists. They arouse emotions to get votes and don't
really fret about the practicality of solutions. Only once in power will they
worry about such trivia.
Populism flourishes when people feel disempowered, vulnerable or oppressed,
and where unfairness clouds their sight. As this becomes evident, politicians
and parties play on these fears, giving them voice and whipping up the storm.
Through their rhetoric they legitimize and promote collective selfishness, where
'our' needs are assumed paramount over faceless, culpable and demonized others,
while big issues, such as global conflict and climate change, are roundly
Three C's can be identified as critical fears underpinning populism:
corruption, culture and complexity.
Power corrupts, which we all know, and when we see money riding to the top,
where fat cats gorge at the trough that somehow we seem to be paying for, we
feel outraged. When smooth-talking, suited and smiling elites seem to think they
have a right to oppress the masses, then hatred foments in our hearts. Some
difference we tolerate. We don't mind hierarchies and gain vicarious pleasure in
ogling celebrity lives. But when the balance tips too far, when the dream of
riches seems unattainable, when the powerful seem not to care and not even
notice us, then we rebel.
Culture impinges when we find other people are not following our social
rules, and none more so than when swathes of immigrants arrive, bringing their
own culture with them. It gets worse when they look different, with different
clothing, skin or facial features. Religion is important, particularly when it
takes precedence over national law. And of course we watch their approach to the
vulnerable, from women to homosexuals, whose rights with us have been fought for
and secured over many years.
The other issue with immigrants that populist politicians play on, aside from
difference and their sheer numbers, is jobs. For centuries, immigrants have been
seen as poachers of employment, 'stealing our jobs' and depressing salaries as
supply exceeds demand. And if they do not take jobs, then they are seen as
welfare spongers or thieves. No matter the truth of immigrants being very
largely peaceful and hard-working, populism often makes them the enemy within.
The final C, complexity, is less a specific issue and more a generic feeling
of being overwhelmed by external forces, from ever-changing technology to
doom-laden global news of conflict, climate change and other woes. At root are
two basic needs, for control and identity. Powerful others damage our sense of
control as they rob and constrain us. Then elites and invaders challenge our
sense of identity, making us feel unimportant and unsure of who we are. And
complexity just makes both worse.
We yearn for simpler times, where choices were easy, we felt safer and we
knew who we were. And this is the heart of what populism promises. Don't worry,
it says. We feel your pain. Trust us. We will speak the unspoken, unvarnished
truth. We will make the unpopular decisions that others dare not, with their
politically correct moral posturing, or their secret cabals and smoke-filled
rooms where faceless backers trade in power and profit.
But this is politics and its heady mix of morals and corruption, where
powerplays and horsetrading are just how things get done. Populism may offer a
fresh face but, behind the scenes, compromising will continue as a harsh
reality. Great works need great amounts of money, and when money rears its ugly
head people rear theirs. Finance is far from free and invariably comes with
tightly knotted strings. And no real answer has ever been found to the
'immigrant problem' other than means even uglier than financial shenanigans.
Is there an antidote to populism? The classic liberal approach, of careful
reasoning, is good for some but sadly is less effective with those who are more
susceptible to emotional appeals. Perhaps in considering argument we are looking
under the wrong streetlight. Before people will listen seriously to you, they
need to trust you. The reasoning approach says 'listen, I'm the expert here' as
they bore you with detail. The populist says 'Hey, I'm just like you' as they
voice your darkest fears. While liberals and others may talk about real issues,
the populist speaks to their audience's reality and thereby gains enough trust
to sustain attention.
And here lies a key. Trust is the bridge to credibility and care is a
critical plank of trust. To outdo the populist, play the other two planks, of
reliability and honesty. In politics, this is not easy, yet delivery is the
populist's greatest weakness. While the populist may glibly win the short term,
attacking their implementation will undermine their credibility.
Yet the bigger question is still there, like the dead elephant in the room
that nobody mentions. Why now? What has triggered this populist explosion? The
uncomfortable truth is that the populists are partly right. Inequality is
growing. Migration is happening. Countries and religions are growing apart. And
largely failed conflict is rippling back to our shores. Populists do not so much
invent as amplify, making smaller seem bigger and mostly harmless people seen
Pushed to the Edge: Would you kill someone?
I recently watched a show by mentalist/psychology personality Derren Brown,
called 'Pushed to the Edge' in which he gets ordinary people to kill other
people, by pushing them off a building. Of course nobody gets hurt, but the
person doing the pushing thinks they are committing murder and that this is the
only way out of being sent to prison. How did he get them to such a point? One
small step at a time. Make urgency more important than 'minor' legality.
It is very similar to ‘The Heist’ that he did a few years ago, in which he
replicated Milgram’s experiment (where the target was persuaded to electrocute
people) and got people to engage in an armed robbery. The bottom line is that we
are more compliant than we think we are, especially when we feel we are in a
corner and are being commanded by someone in
In the real world, people often get into crime through social pressure, and
may even end up killing others. A key step that criminals take is that they
justify such actions to themselves and are ready to do it again, often with the
approval and encouragement of others. This is the critical process of
criminalization, through which a person becomes comfortable with being a
criminal. A typical justification includes self-talk such as 'I had no other
choice' or 'He deserved it' as the criminals convince themselves they are good
and right, and that their victims and the police are the real bad guys.
Of course there’s a moral question to such shows, including what negative
effects it might have on the participants and even viewers. Against that is the
presented purpose, to warn viewers that they can be manipulated beyond where
they would think they could be pushed.
Status, aspiration and fantasy
One of the defining aspects of being human is living in a hierarchical
society. In common with other group-living animals, the social structure is
essential for sustaining relative peace and harmony, even if the price is
A result of this is that the pecking order is important to us, as is our
place on this social ladder. We build much of our self-worth based on who is
inferior to us and who is superior. We also indulge in daily battles with those
around us, both to advance our position a notch and to defend it from usurpers
who try to climb over us in their own attempted ascent.
Many of our aspirations in life are based around this desire for status. We
seek both formal and social status in the form of promotion and recognition. If
or employer tells us we are superior and other people look up to us, then maybe
we really are worth something.
The problem with all this is that the bottom of the pyramid is much bigger
than the top, and that the top is very narrow indeed. The opportunity for
advancement is, for many, an illusion. Even as they are striving their best and
friends are urging them on, the probable return on this investment is
So why do we do it? Why do we kid ourselves that we could be president, CEO
or celebrity? Mostly, it's about fantasy. While we are trying, we can imagine
succeeding. If we give up, we lose hope.
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