As someone who spends most of my time studying and attempting to accurately explain an ideology—Critical Social Justice—I myself do not believe to have much merit, I find myself coming up against an increasingly common error: the assumption that when I explain why someone with a certain ideology thinks the way she does, I am endorsing or defending the ideology itself. As a result, I often have conversations like this one:
Person: Why do “Social Justice” activists keep trying to punish and no-platform people for expressing ideas they don’t like?
Me: Because they believe social reality and accepted knowledge are constructed by discourses—ways of talking about things—so some ways of talking about things are literally dangerous to the safety of marginalised groups.
Person: Language is not literally dangerous, for f*ck’s sake! You just can’t stand other people having ideas you don’t like.
This misconception can also occur the other way round. In fact, left-wingers often have even have greater difficulty in understanding the conservative mindset:
Person: Why do so many conservatives oppose reproductive freedom?
Me: It’s because of their views on the importance of individual responsibility and stable families. They think making contraception available on health insurance and access to abortion easy undermines that. Also, they’re more likely to be religious and then they could believe an embryo has a soul.
Person: What b*llsh*t. You’re just misogynists who want to control women’s sexuality and keep them restricted to rigid gender roles.
I am neither a Critical Social Justice activist nor a social conservative: in fact, I oppose both mindsets strongly. But it appears to be becoming harder for people to understand that one can offer an explanation for an ideological group’s actions that is not because they are evil without agreeing with that ideology. This is a problem because underlying it is the assumption that that if you don’t believe a rationale has any worth, you will misrepresent it as ill motivated.
Why Do We Do This?
This tendency is certainly not a new development. Humans are a tribal species and a storytelling one. History bears testament to the narratives of good and evil that groups of humans have woven around their own groups and rival ones. There is probably a very good evolutionary explanation for this. As social psychologist Jonathan Haidt explains, our ability to reason evolved long after our core functions as social mammals and is therefore not the driving force of our complex brains. Human reason, he argues, mostly operates in the service of our intuitions. We know what we want to do and then we use our reason to justify it. Haidt explains:
Why do we have this weird mental architecture? As hominid brains tripled in size over the last 5 million years, developing language and a vastly improved ability to reason, why did we evolve an inner lawyer, rather than an inner judge or scientist? Wouldn’t it have been most adaptive for our ancestors to figure out the truth, the real truth about who did what and why, rather than using all that brainpower just to find evidence in support of what they wanted to believe? That depends on which you think was more important for our ancestors’ survival: truth or reputation.
Reputation, one’s standing in the eyes of one’s social group, has historically been essential to the survival of any individual human and thus a concern with reputation has been strongly selected for. As Shakespeare’s Iago said, “Good name in man and woman, dear my lord, is the immediate jewel of their souls.” Even now, in advanced societies where a human could physically survive without the good opinion of her peers, it is essentially important to the psychologically healthy and neurologically typical human to have the validation and approval of a social group. Public shaming and cancellation could not be so devastatingly effective if this were not the case.
Along with our need for approval from our own group, hostility towards out-groups seems to be innate and difficult to resist. In Blueprint: The Evolutionary Origins of a Good Society, Nicholas Christakis finds himself “depressed” by this. Speaking of “minimal-group experiments” in which people were assigned to groups arbitrarily, he observes that “humans will discriminate against out-group members even though there is no logical reason to do so and even when the groups have no history together or even any communication.” As Christakis reminds us:
The ability to form and recognize alliances is essential to social animals, and the ability to categorize individuals as friends or foes, or as inside or outside one’s group, is a crucial cognitive predicate for alliances. In this view, bias and prejudice in humans are evolved forms of this otherwise useful capacity. This observation once again reminds us not to fall for the fallacy of seeing whatever is natural as necessarily moral. Out-group hatred can be natural as well as wrong.
