No one wants to be an ideologue. Defined by Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary as “an often blindly partisan advocate or adherent of a particular ideology,” ideologues are correctly viewed as one of the banes of the political world. While at their most extreme, they provoke violence and oppress non-believers, even the more innocuous ones manage to hinder debate and exacerbate social divisions, often being as obnoxious as possible in the process.
Yet although no one wants to be an ideologue, the indisputable fact remains that ideologues are still everywhere. They just don’t view themselves as such, which brings us to the purpose of this essay – how to tell if you’re an ideologue.
To start, ask yourself the following question (which I’ve put in boldface for reasons that will be explained at the end of the editorial):
Do you believe it’s possible for well-intentioned, well-informed, independent-minded, and intelligent people to disagree with your political views?
Even the most ardent zealot usually says yes when this question is merely posed hypothetically, since doing otherwise would involve admitting to being an ideologue (or at least a pompous jerk). For this question to work, however, you need to test yourself with concrete examples instead of applying it as an abstract self-assessment. List three political issues that are especially important to you. Then, for each one, name three individuals whose positions are the opposite of your own, making sure to include both people who are directly involved in your life (anyone you’ve debated face-to-face, commenters you’ve encountered on message boards) and those who aren’t (politicians, pundits, influential intellectuals).
After you’ve done that, think about how you’ve treated them or what you thought about them privately. How many have you assumed weren’t poorly informed or in some other way just didn’t “get” the things that you better understood? How often did you claim someone wasn’t really “independent minded” like yourself, whether it was because they were unduly influenced by the media, their religion, a political party, or anything else that had “brainwashed” them? Have you dismissed people as being downright irrational or stupid? Do you often believe someone is really driven by some ulterior motive, such as prejudice, greed, or a radical political agenda?
Make no mistake about it, there are many, many people out there who possess some or even all of the negative characteristics I just described. Thousands of years of recorded history exist to attest to that, enough to glut the appetites of even the most avid misanthropes. That said, the defining characteristic of an ideologue is the tendency to automatically jump from Point X, or the fact that another person doesn’t share his or her point-of-view on an important political issue, to Point Y, or the conclusion that said disagreement is in and of itself proof that the other person is stupid, ill-informed, brainwashed, and/or malevolent.
This doesn’t mean that believing or accusing another person of having those traits automatically makes you an ideologue. What it does mean, however, is that the burden of proof falls on you to actually demonstrate that those things are true.
If you think someone is using poor reasoning or is ill informed, don’t just rest on the assertion that if they knew what they were talking about they would support this policy or agree with that theory. After they state their position, ask them to list their facts, provide their sources, and explain their logic. Then check their facts for accuracy, their sources for reliability, and their logic for fallacies. When it comes to the deeper beliefs on which they’re basing their opinions, dissect why you think they’re wrong – and, just as important, make sure you are aware of your own assumed ideological premises, rather than taking for granted that any intelligent person would automatically share them.
At no point should you ever openly declare that the other person has revealed himself to be stupid, brainwashed, or poorly informed. If you can demonstrate errors in their facts, sources, logic, and basic ideological premises, your conclusions about the other person’s intelligence and knowledge will become self-evident. The moment you directly say that your opponent is intellectually wanting simply on the grounds that he or she disagrees with your views, on the other hand, you reveal that you have reached a point in which you don’t feel comfortable defending your beliefs and must blindly accept their veracity. That, in turn, reveals that you are an ideologue.
Similar rules apply when attacking someone’s character. If you believe that someone’s position betrays a radical political agenda, demonstrate the connection between the belief in question and the larger agenda they allegedly possess. It isn’t enough to simply say that holding a certain opinion automatically proves a larger belief system; you need to demonstrate the link between Point X and Point Y. Likewise, if you feel someone has a certain belief because of a personality flaw – such as greed, power-lust, or prejudice against other groups of people – explain either how the belief in question proves the ulterior motive or, even better, how the actual person you’re talking to has actually revealed it in him/herself. Merely asserting these things to be true reveals not only that you are an ideologue, but also that you are the most dangerous type of ideologue – i.e., the one who feels the need to vilify dissenters.
I’m not claiming to have always perfectly followed the standard I just laid out. Indeed, I suspect most people have acted like ideologues at some point or another in their lives; after all, human beings are proud creatures. That said, I do know that there are well-intentioned, well-informed, independent-minded, and reasonable people who disagree with my political views. No matter what your views happen to be, I guarantee the same thing is true of you.
POSTSCRIPT: WHY THE OPENING QUESTION WAS IN BOLDFACE
I encourage all people who encounter ideologues trolling the message boards here to respond with the boldface question I put in this article. Don’t let them get away with not answering it or simply brushing it off either. While not feeding the trolls is usually the best route, forcing accountability on them is a close second.