July 23, 2024

Ideas: Disagree and Die

What is it about people and their ideas that makes rejection so impossible to accept? We can’t touch an idea, hold it in our hands, or kiss it goodnight. What is so important that they are worth killing for?

It seems to me that there’s a fundamental failure in people’s thought processes that stems from not understanding how to think. For instance, if I were a Chinese person indoctrinated in the ways of Maoist Communism and I round a corner to be confronted with the sight of some foreign kids putting up a life-size placard of Mao wearing nothing but a yellow polka dot bikini and a painted-on curly-Q mustache, should I immediately:

  • A) Pull out my pistol and kill them where they stand
  • B) Laugh out loud and take a picture
  • C) Shake my head in disgust and walk away
  • D) Declare war on the punks’ nation, vow to burn to to the ground, and begin to organize murderous cells to infiltrate their country and create chaos

Actually, this is a trick question. The answer is “None of the above”. I shouldn’t do anything “immediately”. Instead I should reflect on the significance of what I’m seeing by:

  • Measuring the depth of my personal “injury”. How did this hurt me directly?
  • Estimate its direct effect on my way of life. How will this hurt my family, God, country, employer, etc.?
  • Consider the indirect effect of repressing the offensive action. Would life be improved, in the long run, by disallowing this act? What about the next thing that bothers me? And the next?

Most of the time we don’t make it past the first of these, let alone all the way to considering the bigger picture. And there are people who would find a poster of Mao in a G-string so enraging that they’d gun down a little old lady for pasting it on the side of a building or publishing it in a newspaper. While there may be valid aesthetic reasons for wanting to repress pictures of The Chairman’s corpulent girth, none are sufficient to require a violent response. A reasonable analysis of this situation should indicate that either B or C above could be valid given that my personal injury is slight or non-existent, that the poster is unlikely to result in the overthrow of the Communists in Beijing, and, most importantly, that repressing free expression in this case is one step down a slippery slope toward Papa Joe Stalin and his purges.

The fact that we don’t do this sort of analysis as often as we should implies a problem with our education. In other words, if people were taught how to think, as opposed what to think, it seems as though we would all make better decisions, achieve better outcomes, and live in a better world.

That said, even if we follow a logical, measured approach to decision-making, we can still get into trouble if we apply an incorrect value system during our analysis, no matter how faultless our logic. In fact it’s during the formation of our value systems that we’re most vulnerable to external influences. Because our values are largely impressed on us by outsiders during the first years of life, our individual definitions of right and wrong take on elements of our educators’, for better or worse.

Consider the case of a young girl raised soley by Anna Nicole Smith. Because environment has such a strong influence on young people, it’s quite likely that this girl would grow to adulthood believing that it’s OK to sleep with old rich men for money and to parade around on TV, fat and naked, cursing and smoking as she waddles into a hottub full of tatooed freaks waiting to get it on with her.

Applying this thankfully imaginary girl’s value system to a given scenario is going to yield a different result than that of most people. That’s a good thing, but illustrative of the point. As we’ve seen in recent years, there are far worse value systems in the world than ANS’, hard as it is to believe at times.

Yet, my value system is simply a thought pattern like any other. It can be examined, questioned, and changed if its found to be in error. It can be, if I know how to think for myself. Sadly, generating this ability is not the strong suit in American education, let alone that of the Middle East. But it should be a primary outcome of the educational process.

Let’s assume that a person – say, for argument’s sake, a backwards southerner active in the KKK – is able to turn the looking glass of analysis on his value system. How can Billy Bob establish the validity of those values? Against what should they be measured? And who should do the measuring?

Billy, our imaginary redneck, hates black people, and he has ever since his daddy gave him the “porch monkey” talk twenty years before. But he’s summoned the moral fiber to question that belief. One way he could evaluate that principle is against current public opinion. If 60% of Americans believe interracial marriage is OK, is that sufficient evidence of his error? What about 90%?

