Think what you want

Americans love the myth of the rugged individualist. They love their freedoms, both real and perceived. Sadly, America is much less tolerant of people who are truly independent thinkers. Step too far outside the box, and you’re going to get your hands slapped.

Today I watched Killswitch, a 2016 documentary about what the internet means to individuals and to corporations and the government. It provides an illuminating look at the kind of resistance people who really want to step outside the lines can expect to face. The film covers aspects of the cases of Aaron Swartz and Edward Snowden, and they’re both pretty good reminders of what happens when you bang against the machine: the machine always bangs back.

Regardless of what you think of their actions, both men were, I firmly believe, motivated by good intentions. Aaron Swartz was no ne’er do well, unable to function in society; he was an accomplished programmer and technologist, helping develop RSS, web frameworks, Creative Commons, and more, all at a very young age. He was a principled thinker who deeply considered his beliefs about how society should function with respect to people and technology.

In Snowden’s case, while those lobbing grenades over his eventual relocation to Russia want you to think otherwise, he was motivated by a growing concern over the surveillance state and how far the system had strayed from its original purpose and into total surveillance of everyone. It’s also kind of an important detail to remember that Snowden was actually headed for Ecuador and wound up in Russia because the US government cancelled his passport. Whatever the actual motivation, if you want to portray the person who’s outed some of your most embarrassing secrets as a traitor, stranding them in Russia is a pretty good first step.

Here’s the thing about both of these guys: they were/are both really smart men. Aaron clearly possessed a prodigy-level intelligence. He was idealistic and didn’t like to be told to stay within the lines if he felt those lines were arbitrary and stupid. Snowden is clearly intelligent. He outsmarted the NSA and the entire US government long enough to escape their reach, for now anyway. He also is very thoughtful and well-spoken about what he did and why. He has detailed painstakingly how he took care to not just do a grab-and-dump, but instead to work with journalists to make sure documents were released in such a way that they wouldn’t putting lives at risk or doing damage to necessary and sensible programs.

The characteristic about smart people that the world, and in this case the US government, since that’s really who I’m holding up as an example of patriarchal disapproval here, tends to get annoyed about is that smart people don’t like to be spoon fed rules and regulations and be stuffed into boxes without deciding for themselves if those are something they agree with. This is where society is useful to those in power – if you convince enough people that certain things are patriotic or Christian or moral, even if they’re just arbitrary constructs of man that don’t mean jack, you can create a self-regulating system that constantly applies pressure to those who want to ask questions and poke at the walls.

All you have to do is look at the attitudes amongst many in America about protesters, or anyone who questions or points out injustice to see this. The venom directed at Colin Kaepernick when he refused to stand for the national anthem at football games during 2016 is because people cannot handle it when their fundamental ideas about how the world functions are challenged. Wrap it in a flag and call it the holiest patriotism in the world if you like, it was still just good old fashioned “do as we say or suffer the consequences” B.S. behavior. I know people that cannot stand protesting for any reason whatsoever. Personally I can’t stand the thought of an America in which people care so little anymore that they don’t protest anything.

I can promise you this, if you’re a human being: you will belong to a group, to some groups, to many groups. Each of these groups is going to have ideas about what’s real, what’s right, and what YOUR role is in life. That’s fine for them to have those ideas, but you don’t have to accept them. All of those ideas are man-made. All of them, even those delivered with the best intentions, benefit someone else for you to believe and accept. Someone else’s system of the world relies on you accepting their dogma. It’s your right to accept and reject it as you wish. It’s that simple.

You will pay a price for standing out. You may get mocked, labeled a traitor, or called unpatriotic. You may even go to jail, be beaten, or killed if you piss off the wrong people. But it’s not only your right, it’s really your duty to think about these constructs for yourself, decide if you believe in them, and make your own choices about what’s right and what’s wrong. Don’t acquiesce to someone else’s framework just because that’s what you’re taught as a child. Acquiesce only if it makes sense and it is right. Otherwise demur and find your own path.

I will always respect people who come by their beliefs honestly and can show intelligent reasoning for what they think, even if they disagree with me. I have little or no time for people who accept what they’ve been taught without critically analyzing it, and who think the proper response to those who have is anger and condemnation. That’s the kind of mindset that leads to us ostracizing and abandoning intelligent, principled people who think maybe there’s a better way.

Poke the walls. Bang against the machine. It’s your right as a human being.