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Why ideologies harm individuals
Ideologies stylize reality and meet group needs rather than individual ones, causing psychological problems. Thinking people should be wary of them.
Ideologies characterize political life. Many people do not hold coherent positions, having eclectic views, yet ideologies such as liberalism, conservatism and social democracy structure political engagement, particularly among the more sophisticated. In recent years, militant ideologies such as right populism and social justice liberalism have grown in strength, gripping adherents and rattling establishments.
But a key problem with ideologies is overlooked. Individuals hold ideologies, yet ideologies are not always good for individuals. This reflects the flawed way ideologies conceive reality. Though ideologies define the terms of reality, scholars calling this decontestation, this is necessarily imperfect; reality is irreducibly complex. More significantly, ideologies satisfy the needs of groups, individual needs being secondary. Marx and Mannheim recognized this, underlining the class basis of ideology. Recent work on cultural evolution is most germane to this. Scholars emphasize that human culture reflects evolutionary principles; humans generate new ideas (variation), strategically choose between them (selection) and repeat successful ones (replication). Crucially, culture selects at group level, improving the fitness of groups. Because humans organize and compete in groups, successful ideas enhance group performance; the nature of the ideas is irrelevant. The ideas may overlap with individual wellbeing, but often do not.
As they diffuse, ideologies become simplified. Time constraints drive this, communication needing to be succinct. Cognitive constraints also drive this, some people being more sophisticated than others; this moves discourse towards the lowest common denominator. This means that popular ideologies are cruder than canonical versions. For example, the conservatism of the average conservative is less sophisticated than Burkean conservatism.
Ideologies can be beneficial. In electoral terms, ideologies save voters the time of evaluating individual policy areas, this being associated with party affiliation. Psychologically, ideological affiliation promotes identification with others, boosting self-esteem.
But ideologies cause problems. Ideologies promote beliefs which harm individuals. For example, social justice liberalism depicts oppression as ubiquitous and insurmountable. This may be unhealthy; psychologists warn against narratives which emphasize threats and remove control from individuals. Lukianoff and Haidt hypothesize that microaggressions are ‘a reverse cognitive behavioural therapy’, weakening resilience and encouraging obsession with racism. Celniker and colleagues recently tested this claim on a large sample of college students, finding that cognitive distortions underpin such beliefs. Partly, this reflects the fact that ideologies satisfy group needs. Social justice liberalism advances the interests of young sociocultural classes, economic marginalization encouraging beliefs which discredit established institutions and elites. Individual needs are secondary, fostering pathologies among adherents.
Ideologies are associated with cognitive dissonance. This occurs when individuals hold conflicting beliefs, causing discomfort and motivating changes which reduce the dissonance. Aside from being painful, cognitive dissonance may be a gateway to other problems. Because ideologies stylize reality, adherents encounter challenges in spheres as diverse as current affairs, interactions with colleagues and the upbringing of children. For example, right populism is challenged by successful examples of multiculturalism; conservatism is challenged by human desires for liberation; liberalism is challenged by biological constraints.
Research demonstrates pressures upon adherents. Though certain accounts show that conservatives are more prone to avoid disconfirming information, reflecting the tendency of conservatives to seek psychological closure, others find that liberals are equally vulnerable. In a study of attitudes towards culture war issues such as marijuana, abortion and climate change, Frimer and colleagues discovered that liberals and conservatives both sought to avoid invalidating information, anticipating cognitive dissonance.
In a minority of cases, cognitive dissonance will persist and evolve. There is extensive research on religious doubt. This develops from cognitive dissonance, sometimes overwhelming believers and being associated with worse physical and mental health. Crucially, those who doubt are locked into folds, family and social lives being intertwined with belief. Such individuals face the Scylla of doubt and Charybdis of rejection.
Though ideology differs from religion, being more open and lacking a doctrine of posthumous punishment, there are parallel cases. As with religion, some people are locked into ideologies, working and socializing with similar people, limiting room for manoeuvre. For example, certain activists cannot revise their views without overhauling their lives. Though some might privately revise their positions, others will find this difficult, enduring mental conflict. There is little research on such people, yet mental and physical consequences may mirror religious doubt.
Ideology is inescapable. To some extent, everyone is under its influence. But that does not mean that all are equally ideological; thinking people can adopt flexible stances, mixing traditions. Given the imperfections of ideology, I prefer this approach. Alas, we are living in an age of heightened ideology, many people, particularly the young, adopting rigid and extreme positions. Adherents proclaim the benefits of these perspectives, yet we seldom hear from those who have become disheartened. But in the future, many may regret their stances; they would not be the first to do so.
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