On the Ideologue

It seems to me that one of the most troubling elements of the politics of post-industrial societies is the centrality of the ideologue. In this entry I want to discuss what makes the ideologue distinctive, highlight one reason why they seem to be central to the politics of post-industrial societies and show why the centrality of the ideologue is problematic. In addition it seems that while there are things that can be done to diminish the centrality of the ideologue, these actions may threaten other important goods that we deeply value.

What does it mean to be an ideologue? At a superficial level it seems to simply be someone who follows a particular ideology, but being an ideologue is far more than this. The ideologue not only has strong commitments and systematic beliefs, rather they view their beliefs as somehow sacred and inviolable. Consequently, anyone who denies a facet of their beliefs is deemed impure and unworthy of dialogue. The ideologue does not wish to discuss with those who oppose them. They wish to negate this opponent as the ideologue’s set of beliefs represent a higher truth. For example, many activists of all political stripes have this kind of attitude. Many activists’ concern is not with hearing out those who have opposing beliefs to see if they have any valid concerns, but with tactically ensuring that those who oppose them have no influence on society.

The ideologue seems to be a central figure within politics of post-industrial societies. Within these societies political parties are ideologically oriented and other features of political life including the media, lobbying and activism all seem to reflect ideological divides. Our political life is not one in which equal citizens confront each other to figure out what is in the interest of all, but instead is one in which people enter the sphere as bearers of ideology who must fight and negate those who oppose them.

The preceding raises the questions of why the ideologue is so central to our political life. There are numerous factors that affect this including capitalism and technological development but I want to highlight one other factor, and that factor is desire for societal purity.

Within post-industrial societies people must live together who have very different understandings of what matters; Christians, Secularists, Wiccans all must live together according to the same rules. In these societies the overall societal structure is not meant to reflect the commitments or beliefs of any particular group, but rather be something that is mutually agreeable to all of the groups within society. For example, the formal structure of the state of the United States or Canada is not supposed to reflect the beliefs of Christians, Jews, Muslims, or Hindus, but rather supposed to reflect a form of government that any reasonable person could agree to.  The tendency for citizens to become ideologues in this environment is intense as people have deep commitments and beliefs and see elements of society that offend against, or violate these beliefs. In reaction to these elements of society that offend against their beliefs many in post-industrial societies will come to desire to see society reflect their image of the good so that the society they live in more accurately corresponds with their most fundamental beliefs and values. Underlying this push to have society reflect one’s deepest commitments is the desire for societal purity. In itself there is nothing wrong with this desire as it is the very same desire that draws us closer to the good, and commands us to try to make our society more just, humane and fair, as part of the reason that we want to do these things to ensure that we build a more pure and consequently better society. But this desire can also direct us to merely wish to transform without due consideration of whether we have the right to make society in the image of our understanding of the good, and if we have something to learn from others about the nature of the good. Consequently, the desire for societal purity seems to form a significant part of the reason for the centrality of the ideologue within the political life of post-industrial societies.

One reason why the centrality of the ideologue to politics in post-industrial societies is deeply problematic is because it prevents the political community from becoming or maintaining its status as a community of respect. A community of respect is one in which people see others as participants in a project to create a just community. These others must be worked with, rather than being defeated and must be seen as being worth listening to. Or to put this slightly differently, the form of respect that is central to a community of respect extends beyond the respect required for someone to refrain from coercing, or manipulating another, but rather requires a more positive affirmation of the other as a collaborative participant who one can possibly learn from.

The ideologue as a central element of political life negates this community of respect because when we see those who oppose our beliefs as merely enemies to be overcome then we will not try to hear them out and consequently not fully respect them. In such a situation, those with opposing views merely become impediments to our will that must be combatted with. We may not want to physically harm these interlocutors or opponents, but nonetheless we do not see them as contributive members of a collaborative project. Consequently, the ideologue is a problem for post-industrial societies as their influence makes it that much more difficult for societies to transform themselves into communities of respect.

