The End of Isms (Part Two): What ISMs Do To Your Mind

To summarize Part One, we talked about how ideologies, or “isms”:

  • masquerade as ideas or beliefs, but are actually a mental technique–a way of directing your mind such that identifying with a camp or label takes precedence over your perception of the world (which we called “Camp Thinking”)
  • despite what we are taught to believe, are not necessary to engage in the act of thinking (since people can, with enough effort and time, step back from their identities and alter them, as history and introspection shows)
  • are a positive hindrance to enlightenment (since, by definition, they constitute the decision to constrain oneself to a narrow perception of the world)
  • consist mainly of stories, or fictions, about who we are supposed to be (our roles) and who we are supposed to hate (i.e., Us and Them thinking)
  • are restricted not just to politics, but also religion, nationalism, racism, language groups, science, nutritional philosophy, gangs, etc. (Any time you identify yourself with a group (Us), and distinguish yourself from non-members (Them))

  • are a peculiarly modern invention, a mental style that has developed only in Neolithic times (since, when humanity pursued a hunter-gatherer lifestyle as a whole, there was no need to identify “enemies” who pursued a “wrong” way of life)

Now we will discuss the host of problems you face, as a thinker, when you make the decision to swear allegiance to a camp of thought, or an ideology. And we will consider how dropping one’s mental allegiances (i.e., thinking independently) invariably clears those problems up.

What ISMs Do to Your Mind

(Or, Seven Reasons to Chuck Your ISM to the Curb. Forever.)


1. ISMs Make Truth Irrelevant to You

First off, let’s dispense with any notion that the camp-thinker has any love for, or even cares at all, for the pursuit of truth. The idea is absurd on the face of it. If an “ism” is anything, it is a declaration of the person’s decision to cut off their search for the truth here, at this point. “I have arrived at my destination” the ist says, “and I don’t care what lay beyond. I’m not budging.”

The decision (remember, “to decide” comes from the Latin decidere, meaning “to cut off”) IE079-039to follow an ism is the decision to put on a particular color of lenses and to only view the world through those lenses. The function of a lens, what lenses do, is filter out certain wavelengths of light. When someone tells me they’ve adopted an ism, or are a “member” of a belief system, I hear that they’ve chosen to view the world through a filter. They have voluntarily put on lenses that filter out the blue part of the visible light spectrum, say, or the magenta, or yellow. They have decided, in short, that there is a part of reality that they do not wish to see or to think about.

But why not take the lenses off and view the whole spectrum of visible light, or even view beyond just the visible spectrum of light? In other words, why limit your thinking to the pre-provided set of choices that are out there? Why limit your thinking at all? Doesn’t it seem like a silly and ultimately fruitless thing to do with your mind to only allow it to think in one way?

Be honest: does it seem like a path to the truth?

But a camp-thinker is not interested in the truth. Camp-thinkers are only interested in proving their ism right, and proving their enemy wrong. This is true in science, philosophy, health, foreign policy–pick a field. The clearest example, of course, is domestic politics. Take a given political party in any country at any time. As we discussed in “Why Elections Fail to Make a Difference”:

“The least of a politician’s concerns is doing what is right (i.e., what is truly best) for their constituents. Their primary concern is appearing right, and making their opponent appear villainous. Which is why spin and vilification comprise 90% of what all politicians – both in power and in opposition – do.”

Politics, we all know, is a portrayal of people caring about the truth. A story.

If you think about it, the one way to directly affront the pursuit of truth is to declare yourself a member of a camp of thought. To say “I only care for this version of the truth” is exactly the same as declaring truth irrelevant. It means that if there is a truth that lay beyond what you have decided to see, you simply will not see it. You have decided not to. Which is why those who truly value the pursuit of truth would consider this an immense crippling of their ability to actually reach the truth, on any issue. Someone who vigorously pursues the truth says exactly the opposite: “I don’t care how unpleasant, or uncomfortable, or challenging or far away it is, or if it pisses off my colleagues, friends and family or my party… nothing gets a pass from my inquiring mind. Nothing.”

This is why thinking people, people who actually want to pursue the truth, do not ascribe to camps of thought.

On anything.


2. ISMS Make You Reverse Cause and Effect

Nothing is more frustrating when talking to a camp-thinker than when they say something like: “I can’t agree with what you’re saying. I’m too much of an x-ist.”

… (pause for inarticulate rage)

Here we see, case in point, how one’s identity matters more to a camp-thinker than the truth. Do you mean to say you would agree with me if you weren’t an x-ist, but alas, the universe has seen fit to put you in the unfortunate position of “being” something, so you are unable to use your brain in the way I am asking you to?

When you adopt an ideology this is the way you think. You cease thinking “what is true in this case?” or “what do I honestly believe?” or “let me consider the validity of what you are saying.” Instead you refer to your ism and think, “X-ists believe y. I am an x-ist. Therefore, I believe y.”

This is a corollary of the basic rejection of truth. One’s own, honestly held beliefs about the truth, to a camp-thinker, are the least of one’s concern. All that matters is one’s ism (meaning one’s adopted identity) is proven right. Therefore to concede a point against one’s ism, even though it may be true, is to lose ground to the “enemy”.

But let’s give the camp-thinker the benefit of the doubt here; perhaps they are merely characterizing their thought. In general, they mean, I tend to think this way and not some other way.

But why should the general case affect this case of thinking? Either your current belief, on this particular matter, is your own, honest opinion, or it is not. Whether it is or it isn’t, what possible use is it to point out the general case? You can only mean one thing: you are not only characterizing the tendency of your thought, you are describing your allegiance to an identity-group.

You are saying: my chosen identity “causes” my beliefs. I have already chosen my camp. As a consequence, I am unable to consider other beliefs.

