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October 07, 2009

Every Ideology Is Right

I've come to believe that every ideology is right. Liberalism is right, conservatism is right, radicalism is right, fascism is right, communism is right, Catholicism is right, Rastafarianism is right, Pastafarianism is right. Any ideology that survives more than ten minutes in the ferocious Planet Earth laboratory is right.

What I mean by "right" is that is each one is responding to a genuine problem within human existence. And their prescriptions for how to deal with that problem "work," at least in the short term in limited circumstances.

Obviously, there are unforeseen consequences because each ideology looks at a limited aspect of reality, and then tries to apply its solution for that part of reality to ALL of reality. The important thing is to try to have your ideology "look" at as much of reality as possible.

When you're dealing with people with other ideologies than your own, it's difficult not to try to persuade them they're wrong. But you can't, because their ideology does correspond to some of their direct, lived reality. They're not just imagining it. And they'll fight hard against any attempt to tell them they haven't experienced what they've experienced. So instead of telling them they're wrong, you have to demonstrate that they're only seeing part of the picture.

That's the theory, anyway. It seems to work as much as 2% of the time.

—Jonathan Schwarz

Posted at October 7, 2009 12:40 PM

Yes, of course. Otherwise the only reason for differences in ideology would be insanity; there's one right conclusion, and everything else is the product of malfunctioning perception.

But of course people have certain ideas because those ideas solve problems, or answer questions, that they feel particularly acutely due to their experience. Because the sore spots vary from person to person, ideological stances vary; but because they fall into a few broad categories, they can be satisfied by a limited number of flavors.

The next step is: how can one be sure you're seeing "more of the picture" than they are? How can you be sure that you're not simply trying to get person x to accept your ideology, to quell your own fears? Awareness is a good first step, but it's not the end. I don't know what the end is. Maybe accepting the fear and confusion, rather than trying to soothe it? I dunno.

Posted by: Mike of Angle at October 7, 2009 05:36 PM

That's a great insight, Jon.

Remember McNamara's list of life lessons? I remember one of them being "empathize with your opponent" -- because once you understand them, you can more effectively engage with them. Without that understanding, you can't do much except complain; unless of course you have an air force on hand, in which case you can kill large numbers of them while complaining.

Posted by: JRB at October 7, 2009 06:13 PM

I think you're wrong.

Posted by: DavidByron at October 7, 2009 06:23 PM

Hmmmm I'm thinking may be you left out that, even though ideological solutions may all be said to "work" some way or other in the short term, often even in the short term they are downright unacceptable.

For example, racism: I suppose it originally "worked" to resolve tribal anxieties over intermarriage by declaring a permanent state of enmity and/or caste division. But is that solution "right" even in the narrowest of scopes?

Posted by: Cloud at October 7, 2009 08:52 PM

I think you're wrong.

I accept that that is part of your lived experience.

Posted by: Jonathan Schwarz at October 7, 2009 08:57 PM

Jon could be right.

Posted by: Mike Meyer at October 7, 2009 09:20 PM

People even think within their ideology. Everybody is looking for a recipe for something, part of western ideology. There is a recipe to cure cancer, there is a recipe for government, there is a recipe for winning wars, we’re a recipe culture. Notice you yourself say each ideology is looking for a prescription, another word for recipe. We cannot get away from recipes because we are trained to think that way. Even science is like a recipe, the recipe for the correct way to perceive the world. Some day our recipes will kill us all or drive us nuts.

Posted by: Rob Payne at October 7, 2009 10:42 PM

I think Jon is right, pretty much.

But Cloud, I don't think your account of racism works. Why do you think it had to do with "anxieties about intemarriage", and why did such anxieties exist, and where? One reason why you can't see how racism "worked" even in the short run could be that your explanation of racism is inaccurate.

My own guess is that racism is connected to the fact that human beings are a social species. We form groups of "us", so to speak, and that "us" can be family, clan, village, etc. Those outside the group are "them," and are viewed in different ways depending on the situation. Outsiders can be fascinating, attractive, appealing; or they can be repellent, threatening, harmful. Racism happens when outsiders are viewed as another kind of person (and people are very apt to view outsiders that way, or even insiders -- differences between the sexes are often rationalized as based in biology even when they aren't), and there is some conflict over some kind of resource. I don't think there's a sharp line between racism and non-racism.

But being a social species pays off in many ways; being suspicious of outsiders pays off in many ways. When you want to hog resources, viewing outsiders as essentially different and so not entitled to those resources pays off by rationalizing and justifying your claim to them. Extending the circle of "us" also pays off in many ways. One way to understand someone's ideology, to use Jon's word, is to try to find out who "us" is for that person. And there are usually (always?) multiple "us-es" for each person. "Us" can be family, church, town, favorite sports team, school, political party, nation, and so on.

