Politics

Indoctrination through Enlightenment

There is a deep allure to knowing things that others don’t. Being informed is a virtue of modern society but being more informed than most people is even more desirable. Americans are filled with skepticism of the status quo and any fact that reveals everything is not as it seems is immensely satisfying to possess. American politics has become less about whose policies are best and more about whose conceptions of society are true. This shift has allowed left and right extremism to dominate the national discussion since they both refute society itself. The average American may have some thoughts on how poverty could be prevented in their neighborhood based on their own personal experience, but if a political opponent establishes that someone is ignorant of where poverty originates from, then their ideas for how to solve it are insignificant. This style of debate services extremism in two ways. First, it effectively invalidates anyone who isn’t initiated into a particular ideology. Second, it acts as a recruitment tool by directing the invalidated to learn the answers to questions that only extremists can answer. Well-intentioned people have a desire to know the truth, but when the bread crumbs to enlightenment are laid by politically-motivated institutions, the traveler will find themselves stumbling into indoctrination.

It’s true that knowing things is satisfying, but not knowing things is disproportionately unsatisfying. No politician has ever stood on a stage and said “I don’t know,” because it doesn’t inspire confidence in their ability. It seems citizens prefer a candidate who wrongly believes they’re correct than one who tepidly admits their ignorance. Part of the attraction of extremist ideologies is they diagnose a cause for all of society’s ailments, often the same one. What is the cause of inequality and suffering in America? Depending on which side of the spectrum you ask, it is either the result of an oppressive patriarchal structure or the machinations of a deep state globalist conspiracy. Framing society’s problems as the result of one overarching concept satisfies devout followers of ideologies but leaves many questions for any on-lookers who are not familiar with these views.

Questioning either of these framings is an effort in futility. To the extremists who dominate national political conversations, announcing that you don’t believe in the patriarchy or a globalist conspiracy is to announce your ignorance of how society works at all. Doing so inevitably puts the attacker on the defensive. Whenever a person inquires or argues against an extremist societal framing, they’re doomed to sit through a lecture detailing the specifics of the ideology or forced to dispute a variety of declarations made by it. This is a common tactic in debate teams known as “spreading” (or the “Gish Gallop”) where one side presents many weak points, forcing the opposing side to dedicate their energy to correcting each one. The corrections dominate the discussion and there’s no time left to suggest an alternative view. Failure to provide a satisfactory and concise explanation of society’s problems is used as proof that the ideology’s catchall diagnosis is more correct than any nuanced approach.

That feeling of dissatisfaction is pushed onto the observer of a debate. Even if an observer doesn’t agree with an extremist at first, their mystifying ideology demands further research. What is the patriarchy? What is the deep state? These are questions that lead to more questions that politically-motivated websites like Salon or Breitbart are happy to answer. If these questions capitalize on an ailment the individual has personally suffered, then the mainstream’s failure to answer them confirms this ideology they’ve discovered is the only true perspective in the world. They’ve convinced themselves they have found how society truly works. Even if they stumbled onto the ideology for one reason, its truth has invalidated previous conceptions of society. If an individual accepts that privilege or political corruption is the underlying cause for one problem, it is not unreasonable for them to conclude that it is the cause of many problems. Their logic is supported by scores of other followers who have all made the same conclusion.

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Perhaps most insidiously, these ideologies provide an explanation for why anyone would disagree with them. Even in the face of numerous experts disproving theories reliant on patriarchy or globalism, the ideology claims these experts are only publishing these arguments in service of the societal evil the ideology is against. If a woman disputes patriarchy, they’re suffering from “internalized misogyny.” If a conservative condemns the alt-right, they’re a “cuckservative” who hasn’t been “red-pilled” yet. Both of these explanations carry a thinly veiled condescension that says “I used to be misguided like you, but then I found the truth.”

These brain-washed extremists live a life of satisfaction believing they have found out the truth of how society really works and use it to counter opponents of their beliefs. All American political debates fail at this impasse. Supporters cheer on figureheads of their own views, regardless of whatever is said. This dualism seeps into all politically-themed events and the winners and losers are decided by the size of the biggest mob.

How did it get this way?

