It seems that we can’t even go a few days in the Maldives without something terrible happening. Maldivians, of course, will know that I am referring to the murder of blogger and activist Yameen Rasheed. I’m not going to go into the details of everything that has happened, suffice to say that:
- All decent Maldivians are outraged
- The police, as usual, are being incompetent (suggesting complicity)
- The government is being quite hush-hush (also suggesting complicity)
I won’t comment on Yameen’s case specifically, partly because there is so much information out there and partly because the nature of these events (and the resulting reaction from the public) makes it almost impossible to form an opinion that’s grounded entirely on facts. Also, I did not know him as well as a lot of other people out there, and I don’t want to be insincere or offensive.
What I will comment on, is the broader picture of certain groups trying to silence other groups. I will talk about the nature of ideas, how ideas come into conflict with each other, how they become attached to individual and collective identities, how some people want to keep bad ideas alive, and the best way to destroy ideas.
Let us begin.
An idea is simply a thought, mental impression or belief. Ideas fall into the broader category of memes, which are “ideas, styles or behaviours that spread from person to person within a culture”. In this post, we will be talking about ideas within the context of memetics, which is basically the theory of how ideas move from person to person, and how they evolve during these transfers.
(Fun fact: the word “meme” was coined by Richard Dawkins in 1976, and it has a very different meaning now than it did originally, which is kind of ironic.)
In memetics, an idea is analogous to a gene, but for those who haven’t studied biology, it may be easier to think of ideas as living creatures in their own right. They are born in the minds of humans (and other animals), and they can spread to other minds through various media, including language and actions.
Successful Ideas VS Strong Ideas
In memetics, the main concern is with how successful ideas are, rather than how true or valid they are. Success is measured by the number of minds into which an idea manages to enter and propagate itself. If you want your idea to be successful, you need to get it into as many minds as possible.
You can immediately see why the most successful ideas are not necessarily the best ones. You can tell something stupid to millions of people, but it is still stupid. For this reason, we also need to consider the validity or quality of ideas when talking about how they move from person to person. An idea’s validity/quality is related to what I will call its “strength”, which is the extent to which it stands up against logic, reasoning and scrutiny. In other words, a strong idea is one that is very hard to attack because it is based on solid foundations, or, continuing with the animal analogy, it has the ability to protect itself from predators.
You would think that the strongest ideas automatically become the most successful ones as they kill off weaker ideas in a fight for the limited space inside people’s minds. This would be true if it weren’t for the weird relationships that people usually develop with their ideas, which we shall explore now.
Ideas in Conflict
Like animals, ideas come in all shapes and forms, and like animals, ideas compete with each other. With all the ideas out there that we have come up with to try to make sense of our world, it is inevitable that some of those ideas will contradict each other and hence, will compete with each other. If this competition were allowed to take place without any interference, the strongest ideas would become the most widespread.
However, there are two main sources of interference which prevent this from happening. First there are individuals who become so attached to ideas that they become overprotective of them. I’ll call this group “ideas-as-identity people”. Second, there are people who have a vested interest in keeping bad ideas alive even though they know them to be bad. I’ll call this group “ideas-as-interest people”.
Let’s explore the way both of these groups work.
Ideas as Identity
Once an idea has made a home for itself in a human mind, it begins to influence the human. Depending on the nature of the idea, this influence could range anywhere from barely noticeable, to an extremely obvious personality/behaviour change. It is towards the end of more noticeable influences where people begin to associate ideas with who they are as a person. Once an idea becomes an identity, people will protect that idea as though it is their very soul. Anything that is seen as a threat to the idea is treated like a threat to them as a person.
In some cases, a particular idea unites a group of people and they begin to see that idea as essential to their collective identity. Again, anything that threatens the idea threatens the group, so any competing ideas must be avoided.
Within the ideas-as-identity group, bad ideas survive due to wilful ignorance. And although this is unfortunate, I don’t think it’s inherently morally wrong to keep yourself ignorant. For this reason, I’m ambivalent about these people. But I’m not so sure about the next group.
Ideas as Interest
The people in this group are a lot more logical than those in the first group. They know that ideas and identities are separate things. However, if there is a particular idea which serves their interest (it allows them to gain money/power/influence, for example), they will do whatever they can to keep that idea alive, even though they are aware that there are better ideas out there.
So this group needs to keep everyone else ignorant. They do this by destroying any ideas out there that are stronger than their ones. What exactly does this entail?
(Here’s where I get to the point.)
How to Destroy Ideas
If you have a vested interest in keeping an idea alive when you know there are several infinitely better ideas out there, you’ve got your work cut out for you. If one of those better ideas makes it into the mind of even one person, you risk losing everything.
First you need to make sure there’s no way that unapproved ideas can even make it into the populace. Create a system where people do not have access to information. Or, even better, give people the illusion that they have access to information, when in reality you’re just reinforcing your ideas.
Next, you need make sure that society is filled with ideas-as-identity people. That way, if anyone happens to come across any better ideas, they won’t want to accept them. This takes a lot of effort as you have to drill this into people when they are very young, but it goes a long way to maintaining the status quo.
But what if a strong idea that’s better than yours manages to make it past both your first and second lines of defence? How do you get rid of the idea then?
Well…here’s the twist: If you want to keep things the way they are, there’s nothing you can do. You cannot destroy an idea unless it’s with another idea. And you already know that your idea is weak.
Having said that, there’s one thing that you absolutely should not do under any circumstances in your quest to destroy ideas, and that is destroying people. Getting rid of people does not get rid of their ideas. In fact, it only proves how weak your ideas are. Oddly enough, most people don’t realise this. And this is what has happened many times in the recent history of the Maldives.
I intentionally didn’t give any examples of the things I talked about, because I’m sure you can think of a few for yourself. What groups are there in the Maldives that are not open to new ideas? What groups are there that don’t want others to be exposed to different ideas? What weak ideas are widespread in the country? How are those ideas used to push certain agendas? What systems are in place that prevent people from questioning things? More importantly, what can we do to ensure we don’t lose out freedom of thought?
I don’t have all the answers, but hopefully I’ve made a meaningful contribution to the discussion.