What does it take to eradicate an idea?

Ideas, once created, do not die easily. About twenty-five hundred years ago the ancient Greeks proved that the Earth was a sphere. Eratosthenes even calculated the circumference of this sphere. Since then the Earth has been circumnavigated countless times and been photographed from orbit and from the moon. It is clear beyond any doubt that the Earth is, in fact, a sphere. Yet the idea that the Earth is flat still remains and is defended by a very real Flat Earth Society. Mythology going back to ancient Egypt is still alive and well in the Summum Church. I still find myself bewildered by those who refuse modern medical treatment, preferring ancient herbal remedies against often extreme illnesses. Regardless of our social and cultural evolution even the most outrageous ideas are still alive, if only in a small knot of the population.

It makes sense. Once an idea is developed and disseminated throughout a population through language and symbolism it develops a very robust vitality. Add on other cultural elements and institute this idea into active populations and you are looking at something that is very vital. Once an idea is reified, or normalized and naturalized, within a population it becomes the lens through which reality itself is viewed. So long as adherents remain who accept the reified elements of an idea and socialize them into the next generation the idea itself will survive if only in small, holdout populations or as foundational elements of other knowledge.

The advent of new and even better ideas is not enough to eradicate the old. The eradication of an idea cannot be accomplished through debate and illuminating discourse. It’s not good enough to merely disprove an idea, even if that idea has no valid foundation at all. If the idea has been reified it will survive even the most acute and exacting proof to the contrary. People become invested in their ideas. To suggest that they change may actually require people to abandon their own sense of reality. This is especially true when ideas are the foundation of institutions with significant power investments, such as religions or political parties. To eradicate the idea means upending the institutional framework itself.

Ideas are, in a very real sense, well nigh impossible to eradicate. This may be exasperating to those of us who actively strive to institute social change and see ourselves as working toward a more just and free society. Antiquated ideas, like those that define a “woman’s place,” are frustratingly tenacious. On the other hand, if beliefs and their associated norms and values were as malleable as some of us may want society could be too unstable, unpredictable and normless.

Despite this, attempts have been made to eradicate ideas considered or constructed as dangerous. The Roman Empire tried on a number of occasions to destroy the dangerous concept of Christianity through persecution and execution. Christian churches were largely successful in wiping out indigenous, pagan beliefs—largely, but not completely. Of course, there are the infamous modern attempts to suppress ideas in Nazi Germany, manifest in Kristallnacht, book burnings and the final solution, and in the Soviet Union, represented in the gulags. Regardless, blatant policies of eradicating ideas always involve oppression and even violence. Eliminating ideas through knowledge and illumination is rare. After all, there are still those who insist that the earth is flat. (The concept of bodily humours comes to mind as an idea that died through atrophy though I’m certain if I look hard enough I’ll find it’s not so dead). So when paranoids like Glenn Beck suggest that an idea, especially a well established idea like progressivism, should be eradicated, this pronouncement should be immediately followed with an explanation of what eradication entails.

To eradicate an idea the rights of individuals to speak and to freely access information and personal networks that perpetuate these ideas must also be eradicated. Adherents to the offending ideas must be completely silenced, because mere discrediting will not suffice. Outright brutality must be brought to bear on those who would perpetuate an idea, and even then the idea will be perpetuated if only in secret.
Eradicating ideas requires some combination of the following:

  1. Attacking the ideas directly as being illegitimate or, most likely, a threat.
  2. Delegitimizing and dehumanizing those who hold these ideas.
  3. Censorship of the offending ideas.
  4. The denial of rights for and/or violence against those who hold the offending ideas.

Attacking ideas directly is not the same as debating and disproving. In fact, it has nothing to do with the relative validity of the ideas being attacked. To attack an idea the claim must be made that the belief system constitutes a threat or some malicious intent. An idea may be defined as being un-American, or unpatriotic—or seditious. The first Sedition Act in the United States was passed under the Adams administration just seven years after the ratification of the Bill of Rights. In the 20th century the Wilson administration signed into law the Espionage Act aimed at curtailing dangerous ideas against the war effort. Charles Schenck was imprisoned under this act for speaking out against the draft. The famous jurist Oliver Wendell Holmes defined Schenck’s ideas as a “clear and present danger” akin to shouting “fire” in a crowded theater. Three time presidential candidate Eugene V. Debs was put in jail for speaking out against US entry into World War I among other dangerous ideas.

After World War I the US Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer and his assistant, J. Edgar Hoover concocted a Red Scare that lead to the arrests of thousands of innocent people who happened to be adherents of these dangerous ideas. According to Palmer, “The whole purpose of communism appears to be the mass formation of the criminals of the world to overthrow the decencies of private life, to usurp property, to disrupt the present order of life regardless of health, sex or religious rights.” Hundreds of radical thinkers, like Emma Goldman, were deported while others, including the Nobel Peace Prize winning Jane Addams, were placed under surveillance.