Posted by: Duncan at October 7, 2009 10:56 PM


That's pretty much exactly what I was going to say. My ideology enjoys being reinforced, and so it (and I, if there's a difference) thanks you.

Posted by: Jonathan Schwarz at October 7, 2009 11:22 PM

You're dumb... and stink.

i have spoken.

Posted by: RTT at October 7, 2009 11:54 PM

You're dumb... and stink

I accept that that is part of your lived experience. In fact, especially yours.

Posted by: Jonathan Schwarz at October 7, 2009 11:56 PM

Nah. Ideology itself is your life experience, it had been implanted into your head by indoctrination. In reality, no ideology makes any sense whatsoever, they are just a bunch of chemicals and electrical signals in our brains.

Jon, for example, was indoctrinated with this idea that all the ideologies make some sort of sense. And someone else out there probably believes that Jon is the Antichrist.

What's the name of that guy who says that ideas are like viruses?

Posted by: abb1 at October 8, 2009 03:18 AM

Anything that brings people together is always going in the right direction. That's why I respect any society that's decentralized and especially socialist.

Some Isreali Kibbutzes as communities are a wonder to behold. A Russian documentary followed one (and this is after the Union fell) and marveled at its cohesiveness. They only evicted one person and he was a drug addict.

Posted by: Nikolay Levin at October 8, 2009 03:29 AM

Some of the correspondence is set upon false pretences though. Like all animals, we are pattern recognisers.

Posted by: me at October 8, 2009 04:50 AM

abb1, I think the meme theory was popularized by Dawkins, along with the notion that because our genes are inherently selfish, human nature must be rearranged if we are not to be. (There was a huge thread about that at Lenin's Tomb a little while ago. It linked something Proyect has been following, a contretemps in anthropology that's partially a coded argument over what human nature is. I found it really fascinating, but now I'm way off topic.)

Nikolay: See, Zionism is a solution to a problem!

Jon: Now you've got me thinking up test cases. What problem does original sin solve?

Posted by: Save the Oocytes at October 8, 2009 05:52 AM

When you're dealing with people with other ideologies than your own, it's difficult not to try to persuade them they're wrong. There is something to what you say. The problem is that the word difficult should be replaced with impossible. Look at the easy example: religion. When the Pope says you must accept the Apostles Creed as the terms of salvation, he may be saying it to solve some long since vanished problem, or even applying it to a current problem. But he is not joking, or giving advice. If you do not do this, you will not be saved. But this is true of the other monotheistic religions as well. It's equally true of modern political ideologies as brought to life in nation states. Nazi Germany, Soviet Russia, even Cromwell's England in a primitive form, come to mind easily. The ideologists simply crushed or smashed those with a contrary mind.

It's equally true in the US with its all consuming faux economic ideology that works to transfer wealth from poor to rich. The ideology must try to persuade the opposition they're wrong. Using logic or shared realities is unnecessary. When you are dealing with dominant ideologies they will do better than try, too. They will succeed.

So, no bank regulation, more war, regressive taxes and bad healthcare result from the drive of adherents of an ideology to solve a problem: how to get more money. If you have a different solution that requires a different ideology, it is true that you will not persuade them as they live in the reality they created (remember the Pope?) The dominant ideology will not try to persuade you that you are wrong, if you persist in pointing out your reality (I am sick, you are wealthy, etc.). They will definitely ignore you until threatened enough to crush you.

Nice post.

Posted by: drip at October 8, 2009 06:14 AM

What problem does original sin solve? It solves two problems: Sex and female authority. Too easy.

Posted by: drip at October 8, 2009 06:19 AM

Right for whom? I think it is important to have some general rules, like the "golden rule" found almost in every religion. That means doing nasty things to others is not right, even if one strongly believes so. And even then, insanity rules in the mankind sometimes... But you touch something fundamental. It is in the human nature to attach emotionally to movements and things. And it is almost impossible to convert, say a conservative to a liberal using only rational arguments (it might be the other way around, too). All the intellectual effort goes to convince oneself, why the other guy is wrong.

Posted by: mts at October 8, 2009 07:17 AM

No, it's Dennett, Daniel Dennett; unlike Dawkins he goes all the way.

Posted by: abb1 at October 8, 2009 09:05 AM

The Nazis were "right" even in the short term? Slavery is right? Imperialism is right?