It seems to me that the problem with the ideologue is a matter of character, more than of particular beliefs. The ideologue is arrogant and self-satisfied. They are arrogant and self-satisfied in that they think they hold the fundamental truth, and do not even think it is possible that people with opposing beliefs could be right. It is these qualities of arrogance and self-satisfaction that drives the ideologue to deal with opposing perspectives in the way that they do. If you are arrogant and self-satisfied than it becomes nearly impossible to see those who oppose you as contributing participants in a common project who must be collaborated with and listened to as you clearly know the truth and what needs to be done.

If the problem with the ideologue is a matter of character this creates a quite troubling problem for post-industrial societies. On one hand it means that the answer to the problem of the ideologue is to ensure that citizens do not become arrogant or self-satisfied. But the question is how does the state do this without infringing on the ability of individuals to be self-determining? Using state policies to encourage certain traits and discourage other traits may be justifiable, but it also concentrates power in the hands of the state and seems to limit individuals of their ability to develop themselves according to their own vision of the good. Can such limitations of individual development be justified because these limitations are necessary for the creation of a community of respect? While I lean towards saying yes to this question, as I think there are forms of policy that can help to discourage self-satisfaction and arrogance without significantly limiting individual development (ie compulsory civil service, participation in juries), there is a danger with any such attempt to have the state inculcate certain traits of endangering the freedom of individuals to develop themselves.

Please feel free to respond with your own answers to any, or all of, the following questions.

  • How do you understand the ideologue?
  • Why do you think the ideologue is a central element of post industrial societies? Is this problematic? Why?
  • Are the ideologue’s beliefs or character what drives his or her problematic actions?
  • How would you deal with the problem of the ideologue? Is it a problem that should be addressed through governmental policy?



Sadistic Violence as Ridiculous: Bloodbath, South Park and American Psycho

Bloodbath, are probably my favourite straight up Death Metal band. While I like them from a strictly a musical perspective, one other thing that draws me to them is their ability to present extreme violence and sadism in a mocking light that makes extreme violence something that can be laughed at as opposed to being feared. But, this raises the question of how the arts can present sadistic violence in this way, as it would seem that extreme violence and sadism are always horrifying and threatening. In considering Bloodbath three factors come to light that contribute to the ability of art able to present extreme violence and sadism in a mocking light. Firstly, when art takes violence and sadism to the furthest possible extremes it can make violence seem silly and thus ridiculous. Likewise, when the perpetrator of violence somehow seems very unthreatening this can also contribute to the ability of art to present extreme violence and sadism in a mocking light. Lastly, the fact that music is intended to evoke beauty makes the forthright statement of violent sadistic desires in song seem quite ridiculous. It should be noted that there may be other factors that I have not taken into consideration, and I do not claim that the list I have developed is exhaustive.

For example if we look at some of the lyrics of the song “Cry My Name” by Bloodbath we see that the lyrics present violent, disturbing grotesque imagery, but that this grotesqueness is more akin to a ridiculous horror movie than to a something that is genuinely worth fearing. For example the vocalist of Bloodbath on this album, Mikael Akerfeldt, sings, or rather growls:

You will see
My burning inferno
And there is no way
In your wildest dreams
That you can say no

I suffocate your soul
And drain you of your lifeblood
The breathing darkness here
Will make you disappear
There is no return

I steal your soul
And carve a hole right where your heart once used to be
I watch you die
I hear you cry
It fills my soul with such delight

There is something quite ridiculous about these lyrics. The idea of somebody being delighted watching somebody die and hearing someone cry is might seem horrifying, but when presented in an entirely deadpan, shameless way in the context of a piece of music it hardly seems threatening and just seems absurd. In many ways a song like this is analogous to much of the imagery presented in American Psycho. While I have not read the book, in the film, American Pyscho, we see a character in Patrick Bateman who genuinely delights in horrific violence and sadism, but we are not made to be frightened of him as we are of a character like Hannibal Lector. Instead, we are supposed to find him ridiculous.  Likewise in Bloodbath’s lyrics the deadpan presentation of sadistic, violent imagery allows us to see that these desires have a certain comedic element

The question that this raises is how do we present the truly horrific in a way that it renders it absurd? If I confronted a person as described in “Cry My Name” I would certainly be afraid of being with them alone. But when we are presented the image a person not as a person we have to deal with, but just as a fabrication it can render them ridiculous. The first factor that allows artists to present violent sadism as ridiculous is to take their violence and sadism to the most implausible of extremes such that it seems far less imaginable.

