Elsewhere on Andrew Sullivan’s blog, he asks forgiveness from Ta-Nehisi Coates for offending him in their race-and-IQ exchange. He doesn’t back down from his viewpoint, but seems to sincerely regret having hurt someone he respects. A decent thing to do, this post. Sullivan adds:
But Ta-Nehisi points to a deeper question and it is one I have wrestled with. How do I live with the knowledge that writing about such things as merely empirical matters, when they are freighted with profound historical evil, will deeply hurt many, and could help legitimize hateful abusers of information? What responsibility does a writer have for the consequences, good and bad, of good-faith pieces he writes? Is merely citing the massive amount of data showing clearly different racial distribution for IQ an offensive, cruel and racist provocation? Is raising this subject worth anything anyway? … My core position is that a writer’s core loyalty must be to the truth as best as he can discern it.
I think any morally responsible and self-aware writer who weighs in on matters of public controversy should wrestle with this. In past jobs, I have been frustrated with colleagues who did not want to look seriously at evidence of Muslim extremism in America, not so much out of p.c. (though there was some of that with some folks), but out of a genuine fear that any threat to the community that might exist because of local Islamic extremists was outweighed by the prospect that someone may take that information and do violence to innocent Muslims — or even Muslims guilty of nothing more than holding unpopular opinions. I have thought, and still do think, that their caution is unjustifiable, and that bad men are taking advantage of their good will to have their activities unscrutinized.
Still, in general, it’s not a black-or-white question. The time this became most clear to me was at an international journalism conference, in a discussion about how much information to reveal in news stories. We Americans naturally believed that we should tell as much of the truth as we could, and let readers sort out the meaning. Journalists from India, Bangladesh, and the region strongly disagreed. They said that if their newspapers or media outlets gave all the information about every violent episode, including (most importantly) the religious identities of the parties involved, there is no question that people, and not a few people, would die from the ensuing riots and communal/sectarian violence. This was a real-world question that always had to be in the mind of journalists in those areas. It was not an abstract question for them.
There are dangerous facts, the knowledge of which threatens certain people, institutions, the social order, and so forth. Must they be made public no matter what? I think as a general matter, the presumption has to be on the side of disclosure, but that’s not a mandate. That’s simply to say that the more “dangerous” a fact, the greater the discretion that must be employed when deciding whether or not to make it public. If a reporter in wartime gets a tip about troop movements, he doesn’t have the moral right (or, as it happens, the legal right) to broadcast that information. If a reporter discovers during wartime that a general is taking bribes from a defense contractor, the moral equation shifts. Many times people who believe facts dangerous to themselves should be suppressed do so under the excuse of the common good (I’m thinking about you, Your Grace). But the fact that authorities can and do abuse discretion to cover their own backsides does not mean that discretion itself is a discredited concept.
Five years ago, the science site Edge.org published a scientific symposium in which respondents — most of them prominent scientists and science journalists — answered the question: “What’s your dangerous idea?” The question was bounded like this:
The history of science is replete with discoveries that were considered socially, morally, or emotionally dangerous in their time; the Copernican and Darwinian revolutions are the most obvious. What is your dangerous idea? An idea you think about (not necessarily one you originated) that is dangerous not because it is assumed to be false, but because it might be true?
Some of the more interesting ones:
Daniel Goleman (psychiatrist):
As with any new technology, the Internet is an experiment in progress. It’s time we considered what other such downsides of cyber-disinhibition may be emerging — and looked for a technological fix, if possible. The dangerous thought: the Internet may harbor social perils our inhibitory circuitry was not designed to handle in evolution.
Jesse Bering (psychologist):
Science is an endless series of binding and rebinding his breath; there will never be a day when God does not speak for the majority. There will never be a day even when he does not whisper in the most godless of scientists’ ears. This is because God is not an idea, nor a cultural invention, not an ‘opiate of the masses’ or any such thing; God is a way of thinking that was rendered permanent by natural selection.
As scientists, we must toil and labor and toil again to silence God, but ultimately this is like cutting off our ears to hear more clearly. God too is a biological appendage; until we acknowledge this fact for what it is, until we rear our children with this knowledge, he will continue to howl his discontent for all of time.
Marco Iacoboni (neuroscientist):
Media violence induces imitative violence. If true, this idea is dangerous for at least two main reasons. First, because its implications are highly relevant to the issue of freedom of speech. Second, because it suggests that our rational autonomy is much more limited than we like to think. This idea is especially dangerous now, because we have discovered a plausible neural mechanism that can explain why observing violence induces imitative violence. Moreover, the properties of this neural mechanism — the human mirror neuron system — suggest that imitative violence may not always be a consciously mediated process. The argument for protecting even harmful speech (intended in a broad sense, including movies and videogames) has typically been that the effects of speech are always under the mental intermediation of the listener/viewer. If there is a plausible neurobiological mechanism that suggests that such intermediate step can be by-passed, this argument is no longer valid.
David Bodanis (writer):
I wonder sometimes if the hyper-Islamicist critique of the West as a decadent force that is already on a downhill course might be true. At first it seems impossible: no one’s richer than the US, and no one has as powerful an Army; western Europe has vast wealth and university skills as well.
Diane Halpern (psychologist):
For an idea to be truly dangerous, it needs to have a strong and near universal appeal. The idea of being able to choose the sex of one’s own baby is just such an idea.
Daniel Hillis (physicist, computer scientist):
I don’t share my most dangerous ideas. Ideas are the most powerful forces that we can unleash upon th world, and they should not be let loose without careful consideration of their consequences. Some ideas are dangerous because they are false… but there are also plenty of true ideas that should not be spread. … I have seen otherwise thoughtful people so caught up in such an idea that they seem unable to resist sharing it. To me, the idea that we should all share our dangerous ideas is, itself, a very dangerous idea. I just hope that it never catches on.
You knew I was going to ask: What is your dangerous idea? Anybody who wants to plead the Hillis on this, I respect that. Remember, your dangerous idea is dangerous not because it’s false, but because it is, or might be, true.