Dour observations fall on deaf ears

Saturday, September 14th, 2019

Dictators suppress speech, because the truth hurts, right?

If you want to bring an incumbent dictator down, do you really want to be hamstrung by the truth? It’s far easier — and more crowd-pleasing — to respond to a pack of official lies with your own pack of lies. When the dictator claims, “I’ve made this the greatest country on earth,” you could modestly respond, “Face facts: we’re only 87th.” Yet if it’s power you seek, you might as well lie back, “The dictator has destroyed our country — but this will be the greatest country on earth if we gain power.” Even more obviously, if the current dictator claims the sanction of God, the opposition doesn’t want to shrug, “Highly improbable. How do you even know God exists?” Instead, the opposition wants to roar, “No, God is on our side. Our side!”

What then is the primary purpose of censorship? It’s not to suppress the truth — which has little mass appeal anyway. The primary purpose of censorship is to monopolize the pretty lies. Only the powers-that-be can freely make absurdly self-aggrandizing claims. Depending on the severity of the despotism, you may not have to echo the official lies. But if you publicly defend alternative absurdly self-aggrandizing claims, the powers-that-be will crush you.

Why, though, do dictators so eagerly seek to monopolize the pretty lies? In order to take full advantage of their subjects’ Social Desirability Bias. Human beings like to say — and think — whatever superficially sounds good. Strict censorship allows rulers to exploit this deep mental flaw. If no one else can make absurd lies, a trite slogan like, “Let’s unite to fight for a fantastic future!” carries great force. Truthful critics would have to make crowd-displeasing objections like, “Maybe competition will bring us a brighter future than unity,” “Who exactly are we fighting?,” or “Precisely how fantastic of a future are we talking about?” A rather flaccid bid for power! Existing rulers tremble far more when rebels bellow, “Join us to fight for a fantastic future!”

George Orwell has been a huge influence on me. When you read his political novels, you often get the feeling that dictators fear the truth above all. If only Winston Smith could take over the Ministry of Truth and tell all Oceania that it needlessly lives in poverty and fear. In the broad scheme of things, however, unvarnished truth is only a minor threat to tyranny. After all, rulers could respond to ironclad fact with a pile of demagoguery: “Smith is slandering our great country!” “He’s a willing tool of Eurasia!” Or even, “We’re not rich because the greatest country in the world is too proud to sell itself.” The real threat to the regime would be a rival set of demagogues offering Utopia after a brief bloodbath sends a few wicked, treasonous leaders straight to the hell that they so richly deserve.

Doesn’t this imply that free speech is overrated? Yes; I’ve said so before. While I’d like to believe that free speech leads naturally to the triumph of truth, I see little sign of this. Instead, politics looks to me like a Great Liars’ War. Viable politicians defy literal truth in virtually every sentence. They defy it with hyperbole. They defy it with overconfidence. They defy it with wishful thinking. Dictators try to make One Big Political Lie mandatory. Free speech lets a Thousand Political Lies Bloom.

Yes, freedom of speech lets me make these dour observations without fear. I’m grateful for that. Yet outside my Bubble, dour observations fall on deaf ears. Psychologically normal humans crave pretty lies, so the Great Liars’ War never ends.


  1. Ezra says:

    In the modern world censorship is de facto rather that open and overt. “You must not use that word, Johnny!” “You must not discuss that topic, Johnny!”

  2. Kirk says:

    Most successful lies are lies of omission, the things nobody talks about. The stuff that the propaganda ministry puts out? Essentially unimportant fluff–The really big deals never, ever get talked about.

    Look at the US media for examples. The reality is that we’re not really lied to about a lot of things–They just don’t talk about them. You never hear about the major policy changes or programs that are going to have truly long-lasting effect; you just hear about the stuff they want you focus on, while they do their thing in obscurity. Obscurity that’s there because the media they control doesn’t bring it up.

    Examine, for example, the way that the Obama administration never discussed that a major reason they were so down on pipelines was because a major source of their political funding was heavily invested in rail transportation of oil. You have to dig into the deep financials for both the party and Berkshire Hathaway to figure that out–And, there’s been virtually zero coverage on that whole issue.

    It’s not what they’re telling you and talking about, it’s the stuff that they’re carefully not mentioning and going out of their way to keep out of circulation.

    It’s just like the same sort of dealing that was going on with regards to the Clinton’s move of the responsibility for technology transfer oversight from the Department of Defense over to Commerce. No mention ever made about that, which enabled the transfer of Loral’s launch technology to the Chinese. Technology whose development was paid for by the US taxpayer, and whose weaponization is now pointed back at us. Ever heard of that? No? Wonder why?

    Omission. Biggest tool in their chest, and the one you really need to be concerned with.

  3. Alrenous says:

    “Employers often openly compared their workers to children. I suspect they’re on to something.”

  4. Alistair says:


    Agreed. A lot of the bias is simply selective omission, rather than direct editorial slant in appearing articles.

    Of course, a lot of the media refuses to believe that they do that…pure, unbiased seekers-after-truth and speakers-of-truth-to-power that they are…

  5. Longarch says:

    From the link:

    Why is the psychologists’ approach so superior to the economists’? Simple. Economists reject all-pervasive testimony on lame methodological grounds. Psychologists, in contrast, aggressively cross-examine this all-pervasive testimony, and empirically expose its all-pervasive perjury. Despite what they say, people really are selfish, businesses really are greedy, students really are lazy, and workers really are materialistic. Econo-cynicism has a firm basis in psychological fact.


    Unfortunately, a great deal of what is published as psychological fact is wrong.


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