However, we can and do have the ability to mitigate this because we form cultures. The most successful system thus far at enabling groups of humans with different worldviews to co-exist and even appreciate each others’ differences and put diverse worldviews to use by allowing them to challenge each others’ assumptions has been liberalism. Liberalism is a pluralistic conflict resolution system. Its central feature is the understanding that people have the freedom to hold a wide range of beliefs and values, to express them without fear of punishment and to apply them to their own lives, provided that doing so doesn’t impinge on anybody else trying to do the same. The ideal liberal society, therefore, contains people with many religious, political, philosophical and ethical positions and an expectation that they will tolerate each other, respect each others’ freedoms, bring ideas together, work co-operatively as needed and perhaps even be friends!
At the very centre of liberalism is the belief that the individual is the unit of society and that individuals can relate to each other in a number of ways, despite holding very different beliefs on certain things. This works. Christakis notes:
Findings from cross-cultural studies suggest that in-group bias and an emphasis on the distinction between us and them is higher in collectivist societies (including Communist societies), which stress the importance of group membership and subsume the individual within the group, than it is in individualist societies (where social interdependence is less salient), which stress autonomy.
While a liberal society can work well to minimise our tribalistic intuitions, in a collectivist society, the individual becomes a member of a tribe first and foremost, which maximises tribal intuitions, such as the need to signal one’s loyalty to the in-group and righteous condemnation of the outgroup. This places our alliance detection systems on alert, ready to quickly identify people as allies or foes. Is this why I am increasingly finding myself categorised as a foe even when I am explaining a belief system I do not myself hold? I suspect it is. I suspect that this is a symptom of the decline of liberalism within the specific conversational milieu of the culture wars.
I do not think we are experiencing the decline of western civilisation (whatever that means). I do think that we are allowing illiberal voices to dominate important conversations and that this is why they are not proving very productive. I believe this is because the dominant right-wing narrative at present is that of populism—an inherently collectivist stance that valorises nationalism, social conservatism, common sense and white or national identity politics, in opposition to a perceived liberal elite that betrays the common people. Meanwhile, the dominant left-wing narrative is that of Critical Social Justice—an inherently collectivist stance that focuses intensely on oppression, marginalisation, discourses and identity politics in opposition to perceived dominant groups in society, who are understood to perpetuate oppression to protect their own privilege.
It is unlikely that either of these groups represent the majority opinion of those who lean right or who lean left but they are doing extraordinarily well at making people on both sides focus on the extremes of the other as an existential threat to be defended against rather than defending the liberalism that can defeat them both. It is important that we do not continue to allow the conversation to be dominated by collectivist tribes whose raisons d’être are to oppose an enemy perceived as representing the status quo and impose their own moral framework on society to the exclusion of all others and thereby undermine the liberal individualism and pluralism that mitigates the worst of human nature. I have written about the need to resist this existential polarisation much more broadly and abstractly here, but one specific tool needed to defend liberalism and address the comprehension problem described above is what I will call ideological theory of mind.
Ideological Theory of Mind
Theory of mind is the ability to discern another person’s psychological state from external cues and thus be able to respond appropriately. For example: Sarah is feeling left out and insecure because we are talking about something she doesn’t have any knowledge of. I should change the subject to something within in her area of expertise, so she feels more confident and valued. People with autism may have limitations to their theory of mind and this can cause significant problems for their development and retention of relationships even though they usually care just as deeply about their friends as neurologically typical people. That is how important it is to humans to be able to perceive how someone else is likely to feel even if it is different to how they themselves feel.
Ideology is most commonly defined as “A system of ideas and ideals, especially one which forms the basis of economic or political theory and policy,” but this seems rather technical and gives the impression of requiring much study and expertise. In practice, a set of ideas and ideals can be held by anyone who has thought enough to develop a firm opinion about how the world works and how it should work. I prefer the definition of Anthony Downs in 1957, “We define an ideology as a verbal image of the good society and of the chief means of constructing such a society.” Not only is this much simpler, but understanding ideology this way includes an assumption of good will that is important for communication.
