Preserving Ideas

When groups of Americans travel to different parts of the world to provide support and assistance, most don’t realize how much their own culture influences those around them. In Abu-Sada’s “In the Eyes of Others,” many chapters discussed how these third world groups sometimes negatively perceive people providing them with aid. Taking this even further raises the question: how do a humanitarian aid worker’s core values and culture resonate and affect the surrounding population?

As people, college students especially, travel to third world countries they unknowingly function as a “vector for Western ideas and modes of behavior” (Donini). Most students don’t realize it, but when entering a different country with completely different norms and values, they become ambassadors of America. American culture is extremely different to a culture of any third world country, so the spread of our ideas is basically inevitable. Western values will often clash with other cultures, so the spread can be harmful to other societies.

In his Ted Talk, Dan Dennett brilliantly makes a connection between toxic ideas and actual sickness. Just like many great civilizations in the past have been wiped out by different viruses they hadn’t built up immunity to, new “toxic” ideas sometimes have the same effect on older, more traditional ways of thinking. “We’re all responsible for, not just the intended effects of our ideas, but for their likely misuses” (Dennett).

Antonio Donini mentions in his article that “technical knowledge and expertise – the nutritionist, the camp manager, the protection officer – are never neutral. Try as they may, aid workers carry baggage, practice, and ideology that shape the relationship and power.” Going back to ethnocentrism, it’s extremely difficult for a person to stay unbiased in how they view another culture. Because of this, it’s very hard to stay neutral in humanitarian aid situations.

In Eric Townsend’s article, he talks about the Elon students’ service trip to Malawi. While tough to really analyze the students’ actions taken during the trip without making broad, unfair realizations, I can definitely assume that the surrounding cultures viewed them as outsiders. As college students normally do, they most likely spread their ideas and memes throughout the society they were in without giving the action a second thought.

In the title, the article uses the words “service opportunities,” as if opportunity is more important than the service itself. This combined with fact that they spent very little time in various regions of Malawi shows that trip was designed to benefit the students just as much as the socities they were helping. “The group also toured Blantyre to see the streets from the children’s perspective” (Townsend). This isn’t a bad thing though, education through first-hand experiences like these is crucial to aiding a region in the future. The only problem is the group probably didn’t stick around long enough to develop much more than their own ideas within these regions.

In Douglas Adams’ book “Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency,” he talks about his fictitious invention, which is capable of preserving certain memes forever, Electric Monks:

“The Electric Monk was a labour-saving device, like a dishwasher or video recorder […] Electric Monks believed things for you, thus saving you what was becoming an increasingly onerous task, that of believing all things the world expected you to believe.”

While we don’t have any Electric Monks on Earth (yet), it’s vital that we as humans do our best to preserve historical ideas and values before they are lost from society. Our brains are nothing more than organized collections of memes. As new memes are introduced, they can mask old ones to the point where we forget about them alotogether. They can be infectious, in good ways and bad. “They’re very easy to misuse, that’s why they’re dangerous” (Dennett).



Adams, Douglas. Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency. London: Pan, 1988. Print.

Blackmore, Susan. “Dangerous Ideas!” Dr. Susan Blackmore. N.p., 28 Oct. 2004. Web.

“Dan Dennett: Dangerous Memes.” YouTube. YouTube, 2 July 2007. Web.

Donini, Antonio. “Humanitarianism, Perceptions, Power.” In the Eyes of Others. Ed. Caroline Abu-Sada. N.p.: Doctors Without Borders, 2012. 183-92. Print.

“Students Visit Malawi for Service Opportunities.” E-Net! Elon University News & Information. Elon University, n.d. Web.

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