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?


9 thoughts on “On the Ideologue

  1. I would say there will probably always be ideologues, but we could reduce their number, perhaps. Education is central to making people more thoughtful and careful, and we don’t really get to critical thinking until fairly late in the game, if at all. It seems people become smug and self-righteous in politics because they can’t cut through the rhetoric and have no great yearning for the truth (although they will insist they do). This is not necessarily their fault. There’s not much that can be done to instill yearning for truth, but if people are taught critical thinking skills (which, as I imagine it, would sometimes show their own fallibility), there might be fewer ideologues.

    The media could help by debating the issues more in a critical, fair way instead of just letting people sound off. But I have no great hopes for the media. I’d go with education.

    • Thanks for your perceptive comment.

      I agree that there will always be ideologues and that the best hope to limit their influence is education. But this raises the question of what form education takes to ensure that people are reflective and critical minded. Unfortunately, most education at a primary school level teaches people to get good marks and learn facts for the test, but it tends not to focus on developing capacities. As a result I am skeptical of the ability of classroom education’s ability to ensure that students are reflective, and think critically.

      In addition, it is hard to teach people to use a skill consistently if they are only taught it in one part of life, but not in the others. So even if we provide people with the ability to think critically, is there a way, consistent with political freedom, to encourage them to see this skill as more than something that they use for the test? I am not sure that there is.

      I am not suggesting that you were calling for classroom education, but I just wanted to add my thoughts on the difficult question of education.

      Thanks again for your input. 🙂

      • Well, I think there should be massive overhauls in education, so what I’m talking about is a pie in the sky. I think critical thinking can be taught in all subjects. Discussion based classrooms would help, as well as learning what it means to have a proper discussion, which would mean everyone should take a very basic logic/rhetoric course (to at least be able to distinguish between the two and find informal fallacies and such) and learn how to address the last point, etc. Not anything fancy, not getting into symbolic necessarily. But even mathematics can be taught this way. It’s what they do at St. John’s college, and I really like that model. Of course, there would have to be some typical memorization kind of stuff, but that you have to do anyways. It’s just too much memorization and regurgitation in my opinion. Also too much passive learning. I learned a clever phrase when I got my TESOL certificate: “Lazy teacher, active student.” Which means teachers should be engaging students instead of trying to put facts in their heads.

        But well, there’s my rant.

        Well, wait, no…there’s more:

        Honestly, I’m okay with testing. Even standardized testing. It’s not as if having a nation-wide standard is such a bad thing in itself. However, much more can be done in the classroom to ensure that ‘teaching to the test’ doesn’t happen.

        What I noticed about my own education was my ability to score high grades without actually learning. For instance, I took a Spanish class in HS and was given all the answers that could potentially be on the test. I took home the answers, memorized all three hundred and got a 100% on the test. I learned nothing. I can’t even say very basic things in Spanish. The same is true for nearly all my tests, excepting essays. The test was ridiculous and I shouldn’t have been allowed to do that. Tests can be much better than that.

        Okay, and now I’m done with my rant. Sorry, I just get a bit passionate about education. 🙂

      • I agree with everything you have said. I would love to see education go towards the model that you broadly outlined.

        When people refer to “education” as a solution they often just mean adding some item to the curriculum rather than an entire restructuring of how education is practised. So I made the assumption that you were suggesting the former and that was my mistake.

        No worries about your rant; I am also very passionate about this topic.

        What would you say to someone who suggested that the education that you propose runs counter to the form of life of liberal capitalist societies. For example, the point of public education tends to be justified more in terms of providing the nation with productive workers and consumers, rather than trying to enrich the lives of students. Is there a necessary conflict between trying to create productive workers and consumers and creating reflective, open minded individuals? My answer to this question leans towards the affirmative as practises within a society typically have a dominant social purpose, and it is not clear to me that it is possible for education to adequately pursue the goals of economic growth and educational enrichment. Those things that encourage educational enrichment may make people less ambitious for career success in an economic sense, and as a result they will put less effort into work, and be less productive as a worker.