In the beginning, before you decided you were (notice the verb) an x-ist, the generalization argument may have been true. You may have held some opinions on a few matters, and then come across an article or book, or heard someone speaking, who convinced you that because you held those opinions, you could be characterized as an “x-ist”. But then came the insidious part: perhaps that same book or speaker then went on and said, “Guess what else you believe?”

You had to hold some honest beliefs before adopting a camp of thought. You were an independent thinker at some point! Your honestly held beliefs are what attracted you to even identify with others in the first place. But then the camp of thought started telling you what to believe. It went from being a characterization of your thoughts, to a maker of your thoughts.

A reversal of cause and effect.

Who knew adopting an identity could be such a tricky and dangerous thing?

In any case, if you and I are having a conversation, and our motives are pure (that is, if we honestly want to make ourselves clear to one another) I am not interested in what your camp has to say on the matter. I want to know what you think.

See the difference, yet?


3. False Generalization (No ISM actually exists!)

Let’s consider the “generalization” point a little further before moving on, because it really highlights the absurdity of the human obsession with categorizing things.

Once we invent a category for humans to belong to, we think of it as a real, extant thing. When we mentally divide, say, conservatives and liberals, into two categories, or Christians and Muslims, or Marxists and capitalists–we think we have identified a fact of the universe. There are these things, we think. They could not possibly be fictions, foisted by us upon the world. No. They are real.

Except there are no two people within a given camp of thought that actually agree what the camp of thought refers to. Never has been, never will be. Not identically.

No two Marxists agree on what “Marxism” is. There may be considerable overlap in their views, but they fight about the fringes. No two “Conservatives” agree what “conservatism” refers to. That no two Christians agree what Christianity is should be obvious in that there are a reported 41,000 different denominations in the world today. (And more that we don’t know about. And those within the same denomination argue about what the true definition of that denomination should be.)

Where, then, exactly, IS the ism?

Consider the amount of time, print and speech that goes into defining the ISM itself. Arguing about the definitions, the correct terminology. Debating in scholarly journals that go back and forth for generations, each putting forth new and better definitions. And then arguing about what part of the ism is orthodoxy and what part is optional. And then splintering and forming sub-ISMs, and sub-sub-isms, and proclaiming these, and only these, to be the true belief.

And on it goes.

Take a look at this timeline of Christianity:Christian-lineage
The thing to note about it is that it is unidirectional. The denominations never (and never will, despite the dreams of the “Universalists”) get together and agree on things. And this is not the end. There are further subdivisions. Let’s just zoom to Protestantism:

They always divide and sub-divide. The reason is not that their definitions are inadequate. The reason is: they never shared an identity in the first place.

Hint: there are no two people within a given camp of thought that agree from top to bottom on absolutely everything. The greatest portion of your time as a member your ism, in fact, is devoted to disagreements amongst the ranks about what it means to hold that identity. (“Liberalism” is not x, “liberalism” means y and z!”) This is why camp-thinking is characterized by two activities: in-fighting about terminology (about the definitions and meanings of critical terms, and which things are to even to be regarded as critical) and appeals to authority. (“Marx says this is what it means, and his authority overrides Engels, therefore, a true Marxist…”). (“The Pope says x means y, therefore, a good Catholic believes…)

One other thing isms concern themselves with: excommunications. Those who, by the authority of the current “leaders” of the particular movement, are deemed to be no longer towing the camp/party/religion line are asked, sometimes not so politely, to leave. If you have spent any time reading the literature of your particular ism, you have read a little about those who have “betrayed the cause” or who are no longer considered “true x-ists”. They “dared” to do the unspeakable: they dropped the ism for a moment and spoke their actual mind on some issue.

There are some who think they can overcome this problem by being super-duper-extracareful about their definitions and terminology. The reason, in their view, that there has been so much disagreement and splintering over the years, is that everyone else’s definitions up to this point have been inadequate. “But this (their) new definition is the show-stopper that will unite us all.”

This is a game with no end. (41,000 denominations. From the teachings of one man.)

Another thing some try to do is to use qualifiers to try to “clarify” their identity-allegiance. They say: “I am a neo-liberal-feminist-slash-fiscal-conservative-slash-isolationist-slash-socially-moderate-reformist”, etc. As we saw with genres, we end up with a label so specific as to be useless, or we can endlessly subdivide to the point where the label is so long it is longer than what it is supposed to describe. So, rather than simply tell me what you honestly believe about the world, you are trying to come up with a label that tells me how many camps you have your feet in? This is not clarity; it’s madness. Let me save you the effort: thinking people do not require a label to understand you. What they require is that you stop trying to label yourself and speak plainly about what you believe.

You will never, even with the most precise definitions, or qualifiers, escape the fact that your camp of thought is a generalization. It broadly defines the parameters under which like-minded individuals can fulfill their desire to identify with one another. To do so requires whitewashing the differences that actually exist, and overemphasizing the commonalities. But this can only go so far. There are always dissenters. When the disagreements inevitably crop up, the generalizations require us to argue, re-define, appeal to authority, and/or excommunicate the dissenters.

In other words, an ism is a generalization that is mostly true, most of the time. Except when it isn’t.

The upshot of this: Your identity-group does not actually exist. This is a fiction that you tell yourself to “identify” with them. But you are not identical. Whether you think you “belong” to a certain camp of thought or not, you are actually a unique individual, with your own thoughts on things.

Here’s the terrifying truth: we are, each of us, meant to figure the universe out on our own. Gurus and groups, parties and movements, priests and parishioners, experts and followers, all of them, are attempts to shortcut this basic fact. Which is why they all tend to fall disappointingly short in getting you any closer to the truth. We can search together, and teach one another, yes. But you, your own thinking mind, must be the final court of opinion. Which means, in the search for truth, you are fundamentally alone.

Sorry if that’s terrifying for you. The sooner you come to grips with it, the better.

For all of us.


