In Opposition To Profits Based On Propaganda And Not Truth
We live in an age of propaganda, ideological extremism, and political violence, but the student of history knows that there are few times when this was ever not true. Revolutions and counter revolutions, of both a positive and negative nature, are as constant as the tides.
William Godwin, the father of utilitarian and libertarian thought, recognized the need for revolutionary change but knew that violence could only perpetuate a cycle of destruction. Instead of the sword, progress can only come by the pen, and a good society can only be formed from mutual agreement instead of through servitude.
In his influential work Political Justice, Godwin devotes a chapter to the "Mode of Effecting Revolutions," and he begins: “The revolutions of states, which a philanthropist would desire to witness, or in which he would willingly co-operate, consist principally in a change of sentiments and dispositions in the members of those states. The true instruments for changing the opinions of men are argument and persuasion. The best security for an advantageous issue is free and unrestricted discussion. In that field truth must always prove the successful champion.”
Godwin's faith in truth led him to believe that people can ultimately be reasoned with, even if it may seem like a difficult process: “If then we would improve the social institutions of mankind, we must write, we must argue, we must converse. To this business there is no close; in this pursuit there should be no pause. Every method should be employed,—not so much positively to allure the attention of mankind, or persuasively to invite them to the adoption of our opinions,—as to remove every restraint upon thought, and to throw open the temple of science and the field of enquiry to all the world.”
Humanity must be given the power to obtain and understand information in the pursuit of truth. Persuasion is ultimately a tool of force, catering information to promote a particular point of view instead of revealing all aspects. We should focus on fact, not opinion, and those whose job it is to inform and education should do so in an objective manner.
However, it is ultimately the individual's responsibility to filter out fact from opinion, especially when it comes to persuasive works: “Those instruments will always be regarded by the discerning mind as suspicious, which may be employed with equal prospect of success on both sides of every question. This consideration should make us look with aversion upon all resources of violence. When we descend into the listed field, we of course desert the vantage ground of truth, and commit the decision to uncertainty and caprice.”
The ultimate result of thwarted persuasion is force, which reveals that it was employed not to guide others but to control them: “The phalanx of reason is invulnerable; it advances with deliberate and determined pace; and nothing is able to resist it. But when we lay down our arguments, and take up our swords, the case is altered. Amidst the barbarous pomp of war and the clamorous din of civil brawls, who can tell whether the event shall be prosperous or miserable?”
With the ever looming threat of violence, Godwin warns, “We must therefore carefully distinguish between informing the people and inflaming them. Indignation, resentment and fury are to be deprecated; and all we should ask is sober thought, clear discernment and intrepid discussion.”
We can see media on both sides stirring up the passions of the people. Many supposed “news” groups provide misleading statements that cater to a particular bias in order to inflame individuals who will then share that work. Their approach, a mingling of clickbait and hatebait, is truly viral as the malicious content passes from one host to the next, using victims to spread their taint. Often, these originating entities do not agree with the ideology that they espouse but only spread it in hope to profit.
Godwin poses the question: “Why were the revolutions of America and France a general concert of all orders and descriptions of men, without so much (if we bear in mind the multitudes concerned) as almost a dissentient voice; while the resistance against our Charles the first divided the nation into two equal parts?”
His answer is that his contemporaries viewed reason and rationality above other considerations, and they were able to approach truth in a way previous generations could not: “Because in the case of America and France philosophy had already developed some of the great principles of political truth, and Sydney and Locke and Montesquieu and Rousseau had convinced a majority of reflecting and powerful minds of the evils of usurpation. If these revolutions had happened still later, not one drop of the blood of one citizen would have been shed by the hands of another, nor would the event have been marked so much perhaps as with one solitary instance of violence and confiscation.”
This is an extremely proud and optimistic view of history, but history would not concede to Godwin's projections. The violence of the Civil War, of the Bolshevik Revolution, and the destruction of both World Wars show that ideology was able to surpass the bounds of reason. Even the divisive political contests in relatively peaceful nations have brought out the worst in both sides, sometimes leading to riots.
If we want a different course for society, Godwin offers some advice: “There are two principles therefore which the man who desires the regeneration of his species ought ever to bear in mind, to regard the improvement of every hour as essential in the discovery and dissemination of truth, and willingly to suffer the lapse of years before he urges the reducing his theory into actual execution.”
Patience and pragmatism, not absolutely ideology, are necessary virtues of those who seek to better their society: “With all his caution it is possible that the impetuous multitude will run before the still and quiet progress of reason; nor will he sternly pass sentence upon every revolution that shall by a few years have anticipated the term that wisdom would have prescribed. But, if his caution be firmly exerted, there is no doubt that he will supersede many abortive attempts, and considerably prolong the general tranquillity.”
Godwin offers much advice to our current situation. We should focus on words, but we should avoid using them as weapons. We should put out facts, but we should not use them to wage ideological conflict upon others. We should allow people to educate themselves, but not guide them down a path that matches our own.
This is the fundamental essence of the original libertarian, liberal, and conservative philosophies, but it has been long abandoned. It is difficult to rely only on words, and it is easy to get ahead by forcing your view upon others. Facts rarely grab the attention of readers, but bias and spin, often mixed with half truths or outright lies, spread like wildfire. There is far too much money and power involved in political and ideological victories to ever allow for an honest discussion, but such victories will always be hollow. We need ideas, not rhetoric, if we hope to live in a world based on truth.
Jeffrey Peters is an Annapolis, Md.-based writer and political consultant.