Thursday, 12 January 2012

Three dangerous ideas

1.  The Theory of Everything (a.k.a. the One True Way)

A Theory of Everything is essentially a closed ideological system: an all-embracing description of human society - or the human condition, or the universe in its entirety - which denies the possibility of its own refutation.  It typically takes the form of a political ideology or a religion.

The principal characteristic of a Theory of Everything is that it is monopolistic.  Some of its individual claims may be narrower or less sweeping ("capitalism is an unsustainable economic system", "a supreme being exists"), but these claims form part of a broader narrative which provides a complete account of society, life or the cosmos.  A Theory of Everything also disallows the possibility of its own rebuttal.  It may be held to be validated by God, or self-evidently true, or the only possible conclusion from the empirical facts, or some combination of these.  Any evidence that appears to disturb the theory must be either denied or subsumed by reinterpretation within the theory itself.  As Sir Karl Popper said in relation to Marxism in Conjectures and Refutations:
In some of its earlier formulations (for example in Marx's analysis of the character of the "coming social revolution") their predictions were testable, and in fact falsified. Yet instead of accepting the refutations the followers of Marx re-interpreted both the theory and the evidence in order to make them agree. In this way they rescued the theory from refutation; but they did so at the price of adopting a device which made it irrefutable.
It might be said that any attempt to think analytically about life or the world necessitates some kind of overarching ideological framework.  To this extent, secular democratic liberalism is just as much a Theory of Everything as is Marxism.  But there are some important distinctions to be drawn.  An ideological system can be more or less closed.  Catholicism is more closed than Zen Buddhism.  Mussolini's system was more closed than Edmund Burke's.  It is also very important to note that ideological theories differ greatly in how far they demand to be enforced by state power.  Ayatollah Khomeini said, in reference to his brand of Islamism:
Secular governments... are only concerned with the social order....  Islam and divine governments are not like that.  These have commandments for everybody, everywhere, at any place, in any condition. If a person were to commit an immoral dirty deed right next to his house, Islamic governments have business with him....  [Islam] has rules for every person, even before birth, before his marriage, until his marriages, pregnancy, birth, until upbringing of the child, the education of the adult, until puberty, youth, until old age, until death, into the grave, and beyond the grave.   (Cited in Hamid Dabashi, Theology of Discontent, p476-7)
What is more, some ideologies are more monopolistic than others.  For example, environmentalism and feminism make claims about particular aspects of the world rather than about the world as a whole - though they are frequently subsumed into broader-ranging ideologies such as liberalism and socialism.