4. ISMs Do Not Clarify the World, They Confuse It

Forgive the lengthy quote, but man, does it ever illustrate the point. From Lawrence O’Donnell, from MSNBC’s ironically-named Last Word with Lawrence O’Donnell:

“I am a practical European socialist… I am not a progressive. I am not a liberal who is so afraid of the word that I had to change my name to ‘progressive’. Liberals amuse me. I am a socialist. I lie to the extreme left, the extreme left of you mere liberals… I have been calling myself a socialist ever since I first read the definition of socialism in the first economics class I took in college… Not that we choose the socialist option every time but we do consider socialism a reasonable option under certain circumstances; in fact, under many circumstances. As any introductory economics course can tell you, there is no capitalist economy anywhere in the world, and there is no socialist economy anywhere in the world, not even Cuba. We are all mixed economies; that is, mixes of capitalism and socialism, and we all vary that mix in different ways. China has more capitalism, and a lot more capitalism, than has Cuba, but it also has a lot more socialism than we do. Our socialist programs include the biggest government spending programs: Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, as well as welfare, and the socialist program I hate the most, agriculture subsidies. Yes, I’m a socialist, but I hate bad socialism, and there is plenty of bad socialism out there, just like there is plenty of bad capitalism out there, like the capitalism that pollutes our rivers or makes health care too expensive for so many people. I can argue this because every side of this is true: capitalism is good, capitalism is bad; socialism is good, socialism is bad; all of those things are true at the same time. That’s why we have a mixed economy, an economy in which we are trying to use the best, most efficient forms of capitalism, and the best, most efficient forms of socialism, where necessary. So my full truth is I am as much a capitalist as I am a socialist; but since we live in the only mature country in the world where “socialist” is considered such a dirty word that no one would dare admit to being one, I feel more compelled to stand up for the socialist side of me than the capitalist side of me.”

Phew. Let’s hope Larry doesn’t get the Last Word – we may evolve into something that doesn’t need words first.

Okay, so isms are supposed to clarify things? But it took you 378 words to tell me what you meant by one word: “socialist”. And in doing so, you introduced eleven other terms (“European”, “practical socialist”, “progressive”, “liberal”, “left”, “extreme left, “capitalist”, “mixed”, “bad socialism”, “good socialism” “bad capitalism”) each of which are going to require similar “clarification”, since each of their meanings are by no means agreed upon (by anyone, if I’m right about #3 above).

Now, you might say this is simply a confused person, and you won’t get an argument from me. (The one clear portion of his statement is where he mentioned nothing about his camp-allegiance, but said what, he, Larry, was in favor of: Social Security, Medicare and welfare, and against: agricultural subsidies. True, these are still terms that may need further explanation, but notice the change in verbs: I hate agricultural subsidies, vs. I am a this and I am a that. In other words, we might have dropped 360 out of 378 words of confusing discussion of what he “is”–i.e., how he labels himself–and been perfectly clear with only eighteen words what he was in favor of or against.)

But there is a reason he is a confused person. ISMs create confusion.

The belief that we must identify ourselves as something or another creates it. We hit this impasse because we are trying to have a discussion about beliefs and ideas, but isms are not ideas. They masquerade as ideas, but in fact are nothing more than this: shorthand tags by which people can identify with one another. In other words, they are NAMES. A name, of course, is a symbol, but it is not a guarantee of meaning. The name “Richard Weir” signifies something completely different to you, me, to my girlfriend, to my grandmother, to my dog, etc. So it is for isms. When you have two or more people sharing a name for their camp, the different understandings of the label compound themselves.

Since no two people agree on every issue, even amongst those who identify themselves in the same camp, and since no two people agree what the ism means exactly, you will never fully express what you truly mean simply by stating your ism. There will always be at least some need for further clarification beyond simply stating the label itself.

Isms do not create clarity; they raise questions.

If you say, “I am a libertarian”, some people hear “he likes to live in the woods and take many sexual partners” and some people hear “oh, he is one of those gun-toting Tea Partyers that don’t like the president because he’s black” and some people hear “he believes in letting people die in the streets with no healthcare” and some people hear “he believes in letting the terrorists come and go within our borders as they please” and some people hear “he believes that the Post Office and public roads and national parks are evil” etc., etc. You are forced to clarify what you mean. You say, “No, I believe in human rights which require government to be severely limited by a constitution, leaving humans free to solve the vast majority of their problems according to the best methods they see fit.”

Well, why didn’t you just say so?

Stating your concrete beliefs in plain language is always clearer than declaring your allegiance to your identity-group. This is necessarily so. Isms are inherently (and, as we shall see, intentionally) murky.

I write science fiction, so let me propose a sci-fi scenario. Let’s say one day Earth is visitedKlaatuandGortdepart by an alien species with a massively superior firepower at its disposal. They explain that they are searching for a place to colonize, Earth suits their needs, and, in order to make way for them, the humans will need to be vaporized. Sorry, but thems the brakes. As they are commencing to fire up the vaporization guns, you fall on your knees, desperate to make the case for letting humans live. One of the aliens says: “Very well, we are not without reason. We will hear your case. Tell me, earthling, about your society. Tell me about your social arrangement. And be quick about it.”

Politics, you realize. The alien is asking me to explain Earth politics.

You know you are doomed. After all, if you give an answer like Larry did above, you might as well step forward and be vaporized.

But humanity is relying on you, so you decide to give it your best shot. You proceed to explain and define some crucial terms, including: “capitalist, socialist, communist, libertarian, fascist, anarchist, monarchist, conservative, republican, liberal, democrat, liberal-democrat, Tory, Labour, Whig, progressive, reactionary, left-wing, right-wing, Austrian, classical, Keynesian, red, pink, blue, green, elephant, donkey…” Your heart fails you, even as you are speaking. You are horrified to hear the words coming out of your own mouth. Your own voice sounds unconvinced! What is happening? You know these terms. Use them all the time. Yet you have never had to explain them. You just took their meanings for granted and used the labels, assuming that everyone else knew exactly what you were talking about. You realize something, right then: they are, every one of them, only symbols for what you mean, each of which require great, heaping backstories of explanation. And not even earthlings agree on the symbols or the explanations. They are but labels, and not very good ones.