Americans would not feel compelled to question how society is structured if the structure was working in their favor. Yale Professor of History Timothy Snyder wrote in his book On Tyranny, that “Aristotle warned that inequality brought instability.” Our moment in history is dense with inequalities. Americans of all demographics feel a deep dissatisfaction with the status quo and desperately seek an explanation for their strife. Unsurprisingly, extremists tend to be characterized by an obvious lack in their own life. Whether that be unemployment (or underemployment), the inability to surpass their parents financially (the first generation not to do so), or a lack of personal satisfaction, these political ideologues are drawn to their views by a dissatisfaction with how society has treated them. These spheres of extremism grow by explaining how these problems in their life are the result of an antagonistic action against them.

Despite these troubling trends there’s still hope for promoting sanity and reasonable discourse. The majority of Americans are silent in the political debate. Most are not convinced by these ideologies and are not satisfied with the answers extremists provide. They see the bread crumbs for the poisonous falsehoods that they are, knowing where those paths lead. Although these unimpressed citizens do not dominate the conversation, they do dominate the representation. Across all demographics, most Americans have stayed on the sidelines during this wave of extremism. Despite the difficulties all Americans have faced, it would seem that the most alluring truth is not that society is flawed for one specific reason but that these groups who pretend to know the truth are most certainly wrong.

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4 thoughts on “Indoctrination through Enlightenment

  1. Cohen says:

    Another fantastic post. I really wish you’d do this stuff more often!

    This says basically everything I’ve been thinking recently. I’m so tired of the emotion-based arguments being thrown around in the world today. Even though – as you said – the majority of Americans aren’t really involved one way or the other, it’s still frustrating to see people accept one extreme or another as absolute fact, without ever once questioning their beliefs.

    I’d consider myself a pretty open-minded person. I’m willing to listen to just about anyone’s thoughts on something, but when illogical, emotional arguments start to make their way into the discussion, I have to tune out. I just can’t handle it. Maybe that makes me a bad person, but hearing somebody spout extreme opinions presented as facts that have already been scientifically debunked is like poisoning my brain.

    As such, it upsets me greatly that many of our presidential candidates that actually have a shot at winning are basically representing the two extremes you discussed here. It’s no longer about picking the lesser of two evils for me (When voting), because both sides are now (And perhaps always have been) equally as ridiculous, just for different reasons.

    How crappy is it when you struggle to find a single view you can wholeheartedly agree with when looking at the two major presidential candidates?

    There seems to be no place for measured, reasoned debate today, except – I suppose – on blogs such as this one. Keep it up!

  2. I really appreciate your comment and keeping tabs on this blog. My habit for posting something twice a year isn’t very conducive to building a following but I’m motivated to write so that more normal people will do the same. Maybe you can write your own blog and start the chain?

    I think the key shift over the years is that disagreement has been reframed as an assault on freedom. For years, democrats have framed candidates as racist because they don’t support publicly-funded solutions for minority groups. That may have been effective for a time (Mitt Romney) but I think the political world learned that lesson and how to utilize it to all of our detriment. The New York Times has a good article on this called “The End of Identity Liberalism.” I think a key quote is “those who play the identity game should be prepared to lose it.”

    Except it wasn’t one group that beat the rest, it was all of them that defeated us collectively. We now think of our own country as sides in a conflict. In the past, people may have hated Bush or hated Clinton, but the fact was that most people agreed with a lot of what both Presidents did. So I think today is different from the past. It was still difficult to find a candidate you completely agree with back then, but things were not as divisive.

    I’m realizing I have a lot of thoughts that I should probably put in an article instead of rambling on. I just want to reiterate my thanks to you for reading. It means a lot.

  3. PL says:

    Great condensation and exposition of this phenomenon, but did not actually provide any solutions. I would like to hear your opinion on possible solutions, if possible.

    • To paraphrase Steinbeck “I’ve studied and maybe learned how things are but not why they are.”

      I’m glad you liked the article. I’m working on answering the question of solutions because I think we’re all counting on somebody finding some, but in the meantime I think a good short term prescription to the problem would be to speak up and not let extremism take over the conversation in whatever communities you’re a part of. More thoughts later.

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