The Allure of Ideology

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Christianity was not my first ideology.

My parents are devout, and they raised me to view church like school, home, and the library: one of the fundamental places, with routines that define “normal life.” I believed everything I heard in Sunday school. But an ideology is not just a worldview. As a child, Christianity was not an ideology — it was merely fact. It was exhilarating and terrifying fact, yes, but so was the solar system. So were tornadoes and Siberian tigers and the Middle Ages. As exciting and profound as I may have found each of those, I accepted them all as plain descriptions of features of the physical universe. The Grand Canyon was a real place, not a philosophical proposition. So was Hell.

Then, as an adolescent, I learned about the US’s history of genocide. I decided I wanted nothing more to do with America. Once I started refusing to say the Pledge of Allegiance, my Scout troop kicked me out. Scouting was deeply important to me — the opportunities I had to master outdoor skills, learn small-group leadership, and spend time in nature continue to influence me, decades later. That made getting told to leave feel amazing. I was suffering for my principles — what an ennobling experience! Without even the trouble of actual physical hardship! Later, as an activist, I kept that story in my back pocket, just in case I felt like bragging about how courageous and precocious I’d been as a baby radical.

Before the Scouts booted me, I’d merely been flirting with leftism. Getting expelled sealed the match.

Revolutionary politics gave me things that my church background had failed to. Ideology draws you in by overwhelming you on several fronts at once, delivering:

  • Moments of revelation — flashes of irresistible, capital-T Truth that seem to outshine the dull world of plain fact;
  • Abundant chances to ride a moral high, letting you feel like a giant among the ordinary mortals who don’t even know that [America is irredeemable/cis men are scum/capitalism is killing the planet/white people are complicit in structural racism/only bigots resist getting called out];
  • A sense of mission — you know better than everyone else what needs to happen. And you’re going to make it happen, no matter what nonsense the enemy tries to pull;
  • Most of all, a discipline.

I don’t mean “discipline” in the sense of “self-control” or “punishment” (although each of those may well be involved). Think of the Book of Discipline published by Quaker meetings. “Discipline” invites you to become a disciple. It’s a framework for systematizing both the outward world and your inward life. You take the unfinished material of your self and shape it into something new.

If you’re not willing to join a traditional religion (or you’ve rejected one, like I had), you can still get spiritual discipline. You just need to find it in an ideology. Conversion can create a sense of purpose, focus, and self-transcendence. If I’d been raised by secular progressives, maybe I would have joined a conservative church. As it was, though, having already experienced Christian doctrine as plain, unremarkable fact prevented me from immersing myself in it as ideology. I needed the thrill of discovery, of having a world-changing secret that my family didn’t. I happened to get it from radical leftism, but it just as easily could have been anything else. Punk rock, Islam or Krishna Consciousness or some other religion, Ayn Rand libertarianism — you name it.

During a decade and a half of left-wing activism, I flitted between particular ideologies. Consistently, the ones that most compelled me offered the strictest, most comprehensive frameworks to impose on the universe. That, in turn, meant the most intense personal disciplines. Ordinary women-are-people-too gender equality just couldn’t match the militant charm of radical lesbian feminism. Gay marriage was a normie cause, but separatist queer nationalism? You could really sink your teeth into that. And what’s the fun of admiring Sweden’s welfare state when you can get into Chairman Mao, instead?

The same strident and totalizing quality that repels most people, confining certain ideologies to the fringe, pulled me in like a magnet. And when my beliefs got too ordinary, too worn in — internalized deeply enough to become boringly factual, no longer revelatory and thrilling — I could just shift a few degrees over. Like the excitement of dating a new partner, I could have the convert’s frisson all over again.

Looking at the world through an ideological lens did not make me a better person. It made me worse — less kind and open-hearted. It didn’t make me a happier person, either. I kept chasing after the perfect discipline while attempting to smooth over the inevitable cognitive dissonance. The world kept failing, over and over, to behave the way my ideologies predicted. But there was real emotional pleasure in the midst of the suffering. Just because it made me unhappy doesn’t mean it didn’t feel good.

For the Catholic writer GK Chesterton, Christianity was true not because its specific propositions had individually been proven accurate, but because it had shown itself to be a “truth-telling thing” — intrinsically a source of truth, beyond the specific truth-value of any given claim. As a teen, I ceased to be a Christian when I realized that I could no longer accept it on those terms. But then I spent years looking for that same quality in one secular ideology after another. Of course, none of them delivered; that’s too much to demand of any philosophy. The only genuine “truth-telling thing” is your own experience. But even there, you have to tread lightly. Have you confused your experience with your after-the-fact interpretation of that experience? The latter is profoundly fallible even if the former, in principle, is not.

Activism is a community of value — a group of people helping create meaning out of each other’s lives. My relationship with it was not healthy. I hope that I can avoid the same mistakes with other communities of value. But if I expect them to be “truth-telling things,” I’ll go every bit as wrong. It’s hard to let ideology go. It makes life much more uncertain, but what’s worse is that everything becomes so prosaic. Life is no longer a battle between the forces of darkness and the army of light. To avoid falling back into that, all I can do is choose, every day, to trust what appears concretely true and useful and loving. I can’t afford an ideological world any more. I have to live in this one.

(Thanks to my close friend A.W. for suggesting this topic.)

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