The aliens take one look at each other, raise their ray guns and obliterate you.

Imagine, on the other hand you said something like this: “some of us seek to control one another’s thoughts and actions through force. Others seek to be free of that force. We are in constant conflict with one another about how much force and freedom is correct.”

Thirty-seven words. Not perfect, but not bad. There is no term here that a young child could not understand. What’s more, it applies to all politics, everywhere, at any point in history. The central issue in politics has always been force and freedom, i.e., power and the restrictions on power. The aliens understand you right away. After all, they dealt with the same issues on their own planet. Some wanted power over others, some wanted to be free of that power. This, as it turns out, was the whole reason for their mission of colonization. “Ah yes!” you say. “This has happened in our own history!” The aliens are intrigued. They ask to hear more. This struggle for power over one another, it seems, is a truly universal conflict. They turn off their vapor rays and wish you luck with your civilization. “We like that red planet better, anyway,” they say. “Its climate is much cooler and it goes with our jumpsuits.”

(Who doesn’t like a happy ending?)

Okay. Now, let’s turn the tables around.

Suppose it is you who land on the alien’s home world, and being a sensitive anthropologist/explorer, wish to understand the culture and politics of the alien species. The alien with whom you are speaking thinks a minute and says: “Well, half of our people are Mixelpluggulists, all of whom wear the number blumblebluss on their foreheads and dress in pink, and the other half are Tumplankolphists who wear entirely purple and follow the number glimblobula. Recently, however, there has been a splinter group of Tumplankolphist’s who have broken off, and they call themselves Clayvenrotlumbumps, after their leader Clayvenrumptylump, and these wear no clothing whatever and worship the number…”

“Yes, yes,” you say, your head swimming. “But what do each of your groups believe?”

The alien looks at you strangely, and then proceeds to explain: “The beliefs of the many groups of Glimbelblidges are not so easily pinned down. For example, there is a further sub-division of mixelpluggulists, the radical mixelpluggulists, and moderate mixelpluggulists…”

You feel like your head is about to explode. “Yes, but WHAT IN BLUE HOLY **** DO YOU, YOURSELF, BELIEVE??”

In other words: stop telling me the names of the camps and their classifications! Tell me something about reality! Tell me something about your knowledge of the world! The content of your thoughts, not the name you have for your group. What do you regard as true and right? Tell me something about how Glimbelblidges ought to live together!

Think of the breath poor ol’ Larry could have saved. It’s simple. Switch the verb and the conundrum unravels. Don’t tell me what you “are”. Tell me what you think. If we’re talking about politics, let’s make it simple: government force – hunh, what is it good for? What should government enforce on its citizenry, and what should it not?

Telling me what camp of thought you belong to is not the same as telling me what you think. It doesn’t help me understand you at all. In fact, it completely hides what you really think in a stream of non-essential symbols.


5. ISMs Prevent You from Thinking Too Hard

Isms seem to be a convenient shortcut. If someone says “I am a conservative” they are trying to circumvent having to explain to you what they mean by the term and have you automatically know what they believe on a variety of issues rather than having to spell it out for you.

But as we have seen, our beliefs are much more easily spelled out by using plain language, with no ism. For example, in politics, where do you stand on the issue of force? What should we, as a society, force on one another? This same person, in plain language, might have said “I believe we should leave one another free to spend our money as we see fit, but that government should tightly control what we believe, see, hear, and have access to in books and films and Internet, and also what we do in the privacy of our homes.” Or, “I believe in economic freedom, but a moral code must be strictly enforced.”

We may disagree with him, but at least we know what he believes. We now have something concrete to argue about.

(Just think how much faster and more productive political debates would be if we dropped our identity tags and used plain language. How much further along might our society be? There is great power in saying what you mean.)

But not only is an ism intended as a shortcut in conversation, but also in thought. Camp The Thinkerthinkers do not say to themselves: “I must speak in generalities, but privately, I will rigorously and thoroughly question all my beliefs.” They may occasionally have an idea that this is what they ought to do, and perhaps even undertake it. But the ism–their decision to adopt it as their identity–will prevent them from getting very far. After all, to question the central tenets of the camp is to question one’s own identity. As Thomas Kuhn brilliantly showed in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, people operating within a paradigm do not question the paradigm itself. What they seek to do, by and large, is defend the paradigm. A camp-thinker does not question the ism–they question how they can make it stronger. They sharpen their defenses. They polish their polemic. They work on attacking their opponent’s premises. Because remember, in the Identity War, it’s all about Us vs. Them.

This is why the military analogy works particularly well, and why we always hear it used when discussing ideas. Enemies, clashes, lines of battle being drawn, camps, trenches, allegiances, attacking, defending, etc. When you declare yourself a member of an ism, you are not expected to independently question the right or wrong of the ism, you are expected to act the part. To carry out your commands (whether through marketing, proselytizing, converting or conquering) in exactly the same way that an individual soldier is not expected to independently question his officers, only to carry out their orders. In fact, in both these cases, your independent, questioning mind is the last thing the members of your camp—and certainly its leaders–want. This is precisely why isms encourage the existence of leaders and followers. The leaders of an ism want loyal, unquestioning followers, exactly as in a combat unit. And, like a combat unit, right or wrong is irrelevant to the individual soldier. The only aim is victory.  A fighting unit whose members do not act as a cohesive whole is ineffective and dangerous. In fact, look at that word: unit. A unit, in combat, is not one soldier. One soldier is part of a unit. So it is with camp-thinking. One camp thinker, acting apart from the group, is defying the unit. The unit is the camp. To an ism, an independently thinking person (which means a person who questions the ism itself) is a threat.

