2020: The Year of Our Ideology

Part 1: Fight or flight? Reality rears its head

This is Part 1 of a series on ideology, the imagination, and community. Check back next week for Part 2!

Recently I reread Dorothy Sayer’s masterpiece Gaudy Night, a literary gem that masquerades as a mystery novel. In it, heroine Harriet Vane goes head-to-head with a vicious, anonymous terrorist determined to wreck a community. The terrorist pits the community’s members against each other, playing on their own ideologies to sow discord and hatred. Harriet struggles to unmask the villain in part because she cannot escape the limitations of her own imagination—limitations that come from her closed-up emotional state. She is in love, but can’t admit it. She can’t accept the vulnerability that love causes. This emotional failure causes an imaginative failure, which in turn causes an intellectual failure and prevents her to piecing together the clues and finding the culprit. She cannot understand the culprit, and so she cannot defend herself—and her community—against attack.

This year, I heard a lot of people end a conversation by saying, “I just can’t understand it.” I heard myself do it. And that’s a dangerous, dangerous thing, because when we give up our ability to understand, we give up our ability to create and defend functional communities. In this year of terrible confusion, I think many of us found ourselves acting like Harriet Vane: clever, observant, well-intentioned, earnest—but emotionally and imaginatively stunted because, at the bottom, we’re afraid of losing control. We are unable to do the hard work of understanding another’s perspective because we are not secure enough in our convictions to open those convictions up to question. The shakier our convictions, the tighter we hold to them—and the fiercer our response when someone questions them.

Of course there were plenty of things that were actually baffling about this year. But these were not usually the things that elicit that overworked phrase. The things that we claim we “can’t” understand are things that, really, aren’t that far removed from us. They are the logical or emotional outworkings of an ideology exactly like ours, except that it’s a little different.

Ideologies all work the same way. They start with a principle or an idea, and then, they stop with that idea. The idea is all that matters. Ideology is not the same as philosophy or religion (though philosophical and religious ideas are fair game for ideologists); philosophy and religion start with an idea and then build on it.

Let me be clear: ideas aren’t bad. They’re essential. And convictions are necessary for us to exist. I am not advocating for relativism here. Some things are true, and some are not. But we have to learn about that truth from reality, not from ideas about reality. Ideas aren’t reality. They are structures that let us think clearly about reality—no single idea is big enough and strong enough to hold all of reality. A healthy philosophy, a healthy religion, pushes on its idea, presses it, flexes it, stretches it, and is willing to consider the possibility that it’s wrong. Ideology cannot consider that possibility.

For example, this year I’ve heard people say that they just can’t understand why someone would vote differently than they did. I’ve heard it from both sides. Some people say they just can’t understand why someone wouldn’t wear a mask, and others say they can’t understand why people are so willing to wear masks. I could go on and on, but I won’t. The point is that most of the time, whenever I hear—or use—the phrase “I just can’t understand it,” the thing in question is not actually incomprehensible. It’s just outside of our ideology.

The thing is, no ideology can withstand an honest confrontation with reality. No idea can account for all of reality. There is always some scrap of reality that flutters away beyond the limits of the idea. And when that happens, we have to choose: either we are willing to expand our perspective and look for a way to adjust our idea to allow for what is, or we hunt down and destroy everything that threatens our ideology.

Failure to understand someone else’s perspective is exactly that: a failure. It’s a failure of the imagination, both on a moral level and an emotional level. It is the failure to conceive of the world as larger than our own experience.

But trying to push through and understand where others are coming from is terrifying, because it threatens to destroy our whole way of thinking. It’s a destabilizing process, one that threatens our convictions. I think even in our age of casual relativism, we know deep inside that we must have convictions to survive. Perhaps those convictions are as bland as “Don’t tell me what to do”; it doesn’t matter. In order to exist, we have to have a conviction. It’s a basic necessity, like food and shelter. And when something threatens it, we have a basic reaction: fight or flight. Either do combat with the threat, or run away from it refusing to engage—refusing to understand it.

Looking at 2020, it would be easy to assume that people inclined towards the “fight” in that dichotomy. After all, we witnessed our fellow citizens literally battling each other in the streets, armed to the teeth and intent on destroying each other and the surrounding urban area.

But here’s the paradox: violence like is the result not of robust fights with intellectual and moral threats to our ideologies, but of flight from those threats.

It may seem counterintuitive, but when we flee from conflict in our imaginations, we create that very conflict in the world around us. When we try to avoid the violence that reality does to ideology, we end up wrecking that same violence on the people and things around us in our effort to bring those people and things in line with our idea.

So what are we supposed to do about this? Check back next week for part II, or better yet, sign up and it’ll land in your email inbox.