We all know about power. It is said to be an aphrodisiac. It tends to corrupt (and absolute power corrupts absolutely). Most people want power in at least some areas of their lives. To be powerless - helpless - is a bad feeling. To feel powerful is intoxicating, addictive.
The temptations of power have been well understood for centuries. They were known to the writers of the synoptic gospels, who included worldly power among the snares Satan offered Jesus.
Again, the devil took [Jesus] to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor. “All this I will give you,” he said, “if you will bow down and worship me.” (Matthew 4:8,9)
One of the most pernicious strategies of power-seekers is to suppress thought. To stamp out unwelcome ideas, to force the whole world into uniformity of opinion, is the dream of all dictators and petty tyrants, from Mao and Hitler to the office manager who won't tolerate any disagreement.
On a political level, the motive is pretty straightforward; if no opinions contrary to those voiced by the controlling authorities are permitted, obedience to the regime is likely to follow. (See North Korea.) On a psychological level, the motive seems to involve an extreme aversion to cognitive dissonance. While few of us relish hearing contrary opinions, most people can handle it with relative equanimity. A minority, however, seem to find it intolerable to know that other views even exist, and still more unbearable that such views are allowed a hearing.
In both cases (political and personal), the unwelcome ideas are characterized as dangerous, destabilizing, deceitful. The intentions of those promulgating these ideas are savaged: they seek to undermine society, tear down the established order, create anarchy, drive us back to the Dark Ages. Those who persist in saying and thinking the wrong things are not just misguided but malicious; they are a cancer on society, rotting us from within. It is only good sense that cancer cells must be eradicated if the host organism is to survive. Suppressing bad ideas is necessary to maintain the health of the community.
In politics, censorship targets dissidents. In personal relations, it targets dissonance.
The alternative is the free and open exchange of ideas, in which people can argue whatever position they like without being shouted down. This approach has two drawbacks for the power-seekers. First, it deprives them of power. Second, it leaves open the possibility that the bad ideas may win out.
It's safer, and more emotionally reassuring, to squelch the offending ideas before they can gain a foothold. After all, you can't trust most people to think for themselves. People are fools, easily duped; they need to be led by the hand and told what to think - for their own good, naturally.
It's well known that people in general suffer from deficiencies in critical reasoning. They're prone to confirmation bias. They draw faulty inferences. They fail to do adequate reality testing. They misunderstand the scientific method. They commit logical fallacies. Letting them think for themselves on important issues is like handing a loaded pistol to a baby. The masses aren't equipped to handle such responsibility. It's unwise, even reckless, to entrust it to them.
None of these caveats apply to the enforcers of correct opinion, of course. Unlike the rest of humanity, they see the truth without distortion. Their faculty of critical reasoning works impeccably. They never exhibit confirmation bias or the other frailties of ordinary people. They're special.
They know The Truth.
While it's possible to differentiate between the large (political) and small (personal) power-seekers, there's no clear-cut division between them. The one group tends to blur into the other. The individual who spends all his time on the Internet trying to shout out or shut down competing opinions is not unlikely to be sympathetic to a political program that promises a crackdown on the same unacceptable thoughts. For instance, some believers in global warming are not satisfied merely to sanitize Wikipedia of demurring opinions; they want the "wrong" opinions to be answered with criminal charges.* Certainly not all zealots are willing to go that far; but some are. From trying to control the content of public web pages to trying to enforce that control through the mechanisms of legal authority need not be a long step.
I thought of this today, in connection with my last post. It was about the "guerrilla skepticism" movement, which tries to erase pro-psi material from Wikipedia. The founder of this movement is quoted as saying:
I enjoy finding pages that look like the “psychic” wrote it themselves and then I come in with the delete button. It is really a powerful feeling.
Yes. The power to delete whole pages of information is, I'm sure, quite a rush.
Randi was on record as saying that he would be fine with drug legalization, even if it meant that some users died of overdoses, because such people are a drag on society anyway. Questioned by Storr, Randi reiterated his opinion, leading to this exchange:
[Storr says,] “These are quite extreme views.” ...
[Randi replies,] “I don’t think so.”
“But it’s social Darwinism.”
“The survival of the fittest, yes,” he says, approvingly. “The strong survive.”
“But this is the foundation of fascism.”
“Oh yes, yes,” he says, perfectly satisfied. “It could be inferred that way, yes. I think people should be allowed to do themselves in.” [p. 367]
Shortly afterward, Randi was asked if he has been wrong about anything in his life. He was unable to come up with any items of significance. He is apparently always right. He is the Right Man.
Put all this together, and what do we have? Some people seek the power to control public debate. They rationalize their efforts in terms of protecting the public and saving society, but their actual motives are less attractive. They do it partly because power is addictive ("a really powerful feeling") and partly because they're unusually uncomfortable with cognitive dissonance. They use a variety of strategies to enforce the right ideas, which, of course, are their ideas; unlike other people, they can see reality clearly and are never wrong.
And when it's pointed out that their mindset may be placing them on the road to fascism, they aren't disturbed. ("Oh yes, yes. It could be inferred that way, yes.") Presumably, they believe that if such a government ever does arise, they themselves will be running things. They're the best and the brightest, aren't they? And what's so bad about fascism if it's enforced by the wisest and most cognitively unimpaired among us? It's the rule of the Airmen. Let the most rational and intelligent reign over all the dupes and fools. (“The survival of the fittest, yes. The strong survive.”)
See? Not a very long step at all.
* "We have good reason to consider the funding of climate denial to be criminally and morally negligent. The charge of criminal and moral negligence ought to extend to all activities of the climate deniers who receive funding as part of a sustained campaign to undermine the public’s understanding of scientific consensus." Quoted here.