But let’s be clear. It’s not as if a camp consists of a lot of independent thinking, which the leaders of the camp are going about trying quash, and therefore it’s only the nasty leaders that are to blame. It’s that independent thought is irrelevant to the camp-thinker him/herself. Independent thought, after all, is about chasing the tail of truth. But truth is irrelevant to an ist. All that is relevant is:

  1. learning what the leaders of the ism have declared to be true
  2. defining, classifying, in-fighting and excommunicating those who don’t or who refuse to learn it, and
  3. defending the ism from outside attacks (i.e., from the Enemy)

All of this can be achieved shorthand, i.e., with the hard work of thinking things through already done for you.

Don’t worry too much about the fringe issues, the ism says. We already have the central answers, the orthodoxy, all worked out. No need to re-invent the wheel. Just memorize the stock answers. Recite them whenever anyone raises an objection. Refer them to the authorized reading materials. And then YOUR PART IS DONE. Whatever you do, do not listen thoughtfully to your opponent’s arguments and try to consider their truth or falsity. You will only do irreparable damage to the cause. And do not, under any circumstances, regard your opponents as allies in the pursuit of truth. They are to be kept as enemies, or else you–meaning, your identity–will be corrupted.

Any wonder camp-thinking leads to washout and boredom?

Camp thinkers, remember, have already decided to “be” their chosen ism. To question the central ideas of the ism would mean to question their own identity. This simply does not happen, by their own self-imposed rules. What does happen is that camp-thinkers find any and all ways of reaffirming their chosen identity.

The hallmark of camp-thinkers is their tendency to pay attention only to what supports their view, and ignore or dismiss anything that challenges it. Camp-thinkers only read books, articles, websites and view news programs that support their identity. When confronted with a challenge to their views, they do not consider the matter through for themselves, only run to the material for the ready-made answer. They certainly do not challenge or question their own assumptions, since to do so would be to question their identity.

We constantly hear people complaining that everyone “just repeats what they hear in the liberal media” or “gets all their opinions from FOX News” and thus the country is becoming “divided” and unable to “meet in the middle.” But the problem is deeper and more insidious than this. To someone who has adopted an ism as their identity, mere exposure to any and all viewpoints would not matter. It’s not the variety and source of information going in, it’s the method by which the information is being processed. Ideology, remember, is a mental technique: a way of filtering reality. Information, to a camp-thinker, goes through an identity screening. Camp-thinkers do not consider data and weigh the issues out for themselves. They sort the data into “usable” and “unusable”, “confirms what my camp believes” and “does not confirm”, or “Supports my Identity” or “Does Not Support my Identity”.

The only way exposing oneself to “multiple viewpoints” has any value is if one has no allegiance to camps.

An independent thinker, to contrast, continually seeks to challenge what he/she believes. He/she knows that the truth does not fear a challenge. If something is true, it will hold up, and become stronger for the challenge. If it doesn’t hold up, then it was never worth believing in the first place. Either way, the independent thinker is better off for having challenged his/her own beliefs.

Independent thought is the only way to the truth. It is what peels back the veils of human-created illusion (and confusion) on every issue that we will ever come across. This is why, historically, the only people who have produced breakthroughs in human thought have been those who rejected the status quo: those who defied the received beliefs of their day. What they “broke through” was the walls of the sandbox–the line beyond which people were unwilling to let their minds see.

Everything we have as humans, beyond other animals, is owed to an act of defiance of prevailing beliefs. Someone had to conceive of it, and fight for its existence against a prevailing current of opposition. The importance of independent thought cannot be overemphasized. The ability to question falsity and pursue truth, for oneself, in non-technical, ordinary language, without deferring to leaders and gurus and experts for all the ready-made answers, is both every living person’s responsibility and every living person’s birthright.

And therein lies the problem: independent thought is hard.

This is why history reads as a series of piled-up bodies. When you defy the status quo, you pay for it. This is why the vast majority of humanity, stretching back to the beginning of recorded time, has been all-too-eager to follow someone with ready-made answers. Follow and defend will always be easier than think and challenge.

Which is why the mantra of those who wish to lead and control is: Don’t worry! Don’t think! All you have to do is DO AS I SAY! And inevitably, why doing what they say means directing your hatred and anger toward an Enemy of their choosing. Someone who is not in the camp, who does not share your ism.

Bottom line: if you are someone who questions the prevailing opinions of your time, you are already flirting with independent thought. This is something which, owing the nature of isms, camp-thinkers simply do not, and cannot, do.


6. ISMS Give You Unsavory Package Deals

Since you are prevented (and prevent yourself) from thinking very hard about the content of your ism, guess what you get? Bonus goodies! All sorts of content that you didn’t choose, but came along with the package.

If you swore no allegiance to any camp, and simply thought through and decided on issues for yourself, you might (and probably would) hold a variety of ideas that are thought to be “incompatible” or “opposite”. For example, you might believe that (a) gay couples should be able to receive all the benefits of marriage under the law, and that (b) the capital gains tax should be abolished. Or you might believe that (a) gays should not be recognized as married couples under the law, and that (b) when it comes to taxes, we ought to soak the rich. Now, each of these belief-pairings would place you firmly outside of either of the two main ideological camps within the United States. Right off, camp-thinkers will not be able to understand what you “are”.

Pundits and professors–who base their careers on the premise that “if we have grouped it (and labeled it) we have understood it–will be at pains to classify you. But they will probably do so anyway, describing you with hyphenated words, and adding qualifiers such as “neo” or “classical”. Or they will say: “they are social x-ists, but fiscal y-ists”. Or, in the ultimate declaration of their own impotence, they will call you “moderates” or “undecided”, as if the decision not to follow an easily classified camp of thought is a failing or weakness on your part, instead of a weakness in their own understanding. (“Undecided” implies I ought to decide but cannot. What is the name for those of us who laugh at those choices as ludicrously infantile compared to the clarity of our own minds? “Independent” is better, but not much. There is no name, because there is no “us”. Thinking people do not share identity tags. Remember, to do so would cripple their faculties, for all the reasons already discussed.)

