Why I’m Not an Ideologue, Part I.


I choose not to be associated with any political ideology – neither libertarianism, liberalism nor conservatism – as I believe that it reinforces deep-seated tribal instincts that affects our stance and decision making on issues of importance.  It does so by imposing constraints on our ability to form good conclusions (motivational reasoning) and fosters conformity (groupthink).  Ideologies allow us to evaluate what’s right and wrong, gives a cultural identity and allows us to turn ideas into action.  So I see the value of an ideology and not adhering to one probably makes me politically impotent, but I won’t compromise critical thinking skills just to be politically viable.  Some may argue, all belief systems within a culture are in a sense just principles, which escapes no one, and so your worldview is really just an ideology too.  I agree with this retort, but here I’m talking about ideologies that have dogmatic assertions, well defined agendas, and consist of ingroup members that uphold these things at any cost.  Moreover, although principles and ideals are important, I believe they should often times be subordinated to pragmatism – the idea that you do what works.

To the wider point, by distancing myself from groups, for example, not identifying myself with a conservative pundit on TV, I avoid an abuse of ideas such as groupthink, which is a highly dysfunctional way of solving problems and making decisions as a result of, often unconscious, ingroup influences.  For our purposes, bias is a preferential treatment or selection of ideas, objects or people.  In an ingroup situation, like conservatism, there’s an effort to undermine dissenting and controversial viewpoints, indoctrinate members, isolate from other groups, possess a bias towards the group’s principles and ideas, all in an effort to maintain conformity and harmony.  The results are that the ingroup overrates its abilities and underrates its opponents and consequently have an inflated sense of certainty that the right decision has been made [wikipedia].  A good example of this is when the Bush administration believed that there were weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.  Other effects are demonization of outgroup members and collective confirmation bias or preferential treatment towards the group’s theory as new evidence appears.

Becoming the victim of indoctrination, a facet of groupthink and an uncritical way of obtaining information, shouldn’t be surprising to anyone as we all see how one can inherit a religion or political persuasion, often unquestionably.  We also know how easily novices, particularly when young, can be influenced to believe in persuasive people’s viewpoints, especially from those who are revered.  How we become indoctrinated, on the other hand, is complex and numerous pathways probably exist.  Although I believe that those that are well versed in logic, critical thinking and are informed in the field of inquiry are less prone, I think much is unavoidable.  I believe this to be the case because the belief formation process – whether or not to accept or reject a claim –  is easily corrupted by emotional appeal, psychological biases end evolutionary forces.  To illustrate emotional appeal, we can become a part of an ideology out of pure preference or sentiment without any analysis; for example, “I like liberals because they seem more compassionate to those in need.”  This path is actually probably the more frequent of avenues we take versus sitting down and evaluating every claim and position a group proposes.  This is unfortunate but understandable as assessing arguments from economics, history and political science is very time consuming.  One of the reasons why we our ideologues is that it serves as a shorthand to being politically relevant but at a cost.

I recall how easily I was indoctrinated by conservative talk show radio – in a matter of months I was parroting all of their arguments and principles – and liberals were the subject of my caricatures and demonization.  Likewise, when I went through a period where I identified myself as a liberal, reading exclusively the New York Times and the Huffington Post, I showed much prejudice towards conservatives.  So conforming to an ideology not only comes at the cost of possible indoctrination, but it also creates stark ingroup and outgroup members.  And this has real consequences as it can evoke tribal instincts to have contempt towards the outsider and affinity towards the insider.  This chasm between groups creates defensive behavior when people are challenged on their viewpoints which inevitably leads to obstinance and bigotry – our amygdala probably hijacks our prefrontal cortex.  In fact, you can think of conservatism, liberalism and libertarianism to be of different tribes with their own languages.  As The Three Languages of Politics by libertarian Arnold Kling puts it:

Humans evolved to send and receive signals that enable us to recognize people we can trust. One of the most powerful signals is that the person speaks our language. If someone can speak like a native, then almost always he or she is a native, and natives tend to treat each other better than they treat strangers.  The language that resonates with one tribe does not connect with the others. As a result, political discussions do not lead to agreement. Instead, most political commentary serves to increase polarization. The points that people make do not open the minds of people on the other side. They serve to close the minds of the people on one’s own side.

If you haven’t realized it already, most of us actually get our beliefs first and then look for evidence to support it, not the other way around.  This is known as motivated reasoning, where we focus on what we want the cause to be.  But these beliefs (causes) come from being indoctrinated within an ingroup in the first place.  It’s no coincidence that a majority of liberals believe many people are oppressed by society, that is, after all, an inherited tenet, but this may or may not be true as a general rule.  Some Liberals, as conservatives, will hunt for evidence that conforms to their belief – society causes apparent oppression – without ever considering alternative causes.  Liberals and conservatives have other heuristics and causes by which to assess the political landscape, but they are finite.  The real world, however, is much more nuanced and complex, creating the need to look at many other causes.  But ideologies restrict you from doing just that since you are stuck with inherited principles, e.g., big government is always bad, to work with.  The following quote by libertarian Arnold Kling reinforces the points on obstinance and motivational reasoning.

