The Imp of the Perverse
Why censorship will ultimately fail
There are increasing efforts to control what you can see.
Recently, the Biden administration unveiled a new government division, the Disinformation Governance Board (DGB), which will be tasked with formulating government strategies to “protect” the public from online “disinformation”. Due to the global nature of the web, the DGB’s activities will impact not just Americans, but web-users across the English-speaking world.
The Board is headed by Nina Jankowicz, a staunch advocate of censorship who has unwittingly spread Russian propaganda, and yet who styles herself as the "Mary Poppins of Disinformation," sweeping away fake news with her magic broom. Mary Poppins is known for the line, “I would like to make one thing clear: I never explain anything,” and that seems to be the approach taken by Jankowicz and her colleagues. Aside from empty promises of protecting civil liberties, they’ve shown little interest in communicating details of the DGB’s scope or strategies, and the lack of transparency has alarmed those who favour free expression, with many likening the Board to the sinister Ministry of Truth from Orwell's 1984.
The DGB's lack of transparency and accountability places it in the company of certain other government censorship bureaus, such as the Publicity Department of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). Both operate under the same principle: "Just trust us—we know what's best for you."
But this approach to online moderation is doomed to backfire, because it's based on a fundamental miscalculation about human nature. Specifically, it fails to account for a bizarre quirk of the human brain, known as the Imp of the Perverse.
This concept takes its name from an 1845 short story by the American author Edgar Allan Poe. The story begins with the unnamed narrator explaining that he's discovered a "paradoxical something" about the human soul. The paradox causes people to do things for the sole reason that they know they shouldn’t.
The narrator calls the paradox "the Imp of the Perverse," likening it to a sprite or daemon whispering into one's ear. He describes how he became a victim of the Imp. One day he decided to murder an acquaintance by a sneaky method: contaminating his candle so it emitted poison gas when burned. The man, who used the candle to read each night, soon died, and the coroner recorded it as "Death by the visitation of God." The narrator inherited the man's estate, and enjoyed the man's riches.
The narrator knew that, as long as he didn't admit to the crime, he'd never be suspected of it. But soon he began to be harassed by an urge to confess—not out of guilt, but purely because he knew he shouldn't. One day while walking, the urge began to overpower him. He tried to shake it off by walking faster. The walk became a run, which became a sprint, until people noticed his odd behaviour and pursued him to see what was wrong. At that moment, in a delirium of ecstatic terror, he shrieked his confession, dooming himself "to hangman and to hell."
As he awaits execution in his jail cell, the narrator tries to describe the impulse that made him self-destruct, one he insists is common to us all:
"We stand upon the brink of a precipice. We peer into the abyss. We grow sick and dizzy ... By slow degrees our sickness and dizziness and horror become merged in a cloud of unnameable feeling. By gradations, still more imperceptible, this cloud assumes shape … But out of this our cloud upon the precipice’s edge, there grows into palpability … a thought ... which chills the very marrow of our bones with the fierceness of the delight of its horror. It is merely the idea of what would be our sensations during the sweeping precipitancy of a fall from such a height."
The feeling of looking down into an abyss and getting the impulse to jump is so well recognised in France that it even has a name: L’appel du vide (literally: “the call of the void”). It describes not just the urge to jump into a chasm, but also the urge to, say, jerk the steering wheel and careen into another car, or to scream a shockingly offensive word during a public speech.
But why do people get such pointlessly self-destructive urges? Some have hypothesized that the Imp resides in the orbitofrontal cortex (just below the eyebrows), and that it's a result of a flawed impulse-control apparatus, but science is not yet adequate to explain such an affront to reason. Fortunately, there is a clear explanation for the Imp, but it requires us to go back 2000 years.
The Ancient Greek myths tell of Orpheus and Eurydice [Your-rid-uh-see], two lovers whose lives ended in tragedy. While in the woods, Eurydice was struck by a viper and passed away to the Underworld. Orpheus, unable to let go, ventured down to the Underworld to reclaim her. There, he faced the god of death, Hades.
Orpheus, a gifted musician, played an elegy for his lost wife, which moved Hades so much that he agreed to return Eurydice. But there was a condition: Orpheus had to depart the Underworld alone. His wife would follow silently behind him, but if he turned around before he’d passed the gates, he'd lose her forever.
Orpheus agreed to the deal, and set off for the surface alone. He walked for days, never knowing whether or not Eurydice was really behind him. The not knowing ate at him, until finally, as he approached the gates to the surface, and was about to make the final step, he turned to check if she was there.
She was there. But then she vanished… forever.
This story offers us a crucial detail that Poe's story only hints at. It tells us that the Imp, which in this case caused Orpheus to look behind him, was fuelled by a gnawing curiosity owing to a lack of certainty.
The story of Orpheus and Eurydice is strikingly similar to another ancient story—from the Book of Genesis—in which the Abrahamic god Yahweh warns Lot and his family to flee the destruction of the cursed city of Sodom, and to never under any circumstances look back. Lot's wife, overcome by the Imp, looks back, and is instantly turned into a pillar of salt.
