Guest post by Alex Gabriel: on being un-ideological to a fault

Originally a comment on To I, to she, to he, to they

So, quite aside from anything else here (and FTR, I completely agree with you about this org): I’m sick of ‘ideological’ being a dirty word. Having a coherent, connected set of principles that inform how you think is not a bad thing. Having words and concepts and ways of understanding based on them that frame your politics at large is a good thing.

What’s clearer to me by the day (and one of the reasons my blog’s called Godlessness in Theory) is that the limp, illiterate brand of skepticism proffered by many of the GSC’s people, which prides itself on being ‘rational’ and ‘evidence-based’ at the loss of any context anywhere, is un-ideological to a fault.

When we regularly have to explain to you the value of philosophy and sociology, the best definitions of sex and race, the actual relevance of empire to the way we talk about religions (all secular in-fights from the past year) and countless other fundamental things… that’s not a sign you’re being a Tru Skeptic and resisting Orwellian brainwashing. It’s a sign you’re failing to think in enough depth.


  1. Shatterface says

    When I did sociology ”ideology” meant false beliefs about social relations; the myths which mask exploitation and which make people reproduce unequal social relations even while they are being exploited.

    It was contrasted with Scientific Marxism (which was ”scientific” because of all the lab work Marx did).

  2. Dave Ricks says

    As I recall George Carlin,

    The difference between shit and stuff is, “Keep your shit away from my stuff.”

    Or in this case, “Keep your ideology away from my principles.”

  3. says

    I just read some Althusser and while I probably wouldn’t recommend it as light reading before bedtime he makes a very important and accurate point: Everybody has an ideology, only that the word itself is used as an insult against people you disagree with.
    Just remember all the times we have been accused of “feminist ideology” by people who pride themselves on not having one and who are just “rationalists” and “skeptics”

  4. says

    Yeah. Bumped into some of those, i’m-dismissing-you-because-you’re-clearly-an-ideologue types too…

    The hilarity of it, from where I stand:

    i) Sure, there are legitimate reasons for wanting to be cautious with ideologies. Roughly, the standard warning label says you don’t want them to become ends unto themselves, things you defend regardless of what using them as guides to action winds up doing to the world, and, if in fact, they are frameworks of thought that don’t actually organize the world as well as you think they do, they really just wind up distorting your impressions of what’s really going on out there. Further, if they harden into dogmas, and you convince yourself that okay, clearly the only reason tightening the money supply didn’t fix the economy is you didn’t tighten it enough, and you just double down repeatedly applying the same remedy in higher and higher dosages until there is exactly one penny left in circulation, and, oddly, the starving mob then dissects you with their pitchforks and cooks you with their torches, this being the first meal they’ve had all month, well, sure all these can be issues… but

    ii) Oddly enough, it really looks to me the way a lot of these True Skeptics (TM) apply this principle of ‘handle ideologies with care’ has become such an exaggerated, puritanical mockery of sense that it itself has hardened into a bizarrely distorted, exaggerated dogma. It’s gone from ‘be wary of such specific hazards’ to ‘forge these reasonable caveats and cautions into a meaningless self-parody, and eventually into a blunt instrument to dismiss anything you can plausibly label as an ideology, without, in fact, having to engage in any real way with the underlying thought”…

    … and, of course, it really can be done incredibly tendentiously. As any propagandist worth their salt knows if you want to demonize, first you must properly label the demon. So sure, creationists call anyone who figures descent with modification does look like what underlies natural history ‘an evolutionist’, because that way they can imply it’s just a dogma, just an ‘ideology’ in this understood-to-be-negative sense, Clearly, no one has thought about this stuff, accepted it on the merits of the evidence and the coherent theory that so well fits that evidence, nay, they just accepted it without thinking, perhaps being brainwashed by repeated, rote recitations of Mayr, in large, drab halls with many rows of tables, at which they were required to stand and repeat ‘descent with modification’ every hour, on the hour…

    The reality, too, is it’s frequently ideas at opposition to the status quo that get so labelled. Swimming, as we are, in a PR-saturated, propagandized culture, lots of attitudes not at all well-considered nor ever especially sensibly argued for are likely to be colonizing your oh-so-‘rational’ brain, o True Skeptic(TM), quite without your ever notic
    ing them as being any kind of idea, even, let alone ideology. The ones you’re going to be able to label as ‘ideology’ are going to be the ones you haven’t so unthinkingly signed up for nor been signed up for. That women are biologically predisposed to accept lower wages/better suited to raising the children? Ah, well, this is just something we kinda know without thinking about… Feminism, now, that’s an ideology. How could be be so sloppy as to accept it as whole cloth sociological fable, as, of course, we’re sure you must have done, as I’m ever so ‘rational’ myself, and I don’t…

    So grumbles about ‘ideology’ potentially wind up just being ways to dismiss notions you’ve either no interest in, or notions whose pursuit you actually want to discourage, when you’d rather not have to admit the same. And calling them ‘ideologies’ and thus clearly not worth thinking about, this does seem an easier line to sell than saying ‘actually, I’m a smug, self-absorbed bastard to whom this particular challenge is completely irrelevant, so I’m gonna go for quick, thoughtless dismissal on the basis that I can call it an ideology, and the less said about what this effectively means I’m arguing for, quite without having to come and say so (thank goodness), the better.

