Friday, November 25, 2016

Reading is a Vaccination Against Questionable Ideas

The world is filled with bad ideas and bad belief systems. There are also a lot of valid ideas that are taken too far, or applied when not appropriate.  Though there is enormous variation on what reasonable folks consider bad ideas, there is a consensus among most rational and ethical people that some ideas and ideologies are downright toxic. Nazism and Stalinism are a few clear- cut examples. Though I would add a long list of much less extreme belief systems to the list of belief systems that I fundamentally agree with, this post is not about delimiting which ideologies are better then others.  Instead it is about how reading books, especially a selection of books that include a diversity of ideas, even untenable ideas, can help vaccinate the mind against falling prey to bad ideas or misapplying good ideas.

This concept can work on all sorts of levels. A simple example is illustrated relating to reading about totalitarianism.  Reading history about the rise of Nazism, Stalinism as well lesser know tyrannies can encourage a healthy wariness to certain popular movements with authoritarian undertones. Likewise readng fiction like George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty - Four fiction or Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We provides us with parables that help keep us keep alert to tyrannical ideologies. Likewise, works such as Fyodor Dostoyevsky Demons can give us insights into less obviously dangerous and less far sweeping fanaticism. In turn reading about Democratic ideals espoused by thinkers such as John Locke and Thomas Jefferson can provide a strong counterbalance to totalitarian thought. 

Many people, including myself, believe that what is rising  in America is a form if totalitarianism. Much of our arguments are propelled by the above mentioned, and other, books. Some folks disagree with us. I find that some of  best counter arguments are themselves driven by the ideas contained in other books. 

One can take this concept further. Reading books written by a diverse set of thinkers who present us with a smorgasbord of ideas can teach us to reject and question certain ideas from otherwise insightful people who may have certain ideas that we choose not to accept.  Friedrich Nietzsche is a good example of this. I find some of his ideas extremely astute and useful, particularly his criticism of popular culture and conformity of thought. 

However his theory, as spelled out in On the Geneology of Morals, of  “Master and Slave Morality”, where he rejected values such as “Good” and “Pity” and he dismissed the concept of equality are ideas that I do not accept. Armed with a knowledge of thinkers who extolled values that Nietzsche excoriated, ranging from Plato, the writers of The New Testament, RenĂ© Descartes to modern day theorists such as Steven Pinker, my mind is buttressed with counterarguments. Even if one is in agreement with Nietzsche on this issue, the point remains the same; Knowledge of contrasting viewpoints can prepare us to examine and reject belief systems that otherwise seem appealing. 

Likewise Nietzsche’s critique of morals allows us to examine and apprise all the thinkers that I mentioned above in a different critical light. Even good ideas benefit from examination and critical scrutiny. Acceptance of an idea or belief system is vastly stronger after one has considered counter arguments and still chooses the embrace the criticized system. Just knowing that there are other ideas and belief systems out there can be very valuable. 

There are also cases where valid belief systems run into trouble.  A herd mentality sets in and dissention and contrary views become demonized. For example, lately many have expressed concern that some elements of modern social justice movements are descending into extremism and intolerance of even slightly dissenting views. Dedicated members of these movements themselves have raised some of these apprehensions. Examining this situation from a point of view of someone who has read about historical Left wing overreach, both from Leftist dictatorships and from radical movements, provides a context to question these excesses.  A careful examination, partially through reading, of both Liberal and Conservative ideas yields good ideas from both sides. Such reading can also brings to light criticism of concepts that group pressure might otherwise discourage. Thus I am questioning what I think are some very illiberal trends increasingly emanating out of the Left. I think that that this example is valid regardless what one’s views are on these issues as this concept applies to many other situations. It is that reading helps us to question ideas and belief systems, even if they come from directions that one is usually sympathetic to. 

Being exposed to a wide range of ideas immunizes us in a way. We are not so easily seduced to arguments that appeal to our emotions, focus on limited aspects of truth, or turn insight into dogma. Being well read provides us with armor when delving into the conflicts involving ideas. It also protects us from blindly accepting bad ideas that may be part of otherwise worthy belief systems. 

