All in the Mind Power Dynamics

Intellectual Freedom

Free speech march

In the era of hate speech laws, safe spaces and fact checkers

Many may argue that hunger, environmental depredation, nuclear war or extreme disparities of wealth are the main challenges of our times. I don't dispute for a moment that without life's necessities, a hospitable environment, peace and social stability, free speech may seem a luxury. If you don't know where your next meal is coming from, then you might not care much about Internet censorship and mass surveillance. Indeed if the alternative to tyranny is starvation, you may just choose to embrace the illiberal ideology of your new masters, but will lack the analytical and informational means to challenge the ruling elite's supremacy. You may be rewarded for your compliance with the system, but others may not be so lucky. Neither democracy nor individual freedom can exist without intellectual freedom, which in turn is ultimately meaningless without free will. If we have no independence of mind, other than the outcome of a complex interplay of biological and environmental influences beyond our control, then our ideas are mere physiological phenomena, which may like other faculties of human nature be healthy or unhealthy, strong or weak, valid or invalid, functional or pathological.

Back in the 1960s and 70s it was usually the notional left who would champion free speech on matters such as military adventurism, women rights, gay rights, dress freedom, workers' rights, pollution, censorship and even on psychiatry, which many correctly viewed as a tool of mental tyranny. While the left in those days was far from united, encompassing socially conservative trade unionists and cultural revolutionaries from privileged backgrounds, we could at least agree to disagree. If someone dissented from the party line on a contentious issue such as abortion, they were perfectly entitled to their deeply held convictions. I recall such a discussion at a local Socialist Workers' Party meeting. Everyone seemed to accept that our Irish Catholic comrade had a different opinion on that matter. If anything intolerance would often emanate from the conservative right, unwilling to depart from strict interpretations of traditional Christian teaching on sexuality or countenance a radical critique of British foreign policy. Only 30 years ago at many dinner tables it may have been unwise to express your support for gay rights in the polite company of devout Christians. Today you'd be unwise to express your opposition to gay marriage or transgenderism in many places of work and education. Indeed you could even get fired for expressing your deeply held Christian beliefs.

Of course, the pretext for silencing public debate on these matters is that many traditional perspectives on human morality and values constitute hate speech. Opposition to gay marriage might offend homosexuals who are allegedly denied a right that heterosexuals have always enjoyed. Likewise if you oppose gender reassignment therapy for pre-teens, you deny somebody of their right to identify with a gender at odds with their anatomical sex. If you question the scientific validity of many new-fangled personality disorders, you may hurt the feelings of those who identify with their assigned psychiatric labels. If you support immigration controls to stabilise your country's population and maintain social cohesion, by the logic of hate speech you are merely revealing your pathological xenophobia against those who wish to move to your country. To question the orthodox account of the 2001 World Trade Center attacks would dishonour the memory of those who died that infamous day. If we may only express opinions consistent with authorised and sanitised facts, then any digressions can be associated either with hatred or misguided denial of officially certified reality.

Gear Shift

My interest in corporate and state propaganda grew largely from a critical analysis of the advertising industry and later of mainstream media bias over US and UK military interventions in the Middle East. Indeed these two sectors are deeply intertwined. In 1929 Edward Bernays notoriously paid a group of young ladies at a women's rights march to smoke cigarettes. While mainstream media have long depended on advertising revenue, advertisers promote not just products and services, but also ideas and lifestyle choices. I remember in 1990 after Iraq occupied Kuwait, PR Firm Hill & Knowlton launched a multimillion dollar awareness raising campaign featuring the Kuwaiti ambassador's daughter who testified that she had seen Iraqi soldiers removing Kuwaiti babies from incubators. I would explain the bias of the BBC and liberal newspapers such as Guardian simply in terms of Britain's submission to US-centred military industrial complex. However, until the early 2000's my critique focused on consumerism and militarism from a clearly left green perspective. I blamed capitalism for triggering avoidable wars over resources or letting us succumb to mindless consumption. Then I noticed a strange phenomenon. The media began to co-opt many causes I had always associated with the radical left. The liberal media not only rebranded military interventions as humanitarian missions to avert genocide as in Kosovo or to free women from barbaric oppression at the hands of Islamic fundamentalists, it championed environmentalism, gay liberation, disability rights, greater awareness of mental illnesses and open borders. I initially dismissed corporate sponsorship of progressive causes as cynical marketing ploys, but I kept discovering new issues that failed to fit the classical left / right paradigm, while ideas once associated with mainstream conservatism attracted vitriol from the new liberal establishment. I began to notice how scientific and historical controversies that we once openly debated had become off-limits. Only mavericks, quacks and extremists would question the new received wisdom.

