The End of Isms (Part One)

By on April 18th, 2013

Cartman: Wait… Isn’t everybody at war over atheism?
Shvek: Atheism? No. We’ve learned to get rid of all the isms in our time.
Medic: Yes. Long ago we realized isms are great for those who are rational, but in the hands of irrational people, isms always lead to violence.
Cartman: So there is no war now in the future.
Blavius: Of course there’s war! The stupid French-Chinese think they have a right to Hawaii.
All: Yeah!!
-South Park, Episode 10.13: Go God Go XII

I sure thought that put a nail in it. I cheered at the TV and went happily to bed thinking that Matt and Trey had struck at the heart of human idiocy and we would wake up to a new and wiser world.

Alas, apparently no one watches South Park.

Or if they do, they don’t understand it.

Isms, you see, continued right on the next morning. Sorry Matt and Trey, you tried. As powerful a force for change as Cartman is, isms have been around a lot longer.

So long, in fact, that the modern world is drowning in its own philosophies.

It is choking to death on ideology.

Thinking people intuitively know this. They cringe as they hear politicians speak of “sides” and vilifying their supposed “enemies”. They shudder when people recite the orthodoxy of their particular system and dismiss all other ideas without consideration. They shake their head hopelessly as they hear of more dead in another religious or tribal conflict. They are nauseated as people regurgitate the opinions of their favorite celebrity or guru, without even considering the issue for themselves. They seethe in frustration as time and time again conversations that start off interesting and hopeful die in the childish indignity of name-calling. (“You’re just an x-ist!” “Well, you’re just a y-ist!”)

But why does this happen? Why do these conflicts even exist? Are ideologies the way humans are meant to relate to one another?

In the post on genres, we discussed how humans have a love of imposing arbitrary categories on reluctant facts. We generalize, we classify, we simplify–because we must. The world is too complex for us to deal with otherwise.

But we also fall in love with our generalizations. We start to mistake them for reality. And when the facts disagree with our beloved generalizations? Why, we dismiss the facts, of course.

This is part of the reason. But it goes deeper. I believe that most of humanity is under the grip of a faulty (and ultimately dangerous) way of using their minds, such that we eradicate our own ability to see the truth or understand our fellow humans.

Ideology is not the inevitable course of the mind coming to grasp the world, but a thoroughly modern invention, a technique of directing the mind, a way of using language such that our ability to perceive the truth is rendered secondary to our allegiance to an identity group.

The consequences are all too clear.

It is a species-wide madness. We’re like children in separate, self-made sandboxes, who insist that nothing could possibly exist outside its borders. When we do encounter someone from another sandbox, we insist they must be an enemy of our way.

It’s an infantile way of thinking, an affront to rational thought, and completely rampant in our society. And it must be abandoned if we hope to ever reach adulthood.

This series will explore what is so wrong with ideological thinking, or “isms”, in three parts:

  1. How ideology cripples the mind (Part Two)
  2. How ideology cripples human communication (Part Three), and,
  3. How ideology cripples (and ultimately, has disastrous consequences for) society. (Part Four)

And we’ll also consider the alternative: independent thought.

What ISMs Are

Let’s be clear: we’re not talking about abandoning ideas as such. That would be impossible.

Humanity (despite what you may think about certain humans) is a species that cannot function without thinking, which means without concepts or generalizations. Our means of survival consists of ideas, many of them very old ideas, of how to cope with life on this Plato and Aristotleplanet. If we didn’t have ideas about how that was to be accomplished, or could not communicate or pass those ideas through time, we would have perished long ago.

Isms are different. They masquerade as ideas, sure. But they’re something much more insidious.

If you asked the average person what an ideology was, they would probably say something like “an extreme point of view”. This doesn’t quite hit the mark. It’s like if I defined a “house” as “a thing with a chimney”. A person may hold an extreme point of view, meaning a firm, unwavering opinion on some matter. But that opinion might be based on their independent, non-ideological view of the world. On the other hand, someone might hold a “moderate” (by which is usually meant a “mixed”) view, but still be under the influence of a mix of ideologies.

Perhaps, if they thought about it further, the person might say it is the exclusivity of one’s ideas that is the real essence of ideology. This is getting closer to the mark. It’s true, a hallmark feature of the ideological thinker is the exclusivity of their ideas. That’s what ideological thinkers do: they exclude other ideas from their consideration.

