The Kanye West of philosophy, Ludwig Wittgenstein was a controversial figure. Brilliant and belligerent in equal measures, the Austro-British contrarian contributed to the philosophy of logic, the philosophy of language, the philosophy of mind and the philosophy of mathematics. Wittgenstein was a strange, enigmatic man—his writing reads more like poetry than philosophy. When delivering lectures to his eager students, he didn’t use prepared notes. Instead, he thought through the issues in front of his audience, often in a painstakingly methodical manner, typically using a series of examples to tease out a conclusion. Unlike most philosophers of the day, he engaged in a sort of liquefaction of philosophical questions and quandaries.
However, when it came to language, Wittgenstein was far less abstruse. For him, speech is an activity and, more than that, it is a way of life—in fact, this is what gives it its meaning. For Wittgenstein, problems arise when language goes on holiday, when we get lazy, or when we use language to further specific agendas, especially if those agendas run contrary to objective truth. There are many language games. Some serve a constructive purpose—such as when we offer words of genuine kindness or support—nevertheless, some of these games are designed to manipulate audiences and promote nefarious ideologies.
Words Have Power
Words create concepts: good and bad, heaven and hell, deities and demons. In the words of Jean Baptiste Girard, “by words we learn thoughts, and by thoughts we learn life.” The words we use feed language, and the language we use lays the foundation for the construction of ideologies. From sports to religion, politics to academia, ideologies clearly exert a profound influence.
Ideology is addictive. Though, unlike addiction, ideology is a conviction-based dynamic rather than a neurochemical process, like addiction, it demands constant reinforcement and replenishment. Like substance withdrawal, ideology withdrawal is a painful process, whose symptoms include irritability, fatigue, insomnia, headaches and difficulty looking at oneself in the mirror.
People are often baffled by the fractious ways in which others communicate, especially within politics and academia. Why do people argue so much? Is it too much to just sit down and discuss our differences in a more judicious manner? Yes, it is. Tribalism appears to play a role. Moreover, people are playing very different language games. These zero-sum games have their own sets of rules. In ideological warfare, to compromise is to admit defeat. Truth is subdued, relegated to a back seat.
Within insular academic circles, the ideology addict gains validation by communicating and collaborating with other believers. Ideological validation fills two basic needs: confidence and purpose. A constant state of doubt exerts a corrosive influence over one’s mind—humans need purpose to function in an optimal manner and an excess of doubt impedes this. Ideological addiction appears to provide purpose; the addict’s actions are guided by a need to satisfy an ideological itch.
Take social constructivism: theorists argue that human development is socially situated, leaving little room for biological or evolutionary influences. This ideology provides purpose, as the believer—who often displays an evangelical fervor—feels compelled both to defend and promote the ideology as an abstraction, and to call for its manifestation in the real world. The allure of such ideologies is extremely powerful. If an individual can abandon the addiction at any moment, and feel no sense of physical, mental, or emotional stress, then, obviously, she is not addicted. However, ideological addiction is a game of absolutes, an all-or-nothing state of being. It’s like being a Lakers or Clippers fan: there are no half measures. There is such emotional and mental investment involved, that the believer becomes convinced that his ideological perspective is not just the correct perspective, but the only perspective. This, more often than not, results in an almost unshakable conviction. What we are dealing with here is much stronger than faith.
Part of the ideological intoxication can be explained by the out-group homogeneity effect. Basically, we tend to believe that members of our own groups are unique, exceptional beings, while those in other groups are homogenous blocks in a monolithic belief system. In other words, we oversimplify, stereotype and belittle the out group. By painting the out group as the intransigent other, we no longer need to think of its members as individuals. We can default to our biases. It’s much easier to see those others as an amorphous entity than as a set of unique beings.
