Poisoning the well

Cecelia Kok on the current notion that ideas should be rejected on the basis of where they originate

Ideas know no location or race

Ideas know no physical location or time. They cannot be tied down to particular nations, people or eras. Ideas have no race or gender. They also cannot be said to be owned by anyone.[1] Ideas form part of a rich collective epistemic reservoir which we, as human beings, share. This is one of the most beautiful aspects of humanity. Someone at the opposite end of the earth may share your idea of what constitutes the good life, while your immediate neighbour may not.

Another beautiful thing is the universal mechanism with which humanity is able to sift through good and bad ideas: reason. Carefully constructed logical arguments form a common apparatus through which ideas can be rigorously tested for their soundness. This wondrous exercise plays an important role in allowing progress to be made and, ultimately and very importantly, individuals to flourish and lead meaningful lives.

Imagine someone in the United States of America rejected an idea solely because it was put forward by an African philosopher 50 years ago and was simply just not part of the American’s ‘lived experience’. We would rightly condemn such a person for being parochial and closed-minded. Similarly, as South Africans, we should not reject ideas merely because they emanate from another part of the world.

It is nothing less than dangerous when demagogues (also known as sophists in some circles) peddle the story that certain ideas ought to be rejected on the basis of where or by whom they happen to have first been given expression. Indeed, this ought to be called out for the logical fallacy that it is, namely an attempt to poison the well. (This fallacy is present when an audience is primed with adverse information about a target in order to discredit anything the target says or does.)

Two somewhat related logical fallacies also come to mind:

1. the genetic fallacy (This is when a claim is evaluated only on the basis of its source instead of its own merit.) and

2. the ad hominem fallacy (This more well-known fallacy is present when there is a kind of personal attack on the target in order to discredit the latter instead of an evaluation of the actual argument put forward by the target.)

Ideas must be evaluated on their own merits. If one looks at the source of an idea, one is not evaluating the idea itself, and thus not giving it the consideration it deserves. A famous example to illustrate this point is that of Gottlob Frege, a German logician and mathematician who made great advances in these fields at the beginning of the last century. However, Frege showed a strong leaning toward anti-Semitism in his later years. The man and his work are two separate things – we need not reject Frege’s work even if we morally condemn the man.

Furthermore, such sophistry may lead to a halt in the free flow of information. An injustice occurs when the free flow of ideas – both good and bad – is prevented in that humanity is being unduly dispossessed of knowledge. Not only is freedom of speech (and thus the free flow of ideas) enshrined in our constitution, it is simply a basic precondition for the blossoming of any society.

As JS Mill puts it in On Liberty:

[T]he peculiar evil of silencing the expression of an opinion is, that it is robbing the human race; posterity as well as the existing generation; those who dissent from the opinion, still more than those who hold it. If the opinion is right, they are deprived of the opportunity of exchanging error for truth: if wrong, they lose, what is almost as great a benefit, the clearer perception and livelier impression of truth, produced by its collision with error.

(The word ‘opinion’ may be substituted by the word ‘idea’.)

It is often the voiceless and marginalized who stand to lose the most under the threat of such demagoguery. After all, those that have the means may choose to join freer societies or find alternative ways of exposing themselves to a wealth of different ideas which, in turn, places them in a better position to pursue opportunities in the local and global marketplace.

It is those who do not have the means to do this who are detrimentally deprived of being exposed to a virtually infinite plurality of ideas and thus to further self-actualisation. After all, any banning of ideas may result in the stifling of good ideas. The disadvantaged in society stand to suffer most under the weight of such sophistical injustice.

Often underlying the abovementioned demagoguery is the argument that reason itself ought to be rejected on the basis of where or by whom it happens to have first been articulated. The argument goes something like this:

 - Reason is a Western notion deployed to delegitimise non-Western lived experience. (Premise)

- Therefore (Conclusion indicator)

- Reason ought to be rejected. (Conclusion)

There could be no greater irony than this for in offering an argument (the very tool through which reason is exercised), the demagogue – by necessity – acknowledges arguments (and thus reason) as an acceptable (even preferred) way of making a point. In other words, the demagogue is using reason in an attempt to dismiss reason. (Evidently one cannot use the very mechanism one aims to discredit in order to discredit it.) Of course, this – perhaps at first blush seemingly counter-intuitively – can be viewed as a small sign of hope given that the use of reason is evident, albeit a fallacious use thereof.

Some ideas may be dangerous. However, we should not ban them on this basis. Ideas cannot – and should not - be banned. On the contrary, dangerous ideas ought to be brought to the light of day in order to examine and scrutinize them, and to point out wherein the danger lies. In fact, dangerous ideas that are not allowed to see the light of day are able to fester in the minds of those who harbour them without ever being challenged. The saying that sunlight is the best disinfectant is certainly apt in this instance. 

Finally, there may be demagogues who claim to reject reason (and do not even offer arguments for this rejection), instead exclaiming that they simply feel a particular course of action is right. It can be said these kinds of sophists rely on nothing other than personal preferences.

In the battle between the personal preferences of (arguably) a few versus the potential flourishing of many (amongst whom are the most disadvantaged), one hopes those in positions of power wield their figurative swords for the right cause.

Cecelia Kok works for the Friedrich Naumann Foundation for Freedom and writes in her personal capacity. She is currently studying toward a Masters Degree in Applied Ethics at Wits University.


[1] Of course, this is aside from ideas such as those that can be patented or copyrighted etc. However, such ideas are not the main subject of the current calls to which this piece alludes.