Later, the US House of Representatives instituted the House Un-American Activities Committee, a government body dedicated to stamping out the dangerous ideas of communism. It succeeded in bullying and largely silencing some of America’s greatest talents, including Arthur Miller, Dalton Trumbo, Richard Wright and Pete Seeger. HUAC became the model later used by Senator Joseph McCarthy to achieve his ends by suggesting that the United States was being invaded from within. “The reason why we find ourselves in a position of impotency is not because the enemy has sent men to invade our shores, but rather because of the traitorous actions of those who have had all the benefits that the wealthiest nation on earth has had to offer – the finest homes, the finest college educations, and the finest jobs in Government we can give.”

So when men like Glenn Beck suggest that ideas they don’t like are a “cancer” that must be “cut out” and “eradicated” they are echoing a long line of fear mongering and of stifling the environment of thought in the United States.

From delegitimizing ideas it is not a far leap to delegitimize the people who hold these ideas. Really, the only way to really stop an idea is to silence people. That was the function of the Sedition Act of 1798 and the Espionage Act of 1917. The Palmer Raids and HUAC, McCarthy and the blacklists were efforts to intimidate those with so called dangerous ideas. For those who could not be bullied, there was deportation, exile and imprisonment—even death. In the case of Sacco and Vanzetti, the fear associated with their radical ideas was instrumental in their death sentence.

One heart-wrenching example of the destructive potential of trying to destroy ideas comes from US policies toward native peoples. The expansion westward created for Americans an “Indian problem.” Native people were defined as savages, and their culture as inferior to, even in the way of, Euro-American culture. Indigenous Americans were routinely invaded, killed and removed from their homes and exiled into reservations. Native people often resisted, and resisted violently. In many cases they resisted brutally. To suggest, however, that perhaps Native people had a right to defend their homes and their cultures was not a legitimate idea. American response to such Indian resistance was reflected in the observation of General Phillip Sheridan that “the only good Indian is a dead Indian.” Despite the US government repeatedly betraying promises and treaties with Indian tribes, the term “Indian giver” remains a euphemism for those who go back on their word.

Once defeated and exiled onto dependent reservations the most invasive attacks on Native American ideas began. The Dawes Act mandated that native people abandon their communal lifestyles and take up property ownership like good Americans. In the meantime the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) mandated that native people give up their languages, rituals, religions. Native American children were taken from their parents and sent to boarding schools where their cultural identities were suppressed and replaced with appropriate, white American ideals. The first of these boarding schools was founded by an army officer named Richard Pratt. Pratt summarized his goals by saying, “all the Indian there is in the race should be dead. Kill the Indian in him, and save the man.” Native children were given Euro-American names, not allowed to speak their native languages, denied practice of native rituals and forced conversion into Christianity. This was a concerted effort to destroy the ideas and identities of many cultures.

In 1889 a Paiute shaman named Wovoka had a vision. In this vision it was revealed that the land would be restored to the Indian people, the fertile soil restored and the great herds reborn. The white man would disappear if the native people everywhere performed a great Ghost Dance. The Ghost Dance movement spread rapidly through Lakota country. This was a non-violent movement aimed at restoring native culture. Weapons were not allowed during the Ghost Dance. However, Ghost Dance was also defined by white Americans as a dangerous idea that had to be “cut out.” To a certain extent, this is understandable as the premise of the Ghost Dance was the “eradication” of the white race. But this eradication, however, was to be divine intervention, not a human revolution. Leaders associated with the Ghost Dance were targeted for arrest. Among them the great Sioux Chief Sitting Bull who was killed in an attempt to take him into custody. The fear and ignorance of a minority of white settlers that the Sioux were “dancing” lead directly to the Massacre of Wounded Knee.

The process of eradicating ideas is not just a rhetorical construct. It has very real and terrible human consequences. I could go on with the stories. The bottom line is that in all of the history I’ve studied throughout the years I’ve not found one instance in which an idea was “eradicated” without the denial of basic rights and even violence. Some ideas die from atrophy as they become irrelevant in process of cultural and historical change. This is not the result of an open attempt to eradicate these ideas, but rather a social evolutionary process.

In all of the history I’ve studied there has only ever been one “cancer” on any society. That cancer is fear. But the cure for this particular form of social cancer is not “eradication” or some brutal process of “cutting out,” the offending idea. The cure is reason. Fear is stoked by ignorance. Only those who are ignorant of history and philosophy can be motivated by fear. It is incumbent upon us to meet ignorance with knowledge and understanding.

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