Maybe i don't understand the point of the post but you would have a hard time convincing me that the above is right even 2 percent of the time, but again I think i am missing your point?

Reading through some of the other comments I guess I can see what you are going for in that people become attached to ideas because they thing they are right or just and so on....Yes, I think most people act in certain ways because they thing they are doing the right thing no matter how awful they actually dropping bombs on a peasant society half way around the world was the right thing to do from the perspective of those that feel they control and own the world and know what is best for all..but if you look closely usually the ideology that says we are acting in such a way for the benefit of others-the history of imperial alibis-is really just a cover for perceived self interest since it is much easier to tell yourself that destroying a village is actually an example of saving it. A very interesting phenomenon that is hard to justify and explain in any rational least for me.

I would only add that people in certain institutional settings act in certain ways given the dynamics of the institutions they are either you adopt the dominant values and perspectives of institutions or you would not be in the position you are in. If you felt otherwise you would have been weeded out long before you got to the position to make decisions and such...a simpler way of putting is that one doesn't become the a 5 star general by acting like MLK and so forth.-Tony

Posted by: tony at October 8, 2009 09:13 AM

Geez, you people have such tunnel vision. Try thinking big. The "ideology" of original sin, for many people, makes sense of the fact that human beings behave badly, even against our own interests. (I'm noticing that "ideology" is being used sloppily around here.) Human societies were male supremacist and anti-sexual long before the doctrine of original sin was codified.

I thought it was William S. Burroughs who said that ideas -- indeed, language -- was a virus from outer space. Meme theory, from what I've seen of it, doesn't deserve to be called a theory, but what can you expect from lackwits like Dennett and Dawkins? Dawkins, by the way, continually insists that he distinguishes between "selfish" genes and selfish human beans, but he's never been very convincing about it. "We are born selfish," he wrote in The Selfish Gene, but he claimed without evidence that we are able to go against our genes.

STO, I saw the controversy at Lenin's Tomb over "human nature," and some of Louis Proyect's stuff about it at his blog. But there was a post here last summer, arguing that human beings were "hard-wired" to be exploitative; it was hopelessly uninformed about actual biology, but that is part of the fun where "ideology" is concerned. Just say that something bad is part of human nature, gee, it's sad, but there's nothing we can do, it's nature, what can you do?

Tony, you definitely misunderstand the post. "The Nazis were 'right' even in the short term? Slavery is right? Imperialism is right?" Slavery is not an ideology, possibly even imperialism is not, but it shouldn't take much thought to figure out that slavery pays off for some people, as does imperialism. Nazism "worked" for a lot of Germans (and not only for Germans) by seeming to make sense of why German society was in such trouble. You can see the same thing among the teabaggers now, and also among Obamabots like N E who insist that against all appearances and evidence, Obama is really forced by people around him to do what he doesn't want to do. The Little Father is being oppressed by the Evil Boyar. Some people are still clinging to "more and better Democrats" despite the abundant evidence that the Democrats are the collaboration party -- even when they're in power, they still support the Republicans. In these cases, they cling to these ideas because otherwise there's no Hope, and they have to have Hope.

It's easier and very comforting to just dismiss such people as crazy, out of touch with reality, than to look at them empathetically and see where they're coming from, what they fasten on to support their beliefs, and so on. I believe this was Jon's point in this post.

Posted by: Duncan at October 8, 2009 10:14 AM

In the same way that this post and all of the comments each add another piece of the story. Really the comments prove your post nicely Jon. And vice versa I suppose...

I was recently reading the Lotus Sutra and it's sort of difficult, but I got a few things that are relevant. Gautama Buddha, when prophesizing about others who would become buddhas in the future always says that their doctrine will survive half time in the pure form and half the time in it's corrupt form. I see the reason as the Law of Karma, balancing of the scale so to speak.

The other thing I got was the two laws. The first law is the Truth aka God's will, the absolute, whatever you call it. It's what we are all striving for, but can never actually grasp. The second law is that preached by the Buddhas or Gods et al, which are not strictly the Truth but are meant to steer people to it. The Lotus Sutra refers to it as "expedient means." I look at it like the invisible man; you can't see the dude, so these other dudes come and drape him in their "laws", which can be tailored to the audience.

That's the good news, the bad news in 400 years from now the neo-nihilists will preach the form of the Schwarz doctrine that says anything is permissible because everything is true. See what Tony started there?

Posted by: tim at October 8, 2009 10:50 AM

It seems to work as much as 2% of the time.

That's actually a pretty stunning success rate.

Posted by: laym at October 8, 2009 12:36 PM

Busy, busy, busy.