What about someone who is in favor of (a) shutting down the Federal Reserve and allowing people to own gold and use whatever they wish as currency, and (b) establishing a strong military presence around the world? Or someone who is in favor of (a) strict and binding environmental regulations who is also (b) opposed to the woman’s right to abort a fetus? Or someone who is categorically against welfare programs who also supports civil rights?

Some of you will read each of these examples and think, “That’s a contradiction!” Some will read the examples and think, “That’s perfectly consistent! What is he talking about?”

Precisely my point. There are no contradictions in reality, only in our minds. They come about from trying to impose categories on the world in defiance of the facts. This is what happens when we fall in love with our generalizations–like ideologies–and we think, “everything must fall under this handy-dandy classification. If it doesn’t fit, we will call it a contradiction.”

If you take nothing else away from this post, take this: if you come across a contradiction, throw out your classifications. They have led you astray. A contradiction is a mental error. It is a flag your brain has thrown which is screaming, “Does not compute, bucko.” It means you need to fix the way you are processing information (i.e., how you categorize it.)

When you insist on seeing people as belonging to various camps, you will never be able to understand them, and you certainly will not be able to understand an independent thinker. They will appear like whack-a-moles, jumping up in random, unexpected places, never letting you pin them down.

But to an independent thinker, whose target is always the truth, it is the camp-thinker whose mind appears flailingly random. After all, the camp thinker has adopted certain ideas, not because they regarded them as true, but because other people who share their identity tag have done so before them. To an independent thinker, this seems like an astonishingly accidental way to choose one’s beliefs. Certainly no way to the truth. It’s the old reversal of cause and effect again: “Well, let’s see. It seems I am a conservative because I believe the government should only spend within its budget and keep taxes low. Conservatives also believe that the law should only recognize marriage between a man and a woman. Therefore, umm… I guess I oppose gay marriage.”

Sure, nobody is this blatant about choosing their beliefs. Indoctrination is a long, slow process that happens over many years. But if you call yourself an “ist” long enough to start to believe that you “are” that identity, and you read, over and over and over, that which tends to confirm it, then over time your brain will find a way to accommodate other ideas that supposedly fall within the same camp, just to reinforce the idea of your own identity. Remember, to a camp thinker, the very worst thing possible in the world is surrendering one’s identity. Worse than death. And by far and away worse than allowing a few unsavory ideas to creep in to one’s thinking.

Now, perhaps you are thinking, “To imply I simply adopted some ideas just to stay in the club is insulting! I honestly believe those things and they are fully logical and consistent!” If that’s true, I applaud you. But, be honest, when was the last time you challenged your own beliefs? What if you were to abandon your camp of thought, surrender the notion that you “are” something and just think for and be yourself for a day or two or even a week? Would your ideas still look the same? Given all the ways which isms restrict and hamper your ability to see things clearly, sorry, I have to say I doubt that they would. There’s no getting around it: identity, to a camp-thinker, is simply a much, much higher priority than clarity. (Prove me wrong. Abandon your ism; challenge your ideas for one week. Tell me all about how your camp has got things perfectly consistent. You see, I don’t mind being challenged. :))

Unsavory package deals of ideas are created by historical associations, nothing more. Liberals/conservatives/libertarians/socialists have tended to believe this package of ideas, I am a liberal/conservative/libertarian/socialist, therefore: I must believe everything in the package too. I use political examples because they are familiar to us, but really, the argument here applies to all camp thinking, whether your religion, or your nation, or your language group or your street gang.

Here’s a clue: if someone is trying to sell you a package of ideas, some of which you feel strongly about, but others of which you could do without, it’s a good bet they want you to “be” something. They want your allegiance.

If you want to be an extraordinary thinker then you have to come to grips with ruthless self-honesty, even if it hurts. Do the mental work here, and be honest: does identifying with your camp require you to believe some things that you feel less strongly about? Things that, in your heart of hearts, you probably wouldn’t believe in at all if you were just you alone, not “you the x-ist”? Things that even seem like they might be a little contradictory? (Not contradictory in terms of co-existing in the same camp. Again, this is only an apparent contradiction brought about by false categories. I mean “contradictory” as in they cannot both be true. Not to you).

You have a choice about what goes in to the brain and gets accepted by you as “truth”. Remember what we said about being alone? Learn from others, yes. But you are the final court of appeal when it comes to deciding what to believe. You alone.

So do you wish to be bound by historical associations, accepting ideas that have co-existed in the past, even if they form a contradiction in your mind? Or, do wish to reject what has come before and pursue the non-contradictory truth, regardless of anyone’s inability to classify you?

Listen, don’t worry about all the jobless professors you’ll create.

They’ll find something else to classify.


7. ISMs Make it Impossible for you to Grow

The Buddha said: your job is to discover your world, then with all your heart, give yourself to it.

There is a lightOne of the things we’re here to do, I believe, is learn, and ultimately to share what we’ve learned. Learning is one of the things that makes our species what it is. We wouldn’t be a species–or anything at all, except an archaeological footnote, a curiosity to some other intelligent species–without the ability to pass knowledge from one generation to the next. We are social creatures, and we benefit from each others’ knowing, which is why some of our oldest, oft-repeated clichés are “Knowledge is Power” and “Know Thyself”, etc. These will never not be true. People may measure their success in money or love or vanquishing their foes, but history remembers and venerates those who expand our knowing. (Historically, the way to immortality has been to make your knowledge permanent by putting it in the form of a book. But look at us now—passing our knowledge around in magical electromagnetic packets that reach us through the air!)

