With the Shenanigans of Edward Snowden and the controversy surrounding government surveillance, a topic of key concern has been raised to the fore and there seems to be immense confusion and frustration over it. The reason for this is that Orwellian strategists have been applying a clever tool of deception for centuries that only in the digital age is becoming reified, more transparent and more obvious to the public. And it’s time the public put an end to it. What am I talking about?
I’m talking about the nebulous concept of “forbidden knowledge” and how that amorphous notion has been used to conflate categories and classes of information to permit a clever form of effective censorship. The easiest way to explain this is by example. Suppose I receive a political commentary on the internet from a friend who passes it to me by email. Let us say it is critical of a powerful, despotic political leader. What some would like to be able to do is to be able to render that knowledge forbidden; that is, to be able to prosecute anyone who possesses that knowledge, imprison them and silence them. Or barring that, prosecute them with enough punishment so as to dissuade them from publishing or sharing it further. And let’s not kid ourselves, the true Holy Grail in this scheme is to be able to do this without the public realizing it. For if in an open, supposedly democratic society we can achieve this without public backlash, then all the better. It’s kind of obvious how this might be done in North Korea, but what about in the States? How could you censor opinion itself without public backlash? The answer is conflation.
Suppose I have a friend who has illegally obtained classified information from the NSA, then sent that information to me by email. Whether I paid for it or if it was given to me freely is irrelevant to the point I’m going to make. Now, suppose I then publish that information and give it wide distribution in the public domain. In this case, the State can prosecute both my friend and myself without much public backlash and without the appearance of betraying the precepts of an open society. But what I’d really like to do as an Orwellian strategist is to confuse the issue a bit. And here’s how I do that. Not only do I prosecute the person that illegally obtained the information, I make sure anyone repeating it (myself in this example) is also prosecuted. In the case of an NSA leak, no one gets particularly alarmed (many do, but we’ll fix this defect in the example shortly). And the result is that I can effectively censor information even when that information is leaked. I can shut it down and prevent its sharing in the public domain by the chilling effect this will create on anyone who dares repeat what they’ve heard. So, not only do I make the illegal theft of classified information illegal but I make the mere possession of classified information illegal. Well, what’s wrong with that, you ask? Nothing, in and of itself. The problem however, is that by framing the legalities this way it allows me to define classified information not just as classified, but as “forbidden knowledge”. In other words, rather than merely making the theft of such information illegal, I render that information illegal by virtue of it being “forbidden knowledge”. This is a big Orwellian step, because now I have defined information itself to be illegal. Now, I have an amorphous and nebulous term called “forbidden knowledge” which, by virtue of its nature, I can now add or take away various types of information from that category without the public noticing. All I need to do now is find a clever way to insert into that category opinions “I don’t like”. Can I really do that without the public noticing? Oh, yes, it isn’t that hard to do. But this example doesn’t really do the situation full justice, because it is not as easy in the case of classified government leaks to get the public to:
… not only accept this Orwellian criminalization of information itself, but to actively support it.
No, we need something that is universally reprehensible in order to do that. Because, you see, if we can choose something that is universally reprehensible we can use that to not only gain the public’s acquiescence in this crime, we can garner their active support. The idea here is to conflate different types of information with others. So, let’s change the example.
Suppose a friend of mine runs a female sex slave trade in which he manages the repeated, violent rape of abducted women, videotapes it, then sends me copies to publish on the internet. Let’s say he even murders a few women in the videos, just to make it truly reprehensible. In the Orwellian model, this information itself (the video data) is now illegal. It is “forbidden knowledge”. Will anyone object? Not likely. In fact, most will avidly support this conflation. If I hadn’t thought about it a little more, I would. But nevertheless, this allows the policy-makers to create law that establishes the existence of forbidden knowledge. Now all they need to do is substitute information willy-nilly, not in law, but in the enforcement of the “forbidden knowledge” law. If they’re clever, they can introduce some laws that help that a bit without the public really noticing. For an example of just how real and not so theoretical that idea is, think of “terrorism” and how this amorphous concept has been used to justify the excesses of the NSA, or the fact that police now routinely listen in to wireless communications of private residents without their knowledge or consent. Indeed, without a Court’s knowledge, as no warrant is required. They do it all over America right now. This is a real-world example of this “substitution” technique. For, you see, now everything is called “terrorism”. Jaywalking is terrorism as far as the police are concerned. The same thing happens when forbidden knowledge is an object of legal prosecution; where different kinds of knowledge become conflated.
So, what is the failing here? The failing is that we have been duped into the idea that information itself can be made illegal. This is toxic to Enlightenment because all information, from the most reprehensible to the most popular, is necessary to provide the perspective and input for fully informed debate. For one thing, we know something “reprehensible” has occurred in the first place when the information required to evidence it is legal to possess. Otherwise, we are barred from even knowing it exists. Think about that. If information itself is illegal, we must rely on someone else with the legal “privilege” to possess the forbidden knowledge to tell us it exists. How Orwellian is that? Rather, what we should do, but what some don’t want to do, is to render the actions that lead to forbidden knowledge illegal; then investigate and prosecute those cases. But, you see, the problem with this for the Orwellian types is that this means transparency because the governments can’t so easily get away with conflating types of information. Now, in a truly free society, if they prosecute the “information”, they really have to prosecute the actions that led to the information, not the information itself. So, they must investigate and prosecute the NSA leaker, the rapist/murderer and the terrorist. The problem with this for the Orwellian is that it renders what is being made illegal more transparent and obvious. Trying to make the act of writing a political commentary illegal would not garner public support and would rather garner opposition. To do so would inspire an Arab Spring of sorts. That’s not acceptable. The object of the Orwellian model is to oppress the subject without the subject realizing who has oppressed them.
Therefore, if the Orwellian can inflate a political commentary with rape, for example, through the nebulous mechanism of “forbidden knowledge”, it is much easier to dupe the public and remain hidden behind the scenes, pulling the strings of censorship whilst be unobserved as the toxin to Enlightenment. In a just and free society those that possess knowledge cannot be guilty of a crime because they did not do the deed. If you pay for a cable news channel and witness a live murder on television, this is not a crime. Murder is. If you read Snowden’s leaked documents that is not a crime. Stealing them is. Some crimes are so horrific that we tend to want to ascribe a criminal liability to anyone that so much as thinks about such a crime. But we do this at our own peril, and the Orwellian masters are counting on you. They are counting on you to help them make ignorance the only legal option. Think about that for a minute. Enlightenment and knowledge is the enemy, and it must be made illegal. So, the compass of forbidden knowledge must grow while you sleep and it must not be made obvious who exactly instilled this chilling effect on you. Think Illumination Everywhere and free humanity of this madness.
In a truly just and free society the question of whether or not a “deed” was committed in the first place is open to public scrutiny and visibility in that case. No one would call writing a political commentary a criminal deed, but they might think rape is. When google and their lobbyists go up against Congress on this issue, this is what they need to convey and explain. For if they do not, they will lose the argument to the forces of darkness and the hortatory of jingoistic double-talk.