But we can go even deeper.

What makes someone cut off their search for the truth with this, and only this, set of ideas? What makes them decide to put a particular set of lenses on, and see the world in only that one way?

Well, we could get into psychology. (Check out The True Believer if you really want to go into the psychology behind joining mass movements). At root, however, I think it all boils down to the same thing: Identity.

An ideological thinker wishes to identify with a certain group of humans (to identify himself as one of them), and to distinguish himself from another group of humans.

Independent thinkers, by contrast, see such an act as an immense crippling of their faculties, the essential removal of their freedom to think clearly, and the removal of their ability to communicate with those who disagree with them.

Independent thinkers (as the very word implies) do not swear allegiances.

The real essence of ideologies, I think, is not that they require us to believe certain things, or even to believe them extremely or exclusively, but that they require us to identify with them.

When you come into this world, you have no ideology. In fact, through the better part of your childhood, you are blissfully unaware of any such thing. You are forming ideas and generalizations about the world, yes, at an epic rate. You are learning, through repetition and success and failure, about the basic nature of existence, and about your role in it. Your childhood really consists of an expanding bubble of awareness. It starts off tiny, as you are only aware of your own impulses and physical needs. Slowly, you grasp that you are only part of a bigger existence called Family, let’s say. Then you are aware that there are other families and other children like you. Then you are aware that there’s a big thing out there called a Neighborhood. And many neighborhoods, with many other families, in many cities, etc. The whole time, however, your basic ideas, what you learn, are what to do in the world and how to go best about it. In other words, though you are part of a greater number of humans, you are essentially dealing with the same problems of existence that we all share.

You have ideas. Lots of them. And lots of them useful. Some even indispensable.

But then, some time in our teens and early adulthood we are exposed to the fact that there are “ideas” out in the world of a different variety. These ideas are not only ideas about what is best for all humans, but (and this is crucial) they demand your membership, i.e., they demand that you have allegiance to that and only that set of ideas, and that you identify yourself with them.

Isms require you to be an “ist”.

And, of course, membership implies that contrary sets of ideas are to be regarded as… what?

You got it: the Enemy.

As soon as you identify an Us, you immediately bring into existence a Them.

This is what I mean when I refer to ideologies or isms: a set of ideas which, if you acknowledge their truth, identifies you as a member of a group and distinguishes you from all those who are not members.

The difference between an idea and an ideology is the verb: it changes from “I believe x” to “I am x”. Not “I believe in the freedom of private individuals to own and accumulate capital”, but “I am a Capitalist”. Not “I admire and follow the teachings of Jesus”, but “I am a Christian”. No matter the belief system, if it requires you to be an X, it implies that there are some humans that are Not X’s. And they are to be pitied or proselytized, opposed, combated, converted, conquered or killed.

This is the deeper reason, I believe, that is behind the decision to exclusively follow one set of beliefs. To allow forbidden ideas one’s mind, for an ideological thinker, is to give up one’s identity. It is to capitulate to the “enemy” – a fate, for many, worse than death. The most casual glance at history shows this to be true: history, if it is anything, is a history of people giving up their lives to defend their chosen identity.

Ideology, then, is a lot broader than just politics. Any religion that demands your membership qualifies. Identifying yourself with your nation, as against other nations, qualifies. Identifying with your language group as against another language group qualifies. Identifying yourself with your race–a particularly nasty ism called racism–qualifies. Identifying with your gender. Your nutritional philosophy. My tribe vs. your tribe. Bloods vs. Crips. Yankees vs. Rebs. Sopranos vs. Lupertazzis. The Montagues vs. the Capulets, etc., etc. Any time your set of ideas demands you identify yourself with a group or gang – no matter the size – you are dabbling with ideology.

Ideology is a mental technique. It’s a way of using your mind such that identifying with a group takes mental precedence over your own perception of the world.

Ideology, at root, is Camp-Thinking.

Us vs. Them.


The Supposed “Necessity” of ISMs

But before we talk about abandoning isms, is it even possible?

Some would say we are our isms. That is, to give up our isms would be to give up our identity; that it is impossible to divorce oneself from the belief set that one carries around, no matter whether it was inculcated, or deliberately chosen. To abandon our isms would be to eradicate our “social self”, the self that we use to interact with the world.

