by Kort E Patterson
Copyright 2007 All rights reserved
I've noticed a disturbing dynamic occurring with increasing regularity on Top1, Intertel's general interest email discussion list. The disturbing dynamics appearing on Top1 have strong parallels with patterns appearing within the social dynamics of what remains of the free world.
It isn't unusual for new subscribers to Intertel's Top1 email discussion list to experience initial difficulties. To the long term list denizens, they appear beset by phantoms and invisible demons, and become obsessed with tilting at imaginary windmills. These strange apparitions are a temporary phenomenon for most new subscribers. Those that realize that the phantoms and demons are products of their mistaken expectations and only exist within their own imaginations, tend to become especially appreciative of the unusual dynamics that have evolved within the virtual community that has developed on the list.
A few new subscribers fail to pierce the distorting mist of their own mistaken expectations, and noisily flee from what they're apparently convinced is the lair of cruel ogres who delight in tormenting tender innocents lured into their trap. The rumors spread by those who have narrowly escaped the outrageous abuses of the Top1 ogres, paint a most disagreeable picture of the list and its vile denizens. And yet, when encountered in person at Intertel social events, the demonized long-time members of the list community tend to be quite friendly and agreeable individuals.
The reality is that the list community is exceptionally welcoming and tolerant of differences in opinions and world views. That isn't to say that there is general agreement on much of anything among the members. For example, politics and religion are recurrent topics, and the discussions can get rather heated. But in spite of our openly declared differences, our virtual community has remained a diverse mix of believers and nonbelievers, with political views across the spectrum from authoritarian to anarchist.
One undeniable aspect of Top1 is that there tends to be a greater dynamic range in the tone and content of discussions than in more controlled circumstances. Individuals do engage in spirited exchanges, and don't hold back their best efforts when arguing a point. More importantly, they're free to say what they really think, without having to conform to the official line handed down by the officially recognized leaders of their officially assigned sub-culture group.
There tend to be few concessions for those who attempt to parrot the deceptive psychobabble that passes for political philosophy these days. They quickly learn how difficult it can be to rationally defend the double-talk and outright lies of their favorite political idols. This can be traumatic for those who have never bothered to think beyond the superficial emotional appeal of catchy buzzwords and ten second sound bytes.
It isn't uncommon for new subscribers to demand that controls be imposed to prohibit the posting of content that they find offensive. This demand typically follows an exchange where someone has pointed out aspects of the new subscriber's pet cause that the new subscriber doesn't want to know about - and certainly doesn't want anyone else to know about. The demand is typically phrased as "advocating respect", and the self-proclaimed victim of offense tends to get even more offended when his demand to censor the free speech of others is accurately labeled as censorship. The refusal of the Top1 community to surrender their freedoms to yet another censor-wannabe ruler of the list often results in an announcement that the censor-wannabe is establishing an alternative discussion list, where everything will be all sweetness and light - enforced by the iron fist of his authoritarian control.
Those who have tasted the rich intellectual stimulation that is only possible within a free exchange of ideas tend to find the bland pablum of controlled lists a poor substitute. Small wonder that the most consistent characteristic of these loudly proclaimed authoritarian utopias is their lack of active participation. Eliminating everything that might offend someone's superficial sensitivities pretty much eliminates any form of intellectually stimulating discussion. There are even victimhood-empowered censor-wannabes who find the very concepts of intelligence and intellectually stimulating conversations to be offensive. These controlled utopias become the ideal virtual communities for those seeking the peace and serenity of the dead while still nominally alive.
There may be some sharp edges left unpadded in the Top1 virtual world, and the rough and tumble interchanges may cause a few bruised egos now and then. But in return the list members gain the benefit of real discussions of the real issues that matter to them. The benefits of a free society don't come without some costs, but the value of the results far exceed the price of participation. List members who have tried more authoritarian discussion lists, have noted that they routinely get far more out of discussions on Top1 than on lists where content is controlled by moderators.
There can even be fringe benefits from the costs of participation. The need to present a coherent, logically consistent argument, to an audience that isn't easily intimidated by big words or emotionally manipulative psychobabble, forces participants to more fully explore their own perspectives. There are few better ways to learn a given subject than to try to explain it to a skeptical listener.
I've heard recurrent rumors of mass departures from Top1, but only outside of the list. In reality, the list population has remained relatively stable over the half decade it has been in operation. It's possible for list members to unsubscribe themselves, and so there isn't any handy measure of the rate of departures. However, since Top1 is a private members-only list, new subscriptions have to be checked for valid Intertel membership by the list administrator. As list administrator, I'm very familiar with the rate at which new members are added, since I'm the one who has to add them.
