Markos Kounalakis

Ideas are worth defending against dictators and theocrats

Candles are lit near a sign that read in French “I am Charlie” lights a candle during a demonstration in solidarity with those killed in an attack at the Paris offices of the weekly newspaper Charlie Hebdo in the Kosovo capital Pristina on Wednesday.
Candles are lit near a sign that read in French “I am Charlie” lights a candle during a demonstration in solidarity with those killed in an attack at the Paris offices of the weekly newspaper Charlie Hebdo in the Kosovo capital Pristina on Wednesday. Associated Press

Ideas are dangerous things. Allow them to spread uncontrollably and they can infect the thinking and behavior of a people. Some ideas can lead to revolutionary acts, as with democracy and the concept that power can accrue to the people instead of deities or despots.

Ideas allow us to question our beliefs, our leaders and our societies. The viral spread of these ideas has been accelerated over the millennia, making an exponential leap in the early 15th century with the invention of the printing press. What Gutenberg’s machine did to spread ideas challenging religious hierarchy and ideology of the day was revolutionary and catalyzed the Reformation.

Enter the 21st century. We are now at a point in human history where the spread of ideas is instantaneous, global and ubiquitous. Nearly 600 years after the invention of the printing press, we are in an information environment that envelops us in words, images and sounds that force us to reflect upon and question every aspect of our human condition. Data swirls about us to challenge every form of authority.

Democratic systems and societies are best able to adapt to this changing environment. Those who are less democratic and wish to preserve a power structure try to limit or stop ideas from spreading. They often do this by killing the message, disrupting the Internet or practicing broad censorship.

More perniciously, dictators and theocrats often find ways to intimidate or kill the messenger.

The goal is to achieve what is effectively unattainable today – information sovereignty. What this means is the ability of a nation or a leader to have total control over both the message and the messenger. In a system of information sovereignty, Google, Facebook, and Twitter are subversive tools. Foreign correspondents are agents of change. And humor magazines highlight hypocrisy.

Granted, not all ideas are worthy or able to ignite the creative and humane imagination in effective or positive ways. Many ideas are stupid. Unfortunately, even stupid ideas are able to find their way into the crevices of a craven cranium.

But faith in the human character and in the critical and adaptive capacity of a community gives us the belief that the answer to bad speech or deleterious ideologies is more speech, not less. That is why allowing all ideas – a tsunami of ideas – to infest our consciousness is important, so that each individual’s critical capacities are developed and allowed to discern the difference between the inane and something more worthy.

Kim Jong Un may not have figured out the ridiculous and unthreatening nature of a movie like “The Interview.” Islamic militants have an equally hard time figuring out what is more blasphemous: a crass cartoon depiction of a world religion’s prophet, or the perverted use of his teachings to kill and destroy on a mass scale.

The 12 apostles of irreverent humor at the Paris-based magazine Charlie Hebdo are now dead, and the only ones who remain laughing are the murderous miscreants who claim blind faith in Mohammed.

The Paris attack on free speech and open societies is a perverse warning to our way of life, a threat to our civil liberties and a provocation of our leaders. We can survive both the assault and the threat by doubling down on our institutions of free speech and by following the 1939 British dictum that has now become part of popular culture: “Keep Calm and Carry On.”

Our leaders need to keep a cool head, too, because the emotional reactions intended by such an attack are tempting and hard to fight. Resolve and resilience should outweigh revenge and retribution.

Bring the culpable individuals to justice, but do not overreact by waging a reckless or wanton war in a far-off land without forethought to the end game or an exit strategy. Failing to do so would be playing into the hands of those forces that are taunting us. Lowering our societal goals to get involved in a brawl would cheapen the West’s superior ideas of Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité.

Markos Kounalakis is a research fellow at Central European University and a visiting fellow at the Hoover Institution. Contact him at markos@stanford.edu and follow him on Twitter @KounalakisM.

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