Name: Rollins, Peter
Occupation: Writer, theologian, philosopher
Q: What makes an idea “dangerous”?
I guess you could describe a dangerous idea as one that has the power to really change things. When people hear the term “dangerous idea” they no doubt think of Fascism or National Socialism or other ideas that do violence against others. But the violence of these ideas belies their underlying impotence. They are like a man who beats his partner. The outburst of the man is a sign of weakness, evidence that he is unable to make real change in his life and who is thus blaming another and acting out against them. Many ideologies function in this way, finding a victim to blame for societal problems and acting out against them. More than this they are attempts at ensuring that nothing changes (protecting the powerful against the powerless). The the most disgusting ideologies are precisely that, means of absolving responsibility and maintaing the status quo at all costs. The real examples of people with dangerous ideas are the ones like Martin Luther King Jr, Mother Teresa, or Mahatma Gandhi. For these people had ideas that fundamentally changed the power structures of their day. Whether it is in the are of politics, science, philosophy or technology the people with the dangerous ideas are the ones that have the power to really change the world for the better.
Q: Which technological or scientific advancement excites you most?
Scientists and technologists have an interesting relationship. The scientists are the ones who are doing the exciting work of deciphering the universe, they generally don’t care that much about what the results of their research will be. Indeed it is often hard to work out what practical use the latest findings in something like the realm of physics will be. It is the ones working in technology who have the job of making the latest findings in CERN impact the world. I guess where I see some exciting developments here are in the area of renewable energy, electric transport and mobile health units that can test your blood, urine and saliva through a device you plug into your smart phone.
Q: Which social or political movement scares you most?
It is easy to point toward the growth of various fundamentalisms as scary, but liberalism itself might be even more frightening. By this I mean that we are perhaps part of a system in which we hide our violence far away, preferring not to see the results of our lifestyle on others. It might be liberalism itself that actually generates the very conditions within which fundamentalism grows by contributing to the suffering of people in various parts of the world. The scary thing for people like me is to try and face up to my own involvement in violence and attempt to effectuate change where I am.
Q: What’s the one thing you wish society better understood?
Ourselves. I know that can sound somewhat trite, but I think that so much of the violence we see in the world comes from our inability to look at and deal with the anxieties, fears and traumas within. Instead we project out to others, seeing them as the problem. We fall victim to ideas that tell us some new Eden is possible if only some x (the Jew, the Muslim etc.) wasn’t there. We cannot face our own inner antagonisms and so we are more prone to create antagonisms with others. It is not an easy task to know oneself better, indeed part of knowing oneself better involves accepting that they are a mystery to ourselves and making peace with that.
Q: Will the defining catastrophe of the next decade be natural or man-made?
People often talk about the coming catastrophe, but to be honest I don’t think its coming, I think it is already here. Our system functions precisely in its ability to manage, compartmentalize, shift, and hide catastrophes. Whole species are being wiped out, countries are poverty stricken, unemployment is rife, prejudice is enshrined in laws and starvation is a reality for millions. Maybe something worse is coming over the horizon, but I think in many ways we need to open our eyes and see that we are living in a type of apocalyptic end times.
Q: What question have you been dying to ask someone (and who)?
That’s an interesting question. I’m reminded of Sartre who was approached by a student who asked him a question. Sartre looked at him and said, “why are you asking? You already know me and what I would likely say, hence by approaching me you already know the type of advice you want to receive and can thus skip talking to me.” The point here is that Sartre was pointing out that questions and who we direct them too can betray our own conservatism (our desire to hear back what we already know dimly). For instance a Republican in the US will likely ask a question to someone in their party who holds the views they already endorse, or ask a question of someone in the other party to confirm their dislike of the person.
The people I am most challenged by are the ones who take my questions and show how they assume lots of things that themselves should be questioned, who refuse to answer me and force me to do the work. That is one of the roles of philosophers, to help us see what our questions presuppose, to question our questions, interrogate them and perhaps get us to ask better ones.
Q: What question have you been dying for someone to ask you?
Q: If you could outsource one part of your life, what would it be?
I guess the personal stuff. I’ve got worse at that kind of thing as I have got older and we all know that relationships can be painful. But then again, if I outsourced that I’d probably have nothing to write about. Many writers, artists and musicians are successful in their fields precisely because they are so unsuccessful in their personal lives.
Q: What’s your favourite book and why?
I guess my favourite book is always the one I am on the threshold of reading, the one that holds out the promise that it will give me insights, explain the universe, and help me understand my anxiety. I think that is what inspires me to keep reading, looking for that impossible book that will give the answers. Sadly no books can do that, except my own of course!