Sensationalism, Freedom of Speech and Tolerance

Recently, there has been a lot of polemic in Danish media about the leader of the opposition receiving money from his party for clothes and a family trip. 3-4 years ago, there was a case about the then-leader of the opposition, now prime minister of Denmark illegally using the deductible of her husband ((The current opposition leader almost certainly didn’t do anything legal, the current prime minister most likely did something illegal – maybe unknowingly – but it was obsoleted.  Let’s not get into this part as I’m trying being objective here, and this is not about this anyway.)).  The important part is that there may or may not be some tax dodging going on in both cases, yet the way the two cases are treated is completely different for most individuals.

In this piece, I’ll try and dig into the concept of people’s opinions and how modern media does not try and challenge that, making people think they are much more tolerant than they really are.

All my friends to the (economical) right of the center were very insistent that the now-prime minister, who is the leader of the social democrats, make her tax records public to prove nothing illegal had happened.  It was a big scandal, whereas whether the now-opposition leader, who is the leader of the liberal party ((People knowing Danish politics will probably disagree and claim this is just by name, but this is where they identify themselves.)), make his records public is a “personal matter” – the authorities will check if anything illegal happened.  Completely opposite was the reaction of my friends to the left; the social democrat case was a non-issue and a personal matter that didn’t need any publicity – the press was running errands for the right wing by continuing digging.  Rather, the current case with the liberal leader is a scandal the media can’t unveil enough.

Bias of Surroundings

The worst part, I see this even in intelligent people (i.e., people teaching at universities).  In both directions.  I’m not even sure they notice their double standards themselves…  At least some post quite one-sided statements that make me think they don’t.  Research shows [weasel words] that people tend to surround themselves [citation needed] with people they agree with, and that they tend to give higher significance to opinions and arguments they already agree with [citation needed] and discard arguments they disagree with as obviously flawed [citation needed].  There’s actual research behind this, but I’m too lazy to dig it up right now.

I know this from myself.  I don’t particularly try and only surround myself with people I agree with, but let’s be honest: there’s not a lot of plumbers among the people I talk with regularly.  It is actually better after I moved away from Denmark; in Denmark, a large part of my friends were people I met at university, whereas now my friends are people I’ve met during expat arrangements.  In both cases, there’s of course also a colorful assortment of people from the local pub.

I have a sort of quiet agreement with most of the friends I disagree with that we can have a discussion and don’t try to come to a consensus, but only that we agree to disagree.  It can be really healthy to hear opposing arguments.  It is even better to consider them and pin-point why you disagree with them.  This is especially important on the internet, where you can find people you agree with, even for the most narrow opinion, so you ever have to disagree with anybody.  As you only ever listen to people you agree with, you easily make the mistake of thinking everybody agrees with you and that your world-view is be-all-end-all correct.


Modern media lives in a world of information overload.  We can find almost any information on the internet.  We have smart-phones allowing us to be always-on, social media, radio, TV, newspapers, …  It is easy to wash away in this ocean of information.  For this reason, people judge within seconds whether they bother reading/watching/listening to a piece.  This is why the terrible 9GAG lists are so popular and ubiquitous: they require a rather calculated amount of time investments (just 7 items!) and have “compelling” and vague headlines “7 things that literally is better than Jesus made out of candy-floss!” (ah, now I must read what could be better than both Jesus and candy-floss and at the same time!)

When an online newspaper has to compete with this, they need a “compelling” headline; they can do the whole vague thing easily (I’ve seen headlines like “man brutally killed,” without mention of where, which due to the old adage that a squirrel killed in your own garden matters more than a child killed in Africa.  Unless you live in Africa I suppose.) and news papers to invoke Betteridge’s law of headlines (asking a question and make the reader mentally answer yes, drawing a surprising conclusion even though evidence does not support the conclusion at all).