Dennett talks about Dawkins' memes as viruses here.

Posted by: lurking gnome at October 8, 2009 02:22 PM

Tony, you definitely misunderstand the post. "The Nazis were 'right' even in the short term? Slavery is right? Imperialism is right?" Slavery is not an ideology, possibly even imperialism is not, but it shouldn't take much thought to figure out that slavery pays off for some people, as does imperialism. Nazism "worked" for a lot of Germans (and not only for Germans) by seeming to make sense of why German society was in such trouble.

Ah I see...yes, I did not see what Jonathan was getting at and was confused on what he was actually saying....thanks for the clarification.-Tony

Posted by: tony at October 8, 2009 02:31 PM

Some Isreali Kibbutzes as communities are a wonder to behold.

I like decentralized socialist societies too, and I used to love the idea of a kibbutz.

Later I read about them and realized that not a single one of them would accept a single non-Jew as a member; they would hire Arabs to do manual labor and pay wages, sometimes they would educate Arab children and provide medical care - but they would never ever accept any of them as equals. That was when I realized that kibbutzism was a travesty, just like everything else associated with Zionism. And how could it not be?

Posted by: abb1 at October 8, 2009 03:54 PM

...try to have your ideology "look" at as much of reality as possible.

Ironic that the perspectives that are often most "right" in your sense, are the ones that give permission to live in self-aggrandizing fantasy.

Posted by: Joel at October 8, 2009 04:18 PM

Jesus Christ!

Nicely put, but I still think some of them might be a little more empirical than others.

Posted by: Keifus at October 8, 2009 05:21 PM

Ironic that the perspectives that are often most "right" in your sense, are the ones that give permission to live in self-aggrandizing fantasy.

Not really. The ones that give you that permission may appear to work better for a short period of time, but quickly collapse.

Posted by: Jonathan Schwarz at October 8, 2009 05:40 PM

Yes, they quickly collapse for the subscriber. But other humans continue to subscribe. As long as the timing and severity of the collapses don't entirely destroy the hosts (or the host population), a disease model like this can go on indefinitely, being "right" over and over without a single thread to reality.

Posted by: Joel at October 8, 2009 06:06 PM

without a single thread to reality

No, they are connected to reality to some degree and serve some genuine need. Otherwise people wouldn't keep subscribing.

Posted by: Jonathan Schwarz at October 8, 2009 06:28 PM

Exactly! And that's what puts it in the special realm of irony. One of the most enduring "genuine personal realities" available from the smørgasbord of tempting ideologies is the permission to deny external realities.

Posted by: Joel at October 8, 2009 07:08 PM

Other ways to put it: "Reality contains it's own undoing.", "It's an element of reality to deny reality.", "I am large. I contain multitudes." -WW

Like you, I can accept that, but me, I refuse to treat it as respectable. Sure, there's a lesson to be learned from empathy with others' perspectives, but it doesn't mean there's anything respectable about the perspective. The person, perhaps. The perspective, nope.

You have to say I'm right because everything is.

Posted by: Joel at October 8, 2009 07:16 PM

Yeah, but Joel, what the hell is "external reality," and who are you (or me, or anybody) to claim adequate knowledge of it? Maybe I'm misunderstanding, but you know YOUR reality. I know MINE. If we compare and there's some overlap, then we get together and create a blog. If not, we don't. I think it's very questionable to walk around claiming that I know reality and somebody else doesn't. Not that I don't want to claim that, I do, but not only does it destroy any possibility of empathy--which is the only lasting hope for humankind, IMHO--it also places my very subjective opinions in a place of authority, and isn't that how all the baddest shit humans do, starts?

All we "know" is the data we get from this very finicky apparatus--the torrent of experience flowing through our sensory organs. And then that raw data--which is already corrupted by our incomplete, imperfect perception of it--is filtered and arranged by our minds. Which, by the way, are a lot better at convincing each one of us that we are right (that only WE perceive reality clearly, and have made the correct assumptions about it), than they are at keeping flexible. Knowing this bias, it's wise to try to correct for it, right?

People aren't fascists, or imperialists, or Muslims or Scientologists or Quakers or Chomsky-heads, out of some perverse desire to be at odds with the rest of us. They've made that choice (to the degree they've chosen) because that ideology makes them feel safe, or loved, or useful, or gives them a sense of purpose, or gives them some kind of meaning that is valuable to them. And if one begins the discussion by saying, "NO. What I say is external reality, is, and all the rest is not respectable"...

