The End of Isms (Part 3): How ISMs Drive People Apart

In the last installment, we talked about ways in which ideology, or camp-thinking, has disastrous personal effects on your mind and your life, whether adopted consciously or unwittingly through indoctrination. We talked about how isms:

  • prevent you from seeking (or even seeing) the truth (since the decision to view the world through a filter, by definition, means cutting off your search for the truth at a certain point)
  • reverse cause and effect by preventing you from considering what you honestly believe in a given situation (“That might be true… but I’m too much of an x-ist to think so!”)
  • cause you to confuse generalization with reality (since no two people agree top to bottom on everything, even within a camp of thought)
  • confuse rather than clarify (since isms are really just names for identity groups, the content of which is not agreed on, hence require lengthy explanations to make oneself clear)
  • prevent you from thinking too hard about their central ideas (since to do so would be to challenge, or attack, your own chosen identity)

  • encourage you to seek out that which confirms your views, and ignore that which doesn’t (since truth is not your standard, but rather the victory of your camp over other camps)
  • give you an unsavory package deal of ideas (since it is preferable to believe other things that have been historically associated with the identity group, rather than abandon your identity)
  • prevent you from learning or growing as a person (since changing your mind is easy, but changing identities is difficult or perceived as impossible)
  • taint your experience of life (since you will be apt to ignore your intuition and seek out ideas, pursuits, friends and even romantic partnerships which are approved by your identity group, but not deeply felt by you)

I want to make it clear that the approach here is not psychological, but philosophical. Though I’m sure many of these issues do come up in therapy (when we’re talking about childhood indoctrination, how could they not?), I’m not an analyst or a therapist, and I’m deliberately not using real world examples of people, nor trying to provide psychological explanations for any actual person’s behavior.

The point is logical. I want you to turn inwards and think things through for yourself. Think about how isms have infiltrated and influenced your life up to this point (if you are human and alive, they have), and realize how illogical and undesirable it is to adopt an ideology for yourself. This is about self-reflection–about clearing out the junk. It’s the result of a long process of turning that reflection upon my own inner workings and seeing that not only are ideologies preposterous and unnecessary, but that life is much, much better off when they are abandoned entirely.

Isms are not a necessity of life. They are a peculiarly modern invention, a way of using words that we have invented which blinds us to truths and turns our actions toward destruction.

Independent thought, by contrast (by which I mean, independent of any allegiance to an identity group) is, I believe, the way our brains are designed to work. Abandoning any trace of ideology, in your speech and thought, is like restoring the brain to its factory settings.

Thinking people don’t need ISMs!


Moving on, let’s discuss the many ways that… ISMS Create Schisms


1. ISMs Give Rise to Leaders and Followers

We’ve already touched on this (in the discussion about how isms prevent you from thinking too hard about their central ideas) but it bears emphasizing again here, since it creates an immediate and obvious division between people.

Again, think about this in terms of the “logic” of the camp thinker:

  • I have decided to be an x-ist.
  • x-ists believe a, b and c.
  • These are non-negotiable beliefs of this particular ism. If you reject a, b or c, you are, by definition, no longer an x-ist.
  • Therefore, I believe a, b and c.
  • As an x-ist, it is not for me to think about or challenge a, b and c. I have decided to believe them. To challenge a, b and c would be a declaration of my independence from x-ism.
  • Therefore, it is my job to learn a, b and c as best I can and defend them against non x-ists.

Now, here’s the crucial point, as it pertains here: who am I to learn x-ism from? There are a lot of people who call themselves x-ists but I don’t necessarily trust everyone who uses the tag. Therefore, I want to make sure I only trust the x-ists who are authorities on x-ism, or have been so deputized by the authorities.

Obama_Jobs_Speech_to_Joint_Session_of_CongressAnd there you have it. Right away we have a wedge driven between people, even within a single camp of thought: there are authority figures, who determine what is or is not to be considered orthodoxy within the camp, and there are followers, who are meant to learn from and obey the authorities, on penalty of being turfed out or excommunicated if the authority deems you are not towing the official line.

There are some who lead, and some who follow.

This, in turn, creates the tendency to formalize the hierarchy by making sure that those who are at the top wield more real power (money, position, property, legislative, or even military and police power) over those who are lower in the hierarchy.

A religion, for example, is not just a discussion group amongst equals or a gathering of like-minded individuals. It is a clear authority structure with property holdings (churches or temples) which are considered centers of authorized learning, in which authorities tell the churchgoers what to believe (it is not ordinarily a discussion) and who themselves report to higher authorities who tell them what to believe, going on and on up to the top of the structure who are supposed to be direct representatives of the deity. A religion normally centers its teaching around an authorized text of some sort (implying that other texts are either non-authorized or outright forbidden). A religion deals in enormous sums of money and, depending on the religion and the part of the world, may have direct representatives in government, and which, in any case, take a large part in influencing legislative policy even in nominally secular countries. Historically, religious leaders have even commanded armies. Authority, after all, is nothing without the physical power to see your authority carried out.

In short, a religion makes a very clear distinction between authorities and followers.