This is poison for news coverage.  You have no interest in presenting both sides equally and you even have an interest is choosing an angling that will get you the most readers.  An unbiased story laying out the facts takes involvement for the reader (takes time to read, digest, weigh the facts, draw a conclusion), whereas a nice The Sun article presents one fact (that may or may not be true), presents a conclusion based solely on this, and spices everything up with a sexy headline.  Journalism has become 9GAG: you get a calculated and limited time investment (1 fact, 1 conclusion) and a sexy headline to make you click.  Heck, the headline may even vaguely match the “article” as the article is so devoid of facts you can prove almost anything.

Maddox did an always-interesting investigation of lists vs. actual science.  Guess which came out on top: actual science or entertaining lists/pictures masquerading as science?  I wonder which would come out on top: real news making you think or one-sided headliners with a satisfying and simple conclusion?

Fake Tolerance and a Trick

A lot of people want to be tolerant, and like to throw around liberties like “freedom of speech” and “innocent until proven guilty.”  They just don’t really believe that.  They don’t really practice what they preach and I’m done with stereotypes now.  They, consciously or subconsciously,  use these concepts to try to force others into tolerating them, but there will be people they themselves can’t or won’t tolerate.

There is a saying [weasel words, citation needed] which more or less goes that “Speech that everybody agrees with doesn’t need protection.  It’s the speech that most disagree with that need protection.”  In the example with the social democrat and liberal leaders we see that innocent until proven guilty only goes for people you believe are innocent or people you at least don’t have an interest in seeing as victims of miscarriage of justice.

Let’s take another case from Danish media.  There’s no real reason, but a nice chock example where most people agree, is always a nice rhetoric device to make things clearer.  How’s that for a one-sided argument?  Some sports-guy (don’t remember and don’t care who or which sport) was accused of fiddling with one or more kids.  A lot of people quickly posted on Facebook that he was innocent until proven guilty, just to show how tolerant they are.  A Danish blog posted on Facebook an image, which basically shows an inverse relationship between closeness to the person and the chance the person in question is “innocent until proven guilty” of pedophilia, with the retarded, now-fat, previous sports star ranging far away and totally innocent until proven guilty, and your wife-beater-wearing sweaty neighbor who has a weird interest in hanging around the local playground where your own kid plays (if it is ever outside) ranging closer to you and totally guilty until proven innocent.

Now, let’s take an example most people can relate to on a more personal level:  I’m sure, a lot of other people mentally have a direct relationship between tolerance of piracy (the intellectual property kind) or black money and closeness: I am myself morally obliged to do both ((No, I don’t actually do either.)), my friends can of course do it, no problem, but I can easily get uptight about my neighbor down the street that I don’t really know stealing from all us honest customers/tax-payers, and if I read about some jerk in the paper pirating 1000 movies or evading tax for millions, I’m ready with the pitch-forks, torches and rope ((Figuratively, thankfully, in most cases.)).  How about somebody pirating a work you made for fun?  A work you made for some extra drink money?  A work you made and need to make money of to feed your own child?

I also don’t believe anybody believes in freedom of speech/information.  If you unconditionally do, you have to agree with spreading communist propaganda, nazi propaganda, proven facts defaming a communist, proven facts defaming a nazist, rumors defaming a communist, rumors defaming a nazist, provably (and known) false rumors defaming a communist, provably (and known) false rumors defaming a nazist, provably (and known) false rumors defaming an unspecified but unique person, provably (and known) false rumors defaming you, pornography, gay pornography, child pornography, bomb recipes, manifestos portraying racial/religious/sexual/whatever minorities (as a group, not individuals) as anything you like.

I don’t think any country allows all of these.  Nor should they necessarily, but this means that freedom of speech is not unconditional, and pretending like it is an ever-true and objective right is just dumb.  My limits for what should be legal is everything that is true and doesn’t hurt anybody physically.  It’s fine to hurt their feelings (legally).  Thus spread your propaganda and facts defaming people.  Rumors are a gamble (if they are proven false, it’s not ok).  This holds no matter who it is against.  Gay and regular pornography is perfectly fine (as long as everybody consents).  Real child pornography very not so, but I don’t see a legal problem with drawn ditto (one actually hurts children, the other is a thought crime and may make some sickos happy).  Bomb recipes are a gray area – do you want to risk being accessory to a crime like terrorism?  Manifestos are legally fine for me.