Ideological theory of mind is thus best understood as the ability to accurately understand how another person’s value system works, even if you do not share it, and thus be able to respond appropriately to how he sees the situation, rather than how you do. A failure of ideological theory of mind is as much of a hindrance to the development of the mutual trust necessary for productive conversation as a failure of psychological theory of mind is to the development of the mutual trust necessary for an emotional bond. Developing a strong ideological theory of mind is the way to resist allowing self-serving narratives to triumph over honest and open discussion. It discourages you from taking the easy option of believing that because you are motivated by things that are good, anyone who disagrees with you must be motivated by things that are bad. It can be developed by making the effort to understand your interlocutor’s conception of the world and moral framework and imagine how a situation would look if his conception were true. You do not have to believe that it is true.
Take, for example, the raging debate between gender-critical feminists and trans activists. While some members of these groups are able to understand how the other side sees the issue, it is more common for exchanges between the two to flounder almost immediately. Such conversations often go something like this:
Gender-critical feminist: I care about the rights and safety of women, so if you disagree with me, you must be a misogynist.
Trans activist: I care about the rights and safety of trans people so if you disagree with me, you are a transphobe.
This is an abject failure of ideological theory of mind on both sides because trans activists do not, for the most part, hate women. They believe trans women to be women and to be more socially vulnerable than natal women, whose legal rights have already been largely secured, and therefore in need of greater advocacy. Similarly, gender-critical feminists do not usually hate trans women. They believe woman to be a biological category and that women require sex-based rights to ensure their safety, privacy and fair access to sports, and that these will be endangered by straightforwardly accepting trans women as women in every situation. Nevertheless, the conversation, having begun on false premises, can go nowhere except further into accusations of bigotry and hatefulness. Each side tries to win by convincing people of the innocent victimhood of one group and hateful malevolence of the other. This is a horribly toxic way to proceed and not a method that can ever lead to the successful resolution of the problem presented by the few areas in which the rights of natal women and trans women may conflict.
On social media, different factions in the culture wars are increasingly likely to ascribe unwarranted, nefarious motivations and goals to those whom they perceive as their adversaries and often do so openly even though they know other people are watching. This is possibly the most alarming aspect of the current phenomenon. That people have ideologically motivated reading comprehension problems and ascribe nefarious motivations to each other is not new, but they did, at least, used to try to make their arguments plausible, and their reputations as serious thinkers with integrity used to suffer if those arguments did not hold water. Now, it seems as though everybody from the President of the United States to the very online Social Justice activist will openly spin self-serving and dishonest narrative after narrative, entirely misrepresenting the situations, motivations and actions of others, secure in the knowledge that their reputation within their group will not suffer in the least and that the group will even play along and support their own ‘side’ in whatever battle of narratives is occurring.
Liberals must not be tempted to do this and by liberals I am referring to anyone who supports the principles and institutions that underlie a secular, liberal democracy—science, reason, freedom of belief and speech and the marketplace of ideas as a system of knowledge production, individual liberty and universal human rights. We must instead defend liberal pluralism and liberal systems of conflict resolution. We must do so by developing a strong ideological theory of mind and expecting this from anyone who wants to be regarded as a thinker with integrity. We must decline to offer respect or support to anyone who is disingenuously attributing nefarious motivations and goals to others, even if they are doing so in support of aims we share.
Instead, take the time and effort to understand how somebody who disagrees with you sees the world and what “verbal image of the good society and chief means for constructing it” they are conveying. Try to see that image yourself and respond to the other person as though she fully believes it to be true because she probably does. If she argues that traditional gender roles and cultural integrity are the way to build and protect a strong and harmonious society, do not translate that into being a misogynistic white supremacist. If she argues that dominant discourses of white supremacy, patriarchy and cisnormativity are poisoning everything and killing people, do not translate that into being a genocidal communist. Instead develop your ideological theory of mind and try to meet others where they are, address what they are actually saying and accept their motivations for saying it. This is the only way in which a marketplace of ideas can ever work effectively.