When I complain about the people who insist that “Ideas have consequences!” I am not actually saying that ideas don’t matter to people. What I am saying is that because they cannot actually cause anything to happen, they are not deterministic. They cannot cause particular thoughts or actions to happen.
The belief that ideas cause bad thoughts or actions is a superstition common among people who want to avoid personal responsibility for their thoughts and actions. This is particularly baffling when it comes from “conservative” and “libertarian” people who otherwise make strong claims about personal sin, divine retribution, and personal accountability. It is a totally un-Biblical claim that has absolutely no theological or doctrinal basis. If ideas cause people to do bad things, then there is no personal accountability. This is no different from the “liberal” superstition that genetic makeup, family upbringing, or social context cause people to do bad things.
Instead of explaining “good people doing bad things” by resorting to the superstition that “ideas have consequences,” try the following approach:
The search for a method of understanding and curing the underlying rhetorical excesses of Islamic terrorists begins with a search for a theory that explains the rhetoric. Kenneth Burke offers such a theory in his extension of Aristotle’s concept of entelechy. Despite the implications of free will in Burke’s theory, he finds that frequently humans (however free) subject themselves to near-deterministic compulsions supplied by their own terminologies. These logical (or logological) compulsions are easily carried to the extreme or to psychotic levels. The term psychotic entelechy refers to the tendency of some individuals to be so desirous of fulfilling or bringing to perfection the implications of their terminologies that they engage in very hazardous or damaging actions.
–Stan Lindsay, Psychotic Entelechy, p. 66
With “psychotic entelechy” the ideas are still there in the individual’s head, it’s just that they aren’t magical anymore. Rather than Mohammed or Darwin or Marx exerting an incredible, mystical power across the ages to compel masses of people to robotically do his evil bidding, we can place the responsibility on the individual for how he chooses to act on his ideas. Maybe he didn’t consciously choose his ideas, insofar as he unreflectively absorbed them from his surrounding culture; however, he still chooses whether to reinforce cultural ideas and how to act on them.
One response to this might be to say, “Well, OK, ideas don’t really cause anything to happen. That’s just a shorthand way of saying that some ideas have always had bad consequences.”
That’s kind of like the way evolutionists constantly talk about design in nature but then excuse it by saying that it’s just a shorthand way of describing “emergent order.”
It’s a rhetorical move used to cover up one’s ignorance and avoid accountability, and it leads people to believe in deterministic fantasies. But it doesn’t cause people to believe in deterministic fantasies.