TCS Daily

My Escape from Ideology

By Keith Burgess-Jackson - January 29, 2004 12:00 AM

Two things have happened to me as I've aged, and I'm not talking about the deplorable decreases in my bicycling and running speeds. First, I've become better at spotting ideology. Second, I've become less tolerant of it.

By "ideology," I mean a hermetically sealed worldview, one that filters out all and only disconfirming data. Ideologues, by definition, are closed-minded and dogmatic. They have no reality-testing mechanism. Evidence and argument of the sort philosophers and scientists take for granted have no effect on them. Indeed, the very standards of evidence and argument they employ are calculated to reduce their cognitive dissonance and (as a result) reinforce their worldview. Nothing is allowed to count against doctrine.

The Logic of Ideology

Ideology is a self-contained, self-reinforcing, self-perpetuating system of belief, feeling, desire, and value. The following passage by two philosophers sheds light on the phenomenon:

[There] are two typical ways in which a belief can be maintained in the face of intellectual difficulties. If a theory is defended by these devices:

1. not allowing any evidence to count against the theory, i.e., always finding some way of explaining away putative counterevidence; or

2. answering criticism by analysing the motivations of the critic in terms of the theory itself then we say that it is being held as a "closed system." It appears that Christianity, Marxism, and Freudian theory can be held as closed systems -- but this is not to say that all Christians, Marxists, or Freudians hold their belief in that way.

Why should people want to maintain a belief in the face of conceptual dif[f]iculties and counterevidence? Inertia, and unwillingness to admit that one is wrong, must play a large part here. If one has been brought up in a certain belief and its associated way of life, or if one has been converted to it and followed its precepts, it takes courage to question or abandon one's life-commitment. When a belief is an ideology, used to justify the way of life of a social group, it is difficult for the members of that community to consider it objectively. There are strong social pressures to continue to acknowledge it, and it is very natural for believers to maintain it as a closed system. People will tend to feel that their belief, even if open to some theoretical difficulties, contains some vital insight, some vision of essential truths that have practical importance. To question it may be to threaten what gives meaning, purpose, and hope to one's life and to endanger one's social position. (Leslie Stevenson and David L. Haberman, Ten Theories of Human Nature, 3d ed. [New York: Oxford University Press, 1998], 13 [1st ed. 1974] [italics in original])

A few years ago, in conversation with a friend, I bewailed the propensity to either embrace or reject a person in toto: that is, to canonize or demonize. This, I said, ignores the complexity of persons. To make my point, I said that if Adolf Hitler had been loyal to his mother, it would have reflected well on him. "Even Hitler had -- or could have had -- good traits," I said. "As evil as he was, and he was very evil, he was not perfectly evil." My friend, an intelligent, sensitive man (and a Jew), agreed with me, but asked why I would make such a point. I was taken aback. "Because it's true," I said. Isn't the truth of a proposition sufficient reason to assert it? Are there truths that must not be uttered?

The Joyous Work of Falsehood

This conversation had a powerful effect on me. It made me think philosophically about ideology for the first time in my life. Ideologues refuse to utter -- and sometimes even to accept -- facts that they deem offensive, embarrassing, or dangerous. They build intellectual walls around their beliefs. If enough people cooperate in this project -- what Roger Scruton, in The West and the Rest, calls "the joyous work of falsehood" -- it takes on a life of its own. The ideology seems real and substantial simply by virtue of the number and solidarity of its adherents. If I create a fantasy world of my own, I am (and should be) dismissed as a crank (if not a psychopath). But if I join with many other cranks in creating a fantasy world, I create a worldview.

Readers of my TCS columns over the past few months know that I was once a card-carrying, fire-breathing feminist. I abandoned feminism because, after many years of elaborating and defending it, I could no longer tolerate its distortions and evasions. Not to put too fine a point on it, but feminism misrepresents the nature of men and women. Feminists think that if men and women are different by nature, then patriarchy is inevitable. But patriarchy is odious, so men and women must be deemed alike by nature. This, to feminists, is an article of faith. Without ideology, it would take a real effort to believe it. With ideology, it is easy to believe it. Unfortunately for the true believers, it runs up against some inconvenient facts about sex differences, which psychologist Steven Pinker nicely summarizes:

Though men, on average, are better at mentally rotating objects and maps, women are better at remembering landmarks and the positions of objects. Men are better throwers; women are more dexterous. Men are better at solving mathematical word problems, women at mathematical calculation. Women are more sensitive to sounds and smells, have better depth perception, match shapes faster, and are much better at reading facial expressions and body language. Women are better spellers, retrieve words more fluently, and have a better memory for verbal material.

Women experience basic emotions more intensely, except perhaps anger. Women have more intimate social relationships, are more concerned about them, and feel more empathy toward their friends, though not toward strangers. (The common view that women are more empathic toward everyone is both evolutionarily unlikely and untrue.) They maintain more eye contact, and smile and laugh far more often. Men are more likely to compete with one another for status using violence or occupational achievement, women more likely to use derogation and other forms of verbal aggression.

Men have a higher tolerance for pain and a greater willingness to risk life and limb for status, attention, and other dubious rewards. The Darwin Awards, given annually to "the individuals who ensure the long-term survival of our species by removing themselves from the gene pool in a sublimely idiotic fashion," almost always go to men. . . .

