The fundamental difference between an idea and an ideology is this:
The former is one of many models through which reality can be viewed. The latter is a belief that reality actually exists in that way.
It’s not so easy to tell an idea apart from an ideology because on the surface they seem fairly identical. When laid out on a piece of paper there is no telling them apart. The difference lies in the manner in which they are adopted by people.
And the difference is this. I could develop a model on reality that I think is quite robust. And I could even defend that model intellectually against those who try and poke holes in it or challenge it in some way. Such a defence is not driven by a need to believe in anything, but rather by a means of testing the robustness of the model.
The industry term for this is “stress testing”. When you go to Ikea and see the chair in a showcase being pushed on repeatedly by pistons hour after hour, they are testing the durability of that particular design. They are by no means suggesting that that design is the only one in which a chair can exist.
Similarly, by debating an idea and challenging it or defending it we can put the idea to the test to see if it holds up to criticism. And if it does, then one can attest to the “rightness” of the idea. Right, meaning, not prone to error or breaking down under duress.
Ideology, however, does not welcome similar criticism. Nor does it consider its viewpoint to be one of other equally valid viewpoints on reality. It considers itself as the ONLY viewpoint on reality. And from that perspective it’s “rightness” exists by default. There is no point or even tolerance for having that assumption challenged. And such an attitude of “rightness” without a willingness to consider any other model of thought leads to a particularly insidious human trait : “righteousness”.
And so the difference between those who defends ideas versus those who defend ideologies is that the former are sure of the rightness of their idea whereas the latter are convinced of the rightness of their REALITY. And when you believe yourself to be on the “right side” you have no choice but to be righteous.
Alan Watts was famous for pointing this out in his talks. We don’t need saving from “evil men”, he said, but rather from the “do-gooders” who believe they know what is good and right for everyone.
In fact, it is no coincidence that the greatest tyrants in the world have always seen themselves as liberators. As bringers of goodness, justice, peace and freedom. It is the same sentiment that has led the United States into every war it has had no business being in. It is what led the Catholic Church to declare non-believers as heretics. It is what leads Islamic fundamentalist clerics to issue fatwas on any who dare criticize sharia law. None of these are driven by a desire to do evil. They are convinced that they stand on the side of good and right and must protect the world and others from falling into chaos and depravity.
The same phenomenon is highly evident in the political chasm in the west. Ideology has gripped both the left and the right and the proponents on both sides are absolutely convinced of the rightness of, NOT their ideas, but their realities. And so the MAGA sycophants and the sycophants of the liberal left have much in common. They are locked in a historic struggle to see whose righteousness will prevail.
Very few nowadays are even willing to question the fundamental assumptions upon which our progressive societies were based.
The American constitution which states that “All men are created equal and endowed by their creator with unalienable rights…”. Is this not an ideology inherited from Christian thought? What creator? Who endows? We live in a time when we have learned to be highly critical of religion and yet are unable to detect how it has already contaminated our social institutions with its assumptions on reality.
Are all men equal? Are men and women equal? Are all races equal? Here the answer is not the point, but is there a willingness within us to revisit some of these assumptions and decide: are these “realities” or only models of reality?
One can say, for instance, well we’ve tried and tested various models of society: we’ve had monarchy where one family is superior to the rest, we’ve had imperialism where one nation is superior to the rest, we’ve had facism where one race is superior to the rest and through this all society has been mostly patriarchal and so one sex has always been seen as superior to the other. So, we’ve tried various permutations and combinations of treating humans as “unequal” and they haven’t worked out so well in the long term.
But then we tried this democratic system of equal rights and this capitalistic system of equal opportunity and it has seemed by far the most robust model we’ve developed so far.
This is a sound defence of an idea. A model of society that is standing up to the “stress testing” that natural social evolution is providing it.
It still says absolutely nothing about what reality IS. Just because equality “works” doesn’t mean we ARE equal. It doesn’t mean we are unequal either. Equal and unequal are just two different ways we can build this thing. One structure is more sound than the other.
And so as a result of subscribing to this model of reality, one might then say that equal opportunities for men and women, for ethnic majority and minorities so on and so forth is the best path forward for us as a society. It’s like your doctor telling you that your best strategy is to quit smoking, eat less carbs and exercise more. However, you could still decide that, “hey, I might live longer that way but it sounds like no fun. I’d rather party it up and make an early exit.” That is an equally valid choice albeit a less optimal one.
Similarly, the doctor may prescribe that society would fare better in the long run if it adopted a model of diversity and inclusion, open borders and open minds. However, there may be those who feel, “well that sounds like no fun and waaaay too much work to wrap my head around. I’d rather stick with the kind of lifestyle and people I’m comfortable with.” And that is an equally valid choice albeit a less optimal one as well.