Buddhists believe that our minds create reality. If ideology influences our minds, then, clearly, ideology shapes our realities. Perceptions, false or not, govern reality. Millions of Americans are convinced that they are engaged in a political dogfight—the enemy being a homogeneous tribe of interlopers. In 2018, a nationally representative study found that 15% of Republicans and 20% of Democrats believe that the United States would be better off if people in the opposing party ceased to exist. For decades, social scientists have argued that the effects of partisan prejudices are reduced by cross-cutting encounters, which provide a sort of mutual common ground, a place where political rivals can put aside their differences and cooperate. If a well-to-do Democrat and a working-class Republican both attend the same church, then, for forty-five minutes a week, they can leave their differences at the door and come together in the name of community. However, in this era of moralizing and finger pointing, the sorting of individuals into specific tribes has dramatically diminished the likelihood of any cross-cutting ties.
Us Versus Them
We now live in an age in which we are suspicious of the other and these largely unjustified suspicions reinforce parochial loyalties. In both politics and academia, partisan polarization fuels dangerous rhetoric and dubious theories. This is a confusing time to be alive: full of subjective truths, virtue signaling and melodramatic backlash. This reactionary cultural phenomenon is nothing new. The Enlightenment’s emphasis on sagacity and the scientific method inspired the Romantic movement, in which people turned towards intuition, nature and the paranormal. Are we now living through our own Romantic (or un-romantic) period, in which personal truths carry more weight than actual truths? The world of academia provides an answer.
Surely, education is more helpful than harmful. Surely, the pursuit of education should be vigorously encouraged. At least, this is how we all talk about education. Well, it really depends on what kind of education we have in mind. Today, ideologies and language games have supplanted the lofty position once occupied by rigorous leaning. People are learning, but what exactly? Take literary theory, for example. It explains why thirty students can all read the same book, and then write papers at the end of the semester, each arguing a separate case for what the text really means. This is a school of thought, constructed by theorists, authors and philosophers, which provides subjective templates, allowing an individual to interpret a text in any manner she pleases. Basically, by applying the best theoretical apparatus, an individual can argue that a text is basically saying whatever she wants it to say. Take Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. A reader influenced by theory might see Victor Frankenstein’s creation, a hideous, sapient creature, as a physical embodiment of toxic masculinity. Unfortunately, these same lenses being used to view literary texts are now being applied to basic tenets of science and reality.
To understand the world, the social constructivists engage in sordid language games. Hell bent on eviscerating the biological understandings that typically underpin the more prudent ways in which we think about race, gender and sexuality, constructivists are busy trying to rewrite the scientific lexicon. Take sex, for example. Typically, sex is thought of as a biological fact. Bodies are classified into two categories—male and female—with distinct chromosomes, reproductive systems, hormones and sexual characteristics. However, according to feminist law professor Julie Greenberg, in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries her reproductive function was considered a woman’s defining characteristics. The medical community decided that the presence or absence of ovaries was the ultimate criterion determining sex. It’s easy to see why some skeptics argue that sexual difference was produced by myopic, heteronormative assumptions, promoted by medical professionals, most of whom were men, thus making sex a construct of the patriarchy. Basic tenets of truth appear to have been ideologically weaponized here.
Our academic culture—the culture that ostensibly teaches educators how to teach and students how to think in a critical manner—has been parasitized by dogma and dog whistling. As Michael Gurian points out in Saving Our Sons, although there are many powerful men at the top of society, there is also no US demographic group in which males are doing better than females. This is true both economically and academically speaking. Yes, of course, subsections of females are faring worse than males, Nevertheless, there are just as many or more subsections of society in which males fare considerably worse than females. The World Health Organization highlighted this in 2015, in a report that points out that white females tend to have better health, higher grades, superior test scores, higher college graduation rates and are also safer at home and in school than white males. The list of such female advantages is comprehensive, and the findings hold true for comparisons of African-American, Native American, Latino and Asian-American males and females. When such reports are conveniently ignored by academics with agendas, is it any wonder that academic integrity has taken such a severe beating?