Of course, the fact that a system of thought is a Theory of Everything doesn't mean that it isn't true.  What it does mean, however, is that the system should be kept well away from the levers of political power.  This is because, to put it bluntly, our human limitations mean that we can never be absolutely sure that any given ideological system is definitely correct.  This point was made by J.S.Mill in his classic work On Liberty.  Mill wrote, in the guise of a believing Christian:
The man who left on the memory of those who witnessed his life and conversation, such an impression of his moral grandeur, that eighteen subsequent centuries have done homage to him as the Almighty in person, was ignominiously put to death, as what?  As a blasphemer.  Men did not merely mistake their benefactor; they mistook him for the exact contrary of what he was, and treated him as that prodigy of impiety, which they themselves are now held to be, for their treatment of him....  These were, to all appearance, not bad men — not worse than men most commonly are, but rather the contrary; men who possessed in a full, or somewhat more than a full measure, the religious, moral, and patriotic feelings of their time and people: the very kind of men who, in all times, our own included, have every chance of passing through life blameless and respected.  The high-priest who rent his garments when the words were pronounced, which, according to all the ideas of his country, constituted the blackest guilt, was in all probability quite as sincere in his horror and indignation, as the generality of respectable and pious men now are in the religious and moral sentiments they profess; and most of those who now shudder at his conduct, if they had lived in his time, and been born Jews, would have acted precisely as he did.  Orthodox Christians who are tempted to think that those who stoned to death the first martyrs must have been worse men than they themselves are, ought to remember that one of those persecutors was Saint Paul.
If we can't be sure that a Theory of Everything is true, might it not still be necessary or useful?  Maybe people need to be given a broad, all-embracing creed to believe in because society will fall apart if they start asking difficult questions and doubting the rightness of the way things are.  The awful old reactionary intellectual Joseph de Maistre wrote in his Study on Sovereignty:
[T]o conduct himself well, man needs beliefs, not problems. His cradle should be surrounded by dogmas; and, when his reason awakes, all his opinions should be given, at least all those relating to his conduct. Nothing is more vital to him than prejudices. Let us not take this word in bad part. It does not necessarily signify false ideas, but only, in the strict sense of the word, any opinions adopted without examination. Now, these kinds of opinion are essential to man; they are the real basis of his happiness and the palladium of empires. Without them, there can be neither religion, morality, nor government....
....Once let everyone rely on his individual reason in religion, and you will see immediately the rise of anarchy of belief or the annihilation of religious sovereignty. Likewise, if each man makes himself the judge of the principles of government you will see immediately the rise of civil anarchy or the annihilation of political sovereignty. Government is a true religion; it has its dogmas, its mysteries, its priests; to submit it to individual discussion is to destroy it....
De Maistre was no doubt right in the banal sense that societies without a certain body of unquestioned shared values will not be cohesive or well-functional.  No doubt it would be, in general terms, a bad thing for large numbers of people to start doubting the legitimacy of Parliament's power to make laws or the police's right to enforce them.  It also seems to be the case that human beings have a primal need for certainty about the way their world works.  But de Maistre was writing in the aftermath of the French Revolution, and we know that he was wrong in his suppositions because we now know how the story ends.  The liberal democracies of the West have not fallen apart as a result of their citizens thinking for themselves and electing their leaders.  They have survived and prospered to become the most stable and responsibly governed states in the world.

De Maistre was right about the formidable power that ideas can have.  In the form of a Theory of Everything, they can wreak havoc.  The reason why we shouldn't bet on our chosen system being right is that the potential costs of doing so are too high.  The consequences of being wrong can be atrocious.  This is evident both from the repression and injustice of the sort of theocratic monarchies that de Maistre liked and from the more modern and refined forms of totalitarianism that the 20th century brought with it.  Terry Eagleton wrote in his book Ideology:
What persuades men and women to mistake each other from time to time for gods or vermin is ideology.  One can understand well enough how human beings may struggle and murder for good material reasons - reasons connected, for instance, with their physical survival.  It is much harder to grasp how they may come to do so in the name of something as apparently abstract as ideas.  Yet ideas are what men and women live by, and will occasionally die for.
In similar vein, the physicist Steven Weinberg famously said that it takes religion to make good people do bad things.  It might usefully be recalled here that Prof. Weinberg is a strong advocate of the ideology of Zionism and a defender of Israeli military operations.  Christopher Hitchens, who liked Weinberg's bon mot so much that he incorporated it into his own act, was a former Trotskyist who became a defender of the aggressive and ideologically driven foreign policy of the Bush administration.  We can't get away from this stuff.  Ideologies, religious or secular, are dangerous things.  They need to be watched carefully, particularly if they claim to be the One True Way.


2.  Tribalism and Black-and-White Thinking

(I know that this is actually 2 ideas)

The tendency to create ingroups and outgroups is one of the most pervasive and insidious characteristics of human behaviour.  It isn't difficult to think of reasons why this instinct might have proved advantageous in evolutionary terms, but it is equally easy to think of examples from recent and not-so-recent history of its horrendous consequences.

The pioneering academic research in this field was undertaken by Henri Tajfel in the early 1970s (see here, here and here), though it had been prefigured by Muzafer Sherif's Lord of the Flies-style Robbers Cave experiment in 1954.  The work of social psychologists links in with that of cultural critics like Simone de Beauvoir (The Second Sex) and Edward Said (Orientalism), who argued - perhaps a little too forcefully and polemically - that men and Westerners had promoted images of women and Arabs respectively as dangerous, inferior Others.