Yet, when both choices are seen as valid choices, some better than others but neither of them absolutely right or wrong, then ideas are all they remain. Maybe through some miracle and good genes the guy smoking and eating a quarter pounder a day outlives the guy who works out and watches his calories. It doesn’t really matter.
However, when they are no longer seen as choices but rather as imperatives. Not “you can do” but “you have to”. That’s when shit starts going haywire.
Ask a Trump sycophant if their worldview is simply “one model of reality” through which the matter can be considered and they’ll call you insane. Ask a liberal sycophant if their worldview is simply “one model of reality” and they’ll call you a fool.
The reason the political divide is an uncrossable chasm is because both parties are standing on the “right side” of it. Who in their right mind would ever feel motivated to attempting to reach what they believe is the “wrong side”? Each is simply waiting for the other to come around.
If not in time, then by coercion.
Righteousness leaves us no choice but to resort to coercion when no other options seem available to us. And the coercion is already happening in the form of the president’s policies on the right and in the form of the identity politics on the left. Those in the middle are left with no choice but to witness and silently comply for fear of being forcibly silenced.
I banned only the third ever person I’ve ever banned on this page, yesterday. It began with a subtle accusation of sexism, masked as an academic “pointing out”, of something I wrote in the “TAO OF ME” article.
In it I mentioned a list of writers, composers and spiritual teachers in my life who influenced me in my youth. This commentor, whom I’ve never seen before, pointed out that my list contained only the names of men. So, therefore I must be subliminally implying that women are not influential.
At first, I revisited my list and thought,” isn’t that interesting?” And I decided to do a critical examination of why this list contained only men’s names. After all, in my personal life which has been dominated mostly by women, women far more than men have influenced me. And yet, in my reading material this didn’t seem to be the case. Why was that?
And I found that most of my influences came from the classical era, a time when women had virtually no representation in the arts. For example, I was influenced by classical German and Russian works of literature, but I can think of no famous women German or Russian authors from that era. Similarly, not many female classical composers from the Baroque or Romantic era come to mind. Same goes for Japanese Zen poets. And the same is true of the transcendentalists (Emerson, Whitman, Thoreau et al). And finally, even among the spiritual teachers of the Krishnamurti heyday, not a single woman’s name comes to mind.
So, I explained this all very clearly to the commentor. And I drew a parallel by asking the question, “who is your favourite Renaissance era painter?” Virtually anyone would be hard pressed to come up with names other than Michaelangelo, Raphael, Da Vinci and so on. Does this mean they are being sexist? And if they were to somehow name one of a handful of relatively obscure female artists of the age, I could then spin around and say, “but I see no people of color in your list.” So, are you being pathologically racist?
Ideology seeks not to understand “what is” but to dictate “what is what”. To the commentor, none of my explanations were of any use whatsoever. She saw a “list of men” and therefore she saw sexism. Plain and simple.
If it’s red and round and can be eaten it’s an apple. But could it be a tomato? No. No. It’s an apple.
If you go searching for a problem you are bound to find it.
It takes very little intelligence to believe something. Virtually anyone can be made to do it. I watched a viral video the other day of a chimpanzee using Instagram on a smartphone and it was kind of revelatory of how few degrees of separation actually exist between us and our primate cousins. If a chimp could develop its vocal chords it could be taught to similarly spout the teachings of the bible, or pretty much any ideology out there, quite convincingly. But that doesn’t mean it has learned to THINK. All it means is that it has perfected the art of “monkey see monkey do”.
Intelligence requires the ability to discern between an apple and a tomato even if they look identical from a distance. It requires the ability to take an idea and hold it as just that without needing it to become anything more than that. It understands that while it can choose to interpret reality in any number of ways, it is limited in its ability to actually grasp that reality and say anything truly meaningful about. At best it can say, I do not know.
This sort of intelligence is woefully lacking in society. It is woefully lacking in politics. It is woefully lacking in the interest groups pushing forward their viewpoints on how society should move forward from both the left and the right side of the spectrum. It is woefully lacking in social media as well as the mainstream media and journalism as a whole. It is lacking in the universities, the bedrock of rational and progressive thought. It is lacking among the educators teaching young inquisitive minds about the nature of the world they inhabit. It is even, and especially, lacking in contemporary spiritual teaching and writing.
The road to hell is paved with good intentions. Righteousness and not “evil” has been at the root of almost every upheaval, turmoil, coup and genocide that has befallen society. And it will continue to on an endless cycle of wash, rinse and repeat.
Until the moment we finally wake up and acknowledge that it might just be possible that we don’t really know what the fuck we are talking about.