The answer to the above question, in a word, is ideology. The terrorism group called ISIS and the recent “holiday cup” brew-ha are both thoroughly ideological.
One definition of ideology is, “the imaginary relationship of individuals to the real conditions of their existence”. A more popular and accessible term for ideology is “worldview.” Your worldview is basically the “lens” that you look through to see and interpret the world around you. Not surprisingly, the era known as ‘the information era’ has become and increasingly ideological age. And because the world is becoming increasingly ideological, it helps to understand just how ideology and worldview works (see Slavoj Žižek excellent film on the subject).
Here are some common worldview slogans that you may have seen on the highway today: “Proud to be a Christian American”, “Everyday is Earth Day,” “If it feels good, do it!”, “I work for my family, not yours. Get a job”, “Make peace not war” etc. The problem, of course, with these bumper sticker maxims is that they are virtually unassailable, since no one is ever required to defend the veracity of these slogans, at least not in any thoughtful way. Ideology is similar to religion in that for it to work well, it requires a faith “buy in” from its adherents. Ideology is the “big story” (capitalism, democracy, moralism, liberalism etc.) that provides us with a map for navigating the world. Unfortunately, because these ideological “maps” provide give us a sense of what is real and true, we end up becoming deeply attached to them. Over time our worldview become dogmatic, rigid, and myopic. This dogmatism is not reserved for the explicitly religious, as we have seen in the case of terrorism groups, such as ISIS, the line between religious dogma and political ideology is intentionally blurred or erased.
As we see in the clip below (Starbuck’s “Anti-Christmas” Holiday Cup Rant), one of the bi-products of our brave new, social media world is that more and more people are ready-willing-and-able to post their “easy answer” and their moral outrage to any one of life’s impossible dilemmas. Millions of talking heads now have their own microphone, stage, and audience (Facebook, Twitter, blog posts, You Tube, etc.)! The problem is not with free speech per se – the problem is that the shape of our discourse is becoming less personal, and more competitive and reductionist. It turns out that the rise of “artificial intelligence” predicted by countless, future-dystopia, sci-fi books and films, has not manifested the way we had expected, with the “rise of the machines.” The binary narratives binary politics in this country, when processed through the grid of social media has unleashed a Matrix-like wasteland, where people every time we hear a certain political “bell” ring, we begin salivating on our Facebook page.
The emergence of ideological social media has manifested in the “rise of a billion ideologues”, those who presume to be able to diagnose societies ills and prescribe the solution to the rest of us in a single Tweet. This “artificial intelligence” is an apt description for this vast and growing army of social watchdogs and cultural prophets, fueled with indignation, and armed with unlimited sources of data. The information age has bred an army of zealots and ideologues, secular and religious crusaders who won’t rest until they have either “Made America Great” or have exhausted their moral outrage by cursing at the darkness (the darkness that dwells in the hearts of all those . . . evil doers . . . over there.). Hell hath no fury like the zeal of an political ideologue! Welcome to the Matrix, where people are being used up my the media and politicians just as those religious crusaders got used up in their campaign a thousand years ago.
So what does ideology have to do with the corruption of our public discourse? Well, have you noticed how many news stories are based on binary-oppositions today: rich-poor, black-white, blue-red, theist-atheist, gay-straight? As John Stewart makes clear in his two-part interview with Rachel Maddow a few years back, news stories are intentionally designed by network producers to appeal to the lowest level of thought. As Stewart explains, it’s like looking at a sporting-match and your mind has to quickly figure out which uniform your team is wearing so that you can root for the “right team.” In this ideological-social-media age, reductionistic journalism follows the lowest level of thinking, the “us vs. them” formula. It is this binary formula that fuels outrage, tribalism and demagoguery. This is the formula that we are most vulnerable to, the one that helps us feel safe and right and incredulous at “wrong.” This is the formula that TV producers are using to “hook” you and reel you in. This is the formula they know will increase their viewers and drive up ratings.
But as Zizek reminds us, we are not innocent victims for ideology is not something that is simply foisted upon us from outside. Ideology has become our preferred “setting” for engaging and interpreting the world. It is time that we stop blaming the political hacks on TV for corrupting our minds and undermining our discourse. Our worldview is very much like the physical sense of sight, in that in the act of seeing, we naturally lose sight of the “lens” that we are looking through (our eyes or or eyeglasses). Also, like our physical eyes, we fail to recognize when a slow-growing cataract is starting to impair our vision. Organized religion is notorious for developing such “blind spots” but unfortunately, secular ideology does not fare better in this regard. This is why, when engaging any one of the countless worldviews (capitalism, socialism, nationalism, militarism, pacifism, moralism, hedonism, liberalism, conservatism, pragmatism, etc.), we must keep in mind that every one of these ideological systems is essentially a ‘faith proposal.’
