Ideology is a bad word-for good reasons. Ideological thinking is inferior thinking. It is narrow-minded and blind to anything that veers off the ideological path. We rarely choose ideologies for their logical and factual merits. Even when we do, the choice itself limits us to continuing that train of thought. We are bound up in something greater than the intellectual debate, being cast up and pushed forward by the waves of history. It still makes sense, but that “sense” is removed from pragmatic, skeptical thinking. For some political thinkers, ideology seems closer to religious rationale than to science.
Ideologies are anathema to reason. Their inner logic usually fits snugly around underlying assumptions, but for the average follower, the logic is mostly superfluous. Generating ideology is like publishing a novel: you struggle to create a story, set it in print, add an
“-ism” and ship it. The debate is mostly over once you write it down. For a novel, whatever is left to discuss will be between you and your literary critics, and if you are good enough, between teachers and students in those rare schools were literature is debatable. For those of us with less education, if we actually read anything other than magazines, we at most would “like” some parts of the book and “not like” others. The scholarly debate would be incomprehensible, boring and even pretentious. The point is, lacking the intellectual skills gained by a good education, defending our ideology, like appreciating literature, involves little argument for its underlying rationale. It boils down to cheering for our team and booing the rivals. Less anathema to reason itself, ideology opposes that particular kind of scientific reasoning that we rely on for survival in the upper echelons of our society. The bottom line is that it is obnoxiously and overpoweringly elitist.
Cultural relativity can soften the bite, a bit. A better understanding of the circumstances in which different people choose ideologies, are forced to choose ideologies, persist in defending them, live by them, and die by them, can evoke our sympathy-or our pity. There are rationales other than those of elite intellectualism. We can even find something to admire in them. Intellectualism can then find a place among many alternative ideologies. This brings us back to square one, however, in that there is, again, nothing to argue about. If I choose to embrace my religion, and you choose to embrace logical positivism, is it even worth discussing anything other than the weather?
I have made my choice. I am here at ultra-elite Amherst. I embrace intellectualism but also cannot forget where it comes from. As an ideology, it has been used to justify countless horrors. It stinks of the atrocities of imperialism, genocide, the vicious righteousness of the Enlightenment, all the way to its historical beginnings in the chauvinistic bathhouses of ancient Greece. It is the moving force of all that is “glorious” and revolting in Western civilization. But the painstaking intellectual pursuit, together with similar rational traditions from non-Western societies, are the only alternatives to the more common argument these days, which is nine millimeters in diameter and emerges with lethal force from the barrel of an assault rifle.
There is no escape from making assumptions, and thus constructing an ideology through which you see the world. The best you can do is to let your ideology grow and adapt around the principles of skepticism and proof by experience. Be subversive, even to your own beliefs. The ideology of the rational argument, aloof and elitist as it may seem, is your only defense against the deadly trap of ideology itself. That’s pretty neat.
When I think of “epistemology,” it’s hard for me not to think of wealthy old men in armchairs, drinking scotch and planning world conquest. But, then, I am convinced that it is our greatest hope for emancipating the human spirit from its self-made prison. Our ideologies cause war, famine and misery on a massive scale. They may bring the end of all that we have accomplished. We must break free.
Argue, listen and argue some more, even if there’s no apparent need for it. It is crucial. It is good training. The absolute worst you can do is just cheer for your team.
(“No Need To Argue” is the name of The Cranberries’ second album. It’s not as good as the first one.)