I would modify the Buddha quote by saying your job is to go on discovering your world, and keep on giving yourself to it. To never stop learning. To learn is to change. It implies knowing more over time. It implies clarifying and modifying your opinions as you come to know more. It implies honing and sharpening your views. It implies rejecting and throwing out the ideas which you find wanting or are cluttering up the works (particularly those which create contradictions and confusions). It implies keeping one’s eyes open, accumulating experiences and testing your ideas against those experiences. It implies being a constant reader and consumer of ideas and information, i.e., benefitting from the learning of others. It implies developing an ever-improving sense of judgment, for sorting through good and bad ideas when you encounter them. It implies becoming an expert of knowing. A master student.

In fact, this is a fairly good characterization of “independent thought”.

Thinking independently means learning constantly.

This is how we grow as people. What we grow is the stuff between our ears. Not just data, but also how well it is organized (whether any of it is sloppy, confused, contradictory), how the data is understood (our ideas), and how the ideas are applied to our lives.

To succeed, all of these processes, every one, require an unfettered mind. A mind hampered by no pre-conceived notions about what the truth ought to be, that can look anywhere with open eyes and not be told to stop the quest for truth here at this point. Change requires the freedom to move from where you are at present.

Now, consider camp-thinking. If you declare yourself an ist of one sort or another, you have essentially declared your intellectual journey over. You have decided to swear allegiance to this, and only this, set of ideas. To you, learning is finished.

For good reasons, we associate learning with childhood. We all know that children are the best learners; they’re exceptionally good at it – up to a certain age. What kills the impetus? What drives out the joy and momentum, such that people in adulthood, or even their teens, stop learning and even start avoiding it?

The answer, of course, is that we cripple our young. We indoctrinate them. We teach our young many useful ideas, yes, but we subject it all to a caveat: we say, only within the context of this camp of thought. We give them identity groups to belong to, which means, we specifically tell them to NOT have an unfettered view of the world, but see the world through the lenses that we desire for them.

We give our young binoculars and then we poke out one of their eyes.

Think how tragic this is: that a young mind has the capability of learning, at an epic rate with no upward limit, but owing to parenting, schooling and cultural conditioning we define such upper limits that most of us have to spend two, three or more decades to unravel the resulting contradictions. We actually regard it as an extraordinary achievement when we come across someone in their twenties or thirties who has sorted through all of the indoctrination of their youth and has somehow come out of it a confident and capable person, with their own ideas, and their own contributions to make. We know that this is far from the norm. We know that most people will go on to adulthood and old age still trying to live according to pre-defined roles that were thrust on them in childhood. We know that pain and suffering will ensue as much of this childhood indoctrination will clash with the facts of their lives. A great many, not able to withstand the unhappiness that this will bring about, will even go as far as therapy and medication. And a few, unable to cope with the pain that results from holding ideas in conflict with reality, will take their own lives (or commit heinous evils against others and be locked away or killed by law enforcement.)

It is a tragedy not because they suffer and choose to end their suffering. It is a tragedy because their suffering is brought about by nothing but abstractions; by fictions foisted by us upon young minds.

We kill people with nothing but words. And the ones whose bodies we do not kill, we make damn sure to kill their spirits.

We teach young people skills and ideas for getting through life–how to use their brains and talents to succeed. But we also give them identity groups to belong to. Filters to suck their information through. Roles to play. And once a young person has accepted an identity group, they are so locked in that even if they one day decide the group was an illusion they will have to mentally fight themselves for years to undo the damage.

In every case, isms immensely cripple our potential to grow and learn. They do so because to change one’s mind is easy, even desirable; but to change one’s identity is impossible and to be avoided at all costs. Growth and learning, to a camp-thinker, are over and done with. To grow beyond the camp, after all, would be to grow into something else. There may be more of reality that lay beyond the confines of the ism, but the ist either does not care, or actively wishes to avoid. When you declare your membership in an ism, you are saying: this, and only this, is the portion of reality I choose to acknowledge. This is nothing short of hobbling your mind.

To see what I mean by “crippling”, let’s consider all the requirements of growth, from the perspective of a camp-thinker. If you are a camp thinker-

  • can your knowledge grow? Sure, up to the point that you have defined as the limit to truth. Anything beyond that is forbidden territory by your own self-imposed rules.
  • can you clarify and modify your opinions over time? You may clarify the language in support of your views, but you may not alter the views themselves. They, after all, are what make you the ist that you “are”.
  • can you hone and sharpen your views? Again, you may sharpen the arguments in support of your view, but the views themselves define who you are, and are thus unalterable. Within a camp you may only shore up the defenses of the existing territory. To lay down new territory is to break with the camp—which is dabbling with independent thought.
  • can you throw out ideas which you find inaccurate/untrue? Only ideas that are in controversy within the camp. The ideas that are considered “orthodoxy” by the camp are not even open to truth judgments. If a belief clashes with your experience, it means you have inadequately understood it or misapplied it. In any case, the inadequacy is yours, not the idea’s. You are to keep the idea, but strive to be a better ist. (And any unhappiness resulting from this clash can be dealt with by therapy, confession, medication, or suicide).
  • can you deal with contradictions? Two ideas which seem to clash represent a real problem for you. They either challenge your faith in the camp, or cause you to repress and close off inquiry to that part of your mind. In other words, you are either a loss to the cause or dishonest.
  • can you keep your eyes open to new discoveries? Yes, but if they are filtered out by your lens (the point which you’ve declared your mind will go no further) you will not see them.
  • can you accumulate experiences? Sure, but your interpretations of those experiences (and the importance you attach to them) will be determined by how they rank to the camp, not to you.
  • can you test your ideas against your experiences? Again, the central ideas of an ism are never tested, only fringe issues and controversies.
  • can you be a reader and consumer of new ideas? Only within the confines of your ism, meaning you read what confirms and ignore/dismiss what does not confirm. (And become bored/disillusioned because nothing is new).
  • can you benefit from the learning of others? Only in the sense of following the camp-thinkers which have come before you. In fact, new ideas you will regard with suspicion and fear.
  • can you develop your sense of judgment, rejecting good and bad ideas? What is to be the standard of “good” and “bad” ideas, if not truth? One is left with “supports my camp” vs. “is an enemy of my camp”. In other words, good = matching, bad = mismatching, which means your “judgment” is akin to that of someone who is an expert at selecting paint colors.
  • can you become an expert of knowing? A master student? A master disciple, perhaps. A soldier for the cause. Even perhaps an instructor in the Way. But not an originator of insights of your own. You will never, working within a camp of thought, push back the fog any further for humanity. You will never be remembered as a changer of humanity’s way of thinking, but rather an apologist for a particular identity group.

