The Harvest of Ideas

If we are to progress as a species, we need to understand differentiation. And this lies in attributing respect, rights and sympathy to the right sphere in an individual. If anything, humans are so made to resemble a snow man, with various massive parts that fit together in a semblance of form. Rolled into one, we thus view this whole-person as a thing to be respected.

But this view is wrong.

A fundamental error in our dealings comes from this fallacious view. Because our ideas and opinions are also part of what constitutes our individuality. And ideas are powerful enough to move mountains, given time for ripeness, fruition and actualisation. The petals to reality open to the light of reason and are justified accordingly to truth. Yet we forget that the ideas, the nectar from the fruits, need not be accorded rights and liberties and respect.

We need to be able to criticise every idea and scrutinise every opinion. Perhaps we can even add that no idea should be respected, given rights and treated with sympathy. If we are to understand this position, I need only point out the undue irrationality that this poison fruit is ripe for. In the garden of bad ideas, the flies always drift to this one.

Things like “blasphemy” or “non-Christian” or “non-Muslim” views are in this area. Religious ideas are cloistered within a sacred, pure garden and any outsider trespassing with his dirty feet, soiled hands and hardened eyes will ruin that sanctity. But no such place exists. The realm of ideas is constantly under growth and change and to consider otherwise is to live in delusion. Every idea should be under scrutiny, every thought should be liable to disagreement, every conceptual position should be amenable to change. “Sceptical scrutiny,” wrote Carl Sagan, “is the means by which deep insights can be winnowed from deep nonsense.”

Because many of us continue to harbour the belief that certain ideas dwell within the garden of purity, living by the flickering light of faith, we do undue harm by the truckload. We should all be the dirty, unkempt traveller into garden unknown, into territory long hidden to us. The acquisition of knowledge is one of the greatest things for any human.

But to treat those ideas and opinions with respect is unjustified.

Let us look at two polarised examples: The ideas in shari’ah law that women are given the status, in courts, of being only half-a-man; and the ideas and opinions of great humanists, respect, love, compassion, and so on.

In the first place, we can say the idea that women are inferior to men is a pretty stupid one. We can formulate arguments for this, and writers better than myself have done so (from the great John Stuart Mill to Simone de Beauvoir, though take her with a pinch of salt). Nonetheless, this is an idea we can criticise, look at sceptically and so on. Our desire to show that this idea is flawed can give rise to discussions on the brain, on the differences inherent in women and men and so on. This can only further our knowledge and be a good thing. This shows that whilst we do not respect the idea of treating women as inferior, it does give rise to knowledge because of the inevitable outcome of scepticism, scrutiny and critical analysis.

That was a soft target and one we can all agree is a silly one. But we can see that by looking at an idea critically, no matter how apparently backward, it does give rise to further knowledge.

Now, in this second instance, let us take the humanists’ view. Many, including myself, advocate free-speech, compassion, respect, reason, helping one’s fellow man in any way and so on. But here’s the essence of what I’m saying: Even these, I do not want you to respect! Why should you have to respect these ideas of mine? Saying that just because Bertrand Russell, AC Grayling, and Paul Kurtz express these views is an appeal to authority. Yet they have ideas which I (and which everyone should) endorse.

But just because we endorse a view does not repudiate it from criticism. If anything, we should constantly be challenging our notions of compassion, looking critically at what constitutes respect (which prompted me to write this article in the first place!); we should challenge how we can help others; we must look sceptically at free-speech (for example, does writing an article which calls black people defamatory names warrant banning?). We are constantly under self-scrutiny – even though these ideas must sound pleasing to the average person, they need not be respected.

They are just ideas.

By showing you polarised ideas, I hope I’ve demonstrated that ideas never need respecting. What does respect mean in this arena? Let us look at all the definitions that Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary provides and juxtapose them with the bad and good idea I provided. The Bad Idea in this case is the idea (or view) that women are inferior to men; the Good Idea is the idea that people are worthy of compassion.

