Ideas and Ideology

Ideas are fascinating and exciting. We live in a culture that celebrates ideas. In a sense, we see all history as history of ideas now. It is ideas that make men great, and the great men are those who belabour with ideas, either to bring it into being or to create impact with it. Entrepreneurs, our modern Heroes, are the idea-warriors, who puts everything on stake to make their idea work. Ideas, in short, are divine inspirations, whose blessing we all seek and whose existence makes us meaningful.

But there is a dark side of ideas, which never gets talked about. All the monstrosities for the last two hundred years have been committed in the name of ideas. And, indeed, if one counts religion as an idea, the history will go back much further. Just as we transformed the Great Men doctrine into a narrative of great ideas, we should also perhaps replace our evil men doctrine with a narrative of bad ideas.

However, I anticipate an objection coming: Many ideas, which turned out to be pure evil, did not appear so at first. It takes a purely evil man, such as Hitler, to make an idea, such as Race Theories, really evil. And, thereon leads the usual Liberal vacuity: No ideas are inherently great or evil, it's what men make of it!

That is all nonsense. Ideas don't exist independent of men. We may make it sound like an object in itself, but ideas are really words and actions coming from people. They have no separate existence. And, besides, the concept that all great men are men of great ideas and yet, an idea needs evil men to become evil, is the have-your-cake-and-eat-it-too option.

It is time that we are having a reasoned debate about the downside of ideas. At every crisis point of history, this was quite obvious. For example, the Pragmatists in the United States, writing after the horrors of the Civil War (in which, Oliver Wendell Holmes fought), understood it perfectly: "Ideas should not become ideology", as John Dewey would later maintain. Stalin and Mao took the ideas of perfect society just too far. But these are only the well-known examples. Untold crimes have been committed in the British Empire, Commonwealth Countries, The United States and other parts of the world, in the name of ideas. The modern state, all-seeing and all-powerful, inflicted upon its people all kinds of forced behaviour, in the name of national interest and common good. Austerity, a recent idea, which argues that the state should live within its means though that does not apply to defence expenses or things like Monarchical maintenance, has also been taken to the extreme, but avoided scrutiny. When things have gone wrong, someone fell on his sword, but the idea lived on.

Why do I write about this now? Because ideas are seductive, and perfectibility of human beings is not monopolised by Dictators. These assumptions sit under every policy document, every technology business plan, every business school, every self-development formula, the claims of theory, science and technology. It touches our daily lives every moment, and most of our lives are lived within the matrix of options set up by ideas of perfectability and neat behaviour. And, this idea is not just a passive framework: This is actively, intrusively, ubiquitous. There are nations around the world - India among them - where the quest for creation of a pure people is real: The Republican Democratic constitution that the country was set up with, are being torn apart in the search of pure 'Indianness', just as the Japanese, the Chinese, the British, the Polish and the Hungarians set upon similar journeys. The ideology of ideas are all-encompassing and inescapably alluring.

While I argue against purity of ideas, the alternative, I am told, is relativism: If you don't believe in an idea, then you are a drifter, without roots, without a truth. But, this, again, is a fallacy of purity of idea, as if the Truth exists outside the human consciousness. As we build our world, it is best to acknowledge our role in it; to accept that life isn't perfect and our standards are, largely, defined by circumstances. Variability and malleability are the only truths of human existence. And, so it should be.

Therefore, it is sensible to keep Dewey's dictum in mind: Ideas should not become ideology. We are better as observers than as judges; flexibility is an inevitable aspect of human existence. We are beings in time, our consciousness is fragile, temporal and grounded: So is our knowledge. If a bigger truth exists, the best we could do is to be sceptical about it and search for it, but never, never, never should we pretend to have found it.


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