The most obvious triggers of tribalistic behaviour may be ethnicity and sex, but Tajfel found that tribal instincts required little encouragement to come to the surface.  Fairly obviously, we favour members of our own tribe above others (ingroup bias), but tribalism doesn't end there:
[W]e exaggerate the differences between our ingroup and other outgroups.  Because perceived similarities are minimized and perceived differences are maximized, stereotypes are formed and reinforced.  Another consequence is a phenomenon known as the outgroup homogeneity effect, whereby perceivers assume that there is a greater similarity among members of outgroups than among members of one's own group.  In other words, there may be fine and subtle differences among "us", but "they" are all alike....

The outgroup homogeneity effect is common and evident around the world....  People from China, Korea, Taiwan and Vietnam seem themselves as different from one another, of course, but to many Western eyes they are all Asian.  Business majors like to talk about "engineering types"; engineers talk about "business types"; liberals and conservatives see themselves as individuals but the other side as "one big mass of unthinking extremists"; teenagers lump together all "old people" and older adults talk about "all those rude teenagers"; and while the natives of California proclaim their cultural and ethnic diversity, outsiders talk of the "typical Californian". (S.Kassin, S.Fein and H.R.Markus, Social Psychology)
These tendencies link in with another human psychological quirk: a tendency towards black-and-white (or "dichotomous") thinking which disallows the possibility of ambiguity.  A dichotomous view of the world is sometimes referred to as "Manichaean", in reference to an ancient religious sect which taught of a struggle between a good world of light and an evil world of darkness.  The human tendency to engage in this sort of binary categorisation was the basis of the structuralist movement in anthropology, led by Claude Lévi-Strauss.  It has also attracted the attention of psychologists (see e.g. here) and sociologists, most notably Theodor Adorno.  In his work on the psychological roots of authoritarianism, Adorno famously claimed that "intolerance of ambiguity is the mark of an authoritarian personality".

The political consequences of all this are very predictable.  We all know what happens when extreme and adversarial principles are perceived as being incarnated in opposing tribes.  Jean-Paul Sartre wrote, in reference to antisemitism:
Anti-Semitism is thus seen to be at bottom a form of Manichaeism.  It explains the course of the world by the struggle of the principle of Good with the principle of Evil.  Between these two principles no reconciliation is conceivable; one of them must triumph and the other be annihilated....  The reader understands that the anti-Semite does not have recourse to Manichaeism as a secondary principle of explanation.  It is the original choice he makes of Manichaeism which explains and conditions anti-Semitism.
George W. Bush put it more simply: "Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists".

To be fair, it's not just Bush.  We all do this.  I do it and you do it.  Tribalism and polar thinking are wired into our chimp brains.  But we can at least try to channel them into relatively harmless outlets and not to inflict them upon our fellow human beings any more than is strictly necessary.


3.  Utopianism

There seems to be a widespread tendency for humans to posit the existence in the past of a Golden Age of peace, order and plenty:
The idea of a Golden Age in the past, lost through man's fault, took shape in various ways, but it was more immediately suggested by the almost instinctive conviction (common to old races as to old individuals) that things must once have been better, just as men generally hope that things will be better in the future.  (J.A.MacCulloch, s.v. "Fall (Ethnic)" in Hastings' Encyclopaedia of Religion and Ethics)
As to the future, there seems to be a parallel conviction that one day an apocalypse will arrive in which the decadence of the present will be transformed into a utopia.  This is often linked with the advent of a messianic figure and with disarray in society and the natural order.

Such utopian and apocalyptic ways of thinking, which I have written about more extensively elsewhere, can be dangerous.  In recent years, it has been widely suggested that the Islamic doctrine of the apocalypse has influenced President Ahmadinejad's policies in Iran.