I have provided just a few examples above. One could write volumes about the value of reading diverse and conflicting opinions. The marketplace of human ideas is as vast as it is rich. A sampling of multiple products from this market provides one with intellectual balance and understanding that cannot be achieved any other way. 


Mudpuddle said...

a forceful, appropriate post... tx... agree with all you said; education is key and possibly the only route to human survival as we now know it... overpopulation has exacerbated everything: exploding technology and communication have created a veritable Frankenstein of human activity. if the species is to continue, there are simple things that must be done: population control, cessation of carbon eating energies, return to poison free agricultural industries, sanity in government; trouble is, people don't know enough to do these things, and it's not in their nature, anyway... never in all of history have large groups managed to pursue sane agendas successfully over any significant period of time... so-called intelligence in this particular species contains the seeds of it's own doom... imo, the only choices we may make in the immediate future are whether the long, long struggle ends with a bang or a whimper... sorry to be pessimistic, but i just don't see much chance of survival, the way things are... especially under the influence of an ignorant buffoon....

Lory said...

Yes, thank you Brian! The process you describe is indeed key to our survival. One-sidedness is deadly -- we have to become more open-minded and flexible, while also strengthening our capacity to discern what is healthy and sustainable. Reading IS education, when understood in this spirit.

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks Muddpuddle.

You point out many of the dangers that we face as a species. These things may very well end our civilization and perhaps lead to human extinction. I have been fairly optimistic that we may overcome them. Though I am far from hopeless, I am less optimistic these days.

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks Lory. Human survival is indeed at stake.

Anonymous said...

Very thought provoking.


Brian Joseph said...

Thanks Jody.

Suko said...

Brian Joseph,

Thank you for this thoughtful post! Reading books written by a diverse set of thinkers who present a smorgasbord of ideas is so valuable--it's most likely impossible to overstate the importance of this type of reading.

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks Suko.

The need to read people with different and opposing ideas is such an important part of this.

The Bookworm said...

I agree Brian, reading is an invaluable source of information and taking a look at different viewpoints is so important. Nothing is black and white, seeing things from different angles is vital.
Happy weekend.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Naida - We so often fail to see other viewpoints.

James said...

What a thought-provoking commentary. I am not sure that I understand all of your arguments, but there are some points where I discern a commonality in our thinking. The importance of "being exposed to a wide range of ideas" is a belief that I share with you, although I am not sure about the notion of immunization. Let's just say that it is a good way to test one's own beliefs and opinions. That is something I've been doing for many years whatever my reading, take for example Hayek, Marx, Adam Smith, John Steinbeck, et. al.
I also share your view about the richness and size of the "marketplace of human ideas". This is encouraging for all who choose to explore the variety and wealth of thinkers both current and past.
However, based on my reading of Hannah Arendt's work, especially The Origins of Totalitarianism, this does not appear to be something that is an imminent threat in the United States, or even elsewhere. That does not preclude the need for vigilance regarding growing authoritarianism whether from the burgeoning bureaucratic state or from an unfortunately successful politician whom Peggy Noonan refers to as "the mouth".
I hope that many people heed your propitious views about the importance of reading.

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks James.

In the end, reading makes us more nimble thinkers.

As I mentioned, your counter argument that authoritarianism is not imminent is bookish. Perhaps the best kind of counterargument :)

I really would like to read Arendt.

With that, the type of authoritarianism and many others are worried about can b e described as Putinism or Authoritarian Kleptocracy. More or less something like this:

bookaroundthecorner said...

Very interesting post.
My question is : how do you promote reading, an activity that, in essence, requires time and reflexion in a connected world that thrives on immediacy?

HKatz said...

Reading only functions in this way if people are actively reading - questioning, revisiting their thoughts, testing their ideas, looking at different angles and considering different POVs (which is what you do when you read). I can't see it happening with passive reading/skimming... people have to want to not only seek out these books but also reflect and meet the text halfway with their own efforts. If we're going with medical/health analogies - it's the exercise and nutritious diet for an active brain to help stave off sluggishness and poor health. How many people commit to that? (I want more people to do so...)