The Pharmaceutical Lobby

Around the turn of the millennium I became aware of the presumed link between MMR vaccines and autism. There were a few public debates on the issue including one broadcast late at night on Channel 5. I had mixed feelings. One of my wife's Italian childhood friends, a latter-day hippie, had prevented her children from being vaccinated on principle. I recall discussing the issue with my wife when our children were due to get their triple jab. I was very much in favour at the time. Only my wife had reservations. Having been diagnosed with a mild form of, Asperger's whose validity I now question, my interest in this controversy grew. To this day I honestly cannot be 100% certain whether or not either thimerosal (a mercury additive used in most MMR vaccines before circa 2005) or a combination of three viral strains could cause neurological defects leading to regressive autism where previously sociable toddlers rapidly retreat into their shell, lose speech and suffer from inflammatory bowel disease. In 2003 I began to volunteer for various Asperger's support groups in Scotland and met Bill Welsh, an intrepid MMR truth campaigner, shunned by the growing autism support industry. He tried to persuade me that my condition had nothing to do with autism, but MMR vaccines had caused an epidemic of a previously rare disorder. One Guardian columnist, Polly Toynbee had earned my disdain through her consistent support for Tony Blair's wars. On cue she unleashed her literary skills in favour of the pharmaceutical establishment in her 2004 piece urging us to dismiss any concerns about the new 5-in–1 vaccine jabs. All I wanted was a fair and open debate grounded in science, but we didn't get one. Wikipedia articles on the subject were hastily edited to remove all links to sites sceptical of vaccine safety. Dr Andrew Wakefield, who had urged parents to have separate staged injections for Measles, Mumps and Rubella, had become a public enemy comparable with Saddam Hussein. To doubt the safety of MMR vaccines was now routinely compared with Holocaust denial as discouraging parents from having their children vaccinated might lead to epidemics of preventable childhood diseases. If the evidence so overwhelmingly supports the safety of MMR vaccines, why would the unholy alliance of governmental and commercial forces seek to stifle all debate?

However, vaccine safety was hardly the only issue that upstanding laypersons could no longer question. If you have ever discussed hot topics as varied as gay marriage, the Twin Tower attacks, the environmental sustainability of mass migration, US/UK funding of Islamic fundamentalists or even the 2008 mega-bailout of the banking sector, you will have discovered a new corporatist orthodoxy among self-styled liberal, progressive and green pundits. I don't suggest for a moment that the truth always lies with unorthodox perspectives, but rather with empiricism and reasoned debate.

I could have added man-made climate change to the list of phenomena that the liberal establishment does not want us to dispute. An exponential rise in human industrial activity, not least over a billion cars with millions of miles of highways, are likely to have adverse environmental effects, but our business leaders are doing little to persuade us to consume less. I keep seeing ads urging me to buy a new car. Instead our rulers use the spectre of rapid climate change as a pretext to regulate us more. I suspect some prefer to believe climate change is not anthropogenic because they fear losing the greater personal freedom afforded by individual car ownership. I just want to know the truth. What's happening and why? Then we may debate what action we should take.