But even secular institutions like to formalize authority. A university, presumably, is a place where one goes to learn crucial mental skills, like critical thinking, to aid one in their future profession. And yet, with a few notable exceptions, students find themselves playing a game of “please the professor” in order to earn credits toward a diploma. Far from teaching critical thinking skills, the professor uses his lectern as a pulpit from which to indoctrinate his students. Public schools (again, apart from a few exceptional teachers) are the same, only more so. Businesses, political parties, clubs and committees, scientific conferences, artistic movements and professional gatherings–you name it–there are those in positions of authority and those who follow, and one are not supposed to question the other.

None of this authority, of course, has anything to do with thinking. Authority is the opposite of thought. Its purpose is to establish a foothold of real power to circumvent the necessity of convincing anyone of anything through argumentation and reasoning. In a situation of equals, we all discuss the best way of thinking or acting, and everyone gets an input. But in a situation with leaders and followers there is no such discussion, and not everyone is expected to think.

In fact, as we already discussed in Part Two, some are expected to act without thinking. Obviously, this is effective for something like a combat unit, or even a sports team. A unit commander cannot independently convince each member of the unit the reasoning behind his orders. He needs to give orders and have them carried out immediately, or people might die. In team sports, the coach has the big picture strategy worked out in his head, and sometimes needs to change that strategy on the fly, and cannot independently convince each player that his orders are in their own best interests. They must follow his authority quickly or lose the game. In an emergency, to take another example, someone must take charge and order people to do what is in their best interests or their own panic will kill them.

Please don’t take the current discussion to mean: ”all authority is bad”. It is clearly necessary, and even good, in some circumstances. It is good precisely because it is the opposite of thought. “Thinking”, in circumstances where you need to act, and act NOW, might kill you.

But when it comes to your ideas and beliefs, the workings of your mind and its decisions about what is true and what isn’t, authority has no place.

Putting it differently, in matters of truth and falsity, you are the only authority.


Let’s talk about the abuse of authority.

That authority is abused in intellectual matters is obvious in the case of armies or police who are used to enforce certain ways of thinking, or to eradicate cells of opposition. One 3593623054_1899cfa672_zhas only to recall a lone man standing in front of a column of tanks in Beijing Square to remember a vivid example. There are others. In North Korea Internet access is restricted to a few thousand people with state approval, and foreign websites are blocked. Until the recent civil war in Libya, political parties were banned by the regime for over thirty-five years. Even now, in a supposedly “liberated” Libya, people are imprisoned for “proselytizing” (i.e., for speaking their minds and trying to convince others). These are examples from our own lifetime; we need hardly even mention something as blatant as the Crusades, or the torture tactics of Jesuit Missionaries against Native Americans, or concentration camps in Poland and Germany.

But there are other, less obvious, uses of authority to circumvent persuasion. Directing legislative policy on matters where opinions conflict (what is the definition of marriage? when does life begin? did humans evolve from other species? etc.) is an attempt to encode your view into law so that you will be spared the difficulty of convincing anyone of its truth, through reason. If I enforce my views of the truth through the school curriculum, for example, I am not trying to convince you of anything; I am using the force of government to establish a foothold for my views in young minds, and forcibly preventing other views from seeing the light of day.

Even with something as innocuous as establishing an authorized center of learning for my ism, I am implicitly declaring everywhere else to be “unauthorized”. You might be able to exchange ideas in your living room, but to get the authorized view you must come to my building to hear it from an authority. In other words, your thinking, in the privacy of your home or even your mind, has very little to do with the ism. The presence of authority takes the necessity of thinking away. All you have to do is show up and be told what to think.

Keep this in mind, since it is another reason for history’s pile of bodies: when you question authority you are essentially questioning the ism itself.

There is another tendency in Western thinking that leads to a kind of abuse of authority, especially prevalent in academics: the idea of specialization. Everyone wants his or her own turf. No less true, unfortunately, in academics, than it is in the backstabbing workplace or the cutthroat world of politics. Thus we have the spectacle of academics focusing on the tiniest minutiae, and declaring themselves the foremost authorities of that tiny piece of turf. This goes on to such a degree that even scholars within the same field–economics, say, or chemistry– cannot meaningfully talk to one another about issues pertaining to their field. This is another way, aside from isms, that we become divided intellectually: we each of us become microcosms of knowledge that cannot communicate with one another. “Authorities” are deemed to be beyond reproach and those outside their turf incapable of speaking their language.

“Authority” is the dead end of Western analysis. It’s where we end up when we can’t sub-divide any more, or when sub-dividing becomes ludicrous. With no unifying wisdom, or understanding of how the parts apply to the whole, we become silent galaxies drifting apart from each other into the blackness. What dangers ensue when our specialists can’t talk to one another? (Imagine a pilot who was expert in taking off but not landing, and who couldn’t understand another pilot’s “landing jargon” in an emergency.)

This is where public distrust of science crops up, and why we’ve had more than a century of re-telling of the Frankenstein story in book and film. If science is proceeding on its minutiae, giving no mind to a larger understanding, such as ethics, then won’t we end up with Frankenstein’s monster (or nuclear accidents, or biological warfare, or weather modification, or a grey goo phenomenon)? And if academics cannot even make their particular turf accessible to others within their field, how much benefit can their work be to the rest of humanity? Have they really advanced human knowledge, or have they merely extended their grasp into an area where no one else was grabbing, and then defended that territory like a feral dog defending a bone?