Carol said...

Interesting thoughts, Brian. C.S. Lewis said something that struck me and it's been an idea I've tried to follow:
'Every age has its own outlook. It is specially good at seeing certain truths and specially liable to make certain mistakes. We all, therefore, need the books that will correct the characteristic mistakes of our own period.'
'We' is a book I plan to read.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Emma - That is a tough question. My only answers to promote the joys and benefits of reading to others, especially young people.

I guess that is what we are doing with our blogs.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Hila - You and Emma make good points. Many people do not read critically. I think that the best we can do is to be evangelists for this type of reading.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Carol - That is a great quotation. In a way, reading allows thinks of the past, to shed critical eyes on the present.

Brian Joseph said...

Carol - I thought that We was a great but odd book., If you read it I would love to know what you thought about it.

Tracy Terry said...

Deep and yet highly readable at the same time. Thanks for such a thought provoking post that I shall enjoy discussing with Mr T later.

Gently Mad said...

Hi Brian! If I am understanding you correctly, you are saying reading largely influences our thinking, however, we all need to think with discernment. We need to be "truth seekers" and, to the best of our abilities, eliminate any cognitive bias we may have when we read so as to grasp what is true and what is false.

If you are saying that, I wholeheartedly agree with you. I believe in ultimate truth. I always ask myself, is this true? If so, how do I know? What substantiates it? If it's false, why do I know it's false? What truths am I aware of that counters the false assertion. I see it a little bit like geometric proofs.

I am an analytical person so I enjoy thinking about these things.

Unfortunately, Millennials (I am speaking generally and by no means think all are this way-maybe not even most-but a disturbingly growing percentage) have not been trained to think logically but rather to think in images and feelings.

Their parents have not raised them; public school and day care has. And TV. And video games. They "feel" something is right or wrong.

It's frustrating because this sort of person (of all ages, not just Millennials) can not be "reasoned out of something they were never reasoned into in the first place." (That's quote, but I can't remember who.)

Their kindergarten teachers to college professors have not taught them how to think, but rather what to think. It is hard to reason with these people, especially when they are convinced they are smarter than you are (I have a couple of young millennial friends who cannot listen to me without smirking.)

Then there is my generation that has largely fallen asleep and, before this election, couldn't be brought out to talk about anything that wasn't fluff. At least the election accomplished that.

As for a totalitarian government, surely we all saw that coming as government has gotten bigger and bigger and the Supreme Court time and again has overstepped their judicial boundaries.

Some people like it.

I have a friend who believes we should "give all our money to the government and let the government take care of us!"(Yes, that is a direct quote.)

I personally think that woman is a fruitcake, but I'm probably being judging.

I'm sorry you are so pessimistic. I've already told you where my hope is laid. Because I know this world is not the end I choose to:

"Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Instead, fear the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell." (Matthew 10:28)

Whatever happens, life is short. (Unlike this comment :)

Take care, Brian! I'm still praying for you.

Gently Mad said...

And I am actually adding on to what I just said because I wanted to say:

When I taught in school, reading was based on vocabulary, not quality of substance. A lot of books that were on the required reading list for the students were sheer bubble gum for the brain. No wonder so many people get turned off reading. A tragedy!

thecuecard said...

I think it's sad that extremism seems to be on the rise and dissenting views are often not tolerated. There seems to be no sense of reasoning with such people. They definitely do not appreciate reading diversely or listening to a wide range of ideas. Who knows where the Trump-Land will go to. But my husband thinks Leftist dictatorships are far worse.

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks Tracy. I am glad that you found this readable. I was afraid it was a bit obtuse.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Susan - I think that both Right and Left Wing Dictatorships can be equally as bad. Hitler was Right Wing. Stalin was Left. Both caused tens of millions of deaths and untold misery.

In my opinion there have been some questionable and harmful things coming from what I would call the illiberal Left. With that, I do not think that we are threatened by a Leftist authoritarian regime. Trumpism seems very dangerous for a lot of reasons.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Sharon - I appreciate any good thoughts including prayer, so thank you!