In South Park, the Christmas Critters are among the most violent and sadistic of beings, but they take their violence so far that we cannot help but laugh at it, rather than being afraid. Part of what makes the Christmas Critters ridiculous is that they are adorable woodland animals, but contrastingly part of this is driven by the fact that their violence and sadism has been taken to such an extreme. For example in the episode, “Imaginationland II” the Christmas Critters propose to make Strawberry Shortcake’s torture worse by forcing her to eat the eye that the other evil characters have gouged out and then having someone with AIDS urinate in her eye socket to give her the disease. This is possibly one of the most horrible and disturbing images of sadism, and yet we laugh at the Christmas Critters as they have taken the urge for violence to the most extreme limits, such that we cannot imagine somebody having these desires. Similarly, in the song “Mass Strangulation” Bloodbath take the frightening premise of strangulation to such an extreme that it becomes absurd and somewhat ridiculous. For example, the lyrics say

40 people or more – tied to hands and feet
Awaiting strangulation – darkening deceit
Rope around the neck – eyes falling out slow
Extreme asphyxiation – blackened murder flow
Your eyes start to spray, panic in dismay
Deathwish appearing fast
Insanity supreme, praying to be free
Guts explode in a blast

These lyrics present a horrifying spectacle, but at the same time the notion of “eyes starting to spray” and “guts exploding in a blast” is so extreme that it seems ridiculous. Consequently, one factor that contributes to the ability of some art to present violent sadism in a mocking light is by taking certain violent sadistic displays to the farthest possible extreme.

An additional factor that contributes to the ability of art to present violent sadism as something to be laughed at or mocked is our understanding of the character engaging in these acts. In the case of the Christmas Critters it is just funny to think of cute talking woodland critters doing the most horrific acts imaginable. In the case of Bloodbath for a good section of their career they have had a vocalist in Mikael Akerfeldt who comes across as very mild mannered, and hardly threatening and who has written beautiful ballads with Opeth like “Benighted,” “Face of Melinda,” and “Windowpane.” Knowledge of who Mikael Akerfeldt is probably further engrains the fact that the violent sadism is being presented in a mocking light as opposed to a genuine desire as he does not seem like a person with any sort of harsh violent sadistic tendencies. Thus, it seems that the presentation of a seemingly unthreatening agent as the perpetrator of violent sadism allows art to present violent sadism in a mocking light.

The last factor is the contrast between the purported aim of music to evoke beauty and lyrics that present the most horrific of desires. For example, if I were to write a song about how I much I enjoy eating babies when they are slow roasted over an open fire pit and stuffed with 40 cloves of garlic it is hard to not see my song as ridiculous. The musician typically bares his inner self, but this inner self has to be presented as humane and understandable in order to be taken as a serious presentation of beauty. Like my song about the epicurean delight of baby eating, Bloodbath’s music reveals horrific desires, but in the context of a form of art that is supposed to evoke beauty. This contrast allow us to see past the surface level horror presented in the lyrics to see that these violent urges are being mocked as opposed to being glorified. Thus, it seems that the factors noted in the preceding allow art to show violence as something to be mocked and laughed at rather than feared.

I would be interested to know what others think about this issue:

What other factors contribute to the ability of art to present the most horrific violence as ridiculous?

Do you think that any of the factors elucidated above is more important than the others?

Do you think that “Cry My Name” is a fantastic, clever song?


Stoicism, Providence and Modern Unbelief

The philosophy of Stoicism argues that humans ought to only concern themselves with things that are under their control. In the Stoic tradition the things that are considered to be under our control are actions, dispositions, and feelings. Similarly, for the Stoic, what makes human beings distinct from other animals, and somewhat like God is their ability to control their actions, dispositions and feelings. Consequently, for the Stoic , the good life is not one that is comfortable or pleasant, but one in which the agent takes care to properly order his feelings, dispositions and actions.