Women are more attentive to their infants' everyday cries (though both sexes respond equally to cries of extreme distress) and are more solicitous toward their children in general. Girls play more at parenting and trying on social roles, boys more at fighting, chasing, and manipulating objects. And men and women differ in their patterns of sexual jealousy, their mate preferences, and their incentives to philander. (Steven Pinker, The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature [New York: Viking, 2002], 345 [footnotes omitted])

Much intellectual effort goes into denying these facts. A backup strategy is to accept the facts but insist that the observed differences between men and women are social rather than biological. The differences (it is said) are themselves the product of patriarchy. The circle, by this point, has all but closed. Instead of looking to biology to explain the data -- which, by the way, it does very well (as Pinker goes on to show) -- feminists dismiss it as a manifestation (or worse: an instrument) of patriarchy. This explains the title of Ruth Hubbard's book The Politics of Women's Biology (New Brunswick and London: Rutgers University Press, 1990). Hubbard, a Harvard biologist-cum-science critic, thinks biology is a male power play. As she puts it, "The predominantly male scientists who have described our [women's] biology have done so at least in part to explain why it is 'natural' for us to function as we do in society" (ibid., 2).

Another inconvenient datum is that many prominent biologists and evolutionary psychologists are women. This, too, is explained away by feminists. The female scientists, they say, have a false consciousness -- or else they've been co-opted by their male (read: sexist) colleagues. There's a vague implication that they're not really women, which is, of course, insulting. By this time the circle is closed. No fact can penetrate the ideological wall. The work of joyous falsehood is done.

But facts are facts, however inconvenient, offensive, unpleasant, or dangerous they may be. If patriarchy is bad, it should be resisted forthrightly -- on moral grounds. What feminism must do, if it is to remain a viable social movement, is come to grips with biology. Unfortunately, it shows little sign of doing so. It seems oblivious to the past 145 years of biological thought. Essays such as Katharine K. Baker's "Biology for Feminists," Chicago-Kent Law Review 75 (2000): 805-35, give one reason to hope that this will change, but it is merely one essay among thousands. If Christianity can accommodate itself to modern science, then so can feminism. But as the case of Christianity shows, it will not be done overnight and it will not be easy.

The Ideology of Race Denial

Another despicable misrepresentation, propounded and perpetrated even in the supposedly truth-seeking halls of academia, is that there are no races. See here, for example. The idea seems to be that if there are races, there will be racism (or, more particularly, white supremacism). This is a non sequitur. That something is the case is never, by itself, a reason that it ought to be the case. We have known this since Hume, but somehow we keep forgetting it. Why not disabuse people of the fallacy rather than denying the facts? Explain that evaluative propositions cannot validly be derived from factual propositions. Explain that might is not necessarily right, that difference is not necessarily dominance.

This latter point is important, for two things can be different without being unequal. When Thomas Jefferson wrote in the Declaration of Independence that "all men are created equal," he was not mistaken about the facts. He knew full well the many differences among men: size, shape, skin color, intelligence, interest, aptitude. He was saying that the differences among men -- which are obvious -- do not make a moral difference, or rather, that not all differences among men make a moral difference. Some differences, in other words, are morally irrelevant. As such, they should play no role in our moral deliberations. Race is one such difference. Whether Jefferson lived up to his stirring words is an interesting question, but even if he did not, it would not affect the truth of what he said. Even hypocrites can speak the truth.

That there are races is a fact. Races are as real as dog breeds, the existence of which no sane person denies. Whether race is a fruitful scientific concept is another matter. Perhaps it is not. That doesn't show that the concept of race has no grip on reality. It shows that not all concepts are scientific concepts. But we knew this, didn't we? Baseball is not a scientific concept. It doesn't follow that baseball is unreal. Wealth and poverty are not scientific concepts. It doesn't follow that there are no rich or poor people. There are many other examples. To say that a thing is real only if there is a genetic basis for it, or only if it is determined by our genes, or only if it is recognized by geneticists or other scientists, is madness. But then, ideologues are (in a sense) mad.

Taking Facts Seriously

I hope nobody infers from anything I've said in this column, or from the fact that I wrote it, that I'm racist, sexist, or anti-Semitic. Anyone who knows me knows that this is risible (not to mention insulting). Just as acknowledging the existence of sex differences doesn't make one a sexist, acknowledging that there are distinct races of human beings doesn't make one a racist. Sexism and feminism are not, thank goodness, jointly exhaustive -- which is to say that one can be neither a sexist nor a feminist. One can believe that men and women are equal, morally, without believing that they have a common nature or that all observable differences between them are the result of socialization.

By the same token, one can be neither a racist nor a denier of the reality of race. Sexism and racism are reprehensible. I want to be on record as saying that. I have worked hard in my own life to eradicate sexism: right down to changing my name. But precisely because sexism and racism are reprehensible, they should be attacked firmly and directly, with moral argumentation, not by denying the facts. Facts are often uncomfortable, but they are never our enemy. I must admit: I feel wonderfully liberated from feminism, which, in its ideological dimension, is no better than a cult. I am free -- at last -- to seek the truth.

Keith Burgess-Jackson, J.D., Ph.D., writes "The Logic Cop" column for TCS. He is Associate Professor of Philosophy at The University of Texas at Arlington. He has two blogs: AnalPhilosopher and Animal Ethics. The views expressed in his TCS columns are his own and not necessarily those of his university, his college, his department, his colleagues, his canine companions (Sophie and Shelbie), or anyone else.


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