Official Speech and Mind Viruses

Not all speech is made equal. Many of us assume that the goal of speech is to communicate, defined as, to transmit information. Because of this assumption, many of us, when we encounter speech, assume that it comes in earnest, as a transmission of information. The information may be true or false; we can still evaluate the veracity of the information, when treating speech as information. We can also still evaluate it in terms of style and clarity. Is the message garbled? Does it strike an inappropriate tone? Believing that the goal of speech is to communicate information does not prevent us from being skeptical of the information, or critical of its presentation. But, this way of receiving speech fails to provide the full picture.

What we forget is that there can be a second function of speech, especially official speech, which is control. The information itself can be true, false, or somewhere in between; styled elegantly or poorly. And all the while, the intention behind the speech can be something other than transmitting information. The other intention, the second purpose of speech, is to control–specifically, to control our perception and behavior.

We know for a fact that certain formulations of speech produce changes in behavior upon apprehension by humans, in a consistent and repeatable manner. If that were not the case, mass digital marketing would be impossible. The success of massive digital marketing projects, consistently producing desired behavior changes across large groups of people, is what has us worried lately that we may be nothing more than organic algorithms, all responding predictably, consistently, and involuntarily to the same stimulus. This line of reasoning invites us down the path of questioning the existence of free will, which isn’t where I’m going here. For our purposes suffice it to say, we know based on a preponderance of evidence that packages of speech–words, or words packaged with images–have the power to alter human behavior en masse.

Official speech is not the same as other types of communication. The people doing the speaking have specific incentives that power the speech. Public officials want to be re-elected, to attract campaign contributions, and to be praised. They do not want to be blamed when things go wrong. When it comes down to the balance of incentives for the public official, it is more in her interest to avoid blame and have something go horribly wrong, than to get stuck with the blame for something going slightly wrong. As far as the incentives of a public official go, as long as they are not blamed, it’s okay if things go wrong, or even horribly wrong. What matters, at least in terms of incentives, is not the reality of an event happening or not happening, whether its effects are advantageous or disadvantageous, large or small. What matters is the perception. What we’ve established: Perception is what matters to the public official; speech has the power to control, and so the intent behind any official speech is likely to be… controlling perception.

This conclusion may seem obvious to you. Perhaps it isn’t worth stating, or explaining the logic behind it. But I know people that hang upon the words of public officials “like chickens drinking” as Huxley would say, earnestly listening, waiting to hear truths, to apprehend information. As a crafter of speech, and as someone who has written official communications, I see the handiwork behind the message. Sometimes it is elegant; in many cases it is crude. But in all cases, similar to how a painter sees different things from a non-painter when she looks at a painting, the perception-controlling nature of speech is so glaring to me these days I need sunglasses.

It’s not unique to indict today’s politicians, and there’s no need for me to pile on. The same has been true of all politicians, forever. Today we have more powerful tools, though, to measure the success of behavior-modifying speech, to fine-tune and optimize it for maximal effectiveness. These tools have made controlling speech more powerful over us than ever before.

The use of these tools and the deployment of speech with the intent to control, rather than just inform, is pervasive and certainly not limited to politics and politicians. Even within the category of “official speech” there are all kinds of organizations, professions, and individuals making use of the double nature of speech. Authoritative bodies and organizations, just like human bodies and species, are playing an evolutionary game to do with persistence. Once something exists, it tries to continue to exist, and to solidify its position in anticipation of future threats–in a word, autopoiesis. It’s evolution; this is how we function as people and as groups. Organizations are incentivized to craft and deploy packages of speech that produce behavior changes in those who receive them, that are salutary for the autopoiesis of the organization itself.

One objection is that there are “good” politicians or organizations out there. This may be true. But I’m not blaming individuals or organizations for acting in line with their incentives. There is no moral judgment in my reasoning so far. It’s not good or bad, just a fact, that entities tend to do what they are incentivized to do. As far as nobility or morality, what I find noble and moral is when individuals or institutions knowingly subvert their own interests for the benefit of others. There are very few examples of that, as Hitchens pointed out, in his famous bit on Mother Theresa. Humans tend to do what they believe will benefit them, even if they have a fringe view of what benefit looks like. It would doubtless be salutary for society if more people’s self interest looked like Mother Theresa’s. Mine certainly doesn’t, so who am I to blame an individual or organization for acting in their self interest? I assume that they do, and so am astounded and humbled when I must lay my suspicions to rest in the presence of true sacrifice of self interest.

Where does this get us? We’ve established that much of the speech that reaches us–and possibly all official speech–may transmit information the sender believes to be true, but regardless, serves a purpose other than transmitting information. Its purpose is to control our perception and behavior, modifying it to be whatever is most advantageous for the speaker or organization. Their incentives might be at cross-purposes with ours, or our incentives could be aligned. The incentives themselves are almost always unstated, but some are easy to guess. Almost all incentives are about persistence: sticking around, eliminating threats, autopoiesis.

Here are two examples of official speech where speakers or speaking organizations favored controlling perception and behavior over transmitting accurate information. You can decide for yourself the degree to which the organizations’ interests in this choice were aligned with yours.

The first is from when I worked for a prominent media company. I learned that when we wrote obituaries for deaths by suicide, we almost never disclosed the cause of death. The stated reasons were that we needed to be respectful to the family, and that mentions of suicide in the press caused more people to kill themselves. The concealment struck me as weird for a news organization, but who wants to be responsible for an uptick in suicide? Years later, I would read that suicide had become a US epidemic, worsened by years of silence from the media.

