Little people matter more than big ideas

A lot has been written about the recent murder of 12 journalists and cartoonists at the Charlie Hebdo magazine in Paris. It’s a good sign that so much has been said – freedom of expression is alive and well – at least in the West. In many Muslim countries, by contrast, saying what you think can get you flogged or executed.

The British author, Ian McEwan, wrote that, “radical Islam has become a global attractor for psychopaths,” and there does seem to be a lot of evidence supporting this. But religions in general attract nutcases. In fact, many big causes attract such people, or perhaps turn ordinary people into fervent, raving monsters. Islamists are doing much of the killing these days, but Christians, Communists and Fascists have done at least as much in the past.

It’s not surprising. Big causes rouse the passions. They give us something to fight for, something that’s bigger than ourselves. They can often make individuals seem unimportant.

But one thing prevents big ideas from becoming dangerous. It’s the principle that the rights of individual human beings always come before abstract intellectual ideas. Cross that invisible line and you switch from good to evil.

Place ideas before people and you’ll become a fanatic.

Place ideas before people and you’ll hate those who disagree with you.

Place ideas before people and you’ll kill those you hate.

Putting people first isn’t an original idea. It’s been said over and over again, very often by religious leaders. The problem is, it’s not a Big Idea. It doesn’t say that there’s something more important than ourselves. It says precisely the opposite – that individual people are the most important thing, and that their lives, liberties and rights are never trumped by abstract ideas.

41 responses to “Little people matter more than big ideas

  1. Well balanced, Steve. Big vision and big ideas have a place in imagining possible futures for ourselves, individually and collectively, but they never trump the first principle — real human consequences on real human individuals always come first.

  2. I knew you d have something fabulous to say about the current horrors! Great post Steve- thank you.

  3. Well said and important to remember.

  4. When you say that, you always need to specify, which specific people you value more than your ideas. And what shall you do with people who disagree with your principle? Behead them before they behead you? Shut up those who oppose the freedom of speech?

  5. Whilst I applaud the sentiment here Steve, I don’t get the notion that big ideas are prevented from becoming dangerous by the humanist principle (if I may call it that?) Indeed, the evidence (of evil) that you cite, and which we are all too painfully aware of in any case, suggests the contrary. Certainly, the global majority surely hold to the values you (and all of us readers) uphold here, yet that does not of itself counter evil. And even whilst holding to principles of valuing human life above all else, those same adherents still may be swayed into killing by say, ‘big ideas’ of patriotism and nationalistic allegiances alone.

    For example, you say that “Islamists are doing much of the killing these days, but Christians, Communists and Fascists have done at least as much in the past.” Yet I must ask whether, for example, Bush and Blair make the count too? Still, I guess they would go in the ‘Christian’ camp would they not? Did these men “cross that invisible line and . . . switch from good to evil”, impelling their armed forces servants to do the same? In other words, how do we protect ourselves from the notion that our high principles are unimpeachable, that we are but a moment of hypocrisy away from abandoning them?

    • Bummer… Steve does not have likes for comments… I find it impossible to create a moral principle that would not be hypocritical.

      That guy in the photo, by the way, is exercising his right of free speech, doesn’t he? But, somehow, I do not feel like upholding it in his case. I am totally willing to sacrifice the rights of this little guy in the name of the big idea of humanism.

      • There you go Agrudzinsky, Quad Erat Demonstrandum – and neatly too!

        • I uphold the rights of the man in the photo to call for beheadings. It’s what he believes. Silencing him won’t solve any problems. People like him need to be engaged with. If you take away his rights, you take away everyone’s rights.

          Of course if he actually beheads someone, that would be completely different. I’m not a pacifist. Give me a gun and I’d shoot anyone who was about to commit an atrocity.

          And to answer your point Hariod, patriotism and nationalism are perfect examples of the kinds of big ideas that can lead to evil.

  6. wow that was a mouthful,and an exquisite one in deed but i vehemently disagree.Big Ideas are pure and they are the ultimate ancestors of these “little people”,the only guides we have to a better and more beautiful life.Inevitably ideas are mostly the only people preserving tools we have to fight against the very people in question.Big ideas will always be our great friends and in harmony with human preservation,the problem isn’t the ideas but rather misconstruing the meaning.Misunderstanding the ideas is the genesis,then the people build on the misconstruction and commit atrocities and their evil begets more evil.For sure the big idea here is religion but that is not the problem at all because religion as an idea is big and very beneficial but misunderstanding religion to mean a useless excuse to spill blood, that right there is the problem.Religious texts at most times are mental juggernauts and easily misunderstood deliberately or accidentally and by the time it reaches the ears of the very desperate followers at times the ridiculously incorrect conclusions become the fiery arsenal for mass destruction .And obviously the faith clause bars any alternative thought and because matters of God are don’t ask don’t tell instructions from high above.The remedy is the simple quick fix of fostering the freedom in religion of not believing everything you are told especially when it is obviously baseless and in disharmony with greater ideals like life,love and goodness(which coincidentally are the building blocks of most religions anyway).Even what you said about putting people first is inevitably a big idea in itself.Running from big ideas is not the answer,it can’t be since ideas are inevitable,they precede us and succeed us we must put measures in place to ensure ideas are well vetted and accorded their correct meaning in everything and even after we are gone they will stand watch over our descendants.The wrongly propagated meanings of big ideas must be and will be eventually done away with but the process must begin with me and you because if we are running from big ideas then where are we headed?

