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Here’s The Biggest Problem With Ideology These Days

An essential explainer for an increasingly polarized world

Craig Axford
Apr 9, 2018 · 6 min read
Photo by Kevin Crosby on Unsplash

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These are difficult times for idea lovers. Though the art of argument hasn’t been completely replaced with ad hominem attacks and demagoguery, such types of rhetoric do seem to be ascendent at the moment.

President Trump is certainly the most prominent example of emotional, illogical, and frequently incoherent appeals to our baser instincts. Unfortunately, he’s hardly the only public figure demonizing opponents and pitting us against each other these days. Even those on the receiving end of this rhetorical barrage have begun to back themselves into opposing ideological corners in response. As a result, extreme polarization now best describes the current state of political affairs.

An appreciation for nuance and context were among the first casualties of this growing tribalism. Though ideologies, like stopped clocks, do occasionally get things right, the search for truth is not a priority for systems that are convinced they’ve already found it, or for groups feeling backed into a corner by them. Here are a few reasons looking at the world through an ideological lens is a temptation we should strongly resist.

One of the defining features of an ideology is that it is a system of thought that people vigorously identify with. The more a person identifies with an ideology, the more any challenge to it will be resisted.

Ideologies are typically either political or religious in nature. Though not all political and religious beliefs constitute ideologies, orthodoxy should be seen as synonymous with it. For example, simply falling on the right or left of the political spectrum doesn’t make a person an ideologue, but identifying exclusively with a particular political doctrine to the exclusion of other alternatives does. Similarly, religious fundamentalism of any stripe necessarily means adhering to a strict interpretation of scripture and other teachings with an accompanying disdain for all other interpretations and religious traditions.

In his book “How Propaganda Works,” the philosopher Jason Stanley argues, “When the identity tied up with an ideology is one that benefits from being ignorant of some parts of social reality,” the ideology in question will often become “democratically problematic.” Here Stanley gives ideologies a little wiggle room that I’m not inclined to do myself. Ideologies, in my view, are by nature tied to identity in a way that virtually guarantees ignorance will always be preferable to truth when reality and the ideological system come into conflict. If there’s an ideology out there that’s not “democratically problematic,” it’s the exception that proves the rule.

As a person becomes increasingly attached to a particular system of thought, challenges to that system tend to be interpreted and felt more and more personally. For example, arguments against a person’s preferred ism will be seen as an attack on the individual adherent as well as the group as a whole.

By forging such strong connections with its followers, ideologies are effectively producing antibodies to any outside persuasive influence that may come along. This resistance will be activated whether the argument against the ideology has merit or not, because any challenge is considered a challenge to both the individual and the group that identifies with it.

I personally witnessed the aforementioned defense mechanism when I began asking questions of the Mormon faith that I was raised in. Many of the sources I was reading that prompted my inquiries were immediately labeled as “anti-Mormon” without any regard for the issues they were raising. The simple fact that some historians and scholars were offering an unorthodox or contradictory interpretation of church history or doctrine was taken to be evidence of their bias. Therefore, I was told that they should not be relied upon, no matter how credible these researchers might seem or how powerful their arguments were.

Similar examples abound in the political realm. Labelling someone “un-American” is a clear attempt to shut down a critic without addressing their grievances or reasoning. Likewise, many conservatives are fond of throwing the label “socialist” at anyone suggesting a policy solution they don’t like. This kind of attack typically signals that the speaker is approaching the issue at hand from an ideological point of view. Therefore, in all likelihood they will prove resistant to dialogue and impervious to any evidence presented.

More importantly, labelling an opponent dehumanizes them. For this reason, an argument relying on questionings a person’s patriotism, integrity, or judgment is always morally suspect. At the very least, before making such charges publicly, it’s necessary to make sure there’s solid supporting evidence. A person’s reputation is at stake, and innocent bystanders will inevitably be implicated by association. Unfortunately, with ideologues and the like who are eager to demean anyone standing in their way, the chance is usually just too good to pass up.

It’s worth remembering that Martin Luther King Jr. always framed his stance and corresponding arguments as being against bigotry and in favor of equality. To the best of my knowledge he never publicly called out even his harshest opponents as “racists” or “bigots” by name, even though many gave him every reason to do so. That’s because he understood that he was fighting racism, not individuals. No matter where we stand on the political spectrum, we would be wise to follow King’s example and never forget that even our worst enemies deserve the dignity and respect we want for ourselves.

Perhaps the clearest sign a system of thought qualifies as an ideology is its claim to have all the relevant answers, often before it even knows the relevant questions. To use one contemporary example, the free market ideology claims to understand the proper role of both government and the market in every situation, even before it arises. No matter the size or scope of the economic problem we’re confronting, we can be assured the solution has already been provided: Just don’t interfere and let the market work it out on its own.

Sometimes, of course, this kind of free market fundamentalism proves to be correct, or at least less wrong than other alternatives. Direct, large-scale government intervention can sometimes be a cure worse than the disease itself. But this is not always the case. Not all interventions are necessarily bad. Nor are they all equally good. It takes thoughtful debate to work out the best public policy, and mistakes will inevitably be made along the way. In advocating for our ideas we need to approach each new situation with humility.

Unfortunately, ideologies are nothing if not proud and certain of their rightness. They don’t allow for positions to readily change as new circumstances arise or new evidence becomes available. Ultimately, this is their Achilles heel. But before they fall, they tend to cause a great deal of needless suffering.

Though an ideology’s followers will claim that they hold certain common values, it is their doctrine rather than their values that truly binds them together. Respect for free speech is a value. A commitment to equal protection under the law is a value. An appreciation for the role that diversity and open debate play within a functioning democracy is a value. Insistence upon conformity, engaging in personal insults, and attempting to intimidate opponents signals a person’s loyalty is to a particular system rather than liberal (small ‘l’) values like those listed above.

Being a Republican, Democrat, Libertarian, Green, etc. shouldn’t mean a person must sacrifice the right to think for themselves at their political party’s altar. Nor should membership in a religion or any other group come with such a requirement. Yet that’s exactly what we’re increasingly doing. Too often our first instinct these days is to belittle those with other points of view instead of treating them as individuals with something to potentially contribute. The hubbub of the marketplace of ideas may not be as reassuring as the certainty that ideology promises, but at least it nourishes democracy instead of poisoning it.

Written by

US citizen residing in British Columbia, Canada. Degrees include anthropology and environmental studies. Activism, politics, science, nature.

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