While Stoicism can seem rather antiquated as its greatest defenders were either Ancient Greeks or Romans (ie Zeno, Epictetus, Seneca and Marcus Aurelius), Stoicism remains attractive to many inhabitants of modernity; in fact I find myself attracted to Stoicism.  Similarly, Stoicism has been deeply influential on Kant and Descartes, has had a significant influence on modern psychological therapeutic techniques.

Part of the attraction of Stoicism seems to at least partially lie in the fact that it enables us to insulate our lives from the terrible things that happen that are outside of our control. Reading the Stoics can help us to recognize that worrying about what others think about us or other things that are outside of our control is pointless as it is not in our power to control these sorts of things.

While Stoicism remains attractive in many ways in the modern era there is at least one set of issues that make it difficult for modern nonbelievers, in particular, to buy into this philosophy.  This set of issues is our fundamental attitude towards the events that occur in the universe. The Stoics believed in a providential God that ensured that events unfolded as they ought to. This belief in providence is deeply related to their ability to be indifferent towards things not under their control, whereas the tendency of modern unbelievers to see events as the result of mere mechanical causation makes it far more difficult to just accept the flows of events, especially as humanity seems to possess more and more technological power over nature. Consequently, while Stoicism may remain attractive to modern unbelievers a different reason other than providence will have to be found to show why we ought to accept the flow of events rather than trying to conquer or control them. I will examine the human relationship to death and aging to highlight the difference in outlook between the Stoics and modern unbelievers and suggest that while we can learn from the Stoics the Stoics seem simply wrong to suggest that the only good worth pursuing is the good of proper self-control.

From the Stoic perspective aging and death are just natural elements of life that need not be resisted. The key is to respond to aging and death not by being distraught by the inevitability of death and aging, but by accepting that these are two elements of life that we cannot escape and must just accept. For example in discussing his process of aging Seneca notes that

“Only my vices and their accessories have decayed: the spirit is full of life and delighted to only having limited dealings with the body. It has thrown off a great part of its burden. It’s full of vigour and carrying on an argument with me on the subject of old age, maintaining that these are its finest years. Let’s accept what it says and make the most of its blessings…Moving to one’s end through nature’s own gentle process of dissolution—is there a better way of leaving life than that? Not because there is anything wrong with a sudden, violent departure but because this gradual withdrawal is an easy route.” (Letter XXVI)

Here Seneca notes the inevitability of aging and death and the fact that it must be accepted, rather than something that we ought to try to escape.

On the contrary within the world of modern unbelief it seems as though we are attempting to at least prolong the inevitability of death and aging, if not trying to escape from these seeming inevitabilities entirely. This is made evident by the amount of energy and resources that are allocated to prevent death and disease and to ensure that people are able to look and “feel” younger for longer.  A large part of this resistance to aging and death lies in the fact that we have uncovered that we have the ability to prolong life and delay aging, in conjunction with the fact that we fetishize youth, and bodily goods, but it is beyond the scope of this entry to fully uncover all that underlies the modern tendency to see aging and death as a mere curse.

To return to the topic at hand, if, as modern unbelievers, we do not believe in providence why would we believe that we ought to accept death and aging and not to try to resist them with all of our might? One possible reason why we might think that there is something contemptible about the person who tries to transcend their biological limits. In relation to this we might say that part of what being a good human being means is that one recognizes that one is not a God, and as a result one should accept one’s impermanence with quiet dignity.

This picture of the good is perfectly coherent, but it is not clear why modern unbelievers ought to accept it. Given that we praise people who have overcome their limitations to do great things it seems odd to say that good human beings ought to not transcend their biological limits.  Furthermore, if we accept that our biological constitution is just a brute fact, rather than something that sets out limits for our action it seems that there is little reason to see our constitution as something that sets normative limits for us in general.

Consequently, it seems that while modern unbelievers can learn from the Stoic tradition there is a large, and perhaps, unbridgeable gap between the outlook of the Stoics and between modern unbelievers. When providence is dropped from the picture and the development of technology and science has allowed us to more adeptly conquer nature it is hard to see why we ought to see goodness as lying in only properly ordering one’s feelings, dispositions and actions, rather than trying to control nature to ensure that more people encounter more goods.

