“To be anti-free speech is to be anti-curious”

Ayishat Akanbi

I was driving home from work, and listening to a podcast, because I’ve learned that dictation on the way to work is possible. Coming home? I’m tired and the story doesn’t want to come out. Also, one more complication while I am driving tired is just a bad idea. Besides which, I use podcasts for everything from continuing education to mind candy and some are in between. Conversations with Coleman, and specifically this episode where he was interviewing Ayishat Akanbi was cued up, and when I heard her make that declaration it really hit me.

You see, as science fiction writers (any writer, but particularly SF) we are merchants of curiosity. The classic elements of SF: What if? What comes next? What if this goes on? are all curious questions posed by imaginative minds. We would be the poorer for having suppressed SF writers from the beginning, as the ‘cancel culture’ is attempting to do now, in the name of safety. If you listen (and it’s lengthy, I haven’t gotten through the whole episode yet) you’ll hear them segue from talking about the anti-free speech movement and how it’s evolving out of ‘feeling unsafe’ which means that those who would repress speech state that they don’t want to hear it because it could lead to harm. Those who don’t want books written – or who burn books because what is written in fiction makes them feel uncomfortable – they are adamantly against the freedom of speech, and they hate and fear curiosity.

We can’t possibly know, extant a real and present danger (the ‘fire!’ in a crowded theater exemplar), if a speech is actually dangerous. In order to know, we must unravel what comes after it, and that cannot be done unless we permit it to be spoken in the first place. Fiction is, if anything, a safer place to explore these conversations and ramifications than real life. A curious mind can explore far beyond what can happen over years in society in a few hours of reading. And fiction sparks the imagination, or at least it should, rather than pedantically prescribing ‘this is what reality should look like.’ A voyage of future possibility buoyed up by the freedom to be curious.

Independent authors have this freedom, at least for now. Those who choose to use a publisher abrogate some of that freedom – and it has been used against many in recent years, sadly. Books that fell afoul of the anti-curious, anti-free speech crowd have died in pre-production, never seeing the light of day. The light that could have given their contents the scrutiny it deserved – or didn’t. But rather than learn critical thinking, rhetoric, and logic, that crowd of book-burners (if there was never a book that could be burned, do we yet have a word for that?) decided they could not stand for the expression of an idea. Indie authors don’t have that, although the tweeting mob can and will come after them trying to force them to drop out of the public eye. The risk we run, have always run, is deplatforming. If the companies we sell our books through refuse to carry them? I don’t think it’s likely to happen any time soon, but there are ways to get around it if that should happen.

It’s a vile thing, this slow erosion of the right to be inquisitive. I’ve seen it turn otherwise bright young things into unthinking automatons. They have to agree with the crowd they are running with, lest it turn on them. The mob mentality is alive, well, and raging on the internet. Disagreement is not tolerated. Much less curiosity.

Is it any wonder that science fiction has been the target of a movement to make it puerile and ineffective? That the sense of wonder has been replaced with ‘why go to space when we need to save the Earth!’ except that going to space might be the answer to saving the Earth. We have not yet begun to explore the last frontiers. Thing is, exploration isn’t safe. So if the suppression of free speech is based in never feeling unsafe, then obvs exploring is no-can-do comrade, sit your butt down and shuddup. 

It’s not a limitation I can accept. I reach for the stars. My reach may exceed my grasp, but I am standing on the shoulders of giants and they propelled us to the moon already.

And I’m curious. What’s out there? What’s next? What if this suppression goes on? We’ll need a safe space to express dangerous ideas into. Maybe up there we can be free.

26 thoughts on “Anti-Curious

  1. For those whose major drive is to control others, ideas are in fact dangerous. Even more dangerous than fire or guns, since they can spread without any outward sign.

    Once you accept that premise, it is clear that “free speech” in the US sense cannot be tolerated. It may be that a few useful things will disappear also, but you can’t make an omelet …

    I personally am hoping that the coming samizdat will cause a resurgence in the kind of “exploratory” science fiction you are talking about.

    1. Ideas are dangerous. There’s no use pretending they aren’t, especially since if they are harmless, they must be powerless, so what’s the problem if some of them get censored.

  2. I have noticed that ‘educators’, as a class, are mostly not very curious people. (Mandatory disclaimer that they’re not *all* like that) This is why every subject must be wrapped up in other stuff to make it ‘relevant’, because they can’t believe that their students–many of them, at least–might value knowledge for itself.

    UK writer Melanie Phillips noted that the GCSE science curriculum, studied by all pupils from 14 to 16, will no longer (as of 2005) has much actual science in it…

    “Instead of learning science, pupils will “learn about the way science and scientists work within society”. They will “develop their ability to relate their understanding of science to their own and others’ decisions about lifestyles”…to consider how and why decisions about science and technology are made, including those that raise ethical issues, and about the “social, economic and environmental effects of such decisions”.