Most of humanity is content to follow a basically monarchical view of knowledge: that there are authority figures who will tell us what is true and right, and to the degree we follow them, we will be considered good members of society. There are institutions of power set up specifically to prevent the necessity of convincing anyone of anything, and to prevent anyone from thinking too hard once they are within the institution.

But, every now and then, there are some upstarts who hold a democratic view of knowledge: that knowledge belongs to everyone; that knowledge is not the exclusive domain of authority figures; that each of us not only IS the final court of opinion on matters of truth and falsity, but that it is RIGHT that it is so, and WRONG for anyone else to demand that we think a certain way, or attempt to force us with laws, police or armies; that there can be no such thing as “official doctrine”; that it is right to question anything for oneself; that nothing is to be considered sacred knowledge; and that no person or institution should be considered an authority who is beyond questioning.

I don’t mean that everyone, on the democratic view, holds the same views or has the same level of knowledge, but that no one is denied the ability to question the truth for him/herself. There are no divine priests, for example, with special access to truths that you and I cannot reach with our own minds. Some people obviously will know more than others, and even become experts within their field. But, and this is the crucial difference, this does not close the door of truth to non-experts. In fact, those who do find themselves in a position of expertise are to welcome criticism and questioning from any source, for they know that by standing or falling against these challenges, they make their own grasp of the truth stronger. They also know that since establishments tend toward the status quo, revolutions in thought come from outside, and thus the establishment is not to be regarded as sacred. (A Swiss patent clerk, for example, might publish a paper that turns centuries of physics on its head, and therefore we ought to be on the lookout for, and welcome contributions from, Swiss patent clerks!) Finally, that schools are not places to receive “authorized” views but gymnasiums for the mind. They are places to learn the invaluable skills of listening, doubting, questioning, scrutinizing, analyzing, and arguing. (And hopefully some reading and writing somewhere in there, too.)


2. ISMs Give Rise to Hero-Worship and Gurus

Another insidious aspect of the leader/follower relationship created by isms: the tendency toward hero worship. Certain members of the camp, owing to their style or charisma or wit, are seen to be superior carriers of the message. Followers mistake charm for understanding. They assume that since the person speaks so movingly or powerfully or deals with arguments with such wit and rhetorical skill that the person has a superior grasp of the truth. And such people have no trouble developing a following.

Of course, being in possession of charm has nothing to do with being in possession of the truth. In fact, if you think about the people you’ve known in your life, isn’t it astonishing how often one makes up for the lack of the other?

Keep this in mind: it is a mistake to think that only David Khoresh and L. Ron Hubbard Lafayette Ronald Hubbard, painted portrait _DDC4673have cult-like followings. University professors have them. Writers have them. CEOs have them. Actors and musicians and famous athletes have them. Radio talk show and late night television hosts have them. And you better believe politicians have them.

Cults are only an extreme example of the same mental error that most people commit every single day: surrendering their mind to someone else’s authority. But again, let’s remember this about so-called “extremism”: it’s not the extremity to which you surrender your mind that’s the issue. It’s surrendering your mind AT ALL. Even if the effects of hero-worship on one’s life seem relatively harmless, or even beneficial (compared to drinking poisoned Kool-Aid, for example) the harm to the stuff between your ears is just as absolute.

Recently, while driving, I heard a local radio talk show host go into a rant about how Americans tend to make gurus out of people that have no business being gurus (like radio talk show hosts) and how the people in his profession enjoy this kind of attention and generally do nothing to dissuade it. This, in his view, has created a situation where we do not think for ourselves but instead defer to our favorite gurus to tell us what we think. Thus we become a nation of people who do not think for ourselves but think what a handful of entertainers tell us to. Our “national conversation” then becomes a conversation between Rush Limbaugh, Jon Stewart, Sean Hannity, Bill O’Reilly, George Clooney, Glen Beck, etc.

“Don’t put me on that kind of pedestal! I don’t want it!” the local host said. “I’m not interested in being followed. I want to know what you think!”

I was cheering so hard I nearly lost my lane.

We don’t have to defer to authorities on matters of truth. And we definitely don’t have to follow heroes and gurus. But step number one in reclaiming our own independent thought is dropping the isms.

Only independent thought is truly “democratic”: no matter what their economic status, or position, or level of expertise, independent thinkers welcome challenges from the smallest voices. Since they impose no limitations on where their mind may go chasing the tail of truth, they impose no limitations on anyone else’s mind going there either.

In fact, this may seem like a paradox, but consider: only an independent thinker sees enormous value in cooperation in the search for truth. Again, “independent” here means “with no allegiance to an identity group”. An independent thinker has no camp or turf to defend. Since there is no artificial barrier in place to prevent dealing with supposed “enemies”, this leaves our minds free to cooperate and seek other like minds to pursue the truth together. An independent thinker, since his goal is the truth (and since there are only so many hours in a day and so much knowledge that can be crammed into one head) sees enormous benefit in doing so.

No one leading, no one following. All contributing to the same end.