Mental health prison

Meanwhile more and more youngsters were diagnosed with a new range of personality disorders and relative learning disabilities, which require special needs education and/or psychoactive medications, while emotional challenges in adults were reconceived as mental illnesses with biogenetic causes and medical cures. My brief involvement with autism charities taught me they did not really want to engage with adults on the spectrum unless we toed their line, which is basically that autism is a genetic condition that has always existed, but has until recently been severely underdiagnosed. They saw us as tools to further their agenda. We were all supposed to take pride in our diagnosis and our neurological otherness. Guest speakers at support group meetings would proudly cite new research claiming as many as 5% to 10% of people might be on their ever-widening autistic spectrum, but they did not welcome my suggestion that this spectrum might encompass the whole of humanity. Then I noticed that not only were alternative views on the MMR controversy being edited out of Wikipedia, but any serious challenges to psychiatrisation. Advanced societies have long had to deal with a tiny subset of the population who pose a serious threat to public safety. Just as we accept that some violent criminals should be locked up to let the rest of us enjoy relative peace and security, it seems reasonable that some extreme neurological conditions may warrant either medical detention or monitored treatment in the community. In my view psychiatry might be only valid as neurocriminology as long as we clearly define for which crimes we need neurological explanations. Over last 30 years the boundaries between sociology, psychology, psychiatry and pharmacology have blurred under the amorphous concept of mental health. Yet to question the mental health agenda is to invite instant ridicule. Dissent is limited to a few nonconformist writers, such as Robert Whitaker author of Anatomy of an Epidemic, who have challenged mass medication or over-diagnosis of mental illnesses.

Redefining Biological Diversity

If we fast-forward ten years, the same lobbies that silenced anti-MMR campaigners and promoted early years mental health screening are now busy supporting transgenderism. Now young children will learn not only about diverse neurological profiles or normalised mental illnesses, but also about a diversity of sexual orientations, family structures and gender identities. Let me be frank. Young boys and girls are impressionable creatures with wild imaginations. It's not uncommon for children to identify as monsters, fairies, supermen, princesses or even as alien species. However, a good parent teaches their offspring to be proud of their biological reality and accept their natural limitations and potentials. A young boy may dream of being a Premier League footballer or a medal-winning athlete. If he doesn't excel in sports, there are plenty of other worthwhile career paths or personal ambitions a young man may pursue. But why would a young boy want to identify as a girl? As a keen swimmer from an early age I sometimes fantasised being reborn as a dolphin. Like many I sometimes wondered what life would be like as a girl. Yet everyone around me treated me as a boy, although I never enjoyed football or took much interest in play-fighting. A relative bought me a toy gun, which failed to enthuse me. I was much more interested in building contraptions. Nobody indulged my fleeting fantasies except in games. Yet all of a sudden a growing number of youngsters identify as the opposite gender. I first became aware of this trend not in real life, but via the BBC school drama series, Waterloo Road, that featured a girl who identified as a boy. The same series had highlighted personality disorders and homophobic bullying too. Now schools in Glasgow are building unisex toilets to avoid embarrassing transgender pupils, a problem that barely existed just 5 years ago.

Joining the Dots

Now you may wonder what all these topics have to do with free speech on matters such as war crimes, terrorist attacks, genetically modified food or nuclear power. You may not care about the scale or culpability of US bombing of Indochina or the exact death toll of Mao Zedong's Great Leap Forward. Most of us tend to leave such disputes to historians, forensic scientists and archaeologists as we lack the means, time or academic background to verify their accuracy. Besides nothing we write today can undo historical crimes against humanity. By contrast our identity as male, female, non-binary, neurotypical or neurodiverse affects us all intimately. Of these only male and female have a firm basis in biological fact. The other categories are largely subjective.

Infantilising the public discourse

If we reduce human life to mere feelings that may be either indulged or closely monitored lest their expression unsettles the social order, we live in a mental prison of infantile emotions regulated by paternalistic experts whom we may no longer hold to account. Maturity means above all else learning to accept your true self and your place in nature and in wider society. That doesn't mean submitting yourself to tyranny or curbing your ambitions, but understanding that you can only gain greater personal freedom, and thus independence, through honest self-awareness. Identity politics based on arbitrary and volatile categories empowers those with the technical means to sway emotions. Once we have acquiesced to restrictions on intellectual freedom to protect victim groups from alleged hate speech, we have effectively relinquished not only personal freedom but any meaningful democratic accountability. Free speech would cease to mean freedom of inquiry and rational debate, but merely the monitored expression of feelings.

Power Dynamics

NewSpeak for the Masses

Pidgin English

Over the last 10 years I have slowly but surely convinced myself the pace of cultural change is accelerating at an unprecedented rate. The only certainty now seems uncertainty itself. Scenarios we deemed unthinkable just five years ago now seem emerging realities. We're all in a way prisoners of our age and may easily lose sight of the wider historical context. As civilisations wax and wane, we'd be foolish to assume our current way of life will continue to progress along the same lines.