We all have opinions as well as deeply held convictions; but given the fact that these convictions are often not shared or appreciated by the people around us, how are we to live together? Given the complexity of the world and the relative bias of all competing ideologies, how can we honestly believe that “me and my group” is qualified (over and against “them”) to prescribe what kind of world the rest of us ought to live in? The problem with this recent election now the reaction to the election is that they are both working of a narrative of “moral outrage.” Trump ran on a populist message of, “Washington insiders don’t care about you, but I do!” and now the “Resistance” group is rallying around the message, “Trump is an enemy of the good. He does not care about you but we do!” Do we really believe that we can overthrow outrage with outrage? What makes someone’s anger and outrage morally superior to another? Who is qualified to diagnose what exactly “needs fixing” in this world (certainly this social commentator is not immune)? Are we even interested in conversing with those who think so differently than ourselves? Are we willing to listen to dissenting viewpoints to gain understanding or are we only interested in discrediting so that our viewpoints are advanced with the least amount of resistance?
Now of course, the ideologue will insist that his or her particular worldview is purely “rational” and “logical” and “enlightened” but the nature of ideological arguments is that they tend to be self-referencing and reinforcing. For example, in the case of pragmatism, the person who identifies the “problem” is the one who is often rewarded with the task of prescribing the solution (we call this job security). That’s just how ideology and institutions work. Militarism identifies “military problems” and offers “military solutions”; moralism is in the business of prescribing moral solutions to moral dilemmas. In other words, our personal worldview tends to show us the kind of world that we had already expected to see. With so many competing worldviews colliding on our cultural landscape and vying for out attention, “culture wars” are inevitable.
. . . our personal worldview ends up showing us the kind of world that we had already expected to see.
As I’ve noted above, pragmatism is defined as “an approach that assesses the truth or meaning of theories or beliefs in terms of the success of their practical application.” In other words, the gospel according to pragmatism is simply, “truth is what works!” When pragmatism ceases to be a “tool” and becomes a “narrative” navigating all of life, it has crossed over into ideology. The pragmatist ideologue would insist that life is essentially a series of problems, which demand “practical solutions.” There is certainly some truth in that statement and no one would argue that solving problems is a necessary part of every day life. The problem is with the dogmatic or ideological version of pragma.
I’ve chosen pragmatism as an example because it seemed like the least controversial among all the “isms”. As we’ve noted, pragma is a great cognitive tool, proven time and again to be useful for solving all kinds of problems, typically physical and mechanical ones such as a lunar landings and leaky faucets. However, when ‘practicality and solutions’ becomes our worldview it can become utterly tyrannical. Let’s not forget that the German “leader” was a self-labeled pragmatist, which is why Hitler’s last genocide policy was aptly named, “The Final Solution.” Pragmatism is a useful tool but a horrible world-view, for as the saying goes, “He who is good with hammer tends to see nails everywhere.”
The movie, “The Mosquito Coast” (see below), starring Harrison Ford and River Phoenix, shows how ideology (pragmatism, nationalism and “freedom”) can be used to justify megalomania, and tyranny. Ford’s character is the ideologue, who’s cruelty and intolerance is aimed at those who do not share his view of things. His contempt for others extended to anyone, including his family, who fail to properly affirm and support him and his “solution-driven” regime. Can you find any of these tendencies in the way your neighbor cherishes and defends his favorite ideology? Here is a harder question, can you find any of these tendencies in yourself?
In recent years I have begun paying closer attention to the nature of ideology and the affects of social media. I have come to the place in my life were I am tired of being manipulated by the those people who profit from my engagement. I have no interest in being “great again” and I don’t want to be a part of any “resistance” fueled moral outrage and driven by a fear of the future. I want to escape the tyranny of the binary of “are you for him or against him?” I want to be a part of a movement that will defy the dominant narrative of the political left and right. I want to be part of a civil discourse that is more humble, less fearful, less cynical and more civil. This movement, one that ignores the dominant narrative would certainly start with humble beginnings. We would have to be willing to develop some new habits of mind and tongue. We would have to learn how to identify all the hooks and traps that are designed to keep us captive to dominant narrative of political binaries. We must learn to resist the temptation to line up in one of the two polarizing camps, “for him, or against him.” In my circle of friends and family, those who tend to be ideologically driven, naturally expect me to join them in their angst and moral outrage at the “awful injustices” in their world (usually inspired by some scandal or controversy that they recently saw on TV or their favorite blog site). To this person I have this reply, “I am sorry, but I am not necessarily compelled to fight for your personal preferences and I am not obliged to commit my anger and insecurities in service to your pet peeves.”
In Mosquito Coast, Allie Fox, living in 1980’s America was driven by his ideological zeal to “get off the grid” of society. Thirty plus years later, “the grid” has grown astronomically, in ways that we could not have imagined even ten years ago. Life off the digital grid is the equivalent of moving to a South American jungle. What then are our options today? In order to recover a less competitive, more humane engagement and a more generous and civil discourse, should we simply stop engaging each other and the issues? The Facebook solution of “unfriending” has taught us to be increasingly idiosyncratic and even narcissistic – “What we need around here is more people like me.” There are no easy formulas to recovering a discourse that is both thoughtful and civil – changing the cultural ethos is hard work. The fact of the matter is that we will never recover civil discourse until we sincerely learn to value it.