This view reverses cause and effect.

It says: ideology gives us our identity.

I say the reverse is true: we become locked within ideology, so we cannot imagine an alternate identity. Our desire to identify with others gives rise to ideology.

550px-Roman-SoldiersConsider: if it is true that we “are” our isms, and we cannot escape our identities, then why do things ever change? Why do people ever defy their parents? Or convert to new religions? Or abandon religion altogether? Why do some civilizations die out and new ones appear over time? Why do people rise up to overthrow their governments? Why does a society decide to end slavery or nuclear war or give all people the equal right to vote? Why aren’t we still fighting battles over Manichaeism vs. Pelegeanism? Populares vs. Optimates? Macedonians vs. Persians? For that matter, why aren’t we still in caves and treetops?

People do change. Sometimes over periods of time that are so frustratingly long that we cannot perceive the change happening. Sometimes entire generations must die off for new ideas to take hold. But it has to start somewhere. In the mind of someone living now, in this generation, who looks at his or her received wisdom–the prevailing views of their day–and says: “No.”

Someone once said: human history is a history of trying to impose our ideas on reality and being proven wrong. This is true, but an incomplete characterization: it is also a history of humans defying their received identities. Shaking off the shackles of what they are told they “are” and deciding to “be” something else.

Leaving aside history, just think of your own life for a moment. Haven’t you been told that you “are” many things throughout your life? Have you agreed with all those characterizations? Haven’t you said to a few of them: “No. That is not me. That is not my identity,” and changed your behavior accordingly?

A thought experiment. Just imagine for a second that it was possible to change what you “are”. That you decided, consciously, to abandon your ideology and whatever identity went along with it. “I am no longer an ist,” you declare. “Of anything.” You decide to eradicate any trace of isms from your speech and your thought. Your aim: to see whether it is possible to think about things, important things, without resorting to the pre-fabricated identity-groups that are already out there.

You don’t necessarily want to be “pure” of any beliefs whatsoever, just of the belief systems which prevent you from thinking clearly about things.

And you have another motive: you have become bored.

You can remember a time when the pursuit of ideas was fun, like an adventure. But when you adopted an ideology, you learned to shut off your mind, to stop challenging it, to seek safety in numbers, and to rely less and less on your own independent thought. The discussion of ideas, frankly, has come to bore you to tears, and even, in some cases, to feel threatening. When ideas come up in conversation you seek the quickest way out. And it’s no wonder; for years you’ve found yourself pursuing books and websites that tended to confirm your ideas rather than challenge them. This set up a cycle of rehashing the same old material, over and over, and without even realizing it was happening, you began to loathe reading about and discussing ideas.

But now, a light has come on. You realize you caused that mental lethargy by adopting various “isms”.

Isms, you come to realize, are an awful lot like wrapping up one’s mind in a straightjacket.

Also, you have become frustrated with the way people talk to one another about important issues. It’s as if they are lobbing grenades from separate trenches, each unable or unwilling to see one another, let alone speak the same language or even agree on a goal. And you see this same attitude compounded across society, in politics, and even between religions and nations. This has lead you to the emotional dead end of apathy. “What’s the point?” you’ve found yourself thinking. Everyone is locked into his or her own views. There is a “confirmation bias”, so why even bother attempting to communicate with anyone?

But you are going to make one more attempt. You come to the resolution that you will attempt to abandon any trace of ideology in your thinking and reading habits for a period of one year. If, at the end of that time, you find your mind unable to escape its ideological bonds, nor reach anyone else, you will abandon the experiment (and likely any reading or thinking altogether) and go on championing your ism to your last days.

But, just a few days in, you discover something shocking. You find yourself listening to conversations, and news stories, and people in general, differently. Your brain is engaged at a different level. No longer are you spending the time walling up a defense of your way of thinking in your mind. After all, there is no “way” of thinking to defend. Just thoughts. You find yourself listening to, and considering things that others have to say. You also find yourself spotting and easily identifying when someone is walling up a defense of their viewpoint in their minds. You come to perceive just what it is people are talking about when they call someone “close-minded”. It’s as if the ideology is preventing them from perceiving plain, naked truth, even if it’s right in front of them. You become aware of your own opinions sharpening, since they require you to actually think about them instead of falling back on ready-made platitudes. You are becoming aware of the fun of ideas again, but also of how little people tend to really think things out for themselves. There are, you perceive, vast armies of drones, carrying out the received opinions of the belief set that they are “supposed” to carry out. You are astonished by something so obvious you can’t believe you ever missed it: people, by and large, are acting out stories, fictions, about who they are supposed to be, and about who they are supposed to hate. You cannot believe that you were once one of them.