But it is another story from the Book of Genesis that serves as the best explanation of the Imp of the Perverse: the Fall. This is probably the most well known story in all of human history, so it needs little introduction, but just to refresh your memory, this is broadly how it went down:
Yahweh created the first man and woman, Adam and Eve, and placed them in a lush proto-paradise, the Garden of Eden. He told them they could eat the fruit of any tree except one—the tree of the knowledge of good and evil—or else they'd die.
Eve was then approached by a serpent, which tempted her to eat from the tree, claiming that by doing so she would not, in fact die, but rather, her "eyes would be opened." Intrigued, Eve took a bite of the fruit, and shared it with Adam.
When Yahweh discovered he'd been disobeyed, the skies resounded with the thunder of his rage. He expelled the three from Eden, sentencing Adam and all future men to a lifetime of hard labour, Eve and all future women to suffer the oppression of men and the pain of childbirth, and the serpent and all its future kind to slither on their bellies for the rest of time.
A useful interpretation of this story is to regard the serpent as the Imp of the Perverse: a facet of Eve's own mind. Just like the Imp in other stories, it preyed on Eve's curiosity. But this story gives us some additional insights.
Firstly, Eve's curiosity with the tree had the same cause as Orpheus' curiosity with what was behind him: uncertainty. Hades had offered Orpheus no assurances that his wife was really behind him, and Yahweh had offered none to Adam and Eve that the fruit was really dangerous. No example, no explanation. Just a command.
Like Hades, Yahweh had made his command dependent on faith. But he didn’t understand his own creations, and so instead of faith, his dogma seeded doubt. The serpent, or Imp, was Eve’s imagination giving voice to this doubt. Its words filled the silence left by God, convincing Eve that the only way to discern the truth of the taboo was to transgress. She needed to break the rules to know if the rules were real. Defying God was thus an experiment to determine the bounds of her freedom.
This same urge is what compelled Poe's narrator to confess to a crime he could've gotten away with. Being so dogmatic with himself that confessing was a bad idea, he began to doubt whether he was capable of confessing, and itched to know the answer. His confession became the supreme exercise of free will, a test to see if he was free enough to break the most sacred rule of all: his own self-preservation.
This is the nature of the Imp. It compels us to break taboos out of curiosity, to delineate boundaries, and determine both the extent of the taboo and of our freedom. The Imp is weak when knowledge is high; we seldom break taboos we fully understand, because the boundaries are clear. But when such rules are mysterious, as they were in Eden and the Underworld, the Imp finds renewed purpose in its desire to test the rules by breaking them.
The stories of Adam and Eve, and Orpheus and Eurydice, and Poe's narrator and his personal demons, may all be fiction, but they've survived the ages because they tell us something about ourselves that we recognise. They tell us we have a fundamental need to rebel against that which is imposed on us, even if doing so harms us, in order to ascertain our free will. This phenomenon is now well-documented in the field of psychology, where it’s known as "reactance."
But how, you may ask, does all this relate to the question of censorship?
Well, since no censor has control over the whole web, there will always be a home for information that's been removed from the mainstream. As such, it's easy to know when information has been withheld from people. And when people realise they’ve been withheld information, the Imp makes them want to see it so much more.
Jankowicz and other disciples of the Mary Poppins approach to policing information are much like Yahweh demanding "Don't consume this" or Hades demanding "Don't look over there." When such demands are made without transparency ("Trust me, it's for your own good"), all they do are evoke curiosity and provoke the Imp.
And when this occurs at scale, as it often does with censorship, it foments an insurrection of Imps. The masses begin to collaborate in seeking out that which has been denied to them, and since it's almost impossible to permanently destroy ideas in the digital age, they usually find it. The actress and singer Barbra Streisand knows this all too well.
And now, the Chinese Communist Party is learning the lesson, too. It’s been doing all it can to suppress Voices of April, a video documenting the realities of life in Covid-stricken Shanghai. But the aggression with which it’s tried to censor the video has resulted in more interest and more publicity for the video, causing it to go viral.
The censors can make all the claims they want that information can be harmful, and that they’re only acting in the public interest, but such appeals will always backfire, because, even if it were true that censorship makes the world safer (it doesn’t), the Imp simply cannot be reasoned with. It lurks in the most primal parts of the cortex, and its mischief is recorded in the earliest of human myths. It’s far more deep-rooted than latecomers like logic or the “common good.”
In the long term, the only way to protect people from bad ideas is to starve the Imp, and the way to do that is not to limit people’s vision but to exhaust their curiosity, by allowing them to see and discuss bad ideas ad nauseam.
If God had listened to Adam and Eve's innermost questions, and told them what the forbidden tree was, how it came to be, and why it existed, perhaps he could've dulled its mystique, and its allure. But instead he simply told them it was fatal, and in so doing, he made it irresistible.
Eating from that tree was said to have opened our eyes to the knowledge of good and evil, but such knowledge is lost to us today; half of us think censorship is good, and half of us think it's evil. We can, however, be sure of one thing: the Mary Poppins approach of explaining nothing other than "it's for your own good" ultimately leaves people in the dark, and, well, darkness is the abode of the Imp of the Perverse.