    They will learn to “question scientific information or ideas” and be taught that “uncertainties in scientific knowledge and ideas change over time”, and “there are some questions that science cannot answer, and some that science cannot address”. Science content of the curriculum will be kept “lite”. Under “energy and electricity”, pupils will be taught that “energy transfers can be measured and their efficiency calculated, which is important in considering the economic costs and environmental effects of energy use”. ”

    Melanie says: “The reason given for the change to the science curriculum is to make science ‘relevant to the 21st century’. This is in accordance with the government’s doctrine of ‘personalised learning’, which means that everything that is taught must be ‘relevant’ to the individual child.”

    There are so many things wrong here that it’s difficult to know where to start. First of all: it’s a natural human characteristic to be curious about the universe you live in. Schools should encourage this curiosity, not smother it in the name of a fake “relevance.”

    In A Preface to Paradise Lost, C S Lewis contrasts the characters of Adam and Satan, as developed in Milton’s work:

    “Adam talks about God, the Forbidden tree, sleep, the difference between beast and man, his plans for the morrow, the stars and the angels. He discusses dreams and clouds, the sun, the moon, and the planets, the winds and the birds. He relates his own creation and celebrates the beauty and majesty of Eve…Adam, though locally confined to a small park on a small planet, has interests that embrace ‘all the choir of heaven and all the furniture of earth.’ Satan has been in the heaven of Heavens and in the abyss of Hell, and surveyed all that lies between them, and in that whole immensity has found only one thing that interests Satan.. And that “one thing” is, of course, Satan himself…his position and the wrongs he believes have been done to him. “Satan’s monomaniac concern with himself and his supposed rights and wrongs is a necessity of the Satanic predicament…”

    1. *grimace* Oh, gads. That kind of “science”– where they want to teach their “so now we” conclusions, rather than the theorized physical conclusions and how they reach them. (Method of science.)

      1. But once they have fully converged all of science, they need only declare something and it will be so! No more of this rabbiting around with holey theories and broken hypotheses that change all the time, just shining socialist Truth!

    2. I have at least two issues with that approach to science education.

      One is that no centralized bureaucratic decision can ever be truly personalized. They are aiming at a theoretical picture of an aggregate, and as such, they cannot possibly reach everyone in even a small class with their carefully designed pablum. In particular, the sort of mind that is already part way to learning the scientific mindset may find zero reason to suspect that there is anything of interest, if they have only been exposed to the topics that a committee of bureaucrats likes. This is the uniformity part of the general problem with Education theory.

      Secondly, even with individualized focus, judging the adult’s needs from the child is probably impossible. One doesn’t actually know how the child will develop, unless one first breaks them of any initiative or creativity, and can ensure that one can foresee all instructions they will be given. One also cannot really foresee the knowledge about science that a specific non-scientist adult will need, much less what a scientist adult will be doing. This is the forecasting part of the general problem in Education theory.

      It is possible to discover an interest in pursuing science late in life, in a field unrelated to any that one was prepared for. How to learn a new field, and general concepts about methodology are far more important than the ‘social relevance’ of ‘science’ that is really bureaucracy.

      1. Even if you can control ALL the ideas given to a child, you can’t control how the child (or the adult) will put them together. It’s not even an exponential progression, it’s factorial — but I suppose those ‘educators’ never learned about permutation equations either.

        1. I believe only math majors are taught permutation equations. If everyone was learning about them, statistical ignorance would not be so widespread.

          1. Well, akshully, I think permutations may also be part of the discrete math CS majors take, and the statistics that some of the engineers get into.

            1. Permutations are used as a lead in to probability, which then is used as a lead in to statistics. So yes, engineers are likely to hear about it. I have’t heard of discrete math showing up in CS generally, although some of the chip design courses go into the issues around discrete math. But nowadays, with Java being the general approach used, all low level details seem to be de-emphasized.

    3. While I agree with the thrust of your post, I feel obliged to point out that for almost every large group of people, they are, as a class, mostly not very curious people. We are fortunate with the number who are curious enough to make a difference.

      The UK elite are committed to the idea of global warming. Since the science on this subject is no longer very persuasive, a new “science lite” approach was needed.

      It is not surprising that personalized learning, like all major education initiatives I am aware of, does not lead to a better education. If you have the stomach for it you might try reading the literature put out for schools of education. I suspect you will find, as I did, that the theories pretty much invariably have an interesting twist — they will always make life easier for educators. If home schooling catches on, which I do not expect at the moment, approaches to education may change for the better. Until then, we will have to settle for being delighted by the handful of excellent teachers (over their entire school career) that most students encounter.

      1. *musing*
        A thing I’ve noticed about curiosity, it depends on having time, energy, security and interest.

        If indulging any of the first three has a high cost, then that last one drops like a rock.

        I suspect you will find, as I did, that the theories pretty much invariably have an interesting twist — they will always make life easier for educators.


  3. Fiction is, if anything, a safer place to explore these conversations and ramifications than real life.

    That got me thinking– because it’s true, fiction is a safer place to work through ideas.

    For people.

    Which naturally sparked: well, they didn’t say unsafe for what.