In short, what you have discovered is that not only is it possible to eradicate isms from your speech and thought, it is immensely desirable to do so. A year be damned. A few days were enough. The experiment has already started to yield beneficial and powerful effects on your mind and your life. It is like opening the rusted gate your mind has been scratching at for years. Isms have not only become irrelevant: you recognize them for positive hindrances that they are. By abandoning ideological thinking the world has crystallized before you, as though you’d been viewing it through smoked glass in a dark room. You begin to perceive subtleties you never knew existed. You come to conclusions quicker. You become aware of trickery and deceptions that are omnipresent in human language–trickery which unthinking people swallow as truth, day after day after day. You begin to develop your intuition. You start to follow the threads of your mind where they want to go. And yes, knowledge becomes fun again. You realize that independent thinkers are not threatened by new ideas. They crave them.

You decide a year is not enough. A lifetime is not enough. You realize that this is the way your brain was “designed” to be used, and that the period of ideological thinking represents your own personal Dark Ages. That you have found, finally, Enlightenment. And, you think with a foolish grin, what could “enlightenment” have consisted of other than this: abandoning one’s narrow, constrained perception of the world? Isn’t this exactly what Plato’s prisoners did when they emerged from the cave into the light?


So, for you, is this just a thought experiment? Or a reality?

Forget a year. Try it for a day. You are not committing to anything, really.

Just see how your brain likes it.


Why Did ISMs Come About in the First Place?

If I’m right, and camp thinking is just a modern technique, an invention, then when, and why, was it invented?

I believe this way of thinking is probably unique to modern humanity, say in the last 10,000 years.

cave_artConsider the species as a whole. Anatomically modern humans have been around for 200,000 years or so, and our ancestors for two or three million before that. For most of the history of the species, we’ve had no need to invent enemies that pursued a wrong way of life, since we all basically shared a hunter-gatherer lifestyle. As a species, we were all dealing with the same problems: existence, and how to cope with it. Sure, there were combats and skirmishes between early humans over resources. But far from being an ideological conflict, this was merely a resource grab, akin to two dogs fighting over a bone. (We don’t say that the dogs are fighting over their ideas about what “category of dog” the bone belongs to. They each merely want the bone.)

But then came the Neolithic Revolution: the rise of agriculture, and people who had different ideas about coping with life on the planet than the hunter-gatherers. They had identified a new Us which was incompatible with the old Them.

Daniel Quinn, in Ishmael, identifies the Cain and Abel story as an allegory–probably passed down through the oral tradition of Semite herders before being recorded in Genesis–describing a clash of two people: the agricultural people, represented by Cain the crop farmer, and the pastoral people, represented by Abel the shepherd. Our ancestors, though they may have fought over resources, didn’t fight over their way of life until one group, the agriculturalists, decided to eradicate the other, the nomads. Ideology, if Quinn is right, was responsible for the first genocide in history, represented in the book of Genesis as the very first murder. (As the recent conflict in Darfur showed us, this same conflict, between nomadic and agricultural people, persists to this day. Including the genocide.)

Of course, there may have been even earlier ideological conflicts. Perhaps even genocide. Depending on which theory you believe, the extinction of the Neanderthals some 30,000 years ago may have been a violent clash between Us and Them. But this might also have been a gradual die off: an inability of the Neanderthals to adapt to climate change, for example, or inability to adapt to new pathogens, or a gradual hybridization with modern humans, for which there is some evidence. Perhaps a mixture of all of the above. Some ideology, yes, but also some plain, old natural selection.

In any case, there seems to be a strong analogy between the pre-history of our species and our own childhoods. At first, we had no concept of ideologies since we were all basically learning the same problem: how to cope in the world. The civilization (adolescence, if you like) of our species brought us great freedom from the day-to-day problems facing hunter-gatherers, but is has also brought a problem with it, one that we desperately need to get past, as a species: the belief that because we have differing stories about how to best cope on the planet, some of us Are one-type of human, versus others who Are Not.