  5. Bjarte Foshaug says

    #7 #8
    Exactly. If you want to know a person’s ideological bias, look at what they’re trying to pass off as the “unpolitical”, “non-ideological” position.

    BTW possibly the stupidest argument I have ever heard was that feminism has to be a domatic ideology because the word ends with “ism”. As I told him, that’s an interesting way to look at electromagnetism.

  6. Silentbob says

    @ 8 AJ Milne

    Feminism, now, that’s an ideology.

    Well, of course. This idea that human rights are independent of gender is an extraordinary claim that must be subject to rigorous scrutiny.

    Now libertarianism, on the other hand… well, it’s self-evident isn’t it? If we’re all motivated purely by self-interest, then automatically that leads to the greatest good for the greatest number. Obviously. How could it be otherwise? It’s as rational and evidence based as Newton’s Law of Motion. Written into the fabric of the universe. Isn’t it?

  7. says


    Well, of course. This idea that human rights are independent of gender is an extraordinary claim that must be subject to rigorous scrutiny.

    Only when you go down the “ideologies are bad things” rabbithole. Ideology does not mean ” riddiculous dogma that can’t be logically defended”. It means “consistent framework of positions”

  8. Pen says

    What’s clearer to me by the day (and one of the reasons my blog’s called Godlessness in Theory) is that the limp, illiterate brand of skepticism proffered by many of the GSC’s people, which prides itself on being ‘rational’ and ‘evidence-based’ at the loss of any context anywhere, is un-ideological to a fault.

    I think it’s actually the ideology of people who are over-dependent on the ‘controlled experiment’ aspect of the scientific method. That’s an area of endeavor where context is absolutely banned. The whole goal is to make sure there’s as little of it as possible. But to a lot of people it IS science and rationality. They have real difficulty sometimes handling the fact that the results of some of those experiments don’t translate easily to situations with contexts and they have a hard time dealing with knowledge that has to be discovered in the context – usually knowledge about society, but also ecology, etc.

    It’s not just a problem with ideology they have, it’s ignorance and a blanket rejection of a whole bunch of methodologies.

  9. doubtthat says

    This issue came up recently with the launch of Nate Silver’s new site. There were a number of issues with product they were generating, but they were attempting the “ideology free” analysis of a range of subjects using their math wizardry.

    I don’t want to rehash the whole back and forth, but Krugman, a critic of Silver’s efforts, described the problems with this approach nicely, and some of it is very relevant here:

    If you think the data are speaking for themselves, what you’re really doing is implicit theorizing, which is a really bad idea (because you can’t test your assumptions if you don’t even know what you’re assuming.)

    …numbers can be good, and can even be revelatory. But data never tell a story on their own. They need to be viewed through the lens of some kind of model, and it’s very important to do your best to get a good model. And that usually means turning to experts in whatever field you’re addressing.

    Unfortunately, Silver seems to have taken the wrong lesson from his election-forecasting success. In that case, he pitted his statistical approach against campaign-narrative pundits, who turned out to know approximately nothing. What he seems to have concluded is that there are no experts anywhere, that a smart data analyst can and should ignore all that.

    Being clear about your perspective is not “ideology” in the pejorative sense (holding to irrational or unreasonable beliefs in the face of clear contradictory evidence). As Krugman says, it’s much better to be clear about one’s assumptions so that they can be tested than it is to hide behind this imaginary “neutral world” where the facts lead to conclusions.

    This is not only impossible in a strict sense, a person always, ALWAYS, has a perspective, but it’s bad science/rationality/skepticism. As long as a person is willing to reconsider the framework from which they’re operating when new evidence becomes available, the negative implication of “ideology” isn’t a problem. When one pretends as though they are ideology free, they’ve essentially immunized their framework from consideration and scrutiny, which is the ultimate example of the negative sense of ideology at work.

    What happens is that — to take an example we’re all familiar with — these anti-feminist trolls in the atheist/skeptical movement raise intro-level criticisms of a position over and over and over. When people are finally tired of dealing with the simplistic, zombie bullshit, the critics say, “AHA! See, you’re ideologues. You don’t even want to have a conversation about this. Feminism/environmentalism/liberalism…is just another religion…”

  10. doubtthat says

    To draw out that analogy a little further, just like Silver took the wrong lesson from using simple data analysis to combat the nauseating entrail-reading political musings of the press corps, these atheist troll folks had a lot of success using simple scientific facts to counter insane religious concepts.

    And like Silver made the mistake of thinking the approach to combating lunacy from David Brooks and Peggy Noonan would be the same when he decided to take on climate scientists, the glibertarian wing of the skeptical/atheist movement thinks going after, well, basically all social science will be no different than explaining why the Grand Canyon couldn’t have been made in a half hour during a flood 4000 years ago.

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