The tyranny of ideas

6 May 1969

Guild Gazette today instigates a debate about the values of the student protest movement with this article by Mike McCarthy. Pete Cresswell will respond in the next issue.

One of the more disquieting aspects of the ‘student revolt’ in Britain, the United States and elsewhere, has been the disregard and contempt which the extremists have often shown for the principles of tolerance and free speech.

Their attitude contains a contradiction which may seem puzzling. For the students at Essex, say, or the London School of Economics, who recently broke up the meetings of the Commons Committee on Higher Education, and tried to rough up its members, would presumably claim to be idealists. They were not acting for money, and they were not drunk. If asked what their motive was, they would no doubt reply, a desire for justice, a desire to make an unjust world just.

Yet to break up meetings forcefully and to assault the speakers is a strange idea of justice; these are the tactics of Sir Oswald Moseley’s blackshirts in 1936. There is now, in some sections of the “student movement”, a notable contradiction: between a professed desire to help one’s fellow-men, and a complete disregard for the basic tenets of justice.

Why does the student revolt have this contradictory character, in theory altruistic, in practice completely undemocratic?

There is obviously hypocrisy in the attitude of the more extreme student rebels. But what sort of hypocrisy? It is not the conventional kind. Most of the students at LSE, say, are doubtless sincere in the ordinary sense of the word: they believe in what they are doing, and they aren’t doing it for money.

They would claim to be idealists acting according to ideas, rather than from personal motives; and this implies that they are acting disinterestedly and unselfishly.

Yet it is perfectly possible to act solely according to one’s ideas, and at the same time be utterly selfish and evince a cynical disregard for other people. And the reason why some student ‘idealists’ have shown themselves so unjust, so ruthless in pursuit of what they want, at the expense of other people, is pride: the oldest and most subtle form of human pride, the pride of knowledge.

The acquisition of knowledge was man’s first sin, Adam’s sin. And Oedipus was destroyed by the Gods because he thought he knew. The Greeks understood that knowledge brings with it an immense pride: as soon as a man thinks he knows, he becomes blindly sure of himself and sets himself up above all other men. (He becomes a rival to the Gods, the Greeks would have said.)

Whenever a man thinks, “I know,” people get hurt.

And all the extremists of the student movement have this in common: they think they know. They are very intelligent, and they have seen the truth that the others have not seen. They know, and the others do not.

And they are proud. Proud of their knowledge, proud of their ideas. This is why students who profess altruistic attitudes can act in a completely selfish way. They care more about their own ideas than they do about people.

The ideas they care about may indeed be called “social justice”, ”democracy”, concern for humanity”; but for the radical extremists these ideas have been divorced from the particular human situations which gave birth to them. They care about ‘humanity’, but not about ordinary, everyday people.

The extremists’ ideas have lost their meaning in human terms. Their concern is not for people, but for the ideas themselves; because the ideas are a product of, an expression of, their intelligence. Their ideas are not universal truths before which they submit, but personal possessions in which they take pride.

And they are the excuse for everything. We are faced with the tyranny of ideas. You can do just what you like, hurt people, kill people, trample on peoples’ rights, and excuse it to yourself and to others by saying you’re doing it for your ideas. You pretend to yourself that you’re disinterested, when really you’re acting from complete self interest: your pride in your knowledge, your refusal to let anything stand in the way of these ideas of yours.

This is the worst form of hypocrisy because it’s so insidious. The most dangerous hypocrite is the man who hurts people, and thinks he’s doing right. That a man who has suffered at the hands of a society should wish to destroy that society is understandable; but that an intellectual, who has never suffered, should wish to destroy a society because he knows it should be destroyed : that is filthy.

One thinks of the late Ernesto Guevara’s call for “Many Vietnams”-in which human life is reduced to the tool for an idea.

Let us be aware of the tyranny of ideas; let us remember the pride of knowledge. “All that I know,” said Socrates, after a lifetime searching for truth, “is that I know nothing.” But there haven’t been many like him.


Author: Gerry

Retired college teacher living in Liverpool, UK.

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