What is ideology?
IntroductionThe following two articles are reprints of articles that appeared in APA:NESFA. The first, Ideologues, appeared in AN#52, September 1974, and the second What is ideology? appeared in AN#53, October 1974. The originals were components in more extended commentary. They have been revised so as to be stand alone articles. Some minor editing was done to remove anachronisms and personalities. Other than that, the text is unchanged.
I suppose my opinions on ideologues and ideology are much the same as they
were thirty years ago. Still, times have changed and I have read much since
then and possibly have learned something, so I thought some after thoughts
would be a good addition.
In his book Up From Liberalism William F. Buckley comments that there is nothing more boring, nothing more dreary, than the ideologue, the man who views every question through the eyes of his ideology. His statement is proven false, for Mr. Buckley is very much the ideologue, and yet he is a very interesting and entertaining man. Yet there is something in what he says, for he too can be dreary, and it is usually when he is most in the possession of his demon.
Mr. Buckley is marvelously alert to the shoddy thinking, the unthinking emotionalism, and the ideological contortions that pass for thinking among liberals. He is, after all, their sworn enemy. And he is right; the more passionately and emotionally one is committed to liberalism, the cloudier and fuzzier one’s thinking tends to be. The same is true, of course, of Mr. Buckley and of conservatism, but this he finds harder to perceive.
George Orwell put the matter clearly in his marvelous essay, Politics and the English Language. Politics is the natural enemy of clear thought and of the English language. In part this is because politics and political writing is very much “the defense of the indefensible”. And in part is because politics is very much ideological politics.
Let a person profess an ideology and his thinking becomes barren, diseased, and sterile wherever the blight of that ideology touches. Let a person become a Marxist and all becomes economic determinism, all events, all motives are seen though the astigmatic vision of the ideology. Through these clouded eyes all those who are with the cause are blown up into bloated monsters and those who are with it are transmuted into the fairy gold of revolutionary purity.
It is typical, characteristic, of ideologues to think unclearly. The tricks of fallacious argument are endemic among them. The “if you profess A then you must profess B” where B does not follow from A is a standard ploy, usually done without even realizing it. There is the false duality, the faulty analogy used as proof, the non-sequitur, the conclusion stuck in among the premises, the ad hominem attack, etc. There are all there; all of the old shabby tricks of fallacious argument that were old when Rome was still a village. And then there is the abuse of language. Let an ideologue get his hands on a word, let him make it part of his jargon, and he will twist it and extend it until there is nothing left. Fascism and Democracy are such words; there is nothing left of Fascism except that it something bad, and nothing left of democracy save that it is something good.
It is not surprising that ideology is such a distorter of thought. The ideologue begins with the false premise that he possesses The Truth. It does not end there. The ideology explains; things are explained in terms of the ideology. The ideology determines good and evil; those who disagree with the ideology are enemies of The Truth. More importantly, the ideology becomes and unarticulated premise in any discussion – unarticulated and unchallengeable. More than that, any line of argument will do; there is no need to think clearly nor to argue correctly in the attempt to reach the truth – The Truth is already known. All that is needed is to persuade and convince, to convert the unbeliever. The means matter little as long as the end is achieved.
There is a Gresham’s law of thought as well as one of money. Bad arguments drive out good ones. In an age where most political argument is fraudulent, all discussion is insensibly cheapened. Even with he best of wills people accept faulty argument as correct, unwittingly because it is the common usage of the time.
Fundamentalists speak of taking Jesus into your heart; progressives speak of consciousness raising. The latter is a term I have come to distrust. To be sure the term has meaning and some validity. It means, or should mean, to help someone become aware of biases and presuppositions in one’s thinking. Even when it comes from a convinced believer (as it almost always does) it is valuable, for a bias is still a bias, and the recognition of a bias is always valuable, not matter by whom it is pointed out.
The problem is that the term is the property of believers. It never means “seeing the world more clearly”. It is always “seeing the world more clearly as I see it.” It is not a call to clearer vision; it part of a sale pitch; it comes attached to a bill of goods – usually a pretty shabby bill of goods too. It is fundamentally – unintentionally, but still fundamentally – a dishonest phrase because it says “raise consciousness” and means “see the world according to the true belief.
There is another characterist of ideological thinking and rhetoric that I
deplore. Anything seems to go in the line of name calling and insult. It
usually goes unremarked because it so commonplace; the insults become
meaningless from the force of repetition and familiarity. The nonbelievers
dismiss them as part of the jargon of the believers, and the believers use
them out of habit. Thus do insults cease to be insults, but the price is
that all parties stop listening to what is said.
