PATHOLOGY: What is “ideology” and why is it bad?

Like “postmodernism” or “feminism,” an ideology can have as many meanings as there are people using the term. In this article, I’m discussing the most common usage of “ideology”: the system of abstracted meaning applied to public matters. Wikipedia (at time of typing) tells us that, in the Althusserian sense, ideology is “the imaginary relation to the real conditions of existence.”

We treat our ideologies as though they were the only valid way to interpret our social, political and economic lives because we all secretly believe that we’re better at “thinking” than other people, perhaps because we only have direct access to our own mental processes.

However, when we become emotionally attached to the almost arbitrary ideologies we’ve cobbled together, they become something else: an infection of your mind; weaponized ideas.

DIAGNOSIS: How do I know my brain is on ideology?

Here is a necessarily incomplete checklist. Your brain might be on ideology if:

  • When your argument is reframed with the variables changed, you instantly recognize it as ideology.
  • You make a counter-argument which could as easily apply to your own argument.
  • You think that anyone whose greatest crime is disagreeing with your opinion must be stupid.
  • You complain about a network of people or institutions who are trying to silence you.
  • You use the phrase, “I have a right to my opinion,” at any time, for any reason.
  • You find the idea that you might be wrong about your theory intolerable.
  • Your argument gets its power from particular words or phrases (such as “mansplaining” or “cultural appropriation”) and doesn’t make much sense without them.
  • When your own argument is used against you, your answer is, “that’s different because…”
  • You find yourself spending time shouting down, silencing or dismissing the experiences of people in whose interests you claim to have developed your opinions.
  • When you hear a counterargument you can’t explain, you become angry rather than interested.
  • You’re deeply offended that a member of the out-group is talking to you about a subject you feel should be discussed only by members of the in-group. Before he’s actually said anything.
  • You feel that your personal fears and obsessions should be shared by others. (I’m terrified of spiders; what does that tell you about spiders?)
  • When your beliefs are challenged with incontrovertible evidence, they get stronger (this is called the Backfire Effect).

PROGNOSIS: What does my brain look like on ideology?

When you develop an emotional attachment to an ideology, you train yourself to adopt a narrative into which all incoming information must fit. This is what happens when you start mainlining ideology.

First: Your standard of evidence for information that confirms your opinion is much lower than for information that contradicts your opinion.

You accept without question personal anecdotes of people who agree with you, but challenge scientific studies that contradict you.

Second: You regard any criticism of the ideology as a personal attack.

The mere expression of a different opinion, or even asking how you came to adopt it, is denying you some sort of humanity; that it is deeply offensive and dismisses you as a person. You interpret these questions as part of a non-existent machine oppressing you by misusing terms such as “male privilege” or “white privilege” Objectively neutral critical engagement (such as a sourced statement of incontrovertible fact) is taken as abuse or bullying.

As a corollary, you consistently frame every discussion as if you’re the victim. So much of your argumentation depends on being the victim that you will even invent a victimhood that doesn’t apply to you just to make your arguments work. The non-existent “war on Christmas” is a great example of this. 

Third: You are averse to learning anything from anyone who disagrees with your ideology, even in areas unrelated to that ideology.

If you’ve decided someone is a racist, for instance, you are less inclined to entertain his opinions on how to reform the health service, or which wine goes best with which fish.

As a corollary, you find your opinions “clumping” with others who share your ideology, even in areas unrelated that ideology.

If you’ve decided someone is a leader when it comes to your understanding of feminism, for instance, you are far more likely to favor their opinions on Israel, regardless of whether or not they make any sense.

Fourth: You find yourself in an echo chamber, with no access to contradictory information.

Your social media choices dictate that everything you see validates your opinions. You think that you are gathering more and more evidence which proves your theory, but in fact you’re screaming gibberish into a mirror. You think that the world is relentlessly confirming your ideology, but in fact you’ve stopped thinking. Your investigations into the assumptions underlying your ideology are nothing more than a self-propelling spiral of logical fallacies. What’s the point in thinking once you already know the real truth?

As a consequence, you are very skilled at defending terrible opinions, but not so skilled at nailing those opinions together in the first place. Because you have little reason to think otherwise, you assume that, in any conversation about your favorite topic, you know more than anyone else, even if they are qualified in that area and you are not.

As a corollary, you will feel justified in re-defining words and ideas, which already have perfectly serviceable definitions, to suit your theory. For instance, you may decide that the word “racism” now excludes racism towards white people.

