As the song goes, “We live in a political world”, which means that we live in an ideological world. 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.” Worldview is basically the lens that you look through to see and interpret the world around you. And if there was any doubt about the role of ideology in shaping our individual and collective lives, this recent election should settle it. The tsunami wave that has effectively ravaged our national psyche was the perfect ideological storm. We just experienced the collision of two monolith world views, competing in a political zero sum game. The winner of this competition would get to determine what kind of “world” we would all live in.
This brutal competition that dragged on for nearly two full years, not only divided our country, but has made us “prisoners here, of our own device” (the secret meaning of Hotel California revealed!). The brick and mortar of these prison walls is the bipolar, “left/right” politics and the bars are the binary logic and the enemy-centered narrative of “either/or” and “us/them”. So given the fact that our country has been duly ravaged by political ideology, we desperately need to understand just how ideology and worldview work (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”, “War Is Not The Answer” 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 – in terms of discourse, the bumper sticker, the tee-shirt and the placard are classic examples of monologue or what Melvin Udall refers to as “shoving your show.” Ideology and worldview are essentially a type of religious creed in that for it to work well, it requires a faith commitment or a “buy in” from its adherents. But why do we need Ideology in the first place? Ideology (worldview) tells the “big story” about how we do life (i.e., capitalism, democracy, moralism, liberalism etc.). To use another metaphor, ideology is our map for helping us to navigate this complex world. Unfortunately, because these ideological “maps” give us a sense of what is real and true, we end tend to form deep attachments to them. Over time our worldviews become dogmatic, rigid, and myopic. Overtime these ideological maps corrupt our public discourse.
Now if everyone sincerely believes that their “map” accurately describes the territory, and their worldview prescribes the best possible world for us to live in, what happens when we bump into people whose “maps” and vision of the world look nothing like our own? This would be a recipe for disaster. Or worse, what if we found out that half of the country is navigating their lives with one map and the other half is referencing another? This appears to be our current situation. By some strange design our country is now divided between two monolith ideologies, two competing “views” of reality. Unfortunately, unlike the peaceful, co-existing balance of the eastern, yin and yang of “both/and”, our political binary is intensely competitive, winner take all, and enemy-centered.
Have you noticed how many news stories are based on binary-oppositions: 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 critical thought. As Stewart explains, it’s like the moment you notice a sporting-match on TV and your mind has to quickly figure out which uniform your team is wearing so that you can root for the “right team.” In other words, journalism, Stewarts says (and he was clear to point out that it’s not just Fox news), appeals to us at the level of instinct (fear and mistrust of others) and our unreflected preferences.
Apparently our brains are naturally wired for a “fight or flight”, “friend or foe” thought process and response. Unfortunately, this natural tendency means that we are vulnerable to those who would seek to exploit that tendency. An enemy-centered story (“dangerous immigrants” or “evil Trump”) captures our attention because such a message assures us of our “rightness” and sanctifies our incredulity of others “wrongness.” It is this formula that TV producers intentionally craft for the purpose of hooking and reeling in their viewers, one that they know will drive up their ratings. Oh, and again, this is not the patented formula of one infamous network. In this way our discourse is becoming increasingly competitive, dogmatic, binary and reductionist and as a result, we are losing the ability to think critically and converse constructively. When news stories are intentionally crafted to be polarizing we end up living in a Pavlovian wasteland, where each time we hear a certain political “bell” ring, we begin salivating on our Facebook page. 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”, but rather with the rise of the ideologues.
In addition to the binary news formula, we have the zombie apocalypse of social media, where millions upon millions of talking heads are now running their own “news desk” (present commentator included), complete with microphone, stage, and audience (Facebook, Twitter, blog posts, You Tube, etc.)! In the world of “new media”, there are no more experts, for everyone is now an expert, everyone is a preacher of righteousness, everyone is an advocate for truth and justice. In the world of new media, the old rules are out. Now anyone can “make news” without any regard for journalistic restraint or appeal to dispassionate objectivity. In fact, the fuel driving this new media is shameless bias and moral outrage. The new media has unleashed on the world an army of zealots and ideologues, secular and religious crusaders, true believers, who will not rest until they have “Made America Great” or until they have exhausted their moral outrage as they curse at the darkness (the darkness that lies in the hearts of their enemies). Today everyone fancies themselves as a champion of the just and righteous cause! But as we are quickly discovering, hell hath no fury like the zeal of a political ideologue.
