The Usefulness of Bad Ideas

lightbulbFor someone who takes a lot of interest in the structures that underlie societies, I have to confess that it took a long time for me to realize that ideas and structures are not distinct. I spent a lot of energy being frustrated by things that, to me, seemed wrong and unconscionable. In many ways I still do, but I’ve also found a better framing to help me understand how bad ideas persist.

Ten years ago, I would have said that bad ideas are a result of greed, corruption, lack of empathy, or intolerance. For example, why do people constantly argue about getting rid of social programs, alias lazy welfare queens? Easy—they’re greedy and unempathetic and don’t care about anyone but themselves and their friends. If they stopped to think for one second about other people, they’d realize that the problems are structures, not people.

I think it took far too long for me to realize the double standard of that statement.

Of course, the problem with the argument for getting rid of social programs is also structures and not people. There may be plenty of greedy bastards in the world, but I suspect there are far more well-meaning and decent human beings working away earnestly in the sway of some very bad ideas.

It’s much easier to concede that about the past. From the comfort of historical perspective, we can acknowledge people whose choices were simultaneously progressive for their time and unacceptable in ours. Yet when it comes to our present day counterparts in other ideologies, we somehow imagine that no coherent system of thought could reach conclusions that differ from our own. When we decide that everyone on the opposing side is a fool or corrupt, it is less an indictment of our opponents and more a commentary on our failure of imagination.

Having got past the caricature, though, I still found myself at a loss for how really bad ideas persist in the world—but I think if we acknowledge that bad ideas are more structural than they are the result of bad people, it becomes equally clear that bad ideas serve some social purpose. They may even serve a purpose not filled by any other idea. Regardless of whether they are true, they are functional.

I see this most easily when I’m trying to tear down a bad idea. If you step up to suggest getting rid of a bad idea, especially in an organization, you very quickly feel the weight of inertia pushing back at you. Even people who are superficially in agreement that the idea is bad will still seem to be defending it in their behavior. But really it isn’t that they defend the bad idea–it’s that they’re still using it in lieu of something better.

Let’s keep on the theme of social programs. Now, there are a lot of people who firmly believe that food stamp recipients should not be allowed to spend those food stamps on any but the most frugal of meals. Why do they insist this? It seems to me like a terrible idea—like a way to punish people for not making enough money to live, as if they needed more punishment than not being able to afford food. It would be easy for me to say the people advocating this just lack basic empathy and are probably psychopaths.

But really, I think this is an idea serving a purpose—fighting it head on is actually challenging a whole separate idea, which is that people receiving public assistance do so out of laziness. And that idea has its own purpose, which I think is one of simple explanation. If you believe that the United States is a land of opportunity where anyone who works hard can make something of themself, how do you explain people who can’t seem to do that? It must be something to do with the people, not something to do with the system.

And, having come full circle, I have to acknowledge how very, very hard it is to see a system from the inside. If you have an apparently rational understanding of the system around you, your view looks like the state of affairs for everyone. It doesn’t come naturally to anyone to assume that someone else’s view of the world, however different, is just as coherent as our own. So instead of relying on the simpler explanation—that some part of our own perception is in error—we use bad ideas to cover up the gaps.

Like the idea that everyone on the other side is naïve, or greedy, or corrupt, or biased.

It’s a useful idea. It’s a very useful idea.

But I think it is not a true idea.

Photo Credit: Rachel Melton

2 comments on “The Usefulness of Bad Ideas

  1. When you are talking about large ideas, they always have pros and cons. It’s not always so simple to break things into “good” and “bad” ideas.

    Sixth paragraph — should be “past” instead of “passed”.


    • JSD says:

      True; although I also tend to think big ideas are “on the whole” more or less harmful, and, for me, even a big idea balanced between harmful and not is something I would call a “bad” idea, in the sense that a much better idea is possible and we should look for it. Since I approach the world with a philosophy of constant improvement, I never buy the argument that we should just settle for something good enough (not that you’re making it). I think we should recognize something mostly good and still seek to improve it in the same way that we should recognize something bad or neutral and seek to improve it, regardless of size. But really this is a different post…


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