Fifth: You assume that you speak for everyone who you believe should share your ideology, even if they’ve specifically told you that they don’t.

If you identify as a Black Lives Matter activist, for instance, you assume that you speak for all black people (and that they should be grateful to you), even though the majority of black people (64%) “opt instead for All Lives Matter.”

As a corollary, you assume that you care more about the subject than the people who have a different opinion, and that this justifies your behavior.

Sixth: You jump to the worst possible conclusion about anyone that does not explicitly line up with your ideology.

Someone’s entire personality can be judged on the last single opinion they had that you didn’t like. You find it difficult to accept that it’s possible to agree with someone about one thing and disagree with that same person about something else.

As a corollary, you think you are morally superior to everyone else. As with religious people, you may convince yourself that you don’t, but you do and therefore you tolerate the bullying and harassment of your interlocutors. You may even believe that you’re performing an important public service in “calling out” these different opinions.

You refer to the mildest opponents as “trolls” and “idiots” and complain that the mildest counterarguments expressed in the politest way count as being “harangued” or “harassed.”

Throughout this entire prognosis, of course, you will sincerely believe yourself to be open-minded and willing to listen to the views of others. You will imagine that you’ve thought things through and come to a reasonable final conclusion. However, historically literate people will be aware that final solutions are never good.

TREATMENT: How do I get rid of ideology?

You’ve heard all the bad news, and now you’re going to read some practical measures (mostly little mind tricks) you can take to help make sure none of this happens to you. The temptation will be to nod your head and agree that other people need to take these measures. These measures are not for other people. They are for you.

Here we go.

Specifically search for information which contradicts your theory. This can be as easy as typing the word “criticism” into Google, followed by whatever your theory is. Remember that finding information that supports your theory does not demonstrate anything. If you’re wondering why this is true, read about the black swan.

Frame all your arguments in positive terms. For instance, instead of maintaining that “religion is stupid,” explain what can be done to ensure the separation of church and state, and how that separation would benefit everyone, including religious people.

Adopt an open theory. Open theories kill ideology stone dead. For instance, instead of thinking that “all men are assholes,” moderate your idea to the far more likely, “all the men I know are assholes,” or, “the evidence I’ve seen indicates that all men are assholes.”

Avoid assuming the worst about someone, but feel free to assume the best. Remember that, with a very few exceptions who make themselves painfully obvious, we all want a better world for ourselves and the people we love. Where we differ is in our approaches.

There are no bad guys. No one gets up in the morning intending to hurt people for no reason. Try to work out where people are coming from. Otherwise you’re operating under a series of assumptions which may not be correct.

You think you’re a more moral person than those around you. You think you’re a better judge of character and even a better driver than those around you. You might be right, but how would you know? What evidence are you using to reach these conclusions?

You may feel like you’re surrounded by idiots, but to everyone else, you’re one of those idiots. You may feel like you’re stuck in traffic, but to everyone else, you are the traffic.

You judge others by their actions, but you judge yourself by your intentions. You have access to your thoughts, and you are therefore able to douse your stupid actions in exculpatory context. When someone else does something stupid, all you have is their stupid actions. 

Be prepared to listen to what someone else might have to say. Although this is very difficult, try to actively listen rather than compiling reflexive counterarguments while they are talking.

Seek out common ground instead of looking for areas of difference. If you’re absolutely determined, you can find a reason to hate anyone. It’s more constructive to find things you can agree on and work forward on those issues.

Avoid engaging with the extreme end of your opposition, or those who clearly have no interest in a discussion. Extremists are easily defeated, so it’s tempting to only deal with them and subsequently imagine that you’ve made some sort of progress. There are moderate positions of opposition in nearly every area who would benefit from your engagement.

Try to imagine what your argument would look like if you didn’t already accept the conclusion. Religious people often fall into this trap, developing complicated arguments for the existence of a god which are utterly convincing, but only if you already believe in a god.

Encourage criticism. Specifically ask people to find the holes in your argument. There is no downside to this. Either your argument gets stronger, or you learn why you should trash it. Do not be afraid to trash your arguments and opinions. Everything can be improved and your opinions are no exception.

Suffering from something does not mean you know anything about it; all you know is what it’s like to suffer from it. Cancer sufferers don’t get to redefine what cancer means or what to do about it, regardless of their personal experience. Cancer patients trust the judgement of oncologists, even if those doctors have never had cancer.

