On the Virology of Thought
Posted by Jason on September 29, 2009
[This post started as a comment on Mur Lafferty’s post for Banned Books Week. As it grew, I realized it was probably too long for a single blog comment, and probably deserved a home of its own. I look forward to hearing your thoughts!]
Ideas are dangerous. In a way, most of the last 2,500 years (and especially the last 500 or so) has been nothing but a war of one idea against, or occasionally alongside of, another. Whether that idea is a religion, a scientific principle, an economic theory, a philosphy, a system of government, or something else entirely, people in recorded history have done more harm and good in the service of ideas than for any other reason. It’s little wonder, then, that so many people feel that society needs to be protected from these dangerous, intriguing ideas.
And the best way to remove a danger is to eliminate the threat, right? So if we ban all these strange radical ideas, then they’ll go away and not bother anyone ever again, right? Right?
Well, no. Those who think this way profoundly misunderstand the nature of ideas. Ideas, as anyone who has spent much time on the Internet will tell you, are viral.
Ideas spread from person to person, friend to friend, parent to child, sometimes quietly, sometimes loudly, sometimes publicly, often privately. Much as a virus does. If the invention of writing gave the idea virus a powerful new transmission vector, then the proliferation of modern media has given it an almost infinite petri dish to play in. But even so, it’s first form of transmission is still its most powerful, and most impossible to stop: human speech between two people.
Let me give you an example. Huckleberry Finn is often banned or challenged because it contains the dreaded n-word. Parents are mortally afraid that, if their children were to read this one horrible set of letters, that word (and the whole racist ideology behind it) would either irrevocably infect their children’s vocabulary, turning them forever into hate-spewing white supremacists, or else so offend their delicate sensibilities that they spend their lives in hate and fear of the descendants of those who formerly oppressed them. That’s quite a lot of power to ascribe to one word!
Now, I hope and pray that one day it’s possible for the average American to live his or her entire life without hearing that word. But that day is not today. If your child doesn’t read the n-word in Huckleberry Finn, then he or she will hear it on the playground, or on TV, or in music, or in a whispered joke around the water cooler. In a social context where it appears acceptable.
I’d much rather have my kid’s first exposure to this word in a context where I can discuss with him or her the word, it’s history, the ideology behind it, and the horrible consequences of treating any group of people as less than human. Why it’s dangerous. When they’re already using it because their friends are, or because they think it’s cool, or because they think it’s no big deal, then the virus has already infected, and it will be much, much harder to treat.
Think of it as a sort of idea vaccine. I’m no doctor, but as I understand it, you create a vaccine by using a strain of the very virus you want to prevent. You expose the body to the virus so it can be aware of it and build defenses against it. It’s the same with ideas. Expose the child to the idea, teach him or her why it’s wrong, and show how to defend against it.
Banning an idea won’t work, because you can’t control everything that people say all the time (nor, I would argue, should you be able to). Banning a book won’t work, because people will still spread it. If you really want to protect your children, read those banned books with them when the time is right.