December 4, 2021
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On Trees, Butterflies, and Powerful People

On Trees, Butterflies, and Powerful People

“If a tree falls in the forest and no one is there to hear, does it make a sound?” This old question challenged the minds of people who gathered in living rooms before Netflix and Amazon Prime existed. It is still fun to ponder. Sound is a vibration that moves the surrounding air. Hearing is the capacity to perceive such a sound.

Consider a telephone making the sound that we still call “ringing” even though it now can make a variety of other sounds. When the phone is “on” and it rings, we hear it and then answer it. If for some reason we do not hear it, does that prove it made no sound? Not at all, as a voice message will often prove.

A more interesting situation is that of a butterfly flapping its wings in a far away jungle. Edward Lorenz’s Chaos Theory argues that the resulting tiny vibration caused by the flapping can contribute in a tiny way to a weather phenomenon somewhere else on the planet. The fact that the vibration of the butterfly’s wings is too quiet to be heard, even by someone standing nearby, in no way challenges the fact of its occurrence or its possible effect.

What is true of the tree falling and the butterfly flapping its wings is equally true of people’s expressions of ideas. Once expressed, they take their place in the world. That place may be great or small; it may be heard by many people or no one at all. If spoken aloud, rather than captured in another way, it may travel through time and space to distant galaxies.

The accuracy of the expression will determine whether it spreads truth or error, wisdom or foolishness, good or evil. The ancient Greek myth of Pandora’s box illustrates the worse effects. The story is that Zeus gave Pandora a wedding gift of a box, but cautioned her never to open it. She disobeyed, however, and when she opened the box, all manner of evil flew out, including “greed, envy, hatred, pain, disease, hunger, poverty, war, and death.” Once released, it could never be recaptured.

That myth suggests why we should be careful not only with what we release from our mouths but also with what we think. After all, the thought is father to the expression and, in many cases, the deed. We should strive to direct our thoughts toward truth so that what we say will be a blessing to the world rather than a curse.

Of course, no society can guarantee that the words people speak will always be true, wise, or good. All that a society can do is to increase the likelihood that they will by emphasizing the importance of those qualities in its schools, colleges, and general culture. Our society was founded on this approach and has traditionally emphasized those qualities—not perfectly of course, because no human society is perfect, but with sufficient effectiveness to maintain an unusual degree of social harmony.

During the last few decades, however, many Americans have become dissatisfied with the tradition of encouraging people to think, speak, and act responsibly. They reason that America will benefit more by having schools, colleges, and the general culture proclaim the advantage of having government require people to speak and act responsibly. This form of Socialism they believe will not abandon freedom of speech but merely tweak it sufficiently to overcome “division” and “disharmony” in society.

Unfortunately, there is a major flaw in this thinking. The evils that Pandora released from the box have not left us; they continue to pollute the planet. Or, to put aside mythology and speak philosophically, we humans are every bit as imperfect, and tempted by evil, as our ancestors were. More importantly, being elected to government office does not free anyone from imperfection or the temptation to evil. Neither does buying a social media platform and silencing the speech of those we disagree with.

Unfortunately, election to public office and/or owning a social media platform tends to create this sort of delusional thinking: “The fact that I possess unique power must mean that I am wiser than others and therefore have not only the right but also the obligation, for the good of the country and perhaps the world, to decide which ideas will be heard and which will not.” 

Throughout history, every time such delusional thinking has been followed by the powerful, it has led to tragedy. Its forceful appearance in America today represents a warning that we cannot afford to ignore.

Copyright © 2021 by Vincent Ryan Ruggiero. All rights reserved

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Vincent Ryan Ruggiero