Friday, June 03, 2005

Celsius 232

There's an article up on a conservative web site called The Ten Most Harmful Books of the 19th and 20th Centuries. At the top are the Communist Manifesto and Mein Kampf. I belong to a private email discussion group, and the article has seen a lot of discussion there. Someone recently suggested that the Bible and the Koran ought to be at the top of the list.

I think the lesson we can take from this, if we're looking for lessons, is that almost any book can be a harmful book, if it's in the wrong hands. Marx and Engels were idealists who wanted to create a better world. Jesus and Moses and Mohammed were all trying to teach us to be better people, which if you think about it is what creates a better world. If you consider how many people have died as a result of Marx' and Engels' work, I don't find it a stretch to call them harmful, any more than it's a stretch to call the Bible or the Koran harmful for much the same reason. But I think ultimately it's wrong to call books harmful - the problem isn't the books. It's what we do with the ideas in them.

I think it's interesting that instead of saying "these people have a very different take on life than I do," most (not all) of the comments so far have been basically just belittling the people who made the list. I have to admit that when I saw Phyllis Schlafly on the list of judges I let out a snort of my own. But in fact it's just a list of books that some people consider harmful. Their opinions are probably carefully considered. They probably have good reasons for thinking what they do. So why are we laughing at them?

The fact is that we've all been burned by broken memes. For most of us on the mailing list where the discussion has been happening (most of us are what the popular press calls "liberals" - a term that is so poorly defined as to be almost useless), the broken memes by which we've been burned have been the memes that these people (which the popular press might call right-wing christian conservatives) find comforting and hold dear. Their inability to relate to our feeling hurt by their memes is harmful to us. Is it not possible that our inability to relate to their feeling hurt by our memes is harmful to them?

I don't mean that we should simply stand by and agree with positions that we consider morally reprehensible. For me, the death penalty is an obvious one, and so is this group's position on womens' rights. The presence of "Silent Spring" on their list is something I find quite disturbing. But by laughing at them, we are essentially dehumanizing them. I think we all know what the purpose of dehumanization is. Should we really be going down that path? If we do go down the path of dehumanizing those with whom we disagree, are ideals like tolerance and peace something we really take seriously, or just a pretty face we put on our own intolerance?


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