The rate at which Top1 attracts new subscribers has always been fairly modest - typically one or two a month. Since the total number of subscribers has remained stable, the rate at which the list loses subscribers must be similarly modest. And not all of those who leave the list do so because they are unhappy about their experiences on the list. Some have had to leave Top1 because, sadly, they're no longer able to participate in any temporal activities. I'm unaware of any mass exoduses of (conscious) outraged Ilians during the roughly four years I've managed the list's machinery.
Another common rumor is that the list membership is rigidly segregated into warring camps. The persistent balkanization based on arbitrary group definitions that is so popular in the physical world quickly breaks down on Top1. The individual who most strongly disagrees with you today, might be your strongest ally in the topic under discussion tomorrow. It's hard to maintain artificial tribal identities within a fluid social dynamic.
So what would explain these radically different perceptions? Those who stick it out long enough to overcome their initial misconceptions give every indication of being relatively stable intelligent people. Once banished, their imaginary demons tend to be gone for good - although a few individuals had to quit the list and return multiple times before they figured out what was really happening. So why do so many individuals have so much trouble acclimating to Top1 if the list is so open and tolerant? What is it about Top1 that new subscribers have so much difficulty understanding?
The one consistent aspect of Top1 has been the absence of any artificial controlling authority. Top1 is a free society - one of those things that, according to popular mythology, can't exist. Any Intertel member can subscribe to the list, although admittedly the need to make a conscious decision to join probably does provide some amount of self-filtering of those who do join. Any list member can post anything he pleases to the list, limited only by the capabilities of the list server, and his own enlightened self-interest.
Further amplifying the potential dynamics, Top1's virtual environment insulates its participants from physical intimidation and coercion. From the authoritarian perspective, this insulation from physical intimidation should encourage greater abuses of freedoms. The virtual environment also eliminates the use of physical coercion to force participation. A voluntary virtual society is truly voluntary, and free expression is truly free - at least regarding external authoritarian controls on the behavior of the participants.
The Top1 virtual community has always functioned as an exercise in enlightened anarchism: a free voluntary society self-regulated by the dynamics of reciprocal respect, and a common enlightened self-interest in wanting to participate in something that is worth the time and effort the participants put into it.
According to the fallacies that are commonly promoted today, a free society is supposed to quickly degenerate into violent chaos, requiring a strongman with the will to seize power, to rescue it from the terrors of freedom. There have been repeated attempts to force the creation of this supposed inevitability. All of them have failed because the list participants refused to accept that it was in their enlightened self-interest to cooperate in the destruction of their free society.
Top1 has proven exceptionally robust and resilient to efforts to disrupt and sabotage it over the years it has existed. In practice, each individual's exercise of his rights becomes subject to the need to convince the other participants to respect his rights. Rights can only exist to the extent they are respected by those who might otherwise infringe on them, or interfere with exercising them. There are strong incentives to respect the rights of others when your own rights are subject to their reciprocal respect.
The original definition of anarchism was essentially that reasonable individuals, motivated solely by enlightened self-interest, should be able to maintain a peaceful and mutually respectful voluntary society, without any need to employ the coercive violence of statist authority to enforce their voluntary social contract. Today, the mass media is seemingly incapable of even considering that any kind of viable social contract is possible without the coercive authority of the state. According to the mass media, "anarchy" can only refer to the social chaos and mindless destruction, into which otherwise peaceful cooperative citizens inevitably degenerate in the absence of the civilizing effects of ever more intrusive government.
The manipulative fallacies promoted by the mass media deny the daily reality experienced by most individuals. Everyday life for most of us is composed of any number of nonviolent self-regulated interactions with other individuals, that take place outside of the direct mediation of an external authority. The vast majority of us don't spend every day we're not physically restrained, drenched in the blood and gore of our murdered neighbors. To the contrary, most of us exhibit a strong preference for a more productive approach to life, in spite of countless missed opportunities to degenerate into mindless primitives.
Consider how most of us conduct our lives when we're outside of the direct supervision of external authority - when there aren't any police officers, child welfare caseworkers, IRS agents, or OSHA inspectors handy to monitor our behavior. We transact personal and professional business with other individuals and businesses. We share meals and conversations with friends and associates. We also conduct countless, largely subconscious, momentary negotiations over the endless details of modern life, with familiar faces and total strangers - from navigating a crowded public sidewalk, to queuing up in the checkout lane. And somehow we routinely manage it all without the direct intervention of an external authority to forcibly restrain us from turning on each other like mad dogs at every opportunity.
