Ideas are not dangerous

Are ideas dangerous? I've been involved in online conversations lately with self-professed libertarians who have challenged even the consideration of certain concepts. Is there any sense in which merely talking and thinking about ideas poses a threat to oneself or others? What gives ideas their ability to do good or harm? Is there some psychic battlefield that people seek to control for its own sake?

It seems clear to me that there is no inherent danger in considering an idea. Are there any abstract ideas that, once thought of, cause damage? Some people may believe so, but only because they have a very strict and specific idea of mental hygiene (like Christians who talk about banning bad thoughts from one's mind).

But when people say an idea is dangerous, they mean that it causes people to act in a dangerous manner. Actions can, and often are, dangerous to life, limb, property, and social constructs, among other things. But an idea does not compel one to act. An abstract concept has no value other than a person's opinion of it. And that opinion will determine the action, not the idea itself.

When governments seek to inhibit the free flow of ideas, are they preoccupied with the particular thoughts that people have in their heads. Control of the mind is a means to an end, not an end in itself. What they're afraid of is the actions that such ideas might precipitate: actions that would threaten their rule.

Naturally, this is the very reason one should never be afraid to consider ideas: the wider variety of ideas you consider, the more thoroughly your inner mental model of the world is tested. If you limit yourself to only "safe" ideas that don't challenge your premises and beliefs sufficiently, you arbitrarily cut yourself off from an aspect of reality. Your approach to the world cannot be complete if you're not willing to consider all ideas, regardless of how radical, unpleasant, or silly.

We all reject certain ideas out of hand, of course; it's human nature to have preferences and biases. But if somebody's offended by the mere mention of certain ideas, that betrays a personal insecurity - not a defect in the idea. Ideas can only be dangerous to a person who is not in control of his own thoughts and actions. Many who call certain ideas "dangerous" are really saying that they don't trust themselves to intellectually manage themselves and use their own judgment. And it's hard to think for yourself, and advocate the freedom for others to, if you disregard the primacy of your own free will.

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Written on Tuesday, June 03, 2008