Should We Persecute Those Who Endorse Dangerous Ideas?

In communist China, those deemed to be promoting dangerous Capitalist ideas were subjected to severe crackdown under the Cultural Revolution.

In Catholic 16th century Europe, those who promoted radical ideas that undermined mainstream Judeo-Christian beliefs, were locked up as heretics.

In America during the Red Scare, those suspected of endorsing Socialist ideas were subjected to McCarthy hearings, casting pallor over their ideological purity and loyalty to country.

Events that might have been centuries and continents apart, but tied together through a single common thread. A shared belief. The worry that certain ideas are dangerous. That certain ideas, if left uncensored, will make the world a worse place. That such dangerous ideas need to be combated by any means necessary. That one of the most effective ways to do so, is by punishing and persecuting the idea’s proponents, so as to send a message to anyone else who feels similarly.

And now, in the midst of an increasingly turbulent world, we’re starting to see whispers of the same ghosts appear once again. We’re starting to see citizens in one of the most (supposedly) enlightened and progressed societies in the world, calling for the economic persecution and ostracism of a (idiotic) political candidate, his endorsers, and even the colleagues of his endorsers.

To quote a 2020 survey: 50% of strong liberals support firing Trump donors, 36% of strong conservatives support firing Biden donors, and 62% of Americans have political views they’re afraid to share.

Let’s acknowledge one fact at the outset: to compare the magnitude of persecution experienced by the victims of the Cultural Revolution, to what someone like Peter Thiel is experiencing, is simply absurd. Despite anything Peter Thiel might be going through, most people would swap places with him in a heartbeat.

And yet, the essence of the comparison still stands. The magnitude of persecution being heaped upon Peter Thiel might be trivial compared to the Russian gulags, but the general principle behind both remains the same. That certain ideas are dangerous, and anyone who endorses such dangerous ideas is worthy of punishment.

Some might argue that what Peter Thiel is experiencing is not persecution, because there is no government actions involved. No one is suing Peter Thiel in court, nor is anyone threatening to physical harm him in any way.

And yet, such arguments miss the point entirely. Persecution isn’t, and has never been, limited to government activity or physical threats. For centuries, Jews, Roma and Blacks around the world have been persecuted by the societies and citizens around them. The worst of these featured physical violence. But even when they didn’t, the economic and social persecution endured by these victimized groups was horrendously damaging.

Blacks who were denied entry or service in all varieties of Private Sector activities, found themselves economically marginalized. Individuals who were subjected to ostracism and exclusion found their lives dramatically altered, and the very threat of such social persecution kept many more from speaking their minds.

To think of that human beings can experience suffering only when physically harmed, degrades the very essence of the human condition by ignoring the economic and social needs that every one of us yearns for. To claim that the economic and social persecution is not persecution at all, is a slap on the face to millions who’ve experienced its cold pressing grips.

But let’s return to the original premise that we started this journey on. The premise that certain ideas are so dangerous, that they need to be censored by persecuting its proponents. Does such a premise truly hold up? If you believe in the ideals of Free Speech, the answer is clearly no. Every western citizen has had the axioms of Free Speech drilled into their heads as kids, but why do we believe in Free Speech? Why do we support, the First Amendment?

We have already banned various types of free expression. It is illegal to expose your private parts in public – it is illegal to yell fire in a crowded theater or to incite violence – it is not permitted to make false claims when advertising, or to slander an innocent person. If ideas such as racism, sexism and bigotry are so dangerous, why do we guarantee legal immunity to their proponents? Why not simply lock them up in prison as is done in other countries? Why not outright ban these dangerous ideas?

The Catholics banned the questioning of Judeo-Christian values, because surely no one can doubt the word of God. The Communists banned the advocating of Capitalist ideologies, because surely no one can defend the exploitation of the proletariat by the bourgeoisie. Why not take a page from their book and carve out exceptions in the First Amendment for ideas that we know incontrovertibly to be false?

If you’re a supporter of Free Speech, the answer goes back to the Marketplace of Ideas. One where ideas spar with one another, and in the long run, false/bad ideas find themselves supplanted by superior alternatives. One where dangerous ideas will automatically find themselves discredited and bankrupt, without the need for censorships, personal attacks or persecution. One where any form of coercion is more harmful than helpful, because it could artificially suppress legitimate ideas that happen to be unpopular.

Consider the example of Flat Earth beliefs. Some people through history long labored under the illusion that the Earth was flat, like a coin. With time, this belief found itself supplanted and replaced by the belief in a Spherical Earth, which then found itself supplanted by the belief in a Oblate Spheroid. Today, if I went around the country telling everyone who would listen that the Earth is flat, no one need bother persecuting me, or attacking me personally. The idea itself has lost, has been made bankrupt, and no degree of persecution is required to ensure the primacy of the Spheroid Earth belief. The Marketplace of Ideas has succeeded in weeding out false ideas, and supplanting them with superior ones, all without any need for persecution.

To quote a Supreme Court Justice:

But when men have realized that time has upset many fighting faiths, they may come to believe even more than they believe the very foundations of their own conduct that the ultimate good desired is better reached by free trade in ideas — that the best test of truth is the power of the thought to get itself accepted in the competition of the market, and that truth is the only ground upon which their wishes safely can be carried out. That, at any rate, is the theory of our Constitution.

Perhaps such belief in the Marketplace of Ideas is misplaced. Perhaps such idealism is hopelessly naive, and human beings, as foolhardy as we are, are doomed to be entrapped by attractively false ideas. Perhaps our belief in the Marketplace of Ideas, is itself one such appealing and false idea. If so, disregard everything you’ve read in this essay. Perhaps our blind trust in the First Amendment is misplaced, and the Catholics, Communists and McCarthyites were onto something after all. Perhaps some ideas are so dangerous, that the only rational approach is to fight them by persecuting anyone who attempts to spread them.

But I don’t think so. I believe that the Marketplace of Ideas really does work. That to quote Lincoln, you can fool all of the people some of the time, or some of the people all of the time, but not all of the people all of the time. That the benefits to society of having Free Speech and a Marketplace of Ideas, where anyone can participate without fear of backlash, far outweigh any of the downsides. That when faced with dangerous ideas, we should focus our efforts on attacking the idea, not the person. That far more than fearing dangerous ideas, what we really have to fear is an environment that strives to censor them.

Related links:
A tale of two bigots
Sam Altman’s take on the same subject