Winning the war of ideas

Bad ideas can -- and will -- be beaten by better ideas. But the victory is rarely a quick one. Idea wars are won person by person.


An honest idea quietly delivered can seem wimpy. No cinematic superhero, to my knowledge, vanquishes villains with a well-reasoned argument. Few tough guys – fictional or otherwise – are known to listen to a thoughtful presentation of the facts, mull the pros and cons, and then go, “Oh dear. I was wrong.”

But despite the spectacle of terrorism, war, politics, and militancy, every human conflict is ultimately a battle of ideas. An army can conquer a city, a car bomb can devastate a community, a gun can force a conversion, but in time – sometimes, admittedly, an excruciatingly long amount of time – right prevails because right ideas persuade.

Too optimistic? I can be guilty of being that. History has had far too many chapters where despots, bullies, and demagogues held sway, where decent people were ignored, persecuted, or martyred – too many jihads, pogroms, and inquisitions – to believe that wickedness is a mere flash in the pan. Whether overt or subtle, pernicious ideas can do tremendous damage. Honest resistance and strong defenses help contain them, but in the end it is the inexorable spread of better ideas that defeats them. Better ideas often start small, but decade by decade they win followers by proving their worth. A few examples: the scientific method, human rights, self-government.

In a Monitor cover story (click here), Taylor Luck explores the idea war within Islam. Most religions have liturgy or tradition that can be used to justify terrible deeds. Most religions can be misinterpreted, misappropriated, or twisted by zealots looking for followers. Countering pernicious ideas wrapped in religion is not easy. Reason might not get there in time to convince the next terrorist to stand down. Reason is water flowing over a stone. It slowly wears away hate and anger.

The appeal of the Islamic State group, Al Qaeda, and other jihadist movements is a source of tremendous concern around the world. The ideas they spread – ridding the world of unbelievers, building a new caliphate, avenging historical wrongs – have intoxicated a small but potent army of young Muslims. How to counter those ideas has been hotly debated in the West, with strategies swinging from careful marginalization of jihadism (the Obama and Bush administration approaches) to what appears to be a broader critique of Islam itself that some members of the incoming Trump administration (National Security Adviser-designate Mike Flynn, for example) have advocated.

Whether that broader approach is implemented and whether it helps or hinders the war on terror won’t be known for some time. Meanwhile, there are already multiple efforts under way within the world of Islam to counter jihadist ideas: hotlines that debunk radical theology, rap music that puts down militancy, kindness that breaches the mental walls around an impressionable jihadist and welcomes her back to the human family. 

And where jihadists have been defeated on the battlefield, such as the Iraqi city of Tikrit (click here), care is being taken to break the cycle of vengeance that fuels future radicalism. It is in these quiet efforts, person by person, that the stone of hate and anger will be worn away.

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Dear Reader,

About a year ago, I happened upon this statement about the Monitor in the Harvard Business Review – under the charming heading of “do things that don’t interest you”:

“Many things that end up” being meaningful, writes social scientist Joseph Grenny, “have come from conference workshops, articles, or online videos that began as a chore and ended with an insight. My work in Kenya, for example, was heavily influenced by a Christian Science Monitor article I had forced myself to read 10 years earlier. Sometimes, we call things ‘boring’ simply because they lie outside the box we are currently in.”

If you were to come up with a punchline to a joke about the Monitor, that would probably be it. We’re seen as being global, fair, insightful, and perhaps a bit too earnest. We’re the bran muffin of journalism.

But you know what? We change lives. And I’m going to argue that we change lives precisely because we force open that too-small box that most human beings think they live in.

The Monitor is a peculiar little publication that’s hard for the world to figure out. We’re run by a church, but we’re not only for church members and we’re not about converting people. We’re known as being fair even as the world becomes as polarized as at any time since the newspaper’s founding in 1908.

We have a mission beyond circulation, we want to bridge divides. We’re about kicking down the door of thought everywhere and saying, “You are bigger and more capable than you realize. And we can prove it.”

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