Of course a defender of Stoicism might say that appeals to providence are not necessary to justify as Stoicism as external goods like wealth, health and prosperity are not really goods and thus we should only focus on ordering our feelings, dispositions, and actions, rather than trying to pursue external goods. But the Stoic reasoning behind this has never been convincing to me. While wealth, health and prosperity may be less important goods than character or integrity it seems odd to say that a life of a fortunate affluent citizen of good character is no better than the life of an impoverished slave with equally good character.  External goods cannot be the foundation of a good life, but they can augment it, and it seems downright bizarre to say that a life of good character that involves luxurious aesthetic appreciation is no better than a life with equally good character that is barred from all aesthetic appreciation. The fallout of taking this position is that fortune will play a role in determining the goodness of lives, such that goodness is not simply the responsibility of the agent, but this seems to be a worthwhile cost to pay for a clearer picture of the nature of goodness.

Works Cited

Seneca. Letters from a Stoic. New York: Penguin Books, 2004. Print.

Some thoughts on the Socratic critique of poetry

In this entry I want to discuss the Socratic critique of poetry and how we might want to respond to it. It should be noted that for Socrates poetry includes music, and plays, so poetry has a much wider ambit for Socrates than what we mean by the term. For the sake of simplicity I will use the Socratic meaning of poetry in this entry.

In Plato’s Republic, Socrates critiques the poets for being craftsmen of a kind who merely imitate appearances, rather than capturing the fundamental nature of reality. As a result of the imitative nature of poetry Socrates views the influence of poetry as pernicious as it teaches people to value the wrong things and encourages poor dispositions and character.

The Socratic criticism of poetry would be quite powerful if it was correct and it would force us to reassess the role of poetry in our lives. As a result, the question becomes do we have reasons to reject Socrates criticism of poetry. While poetry might have been a purely imitative art during the time in which Socrates was alive, today to refer to poetry as something that imitates appearances would seem to be an odd characterization of it. With the advent of the Romantic, and Modern traditions of the fine arts, creativity has become a central element of poetry.  The good poet is not one who seeks to imitate appearances in the world, but rather to innovate and express something that has never been said before. It would be hard to say how something like Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake or Ornette Coleman’s The Shape of Jazz to Come was a mere imitation of an appearance, as these two creations seems to be forms of art that break through being an imitation of some appearance and have brought to life something entirely new that has not been seen or heard in the world before. Similarly, one might argue many of the Greek tragedies were such an invention, rather than an imitation of an appearance, although this case seems to be harder to make. Consequently, it does not seem to be the case that poetry as a whole can be characterized as purely imitative so it seems that the Socratic characterization of poetry is not wholly accurate. For the sake of simplicity I will refer to poetry that is not purely imitative as creative poetry.

Now, one way of viewing creative instances of poetry which say something that has not been said before is that these are acts of creation that do not reflect or express something but simply create something new. The act of creation is thus not an instance of trying to reflect some deeper truth, but rather to say something novel. This reading of creative poetry seem vulnerable to a revised Socratic critique as creative poetry on this reading does not capture anything essential about reality; it just creates a novel thing. So, from a Socratic perspective if this reading of creative poetry is correct, creative poetry is equally pernicious to imitative of poetry as creative poetry too fails to capture the genuine features of reality.

One other reading of creative poetry is to see it as the expression of some aspect of reality that has not been seen before, such that creative poetry is a vehicle that allows us to uncover hidden truths. On this reading, creative poetry becomes far less vulnerable to a revised Socratic criticism as creative poetry becomes something that helps us better understand reality in which seems to serve the very purpose that Socrates is most committed to. I am drawn to this reading of creative poetry myself as I very much find that both poetry and philosophy help us understand reality, and tend to see them as complementary, rather than opposed arts. For example, I have learned as much from reading Antigone as I have from Hobbes or Locke. As a result this reading of creative poetry seems promising as it is able to recognize the seeming complementary relationship that exists between philosophy and poetry in helping us understand the world. Consequently, this reading of creative poetry seems to provide us with a fairly compelling response to the Socratic criticism of poetry.