With that I am OK. If I am mistaken. then we are talking about a big political disagreement that I have. That is part of democracy. If I am correct I am not saying that authoritarianism will win. We may have a rough few tears but I believe that good folks of all political persuasions will win in the end. This is also part of life.

I do know what you mean when you refer to some people who do not seem to reason. Folks have identified a lot of Millennial s as being like that. I am not sure. Older generations tend to be very hard on the younger. i remember when my generation was young. There was also bit of arrogant "know it all smirking". Either way, i agree, that the kind of thinking that you describe is uncritical gets folks nowhere.

Stefanie said...

Well argued! We definitely need to read a diversity of idea and opinions and philosophies etc. It is a great way to learn, to get context and perspective and to have the information we need to think for ourselves and not blindly follow. Even more important for the days and years ahead.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Stefanie - It is indeed very easy to fall into the trap of blindly following others.

Kathy's Corner said...

Hi Brian

Thank you for another thoughtful and well written post. And so true that the vaccination against an authoritarian or closed mind is to read widely and different points of view. Here in US that's not happening. Too many on the right and the left going to their favorite news sources and believing what's said there and its why Trump can just throw out that 3 million voted illegally and his followers believe him.

Your post got me thinking that one of the books in my kindle is The True Believer by Richard Hofstadter. I decided to order the book based on a Daily Beast cover story about a year ago. The article asked the question, Did'Hofstadter's True Believer explain the rise of Trump? I think I need to be dusting that book off and giving it a read.


Brian Joseph said...

Thanks Kathy.

Your comment has actually gotten me thinking. For many of us, Tumpism is easy to reject. It may be the ideas that come from less threatening sources that we need to scrutinize.

True Believer looks to be a very important and very relevant book for our times.

Caroline said...

Very interesting. I couldn't agree more about the importance of reading. I feel drawn to the French philosophers of the 18th century these days. Or Montaigne. It's as if we are taking such a huge step back.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Caroline - We do seem to be taking a terrible step back.

Ideas, including those from the past, are so important to understand and explore.

Hibernators Library said...

This is so true! Though I noticed a lot of the book blogging world (as well as my friends on LibraryThing) were very put out or even devastated by Trump's election. And I wondered why this was the case. Why were the Trump fans so quiet in the bookblogosphere? They're not quiet on Twitter or Facebook. It seems that people who love reading tend not to be Trump fans.

There are exceptions to that rule, of course. My boyfriend is a librarian, and he voted Trump. *shudder* But then, he's the type of guy who loves reading, but finished zero books this year!

Brian Joseph said...

I found that most book Bloggers were either devastated or ignored it.

Just speaking for myself, my knowledge of history, society and human nature, partially gained through reading, leads me to believe that very bad things are coming.

Maria Behar said...

(I deleted my first post because of typos. Lol.)

Brilliant post, Brian!! I LOVE the topic you've chosen, and you have developed it in a straightforward, yet very interesting, manner.

I do agree that it's not only intellectually stimulating, but also fair and balanced, to read books espousing a variety of philosophical and political ideas. Well-read people certainly do well to acquaint themselves with differing viewpoints. This is the ideal goal, at any rate. In practice, though, it's really not easy -- at least, not for me -- to attempt to read books containing ideas that run counter to what I feel to be morally right, for instance. To give an example, I don't know how I would fare if I attempted to read Nietzche. Perhaps I would indeed find myself agreeing with some of his ideas, as you have. But I would absolutely reject others, such as the ones you've pointed out.

In other words, although in principle I would hope that I would be open to reading about a wide diversity of philosophical and political views, I know I would find some of hem much too repugnant to even consider taking a look at. Alas, I fear that I would, in such cases, totally abandon the book...

This brings up the question of the relationship between emotion and reason. Can humans separate the two? There might be some people that are able to do so. I must admit that, although I am attracted to serious works of philosophy and politics, my emotions might not allow me to even consider the message of some authors.

