There is a story that on arriving at the scene just a few minutes after Mahatma Gandhi’s assassination, Lord Louis Mountbatten, last Viceroy of India was met by an increasingly angry mob. One voice suddenly rose over the crowd, saying: “A Muslim shot him…” The story goes that Mountbatten, seeing the danger of a massacre by enraged Hindus shouted loudly: “You fool, it was a Hindu!”
Whether this story about Mountbatten is true or not, and whether or not a Hindu or Muslim had been responsible, the wisdom in such a reply – to quell rage and prevent scapegoating of the minority Muslim population is obvious. In fact, the murderer actually was a Hindu. But even if you put this to one side, the instinct was still sound.
As a writer, for some time I have been imagining how best one might cause a civil war in an imagined country. Suppose there were an invader seeking to destabilise the regime, but wanting to do so discreetly. What would he do? The land I imagine is low tech, pre-industrial and ruled by an increasingly distrusted Prince who has perhaps made one or two poor decisions, but who is in fact a kindly and beneficent ruler. How might agents foment revolution, I asked myself?
In a thought experiment, I imagined a marketplace, where people convene from all parts of the country to trade, meet and enjoy a two week fair. The fair-goers would include members of the ruling classes, tradesmen and merchants with connections to trade routes and fleets. It would include guildsmen, jealous of their work and their skills, guarding against impostors. There might be harlots and mountebanks and cheapjacks and performers all mingling with the general population who have come there to buy, meet others, share news, gossip and talk.
It was there that I realised that the revolution would start. In the marketplace for ideas.
It might happen thus: at one end of the market, a gossip spreads news about a well-established merchant. He uses those ships to trade in people, and whenever his ships land at ports, children always go missing. Is this a coincidence? The gossip only asks the question, but it is a question that others with no knowledge of the gossip’s agenda repeat.
In another part of the market, a rumour starts that local guildsmen were heard hatching a plan to kill another merchant because he brings in goods from the shores of Cathay that are putting local tradesmen out of work. Elsewhere a rumour goes up about the Prince, that he is using the taxes from the fair to raise an army, and will be conscripting soon. Others say that this is not true, but that he is in fact using the money to line his own pockets, or that the Prince is in the pay of foreign powers.
More rumours abound. An army was seen in the East, and those of the Eastern faith are accused as spies for that army. After all, wasn’t it invaders from the East who killed a child in the woods last year, even though no-one can quite remember the name of that child? Butchers are accused of selling infected meat and bakers of adulterating their bread with alum.
Soon, the harmony of the marketplace is disturbed by the rumours. Butchers and bakers look defensively at their rivals, tradesmen pit themselves against tradesmen, all look suspiciously at foreigners and more so at the Prince on whose watch this is all happening.
Over the next few days, factions form. Those who have been accused complain and grumble. Others of the secret invader’s agents, pretending to be on the side of the aggrieved, amplify their complaints, turning them from a mild grievance into an angry counter-accusation. The newly aggrieved on the other side respond, and soon the agents have very little to do as the factions take their grievances to each other.
For those spreading the rumours, the truth of one claim or another is irrelevant. The purpose is to spread discontent wherever possible. For those in the marketplace of ideas who have no idea of the agenda, they naturally take sides according to their preferences and predilections, their biases and loyalties, and soon, hardened factions have formed within the marketplace, where formally there was only interest in trade.
Neighbours look at neighbours on the stalls distrustingly, and guard their goods against theft. Accidental overturnings of carts, genuine accidents or planned, are immediately met with outrage and anger as proof of the ill intentions of one or other faction. The mood of the marketplace has changed so that reasonable discourse and the sorting out of problems is no longer possible. Everybody is aggrieved. Everybody is simmering and angry. The rumours become truths in the minds of those who now seek to interpret the actions of their neighbours from within the grossly distorted paradigms they have internalised.
Now the rumour goes out that groups from the East are carrying concealed weapons. They are challenged on the streets by butchers, with meat cleavers.. Though they are not carrying weapons, they soon begin to. The butchers are joined by the blacksmiths and the knife sharpeners. But these two factions already distrust each other, and arguments start between them, at the agents’ instigation.
Soon, everyone feels unsafe, and no-one trusts anything anyone says, except their own small factions. Civil society is breaking down. The Prince posts guards to ensure safety on the streets, and soon more whisperings are complaining that the Prince is both taxing and oppressing them. The guards themselves become the subject for distrust – and one night after a drunken brawl a guard is killed.
Rumours blame the people of the East, the butchers, the merchants, the traders, the guildsmen in turn. Each accuses the other and none will listen. Soon the factions are so widely separated and angry that more guards are called in as more and more discord breaks out.
And then, one man with a louder mouth who seems somehow to have the ear of the armed factions steps in. He ousts the Prince and installs himself in his place. He is a strong man He is one the crowd trust to “get things done”. Those who armed themselves are grateful for his intervention as he brings in increasingly Draconian rules to deal with foreigners and traders, and anyone who steps beyond his increasingly eccentric and tight restrictions.
Others complain that he is taking away freedoms, others that he is favouring certain groups over others, others that he is a bully.
All of these things may be true, or none may be true. The point is that while the people are thus preoccupied with their rage and accusation at each other, they do not even notice the coup that has taken place, nor fully appreciate how their lives have changed. The few who do notice and make a stand are shouted down and buried with rumours by agents. And in order to discredit those seeking to reinstate rational discourse, new rumour-spreaders join the rational side, so that there is very little rational discourse, only more and more rage, and more and more accusation.
Against those who do still persist in trying to speak their milder or more perceptive truths, it is not difficult now to raise an outraged mob. Some are intimidated into silence. Some disappear.
Meanwhile, the loudmouth who got to power continues to strengthen his hold, spreading further lies and adding to the general sense of distrust with proclamations and with increasingly sweeping powers. Those who want order at any cost rally round him, calling those who oppose his approach traitors, not seeing that what he is doing is quite the opposite of what they wanted, which was to bring them peace and liberty. And what his agenda is, nobody knows, though some suspect that the foreign power that some voices warned about in regard to the old Prince, have in fact installed this one in his place.
That is how one uses the freedom of the market to bring about its opposite. It is also, of course, an allegory of how free speech can, ironically, be democracy’s worst enemy.