Ideas can transform our world.
For example, my stepbrother and I once concocted a horrible idea that almost killed someone. At 11 years old, we had received bow and arrow sets for Christmas. Impatient to shoot these beautiful fiberglass recurves, we yearned for New England’s waist-deep snow to melt. When the spring thaw finally arrived, we ran out onto our soggy lawn on a Saturday morning, set up hay bales as a backstop, and took aim at paper targets.
Our endless winter wait had come to a close! Taking turns, we loosed our arrows at the bullseye. Back and forth from stance to target, we shot and then plucked our arrows from the hay bales. We quickly learned one of the truths of archery: lobbing arrows at a target is very… boring.
“How far do you think I can shoot this baby?” I asked.
Matthew’s eyes brightened. “I don’t know,” he said.
A bad idea was born.
I leaned back and let an arrow fly high over a knoll toward the shuttered grange hall’s green. That arrow arced through the spring blue with what seemed single-minded focus and disappeared over the hill.
It was captivating. It was better than measly target shooting. It was glorious!
“I’m going to run out to see where they’re landing!” Matthew said.
My bad idea had just gotten somewhat worse; now at least one person definitely stood downrange. Semi-sheltered by an awning, Matthew watched from the doorway of a nearby preschool.
“Ready?” I yelled.
He nodded. I pulled back, aimed high, and was about to release when, because of the steep angle and my poor technique, the arrow fell from its rest atop my hand. The string slipped from my fingers, the bow twanged, and one arrow leapt up at an odd slant.
Murphy’s Law states: If something can go wrong, it will go wrong. I’ve come to learn that bad ideas are particularly susceptible to this law.
I watched as that arrow blazed through the sky toward our neighborhood preschool. Of the innumerable paths that arrow could have taken, it fell in a perfect and unbelievable beeline toward my stepbrother. Like a center fielder – like a center fielder who does NOT want to catch an incoming pop fly – he danced to his right, he danced to his left. I watched with dread as that arrow seemed to target him like a heat-seeking missile.
It struck my stepbrother dead center, and he fell back into the entryway of the school. Horror-stricken, I threw down that blasted bow and ran to find out if it I had killed him. As I sprinted, I could see only Matthew’s legs splayed out over the preschool’s steps. When I arrived, wide-eyed and panicked, he groaned, sat up, and lifted his shirt. A welt rose where the arrow had been denied entry to a lung by one of his skinny ribs.
Bad ideas sometimes seem to have a life of their own, and they can do unbelievable harm. In this particular case, I was lucky that my bad idea did relatively little damage. History, though, brims over with examples of horrible ideas and beliefs stripping people of dignity, life, liberty, and happiness. Nazism, religious crusades and terrorism, the divine right of kings, communism, and the inferiority of women come to mind, to name only a few. These bad ideas reduce human flourishing.
In his book, “The Moral Arc,” Michael Shermer explores the theory that bad ideas are on the wane. He presents evidence that we live in an ever more moral world. He shows that overall global violence has fallen, political freedoms have proliferated, gender equality is on the rise, and laws gradually improve to treat people more fairly and justly. Thanks to the Enlightenment and to scientific thought, Shermer argues, good ideas are thriving, ideas like democracy, separation of church and state, regulated free markets, egalitarianism, human rights, the scientific method, literacy and public education.
Despite evidence of an upward trend, good ideas don’t always come easy. Often they must battle regressive notions grounded in ignorance, tradition, superstition, sanctity, or self-service. Just recently, I read a story about two albino children in Africa whose arms were cut off for use in potions, because of a misguided belief that their flesh carries special powers.
Shermer writes, “In the long run, it is the force of ideas even more than the force of arms that marshal moral advancement, as notions such as slavery gradually inch by degrees from morally good to acceptable to questionable; to unacceptable to immoral to illegal; and finally they shift altogether from unthinkable to utterly unthought of.”
Thanks to many thinkers and many years of progress throughout history, I can now take aim along the range of reason, science, and kindness.
Daniel McNeil is the director of Grand Area Mentoring.