Another way would be to fall back on the law. Legal acts are generally sanctioned by Billy Bob’s peers, so the law can act as a guideline of sorts. But laws are transitory and subject to governmental whimsy and general porkbarrel politics. They can’t always be relied on to create justice and Billy, like almost all of us, knows that.

The precursor of law is the rules the country is based on. In America, that’s the Constitution, its amendments, and, behind these principles, the Bible. Where things can get ticklish in using these tools is that Billy has to understand what he’s reading to make use of them. To do this he will often rely on other folks from town to help him understand what is meant by the words on the page. The problem here is obvious: whoever helps Billy read the Good Book is inevitably going to put his/her emphasis and interpretation on the words. This can be good or bad but reduces Billy’s individual judgment in either case.

A real teacher shows us how to think and tells us as little as possible about what to think. Only by following this principle can Billy come to understand what he reads for himself and , eventually, after sufficient understanding is gained, remove his teachers’ bias from what he’s been told.

Just for fun, let’s apply this principle to events in the Middle East. Governments there are often dominated by religious figures who are looked up to as leaders, prophets, and teachers. But unlike real teachers, their objective is often to tell their disciples exactly what to think. Dissent is ill-advised as their divine spirituality is complimented by the all-to-earthly steel of the sword; disagreement often leads Hassan, Billy’s Middle Eastern analogue, to the grave.

So how can Hassan, an Iranian boy, come to understand his own understanding of the world and actively change his perspective on things he comes to realize are incorrect? For many men and women like him, this change may not be as hard as we think. Humans are questioners, it’s what we do. As more and more information makes its way into Hassan’s hands, he’ll automatically question the things he’s doing and the things the leaders of his country are doing. He will come to want to be able to ask these questions out loud and to hear what his friends’ questions are. He’ll come to want to provide his own answers, too.

Suppose, however, that Hassan’s tough, thoughtful self-analysis leads him to the conclusion that the American occupation of Iraq must be repeled at all cost to himself? That his firends, cousins, and neighbors must be organized in rebellion and take to the streets, guns in hand, to hurl the invaders from Islamic soil? Is there anything inherently wrong with this belief? Perhaps.

Hassan’s values are only less valid than mine to the extent that they involve the death and destruction of those he disagrees with. If he is offended by America’s presence in Iraq, rallies his forces, and ousts the pro-American government via the Constitutional process, then his actions are valid. If he leaves Iraq to live in Iran and lives a peaceful life there, that is valid as well. From an ethical perspective, if Hassan is willing to live peacefully with his neighbors, his dislike of them is acceptable; if not, he should move into a situation in which he can find people of like mind and live in relative harmony with them.

In this, nation-states and their borders, immigration rules, and political leadership are often a hindrance. Using Hassan and his Islamic faith as an example, his people should have a place to go where they can live among those like themselves and, should they desire it, minimize or even cut themselves off from western influence. His right to ignore us cannot be denied, can it? This is obvious, yet here again nation-states create a barrier between what is and what should be.

This is because nations have a perverse sort of institutional pride that keeps them, like our local fools who parade around with the KKK, from examining situations objectively and acting in the interests of the people involved. We can see that in Iraq/Turkey in regards to the Kurds. Why should these people not have a united region or nation to call their own? They should, and would, but for the hubris of the governments involved.

It comes down to pride, in the end. The pride of Turkey won’t allow it to give up the territory the Kurds live in – their borders mean too much to them. Think of the Basques in Spain and our own Civil War as well. Is it necessary to force outside government on unwilling people? Isn’t the purpose of government to gather like-minded people in a common defense? But governments, once created, take on a life of their own. They forget the purpose for their formation, the source of their power, and imagine that their ideas are the only valid ones.

Similarly, America’s battle with Islam isn’t about religion, it’s about thoughts and which ones should be allowed to exist. Theirs is a narrow view, ours more expansive. Man’s curious, questioning nature will inevitably prefer our point of view and, in time, most will come to adopt it. But those who don’t should still have a place of their own that’s outside of our influence.


Marc is a software developer, writer, and part-time political know-it-all who currently resides in Texas in the good ol' U.S.A.

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