Ideology and Belief

08 May 2022

This week we’re thking about Ideology—a system of false beliefs that’s opposed to reason, like fascism or Scientology. Of course we shouldn’t tar all ideologies with the same brush. After all, what about liberal democracy, i.e. the belief that everybody deserves the same freedoms, a say in their government, and the protection of the law? Nothing wrong with that ideology, right?

But is that really an ideology, or just... the truth? Well, believing in liberal democracy isn’t like believing in gravity. It’s fine to say that physical facts are true, but values aren’t like that. We may value liberal democracy, but that doesn’t make it objectively true. So if we agree that, say, fascism is wrong—and false—how can we also assert that ideologies can’t be true or false?

Maybeit's the case that ideologies can’t be true, but they can be false—because they can build in false assumptions. Fascists, for example, think that all problems are caused by foreigners, which is objectively false. So ideologies can have false assumptions, but even if all the assumptions are correct, the ideology is still just a belief.

That seems fair enough. But maybe we also need a way to distinguish between bad ideologies like fascism and good ideologies like liberal democracy. For exmaple, we could say that one is dangerous and harmful, while the other is beneficial for society. But that amounts saying it’s ture that liberal democracy is good for society, which sounds a contradiction to the clim that ideologies are never true. So is that just ideology talking?

In fact it can be really hard to get outside ideology. It’s what we use to understand the world; without it we probably couldn't even think—which is, of course, a bit depressing. We certainly don’t want people to be wandering around trapped inside their ideologies, unable to see what’s really happening. Wouldn't we be better off if we could ditch our distortions and just get to grips with reality?

Maybe if ideology really were just a distortion. But it’s arguably more a framework—it helps us understand how all the little pieces fit together. And yet an ideological framework still do a lot of damage. Jut think about everyone getting all their information from social media, lobbing hand grenades at each other from within their ideological bubbles, tearing the country apart.

These are big problems—but what if the only way to solve them is... better ideology? After all, if there’s truly no escape from ideology, then you can’t do without it if you want to understand all the problems we’re witnessing: political partisanship, racism, climate change. Unless you’ve got a theory, you’ll never have a solution—at least that's what it sound like our guest might think: Marius Ostrowski, author of a new book called simply, Ideology.