I owe this post directly to ideas raised in Rian Hughes’ amazing novel XX. Basically you need to gird your loins, find a comfortable reading chair and dive in – because it’s worth your time in ideas alone.
Gushing praise aside. Are you a believer in memes? I don’t mean this in the sense of this kind of thing. I mean in the Dawkins sense of the phrase. Indeed, as much as I think Dawkins is a loathsome man, the idea of memes as cultural genes looking to reproduce and drive meaning through a substrate which can support them (i.e. brains) is one which is very popular among a certain section of popular thinking.
I’m not a meme true believer. I think the very idea is pretty easily rebutted unless you broaden out the idea of ‘the survival of the fittest’ to such huge landscapes it effectively becomes a meaningless self-congratulatory platitude.
However. Ideas are interesting things. Philosophically, if we can avoid the onanism which tends to accompany debates around subject such as ideas by people who get paid to think about ideas for a living then there’s some rich and insightful ideas there for us to luxuriate in.
The question for me today is pretty narrow though – can an open society develop protective measures against ideas and trends which would harm it (even potentially leading to its downfall)?
To answer this question we have to make a number of assumptions – the first of which, and easily the most important, is that ideas can exist independently of people. You might say this is obviously true – books being the most easily raised example. I would suggest that’s kind of like asking if a tree falls in a forest does it make a sound? If there are not people to define what a sound is then the answer is no – there is no sound, because no creature who does experience the waveforms we might call sound would articulate they heard anything. If a book exists and no one’s reading it, do the ideas in that book cease to exist?
Let’s assume they continue to exist.
The second assumption here is ideas compete with one another for supremacy. I think this one is even more tenuous. Is there such a thing as a stand alone idea? Gravity you might say, or being alive, or the taste of chocolate or wanting to avoid pain or looking after our children. Each of the preceding statements is easy to express but they are hardly self contained concepts. Gravity requires an entire education in maths and physics to grasp. Wanting to avoid pain – a common enough motivation (is it an idea?) is one which needs to be learned, needs to be communicated and then factored into a much larger social construct which says some people like some kinds of pain, some people are prepared to experience pain for others’ good and on and on. Basically, no idea arrives in the world all alone and ready to ‘compete’, it is always part of a larger structure of cultural ideas into which it fits, its edges exceptionally blurry. (I shall avoid quoting Wittgenstein here because this isn’t a postgraduate thesis).
But again, let’s assume that at some level ideas can compete, or at least overwhelm others and push them out, for instance the idea that there’s an Aether or that the British Empire existed to ‘civilise’ its inhabitants.
Why? Because when I look at censorship, particularly in places like China you could, if you were so minded, called their strategy one of memetic defence – an active strategy of promoting memes which agree with the CCP’s view of the world and actively suppressing those which don’t. Some of this is done via explicit censorship but the rest is done via the fruits of the first. The more successful you are building a wall around which ideas are acceptable and which aren’t the more the culture engaged in those ‘acceptable’ ideas will, of its own accord, defend that space. That defence will be internal, rooting out bad actors within but also outward looking by attacking those who express contrary ideas or who, gasp, attack the memetic defence itself. You could read the brigading of media companies who create content critical of China as exactly this strategy in execution. They successfully have those outside their memetic space change their behaviour, both increasing the influence of their cadre of successful ideas but also pushing back on ideas which might challenge their view of the world. It is political warfare, plain and simple and a fantastic example of ‘soft power’.
I’m not saying anything here about the exceptionally complex relationship of different political and cultural ideologies colliding – I’m make no judgements in this piece, just stating an idea using specific examples which from my (obviously politically charged position) seem like clearly demonstrating what I’m trying to say.
The question is, do liberal societies have similar defence mechanisms?
And, of course, the answer is yes. However, they might not be ones we’re all to impressed by when we start to understand what they are and how they function. So the secondary question is, are there mechanisms which we think we can deploy/develop to protect that we cherish in liberal/open societies?
The most obvious answers to the initial question is yes. History and the story of our cultural legacies act as a huge break/inertial dampener on new ideas, especially ones which don’t necessarily fit with our ideas of where we come from and what makes our culture distinct. These are also expressed in education, through the press, content generation in the media and via Government policy.
The key difference for an open society is how its openness operates. I would probably use a scale/grid where open societies value two things – honesty and reflection. The first (as we see in the current British government which lies first and denies second) is critical to continued openness because it allows the cultivation of an intellectual space where all voices matter because it’s what they have to say which is important, not who’s saying it and how closely they cleave to the way the powerful dream of the world being.
The second is also critical because open societies are characterised by their ability to integrate new ways of thinking and allow failure of policy to be addressed and learned from. High honesty and high habits of reflection are the watermarks of truly open societies.
Now. Openness and reflexiveness are two human traits which it is horribly easy to suppress. Honesty can see the messenger shot or can be actively discouraged because it shows others in bad ways. Effectively, these two habits/ideas are ones which require constant reinforcement in the sinews of the culture in which they’re being cultivated and as such, even the act of doing nothing, of staying silent around them, can lead to their weakening as desired virtues. Indeed, they’re also hard and can often be found to threaten vested interests, so political pressures can also lead to them being suppressed.
Finally, honesty and reflection do not provide easy fixes or people onto whom we can shift the blame (because they deny us the right to delude ourselves for a start) and so we see a third pressure to suppress them.
This isn’t to say they’re doomed to being crushed, it’s to say that those of us who encounter these ideas and like open societies have to always be armed to defend these traits.
I would posit that in the last twenty years we have seen a concerted attempt in Western Open societies to shift what people call the Overton Window towards a less open, less critical more deferential culture. It’s been painted as one of individualism but it’s really just a way of deconstructing social cohesion rather than proper libertarianism (even if libertarianism has grown as a result). If the Overton Window is the box which at any particular moment defines acceptable ideas, the growth of anti-intellectualism and the resurgence of fascist strands of thinking within that window are deeply worrying not just existentially but for the kinds of open society I grew up in and have been promoting throughout my life.
In some ways all I’m saying is we now have a society in which brexit and Trump’s brand of narcissistic white supremacism are not simply acceptable regardless of the clear and factual damage they do even to their adherents but are considered fundamentally centrist enough for millions of people to vote for them.
We have defence mechanisms but they appear to have failed. I’m going to stop here in this post but will come back for a second post shortly in which i discuss why they’ve failed and what we *might* be able to do about it if we’re interested in actively defending the idea of open societies, firstly internally and secondly externally.