Do you ever think about the origins of what you believe? And I don’t mean your parents. Much deeper than that is a history, a thicket of opposing and complementary ideologies, all springing from what we vaguely identify as “Western Civilization.” It’s interesting to see, equipped with an especially modest understanding of some basic models of belief, how people carry ideology around so conspicuously, while apparently unaware that they espouse anything at all.
The first example that comes to mind is the set of widely held assumptions inherited from living in an advanced Global-Capitalist society; specifically that everything is naturally competitive, self-regulating, and driven by individuals. Apart from those who study and champion this position, I feel as though, simply by being a part of a society identifying itself as such, people generally reflect the stances most dominant throughout. (A friend recently told me that “all innovation is driven by competition.” We were talking about skateboarding, mind you.)
The point is, dominant ideologies become seemingly imbedded in society as a whole. What I’m mainly referring to is the notion that certain ideologies “slip behind the curtain,” or however you would put it. Exiting the stage of social scrutiny, whereby beliefs are judged in accordance with what is right and good and just—ideologies can transcend appearance, instead becoming part of the scale on which “right and good and just” are defined.
Another quick, and to me sort of cryptically telling, example: the phrase “the marketplace of ideas,” used to defend the idea of freedom of speech and Democracy as a whole. The basic message here (at least by my reading) is that free ideas are analogous to a free-market: through competition and innovation, the cream always rises; in other words, Democracy is good because of the qualities it shares with Capitalism, which we know is good. Today, in our society, it makes the most sense if we use economic terminology to demonstrate the validity of democratic ideals. This is fascinating to me, even though I think it should be the other way around.
As a rule, I try very carefully not to be arrogant, or judgmental, or superior. So, “look at these lemmings, all spewing some agenda without even realizing they’re doing it”, is far from my mind. Well, not always; but I expect someone to be thinking the same thing about me, and that’s fine. When I try to think from the position of someone whose beliefs I find completely irreconcilable with my own, then maybe some of those darker, self-indulgent thoughts will surface. But let’s be honest with ourselves. Peel-back the waxy surface of vicious self-assurance, and what do we get: empty words. We can effortlessly brush away the beliefs of others, yet all we’re really saying is, “you believe what you believe because of blind conformity; I believe what I believe because of logic and morality.”
This conclusion leaves something to be desired, to say the least. Really, thinking that way (something I’ve been guilty of, to be sure) calls my beliefs into question more so than whoever was accused of mindless adherence. Here, I’m the one making the grand, universal claims—significantly, without examining how/why these “True” beliefs have made their way to me (and not others).
My first attempt to rectify this—a tear in the fabric of an objective, logical world, which though direct experience I have come to possess a valid system of knowledge (what is/isn’t real/true)—was to suggest that, being social animals, we are taught the most coherent/useful way to believe in any given physical/social/political context (i.e., the one we each grew up in). That really makes sense to me. It helps to explain, though social geographies, why some people think one way, and other people don’t (look at rural/urban worldviews, for contrast). The explanation: different environments invariably produce different beliefs.
Imagine my frustration when it occurred to me that this explanation was subject to the same kinds of ideological assumptions that it attempted to resolve. “Humans are a social animal,” might seem like a less-than-controversial claim, but is it? The imbedded-ness of ideas like “man is competitive, self-reliant, and motivated by his own profit,” would suggest otherwise. Man is social? That depends on who you’re talking to. Some would tell me that it was man’s ability to work together, reciprocate, share ideas freely, and care for one-another, that allowed the species to slowly become what “he” now is. Someone else would contend that it is man’s constant drive for survival, his mastery of competition, his will to improve on the work of others, and his unwavering self-interest that has resulted in today’s “selfish animal.” But it’s this very incongruity—reaching even the rationale we use to justify why and how we are, including our “natural” identity—that makes this seem like an unanswerable puzzle.
You can’t justify your own beliefs using any tool that you don’t believe in.
At most, you can lean on whatever consensus you find, which is certainly what we do today (the “news” as in “this is what happened in the world today,” depends on which station you watch. They’re literally selling us alternate realities.)
The alarming part, the overlooked part, is that in order to create a social-space where you are (by and large) surrounded by people you can agree with, it becomes necessary to prune-off the rest. This is nothing new, of course. Over the course of history, social affiliation was typically cemented though conflicts with other groups. This first happened though tribes; then religions; now, nations.
Of the many possible implications of this is an undoing of what many consider (through consensus, no less) to be positive and significant social achievements; the loosening of stringent group identities that continue exist in an exclusive, inequitable way. If someone ever wondered how the deeply-rooted, seemingly inflexible historical divisions among people—race, creed, gender, sexuality, country, and so on—had begun to unravel in recent years, then it would be of equal wonder that they seem to be tightening up again.
Maybe that’s not a particularly safe statement to make. Since the Civil Rights Stuff happened, it feels like further social progress is considered inevitable (continuous innovation/progress. Why does that sound familiar? Ha!). Anyways, nothing can be said to disparage the significant strides made in advancing civil liberties and social justice, some of them very recent. God, that sounded like a flyer or something.
Whatever. You get me. Things are getting better in many respects, I know. My suggestion, however, is that as we become more and more ideologically polarized (embedded, even), we grow more reliant on the conceptual “Other,” which serves to both exemplify what NOT to be/think, and create insulation for us to sit comfortably with people we like. Think about the way enemy soldiers are portrayed in just about any action movie: fucking soul-less, brainwashed, evil puppets. That’s what Others are for. “You’re not real, so neither is what you believe.” And now we’re doing that to each other, which, it’s bad enough when we do it to poor, oppressed people from other countries.
If we jettison the ideas which disrupt our calm, orderly world, we might know that they’re out there, but not having to see them is nearly as good as them never existing in the first place. Let’s face it, “the world,” to each of us, is only what registers across the relatively tiny screen of our consciousness. You know germs? They didn’t exist before the microscope.
In all, belief seems like an extremely violent act. We all know, to varying degrees, where our ideological foundations lie. The question then ceases to be whether or not these foundations are sound, but to what extent these models align and coalesce in the greater world. Whose world are you living in, other than your own? Irrespective, it takes a special kind of arrogance, a kind we don’t really acknowledge, to believe in anything. Even if you’re the most wishy-washy, “everybody’s right” kind of person—to believe that, you still have to reject the entire worldview of the guy who thinks there’s just ONE right way to do everything. Right? It’s negation. And it makes us all arrogant pricks.
Equally, it’s impossible to say anything without being arrogant, in one respect or another. Who am I to write something down for other people to see? What do I think I know that you don’t, that you ought to?