    It is unsafe for a lot of ideas, for starters; one of the first things a weak idea does is try to drive off other ideas — not by out talking them, but by removing them.

    When you “cheat” in fiction, the stories tend to stop working. You often can’t see why, but something Just Doesn’t Work, especially if you keep going for a while.

    A common problem in scifi that has a big buy-in, and then folks make second and third and so on stories based on it– without recognizing the big buy in as even being there, or how it works with some of the other buy-ins that people have. For a silly example, fast travel in scifi– which then runs into wanting to convey how very big the universe is; if you don’t think about it carefully, it can be really hard to make it work. Done badly, you get plot-speed spaceships (which can still work depending on the story); done well, you develop the original buy-in handwavium, so that the Glooper Drive cannot Zork within umbulebug yalms of a solar system, or the magic smoke escapes.

    Magic smoke escaping in an applied theory is not healthy for those in charge in a real system.
    As the famous example goes, the USSR fell in no small part because of the copy machine.

    For those more up on modern dictatorships, the latest flareup from the NorKs is because Korea hasn’t managed to completely stop the practice of filling thumb drives with information– books, music, and pop culture programing– dropping them into balloons, filling those with helium and releasing them when the wind is right, so they end up in North Korea. In Korea’s defense, while they did agree to try to stop it, they can’t make it illegal– so when someone is caught the balloons still in their possession are taken, and they get a Stern Talking To. A bigger deal in their culture, but….

    I don’t want to drag a huge mess into the comments here, so in before someone is clever– aiming this at Christianity and the Bible related myths points more at what a curious person does, rather than one who just wants to win. The Elephant Child will go see if they can find what the folks you don’t agree with’s story for it is. (Thank you, oh best beloved internet! Making research EASY, even if it’s like sipping from a fire hose!) Catholic dot com is a good place for anything pre-modern Christian and anything Catholic, they offer older and closer to primary sources or at least enough information to research elsewhere.

    My rule of thumb is that if a comment is easy and devastating, it’s probably missing important information; people aren’t stupid, even if they don’t agree or hold an assumption I find…questionable. (See? See? CAN be judicious! Whoops, ruined it….)

    This week I listened to a memorial re-run of an interview with the late Nabeel Qureshi, who was telling about how he’d being converted from his faith tradition to another; he kept challenging people and they never fought back. So he thought he was right. Finally, he challenged someone who challenged back, with evidence– which meant Mr. Qureshi had to decide if he was going to try to silence the challenge, or beat it honestly. Which started a long friendship full of research and assertion and clarification because they both fought fair. Even unto the point of keeping going when one or the other “won” a point, or they discovered “it’s complicated.” And he still almost didn’t change his faith, because it hurt his parents, who didn’t disown him, which is a non-rational danger to ideas that you can’t really remove.

    We’ve all run into that weaponized social pressure, even if we haven’t had a twitter mob on us, eh?

    1. > filling thumb drives with information … they end up in North Korea.

      And the handful of North Koreans who had access to a computer and plugged that drive in would likely wind up talking with the state security officers. Almost all computers in North Korea run Red Star OS, a customized Linux distribution with no local root access, built-in back doors for official monitoring, and automatic watermarking of images and documents. It also tracks USB storage devices.

      Owning a computer is a privilege granted by the State. You will only use it for officially sanctioned purposes.

  4. It’s not their ‘safety’ they’re trying to protect, it’s their COMFORT. Foreign ideas might lead them to DOUBT the comfortable certainties they have loaded with such emotional investment. Those Eeevul ideas must be BANNED! None must speak Heresy, and especially not when they can prove it is true!

    So they must protect their smug ignorance at any cost, viciously attacking anybody who says anything they don’t want to hear.

    They must be aware at some level that they’re full of crap, because what else could trigger such a violent response? The honest person does not fear lies, but the liar lives in terror of the truth, never more so than when they’re lying to themselves.

    Fox, I would say learning from the internet is more like drinking from Niagara Falls. A video on Sarah’s blog led me to some PBS videos on quantum wave theory for about six hours…

    1. Well, being just so very tired of it can make me really cranky– but there is a consistency to the rage-response which is a big warning flag.

  5. This post is yet another reason to expand the home library with carefully selected physical books. It’s also why you may want to make your books available as trade paperbacks as well as ebooks. A physical book can be read by daylight or candlelight and does not require an immense infrastructure to do so. Ebooks can’t as easily be discreetly passed from hand to hand and be cached in attics waiting to be discovered years later.

    Hoard books! Fill those shelves, particularly with histories that are currently unfashionable and unacceptable.

    1. Sometimes those histories are unacceptable because they actually are based on bad scholarship borne out of prejudice and partisanship. Of course, that applies just as well to some of the ones deemed acceptable.

  6. fiction sparks the imagination, or at least it should, rather than pedantically prescribing ‘this is what reality should look like.’
    This is a very interesting point. I think it explains some of my “neat story – why don’t I like the book?” reactions. The difference between “could” and “should” can be easy to miss, but part of me was picking up on it.

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