    • Maybe it wasn’t clear what I was saying. I am not against big ideas. I’m a fan of big thinking. I subscribe to many big ideas myself.

      But as agrudinsky discusses in the blog post I linked to ( big ideas such as religion can easily lead people into evil acts. If you look at the really huge atrocities of history, there’s a big idea behind each one.

      Of course, big ideas are a powerful force for good too, as long as the principle I’m advocating is always put first. I don’t think I’m being particularly controversial here – isn’t this pretty much what Jesus said?

  7. How “big” is an idea is up to the individual judgment. An idea can be considered “worth living for”. That’s, perhaps, the right attitude. The same idea can be considered “worth dying for”. That might be OK if “dying” refers to “self” — when people risk their own life for something. There is a thin line between an “idea worth dying for” and an “idea worth killing for”. This refers not to the idea itself, but to the attitude. The same idea can become deadly when people are willing to kill for it rather than die for it themselves.

    • The principle applies to all ideas, whether big or small. As you say it isn’t necessarily the idea itself that is the problem. As you wrote in the blog article I linked to, ideas like religion are powerful forces that can motivate people to act in ways they otherwise wouldn’t.

  8. I think one very little thing that can help is using people-first language. Prehaps Instead of saying ‘the blanks’, we should speak about specific people, using the word, reminding ourselves that we’re talking about human people and not just demographics.

  9. I absolutely agree. I’ve said it once and I’ll say it again:

    “In today’s world, egalitarianism—the belief that all people should be treated equal—continues to be subjective. It is a prevalent “idea” in society that all people are created equal and society advocates for the inclusion of oppressed people—historically, these groups have been women, homosexuals, African-Americans, religious affiliations—excluding Christianity—the elderly, and the physically disabled. The problem is that while the aggregate—or whole of society—proclaims that all deserve to be treated as equals, the individual’s actions and attitude proves that this is propaganda and of course equality is redefined as the social trend shifts to favor the status quo.
    The puzzlement lies in the fact that as individuals, we continue to have bias—which impedes our ability to see humans as equal—and we allow our bias to be represented in one of three ways:

    1.) we allow bias to be revealed to an elect and approving few

    2.) we hide bias until the social trend shifts in favor of our bias

    3.) we admit our bias and risk being ostracized

    The Truth of Arrogance

    Truth has not special time of its own.
    Its hour is now-always and, indeed then most truly,
    when it seems unsuitable to actual circumstances.
    —Albert Schweitzer

    The truth is that everyone is guilty of apportioning equality and by degrees depending on such factors as career choice, religious affiliation or lack of, political preference or lack of, cultural beliefs, and aesthetics (e.g. weight, skin color, gender, physical ability, mental acuity, grooming, clothing preference); and the list goes on. We, as human beings, can get pretty creative with our bias.

    As a result of our self-appointed position of assigning importance, we assert our superiority and confirm others’ inferiority. Erikson in Youth and Identity Crisis states:

    Therapeutic as well as reformist efforts verify the sad truth that in any system based on suppression, exclusion, and exploitation, the suppressed, excluded, and exploited unconsciously accept the evil image they are made to represent by those who are dominant (1968).

    These attitudes of subjugation are wrong, so why do we adopt them, why do we accept them?
    We fear those and that which we do not understand, so we learn to shun that which brings us discomfort thus the armor of arrogance. I encourage you, dear reader, to overcome your discomfort lest you miss an opportunity for intellectual growth and the gift of appreciating what is unique; otherwise you are doing yourself—as well as others—a great disservice.”

    • Well, yes, there is a lot of invisible bias in society. We obey rules that we aren’t even aware of. However, when I look back at the past 200 years, I see prejudices being broken down. I expect more of this to happen in the fuiture.