I would not myself spread anything to hurt people.  I will make fun of ideas of ideas I find ridiculous, also if it targets a minority.  Most of the time I do that tongue-in-cheek, though – I make fun of the idea, not the people.  For example, religion gets no pardon from me – I find all of them fairytales, and as payback for all the people preaching to me, I’ll make fun of your magical friend in the sky (or wherever he/she/it is supposed to be or not be).  I’ll rarely go after a specific religious minority (or majority for that matter), as I lump them all in the same category together with Hansel and Gretel.

A trick I sometimes use, both when reading news and when judging my and other people’s opinions, is to imagine the statement was about the unacceptable or something I like.  If somebody is imprisoned, imagine they were: a nazist, a communist, a (guilty) child rapist, a terrorist, an (at least otherwise innocent) friend of yours, and why not add yourself as well?  Probably add more friends to balance the creepers out.  Would you out that person on Facebook?  How outraged would you be about their perceived but unjudged crime so far?  If the media starts digging up details about a politician, how would you reach if it was somebody from your party or from the party you dislike the most?  Challenge your opinion of people and statements!  Maybe the other person has a point or at least can cause you to alter your opinion.

Before we go on to the conclusion, let’s do an experiment.  If you actually read this, please add a rating at the top of the page (the star thingys).  Doesn’t matter what it is.  I want to do a little experiment to prove one of my early points: people don’t like to think and read pieces that force them to and cost a time investment (even though my site does give an estimate, it is rather long for this post).  I can count how many people visit this page, but it is harder counting if they actually read this.  By hiding this in the last paragraph before the conclusion, only people who actually read this whole thing are likely to see and actually react to it.  Please don’t encourage people to vote or point out this paragraph: it’s our little secret, mine and yours, the one reader who actually bothers to challenge yourself!  Also, this paragraph is unnecessarily long for the same reason.  This is also the reason, I have added no pictures.  This piece is only my thoughts on tolerance and free speech.  I’ll of course also appreciate your comments – here or on Facebook (they get synchronized).


People tend to surround themselves with people they agree with, which can give an unhealthy bias making them think “everybody” agrees with them, and they are too lazy to challenge themselves, and prefer just reading one-sided stories (that they agree with) over pieces that take more time and thought.  This has a definite and negative impact on media.

I don’t believe anybody really believes in “freedom of speech” or “innocent until proven guilty” unless they agree with what is said. A trick, I use to try and challenge myself, is to swap around such cases, to statements I agree with/don’t agree with, and the person is somebody I like/don’t like.

5 thoughts on “Sensationalism, Freedom of Speech and Tolerance

  1. “The current opposition leader almost certainly didn’t do anything legal”. Teehee.

  2. “If you are, like, a really deep and thoughtful person who is smart enough to read entire articles you should totally rate this … as an experiment!” What a dirty trick to get people to rate your posts! 😛

  3. I was actuality planning a follow-up – only around 10% rated it. More or less proving the point that. I body reads anymore. The rating is local anyway and doesn’t do anything.

  4. I don’t believe that anybody really believes in freedom of speech. That is my considered opinion, so I punched these words into google and found this article. Excellent – you took the words right out of my mouth.

    Charlie Hebdo doesn’t believe in free speech either. The near-deified “Charbie” spent a lot of effort collecting over 173,000 signatures to close down the French National Front, on the grounds that the Front is racist. If you really want to get shouted down at a social occasion, proffer the opinion to your trendy friends that you don’t believe in freedom of speech and that you think Charlie Hebdo is a cheap porno rag.

    If they get angry, tell them you’re just exercising “satire”, and that THEY just don’t get it!

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