As a human being, I am entitled to my goofy ideas–and boy, do I have a lot of them. I can’t help it. I have a brain, and it has to do something while it’s waiting for the teapot to boil. Some people think about knitting, some people think about sex, I tend to think about things far beyond the norm. Hey, I write science fiction, right? It’s kind of my job.
You have goofy ideas too–I know you do, because one of my goofiest ideas is that reality is to some extent knowable (which puts me two goofy steps out from the perspectives of certain Hindus and Buddhists I know personally), and in a universe this big the statistical likelihood of anybody actually having all the right answers to all the possibly questions is pretty much zero.
Still, it’s kind of rude to say someone has goofy ideas, isn’t it? Particularly when you use words with more bite than “goofy”–words like “screwy,” “stupid,” “false,” “questionable,” or worst of all, “wrong.” It rubs a lot of people the wrong way, like it’s contrary to the spirit of tolerance–or, maybe, it devalues the person who holds the goofy idea.
I think it’s quite the opposite. Without overstating methods, I humbly submit that recognizing that people have goofy ideas is the soul of tolerance and the backbone of civil society. As Douglas Adams observed, the universe is an unsettlingly big place, so most beings attempt to move somewhere smaller of their own devising. He tells the story of a curious race on the planet Hogloroon who live their entire lives in a small and crowded nut tree–the only Hogloroonians who ever leave the tree are those that are thrown out for the heinous crime of speculating whether any of the other trees might be capable of supporting life. He concludes the parable by saying:
“As exotic as this behavior may seem, there is no being in the universe who is not, in some way, guilty of the same thing.”
Through most of the world, throughout most of history, the proper and expected response to a person who trespasses upon your ideology has been to cast them out of the tree–and often to slit their throat or bash their head in before you throw them out. Even more important than family, the ideas you have about reality, morality, and knowledge are the things by which we demonstrate our belonging to certain groups.
The problem is, when ideas are this important, civil discourse is impossible. But when we can share ideas, our ideas (as Matt Ridley puts it) can have sex. They affect each other, and they allow us to do more extraordinary things than we could do alone. Libraries, Internet forums, twitter, and universities (where they don’t enforce idealogical conformity) are essentially idea brothels with an open orgy policy.
On the other hand, ideas really are important. As recent history demonstrates, the way we perceive reality severely restricts the courses of action and the kinds of creativity available to us (a six-day creationist will almost never make an important scientific discovery–the idealogical framework into which he’s invested is too restrictive, and the stakes for violating it are too high).
The genius of civil discourse is that we can separate the ideas from the people who hold them, even while understanding that some kinds of goofy ideas, which I’ll call “evil,” can damage or pervert the personalities of the people who hold them. We can let our ideas have sex, we can cull the herd of culture through conversation, and never feel so threatened that we must hurl someone else out of the tree. Sometimes we might be tempted, but we know through experience that we don’t have to do it. As long as someone’s actions and character comport with civility and a willingness to accept responsibility, we don’t ever have to throw them out of the tree. In fact, the goofiest ideas will often move their owner to jump out of the tree voluntarily, because the goofier an idea is, the more prone its owner is to feeling insecure.
In a universe this vast, we’re all bound to have goofy ideas. In a liberal society, when we don’t chose to jump out of the tree to find somewhere smaller of our own devising, we’re going to have acquaintances, or even friends, whose ideas we consider goofy, wrong, immoral, or truly evil.
I have a lot of friends like that. Because of the stridency and vociferous of many of my opinions (particularly in culturally sensitive areas), I’m fairly sure that some of those friends feel the same way about my ideas. But our ideas have sex anyway, because we recognize the fuzzy boundary between the idea and the individual.
And, so far as I can tell, we’re all enriched by the experience. So let’s embrace the Doctrine of Goofy ideas. Let’s argue Let’s fight. Let’s get into the boxing ring and duke it out–and then let’s go out for a drink afterwards. It is the most remarkable thing about our civilization, and this very minute it’s in the process of disrupting very old parts of the world.
I think that’s something worth celebrating.