Monday, June 04, 2012

Dangerous ideas (4)

Trying to suppress “dangerous ideas” is of all times. In my last blog I wrote about a recent case. One of the first known cases in history is the process against Socrates. Socrates was sentenced to death among other things because he introduced new gods and had a bad influence on the youth. Galileo had to retract his idea that the earth circles the sun, because it conflicted with the ideas the Roman Catholic Church had about the world order. In 1674 Montaigne’s Essays were placed on the Index, although when Montaigne visited Rome in 1581 and had to show all books in his luggage to the authorities, the Essays passed the censor and he got only a few advices for changing the text here and there (which he didn’t). This raises the question: What is a dangerous idea? For, to take the example of Montaigne, what wasn’t dangerous in 1581, was considered to be so a century later, at least by some (the book was still legally for sale in England, for instance, but not in France).
Actually, the answer to the question is quite complicated. In order to keep it simple, one could agree with Steve Pinker (and many others on the Internet with the same view), who writes: “By ‘dangerous ideas’ I don’t have in mind harmful technologies, like those behind weapons of mass destruction, or evil ideologies, like those of racist, fascist, or other fanatical cults. I have in mind statements of fact or policy that are defended with evidence and argument by serious scientists and thinkers but which are felt to challenge the collective decency of an age.” (quoted from hereBut if one would agree with this, why then fight against nazism or a rogue state that wants to have an A-bomb, if the ideas they propagate aren’t dangerous? What then is a good reason for fighting them, if it is not for their ideas? Okay, we could say: because of their consequences. But then I’ll ask: the consequences of what? The consequences of the ideas, of course, that lead to dangerous behaviour. Just for their consequences these ideas are considered dangerous. If the call for democracy and freedom wasn’t dangerous for the Syrian regime, the leading clique wouldn’t shoot down peaceful demonstrators. All this shows that what is seen as dangerous depends on on which side you are.
Nevertheless, there is some – or even much – truth in what Pinker says. Many ideas are or can be seen as dangerous, but when we talk of “dangerous ideas” we usually have something different in our minds: We (implicitly) take the position of the established political order and consider these ideas as subversive and so dangerous for this order. And this can go quite far, as we have seen in my last blog. For even the ideas of widely praised persons, national heroes honoured with special days and statues can still be seen as dangerous, although they are just praised and honoured because of these ideas and their consequences. But it’s so double, for on the one hand authorities (even democratic authorities) still see civil disobedience and nonviolence as dangerous (see the case in my last blog and there are many cases to add), but on the other hand they don’t believe in it (despite the recent success of nonviolent resistance in Tunisia and Egypt and a lot of older cases). For who has ever heard of states that support nonviolent resistance in other countries, while cases of states that support violent resistance in other countries abound? It’s so contradictory: as if an idea can be true and false at the same time.

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