It only sounds farfetched because we’ve been playing a child’s game of follow the leader for thousands of years. Who’s ready for a change?


3. ISMs Arbitrarily Divide Humans Up Into Categories

Wisdom, or insight, if you think about, is really just this: understanding that two or more seemingly disparate things are actually one and the same, and that our limited perspective is what created the illusion that they were not. This is what the ol’ grey matter is doing when the proverbial light bulb turns on. The Sun is just another star, one of nine-sextillion in the observable universe? A-ha! Light and electricity and magnetism are all the same phenomenon? Wow! An apple falling from a tree is doing exactly the same thing, and following the same laws, as a planet orbiting around the Sun? Eureka!

We come up with a concept or an equation that covers and explains both phenomena and we have achieved a new understanding.

These are scientific examples but this same mental operation is at work in coming to understand history or economics or even the machinations of your daily interactions with people at the office or your family. You are essentially coming to understand that everything is not random and isolated, but that there are laws and principles at work. There is commonality between events, even events on different sides of the globe, and on other globes, and in other parts of the universe.

(This is why I find astronomy, cosmology and physics to be such fascinating fields, because, at root, they seek commonality with everything that exists.)

Make sure your skull case has room before you expand this…

The more you come to understand something, the more you realize that differences are only apparent: they are how we view the things from a limited perspective. Consider the number of different things in the known universe. It’s boggling beyond comprehension. Why? Because our perspective is infinitesimally tiny compared to the universe. We are limited. But we try anyway. We find commonalities, adding things together, achieving more understanding along the way. If this is true, then run the clock forward. Where must ultimate wisdom lead us other than this (and I think Eastern Philosophy will bear me out on this): that the universe, everything, is essentially one thing, and everything else–all of the “units” that we call “things and events”–are nothing but human confusion, arising from our limited perspective? If you go on eradicating the differences between things then this is where you must end up: an understanding of the totality of what is, as one, undifferentiated thing.

Now, let’s bring it back down to just thinking about humanity. Aren’t our differences, when you really boil it down, just illusions? By nature, Confucius said, men are alike; by practice, they get to be far apart. Sure, we have different cultures and different languages and different foods and different folk dances and different skin colors. And each of these things serves to limit our perspective. In confusion, we come up with the mistaken idea that skin color, for example, is an essential trait of humans, and differentiates one type of human from another. We then go great lengths to keep them separate, and to enact laws and exercise power over some skin colors and not others. But, in wisdom, we put these differences aside as non-essential. We see that, in essence, we are the same creatures doing the same things: solving the problem of biological existence on a lonely, insignificant mote of dust, repeating certain activities day to day. Actually, this is true of amoeba and sperm whales and dung beetles and trees as well as humans. In the case of humans (and whales, in my opinion) it seems we have become aware that we are doing so and so have tried to codify those activities as “rules”, and tried to impose better and better rules for day-to-day activities (sometimes, admittedly, to disastrous effect).

Isms take things a step further: they take our limited perspectives and give them fixed identity-tags. In doing so, they ensure that we never come to see two “types” of humans as possessing anything in common. Isms take the differences we perceive in confusion and reinforce them with a label. Certain people belong to this category, and other people belong to that category, and we have labels so that we never mix them up. When you accept the ism as true, you identify yourself with the category and thereby divide yourself from the rest of humanity. You distinguish your camp from those who are “unlike” you.

Isms, by the mere act of labeling our confused perspectives, create those differences.

You see, this is really just the same error as false generalization but thrown into reverse. False generalization happens when we are so in love with our ideas that we ignore crucial differences. “False division”, we can call it, is when we are so in love with our ideas that we ignore essential commonalities. Both approaches agree that our invented categories–how we have decided to mentally arrange the world–are the crucial things that must be saved, at the expense of truth. In either case, the remedy is chucking out the categories, and orienting ourselves instead to the truth.

When they are discovered to be inadequate, or outright false, shouldn’t it be our ideas that are expendable?

The other day I was out kayaking with my girlfriend, and we noticed several people in canoes  also out on the water. In general, we noticed, the canoes seemed to be moving at a slower pace than the kayaks, had less maneuverability when making turns and tended to clog up the flow of traffic. Several times we found ourselves having to steer wide of canoes to avoid a collision. “Damn canoers,” we jokingly said. “They should make way for the kayakers!”

A-ha. And there it is.

We brought into existence a division that wasn’t there just a moment ago. If I were a person watching from the shore, I would not see two “types” of people on the water, “canoers” and the obviously superior and righteous “kayakers”. I would just see people out on the water enjoying a common activity. But by taking a limited perspective (limited to our desire to move around faster on the water and the belief that it is “wrong” for us to be obstructed) we brought into existence a different class of water-faring people who were NOT US. If our wisdom had kicked in we would have realized we were all essentially like-minded folks, enjoying the same activity in the same place, on the same body of water, while living in the same city, etc. In wisdom, we would have seen and perhaps even felt a sense of camaraderie at our commonalities. But when we created identities for the “Not-Us’s”, we magnified and focused on our differences.

