The Burden of Ideas

The Burden of Ideas

It is fashionable to believe that ideas are quiet, ethereal things that can do no harm. “What others think won’t affect me or anyone else,” the belief goes. That belief is wrong! Ideas can quickly spread from one person to many, and when they do so, they can alter the quality and character of lives. A single one can change the shape of cultures and societies, raise up or tear down civilizations, bring times of plenty or starvation, health or sickness, happiness or misery. And a combination of them can do those things with great rapidity—in some cases, before people have the slightest awareness of what is happening.

If what I just said sounds scary, be assured that it is. If we want life to go well for ourselves, our neighbors, our society and our world, we had better take ideas seriously and understand their fundamental characteristic: Some are true, others are only partly true, and still others are completely false.

Of course, to say that any ideas are false is heretical today because everyone’s ideas are considered automatically true. That notion is not only false—it offers a perfect example of the harm that false ideas can do.

The problem with believing all ideas are true is that it leads inescapably to another, equally false idea—that challenging someone else’s idea is gravely offensive—which leads, in turn, to a third false idea—that whoever challenges another person’s (or group’s) ideas deserves to be punished.

This sequence of errors has provoked the action known as “Cancelling,” which is defined as”withdrawing support for public figures and companies after they have done or said something considered objectionable or offensive” in order to hurt them personally and financially. Cancelling has been used in response to presidential communications (notably Trump’s tweets), congressional legislative actions, judicial opinions, socio-cultural/ political perspectives, and business, educational, and political programs.

Two examples of cancelling: The Skidmore College professor who was “boycotted for merely attending a pro-police ‘Back the Blue’ rally,’ without participating.” Someone circulated an email calling his attendance “hateful conduct” and urging students to drop out of his classes, which the majority of them then did. High School principal Barton Thorne, who was suspended for 6 weeks after questioning Big Tech’s control of information.

Other examples of cancelling include pressuring almost 20 companies to stop carrying Mike Lindell’s “My Pillow” products; calling for cancellation of Senator Josh Hawley’s book contract and the purging of numerous Dr. Seuss books from bookstores; demanding a boycott of of J. K. Rowling’s “Harry Potter” books and of Goya food products; and insisting that Fox News termimate the programs of Tucker Carlson, Sean Hannity, and Laura Ingraham. The broadest example of cancelling is the removal of American presidents’ names—including Washington, Jefferson, and Lincoln—from schools and other public buildings around the country.

As noted, the dangerous phenomenon known as “Cancel Culture” can be directly traced to the false view that all ideas are true. So it is fair to ask why people who hold that view would oppose any ideas.

The answer is this: The human ego naturally inclines us toward rejecting ideas that differ from our own. The traditional idea that any idea, including our own, could be mistaken had the effect of restraining our egos and encouraging tolerance. In contrast, the present idea that our ideas cannot be mistaken enhances our egos, discourages tolerance, and makes us angry with anyone who disagrees with us. The result is that however much we may accept in theory the idea that other people’s ideas are true, in practice we regard our own ideas as true and all others as not only false but intolerable. That perspective invites us to cancel them.

In a very few years, “Cancel Culture” has become one of the greatest threats in American history because it undermines the free exchange of ideas that is central to our political and social systems. The question is what can be done to end this threat and restore mutual respect? The first step is to stop basing our ideas on impressions and emotions and instead base them on evidence and careful reasoning. The second, equally important step is, even after we have thoughtfully formed a view, to remain alert for new evidence and be willing to change that view when appropriate.

Here is why these steps are important: The measure of an ideais not how passionately we feel about it, how long we have held it, or whether people we admire also hold it. We can embrace an idea for decades with every fiber of our being and cite dozens or hundreds of people whom we regard as brilliant who share that idea. Yet despite our absolute certainty, we may still be wrong. The reason is simple—all human beings are imperfect and even brilliant ones can be mistaken. If this fact is difficult to accept, consider this sports analogy—the highest career batting average in the history of baseball is Ty Cobb’s .366. That means that 60% of the time the best hitter in the history of baseball was at the plate, he failed to get a hit. It’s no different with thinking, where failure is not only possible; it is more than likely a good deal of the time.

The way to prevent or overcome social and political problems is the same for both Conservatives and Liberals. It is to set aside their bias for or against the idea in question, analyze it objectively, consider the consequences it will have (or has had), and decide whether it should be supported or opposed. The challenge of doing this is always greater for the side that is more intellectually invested in the idea. Conservatives tend to be more invested in time-honored ideas and more suspicious of change; Liberals tend to be more open to change and less invested in time-honored ideas. Therefore, the challenge of overcoming Cancel Culture is greater for Liberals.

Whether or not Cancel Culture is overcome will depend on Liberal’s ability to see the harm it is doing and join with Conservatives to restore intellectual tolerance.

Copyright © 2021 by Vincent Ryan Ruggiero. All rights reserved

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Vincent Ryan Ruggiero