In every sense of “growth”, isms cripple us. They do so by never allowing us to break out of the confines of the sandbox we have constructed around our minds.

Again, let’s remember the all-important verb distinction: I believe vs. I AM. If what we have are BELIEFS, they are susceptible to modification, change, even rejection. If what we have is an IDENTITY, how could we ever change it? I am always free to change my mind. But how can I change what I “am”?

We can only learn so much in a lifetime. I’ll never forget the scene in Cosmos, when Carl Sagan walked down the length of a single library bookshelf and said, “This is all you will ever know”; that if you read a book a week for your entire life, you will only read a few thousand books, ever. A book every month would net you only a few hundred books by the end. There are people who don’t read a book a year, or stopped reading entirely once they finished high school. Maybe those people will reach the end of their life having read maybe a dozen or two-dozen books. The point is not to make you feel guilty about how little you read, but to put things in perspective: we only get eighty or so trips around the Sun, even when things go pretty much in our favor. When you consider the millions of books, and the totality of knowledge available to us, doesn’t it seem like a twisted, cruel joke to think about cramming even the tiniest percentage of it into one brain?

How much more twisted a joke is it, then, to declare, after reading whatever miniscule amount we do, that we have “finished” knowing, and that this and only this identity-group has got everything right and that you do not care to look any further?

Which books will be your dozen, or your few hundred or your few thousand? In the post Book collectionon genre I asked: are you needlessly restricting yourself to reading only within a genre? I guessed that if you dropped “genre” as a consideration, overall you would read better books. That by fencing yourself into reading within a genre, you are dooming yourself to reading mediocre works, simply owing to percentages. You are also guaranteeing, by your own self-imposed rule, that you will ignore or dismiss great works simply because they fall outside the genre. By dropping genre in your reading choices, therefore, you open yourself to great new discoveries.

Now expand the point to knowledge in general: are you restricting yourself to reading or even thinking only within a camp of thought or an ideology? What great ideas might you be missing out on because you have chosen instead to read something mediocre but which feels good because it reinforces your views? Be honest: have you become bored with what you are reading? And, never mind reading, how about the way you think, in general? By thinking within an ideology are you limiting yourself to mediocre thoughts? Where would, or could, your mind go without any such limitation?

Speaking of settling for the mediocre, don’t people do this in the rest of their lives? If our reading habits are so tainted by isms, what else are they ruining for you? The movies you go to see? The music you listen to? The restaurants you dine in? The art you appreciate? The friends you choose to keep company with? Could it be that you are involved with someone romantically that does not stir your passion, but with whom you nevertheless stay since they fit your camp’s ideal for a mate? (When I said isms where insidious, I wasn’t kidding around. Yes, they even work the way into your mate selection, and if you don’t think there are millions of people in unhappy relationships for just this reason then you and I, friend, have entirely different notions about truth.)

Isms suppress your intuition and demand you follow their codes instead. The members of a camp tend toward homogeneity, since members tend to emulate one another. (Homogeneity, but not “identity” remember, because no two people actually are “identical”.) Everything in your life then becomes viewed not from your own intuitive sense of values, but from a place of “x-ists like this, and I am an x-ist, therefore I will like it, too”. When you follow an ideology, everything gets viewed through the lens of ideology. (A tautology, since ideology is, by definition, the decision to view everything through a lens.)

But suppressing or ignoring your intuition comes at great peril – you can only do it for so long before it turns everything in your life stale.

Muhammad Ali said: “A man who views the world the same at fifty as he did at twenty has wasted thirty years of his life.” How many waste their entire lives in unhappiness, locked into a perceived identity? Isms make us incapable of change. Which means, if I’m right about growth and learning being an essential trait of our species, that isms make us incapable of being truly human.

It means that a central requirement of growth, of being a fully realized human being, is a mind liberated from isms.


So much for the effects of isms on a personal level. In the next installment, we will discuss the effects of isms on relationships between people, namely, how they drive us apart. But first I would like to hear from independent and camp-thinkers alike. Has any of this clarified your own thinking? Are you starting to see how invasive and insidious ideological thinking is? Are you sensing gaps or blocks or contradictions in your own thinking that if you only abandoned your identity tag for yourself would utterly clear away? Are you seeing how your brain on isms is like the ostrich with its head in the sand? How the brain without isms is a cosmic traveler, i.e., potentially unlimited?

Or perhaps reading this has reinforced your ideology. Perhaps you think I’m just being a “nihilist”; that I’m saying that everyone should abandon ideas, beliefs and principles and live according to undefined standards and whims? (I’m not! Read again.) Are you offended that I would include your allegiance to your religion or your political system or your nation or language group as part of my critique? Tell me why. But remember, I’m not asking you to defend your particular way of thinking as better/superior. I’m asking you to defend why BEING something is better than BELIEVING something; why IDENTIFYING with others in a group is better than following your own, INDEPENDENT thought, on any matter. I look forward to your arguments. (And I won’t be offended, since I have no identity-allegiance for you to offend!)

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