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Freedom and Silence

Everyone talks about "freedom of speech," but we forget the freedom to say nothing.

The problem in 2024 is not freedom of speech, the problem is that we're constantly being forced to speak——even if we don't have anything to say, even if we reject the terms of the debate, even if we dislike the platforms that own, control, and surveil the debate.

The French philosopher Gilles Deleuze (1925-1995) was concerned with the ways that we co-create our own oppression. He believed that mechanisms of social control were changing with the digital revolution, in ways that are increasingly subtle and obscure but also global and totalizing.

His interest was always the same: How to get free.

One of his most surprising ideas (for an academic philosopher) is that speech, and group discussion in general, is overrated. He said that one should never object to the ideas of others. There's no point. It's a waste of time, just go a different way. So much for the value of democratic deliberation!

More generally, modern digital societies are becoming oversaturated with speech:

"We sometimes go on as though people can’t express themselves. In fact they’re always expressing themselves... Radio and television have spread this spirit everywhere, and we’re riddled with pointless talk, insane quantities of words and images. Stupidity’s never blind or mute. So it’s not a problem of getting people to express themselves but of providing little gaps of solitude and silence in which they might eventually find something to say. Repressive forces don’t stop people expressing themselves but rather force them to express themselves; What a relief to have nothing to say, the right to say nothing, because only then is there a chance of framing the rare, and ever rarer, thing that might be worth saying." (Negotiations 1972-1990)

The freedom to remain silent is a necessary precondition for human beings to discover meaningful insights worthy of public expression.

The constant compulsion to share and speak is a norm that prevents people from discovering anything important for themselves, let alone society.

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