When you get something wrong, or you make a mistake, tell someone. It doesn’t matter if they’re involved in the conversation or if they agree with your interpretation. Stating out loud that you’ve made a mistake is a powerful way to train yourself that you are capable of making mistakes.

Think more. Think harder. Be kinder. Not the other guy. You.

The next time you feel like pointing at someone’s oh-so-obvious biases, deflect some of that pointy energy to yourself. Instead of pointing out the asshole, ask yourself: 

Am I the asshole in this scenario?

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  1. “Your brain might be on ideology if:
    When your argument is reframed with the variables changed, you instantly reconize it as ideology.”
    – Terrible sentence

    “You complain about a network of people or institutions who are trying to silence you”
    – Insufficient explanation: it is people of ideology doing everything possible to silence you. But on the other hand, people who complain about censorship are not always ideologues. The Right, the Church and other political forces always promote censorship and anti-blasphemy laws. Left-wing groupuscules and university spaces do the same also. Not everyone who complains about “censorship” is an ideologue since there are plenty of people and institutions who are attacking freedom of speech and this is a fact not a perception.

  2. I understand what some of the other commenters are saying with regard to the article doing exactly what it says we shouldn’t, and with the author’s biases showing. It reads like “I am a white male who has been challenged on my unconscious biases, and this makes me afraid. Therefore addressing failings in society that advantage me, by default, is an ‘ideology’, logic says so. Also my opinion matters but yours doesn’t.”

    1. I have no control over how it “reads” to you, but I challenge my own biases on a daily basis. It’s hard work, but it’s rewarding. This article is about identifying and challenging your harmful ideological beliefs. It’s not race-sensitive or gender-sensitive or anything-sensitive. This is why I have used examples from different areas, and I was very careful how I phrased those examples.

      We all have biases. We all need to confront and challenge them regardless of our situation or condition. I have provided in the last part of the article some practical measures to mitigate these biases. They will help you regardless of your race or gender or whatever else you feel divides us.

      Also, as I mentioned in the article, the only thing I’m “afraid” of is spiders. I don’t expect you to do anything about that, but to be honest, if you have any ideas, I’d like to hear them.

    2. Notice how quick you were to couch the article in the context of your own ideology. Immediately you’re concerned with race and gender politics, and then disengage from the criticism through a genetic fallacy. The very idea that identity groups have relationships to each other that should play out at the level of the individual is supremely stupid and morally dangerous. But I argue all ideology, as a surrogate for reason, is stupid and dangerous.

      From one scientist to another, please think about what you’re doing. Use symmetry arguments to avoid remaking the mistakes of the past: if it was wrong which group A did it to B, why is it okay when B does it to C or back to A? We have to outlive this stupid obsession with skin colour and gender as ways of drawing tribal lines.

  3. As an investigator, I approach my work with an open mind. With my private life and the opinions I hold, we need to take care to balance the open mind you advocate with avoiding a feeling of guilt for taking a strong stand on a given issue. At least twice you cited examples of feminist positions, and that seems an indication of your own bias at work (as opposed to taking a strong belief of yours and using it as an example.

    I evaluate each issue individually, but forming a strong opinion is not something I care to avoid.

    1. I was careful to use examples from different areas of social justice where I’ve observed this to be a problem. I would respectfully suggest the fact that you only had a problem with the examples from feminism may say more about your bias than mine.

      The point of this article is that this sort of thing affects everyone, whether you’re an Areo contributor or an investigator, and the more you believe you’re above it, the more you need to watch out for it.

  4. I love this magazine, but this article reads like a drawn out definition of confirmation bias, which is explained in many places (and much less dogmatically). I am all for calling out the obfuscation of post-modernism (and other isms) but I see this article as an example of what it is criticizing in its judgmental tone and stance of absolute authority. I think if we want to criticize ways of thinking, it is best to do so in a balanced way, especially if you are criticizing people for being too rigid in their thinking.

    1. I liked this article and disagree with your assessment. I found it reasonable and appreciated the author’s recommendation to apply these methods to oneself above all. We know or should know about the multitude of cognitive biases (‘bugs’ to borrow a term from software) that affect our thinking. Why not try to take steps to avoid them?

      As an additional technique, I’ve had some success by avoiding the verb “to be”. Nothing fans the emotional flames more than this deadly little verb. Writing “X is bad” escalates, while “I don’t like X” opens up the dialogue. Why don’t you like X?

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