Regardless of our professed political beliefs, the functional day-to-day reality of our individual lives tend to be exercises in enlightened anarchism. During the majority of the minutes of our lives, we function as self-regulated participants in a social contract we've voluntarily accepted, in the expectation that such self-regulation is in our enlightened self-interest. We expect to gain far more in the long term by respecting the rights of others, than we could possibly gain by violating them in the short term. The unprecedented prosperity made possible by our unique voluntary social contract, based on individual self-regulation motivated by enlightened self-interest, confirms the value of enlightened self-interest as both regulator and motivator.
There is substantial advantage to be gained by convincing the public that the reality of their daily lives is not an exercise in enlightened anarchism, and that voluntary participation in the social contract by others is due solely to the coercion of artificial authority. The vast powers of the state, and the jobs of legions of government employees, are directly dependent on maintaining the fallacy that the state is the source of all order and civility in society. Statist propaganda in government schools and the main stream media has relentlessly promoted the concept that coercive hierarchies are necessary components of all human interactions, and are the only forms of stable social structures possible. We're now told that enlightened self-interest is synonymous with superficial greed, and must be aggressively suppressed by officially sanctioned coercive violence.
Which brings us to the jarring discontinuity many new subscribers to Top1 experience. They arrive fully indoctrinated with the fallacies taught in government schools, and endlessly reinforced by statist propaganda in the main stream media, only to encounter an impossibility - a functioning free society.
The typical reaction is for new subscribers to try to interpret the list environment within the framework they've been taught to expect. They try to make sense of what they experience by mapping it onto their expectations. Most new subscribers expect to find a coercive hierarchy in control of the list community, and so immediately set about identifying the roles and positions of the other participants within that expected hierarchy. Once they believe they've determined the authority structure on the list, they often attempt to establish their own place in that structure by challenging those perceived to be in positions of power and control. Some are emboldened to try to take over leadership of the list when those they perceive as the current leaders fail to aggressively defend their power and privileges.
Protests that the new subscriber is misinterpreting the situation tend to fall on deaf ears until the newbie reaches the point where he realizes that the list isn't the sort of social structure he's been taught to expect. Some never achieve that level of enlightenment, and go away frustrated by the refusal of the list participants to conform to expected stereotypes. Some do come to understand that the list is a free society, and leave because they can't tolerate personal freedom - especially the exercise of personal freedom by others.
The core of the problem is the pervasive expectation of authority in our once free society. New subscribers don't arrive expecting a free society that might be constrained in some minor ways. They arrive expecting an un-free society, rigidly controlled by intrusive rules and regulations, and aggressively dominated by an established authority structure.
They don't expect a meritocracy where an individual's social standing is dynamically determined by the respect he has earned from his fellow participants. They do expect an arbitrary authority structure, where positions in the hierarchy go to whomever can eliminate the current occupant, and acquiring artificial power and control is the name of the game.
While Top1 provides a useful example, the same changes in perspectives are widespread in the physical world. The major political parties all advocate variations on the same theme of demanding ever greater intrusive authority for government, in order to "solve" imagined problems in what remains of our once free society. We're told that the real problem is that too many people are still too free. Personal responsibility has always been the most effective self-regulator of personal freedom, but now we're told that too much freedom is the real problem by those seeking ever greater authoritarian obstruction of personal responsibility.
This change in the expectations of citizens doesn't bode well for the continued survival of our once free society.
When the average citizens come to believe they need permission from an artificial authority to exercise their freedoms, they are no longer free. When they've become so accustomed to intrusive authority that they have difficulties coping with freedom when they encounter it, they become the enemies of their own freedoms.
Freedom that the individual is afraid to exercise, or has been intimidated into suppressing, is not freedom. Rights that only exist in the prose of founding documents that have been endlessly reinterpreted into meaningless babble, aren't rights. And as the concepts of freedom and liberty get ever more distant in the minds of the citizens, their expectations of authoritarianism all too quickly become reality. The question is no longer when we might be able to recover our lost freedoms, but rather when we will finally lose the few we still possess.
The incremental expansion of authoritarianism is the reason that individual freedom is being incrementally eliminated in Western Industrial Civilization, and every expansion of government is by definition an increase in authoritarianism. Every demand for government intervention in public schools, health care, welfare programs, compensation for disaster victims, "protecting the children", etc. inevitably becomes yet another authoritarian assault on the individual rights and liberty of freeman citizens.
Those who value their real freedom must stop seeking the illusionary freedom of the slave. The freedom to live as you choose as a freeman citizen is fundamentally incompatible with the slave's desire for freedom from personal responsibility for his own welfare. You can't have it both ways - you have to choose one or the other. Our grand experiment in individual freedom is being destroyed because too many citizens today fear freedom, and are actively seeking masters who will protect them from freedom.
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