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The Power of Ideology (2/9/15)

February 9, 2015

Why We Don’t All Agree

People keep asking me the same questions: how can you behead children? Why do ISIS members burn a pilot alive, film the murder and triumphantly distribute it globally? If there is an answer to those questions some of it lies in ideology – the study of ideas and systems of belief. Researching ideas, much as you study photons, rocks or emotions, can help you understand the underpinnings of your own thoughts and beliefs – and that of everyone else – especially the belief that you don’t possess an ideology.

Lots of people think that way. Years ago when I was teaching at a medical branch of the University of Texas, a student came to me after a lecture. He announced in a lovely west Texas twang, “you have a real accent.” I did have a particular accent, a fractured Eastern variety filled with strangely differing pronunciations of “Mary” and “merry,” but so did he. The student smiled at my foolishness: “I don’t have an accent.”

Those who share an ideology often feel the same. They can’t understand how others can see the world differently – for what they know is so obvious.

The Power of Ideology

In a time where economists win Nobel Prizes like physicists, and “rational economic man” is given credence as a paradigm of intelligent behavior, it is sometimes hard to see the immense power of ideology. We too quickly forget the totalitarian fueled wars of the twentieth century.

Stalin was a thug, an extortionist, a train and bank robber, a practiced killer who convinced well over a hundred million people that the ideologies he penned – and Stalin wrote a lot – compelled belief like that of a deity. During the 1920s and 1930s Russians literally killed themselves to labor for the state, creating an industrial colossus out of war-torn rubble. People starved yet worked endless hours, while millions of them were simultaneously murdered.

Their crimes? Most were not only unknown to their perpetrators, but had never been considered by them. They had been literally “unthinkable.” Yet these “evil” individuals were then asked not only to confess to their non-existent crimes, but to make themselves believe their own thoughts caused them to commit those e crimes. Many acquiesced to completely rewriting history – during show trials – and in their own minds.

Generally examples of ideology trumping reality are not as stark. But consider the belief, powerful in some potent political circles, in the “hoax” of global climate change. In 2004 Naomi Oreskes, a historian of science at Harvard, was writing a book on climate change. As described in the New York Times, she decided to check the scientific literature of the previous decade to see if work disagreed with the finding that climate warming over the past 50 years was due to increased greenhouse gases. She checked over a thousand papers. None disagreed. Not one.

Publishing her results in Science, one of the most prestigious of research journals, she started receiving hate mail. She quickly discovered that many of those who “disbelieved” in greenhouse gas based climate change were not climatologists. Instead, they were weapons and rocket scientists. Presumably nuclear power, which they supported, would appear more popular as a solution to global climate change.

So why did they refuse to believe all the data? Oreskes concluded it violated their belief in free, unfettered markets. If greenhouse gases were causing climate change, then some kind of government regulation – like a carbon tax – would be needed to stop it. That violated their idea that “totally” free markets were the underpinnings of democracy. So believing that climate change is real and advancing – as climatologists do – was to these scientists equivalent to violating “freedom,” “democracy” and “the American way.” Such beliefs needed to be “debunked” – in spite of  the facts.

Why We All Can’t Get Together and Agree

People are often stumped by human fractiousness. Why do people argue so much? Can’t they just sit down and rationally come to a sensible compromise?

No. Because their fundamental ideologies are often different – and deeply unexamined.

In much of today’s political debate, whether about health care, global warming, or the genocide of peoples, the communicants are not operating within the same or even similar belief systems. They think their ideals and thoughts are so basic, so bedrock, that its just “impossible” for others to think differently.

Except that they do. So in the Middle East soldiers refight the battle of Karbela – which took place in 680 – and giddily wipe out children and infants. Doctors who see guns killing more Americans than car accidents feel gun registration and potential regulation is a public health issue akin to vaccination and sanitation. To their minds it would be easy to save tens of thousands of lives – particularly the growing number of gun suicides. Many millions of gun owners see exactly the same picture as having nothing to do with health – but everything to do with freedom, democracy, and basic human rights.

It’s not easy to get people to acknowledge their basic beliefs – especially when they think they’re automatically correct. But until those beliefs are examined – and acknowledged – many of the most important debates will take only take place by people talking past each other.

Because they’re not talking about the same things – and they don’t realize it. Such is the power of ideology – to disappear itself in plain sight, and shape our views of the world – whatever the facts.
Rest, sleep, Sarasota Sleep Doctor, well-being, regeneration,healthy without health insurance, longevity, body clocks, insomnia, sleep disorders, the rest doctor, matthew edlund, the power of rest, the body clock, psychology today, huffington post, redbook, longboat key news




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