Now, this is a trivial example with no serious consequences, and we were joking anyway. (Well, half-joking). But take the same mental activity–the identification of people who are fundamentally “not us”–and apply it to politics, or religion, or sexual orientation, or race. And perpetuate it, not just for an afternoon, but for decades and centuries. Do you see how that might make for some strife? In that case, there might not be just two categories of people avoiding a collision on a stretch of water, but perhaps actively pursuing a collision, and bending all of their commerce, laws, technology and resources to make it so. Might they not, for example, erect walls, and build up armaments, and pass laws that codify their differences? Might they not publish books and pamphlets and movies and news programs that theorize about, and even celebrate, the absolutism of the differences? Might they not make entire careers devoted to their differences, becoming politicians, or lobbyists, or academics, or priests or generals? Might they not hold inquisitions and trials and imprisonments and executions? Might they not launch invasions and attempt to eradicate, by any means, those who are “not us”?

How much of humanity, in their day-to-day workings, are unwittingly carrying out a war of opposition on a supposed “enemy camp”, do you think?

Given how insidious isms are, I would be surprised if the answer wasn’t most of us.


There is one more, slightly amusing, aspect to this limited perspective business: the fact that, once we have identified a group of people who are “not us”, we think that those two choices comprise the entire set of choices for anyone, anywhere, at any time. There can only be two ways, we think. Our way, or their way. Thus we have the spectacle of only two republican_democrat_logos1political parties, or a political spectrum with two ends, or two sexual orientations, or the purple race and all the non-purple people, or science vs. religion, or Bloods and Crips, Montagues and Capulets, or pick your favorite duality. People become locked into thinking: “Well, I must be one or the other,” and then run into the whole host of problems with the unsavory package deals of ideas (“Well, I guess, since I’ve chosen this camp, I must believe all this other stuff too”). You also have comments like, “there’s only two types of people in this world” followed by a pigeonholing statement.

We think of our dualities of opposing camps as stretching forward infinitely in time. Yet, consider how history eradicates these dichotomies.

Think hard, and answer honestly: Are you a Pelagianist? Or an Augustinian?

Answer quickly, now. You have to be one or the other. (Well, I suppose you could be a Semipelagian…)

How about: are you a Manichaen? Or a Sampsaean? Or perhaps a Mandaen?


Unless you are a religious scholar or part of a small sect of people that still uses these terms to describe themselves, I’m willing to bet that your answer was: irrelevant. Or you went Wikipedia hunting to find the answer. (If so, you may have missed the point.)

And yet, people have fought wars over these dualities. Lets think about this in the most real, visceral terms that we can. Imagine a two-foot long blade plunging through your chest and exiting out your spine, carrying a mix of your internal organs, blood, and your life with it… because you declared your allegiance to one of these systems of thought. Imagine your family, friends mourning your loss and crying out in anger and pain at the enemy. Imagine then, that the result of your sacrifice is nothing more than ten centuries of religious scholars arguing the relative merits of your system versus the ten other alternatives out there. And then those scholars dying or fading away to the point where living people have never even heard of the identity group you held dear enough to defend with your life’s blood.

All Isms, no matter how dear you hold them, will eventually be made irrelevant by history.

Consider some more of histories’ great dualities…

Are you a Jacobin or a Monarchien?  A Populare or an Optimate? A Patrician or a Plebeian?

At the time, they too were seen as the totality of available choices. “You are either one or the other!” was the refrain of the day. And yet history obliterated each and every one of them as irrelevant. Will this happen too with Democrats and Republicans? Capitalists and socialists? Christians, Muslims, Jews and atheists? Of course it will; it must. And people in a new millennia will find new categories for dividing each other up and hating one another’s “differences”. There will be wars between the righteous Mixelplugulists and the stubborn Clayvenrumptybumps.

Our sandbox perspective creates the illusion of dualities: that there are two, and only two, ways of thinking about anything: “our” way and “their” way. And we think this dichotomy of ways will last forever. It’s ludicrously childish if you think about it.

There are as many ways, Thoreau said, as can be drawn lines from a single point. (Hint: that means infinite, bub). We become so locked into a “debate of opposites” mentality, and entrenched in fighting for one or the other, that we do not realize the trillion other possibilities that lay open for us, if only we would liberate our minds from the dualistic thinking that it must be this way or that way.


“Following our will and wind,
we may just go where no one’s been.
We’ll ride the spiral to the end
and may just go where no one’s been.
Spiral out, keep going.”

                                           -Tool, Lateralus


To sum up, isms create the illusion that someone who holds different ideas from us IS something fundamentally different from us. Wisdom consists of dispelling that illusion by realizing how much of reality we must ignore or suppress to obliterate the commonalities between people, and how we must make our perspective very narrow to ignore those commonalities. If ultimate wisdom is coming to understand the oneness of the universe, can’t we say that a step in that direction (albeit difficult for us in our state of childhood) is the coming to understand the essential oneness of humanity?


4. ISMs Mean Different Things to Different People

This is really just an expansion of the point about false generalizations, but one that deserves special emphasis here, because it pertains to incommensurability; why people who are locked within ideologies cannot communicate with one another.

Words, if you think about it, serve a simple but extraordinary purpose: telepathy. They make my mind connect with your mind. Nothing to it, right? We come up with some symbols, called words, agree to what they refer, and then our minds can touch one another. It’s magic.