The second example is the WHO claiming N95 masks aren’t effective against coronavirus. Today doctors and nurses are wearing masks in hospitals if they can get them. Governments are placing bulk orders for masks, factories that used to make sneakers have switched to producing masks, and altruists are donating lots of mass quantities of masks. Clearly they help prevent infection, otherwise none of this would be happening. It’s hard not to conclude that the WHO knowingly published untruths because they had a second, more powerful intention, than to inform: to control perception and behavior. They suspected that if they told the truth about masks, people would hoard masks, leaving the health professionals with even fewer masks. Someone at the WHO probably calculated that for the WHO to have a better shot at persisting, it would be preferable to produce a behavior–not hoarding masks–over telling people the truth. After all, if needed, it can deploy mind-controlling speech once again to heal its reputation.

Like a virus, packages of speech animated by the intent to control, grip us upon contact. Strong ones rearrange our internal orders and systems. They do this invisibly and automatically, without asking permission, vampires that don’t need to be formally invited in. Our behaviors have been manipulated, and our minds are full of perceptual viruses. To make the point, let me give you an example of a virus I rooted out recently, thanks to David Sinclair’s book Lifespan.

For a long time, I believed that death was a necessary part of life. Without death, life would not have meaning, I thought. It’s the natural order that all that is born must die, and fighting this truth like Gilgamesh on his quest or Ponce de Leon seeking the fountain of youth, is fruitless, and ends in death–though it’s fair to claim fighting death is itself a requisite stage of the mandatory journey. One can fight, this meme says, but ultimately one must accept death’s universal truth.

Do you agree?

If you’re like me, you were raised with this meme about death. It makes sense why it started, why it has persisted and propagated, from pre-biblical times until the present. Humans have never been able to conquer death, so we might as well create and spread stories that soothe us and make us comfortable with death. That meme itself is a package of speech, like a bag of narrative morphine, delivered with the intent to control perception; delivered namelessly by the deep, amorphous entity of culture–that is also very much aligned with our interests, provided we are interested in not constantly being in a state of existential freakout. But what if Sinclair is right, and science could finally make death a thing of the past? Would we still need that meme?

I think not. Like Sinclair, I think the meme would survive for some time longer, even in the face of our new dominion over involuntary death, but soon enough, it would become a radical notion isolated increasingly to pockets of religious fanatics, then it would disappear, die out.

The meme “death is a necessary part of life” is an example of a perceptual virus that lodges in the mind. It is a package of speech that incepted itself into my perceptual apparatus without my permission. Until I read the Sinclair book, I never thought twice about the meme, never tried to decide for myself whether I believed it was true. I’m grateful to this book, and to all speech I’ve encountered that has served this purpose, for helping me debug myself and neutralize my own mind viruses. Eric Weinstein has helped me a lot in this regard, and I must also credit him with originating the core metaphor: that the mind, like a computer, can be infected with a virus. (Alan Watts, the spiritual entertainer, used a complementary metaphor for how packages of speech can “click into place” when heard. His example was a Buddhist parable that strikes us as true immediately upon hearing, taking its place in our mind without our needing to employ reason.)

For the nitpicker, It is arguable that Sinclair was also practicing double speech, that the words in his book serve a double purpose, not only to share information believed to be accurate, but also to produce actions and beliefs in me that would help Sinclair, the book publisher, etc. persist (such as “Wow, this is an interesting book, I should buy another copy for my mother”). The important difference as far as I’m aware, is that Sinclair, the book publisher, and my interests are generally aligned; it’s okay that we don’t have the exact same incentives, as long as theirs won’t harm me. Extrapolated to the farthest degree, I suppose harm is possible; it would theoretically be in the book publisher’s interest for me to spend all my money on copies of the book until I was a pauper. But I’m comfortable with that degree of incentive conflict because 1) it’s explicitly obvious that the intention of the book publisher is to sell books, and 2) I am vigilant enough–have a strong enough intellectual immune system–to easily resist.

I’m not disturbed by a book publisher trying to sell me books. The speech manipulating my perception and behavior to work against my interests is far more insidious and viral. The purveyors of such speech, especially official speech, conceal that they have incentives that conflict with mine. (Remember: The big conflict is that it’s okay with them if bad things happen to me, as long as no one blames them for it.) The conclusion that emerges when I’ve rid myself of enough mind viruses, is to blame the perverse incentives of our officials and organizations for the rampant spread of coronavirus. The root of the problem is the incentive structure itself.

The way for us to insulate ourselves against mind viruses caused by controlling speech–the antivirus, if you will–is to approach all speech with skepticism. When we encounter speech, we should always qualify it by examining the incentives of the speaker, which are usually autopoietic. The more closely the speaker’s incentives are aligned with ours, the more likely we should be to consciously allow the speech to comingle with our perceptions and behaviors. If we encounter speech that contradicts a meme–possibly a virus–in our minds, we play out the scenario. What are the incentives of each party? Is any party aligned with our incentives? When one is more aligned than the other, perhaps the more aligned party deserves more credence.

Without weighing contradicting viewpoints, our perception is potentially full of bugs, perhaps made of nothing but bugs. And now that Twitter and other popular social media platforms are explicitly censoring speech that contradicts official speech, we are stranded without the opportunity to see conflicting information that we could use to debug ourselves. In other words, by over-sanitizing our digital biome so nothing but official speech and party lines can survive, these platforms have paved the way for superbugs to fully infect us intellectually.

What alternative sources of information and viewpoints are you paying attention to through this crisis? Are there any ways in which their incentives are better aligned with ours? Let me know on Twitter @amandacassatt and try s p a c i n g o u t l e t t e r s if you’re concerned about censorship.

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