Tag Archives: free thought

On Ugly Ideas and Intolerance

Ideas are neither benign, nor malignant, out of the context of a specific mentality. They depend entirely on our subjective mental context to affect us. As we respond to ideas in one way or another, as we adopt one idea versus another, the ideas we use to operate in the world alter the chances of a given possibility coming to pass versus almost infinite others. This is how ideas benefit or harm us, which we can only judge by the experience of what we did believe and what did happen. We model the effect — not very accurately — by the metaphor of a polar charge, positive or negative. But ideas themselves are neither.

— Colin Patrick Barth, THE FALL OF THE CULTURE OF MIND

Due to recent events recalling the intolerance of disagreement when it comes to offending and so-called “dangerous” ideas, I want to reproduce here two more excerpts concerned with the ramifications of making this essentialist and moralist philosophical error, which also makes a category error, and an error in logical typing (as the cyberneticist Gregory Bateson might refer to it). Remember always that thinking, at least with what we figuratively term an “open mind,” concerns a process or exercise of improvisation, which leads to many achievable outcomes. It is not some computerized output that given inputs already assure.

The essay I quote from is concerned with becoming capable of the exercise of thought with an open mind, and the social costs of prohibiting “bad ideas” and therefore the exercise of profound disagreement itself.

The nonsense of ideas malicious in themselves, outside the context of a moment in a mind, ignores the multitude of perspectives, the many different lights cast upon circulating ideas by subjective considerations of different and changing individuals. After all in terms of their relationships to people, ideas remain fluid, ever-shifting entities, not constant things. The belief that a given idea is like an atom of evil is not only primitive, it is inconsistent with a free society allowing liberty for individual minds. It shows no faith at all in the principle of free speech, and in the ability of an open mind to separate value from worthlessness. 

If the deniers of a widely accepted theory are wrong, they can and should be proven wrong, again and again, and thereby discredited by the standard of accuracy. If the deniers of a widely accepted ethic seek to overturn it for some dubious motivation, bring all this out into the light, and let them scamper away. To do otherwise is to overestimate their power before any reckoning. It suggests that to do battle with them on the open field of ideas would bring defeat, or perhaps that an open debate would likewise draw unwanted attention to one’s own motives.

If all Holocaust revisionists* are completely wrong and utterly-straightforward bigots, let them make their case, expose them, and devastate them. As with all such cases, we will know more than before. Our refreshed process of thought will lead to other thoughts. And we will avert the danger of censorship, as well as the danger of falsehoods. But, if they are even a few parts in a thousand right (which even a bigot might easily manage), don’t we want their yield added to our truth, as well?

* This is the example already introduced in the essay (because of censorship practiced in Europe), but many other examples of derided ideas could be inserted instead—pulled from contemporary accusations made against wild conspiracy theorists, white nationalists, et al., or anybody inaccurately smeared as such.

The crowd always hates disagreement, strong disagreement most heartily. It does not matter whether the individual who takes exception is a dissident with answers to illuminate humanity in an hour of darkness, or some bigot determined to revise provable facts. 

Of course this is why the founders of intellectual and ideological freedoms — familiar as the slogans and shibboleths of the West and modernity — first protected the disagreeable individual from the crowd. Only a fool asks a mob, or a ruler pandering to the mob to know and do only what is right, and suppress only that which they deem wrong [emphasis added]. This is the wise rationale behind free speech: that only an individual can decide what to like and what to dislike while a mob reacts, and moreover, only an individual child or adult can decide for himself how an idea affects him personally, in his distinct context — as we say, positively or negatively — and nobody else. 

The concept of an open mind freely consuming new ideas is not designed for social groups but individual minds. Only an individual can sift gold from sand. As masses, people seek to conform, to remove difference, and tend towards intolerance. Only an individual can experience and learn the value of internal discord. Social conformity, on the other hand, is the process which counterbalances novelty and differentiation. On a mental level, this produces similarity of thoughts with fewer catalysts in the form of different concepts and contrary information. Left to itself, conformity therefore tends to produce a slow-witted stasis.

The accord of society must be refreshed by the discord prized by open minds. Eventually a closed-minded culture is composed almost entirely of dull, conservative conformists, with many superficial differences that persuade them of their own breadth and tolerance, but a poverty of deep variations in thought. They are bored to tears with their well-worn comfort zone, and manufacture neverending permissible transgressions. Their sclerotic culture struggles to cope with changes their ancestors once weathered merrily. They are frightened by their own lethargy. Dimly recalling debate, they have too much trouble summoning up different points of view to stage a productive argument. Instead they bicker ineptly and tediously about nothing at all fundamental, nothing at all relevant to their predicament [emphasis added].

In their intolerance, those who forget why we need freedom of speech attack the very purpose for which it was created. That freedom of speech might, and does allow objectionable points to be raised in a society of two or two billion is not some price to pay for it, but the soul of the principle. To hear objectionable ideas is the goal! If we no longer value objection, if we do not prize the tutelage of discord more highly than uniform agreement, we are unworthy of this great freedom, and we will surely see the collapse of civilization follow the complacency of its engineers.

Read the whole essay for more development of the meaning of an open mind, and the importance of a culture of debated ideas. I first published The Fall of the Culture of Mind online in 2007, and included it in the print anthology Rising in Words in 2008.

I’m sure I was thinking in part about the intolerance of debate and social criticism I experienced in America that peaked from 2001–2003, which allowed the state’s wars, police state tactics, and surveilling bureaucracies to expand rapidly with few questions asked, persecution of dissidents, and a generosity towards lies and misinformation that fit media narratives.

Recent years again seem no less unhinged, detached from reality, and disinterested in hearing about it from those who know. Now an expatriate, I wonder what the grave consequences will be.

Consider that a generation will lose every worthwhile piece of civilization that they fail to recreate in their own lives, as virtues: showing tolerance, having courage, making peace, suspending judgment, and performing intellectual work, among them.

The “free world” only means the world which has inherited freedom. Those would-be open minds who inherit free thought must perpetually recreate themselves as worthy heirs, and earn their world in order to keep it. An open mind is not a present one can give, but an engine firing that must be maintained.