The Law of Unintended Opinions

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 Each of the major political movements active today have changed drastically from what they were a few centuries ago. What was called Neoliberalism, for example, whose economic policies of laissez-faire, deregulation, low taxes and restricted monetary supply are now more closely associated with neoconservatism, or just "conservatism" in general. Or how modern Liberals are now said to be in favor of big government and managed economies, while Classical Liberalism, from the time of John Locke and Adam Smith, is about the opposite.

 Engineers have long noted a tendency for complex systems to grow and evolve until they perform the opposite of what they were built for. They borrowed a law from chemistry called Le Chatelier's principle, which described how chemical systems tend to counteract any changes to their equilibrium. The new and generalized Chatelier principle became "Any change in the status quo prompts an opposing reaction in the responding system," or as paraphrased by the humorist John Gall, "SYSTEMS TEND TO OPPOSE THEIR OWN PROPER FUNCTION."

 Users of a common cold medicine, Vicks Sinex, unwittingly discovered this happening in their own bodies: after using the product for more than 3 days, their continuing stuffy nose and sinus congestion were now caused by the product as a withdrawal symptom. It was identified as a rebound effect and labelled rhinitis medicamentosa.

As another bizarre example, consider the US Coast Guard's partnership with the Canadian Environmental Protection Service. Eager to prevent harm from being inflicted on our marine and coastal life by oil spills, they proceed to deliberately dump jet fuel into Lake Saint Clair with the pretense of studying operational preparedness.

 The slow but inexorable reversal of ideologies takes place in the swirling cauldron of rhetoric and dialogue, marshaling the omnipotence of rationalization and comparison. In the essay Redefining Property: Lessons from American History, Nina Paley crafts an argument against copyright and Intellectual Property (IP) by comparing it--with no apparent irony--to human slavery. Paley states that owning an idea is comparable to owning a human being.

 Arguments for the ownership of humans made use of the separation and recombination of concepts; blacks were separated from their humanity by comparing them to animals without souls, then recombined with white humans who "took care of them" in exchange for labor. At once, blacks could be considered animals when defining them as property, and in the next moment casting them as like human children that white owners were obliged to clothe, house and feed.

You can see the same techniques in Paley's essay: first it's an idea that's under ownership, but then it shifts to the expression of the idea, and then the copy of an expression, and then a specific right to use the copy of the expression. Even the proponents of Intellectual Property aren't immune to dehumanizing comparisons: 

Likewise modern apologists for IP explain the works themselves are not property, but the right to use them are.

 Defenders of IP have now become apologists, with all the loss of stature and credibility that implies. Ironically, Paley describes the emancipation of artists from the patronage model, liberated from the fatherly care of their rich sponsors by making them equal to farmers and craftsmen who have physical products to sell, just as we made black humans equal to whites. We viewed it as enabling a great freedom by denying a lesser freedom.

 But then Paley breaks-up and recombines the ancient slavery of patronage into a modern, copyright-enabled slavery under the whip of "media executives," another Chatelian reversal, and one that must be argued carefully least independent and freelance artists escape the chain. Perhaps she can point out that many freed slaves wound up back on the plantations when no other job was available, but then the reader might wonder what's so different about selling copyrights to big publishers versus any other form of conventional employment.

 Eventually it comes full circle, where the reader of a book or buyer of a device themselves is compared to a slave because copyrights and patents have denied them a kind of freedom. Copyright doesn't deny me the freedom to copy a book, but it does deny me the right to sell or distribute those copies, translations or derivative works to others. Patents don't deny me the right to use an idea, they deny me the right to sell or distribute products that embody them. But in order to argue convincingly for the abolishment of IP, we have to take apart and recombine those sophisticated rights to simplify--sometimes too far--and make them appear more important than others, thus the comparison to slavery.

 Edward Bernays, nephew of Sigmund Freud, borrowed some of his uncle's theories to achieve the great social benefit of getting women to smoke cigarettes. His method, called Reframing by Renaming, had young women leading a parade through the streets of New York, and upon a signal from Bernays would whip out their "Torches of Freedom" and light up in front of dozens of cameras. Soon there were brands like Lucky Strike depicting women smoking their cigarettes under slogans such as "An Ancient Prejudice Has Been Removed," eloquently framing a smoking taboo as something that goes counter to intelligence.

 One can suppose that it did, indeed, promote the worthy equalization of the sexes, and it's just unfortunate that they didn't then know what smoking does to your health. But Bernays didn't really care about gender equality, he was just working for cigarette companies that wanted to expand their market. In time, even those who did not have a financial interest in tobacco sales were jumping on board to abolish the sexist taboo because they had internalized the cause and justified it as an attack on sexism.

 Convenient fools.

 If copyright and patent laws were retired tomorrow, then after a few generations have passed we'd undoubtedly see almost identical arguments employed in their favor, again. Public attitudes will swing as technology, circumstances, and rhetoric reshape our perception of reality.

 Some of these comparisons and recombinations will be apt, some will be silly, but they'll all be judged in whatever passes as reality. Freedom is Slavery, War is Peace, Ignorance is Strength, Property is Theft, all can make sense if you break them up and hide them in sophistry. The reason that both individuals and then entire communities find themselves opposing their own values is because they accept those arguments and then find ingenious ways to integrate them into their own beliefs.

 If you can trick someone into thinking a reversal of their opinion was what they've always believed, they can cement their reversal with the power of their own arguments. The Lund University in Sweden demonstrated this last year by discretely reversing the stated opinions of people who thought they were answering a simple survey. For example, if they checked "Agree" next to the statement "Israel is in the right in its conflict with Palestine", a piece of hidden sticky paper would cover it over with the statement "Israel is in the wrong in its conflict with Palestine." Respondents were then asked to re-read statements from earlier in the survey and explain their response. Those who originally thought Israel was in the right were now thinking they'd agreed to the statement that Israel was wrong.

 Of those who failed to notice the switcheroo, 70% agreed with the flipped position, and 50% argued enthusiastically in support of it. Much as we like to think that we know ourselves well and can tell if someone's trying to trick us into switching our point of view, our problem is that what we actually know best is tied to specific contexts and we run into trouble when somebody remixes and contrives new ones.

The animals listened first to Napoleon, then to Snowball, and could not make up their minds which was right; indeed, they always found themselves in agreement with the one who was speaking at the moment.
— Animal Farm by George Orwell

 The truth is that you can actually get caught believing that not having the freedom to sell homemade copies of Star Wars on eBay is the equivalent of being chained to the deck of a sailing ship and then sold for hard labor at a cotton plantation with chains around your ankles. People make and believe these comparisons sincerely--not just sarcastically--every single day, and work hard to reinforce them.

 What was Liberal becomes Conservative, what was Conservative becomes Libertarian, what was Libertarian goes back to being Liberal, and so-on. It'll be driven by advocates like Paley, reconstructing the world one rhetorical comparison at a time.