Ah, but do we always agree to what the symbols refer?

For reasons already discussed…

  • since a generalization is not the same thing as reality,
  • since isms are just names for identity groups and hence confuse rather than clarify, and
  • since isms, when accepted, prevent you from thinking too hard about their content

…in every case where we use an ism (or any camp of thought) as our symbol, it means something different to the speaker/writer as it does to the listener/reader.

I’m going to throw a word out there: Capitalism. That arrangement of ten letters, I guarantee you, means something different to you than to me. (Actually, this is a given, since I acknowledge its meaninglessness. But the point is: even two people who believed the word meaningful would not agree to what it referred.) To some, “capitalism” means a political system of freedom wherein the powers of government are severely restricted. To some it means a system where wage earners must beg for their existence from business owners. To some, it is a very broad term, describing all human action as it pertains to society. For some, it is a very restrictive term, describing only the activity of high finance, such as bankers and stockbrokers. To some it is a neutral term, describing nothing more than the trading of goods to mutual advantage on the market. To some it is a very un-neutral term, describing a system of exploitation, where the productivity of labor is converted into riches for the few.

Sure, we can argue back and forth about which is the “correct” definition, but chances are (much like the 41,000 and growing denominations of people who don’t agree what “Christianity” refers to) we are never going to agree on this, and become further and further sub-divided in our attempts to do so.

telepathyMy question, then, is this: when we encounter a word that is not very useful for telepathy (and even harmful, since we are apt not only to not understand, but to misunderstand one another), why don’t we chuck it? If we wish to speak about the exploitation of labor, why not speak about the exploitation of labor? Why do we need another term, an indirect and easily misinterpreted one, to do so? If we wish to speak about trading to mutual advantage on a market, then why not simply do so, and forget the imprecise word we have for that activity? In other words, why not refer to the world we both experience, by directly referring to things with symbols we both agree on, in plain language, rather than INDIRECTLY referring to the world through a symbol we are guaranteed to have wildly different notions about?

After all, this is exactly why…


5. ISMs Inevitably Result in a Breakdown in Communication

If the purpose of words is telepathy, then we must agree on the desirability of using agreed-on words, since they facilitate telepathy–they make my mind meet your mind. And isn’t what this is all about? Any time we write something, aren’t we trying to touch our mind to another mind? Isn’t that the point of speeches, lectures, books, magazine articles, blogs, movies, news programs, sitcoms and YouTubes? Isn’t it the point of business meetings and court sessions and sessions of Congress? Isn’t it the point of paintings and sculptures and architecture and music concerts? Isn’t it the point of status posts and tweets and texts and emails? In fact, in this information age we find ourselves in, isn’t it the point of pretty much damn near everything we do?

And yet, when it comes to an ism, a meeting of minds is the furthest thing from its purpose. Oh, an ism wants to reach other minds from a recruitment standpoint, yes; it wants more numbers of people carrying around the identity tag. But to this end, it will employ indoctrination, manipulation, proselytization, conversion, conscription, and prohibition. None of these constitute a meeting of minds, but rather a submission of one mind to another. In any case, recruitment is a numbers game; it is just one of the strategies you use to win a war: you throw more personnel into combat than the opposition can.

This is the real purpose of an ism: perpetuating itself and eradicating the enemy. An ist isn’t concerned with truth in their own mind, and they certainly aren’t concerned with making the truth blossom in someone else’s mind. When you are arguing with an ist, they aren’t trying to get at the truth with you, they are almost entirely focused on attacking and defending.

An ism wants one of two things from your mind: compliance, or defeat.

REH_Vinson_Beachcombers'_ArgumentThis is why no such thing as a meeting of minds can possibly take place between a camp thinker and anyone else. It is why opinions become “entrenched”, and why we use that word to describe it. You are unable to communicate with, or persuade, an ist on anything. You may think you’re having a conversation, but to a camp thinker, they are at war. While you’re talking, they are spending their time walling up a defense to their position, and looking for holes in your defenses through which they can fire. A meeting of minds simply cannot take place in such a situation. It would require the camp thinker to step outside of their camp and consider looking at things from a non-camp perspective. Which means: it would require the camp thinker to surrender their identity. As we’ve already seen, this sometimes requires whole lifetimes to do, depending on the level of indoctrination or emotional investment. Remember, an x-ist is someone who has decided to be so, which means they have cut off the possibility of being a non-x-ist or an independent thinker of any kind. Which, in turn, means they have also cut off the possibility of meeting the mind of a non-x-ist. It simply cannot happen, by the constraints they have placed on their own mind.

This is why most intellectual arguments dead-end in the frustration of name-calling. Not just in personal arguments, but also in political debates and on talk shows and in newspaper editorials, etc. “You’re just an x-ist, so it’s no wonder you think that!” The name-calling is a declaration of camp thinker’s inability, or unwillingness, to break the identity barrier. It can be translated as: “I don’t need to understand your ideas. I have a label for your camp, so I can merely repudiate the label. That will be much quicker and easier. After all, if you are unwilling to part with your identity camp, and I am unwilling to part with mine, then what the hell are we even talking for?”

(I agree. Why are you talking? If only camp thinkers would realize the collective futility of their utterances and silence themselves!)

