A Fireside conversation at Vichaar Manthan’s Sustainable Narratives Conference 2020
With Professor Gad Saad
Prof Gad Saad, an evolutionary psychologist and ‘defender of truth’ took to the Vichaar Manthan platform to enlighten us on his upcoming book: The Parasitic Mind: How Infectious Ideas Are Killing Common Sense.
The conversation began with Saad describing his journey through the conceptualisation of The Parasitic Mind, having endured two great wars during his lifetime: first, the Lebanese civil war which was rife with identity politics and tribalism, and more recently, the ongoing war on university campuses which are making proud departures from reason, science, logic and common sense. Consequently, the book argues that the human brain can be infected by a class of parasites called ‘idea pathogens’ (bad ideas) which can alter human behaviour to incite destructive outcomes. To gauge the severity of these ‘idea pathogens’, Saad provided a peculiar example: a mouse that is infected by the parasite Taxoplasma gondii loses its innate fear of cats and becomes sexually attracted to cat urine; this inevitably leads the mouse to its death. Similarly, humans who suffer from ‘idea pathogens’ become vulnerable and detrimental to themselves and to their society.
Saad proceeded to propose that postmodernism is the ‘granddaddy of idea pathogens’. In a postmodern perspective, there are no objective truths but only subjective truths; these dynamics become deeply anti-scientific as people are constrained by their subjective biases, indicating that one’s individual truth or experiences hold greater importance than the actual truth. The question raised here was that if the world, according to postmodernism, is relative and everything is a social construct then what ethical framework enables someone to determine right from wrong? Saad shared several anecdotes to explore cultural relativism as an example of an ‘idea pathogen’. If a hypothetical doctrine dictated to its followers that ‘every fourth child shall have its eyes gouged so that they can walk in darkness towards the light’, according to post-modernism and cultural relativism, this idea would be perfectly acceptable. Personal, religious and moral imperatives become privy to interrogation. Accordingly, concepts like Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) could be equally justified. This is one manifestation of how an ‘idea pathogen’ can have dire consequences on societies.
Alongside postmodernism and cultural relativism, Saad proposed another ‘idea pathogen’ that has infiltrated the human brain: biophobia, the fear of biology and understanding human behaviour. Saad finds it incomprehensible that all other species, excluding humans, can be understood via biology, however, human behaviour somehow transcends it. Research suggests that hormones can alter behaviour; to this accord, Saad referenced how women’s menstrual cycles can manipulate their buying behaviours. If this is understood to hold truth, it is difficult to understand why there is an increasing desire amongst some to liberate themselves from reality. Again, Saad blamed the popularisation of ‘idea pathogens’ for ‘murdering the truth in the pursuit of some ideological nonsense’.
Having understood what makes an idea bad or parasitic, Saad next explored why they become infectious. This is contingent on the nature of the ‘idea pathogen’. Using the analogy of COVID19 – every virus has a different infection rate, mortality rate and behaviour. Not all ‘idea pathogens’ are equally infectious but what makes them alluring is that they offer hope to their hosts. Unbound by the ‘shackles of reality’, social constructivism becomes a highly infectious idea. This theory proposes that everything is a social construct which relates to Locke’s interpretation of tabula rasa – the idea that we are all born with empty minds/clean slates and society alone shapes who we are. This, being a very hopeful message, becomes infectious to the mass. Under this system, although a hypothetical child could aspire to become ‘the next Lionel Messi … Albert Einstein … or Michael Jordan’, this should be caveated because the child is predisposed with biological imperatives that make him more or less likely to instantiate each of those trajectories. The hopeful message that any child has equal potentiality to achieve certain trajectories becomes infectious. Similarly, the ‘Dove Campaign for Real Beauty’ sells the message that women are all equally beautiful and that there is no universal metric of beauty. This is a very infectious selling point as it convinces the target market that all types of women are beautiful. The reality, presented by Saad, is that all kinds of women are equally worthy of being beautiful but that does not mean that they are equally beautiful. From the perspective of an evolutionary psychologist, he suggested that perceived beauty can be explained by one’s facial symmetry. The same logic could be applied to the idea that ‘size is just a number’, a heavily empowering idea, but a lie, as it deserts the truth and does not harbour a healthy solution for the individual. Saad calls this the ‘Ostrich Parasitic Syndrome’ – the metaphor when one buries their head in the sand to avoid hearing the truth. This is effectively what is happening with these ‘idea pathogens'; it allows for one to instantiate its desire for denial rather than being shackled by truth and reality.
Saad continued the conversation by providing a framework by which good ideas can emerge. Here, he shared his motto of letting the best ideas win on the ideological battlefield: ‘you have the right to share your opinions and I should also have the right to counter it.’ However, with ideological fascism, it becomes misogynistic to argue against radical feminism, it becomes Islamophobic to critique certain tenets of Islam and it becomes transphobic to refuse the compelled use of gender pronouns by the government. As such the concept of ‘cancel culture’ draws parallels with the culture observed by Saad in the Middle East. There, one might be killed if the authorities do not like what you say. However, in the West, it is one’s reputation and career that are killed through being ‘cancelled’. Saad called this the ‘tyranny of the minority’ and pleaded for the silent majority to develop the courage to speak up against it and to challenge the idiocy so that the truth may prevail. He emphasised that no ideology is outside the purview of scrutiny, mockery or ridicule. Nothing is sacrosanct and a free society should be able to recognise the difference between attacking individuals (which is wrong) and attacking ideas.
The origin of these ‘idea pathogens’ can be attributed to universities, though they are usually seen as the hub of progression of humankind. Saad found that being educated does not inoculate one from terrible ideas. In his opinion, some academics espouse ‘insane ideas’ precisely because they can decouple their ideas from reality. In order to get rid of these ‘idea pathogens’, one has to be deeply rooted in logic, science and reason. Postmodernism is the antithesis of this, emerging in humanities and social science departments. Saad finds scholars such as Foucault, Derrida and Lacan impenetrable as their ‘gibberish’ is presented as profundity. Saad claimed that this ‘intellectual terrorism’ was responsible for destroying the lives of countless generations of students.
To extend his metaphor, Saad proposed several ‘vaccinations’ for these ‘idea pathogens’. One of these advises individuals to distinguish thinking and feeling.
It is a false premise that humans are driven by reason rather than emotions. Problems occur when the wrong system is triggered at the wrong occasion. For example, the activation of the affective system (emotional rationale) would be suitable for an instinctual determination of a suspicious individual, and is evolutionarily relevant, but would not be appropriate for solving a triple integral calculus problem. Saad implored viewers to construct arguments using reason, a ‘truly a wonderful epistemological tool to navigate many of these difficult issues’, and to avoid bringing emotion or hysteria into debates.
In order for the average individual to receive a range of perspectives, openness to new ideas is essential; the opposite of Ostrich Parasitic Syndrome. In ancient times, one would have relied on the priestly class to access information, whilst today, knowledge is at everyone’s fingertips thanks to internet search engines. This, however, invokes a heuristic culture that avoids taking efforts to uncover the truth. Saad advocated an approach similar to the Hindu concept of ‘vivek’, which differentiates between those things that help us flourish and those which do not.
Saad concluded with an exhortation to use one’s voice to effect change: if there is something that is objectionable or which departs from reason, one must challenge it politely and build the courage to present one’s view in the battlefield of ideas.