Dealing With Bad Ideas: Some Options

Censored section of Green Illusions by Ozzie ZehnerIn the first post in this series, I explained what I mean by "bad ideas," at least for the purpose of the series. I said that for now I am content to let us define them subjectively as nothing more than ideas we consider to be bad ones for whatever reason. They are things we do not like and would prefer not to exist at all (e.g., racism, creationism, climate science denial, the conviction that anyone who disagrees with certain bloggers is necessarily misogynistic).

In this post, I'll suggest that we have multiple options for dealing with bad ideas, including some designed to suppress their expression and some not aimed at suppressing them. But first, it is necessary to consider why anyone might favor the suppression of bad ideas.

Suppressing Bad Ideas

I'd like to begin by posing a question: Why would anyone seek to suppress bad ideas from being expressed? There are many reasons we might seek to do this, and some of them do not seem so bad at first glance. If you think about some of the bad ideas many of us consider to be toxic to society, it seems natural that we might want to suppress them. In fact, it might be challenging for us to imagine why some people would object to efforts aimed at suppressing certain ideas.

According to Mill:
There are, it is alleged, certain beliefs, so useful, not to say indispensable to well-being, that it is as much the duty of governments to uphold those beliefs, as to protect any other of the interests of society. In a case of such necessity, and so directly in the line of their duty, something less than infallibility may, it is maintained, warrant, and even bind, governments, to act on their own opinion, confirmed by the general opinion of mankind. It is also often argued, and still oftener thought, that none but bad men would desire to weaken these salutary beliefs; and there can be nothing wrong, it is thought, in restraining bad men, and prohibiting what only such men would wish to practise. This mode of thinking makes the justification of restraints on discussion not a question of the truth of doctrines, but of their usefulness; and flatters itself by that means to escape the responsibility of claiming to be an infallible judge of opinions.
Since he's referring to the duty of governments here, we might ask ourselves whether something like hate crimes legislation could fit here (i.e., situations where we have been willing to add even harsher penalties than crimes might otherwise carry because the offender said certain things during the commission of the crime). Who would possible object to such legislation? None but bad men and women, right?

Mill goes on to make it clear that many of the most significant barriers we face to freethought, the free expression of ideas, and a healthy democracy are not due to governmental restrictions and laws but to the application of various social pressures by citizens. When our government does not place excessive limits on bad ideas, we tend to pick up the slack and do it ourselves.

Now, can you think of any beliefs which are regarded by some atheists as being so indispensable that these atheists might feel justified in trying to suppress dissent or criticism of these ideas? I bet you can. And like Mill suggests, those who do this probably don't see themselves as suppressing the free expression of ideas at all. They might even mock those of us who attempt to raise the issue with phrases like "freeze peach" and other forms of derision. And why not? After all, only bad people would not share their point of view.

And so, it should not be difficult for us to imagine having the desire to suppress the expression of certain ideas we consider to be bad, toxic, counterproductive, or undermining of our goals. I suspect we have all been tempted at one time or another. And it should not be difficult to imagine feeling perfectly justified in this desire for those who would object must be bad people.

Some Options

Suppose that we encounter someone expressing a bad idea. It makes us uncomfortable, and we worry about how others might be affected by it. For whatever reason, we are concerned by something someone has said. What options are available to us? We have several. For example, we might:
  • Do nothing at all, perhaps recognizing that the feelings of offense, discomfort, or anger we feel do not necessarily entitle us to take any sort of action against another
  • Attempt to suppress the expression of the bad idea through legal prohibitions (e.g., blasphemy laws) or mob violence
  • Attempt to suppress the expression of the bad idea through the application of social pressures (e.g., public shaming, boycotts, shunning, trying to get the person who expressed the idea fired from his or her job)
  • Intentionally ignore the expression of the bad idea in the hope that depriving it of attention and the chance to create controversy will lessen its impact or hasten its demise
  • Thoughtfully consider the bad idea, recognizing that we might be incorrect in our appraisal of it as bad and seeking to determine whether it contains anything of value we might use to expand our perspective
  • Use the expression of the bad idea as an opportunity to publicly criticize and/or attempt to rebut the idea while providing reasonable alternatives
This brief list of options is not intended to be exhaustive. There are undoubtedly other options available to us. Moreover, these options are not necessarily mutually exclusive. We are not limited to selecting any one of them over the rest. We might, for example, start by considering the idea to determine if there is anything of value there, decide that there is not, publicly criticize and/or rebut it, and then opt to ignore it.

The options aimed at suppressing the expression of the bad idea is one that appeals to many, especially to many on the political left. But should we seek to suppress the expression of bad ideas or are do we lose something valuable by pursuing that goal? Perhaps there are better options for dealing with bad ideas. This is the question I'll plan to consider next. That is, should we seek to suppress the expression of bad ideas or are there better options for dealing with them?

For more on this topic, see Dealing With Bad Ideas: Problems With Suppressing Them.