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At a time when it is easier than ever for people to promote extremist ideas and agendas in front of an increasingly global audience, Edward Andrews FRSA argues that we would do well to remember the limitations of any individual’s ability to know what is best for another, and the extreme dangers which arise from pretending that one can.

For me it started with Isaiah Berlin. Granted, Alexander Herzen, Alexis de Tocqueville, Friedrich Hayek and others – Tolstoy, Mill, Camus, Orwell to name a few – all contributed to varying degrees. But it was definitely Berlin who first captivated me with the at once powerful, transformative, compelling, and sometimes destructive, power of ideas.

In his seminal essay 1958 Two Concepts of Liberty, Berlin reminded us of the German poet Heinrich Heine’s 1834 warning that the power of ideas is not to be underestimated: “philosophical concepts nurtured in the stillness of a professor’s study could destroy a civilization”. Heine was principally alluding to the 40 years of bloodshed and murder in the name of progress that had followed France’s 1789 revolution, but it is a warning the 21st century would do well to heed.

Ideas are everywhere. They underpin social, economic and political acts. They provide inspiration for art, literature and films, which, for future generations, become a lens through which they can observe their ancestors, discovering what they thought, felt, liked, disliked; how they lived. In the context of a human condition characterised by heterogeneity, the proliferation of ideas can contribute towards celebrating those individual differences, while at the same time offering means of co-operation: shared traditions, cultures and nationalities all arise from shared ideas.

And yet ideas have also been the direct cause of horrible human crimes for millennia. Or rather, one idea in particular: the notion that all answers to the central questions of human life – individual, spiritual, political or cultural – can be reduced to one single answer, an irrefutable and universal standard. It is this very idea which underpins the extremist ideology of the Islamic State – that pretends to know what is right for every single individual – and which presently offers such a visible and direct challenge to the Western liberal paradigm.

The current challenge is starker due to the fact that liberal ideas themselves – and specifically, the notion of freedom of speech – are not particularly well equipped for self-defence. That is to say, paradoxically, the ideal of freedom of speech, as manifested via the proliferation of ideas on the internet and social media, is helping to spread extremist Islamic thought, which violently attacks the liberalism that generously provides it with the platform from whence to do so.

David Cameron acknowledged this fact in his recent statements urging action focused on the internet to prevent the spread of extreme Islamic views online. Cameron draws out a paradox that sits at the heart of liberal political theory: there are dangers associated with freedom of speech, which demand responsibility. The internet offers a particularly pertinent example of this, as it provides a stage where even seemingly ‘moderate’ forms of intolerance, that women are not equal for example, can feed or lend legitimacy to the more extreme.

Granted there can be a fine line between the Scylla of Orwellian newspeak and the Charybdis of a Hobbesian state of nature; it is a path that can only be chartered with tolerance and respect. Respect for others, and respect for the rule of law. Difficult it may be for a call to arms to be based, not on the promise of a monotheistic revelation of what constitutes the good life, but a plurality of values and ends; these things are not necessarily even commensurate with one another. Nonetheless it is this task which political society presents us with.

Towards the end of his life at the close of the 20th century, Berlin was optimistic that the spread of rationality and tolerance could bring about a better time for mankind and mark the dawn of a brighter future, as opposed to the fanatical nationalism that had caused such great human suffering during the preceding 100 years. I continue to share his optimism, however would argue that the dangers associated with a pretence of knowledge are as real a threat to liberalism today as they were in the twentieth century.

Edward works in the London office of a leading global private equity firm, where he focuses on investments in sustainable energy infrastructure and technology. He has an academic background in the history of political and economic thought.


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