If people were open-minded, you would think that the more information they had, the more they would tend to come to agreement on issues. Surprisingly, political scientists and psychologists have found the opposite. More polarization exists among well-informed voters than among poorly informed voters. Moreover, when you give politically engaged voters on opposite sides an identical piece of new information, each side comes away believing more strongly in its original point of view. That phenomenon has been called “motivated reasoning.” When we engage in motivated reasoning, we are like lawyers arguing a case. We muster evidence to justify or reinforce our preconceived opinions. We welcome new facts or opinions that support our views, while we carefully scrutinize and dispute any evidence that appears contradictory. With motivated reasoning, when we explain phenomena, we focus on what we want the cause to be. The philosopher Robert Nozick jokingly referred to this as “normative sociology.”  For example, what accounts for the high incarceration rates of young African American males? A progressive would look to racism in our justice system and society as the cause. A conservative would look to high crime rates as the cause. And a libertarian would look to drug laws as the cause.

Comments

  1. silverfeather says

    The way you’ve set up your definition of ideologies “here I’m talking about ideologies that have dogmatic assertions, well defined agendas, and consist of ingroup members that uphold these things at any cost” seems like a pretty strawmanned oversimplified way to justify your desire to not have one of those labels attached to you. Which is fine – I mean, you decide what you want to label yourself.
    I tend to lean toward a very leftist liberal ideology – in the sense that I agree with most of the ideals put forth by liberal thinkers, and the notion that because I strongly identify as a liberal I am very likely to reflexively uphold literally any liberal idea at any cost is just insulting. I mean, your example of an inherited principle of an ideology: “Big government is always bad” is so oversimplified it is childish. If anyone believes that, then yes, I agree, that would lead to an inability to have a nuanced conversation about any topic involving government. If you value nuanced, situational, critical thinking it is a red flag whenever anyone makes a claim of “always bad” or “always good”.

    There are a lot of different ways people can and do fall into motivated reasoning, tribalism, and overly simplistic dogmatic world views, and it is a real problem that every single one of us needs to be on guard against because we are all wired for those often problematic things. You are still wired for these things just as much as I am, no matter what you want to call yourself. I think understanding those very human pitfalls and having a healthy dose of humility is the first and most important way we can prevent indoctrination and engage in critical thinking.

    Then it becomes important to figure out what you believe. Why do you believe it? What kind of a society/country/world do you want to live in? How do we get there? Yes, listening matters, as well as seeking out the best empirical data we can find. Being willing to change course if what we thought would work isn’t working, and incremental steps (pragmatism) are both important. Being willing to admit you were wrong is imperative.

    But what do you stand for? Those core sets of world views that we wrap up in labels like conservatism and liberalism and libertarianism (and socialism and so many others) are critically important toward figuring out how you think we should move forward and who you can work with to get there. And unless you intend to go through life just not asking yourself any of the big questions… I don’t see how you opt out of a worldview, whether you label it or not.

    • joncavaz says

      Thanks for the comment.

      Maybe subconsciously I don’t want a label attached to me, but the real motivation I have is genuine – that is, I really think we get stuck in these cognitive traps of reasoning when in ingroups, and we are limited to using explanations that are self-contained within an ideology. Hopefully I can better explain this in the next post. I did not intend to misrepresent the definition of ideology to my advantage. I was probably gearing it to a subset of ideologues.

      Regarding “at any cost”, I truly believe that there are zealots and ideologues out there that, unconsciously, use simplified heuristics to determine what is right or wrong (i.e., what works and doesn’t), but you don’t sound like one of them.

      I am wired like everyone else, but I believe I can prevent it more than others by distancing myself. However, I miss out in a lot by doing so. I like your comment on humility, something definitely lacking in the current administration.

      I couldn’t agree more with your wisdom.

      Here is where we don’t agree. I’ve stated that you can’t escape some sort of worldview, which I obviously have if I’m human. A worldview is nothing more than a set of beliefs on how one thinks the world is and how one thinks the world should be, so both descriptive and normative. Worldviews don’t have to be political worldviews though, and they can certainly be a mixture of both liberalism and conservatism. Moreover, I’m not saying that the beliefs of these worldviews are necessarily wrong but rather that they constrain you from looking to other answers by virtue of being in a group, cognitive biases etc. And I ask myself the big questions all the time. I suppose, politically, I would be considered a moderate, one that has a mixture of both conservative and liberal ideals, but tries to be more pragmatic than most. I humbly emphasize “try” as you’ve pointed out I’m just as susceptible to these things as the next guy.

  2. says

    I agree that the group has a powerful emotional pull on how we think about and remember what we see. The way you describe this is very consistent with my own view of the way people seem to reason in politics.
    Don’t sell yourself short when it comes to being politically effective, the person eschewing overt loyalty to a group in socially active terms still get reactions from the social mass around them. I’m the sort that wants Obama and George W. Bush imprisoned for their role in torture issues alone alone (TL;DR version, O is an enabler in legal terms). I recoil from the thought of being a D or an R based on the morals necessary to drop torture, whistle blower abuse, and functional support of many other abusive authorities in and outside of the US. In fairness being group-less does mean one has to do more work with justifications though. For effective communication if nothing else. I see all belief systems as necessary to siciety structurally, but modifiable and dispensable in each specific incarnation. If you are as group-less as you say I am sure you have noticed your own patterns. You can leverage being group-less no matter what they think. But of course one can do that irrationally as well.

    To me the most fascinating thing about bias is its neutrality with respect to how it works broadly. One can be biased towards rational and irrational things. It’s good to be biased towards rational things. “Unbiased” as its typically used is not actually a thing.

    I’m fascinated by thinking of best methods in dismantling the logical problems in how they they understand the world. Objectively defining a bigot in functional terms sufficient for standard Internet troll encounters for example.

    I wish I had more time to get familiar with technical terminology in social psychology. So thank you for the information you have provided. There are some very useful concepts referenced in here.

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