I recently read a New York Times article that expresses concern about the flourishing of "toxic ideas". Such ideas are characterized as

Antiglobalism, racial or ethnic supremacy, nationalism, suspicion of the federal government, obsessions over individual liberty — these are all hallmarks of this network of ideologies, which is, of course, shot through with conspiracy theories.

Is it true that an idea can be toxic?

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    I suspect that an idea is not toxic, but a lie most certainly can be, and usually is, toxic. Commented Nov 29, 2018 at 18:18
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    This seems "primarily opinion based" considering that the meaning of a metaphor is whatever its user wants it to be. Could you rephrase it into something more objectively answerable?
    – Conifold
    Commented Nov 29, 2018 at 19:21
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    @elliotsvensson I agree that intentional lying or ignorance is definitely toxic. But I believe ideas can also be toxic, depending on the intentions behind them. The term, intention, is used 110 times in this brief definition of lying and deception (including in the lengthy list of cited references): plato.stanford.edu/entries/lying-definition And since intention is a goal or purpose, it must be an idea.
    – Bread
    Commented Nov 29, 2018 at 22:49
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    Some beliefs/behaviors/ideologies can harm you, yes, even if they are true. Conversely, some beliefs/behaviors/ideologies can help you, even if they are false. Commented Nov 29, 2018 at 23:39
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    @EternalPropagation, I'm afraid we're going to have to agree to disagree about false ideas that can help you. Commented Nov 30, 2018 at 0:25

2 Answers 2


I don't consider such things genuine ideas, only memes. They are not complete ideas because they need to draw upon other ideas to instantiate themselves into something that really contains meaning.

Racism is not a conceptual framework with content. Races don't really exist, we draw upon some biological markers to define 'our own' and we make up reasons that those biological markers should be preferred. So German racism is an idea, and American "White" racism is an idea, but racism is a category of ideas that contain a given meme of biologically-centered in-grouping.

It is hard to say that that entire category contains only toxic things. 'Homosexual racism' has historically served to concentrate the gay population into areas where our scant numbers don't make it impossible for us to find one another. But in all other ways is is basically the same as more conventional categories of racism -- it chooses a biological marker and draws the people who display it together in common defense against everyone who does not display it.

You can endlessly debate whether 'Black racism' is officially racism, but to the degree it fits the same pattern, it does some good. It establishes environments where it is better to be Black than White, and gives Black people a respite from all the other forms of racism working against them, even if it excludes others and limits some participants' tolerance for differences. (Without it Americans would have to listen to Country music...)

To generalize that all 'in-grouping ideologies' are toxic because they share a single meme that has often caused a great deal of damage, doesn't work. The whole idea, capable of being acted upon, is productive or counterproductive in a given environment.

Appadurai, for instance, makes the distinction between 'predatory identities' and other identifications, but it has to do with their intentions, their basis, and their effects, not their content. Identities become predatory when it is clearly in their best interests to eliminate those who come between them and 'true ethnos', the meme behind our overall notion of a State with a national character. Many states do not contain such groups, they can have the same kind of identity, but if they have no one to render invisible, it can provide productive leverage on cultural traditions.

So even as a compete idea, it is not reasonable to call the idea itself toxic, unless it serves a different toxic agenda. Germanness, as an idea, can be a good thing, or a bad thing, depending upon the context. When Germany was a collection of warring principalities, it was a good thing. Acting on it ended wars and saved lives. Later, when Germany was a neurotic mess that hated its inability to finish the project of unification and blamed those distant from the center of its projected 'ethnos' it was toxic in a very literal sense: it killed people -- instead of ending wars, it started them.


This question is a fallacy. Because the assumptions are mixed together with logical arguments all of which I fail to find connected to the article in reference.

Even if I agree that racial supremacy is a toxic idea, I do not agree that anti-globalization or individual rights is a toxic idea. So the question leads and is no longer a question but rather is trying to be manipulatively persuasive.

Ad misericordiam. Because the question appeals to emotions instead of logic.

Equivocation. Because it seems to lead into two directions if one feels a toxic idea is missing in the examples.

Cum hoc ergo propter hoc. Because it lumps together issues.

Non causa pro causa. Because considering all the statements to be toxic ideas lack certain logic.

Hasty generalizations. Because there is little evidence to support some of the examples as being toxic ideas.

This was a hasty answer based upon this article.


  • Well put. In fact, to the extent there exist "toxic ideas" they consist of ideas that can be characterized pretty much as you characterized the NY Times article in this answer.
    – gonzo
    Commented Nov 29, 2018 at 22:30

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