Out of the blue I learn the venerable BBC is spending a fair chunk of taxpayers' money to spread its message not in standard English as understood in Britain, the USA, Canada and many other countries, but in West African Pidgin. Apparently Naija or Nigerian Pidgin is now the primary street lingo of over 70 million people in a country whose population is projected to grow from around 190 million today to over 400 million by 2050, unless the fertility rate declines significantly. The BBC has moved its focus away from Europe, though it struggles to hide its clear bias in favour of the EU project. It has admittedly, and perhaps laudably, also expanded its coverage to Hausa, Yoruba and Igbo, Nigeria's three most widely spoken native languages, but I guess its main focus is on the mushrooming urban areas that will grow into Africa's megacities of the mid 21st century. Here Broken reigns supreme. This adjectival noun is the slang term for variants of international English that diverge syntactically, phonologically and semantically from standard Nigerian English, the lingua franca of the country's affluent urban elite.

On the surface one may wonder why the BBC is bothering at all as most educated Nigerians with easy Internet access would much prefer standard English, the main language of their country's press, schools and commerce. However, I suspect our intrepid global media organisation may have a longer-term view. Have the BBC spotted a trend or are they helping to set a trend? Have they merely acknowledged that standard English is giving way to Pidgin in West Africa or are they elevating a street vernacular to the status of urban lingua franca that could serve as a blueprint for a future global sociolect that could merge with other English-based urban dialects around the world in an era of mass migration ? A fluid and rapidly evolving street lingo could also be a good candidate for a future NewSpeak, stripped of the semantic range and subtleties of academic English or other well-established literary languages. Another factor, which I suspect many have overlooked, is the social acceptance or coolness factor of a dialect. Formal variants of languages are seldom cool. They may be the route to academic success and career progression, but can isolate their elitist speakers from the plebeians who have infused their vernacular koiné with demotic phraseology and pronunciation. Likewise the urban masses view native tongues as uncool remnants of their rural past. We may compare global academic English with the posh Received Pronunciation that the BBC used to impose on its reporters. What West African Pidgin may lack in official recognition, it certainly gains in street cred.

Many of us take language for granted. We tend to assume that the current linguistic status quo will only gradually evolve from generation to generation. Back in late late 80s and early 90s as a language teacher and later as a technical translator in Italy, I witnessed and took part in many debates on the growing role of the English language in continental Europe. I sympathised for a while with Robert Phillipson's concept of Linguistic Imperialism and felt perhaps native English speakers enjoyed unfair advantages, but the prime movers behind the apparent Anglicisation of Europe were not native English speakers or their governments, but multinational companies and the emerging globally connected professional classes. In principle Esperanto would have been a much fairer choice for international communication as it would put everyone on a level playing field and has an easy pronunciation with phonetic spelling . Perhaps in a parallel universe where English did not spread far beyond its home island and no other major language filled the void, we may have opted for a neutral artificial lingua franca, but it may well be human nature to gravitate towards the most prestigious and influential modes of communication. While the expansion of English as a universal lingua franca seemed unstoppable, the other main languages of Europe, the Americas and Asia did not disappear. Indeed while French and German may be in relative decline outside their home regions, Spanish and Portuguese have retained their dominance in Latin America. But since the 1990s three big trends have transformed our linguistic landscape.

  1. First the Internet has enabled seamless communication with anywhere else in the world. Geography is no longer a barrier. That helps non-native learners of English to immerse themselves in English-medium interactions without leaving their office or home, but also lets new migrant communities isolate themselves from their adopted countries.

  2. Second the world is literally on the move as never before. People either migrate away from close-knit rural communities where traditional languages prevail to bustling multicultural metropolises or to wealthier countries with better employment opportunities and more advanced welfare provision.

  3. Third the English language itself is evolving at an unprecedented rate even among its native speakers, mainly due to rapid technological and cultural transformation, but also as a result of strong ideological pressures to create new concepts and suppress older categories.

As the ultimate vehicle of cultural expression, language serves four main functions:

  • Communication
  • abstraction of complex concepts
  • social bonding
  • and cultural identity.