1 : a relation or reference to a particular thing or situation ‹remarks having ~ to an earlier plan›
2 : an act of giving particular attention : consideration
3 a : high or special regard : esteem b : the quality or state of being esteemed c pl: expressions of respect or deference ‹paid our ~s›
4 : particular detail ‹a good plan in some ~s›
– in respect of chiefly Brit: with respect to : concerning
– in respect to : with respect to : concerning
– with respect to : with reference to : in relation to

2respect vt (1560)
1 a : to consider worthy of high regard : esteem b : to refrain from interfering with ‹please ~ their privacy›
2 : to have reference to : concern regard

We can dismiss the first instances as a noun (for example: “with respect to Einstein’s equations, it seems this is wrong…”). This is synonymous with “consideration”. Now with regards to definition 3, we can safely say ideas do not warrant high or special regard. Be it the Good Idea of humanistic freedom and treatment; or the Bad Idea of viewing women as inferior. Both are ideas to be criticized. We might be a little surprised to find that even ideas we endorse are not worthy of high regard. But I think that is to miss the point, as one can hold still something in high regard but treat it critically.

Consider: Even when it comes to those are ideas we find good, incredible, or beautiful. Daniel Dennett considers Darwin’s idea of evolution by natural selection incredible, calling it Darwin’s Dangerous Idea:

If I were to give an award to the single best idea anyone has ever had, I’d give it to Darwin, ahead of Newton and Einstein and everyone else … My admiration for Darwin’s magnificent idea is unbounded, but I, too, cherish many ideas and ideals that it seems to challenge, and want to protect them. [There are many ideas that] may need protection. The only good way to do this – the only way that has a chance in the long run – is to cut through the smokescreens and look at the idea as unflinchingly, as dispassionately, as possible.

Dennett, as always, hits the nail on the head. I, too, love Darwin’s ideas on some things; I adore Dennett’s ideas, opinions and eloquence. I am enraptured by the awe and wonder of the beauty of the cosmos, as espoused by Carl Sagan, Richard Dawkins and Peter Atkins. I enjoy being challenged by the ideas of Blaise Pascal, Einstein, Hawking. Ideas are there, growing in the fertile ground of the human mind. The fruit they bear is one which we can harvest or throw away – but we need to take the fruit, look at it critically, pressing our fingers into all its parts, and check it for rot or worms instead of simply throwing it into our baskets for immediate consumption.

This is my only plea: That we learn to look at all our ideas, opinions and viewpoints and realise:

(1) We are fallible, therefore our ideas are too.
– Every generation thinks it has the best morals and looks disdainfully at its past: Racism, misogyny, etc. “My goodness we would never incorporate those things as public policy!” we think now (not so in South Africa, only two decades ago). Yet, what will our children and our grandchildren think of some of the ideas we cherish? Perhaps the humanistic endeavor is fraught with lurid attempts at happiness, which will only be shown in the distant future.

(2) We can love and cherish ideas, but it does not mean we must respect them.
– You need not respect my ideas for fighting for equal human rights, over and above religious authoritarian views. But it should not be a crass dismissal; it should be intelligently answered and not dismissed with a snide-aside.

Thus, whilst I do think the idea of “women or non-whites as inferior” is a stupid idea, I can safely say why I think so and have no respect for that idea. Similarly, you can think my ideas are stupid and have no respect for it. Indeed, I hope you do not have an ounce of respect for any of the ideas I proclaim in this article! By looking at them dispassionately, but by treating each other as equal members of the human species, we progress.

This does not mean emotions are gone, or feelings. I am not stating we become robots marching to the drone of a flat-lined heart. It is in the defense of humanity that my view of ideas as open to criticism thrives. How many of us share opposing ideas, yet can embrace, love, and sit comfortably with another?

Ideas treated as they should be – as simply ideas – only add to our humanity. Treating ideas as if they were people in fact dehumanizes us. It is by liberating ideas from the conglomerate of the human individual that, in fact, we can locate the human to whom we owe respect, admiration and accord rights and liberties.

If one considers that ideas are “sacred”, it seems to minimize the central importance of us as humans: Ideas are not sacred, our lives and our existence are. It is for other people I would die and never ideas. How many of us would die for the ideas of Einstein? But how many would defend to the death our families? The sooner we start separating ideas from people, severing the immaterial from the mortal, the sooner we can come into full growth. One can consider ideas as vines that must be severed for the tree to stand tall against the light of compassion. Once we have severed the vines, we can hold them in our heads and treat them to the scrutiny they deserve. Let us place humanity before humanity’s ideas and never again equate the two.

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