      • I hope so. In America, racism is swinging the other way towards White people, but it’s not Black American citizens who are enflaming racism. It is the Black activists who want to keep a divide that are enflaming racism. It’s an issue I’m addressing in my novel. You can see this phenomenon in various life span groups. I work with hundreds of people all day, every day. I work with a 50-50 Black and White population. Besides counseling, I work at a convenient store part-time, btw.
        The store is in an impoverished part of town. The age group 18-60 have the most difficult time understanding that humans are humans. They have a greater tendency towards disrespect. Also, you see this group dependent on welfare and they are dependent quite unabashedly. These groups are considered “later adolescence”, “early adulthood”, and “middle adulthood” according to Erick Erickson. These are the groups most susceptible to the Black activist mentality. The next group classified as “later adulthood” is the age group 60 to 75. These people that I see are retired. They are congenial and unhurried. They have an easy manner about them that indicates they are at peace with life. They have a quiet dignity and convey an understanding pertaining to respecting all life. These people who are retired and on Social Security use coupons and pinch their pennies to buy their food; they don’t use welfare and they could if they wanted to. One of the developmental tasks of later adulthood is “accepting one’s life.” I see this achievement in this particular population of people in later adulthood. They have a quiet wisdom about them, a dignity, and I feel at peace and happy when I am around them. I would rather be around them then with people in my own age group. These people of whom I speak are Black Americans. I use this example to prove my observation. This population of later age Black Americans know that the majority of White and Black people are not racist. I see it in the interactions of all the customers I deal with daily. My customers talk with me and among each other. Black activists in the media enflame racism, because touting racism is power for them. You don’t see Black activists or the media reporting how White and Black people live in harmony together. They are not reporting what I see. Why do the younger populations of Black people embrace racism? Because they are just aware of enough to believe what they are told without truly seeing. And what about younger groups experiencing childhood and adolescence? They do not yet have the cognitive ability to feel the animosity propagated by Black activists and the media. I am mentioning this example because it is my greatest concern for Society.

      • I also want to add that the Black people who believe in racism the most are not only impoverished but uneducated. These are my observations.

  10. And, yes, have great big ideas, but don’t infringe upon another’s right to peace.

    I have a big idea and I am going to run it by you, Steve:

    I think the government should fine our media and civil rights activists anytime they enflame racism by touting racist statements that further segregate American subcultures.

    • I don’t know. Fining people for speaking feels like an end to freedom of speech. There are already limits to freedom of speech. I’m tempted to suggest we should remove these limits, not create new ones.

      • I agree that freedom of speech is an unalienable right because everyone has a right to be heard, but not if they are harming others with their propaganda. The propaganda that is dividing White and Black people is what I consider domestic terrorism. If the Black activists and media really wanted to see White and Black people live in harmony they would be promoting positive public relations and showing the many situations where white and black people are living in harmony. But Black activists and the media don’t want harmony b/c harmony would steal their power.

  11. Maybe this is too simplistic, but would the Golden Rule (do unto others as you would have them do to you) sum up your thoughts here? Maybe the problem is in the interpretation of that simple rule. And maybe we just over-complicate it to the point where we’ve lost all relevance to something so simple.
    I’ve read before that the Golden Rule is the substance of all the major religions, that if they could all agree on one thing, it would be that principle.
    The Golden Rule in itself seems to be an Idea Big enough to keep us all busy for the rest of our lives, attempting to carry it out; and I dare say, it would reduce the amount of fanaticism that seems to be prevalent in our world today.
    Great post… you know when you generate a lot of comments, both negative and positive, that you’ve struck a nerve. 🙂

  12. i like this quote that says i might not agree with what you say , but i will fight to death for your right to say it. it follows also for ideas. we might differ in our opinions and ideas….but we should respect people and their individuality above mere opinions.
    moreover, we might disagree in many things, there are billion other things that we agree on and thats enough reason to me to put 1 person(no matter how small) before 1 idea(no matter how big)
    good piece steve!

  13. I had a debate with a muslim friend who thought that Charlie Hedbo should have been censored for being racist and offensive and who also suggested that the cartoonists kind of had it coming because they offended muslims though he still agreed that they didn’t deserve it. In the end he wasn’t able to convince me that offensive/unpopular ideas need to be censored and I wasn’t able to convince him otherwise. But I think that even if we disagree we are still friends. Civilized people do not kill each other because they have different political opinions.

  14. One can not be a racist becouse there is only one human race , but one can be an ethnecist

  15. I hate everybody equally,besides thoughout history as of now holy wars seem to be fought with everything science not only that wouldn’t it be easyer to to just tell the isis people that the whole world has decided to bececome musilum so there mission would be over and we can all go back to playing video games ,, in other words they wouldn’t have much to do if the whole world just threw there hands up and said , OK were all musilum now what!

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