I did not define either “ideological” or “ideology”. In so doing I am guilty of the same muzziness I have decried in others, for both terms are and have been subject to the same sort of abuse as “democracy”
I am a rationalist, albeit not a thorough going one. I believe that to “think clearly and argue correctly to reach the truth” is a good, and that in questions of determining truth no other method has higher claim. If reason tells me one thing and Murgatroydism tells me another, I prefer to listen to reason. Still, reason, logic, science, whatever, is not the whole story of life and in some ways is rather irrelevant. It does not attend to the meaning of life and the actual experience of life.
My use of “ideology” was according to my understanding of a popular (and probably mushy) usage. To get at what I had in mind, let’s look at some examples.
Some ideologies: Much of Christianity, Marxism, doctrinaire conservatism, doctrinaire liberalism, the “movement”.
Epigram: Practical politics argues about who gets what – ideological politics argues about whose theory to adopt.
There are several things that my examples have in common. They are all socially prescriptive. They all have a moral imperative. In all of them there is a strong element of absolutism – they all have doctrines about the world that are treated as unimpeachable truth.
An ideology is a set of doctrines about how the world is and how it should be. Moreover these are moral doctrines – they tell you how you should be and how others should be. They are activist – it is your moral duty to change the world to match the prescriptions of the doctrine.
(I see I am more defining what I find repugnant than doing an actual definition.) Perhaps the following is a reasonable formulation: We need in life notions of what is right and wrong, what may or may not be done, what to do, and why to do it. There are many ways we acquire these notions. We take them ready made from our environment. We construct them from experience. We fall into them by accident.
One way to get these notions is to construct a system of thought and ideas that provides these notions as corolaries. Such systems may be complete and self contained or they may be just fragments. In any case the system must be accepted as being true. In general it must be accorded a high degree of certitude, for we are staking our perception of the meaning of life upon it.
Among these systems there are those that are principally internal in character, i.e., they say much about what the individual ought to be and do, but make no demands on the rest of the world. And then there are those that prescribe what the rest of the world ought to be like. It is the latter that I am thinking of when I use the term ideology.
What do I mean by ideological thinking? I contend that there is a style of argument that is characteristically used in rhetoric based upon an ideology. I have pointed out some of these characteristics.
There is a difficulty that I must deal with. The captious critic can say:
When you say you dislike ideological thinking, you are really attacking ideologies that disagree with your own. This unreasonable. If you are speaking as a proponent of an ideology then your thinking is ideological thinking.By his argument I am convicted out of condemning the line of reasoning I am engaged in. Nor can I argue that in my case it is OK because my methods of argument are truthful whereas those of other ideologies are fallacious – it is just that kind of argument that I am taking exception to.
Naturally enough I contend that I am not doing any such thing. I hold that there is a certain type of thinking characteristic of those engaged in analysis and rhetoric within the framework of ideologies as I have defined them. I hold that demonstrating fallacies in the thinking of those espousing an ideology is not the same thing as refuting or even attacking that ideology. In fact, I can be an adherent of an ideology and still value clear thought and correct argument. The theologian who insists on the primacy of faith over reason but still demands that arguments that claim to be lines of reasoning actually be lines of reasoning is an example.
In truth I do view most ideologies and ideologists with a jaundiced eye.
There are several reasons. First of all they all contain within them the
seeds of conversion by the sword. “Kill them all, God will know his own,”
was said by a good Christian bishop, but other sects and other believers have
adopted similar policies when they had the power. These things have a strong
totalitarian streak – which I do not approve of. And, of course, they lead
to very sloppy thinking, and you know what I think of that.
1. the body of doctrine, myth, symbol, etc., of a social movement, institution, class, or large group.all of which accords well enough with my usage. The post-modernists are fond of the term Grand Narrative as an equivalent. Lyotard proclaimed an end to grand narratives, but they seem to be doing well enough despite the funeral notice.
In retrospect I wish to point out that the ideological rhetoric often appeals to primitive social values that precede idological structures. In particular political ideologies appeal to a primitive sense of justice. The sense of things being unfair was there before all ideologies or even before our species was fully human. The power of ideological movements does not derive from the logic or their doctrines or even the appeal of their myths. Rather it comes from their ability to marshal emotions, particular the emotions of resentment and revulsion.
I did not then and do not now have an entirely satisfactory reply to the captious critic. The religious fundamentalist treats all views as variant religions. Likewise the political ideologists treats all views as variant politics. Let us grant that they are in the wrong. Still, where shall we ground our “right” and “wrong” if we are permitted no ideologies?
As a final note, the quote from the Christian bishop apparently is a myth; the story has never been substantiated.
Copyright © 2004 by Richard Harter