Take, for example, a 2016 paper linking gender theory and climate change, entitled “Glaciers, Gender and Science—A Feminist Glaciology Framework for Global Environmental Climate Change,” co-authored by a team of historians from the University of Oregon, and funded by the National Science Foundation. Here’s the abstract:
Glaciers are key icons of climate change and global environmental change. However, the relationships among gender, science and glaciers—particularly related to epistemological questions about the production of glaciological knowledge—remain understudied. This paper thus proposes a feminist glaciology framework with four key components: 1) knowledge producers; (2) gendered science and knowledge; (3) systems of scientific domination; and (4) alternative representations of glaciers. Merging feminist postcolonial science studies and feminist political ecology, the feminist glaciology framework generates robust analysis of gender, power and epistemologies in dynamic social-ecological systems, thereby leading to more just and equitable science and human-ice interactions.
The paper is littered with linguistic landmines. A very specific language game is at play here, in which the authors use evocative buzzwords designed to trigger visceral reactions in their readers. A paper like this is designed to target a particular audience. Terms like colonialism, marginalization, masculinist discourses, etc., which appear with alarming frequency, are used as linguistic devices designed to reel the reader in, appealing more to emotion than logic.
Feminist and postcolonial theories augment and harmonize with each other by showing how gender and colonialism are intertwined, as well as how both women and indigenous peoples have historically been ostracized. Feminist glaciology appears to be a mutation of feminist postcolonial studies. No longer content with the analysis of gender dynamics, the neo-glaciologists claim that alternative knowledge can explain glaciological activity.
Of course, such nonsense isn’t new. In 1996, Alan Sokal published a fake article in the journal Social Text. The plan’s ingenuity stemmed from its simplicity. By getting a prominent humanities journal to publish an article with generous servings of buzzword gibberish, Sokal illustrated flaws in cultural studies, particularly the ways in which certain words, often lacking in context, can lead peer reviewers to forego rigorous evaluation.
More recently, two scholars published a fake article in the journal Cogent Social Sciences. In the paper, ridiculously entitled “The Conceptual Penis as a Social Construct,” the authors argue that people should not view the penis as a bodily organ: “anatomical penises may exist, but as pre-operative transgendered women also have anatomical penises, the penis vis-à-vis maleness is an incoherent construct.” The authors argue that the conceptual penis is better understood not as an anatomical organ but as a social construct “isomorphic to performative toxic masculinity.”
Like Johnny Depp and Benicio Del Toro in Fear and Loathing, we appear to be careening down a Dionysian highway. As Nietzsche so brilliantly outlines, drunkenness and madness are Dionysian components, as they break down a person’s individual character. Ideology works in a similar manner, since it appeals directly to base instincts and emotional responses, circumventing reason and rationality in the process. To some undiscerning souls, certain ideologies may feel right, but this feeling means very little if evidence to the contrary exists.
If we learnt anything at all from the 2016 presidential election, it’s this: we are suffering from information overload. We are bombarded with so much information on a daily basis—from advertisements to political diatribes, conspiracy theories to pseudo-scientific facts—and so much of this information is designed to deceive, to supplant reasoning by appealing to our emotions and our need to belong. By belong, I mean a specific yearning to belong to a group with a similar ideological ethos to our own. Most of us are blind to our own blind spots, with little idea about how our feelings and biases shape our thoughts and actions. Ideology is like an actor receiving an Oscar: all emotion and zero rationality. Imagine, if you can, a world in which ideology were governed by rationality. In such a world, if it could ever truly exist, there would be little need or room for ideological warfare. Exposed to the same facts, we would end up reaching the same conclusions (of course, biases could still exert their pernicious influence).
When reason is at odds with subjective taste—a key ingredient of ideology—the latter almost always emerges victorious. As we have seen on college campuses around the world, particularly in the United States, ideology can takes us farther and farther away from reason. History has taught us of the destruction inflicted by ideologues like Hitler, Stalin and Mao. By understanding the perils of ideology, maybe college campuses can reclaim the throne of truth and reason.