I personally reject the “greatness” myth, but that does mean that I plan on joining the reactionary “resistance” made up of the self-appointed “guardians of the good,” who possess an unshakable and shameless confidence in their own ability to arbitrate between good and evil. These “guardians of good” are so confident in their moral superiority (“intelligence” is a common euphemism for moral superiority) that they believe that they can not only suss out the intent but the future actions of the “evil doers.” Behold, the new “moral majority”! Like its fundamentalist predecessor of the 70’s and 80’s, this group feeds on fear and moral outrage. Well, you can cancel my subscription to your “greatness” movement and take me off the mailing list of the morally outraged “resistance.” Did we really think it was possible to overthrow fear and outrage with more fear and outrage?
The election cycle from hell eventually came down to one political maxim, “there are two kinds of people in this world, those who are for him and those who are against him.” Now with Trump in office, the question continues to hang over our heads like the Portland cloud cover, “are you for him or against him?” But I refuse to surrender to this inquisition and I refuse to give my heart to this narrative. I will not be defined by these cultural crusaders and morally outraged inquisitors. I do not have to defend myself to those whose minds have been taken captive by the binary logic of American politics. I reject the terms of the debate! I refuse to adopt either the “American greatness” narrative or it’s antithesis, the “guardians of the good.” I reject the myth of a “great past” as well as the myth of the “great man” which means that I reject the hope that any of this will somehow make me great or even “good” in some way.
The movie, “The Mosquito Coast” (see video below), starring Harrison Ford and River Phoenix, shows us how ideology (pragmatism, nationalism and “freedom”) leads to tyranny. Ford’s character is the ideologue, whose cruelty and intolerance is aimed at those who do not share his view of things. His contempt extends to anyone, including his family, who fail to properly affirm and support him and his “solution-driven” regime. Can you identify any of these traits in the way your neighbor defends his favorite ideology? Here is a harder question, can you find any of these tendencies in yourself? 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 very differently than ourselves? Are we even open to listening to and considering dissenting viewpoints? Or are we only interested in discrediting our detractors so that our viewpoints are advanced with the least amount of resistance?
The problem with the message of Trump’s election, as well as the message of the emerging “resistance” to that election, is that they are both working off the same basic script. “Make America Great” as well as “Join the Resistance” are both populist messages fueled by fear and outrage. Trump ran on a populist message of, “Washington insiders don’t care about you, but I do!” and now the reaction group has replied saying, “Trump is the enemy of the good. He does not care about you but we do. Join us!” The irony here is that both the seekers of “greatness” and the “guardians of the good”‘ are really brothers under the skin, two sides of the same reactionary coin. The team-cheer for both the Trump camp and the resistance goes like this, “Who are we?” “We are not those assholes over there!” It is this “over and against” orientation that is dividing us today and turning us into the first church of the enemy-centered and morally outraged. There are no easy formulas for restoring thoughtfulness and civility to our discourse – changing this wasteland of our dysfunctional discourse will not be easy.
Now I realize I have been describing two extreme poles, and I realize that there are moderate positions along the spectrum, but the fact is that the extreme polarity is what drives the discourse and what fuels the messages – messages about how wrong those “evil doers” on the left or right are. The reason that we are constantly drawn to one of these extreme poles is that it gives us a false sense of strength and equilibrium. Let me ask, is anyone interested in a different kind of movement, one that is not part of the existing political binary and enemy centered outrage? Would anyone like to explore a new discourse, one that is not entrenched in the binary logic of American political ideology with it’s self-righteous superiority and an infernal hatred of the “other”? I want to escape the binary trap of, “for him or against him?” I long to be a part of a movement that will transcend this viscous cycle of “us against them.” I want to be part of a civil discourse that is more humble, less fearful, less cynical and more, well, civil. The fact of the matter is that we will never recover civil discourse until we sincerely learn to value it.
Such a movement, 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 sharpen our sensitivity to all the hooks and traps designed to keep us captive to the dominant narrative of the political binary. Together we would learn to resist the sirens of propaganda about “American greatness” as well as the sanctimonious talk about being one of the self-appointed “guardians of good.” We would learn to refuse all agendas that are based on the absurd reduction of, “for x, or against x.” To the proponents of the binary formula who insist that there are “two kinds of people”, we will learn to reply, “yes, and I am neither.” If you are interested in exploring a place beyond the divisive discourse that we have inherited, the one that is dividing us from one another and ravaging our public discourse, let’s start a new conversation. Please write in the comment section below with your thoughts and ideas about this new engagement.