What Do Holiday Coffee Cups and ISIS Have in Common?

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.

 

 

6 comments

  1. maylannee · November 19, 2015

    This is a difficult subject. Everyone is an ideologue of some sort, so it is almost impossible to objectively consider how your own ideologies might be wrong. One thing is certain, I totally abhor the message of that guy in the Starbucks cup video. He is trying to be offensive by wearing his Jesus t-shirt(?). ‘Here, let me just shove this up in your face, I know you will be offended and that makes me gleeful.’ Oh dear God, how I hate when people do that–no matter what they are selling, even Christianity, especially Christianity, please don’t shove anything in my face! And by all that is holy, please don’t use Jesus as a tool to purposely offend others.

    Chris, I wish you would take down that video. That man is absurd. He doesn’t deserve any more people watching his crap.

    Like

    • Christopher · November 19, 2015

      You’re right, this is a difficult subject because ideology is our native tongue – it is grace that allows us to see our “blindness” – repentance is gift from God. The point then is not to say how “bad” fascism is (Nazis) or how awful terrorism is (ISIS) and how hateful racism (KKK) is or how big a jackass Trump is. I am deeply persuaded that the problem with constantly ranking the ideologies in order of ascending evil is that we get so disgusted with the “evil over there” (don’t get me wrong, I’m no fan of any of those groups above) that we refuse to consider our own “pedestrian” bullshit, which in some cases, costs us dearly in terms of relationships. One of the most taxing things on a relationship is the rigidity of our own righteousness. A major reason that you and I have experienced redemption in our relationships with our kids is because we took a long hard look at the ideological burdens that had pushed the relationships to the breaking point.And you are right about Jesus getting “tooled.” It would seem that he has been getting “tooled” for centuries.The reason that I’m leaving the Starbucks guy up is as a reminder to me of how easy it is to turn the gospel into ideology.

      Like

  2. jeremynakasone · November 22, 2015

    This is really great Chris! It reminds me of Richard Twiss’ ever infamous mantra (which is also, at the very least, one of those “pithy statements”) that says, paraphrasing “I am narrowed minded, egocentric, with a limited human perspective.” I agree with what Maylanee said above, that this is a difficult subject. I am no foreigner to ideology and the mind trappings one can get caught up in. Growing up I was beholden to conservative Christian evangelicalism and the Religious Right. However, since I moved to Portland I became a padawan of the Jedi Order of progressive “weird” culture and a more postmodern model of Christianity. It was a paradigm shift, mostly. Living back with my parents has proved to be a challenge, as they are in their 60s and are beholden to the James Dobson 1970s era Religious Right ideology of politics and cultural critique. They have Fox News on almost all day. It’s been frustrating and I’ve had trouble trying to engage with them in an honest, open discourse, as you suggest. I’ve probably “bitten” the ideological apple more than a few times with them. I know that at least mentally, I’ve made a decision not to get caught up in ideological games b/c in the end it doesn’t better anyone. My parents are in their 60s and I honestly could care less if they change their opinions. They’re on the verge of retirement and it’s not worth arguing over.

    And with that, I’d like to offer a challenge to you.

    1) You seemed to be quick to point out the flaws of the ideologue, but yet failed to name any of your potential shortcomings with in which you yourself have engaged in this act of being an ideologue. Where in your own life have you been enslaved to an ideology? Surely you’re not the only one who is not beholden an ideology, right? This was not addressed.

    2) You say that, “Ideologues are ‘straighteners’ who are constantly diagnosing societies ills and then thrusting their ‘cure’ on the rest of us” which I find a bit odd seeing as you seem to be focused on diagnosing a society with the problem of “diagnosing society.” You are partaking in the very thing you’re preaching against when you say “those who tend to be ideologically driven…” and then proceed to call foul on “them” because “they expect you to ‘be a certain way.” When the evil ideologue engages you, you simply shut down his request rather than offer any alternative, in your refusal to play his supposed “game.” This is ironic as it you say that you want open discourse. If you truly want open discourse of ideology that is not based around dualistic debate, shouting matches, waring youtube videos and political pundits then what is an alternative way in which we can engage the ideologue in an open handed, humble postured stance?

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Christopher · November 22, 2015

    Hey Jeremy,

    Thanks for sharing your story – I think most of us can relate to the challenge of living with family with whom we find ourselves clashing over ideology. It sounds like you’re making the best of it. As for your question and challenge to me, I sincerly appreciate them – this is what I hoped this site would become, a forum among friends having a conversation.

    Let me start with your challenge to me regarding the problem of critiquing those who critique. As you rightly noted, I made a distinction between diagnosing (social commentary) and “thrusting the cure” a.k.a. “shoving your show” on others – it is the latter movement that makes ideology so divisive. In other words, the problem is not with observation, commentary and discussion or even debate per se but with the compulsion to “fix”, the drive to “win” and the need to define our solutions over and against “those idiots who are clearly part of the problem.” You cannot restore civil discourse until you value it and you can’t value something that you don’t understand. When you are attached to your ideology, you don’t realize how much it is coloring your vision and restricting your ability to engage others. Let’s put the “civil” back in “civil discourse.” There is nothing wrong with expressing one’s viewpoint, but can we learn how to do it constructively? By all means, let’s have discussions even vigorous ones, and as we do let’s consider Covey’s maxim, “seek first to understand, then to be understood.” God help us to value each other enough to genuinely listen, especially when the person I’m talking to doesn’t appear “believe” like me. Now for your questions about my own experience with ideology.