Obviously we all do this all the time, every day, for our entire lives. But where has that gotten us? Whatever else it's done, it has neither prevented offensive ideologies from springing up, nor stopped them from growing, nor their endless mutation. Perhaps if we concentrated on identifying the needs that offensive ideologies fill, we might find ways to fill them in a more positive manner.

Posted by: Mike of Angle at October 8, 2009 10:49 PM

They are not necessarily connected to reality, religion is an obvious proof of that. Billions of people pray - quite sincerely - every day, some several times a day; they believe in something that has no basis in reality, none whatsoever. They have been indoctrinated to do it and they keep doing it, and that's all there is to it. And religion is only one example.

Posted by: abb1 at October 9, 2009 08:26 AM

They are not necessarily connected to reality, religion is an obvious proof of that. Billions of people pray - quite sincerely - every day, some several times a day; they believe in something that has no basis in reality, none whatsoever.

Nope. Religion is absolutely connected to reality. It may be a reality of human psychology rather than a reality of the universe as a whole. But human psychology is real.

Posted by: Jonathan Schwarz at October 9, 2009 11:51 AM

Well, of course everything that exists in reality is connected to reality simply by the virtue of it existing in reality. If something does exist, then surely there is a reason for it to exist. But that's tautological.

Plenty of ideas (most of them, in fact) have no basis in reality-reality, reality outside of the brain where they live.

Posted by: abb1 at October 9, 2009 12:32 PM
So instead of telling them they're wrong, you have to demonstrate that they're only seeing part of the picture.

When I gets low, I think having an 'empathy deficit' is ingrained to the species. We're not going to get past it as long as we're wearing these ape suits.

"Reality Tunnels" by Robert Anton Wilson

Posted by: BenP at October 9, 2009 02:10 PM

Sorry to have such fucking tunnel-vision and ask such easy fucking questions. Thanks for setting me straight, you generous people.

Posted by: Save the Oocytes at October 9, 2009 02:20 PM

Well, come to think of it, I agree that every ideology is a reaction to something that exists in real world. So yes, "responding to a genuine problem within human existence" sounds right.

But I think I disagree that their prescriptions work or even "work".

Posted by: abb1 at October 9, 2009 05:29 PM

The Wachowski (sp/lazy?) brothers built that philosophy into the Matrix trilogy, which is why the body (Zion) went for a truce with the mind (Matrix) and soul (Machine World) at the end, rather than a satisfying come-from-behind victory. I reached a similar conclusion in college, and now work in the financial industry.

I'll let you draw your own conclusions about where that line of thinking leads. :-)

Posted by: James Cape at October 9, 2009 08:51 PM

Ok, point taken. I did mention SOME didn't I?

I would have to say a better example is the Western Pioneers. Although many Native Americans suffered for it, (I'm trying my best here) the West was once and to some extent still is a liberal hot-spot because of the unique societies they created.

Western States were the first to have women's suffrage. For the men, it turned out women weren't as squeamish about conquering the West as their culture prepective told them they were, accomplishing more for feminism than any march ever did.

I could explain more but I think this thread is pretty dead, so unless I'm convinced otherwise, I'll leave it at that.

Posted by: Nikolay Levin at October 11, 2009 01:58 AM

Well, like I said, I agree with you in principle, Nikolay. I actually agree that Kibbutzim is an interesting phenomenon, despite all the flaws. Wild West, Anabaptist communities, Amish, all that. I'm with you, man.

It seems though that it works mostly for groups (motivated usually by some common ideology) that find themselves in a hostile environment. Some strong external force seems necessary to bind them together.

Posted by: abb1 at October 11, 2009 06:23 AM

I like what abb1 says, and John too.

All the interesting talk here illustrates one thing:

the only thing that actually exists (is true?) is reality. There are only facts* and people talking about facts using various modes of discourse.

The belief that truth exists, let alone that it is accessible through any mode of discourse, is itself an ideology. Ideology is language. Science is an emergent property of language. An so on.

* even the concept of "a fact" is ideological.

Posted by: vfwh at October 11, 2009 05:48 PM


A good percentage of our world's monkey brains can be conditioned to believe anything via repeated exposure. Throw in some consistent emotional manipulation and you have an advocate.

Belief system changes are possible to a degree inversely dependent on how core the "current" belief system becomes to the identity of the monkey. Therefore the best moments for conversion occur when external dynamics in the life of the monkey create core conflicts with that belief system upon which that identity has been built.

You keep struggling to address what we monkey do, without really examining how we work internally. If we start with the right How, the observed Why becomes an obvious consequence. And only then can we effectively comprehend "what should be done".

Posted by: patience at October 12, 2009 12:20 PM