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what is ideology?

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ideology[1]

I recall Daniel Dennett, in an interview on Point of Inquiry, saying that one of the main barriers to critical thinking is emotional investment in a particular position. This reminds me also of Nietzsche’s remark – a great favourite of mine – that ‘there’s no greater liar than an indignant man’.

This is what ideology is all about. It needn’t be a scarey word, it’s really quite simple.

An ideologue is someone who’s stuck – as we all can be from time to time. Their emotionalism or indignation has them repeating the same mantra over and over. Hence the love of slogans.

Some time ago I wrote about the issue of GM food – in fact. it was the last of several posts, as mentioned there, but the title of the piece, ‘Monsanto and GMOs are not the same’, might’ve indicated that I was going to write about Monsanto. My intention, in the title, was to separate the scientific issues around GMOs from the political or business issues around Monsanto’s decisions and behaviour. I also felt a bit daunted about entering the messy arena of what seemed to be monopolistic or even standover tactics – at least according to anti-Monsanto activists. So I left the Monsanto issue alone. However, a recent analysis of Monsanto’s practices and the accusations against the company, presented on the Skeptics’ guide to the universe podcast, has emboldened me to look more closely at Monsanto in a forthcoming post.

I mention all this because my writing about GMOs in the first place was inspired by an encounter with one of those ‘stuck’ ideologues. I’d known this person for years, and we were just chatting about stuff when GMOs came up. I described myself as open about the issue, whereupon she launched upon a fierce attempt to disabuse me of my openness. By the end of it she’d worked herself up into a state of great emotion, there were tears in her eyes about the horrors of this practice, and I got the distinction impression that our civilisation was at stake. Needless to say, I felt sceptical, and with good reason as it turns out. But doesn’t it always turn out that way?

We tend to think of ideology as an unthinking, or insufficiently-thinking commitment to some broad set of ideas, usually political, but I don’t think it’s substantively different from most ‘I hate’ statements (or ‘I love’ statements for that matter). Over the years I’ve heard people say in my presence that they hate animals, poetry, Albanians, potatoes, Proust,  ants and Asians – and I’m sure I could come up with more.  All of these ‘hatreds’ were essentially ideological, that’s to say involving an unreflective emotional over-commitment.

Not that it requires a heavy emotional commitment – in fact the vehemence of the declaration often masks an underlying vacillation or insecurity. It reminds me of some adolescents. Relentless ideologues are often like the worst adolescents. Stuck, again.

So I see ideology differently from some. Many definitions of ideology talk about comprehensiveness and a systematic set of views, firmly held, but I prefer to focus on the emotionality inherent in all ideology. Racism, for example, is an ideology, which you might describe as all-encompassing rather than comprehensive. After all, there’s not much comprehending going on. Nor is there really all that much system. There’s just a lot of feeling, or at least a lot of display of feeling. It’s the feeling that’s all encompassing, and you find it in the anti-GMO crowd, the climate change denial crowd, the conspiracy theory crowd, the anti-vaccination crowd, and so on – an intense emotional stuckness. And it is the toughest nut for skeptics to crack, and it’s all-pervasive. If we could persuade people that their feelings are the worst culprits in leading them astray,we’d be well on the way to successfully transforming our world into a more reflective one (and I’m not convinced by the claim, made by some, that we’re all ideologues). We have to start with ourselves, of course.

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Written by stewart henderson

December 26, 2013 at 10:04 am

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