Weil’s paradox: intention and speech (Fake News Notes #8)

Simone Weil, in her curious book Need for Roots, notes the following on the necessity for freedom of opinion:

[…] it would be desirable to create an absolutely free reserve in the field of publication, but in such a way as for it to be understood that the works found therein did not pledge their authors in any way and contained no direct advice for readers. There it would be possible to find, set out in their full force, all the arguments in favour of bad causes. It would be an excellent and salutary thing for them to be so displayed. Anybody could there sing the praises of what he most condemns. It would be publicly recognized that the object of such works was not to define their authors’ attitudes vis-à-vis the problems of life, but to contribute, by preliminary researches, towards a complete and correct tabulation of data concerning each problem. The law would see to it that their publication did not involve any risk of whatever kind for the author.

Simone Weil, Need for Roots, p. 22

She is imagining here a sphere where anything can be said, any view expressed and explored, all data examined — and it is interesting that she mentions data, because she is aware that a part of the challenge is not just what is said, but what data is collected and shared on social problems. But she also recognizes that such a complete free space needs to be distinguished from the public sphere of persuasion and debate:

On the other hand, publications destined to influence what is called opinion, that is to say, in effect, the conduct of life, constitute acts and ought to be subjected to the same restrictions as are all acts. In other words, they should not cause unlawful harm of any kind to any human being, and above all, should never contain any denial, explicit or implicit, of the eternal obligations towards the human being, once these obligations have been solemnly recognized by law.

Simone Weil, Need for Roots, ibid.

This category – “publications destined to influence what is called opinion”, she wants to treat differently. Here she wants the full machinery of not just law, but also morals, to apply. Then she notes, wryly one thinks, that this will present some legal challenges:

The distinction between the two fields, the one which is outside action and the one which forms part of action, is impossible to express on paper in juridical terminology. But that doesn’t prevent it from being a perfectly clear one.

Simone Weil, Need For Roots, ibid.

This captures in a way the challenge that face platforms today. The inability to express this legally is acutely felt by most that study the area, and Weil’s articulation of the two competing interests – free thought and human responsibility – is clean and clear.

Now, the question is: can we find any other way to express this than in law? Are there technologies that could help us here? We could imagine several models.

One would be to develop a domain for the public sphere, for speech that intends to influence. To develop an “on the record”-mode for the flat information surfaces of the web. You could do this trivially by signing your statement in different ways, and statements could be signed by several different people as well – the ability to support a statement in a personal way is inherent in the often cited disclaimers on Twitter — where we are always told that RT does not equal endorsement. But the really interesting question is how we do endorse something, and if we can endorse statements and beliefs with different force.

Imagine a web where we could choose not just to publish, but publish irrevocably (this is for sure connected with discussions around blockchain) and publish with the strength of not just one individual, but several. Imagine the idea that we could replicate editorial accountability not just in law, but by availing those that seek it of a mode of publishing, a technological way of asserting their accountability. That would allow us to take Weil’s clear distinction and turn it into a real one.

It would require, of course, that we accept that there is a lot of “speech” – if we use that as the generic term for the first category of opinion that Weil explores – we disagree with. But we would be able to hold those that utter “opinions” – the second category, speech intended to influence and change minds – accountable.

One solution to the issue of misinformation or disagreeable information or speech is to add dimensionality to the flat information surfaces we are interacting with today.

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