      • You know, I see critical thinking skills being taught early (in my ideal world) so that by the time someone is a HS senior, say, he or she will have options to use those critical thinking skills in anything and will be able to narrow the focus later.

        That said, not everyone cares about education for its own sake and not everyone is inclined to become an academic or scholar or intellectual, or whatever. I think that’s just a natural difference amongst people, and that’s okay. That doesn’t mean those people aren’t reflective, but they just don’t want to spend their time reading books and thinking about abstract ideas. A lot of my friends are like this. They can have an intellectual conversation, but at the end of the day, they don’t want to do this for a living. They don’t LOVE it.

        What I don’t like is the idea that everyone should go to college in order to get a job that pays a decent wage. Technical college, community college, etc, should be acceptable for most jobs, especially if the HS education is what I outlined. People are getting themselves into enormous debt in order to get an education that is often times irrelevant for them personally and for their vocations. It’s not fair to them and not fair to those who want to pursue higher education for its own sake, because (in my experience) college gets watered down. Profs pander to the lowest common denominator and people who just want the piece of paper. It’s bad for everyone.

        So in my ideal world, the liberal arts education that tends to come later in life, if ever, should be given to everyone early, at public expense. Then the focus can be narrowed and people can do as they please. College should be a much higher level and a lot of the courses that are now taught would be rendered unnecessary if we all learned this stuff in HS.

        For instance, we shouldn’t have to be taught how to write a decent paper at the college level. We should already know this. In college we should be focused on ideas and the writing should be taken for granted. Same goes for reading the classics.

      • This was another insightful post, and I really like the proposal you put forward of having a focus on critical thinking occur at an earlier time in people’s lives.

        In Canada, university is not as expensive as it is in the states, but we have the same problem of people going to get a degree because they feel they need to have a degree to get a job. And as a result the university becomes more of a diploma mill rather than being devoted to education for its own sake, or serious scholarship or whatever. So I completely agree that the current setup is bad for everyone.

        This is a problem that I have thought about a lot and it is difficult in the sense that universities have come to be seen as institutions that receive public funding because they are resources for mass education for the workforce. So, there is a very significant concern that if they no longer play this role in society they would not be provided with significant public support.

        Also, I should say that in my last post I may have conflated liberal education and critical thinking skills. The tension between education for its own sake, and more of an instrumental approach to education stand apart from critical thinking skills. However, the reason that I think ran these two ideas together is because I do think that thinking of everything instrumentally encourages a very different way of understanding critical thinking than a conception of critical reason detached from any commitment to instrumentalism. For example, I work in the private sector, and they encourage “critical thinking” there, but critical thinking in this context means figuring out new, creative innovative ways to pursue a predefine goal. This business interpretation of critical thinking involves no reflection on whether our ends are valid. But, for me, critical thinking necessary involves reflection on ends as well as means. Otherwise critical thinking becomes mere cleverness.

        And of course I also agree that some just have no interest in education for its own sake, and this does not mean they are unreflective in any sense.

        I really like discussing this topic with you. It is really interesting.

      • I like discussing this with you too! I’ve been pondering education for a very long time. I was such a weird kid. I felt passionate about it in HS and was deeply disturbed by how bad everything is.

        You know, as I was writing to you I tried to imagine what would happen to universities if what I proposed became reality. It would not be good for universities, as far as money goes. Enrollment would plummet. And as you said, funding would go down too. I don’t think the things I suggest will ever come to pass, at least not here.

        I, too, conflate liberal education and critical thinking skills. Of course, they don’t have to go together, especially when you consider all the jobs (in business and elsewhere, as you suggested) which require critical thinking on a superficial level (means rather than ends). So in some sense we do teach critical thinking, but I guess not well enough. I keep thinking of St. John’s as a model, which brings together the classics and critical thinking. Not only that, but this type of education all but ensures that the material is not memorized, but grasped.

