Ideas as Viruses

Once upon a time, everybody is dragging shit around on the ground to get it from A to B, and then one smart person comes along and has the idea that if you fit a rod through the center of a disc, you can freely roll that disc along the ground, supporting any weight you want to lump on top.

The next day, the rate of self-reported back pain plummets to less than a third of what it was the day before. The idea spreads and soon everybody is making use of it.

Nobody would say that the person who first thought to put a rod through a stick ‘created’ the wheel, we all have the intuition that it was more of a discovery. After all, the wheel was discovered many many times, by different peoples, on different continents. If intelligent creatures never evolved on earth, the idea of the wheel would still remain, lifeless, formless. Yet all it takes for an idea to have a form is to pop into someone’s head, and for that person to share it with others.

Carl Jung said ‘People don’t have ideas, ideas have people’. If you’re left-wing, the image of a bible-bashing ‘murican shedding tears to the pledge of allegiance probably makes the concept seem very plausible. The archetype of a vegan feminist from Brunswick with dyed-red hair reciting slam poetry no doubt conjures the same intuition in people on the right.

The concept of ideas being lifeless things that imitate life through the minds of others sounds a lot like a virus. Viruses after all are lifeless particles whose propagation, viewed from a distance, is complex enough to consider it ‘alive’ as a whole. Nobody talks about Ebola as if it were a million lifeless particles who coincidentally shared genetic makeup. Ebola is a single force, acting upon the world. The language used to describe virus epidemics in the media is identical to that used for e.g. ‘Racism’ or ‘Communism’.

Once upon a time polio was a very big deal and at any given time, hundreds of thousands of people were paralyzed by the disease. We now have polio vaccinations nearly everywhere in the world and it very rarely shows up.

I can’t help but relate this to nations and ideas. Nazism took Germany by storm and caused the deaths of millions of people. And now if you were to go through the assigned reading list at any German school, you will find at least two books based on the atrocities of Nazi Germany. Likewise, The Gulag Archipelago, a book that describes the horrors of Communism under Stalin, is mandatory reading in Russian schools.

At the time, Communism and Nazism seemed like great ideas. Nazism pinned the ills of society on the Jews, Communism pinned it on the bourgeoisie. Ideas of the form ‘The cause of all our problems is <INSERT MINORITY HERE>’ are like ideological crack for the human mind. A lack of personal responsibility, tribal thinking, justification of violence, and a promise of a better tomorrow, all wrapped up in a single idea. Who wouldn’t jump on board? There was nothing biologically different about humans then compared to humans now. The same psychological vulnerabilities still exist, and like how our biological vulnerabilities to polio still exist, immunisation is required. By assigning these books to children, schools are vaccinating them against the idea so that they don’t fall for it later on in their life. That’s not to say all prescribed reading in schools are good vaccinations: I have a bad feeling North Korean prescribed reading is trying to immunise against ideas like individuality and freedom. But just like how the human body often has immune responses to the wrong things, so too can societies.

If we consider ideas to be ‘mental entities that spread from one person to another and can change the behaviour of a person’, there is no reason to stop the analogy at viruses. When reading up on the language used to describe the Ebola epidemic, I came across this quote by the white-house's Ebola Response Coordinator Rob Klain:

This won’t be done until we get all the way to zero.
It’s like a forest fire. A few embers burning and the thing can re-ignite at any time.

Which leads me to another analogy

Ideas as Fires

Perhaps you’ve said something that you thought was harmless in a private conversation, and somebody else has said ‘You can’t just say the N word!’. Or perhaps you’ve been on the other side of the fence where you had to remind somebody of how reckless use of language can have flow on effects that perpetuate structural oppression. Why do these two kinds of people always fail to meet eye-to-eye? Obviously certain people say offensive things because they just don’t care, and certain people try to censor others because they crave power, but I care about the people on either side of the freedom-of-speech fence who have actually put thought into where they stand and have good intentions. I think an analogy to fire can reconcile these two sides.

Every time you voice a dangerous idea, or say something which has a dangerous idea embedded in it, you are striking a match and throwing it on the ground. If you’re standing in Australian farmland during bushfire season, and you strike a match and throw it on the ground, anybody who sees you do it is right to go hysterical on you and berate you about how reckless you are. They would probably be right to assume you were an arsonist, and would probably be right to believe you deserve to be thrown in prison for placing other humans at risk.

If you believe that human minds are highly impressionable, and that bad ideas are capable of spreading like wildfire if people aren’t educated (immunised) to think critically and identify them as such, then you’re going to be the one going hysterical at the striking of a match. There are situations where the ideological landscape is undeniably ‘hotter’. Countries experiencing high unemployment, social unrest and dissatisfaction with the current government would under this model be considered ‘hot’, in that, for example, ideas of violent revolution can very quickly gain traction among the populace. When a government cracks down on freedom of speech, it is because they deem the ideological climate to be too hot to trust citizens to speak freely without igniting a violent overthrow.

As for the other perspective, the usual free speech advocate will argue something along these lines:

“Bad ideas need to be expressed publicly where they will lose the battle against good ideas. Humans are smart enough to be able to see two ideas pitted against eachother in honest debate and recognise which is the better idea.”

What happens when you have laws that forbid certain ideas from being voiced? People will still want to communicate their ideas, but as they can no longer do it out in the open, they do it in private where the good ideas aren’t around to win the fight, and the bad ideas can grow, until they end up manifesting as actual violence in the open.

This perspective views the ideological climate as, basically, Winter. If you strike a match out in the open when it’s the middle of Winter, and somebody goes hysterical on you, you’d think (rightly) that they were insane. The match would fizzle out because it can’t withstand the cold. Furthering the analogy: where do all the life-threatening fires start in the middle of Winter? Indoors. If you knew that ten percent of your population had an insatiable desire to strike matches wherever they were, you would rather they do it outside where there’s snow falling than inside where a fire actually has the ability to start.

It seems to me that the analogy works pretty well. The only issue is that people may as well be walking around both blind and lacking temperature perception, because we can’t reach a consensus on what ideological climate we’re actually living in. If it is indeed bushfire season, I think it makes sense for there to be laws against the voicing of dangerous ideas in the same way there are laws against arson. But if it is Winter, I think those same laws would cause more problems than they solve by protecting bad ideas from public debate. Obviously if somebody could hand me an excel spreadsheet doing the numbers on the extent to which censorship inadvertently creates dangerous echo chambers, and how impressionable every individual in Australia is on a scale of 1 to 10, this would all be a lot easier. But in the absence of conclusive data telling us which model is correct, the next best thing we can do is recognise our lack of certainty and try to understand where the people on the other side of the fence are coming from.

Not that I would ever tell you to jeopardise your beliefs by trying to really understand the beliefs of others, it’s just an idea.



Less and less certain of my opinions with every passing day

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