What if the metaphor “the marketplace of ideas” turns out to be nothing more and maybe less? Maybe some ideas (or maybe most ideas) are not in competition for consumers. Maybe the consumers of ideas are in competition with consumers of other ideas. The “idea” becomes an insignia, a talisman of the tribe. The producers of ideas (writers, preachers, makers of certain kinds) become little more than servants of the tribe. The “marketplace of ideas” itself becomes a signpost of an ascendant herd — or to put it another way, the keepers of the marketplace preceded their own idea and, even more so, the “ideas” found themselves ill-fit for the place.

Maybe it’s better to say that ideas compete in marketplaces — confined to smaller circulation among consumers that find themselves in agreement with the defining contexts. An author that writes for an “audience” probably shares that audience with other authors. The ideas offered by these authors acquire more adherents among their little tribe or else less. But even here something about the idea that ideas are in competition sounds false. Rather, in this little tribe, some acquire property and some do not. Those with turf assert the power of their ideas. Those without are left to envy the power of the ascendant idea or else to insist that their idea will come to bloom with a vengeance. But it was never or will never be the idea itself.

To think about it another way: maybe ideas are more like languages. English is not a better product than Portuguese; it has simply been caried by those that have (for now) made more winning bets, acquired more weapons, and amassed more territory. The odds may turn.

So what?

Well, if ideas do not win on their merits … what are their creators to do? What are their “consumers” to think? Most plunge ahead blindly, but some fall to silence, others into a kind of suspension of disbelief, others to propaganda, and a few … very few, turn to poetry.

Jere Odell, 24 Nov 2017, CC-BY.