Furthermore, the effect of name-calling, or labeling, in a conversation is extremely insulting, which is a communication-killer. In the very least, it is dismissive. The person who calls you a name is using it as a shorthand tag that they can dismiss, as against dealing with the content of your argument. If I say, “Oh, you are just another Marxist”, I am, in effect, saying, “I have no wish to refute the entirety of Marxism. It has already been refuted. In any case it is a very bad thing, at least in my mind, to be called a Marxist. Ergo, your ideas, and you, are very bad and easily dismissed without further consideration.”

But rather than take it as an insult, consider this: labeling, if you think about it, is really surrender. It’s a declaration of impotence of the labeler’s arguments. The labeler is saying, in effect, that they are unable or unwilling to consider the facts of the issue, nor are they willing to talk about the world and what may or may not be true. They wish to sidestep such activity entirely and apply a label instead. If you are the recipient of a label in an argument, you may smile and call it a victory. Your opponent has no further arguments, and is performing the last thing in their arsenal: playground wit.

The only time persuasion ever occurs in a conversation is when identity labels are dropped, and the interlocutors turn their attention to the content of their arguments, i.e., the logic of the conclusions, and whether those conclusions are supported by facts. When I actually focus on and consider the content of someone’s arguments, I might have occasion to persuade them to my point of view, or even learn something from them. Say, instead of dismissing them as “Marxist”, I listened to what they had to say about the exploitation of workers. I might come to find that yes, despite my non-identification with the camp called “Marxism” I can nevertheless agree that in some countries and in some conditions, workers are treated unfairly. And that person might be able to concede that not all workers are treated unfairly everywhere; that in fact, some live in conditions now that only kings and emperors could have dreamed about in a previous age. Then, having met at this common ground, we might move on to how to best improve the lot of the unfairly treated worker. We might discuss history and how standards of living actually rise. We might discuss the role of technology and the division and productivity of labor. We might discuss labor unions and minimum wage laws and collective bargaining and whether the government’s efforts on behalf of labor are constructive or destructive. We might disagree about many of these things, but we would have progressed, at least, beyond the camp-defending stage. We’d be getting to the real issues–examining the arguments and their support. Of course, this is no guarantee that telepathy is going to take place, but by taking the name-calling out, honestly considering what we believe, and trying to communicate it as best we can, we create at least the possibility that a meeting of minds can happen.

Nothing is more frustrating (and childish) than the inability to get past name-calling.

Next time you’re in an argument with a camp-thinker, try this: when they inevitably try to slap a label on you and use it to dismiss your views, say, “I have not labeled you, though there are many labels I might have used, because I don’t care to dismiss your arguments without consideration. I want to understand why you believe what you do. I am genuinely interested in what you believe on this matter, not whatever camp you think you belong to. So, can we agree– say, for the next ten minutes–no camps, no labels, just a discussion of what we honestly believe, you and I?”

If they say no, or they break the rules, politely end the conversation right there. “Sorry, you seem to be obsessed with classifying us. Maybe next time you’ll be interested in the actual subject matter, rather than the name tags you’ve created for the various camps.”

There is no loss; you were never after the same thing anyway. An independent thinker is after the truth, and sees other thinkers, even those they may disagree with, as potential allies on the quest. A camp thinker is after victory for their camp, and sees anyone who does not share their identity label as a potential threat. Can you see how no meeting of minds can ever take place between these two?

So, why waste your time?

Speaking of which…


6. ISMs are Enormous Wastes of Time

We’ve already touched on this in the discussion of how isms confuse rather than clarify. It takes incredible contortions of explanation to make clear what you’re even referring to when you use an identity label, taking hundreds of words to explain what you mean by just one. Plus, even with the explanations, your interlocutor almost certainly attaches a different meaning to the label than you do. There’s no getting around it: isms are enormously inefficient in helping telepathy to take place. They just don’t mean in my mind what they mean in yours.

But let’s take things a step further and consider, in the context of communication, just how much time is wasted classifying one another, rather than simply getting to one’s point.

When you label someone or yourself, you gain no ground whatsoever. You haven’t furthered communication; the label, after all, contains no agreed upon content. You haven’t gained any understanding; grouping things is not the same as understanding. You haven’t clarified anything; the label always requires further clarification.

You have, in fact, lost ground. You’ve declared your desire not to meet another mind, since to “decide” to be an ist (or decide that someone else is one) means to cut off the possibility of being anything else. You have automatically reduced your chances of bringing anyone else closer to your own position, since to hold your position, they have to swear allegiance to your camp (or break allegiance with theirs). You have reduced the chance of meeting another mind since your dismissive attitude has insulted them. And you have muddied the chances of someone understanding your position at all, since they have a host of different mental associations with your name tag than you do.

All of this takes time to undo.

In some cases, millennia.