Adulthood, I think, will consist of a further expansion of our awareness: an awareness of our needs as a Species. Indeed, as part of a living world, or even a Solar System or a Universe.

Reality is indivisible. We invent schisms.

We arbitrarily divvy-up humanity into camps.


But Aren’t ISMs Just Semantics?

This is an easy one to answer. Point to a mass grave and turn the question around: “Do you think they thought so? When their enemy had them lined up at gunpoint for being the wrong ethnicity or religion or political party or economic class, do you think they thought isms were just trivialities or language games?”

Yes, isms are much, much more than semantics or the stuff of trivial academic debate. Unfortunately, they are at the heart of everything. Our ideas drive society, for good or for ill. Leaving aside your basic biological functions, there is not an aspect of what you do or come into contact with in your daily life that did not arise out of someone else’s mind as either true or right. When those ideas are unthinkingly adopted by us in the form of ideologies, we close off our minds and start to live out someone else’s vision for us. We carve out a portion of humanity to be our enemies. We, all of us, start living out fictions and play our roles, never questioning whether the stories are good or ill. We thus set in motion a chain of self-imposed slavery and mutual destruction.

It has become a trite observation that much of human conflict (say, in the Middle East, for example) would not exist without “religious extremism”. But that is only the most visible tip of ideology. I think isms are something much more sinister, something that affects even those who hold supposedly “moderate” views.

ap_russia_protest_jt_120506_wblogIsms work their way into every facet of human life, and become responsible for much that plagues us: confused, unclear thinking, dead-end arguments, vast amounts of wasted effort and time (and print), frustrated personal and business relationships, family strife, bad economic policy, bad health, bad science, political stalemates, disastrous foreign policy, increasing international tensions, and ultimately, yes, wars and genocide.

Isms use language to distort the way we view the world. But they are far more than mere language games. There is only so much falsity we can carry forward through time before it results in real disaster. If this way of thinking is not reversed and abandoned (meaning, countered with real, independent thought) humanity will never outlive its childhood. On the other hand, it is precisely abandoning ideological thought that will constitute our graduation from childhood into early adulthood. It is when we will leave the sandboxes and start looking around at the world. Maybe even understanding it a little.

If you are a thinking person this has already struck a chord with you. You have experienced this frustration, perhaps even daily: you are continually confronted with people–either in your personal life or one of the many villainous characters in the strange, skewed world of the news–that have been blinded by ideology. And yes, it is blindness. A self-imposed scotoma, of sorts.

The good news is, unlike actual blindness, it is reversible. Our brains want to be free. They practically scream it at us, even as we are burying them with ideologies. If that sounds true, and you agree how unsatisfyingly hollow human ideologies are, and you have been reading along so far thinking, “Yes! Yes!!” then read on. (And if you have been reading and thinking of your particular belief system and ramping yourself up to defend it, then read on, too… but be prepared to be challenged.)

I believe there is a growing swell of people, thinking people, that are starting to see beyond ideologies, and can see that human thought is capable of so much more. But let me be perfectly honest, here: all I want to do is reach one such person. The title of the post has nothing to do with my belief in a historical “End”. Call it, rather, a far-flung hope: that maybe, for at least one person, adulthood is not so far off. Sure, eventually, in some future incarnation of society, perhaps there will be enough people so sick and tired of the nonsense and destruction of isms that they will eradicate them from their world, and laugh at them exactly in the same way as we now laugh at the utterances of young children.

But never mind society, for now. In Part Two we’ll just be dealing with one mind: yours.

(To be continued)


That’s enough to chew over for now. If you are anything like me, this presents a major slap in the face to just about everything we are ever taught. From childhood onwards, we are, every one of us, told that we “are” something–a religion, an ethnicity, a nationality–and told that there are others who are “not us”. Consider this a challenge to that premise.

Can’t you, if you really think about it, step back from that identity and challenge it? To author a different identity for yourself?

We are constantly told that our “identity” defines us. In the next post, we’ll discuss how this is nothing less than a manipulation, a peculiar way of using language to cut off our ability to think clearly about the world, and frankly, why Camp-Thinking is a ludicrous and destructive way to direct your mind.

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