        After I wrote to you I wondered about math specifically. I always struggled to figure out the purpose of what I was doing in this area. A lot of my math teachers were good at math—meaning they simply had a knack for it—and were not effective with people like me who don’t have the knack. I wondered about my performance in school. I did very well in the classroom, always As, sometimes the best grade in the class, but on cumulative exams outside the classroom, I bombed. I mean less than 50%! The disparity was incredible. I knew in the class that I wasn’t learning but in this case, I didn’t know what to do to teach myself.

        So I wondered, what could have made me actually good at math? Or was I really just the kind of person who’s no good at it?

        I reflected on what my guidance counselor at OSU pointed me towards—Application of Modern Math, which she said I would do well in “because it’s all word problems”. Boy was that a disaster. The class was full of “creative” people like me, and we all suffered and moaned. I did well only because I spent 5 hours a day with a math tutor! (Incidentally, I made a C in creative writing because I blew it off.) This kind of thinking on the part of my guidance counselor is problematic. Math is not interesting just because it’s turned into a word problem. Children can count teddy bears, and that doesn’t make math interesting. The problem is much deeper.

        I don’t know anything about child psychology and what developing minds are capable of, but I can’t help but think they’re capable of a lot more. What would happen if we started with Euclid freshman year of HS? And moved up from that foundation so that each step is intuitively grasped, reasoned, and discussed? I think my problem was I never knew how what I was doing was related to anything else. If I started with the foundations and moved up, I wouldn’t have needed candy coating and other nonsense that tries to make it fun. And I would have been better at dealing with word problems, which are actually a lot more challenging than memorizing and regurgitating, or plugging and chugging, which is all I ever learned to do.

        When I took an Aristotelian (non symbolic) logic course in college, I thought it was going to feel like math. I was very nervous about it, but I needed to take it for philosophy, obviously. I ended up loving the class. I looked forward to doing the homework and some students actually came to ME for help! That was completely unexpected. The difference here was that everything felt intuitive and we moved in a gradual way.

        Why didn’t math feel like this? Would I have done well in symbolic logic? I don’t really know. All I know is I had early on classified myself as a “creative” person, not a “logical” person. But maybe there still is a fundamental difference between logic and math that I’m not aware of?

      • Your thoughts on math and logic are interesting, and I generally agree with them, despite having very different experiences.

        I was always very good at math, and did well both in course work and on exams. My biggest problem academically was that I have a tendency to make very basic mistakes (ie multiplication errors) while properly understanding complicated methods.

        I also felt that Math was taught as a discipline completely separate from everything else, and with no relation to other things. As a result, when my interests moved more towards the arts and humanities during High School I stopped finding math interesting, as I saw it as having no utility or relation to my interests in history, social science, religion etc. Math, unlike logic, just appeared as a group of methods for solving academic problems that I could not relate to the world.

        I have never taken a formal logic course as I was a covert Philosophy student who was doing a Political Science (Political Philosophy) major, and it is not a requirement for Political Science majors to do a logic course. That said, I was forced to attempt to read the Prior and Posterior Analytics by Aristotle and while I do not know how well I understood them, these works seemed to be deeply related to other disciplines in the world, rather than just a set of tools to solve academic problems.

        I feel like in my current job because I have to use math in a more concrete way to support the analysis of data I am getting a better understanding of the links between math and logic.

        I do not know if there is a fundamental difference between logic and math, but I cannot perceive one if there is.

        I also highly doubt that we will see educational schemes like the ones you have proposed coming to fruition any time soon. But it seems to be important to think what education would like under the most ideal of circumstances, because it provides us with a better understanding of the present system than just appealing to what is practical.

        I apologize if there are any typos in this post; I am only somewhat functional today as a result of coming down with a flu.

      • Sorry to hear you’ve got the flu. I just got over that a little while ago. It messed up my whole workout routine and I’ve been trying to strengthen myself back up to where I can do Zumba again…I think I may have somehow lost about 5 lbs. in muscle in a month! Well try to get plenty of rest and don’t forget the mysterious powers of chicken soup. Also, the Neti pot.

        Yeah, I don’t see anything that I’m talking about ever happening, but we can dream, right? 🙂

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