Sunday, June 3, 2012

Ideas Are Dangerous

A quote, attributed to Dalton Trumbo:
It is difficult to support your belief in the inalienable right of man’s mind to be exposed to any thought whatever, however intolerable that thought might be to anyone else. Frequently such a right encroaches upon the right of others to live their lives. It was this inalienable right in Fascist countries which directly resulted in the slaughter of five million Jews.
The question of censorship is an interesting one. As that entire era of history made clear, both the Left and the Right censor and use it against each other. And the Church, of course, used to have its Index of Forbidden Books.

Honestly, I highly sympathize. Ideas are weapons as much as any bomb. Worse. They can be like computer viruses, except that infect human brains. Sometimes so thoroughly that there is no way to disinfect it, or to stop the virus from spreading other than through destroying (or, at least, absolutely quarantining) the brains so infected.

The idea that people have a "right" to be exposed, or to expose others, to any ideas whatsoever, no matter how dangerous or destructive to lives (and souls!) is just utter nonsense.

The practical application of such a theoretical admission is much trickier, however, as so often censorship has been used to forbid good ideas, to silence the Truth. As a practical matter, then, freedom of thought and freedom of speech are probably the lesser evil, as I am wary of trusting any human power or authority or institution to judge correctly what to forbid. Besides, in the end, what does the Truth ultimately have to fear? But I think it is a dangerous idea in itself to construct this arrangement as some sort of inalienable "right" rather than as simply a lesser of two evils.

In some ways, I think the Church once again provides a model. The Church's censorship was, in some sense, "voluntary." It said, "These books are dangerous, don't read them under pain of sin." But (at least late in history) there was no way to actually prevent people from reading them. No one was forcing you not to read the books on the Index, or burning them, by the 20th century. Rather, the Church provided a moral guidance/incentive to maintain purity of thought, but in a way that was not coercive in the same dangerous sense that the State would do it. This allows, I think, for enough flexibility to prevent abuse of that power, while still giving people the institutional support they need to police their own thoughts.

And police our own thoughts we must. Not just against concupiscent thoughts along the lines of the various capital vices, but most especially against the sin of doubt. Against dangerous ideas and philosophies that threaten Faith, that deconstruct the Truth in insidious manners, that can send one into a spiral of darkness ending in total dissolution of the foundations of thought itself.

But this takes discipline, and without institutional support most people simply don't have it as mere individuals once the collective dynamic collapses. Indeed, like life itself, and like civilization, Reason is an edifice that requires an incredible amount of energy to sustain itself against entropy. And when the elaborate structures of power needed to channel that energy and shape it into a united whole start to fall apart, the organism dies, the civilization collapses, or Reason itself decays into primeval mental chaos.

1 comment:

AGustavoG said...

Suppose we knew of a group of terrorists, located in a building across town, who were primed to set off an atom bomb within the minute that would kill millions in beautiful leafy Toronto. And supposed we possessed a missile that we could set off and blow up the building and the terrorists before they set off the bomb. Suppose doing this was the only way we had of preventing the atom bomb going off; that by doing this we would save millions of lives, even though we would kill by fire many innocents in the building we blew up. Wouldn't we be doing the right thing in killing by fire?
Now if I was an inquisitor, faced by a dangerously popular heretic spreading falsity abroad and drawing many of the faithful into the realm of untruth, a realm where they risked damning their eternal souls, and the only way I could get this heretic to stop misleading the faithful was by taking his life, (for I had tried many non-violent ways, but his eloquence and the allure of his false teaching successfully held out against my efforts), and to take his life in a manner cruel enough to discourage others from so misleading the faithful, would I not only be right to do so, but obliged to do so? For isn't the eternal life of one soul at least as important as the mere temporal lives of millions? Would I not be right to burn this unrelenting heretic? Just as I was right to burn some non-innocent and innocent to save the greater?
In other words, isn't it about time we stopped subordinating Truth to the "democratic principle"? Or are we obliged to let the devil have his way because it wouldn't be fair if the false did have the same guarantees as the true?