But isms even fritter away the present. Turn on any talk radio program that discusses news or politics and listen for fifteen minutes. During that fifteen minutes take note of the sheer amount of time devoted to discussing identity labels rather than the issues themselves. Who belongs to what group, how we define that group, what splinters or subdivisions are there within the group, and who constitutes opposition to the group. Also pay particular attention to how, once the person speaking has categorized everyone, that constitutes the end of the conversation as far as they are concerned. I think you will be shocked. I would be surprised if there were any less than 9 of the 15 minutes (60%) that didn’t involve some use of the verb “to be”: “I am, you are, he is, she is, we are, they are”, along with the attachment of some label, and the implicit notion that the label “explains” everything that need be explained. “They are liberals, therefore…” “They are Christian Fundamentalists, so that means…”

You see, in the eyes of a camp thinker, one’s camp allegiance is sufficient explanation of everything. If we have grouped it, so they think, we have understood it. We need communicate no further on the issues, nor discuss what people actually think, nor consider any non-ideological possibilities that may be out there, nor actually try to see eye to eye on anything. All we must do is label the various camps, join them or dismiss them, then move on.

This is also how camp thinkers argue with one another. They spend the great bulk of the argument defining what they mean when they refer to their own camp and why they think their opponent belongs to another camp. Then, once everyone has been categorized, the conversation abruptly ends. As it must. How can two different beings, who have declared themselves to be fundamentally unlike one another, find any common ground?

Consider the lost opportunity, lost time that might have been spent elucidating one’s own views. Instead, swapping definitions until the conversation ends in name-calling, never having touched on the issues themselves, or the content of their ideas or what they honestly believe.

We spend endless time categorizing humans instead of solving human problems.

It’s a tragedy, yes, but it’s also numbingly frustrating for the independent thinker. The frustrationindependent thinker wants to reach another mind. But the camp-thinker refuses to do anything but discuss their labels, explaining what they mean by them, stringing two and three and four labels together, qualifying their labels with prefixes such as “neo” and “small-x” vs. “big-X”. All of it puts barriers in the way of our understanding and drives a wedge between communication.

Meanwhile, confusion grows and spreads, and allegiances become entrenched over time. The divides between camps only ever grow, despite any talk of “bipartisanship” or “coexistence.” They must do so, since camp thinkers do not see themselves as the same type of beings as those outside their camp. To them, two opposing camps are not two groups of humans with different ideas about solutions; they are two different types of being altogether. There is no such common concept as “human” which even enters their minds.

Anyway, is “coexistence” really what we’re after?

“Co-” implies two fundamentally different things. It is an acknowledgement that yes, the two identity camps are different at a fundamental level. There is no common ground between them, on this view, so the best that can be done is reach a kind of compact.

But you could have all the time that remains in the universe, and two identity camps will never overcome their differences long enough to abide by such a compact. As long as they see themselves as BEING two different types of being, and acknowledge that there can be no common ground between them, any such compact will always be tenuous at best, and hinge on one side not gaining any power over the other. Of course, one side eventually will become dominant, and the other will suffer. Look at any peace compact in history: the two sides did not undergo a change of heart and a sudden mutual recognition of one another’s rightful existence alongside one another. The compact was reached because one or both sides perceived that to go on fighting was too costly. This is how the entire map of the world has been drawn.

The exception is when the differences are seen, and rejected, for the illusions that they are. Slavery was abolished, with considerable opposition, because of the growing idea that perhaps the various races of human are not fundamentally different after all; that basic human rights apply equally to all. (Overturning camp-thinking, you see, wins the day!)

Abolishing slavery is not “coexistence”. Coexistence would mean two different beings, living side by side. The abolition proceeded on the grounds that two races of human are not two different types of being; just the one, and that racial differences are therefore irrelevant to legal rights. (Unfortunately, “coexistence” was still attempted in the U.S. in the decades following the abolition of slavery. It went by the name “segregation”.)

Time doesn’t care how limited and confused we choose to be. It keeps marching forward, indifferent. And so we lose it. And before you know it, we have lost decades, centuries, or even millennia, fighting the same old fight that starts with “there’s Us, and there’s Them”.


So, here we are at the end of post number three on ideologies or isms. Next time, we’ll talk about the broader effects of isms on our entire society. Not just what they do in the context of making ourselves clear, person to person, but how they cripple and stultify our civilization as a whole.

If you’ve read the posts in order (and I highly recommend doing so) are you convinced yet that isms are just about the worst thing you can do with your brain? Do you see how isms (a) engage your brain in nonsense, (b) shut down your basic capacity to grasp reality, and (c) perpetuate divisions between people? Based on just this post alone, perhaps you are becoming more aware just how much of our so-called “national conversation” or even one-on-one communications with one another are crippled by camp thinking. How we can never overcome differences in the same act as perpetuating them with identity labels.

Words matter. They direct and limit your thoughts. When you use words that restrict your thoughts to only viewing the part of reality that you choose to view, you run the risk of a head on collision with reality, and with others with different such restrictions. My whole aim here is to get us to drop the restrictions. To stop viewing the world as human type-A vs. as human type-B, and just view the world. What do you think? Is it impossible? Is it foolish?

Are we doomed, as in Neal Stephenson’s view of the future, to go on subdividing humanity until there are nothing but tiny cells and tribes of us that no longer can communicate meaningfully or without hatred?

Whatever you have to say, don’t tell me what your camp thinks. Frankly, since your camp doesn’t really “think” in a real sense, I’m really not interested. Instead, how about telling me what you think?

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