This can also happen with fiction. I've discussed this with you before. I have found certain works of fiction SO repugnant -- in some cases, simply from reading the synopsis -- that I know I will be unable to read them in their entirety. There are three such books that come to mind here: "Lolita", "The Lord of the Flies", and "A Clockwork Orange". I have read the synopsis of each, and am totally repulsed by them. So I know I will NEVER read any of these books. In fact, I would classify them as "transgressive fiction".

When reading "The Republic" by Plato, some years ago (to mention a nonfiction work), I was initially fascinated and drawn in by his arguments and views on the perfect political system. Then, when I got further into the book, and discovered that he wanted to 'categorize' people into "Gold", "Silver", and "Bronze" groups (if I remember correctly), I was APPALLED. Just as bad, if not worse, is his justification of the state's LYING to its citizens, in order to preserve this totally immoral system. I promptly stopped reading the book.

Another example is Macchiavelli's "The Prince". I am NOT AT ALL interested in reading this work. I am well aware of what it advocates -- the famous dictum of "the end justifies the means" is based upon it, for instance. This is, of course, TOTALLY repugnant to me.

(More coming.....)

Maria Behar said...

(I deleted the second comment, too, for reasons of continuity.)


By the way, I would suggest that, were Macchiavelli alive today, he would most likely consider a certain political demagogue to be one of his best, if not his very best, disciples. Lol. I wonder if this person has ever read Macchiavelli's book....

Going back to my theme, I do think that certain types of people -- very sensitive ones like me, for instance -- have a rather hard time being intellectually rigorous because of the blatant, cruel, and totally despotic immorality inherent in some philosophical and political viewpoints. I suppose we must make the effort to read about these very distressing viewpoints, but it definitely isn't easy for those of us with this type of temperament....

In short, I think that, at times, ignorance might very well be bliss. There are certain things that, when taken into the mind, can poison it, as they are inherently toxic. They might be capable of causing an actual emotional/psychological trauma, and may never be forgotten.

Certainly ignorance is not really bliss; I was being facetious above. In the case of poisonous philosophies and political viewpoints, perhaps reading a general overview, without too much attention to details (hello, Wikipedia!), would be best. I speak for myself, as well as perhaps for anyone else who happens to feel the same way I do. I am by no means advocating that EVERYONE should approach this matter the way I most likely would.

I hope I've made

Thanks for such a fascinating, well-written, and very enlightening post!! Hope you have a GREAT weekend!! :)

Maria Behar said...

P.S. I went back and read the previous comments, and I suppose that Sharon (Gently Mad) might consider me a Millenial because of my mention of emotions. But, paradoxically enough, my emotions when reading toxic viewpoints are actually based on the moral philosophy I was raised on, which has a Christian basis. And I am definitely not a Millenial. I wish I were! Lol. I just happen to have a very sensitive, artistic temperament, although, at the same time, I do love to read intellectual topics that will make me think. So you see, mine is a constant inner battle....which is why I LOVE Hermann Hesse's "Narcissus and Goldmund"! This novel deals directly with the conflict between reason and emotion -- although it also adds faith. Catholicism has traditionally united faith and reason (although there's emotion in such things as choral music and the mystical visions of saints such as Teresa of Avila). This view is symbolized by Narcissus, the medieval monk. Goldmund represents art and the emotions.

The 60s counterculture movement was highly influential in swinging our society toward an exaltation of the emotions and senses. Of course, all extremes are bad. Mr. Spock needs to have some fun, and Capt. Kirk needs to sit down and read some Kant!

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks Maria.

Thanks for the really insightful comment.

Though I spent an entire blog espousing treading authors who push for ideas that we do not always agree with, I also sometimes find it difficult and sometimes very frustrating.

My reaction to the emotion with reason issue is not at all aimed at those whose emotional Reponses are driven by reason and morality. Instead I am critical of what seems like mindless emotional reaction with no thought behind it. I see it in all age groups. In fact, as a member of Generation X, I see it rampant in people who are my age.

I agree that a combination a combination of reason and emotion is best. It is all about balance.