We may think of communication as the mere exchange of facts and instructions, but more often than not it relies on a learned cultural context and a willingness to share strategic intelligence and inner thoughts. Some psychologists, such as Albert Mehrabian in his 1981 book Silent Messages, have suggested most casual communication is non-verbal, i.e. implied via body language, tone of voice, choice of terminology and secondary semantic associations of key words and phrases. Suppose you want to order a drink. The customer and bartender only really need to exchange three pieces of information, an unambiguous description of the desired beverage, its availability and price. Indeed the whole exchange can proceed without a common spoken language. A price list with pictures and international brand names can suffice. However, commercial communication is about much more than just enquiring about the availability and price of an item. It's about establishing a rapport with customers, by learning their predilections and building a network of regular visitors, who not only enjoy your food and drinks, but also your hospitality, your wit and your venue's ambiance. That often means not only sharing a common spoken language, but also cultural attitudes. While the practical aims of knowledge sharing and the expression of complex ideas tend to favour languages with far-reaching prestige and solid literary traditions, the demands of social bonding and cultural identity often lead to fragmentation as speakers adapt to speech patterns transmitted as substrata of earlier indigenous languages. People tend to associate affected standardised speech, as learned at school, with the privileged classes. In Africa's teeming conurbations the linguistic contrast is not so much between colonial European languages and native tongues, but between rival sociolects of what may deceptively seem the same lingua franca.

The continued evolution of global English raises two key questions in enquiring minds. First is how long will what we may loosely call Anglo-American English remain the standard bearer of global communication? This means maintaining full mutual intelligibility with the language commonly spoken by educated North Americans, Britons and Australians with all its idiosyncracies. Many observers have viewed the last century of linguistic convergence as a gradual shift towards the universal adoption of Mid-Atlantic English, relegating the esteemed national languages of Europe and Asia to the status of local dialects, a bit like Welsh today. Some argue that as long as these idioms remain the native tongues of most local citizens, we need not fear their extinction as actively spoken community languages. However, as migratory pressures grow, that's already beginning to change in many European cities where natives have become an ethnic minority.

The second big linguistic issue of our age is the divergence of linguistic registers for radically different social classes. Most academic and scientific publications, usually rich in jargon and poor in prose, are incomprehensible to most non-technical readers. Phonology and morphology may be of great interest to linguists and language learners alike, but what really matters is the range of concepts a language can express. Many conceptual nuances are deeply engrained in our collective psyche transmitted as memes from one generation to the next. By abandoning the languages of our ancestors, we lose touch with our past and adopt a volatile vehicle of communication we cannot truly own as we struggle to adapt to its rapidly changing vocabulary and semantics.

Languages can evolve both to expand and restrict the range of permissible thoughts. Over the last century English has shown a strong tendency towards simplification and abbreviation, often at the cost of clarity and exactitude. However, academic writers can always resort to more conservative Greco-Latin terms to avoid the semantic connotations of more common words. To complicate matters, many previously innocent descriptors have fallen out of favour with the language police as they may reveal unfashionable prejudices and cultural assumptions. We've gone a long way from discussing whether African Americans mind being labelled as black or niggers. Now we debate whether we should rename father's day to special person's day to avoid offending fatherless children. North American students have recently started advertising their preferred pronouns to avoid offending the tiny minority of transsexuals who do not identify as either female or male. Yet cultural revolutionaries are not content with redefining traditional racial, ethnic and sexual categories. They've turned their focus to the realm of psychoanalysis and psychiatry. A person can now be defined by an endless array of arbitrary behavioural patterns. While once school children may have struggled with their parents' cultural identities such as Protestant or Catholic, now they may identify as sufferers of ADHD, social anxiety, depression or gender dysphoria to name but a few new-fangled labels that modern teachers use to describe their students. Psychobabble began to make inroads in everyday English back in the 1980s, but has now transformed the way we relate to neighbours and colleagues.