    Personally speaking, I have certainly not transcended the problem that I’m describing here concerning ideology – I get snared by my opinions, biases and beliefs every day. As I mention in my reply to Maylannee’s comment above, there was a time when I was deeply ideologically “religiously conservative.” Going back to the mid-eighties, my thoughts were shaped primarily by the voices I listened to and read in American evangelicalism with regard to politics, morality, economics, sociology, family life etc. Where am I now? I’m not exactly sure. I would say that the journey has taken me from: 1) my rebellious teens 2) the religious (church culture) socialization of my twenties to 3) the experimentation of my thirties 4) to the deep disillusionment of my forties. About fifteen years ago, I started moving away from my ideological commitments, drawn by the tractor beam of two questions: “Who is Christ?” and “What is the gospel?” This is an entirely new discussion now so let me end with this question, Is the gospel just another ideology? Thanks for the discussion!

    Like

  4. Jordan · December 11, 2015

    I’ve had an interesting time formulating clear cut ideas and figuring out exactly what I wanted to delve into regarding this topic. I’ve honestly come back to edit my own response several times as well as reread the post several more.

    First off… Prepare to be assaulted by MY ideologies! Joking aside however, it does bare the thought…
    Is it actually possible not to be idealogical? And if so, is that what we need?
    My hypothesis, thus far, is that you can’t be completely without it. We are products of our education, belief systems, and overall how we’ve been nurtured over the years. Even in the desire to fight against that, we can still fall into a new path of ideologies that we are now creating from attempting to do away with the original ideology in the first place!

    You asked what we might have to say about our own ideologies. To this I would have to first rationally look at how my own ideologies have changed over the passing years, and more importantly understand the “why.”

    Growing up, under the roof of a very strong willed man, I learned many “absolutes” and “black/white” type of thinking that was nourished and justified by a specific “perspective” in Christianity. As a child/teen/young adult growing and maturing through these years, I emphatically trusted the teachings of my mother and father… And why wouldn’t I? As far as I knew they were the end-all/be-all with info on life and how to live “well” (whatever that might have meant).
    Naturally… something occurred, that I believe happens to all young adults at some point in their early lives… I figured out that my parents weren’t perfect and just as unprepared for parenting as I’m sure I will be when that glorious time comes. Ultimately this led to me to “changing” my lens. The specific lens in this case was one that sometimes idolized or overly infatuated an individual to be “more than” an individual. Naturally this isn’t to assume that having a mentor is wrong, but it is still being rationally minded towards that person, so as to not make them a form of “God.” Because what happens when that mentor fails you in some way? I have seen several friends go “off the deep end” as it were, simply because the individual they respected did what most of us do… they made a mistake.

    With this in mind… Let’s now consider the history behind ideologues of this generation.
    Going back to a previous discussion regarding social media; People have a platform… So (it would appear) they feel they must broadcast everything from that platform. They also have many predisposed ideas based off of a specific view point that precedes from their culture and upbringing (or lack thereof).
    Basically this leaves us with a huge social network of broken and hurt people who were (possibly…probably?) raised by other hurt and broken individuals. The irony is they spout and spew these anecdotal “quick fixes” as a means to get simple “likes” to fuel their broken egos. This isn’t to point fingers by any means, as I myself have fallen to these temptations of posting “soap box niceties.” Even in formulating this response I find myself battling the fear of opposing thought! Heaven forbid… What if someone disagrees with me?! We’ve become a nation that loves the sound of our own voice (or keyboards?), and only wish to have others voice similar support and agreement. However that fear is what will keep us trapped into only seeking beliefs that we like, rather than truth regardless of our own desires.
    Seriously, who is going to disagree with an idea as elementary and non-threatening as “come on people, can’t we just LOVE each other and get along.” With this I completely agree with you Chris and would say, “What does that actually MEAN and look like?!” Furthermore I would dare say that if I were to ask that same question to several different people from different backgrounds, all with the same “love slogan,” they would most likely be completely different definitions. So I would say, why not seek out these conflicting ideas as a means to actually further understanding of our world and the cultures therein?

    Like

    • Christopher · December 29, 2015

      Hey Jordan,

      Thank you so much for another thoughtful and insightful comment. Sorry for the delay in the reply (for some reason your comment was stuck in “pending” – I’m working on that). The OC is on a brief hiatus but thankfully that has not stopped people from engaging some of the older posts. I agree that we cannot live without ideas and ideals but as you detected, the challenge that I think we face comes down to our ability to recognize the nature of ideology – how it works. Not only is ideology competitive, (i.e., liberalism vs. conservatism, theism vs. atheism, etc.) but my concern is that ideology too often undermines or highjacks genuine faith. Let me explain. In a story I heard Zizek tell, Neils Bohr, famous Swedish physicist of last century, had brought a friend of his out to his home in the country. As they approached the house, Bohr’s friend noticed a horseshoe above the door of the house (horseshoe’s above the door was thought to keep away bad juju) and commented, “Mr. Bohr, you are a man of reason and science, surely you do not believe in such superstitions?” Bohr answered, “Of course I do not believe in it, but I have been told that it works even if you do not believe.” Ideology is often a horseshoe that we use as a cheap substitute for faith. You are right to say that when we are children, we naturally tend to idolize people who are older than us, like parents. Unfortunately, for many of us, this “hero worship” persists long after we have “come of age” and as you noted, when it finally fails, it is often devastating. So I ask the question, is the gospel just another ideology? This question is the focus of much of my reflections these day. Is it possible that we have traded faith for “beliefism”, where you no longer need to have faith in Jesus Christ, you only have to believe that you have the “right belief”, the kind of belief that “works.” Love to hear your further thoughts if you have time. Thanks again, for your engagement! I really enjoy having you as a dialog partner.

      Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s