From the Stone Age to Today’s Culture Wars
M. P. Ross 10-03-2022
Trouble in mind, I’m blue
But I won’t be blue always
‘Cause the sun’s gonna shine in my back door someday
Trouble in Mind, song by Richard M. Jones
“The sun’s gonna shine in my back door someday” expresses the hope that life will get better. It is figurative, poetic, and wherever the singer might live not meant to state a literal truth. For one thing, if the rear of his home has a northern exposure, even with a big glass door, it is pretty well established that the arc of the sun from east to west precludes much direct sunlight shining in that door, including times of the year when that arc begins or ends north of due east or west and however much light illuminates the home from that direction. To reinforce the point, the singer is emotionally distressed, not cyanotic.
What is truth, and what do we mean when we say something is true? There are greater truths, which may not be realized for any one individual at any one time, but religion and philosophy tell us are nonetheless valid and reliable as general principles. Truth comes in many varieties, from beliefs and convictions to verified, documented facts. Truth may be contingent or conditional; express a whole truth, but not a complete truth.
Outside my own back door I place a chair in the middle of the yard. It is midday. I observe full sun shining on the chair. I post this fact online: “The sun shines on the chair.” Detractors send a drone at midnight to photograph the chair, posting a counter-claim online: “The sun does not shine on the chair.” Fair enough. I stated a whole truth, not a universal truth; it was contingent on the time and date, conditional on the weather. We can have a legitimate, fact-based discussion about sunshine on chairs in a backyard.
At a backyard party, people gather, pictures are taken, the sun is shining on a chair. At that party, on that sunny day, the sun shined on that chair. We have witnesses, pictures, weather reports, and somewhere deep in the files of some government somewhere, images captured by a spy satellite from miles and miles above unbeknownst to the lawn party below. Yet…some remain unconvinced… “The sun never shined on that chair.”
To start with, there is belief and conviction. Particularly about what is moral or immoral, deeply held, they may be highly resistant to contrary arguments. Next, there are facts that are open to examination and dispute about their specifics and relevance. Then, in many instances we have come to observe factual events that are well documented, yet denied by some, as well as purported facts lacking any factual basis that are asserted and strongly defended—as fact, not belief. Compound error leads to a terrifying place: the denial of truth as orthodoxy, at the core of ideologies that create not only their own truths but their own facts, militantly defended by the faithful.
Azar Gat, a professor of political science who has written extensively on war and the military, in his new book, Ideological Fixation: From the Stone Age to Today’s Culture Wars, delves into how we process concepts of truth and morality, and how these concepts form the basis for tenets of ideology. The history of humanity is also the history of our search for an understanding of existence, of our natural and developed selves, and the proper order of society. The finite seeking to make sense of the infinite, religion in many forms and streams grew beyond beliefs and philosophies into ideological and political estates. In modern times, we have the secular religions of three competing ideologies, or isms: liberalism, socialism, and fascism.
Humans are a social animal. We demonstrate a strong, persistent need for association. From family and tribe to religion and politics, if it does not exist it will be created. Witness the loyalty of some home team sports fans, devoted to an extent not so different in kind from religious or patriotic fervor. The subject at hand is not just identity with an ideology or group, but the marked divergence from reason and perspective, from truth and reality, where discussion becomes increasingly difficult and common ground too small for both sides to stand.
“Ideological fixation is the result of the ever-present tensions and conflicts between our normative wishes and interpretation of reality.” How did we get there? How do more or less rational people get to the point where they will deny the patently obvious fact of sun shining on a chair, reject that fact as heretical propaganda promoted by a conspiracy? Ideological fixation goes beyond mere ideology. “It refers to the ways in which devotion to value preferences may distort understanding of reality, the assessment of past events and future potentialities.”
Gat’s own perspective is informed by evolutionary biology, traits of human nature selected over many thousands of years. He also demonstrates an encouraging openness to competing ideas, such as the nurture side of nature/nurture. We obviously manifest the full menu of behavioral quirks covered in the book, though grounded in hardwired biology, but which must be the product of learned ideas and behavior as they appeared only in the last 3,000—or even 300– years, hardly enough time for Darwinian relevance. Gat avoids The Folly of the Pure Model, the reliance on any one rationale—or ideology—an equal opportunity pitfall, taking in not just the crowds at a demagogue’s rally but academics who have built careers on theories since proven faulty.
“Normative questions are fundamentally not about facts but about how society views right and wrong and how it should organize itself accordingly…for many, ideological identity is not merely a vehicle for realizing just causes in the world, but also a source of existential meaning…” Rather like the weather during a period of accelerating climate change, everybody talks about it, but what can be done about it. The book examines manifestations of ideological fixation: guilt over the West’s history of imperialism and colonialism, how nature/nurture approaches shape arguments over the state and nationhood, and in another chapter over gender and sexual behavior. Social and intellectual tribalism, seemingly innate, are accentuated, “people are closed within their favorite media outlets and social media groups, and are only exposed to the opinions and polemics of like-minded people.”
Yet, again, what to do about this problem? Gat takes us some distance towards understanding it. The book is an engaging read. Ideological Fixation “is an attempt to understand the cognitive, emotional, and social roots of the ideological phenomenon: why we are so prone to—indeed, are captive of—the ideological mode of thinking.” Of wide scope, encompassing a range of views, given the potentially divisive subject matter, it still manages to be challenging while not offending. “None of this is to suggest that there are easy solutions to these dilemmas, given current domestic and global realities. The world is indeed a very complex thing, and many problems have no good ‘solutions’.”