Our linguistic future depends not only on the rise and fall of regional superpowers or the development of real-time translation applications, but also on our evolution as a species. Will we all join the professional classes and play equal roles in shaping our shared future? Such a utopian vision seems improbable if we contemplate the growing intellectual rift between today's affluent professional classes and the much more numerous underclasses whose monotonous jobs are being automated. If we add CRISPR gene editing technology and cognitive enhancement via microchip implants to the mix, humanity may well diverge into subspecies with a much wider range of intellectual performance than today. Would these disparate groups need to speak the same language and more important would the intellectual elites want the underclasses to understand their deliberations at all ?

Pidgin as a Future Global Sociolect

Anti-imperialists have long had an ambivalent attitude to the languages of their former colonial masters. Different countries have taken different approaches. Some have successfully adopted an indigenous lingua franca where it has gained considerable prestige or is deeply embedded in local culture through literature and religion. Tanzania may have a hundred or more local languages, but Swahili, taught in all primary schools, remains the main link language between communities while English is reserved for secondary and higher education. By contrast English has long been the primary medium of instruction in post-independence Nigerian schools. However, students learn a distinctively Nigerian version of the language as teachers alternate between standard English, Pidgin and snippets from native African tongues. To the untrained ear it can be hard to discern where one language begins and another ends.

Pedagogues have long debated whether children learn best through the medium of their native language if they will later have to learn another more prestigious language anyway to stand any chance in the job market or even be able to communicate at all if they move to the nearest city. Many studies have shown that where a native tongue still prevails in the local community students can progress faster in many core subjects through a standardised version of the language they speak at home because they can grasp new concepts better through semantic associations they have internalised passively through everyday social interactions and play outside school. Alas in practice teachers may not speak the same dialect as their pupils, who may not all share the same mother tongue. Native language teaching works in stable communities, but not in dynamic urban settings. As a result the newly enforced lingua franca is effectively dumbed down to a level that facilitates communication between students and teachers. Modern teaching methods in mainstream state schools emphasise inclusiveness and self-esteem rather than excellence and rigour. Not surprisingly the Nigerian business classes tend to send their children to private schools with smaller class sizes and better educated teachers. However, most West African children attend state schools with average class sizes of 50 to 60 and poorly paid teachers who impart their own demotic variant of the lingua franca. Peer pressure clearly favours Pidgin, while standard English serves mainly as a written language outside classrooms.

Nigerian Pidgin is of special interest to sociologists and linguists alike because its dialects form a continuum from informal Standard Nigerian English through urban sociolects to local vernaculars more heavily influenced by native tongues. Some have suggested that Naija could evolve into a more accessible version of pan-African English, discarding native English's impure vowels and trickier consonantal clusters and further simplifying its grammar.

Some aspects of Naija resemble the kind of street slang you may hear in London's multicultural schools where most pupils learn English as a second language. One of the quirkier rules of English grammar is the use of the present perfect tense (e.g. I have lived in England for six years) for an event that started the past, but is still ongoing. Most other languages use the present tense in these cases, e.g, I live in Lagos for six years (I've lived in Lagos for six years in 20th century native English). Until recently such usage would have appeared unnatural to most native speakers of English, but it's creeping into London English and few teachers make any effort to correct such aberrations being more concerned with spelling and classroom discipline. Cockney has all but died out. In its place new Londoners have adopted Multicultural London English, a melange of late 20th century estuary English, Jamaican and Pakistani English.

If mass migration continues at the current rate, and it may well accelerate, the emerging lingua franca of the world's interconnected megacities may resemble Naija more than any variety of native English. Could we be witnessing the withering of traditional ethnic languages and emergence of global sociolects in a new extreme form of diglossia or polyglossia? In this scenario the language we now call English would split into three sociolects with only partial mutual intelligibility. The planet's professional elites would converge on a tame version of North American English rich in Greco-Latin terminology and new technical jargon, but devoid of vernacularisms peculiar to native variants of English. Its syntax and pronunciation would gradually evolve in a similar way to Middle Latin jettisoning the quirkier aspects of Anglo-Saxon grammar. Meanwhile native varieties of English would lose their status as linguistic standards to which others should aspire, while urban Pidgin English would rise in prominence gaining hundreds of millions of new native speakers as Africa's population grows. At some stage Pidgin, as understood in Lagos, London and Mumbai may be more useful to globetrotters than the quaint Anglo-Saxon dialects of Iowa, Yorkshire or New Zealand.