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We Are All Ideological Now (and Always Have Been)

Media expert Robert Jensen: None of us can entirely escape ideology, so it’s up to us to acknowledge and challenge our own ideological biases.

Truthout is pleased to publish an except from Arguing for Our Lives: A User’s Guide to Constructive Dialog.


Public discourse is more skewed than ever by the propaganda that big money can buy, with trust in the leadership of elected officials at an all-time low. The “news” has degenerated into sensationalist sound bites and the idea of debate has become a polarized shouting match that precludes any meaningful discussion.

It’s also a time of anxiety, with economic and ecological crises on a global scale and stakes higher than ever. In times like these, it’s essential that we be able to think and communicate clearly.

In this lively primer on critical thinking, Robert Jensen attacks these problems head-on in an accessible and engaging book which explains how we can work collectively to enrich our intellectual lives. Drawing on more than two decades of classroom experience and community organizing, Jensen shares strategies on how to challenge conventional wisdom in order to courageously confront the crises of our times, and offers a framework for channeling our fears and frustrations into productive analysis that can inform constructive action.

Jensen connects abstract ideas with the everyday political and spiritual struggles of ordinary people. Free of either academic or political jargon, this book is for anyone struggling to understand our world and contribute to making it a better place.

Politicians and pundits, on all sides, are quick to suggest that opponents are “blinded by ideology”; competing proposals that have been successfully tagged as excessively ideological are easy to dismiss as being impractical.

But the accusation begs a question: Does ideology always undermine our ability to understand the world? As so often is the case, that depends on how we define terms. In my experience, “ideology” gets used in three ways, and contemporary political debates could be enhanced by understanding the differences.

The first, and most common, definition is that sense of ideology-as-insult. “You are being too ideological” suggests your belief system is abstract, rigid, impractical, or fanatical. Used this way, ideology is something other folks have, which keeps them from seeing things clearly. The assumption is that there is a common-sense way of interpreting the world without resorting to a reality-distorting ideology.

This definition makes some sense; we have all been in discussions where it seemed clear that the other person was not open to all sides of a question but simply pressing a position out of a knee-jerk commitment to a belief system. If we were honest, we all could identify moments when we exhibited the same rigidity.

So, if we all have the capacity to get lost in our ideologies, who exactly are the folks we can trust to have that undistorted common-sense vision? The fact that we all know people who argue fanatically and seem incapable of real dialogue – people we tend to label “ideologues” – doesn’t guarantee that anyone else has a crystal-clear, non-ideological view.

That leads us to a second definition, ideology-as-worldview. This more sociological perspective understands ideology as the set of social, political, and moral values, attitudes, outlooks, and beliefs that shape a social group’s interpretation of the world. Understanding ideology as the framework within which we make sense of the world, it’s clear that everyone has an ideology or ideologies, and there is no completely neutral inquiry into the world. Everyone starts with assumptions, and the assumptions we make matter.

Defined this way, no one is beyond ideology. Rather that hurl the label at others as an insult, this definition encourages us to critique other people’s frameworks, and our own. By suggesting we develop our ideologies within social groups, this also prompts us to look at the larger context in which our views develop, rather than see them as the product of a purely individual effort.

The third definition is ideology-as-power. This critical view understands ideology as the beliefs of a ruling group, which are imposed on a subordinate group in ways that make the ruling ideas appear self-evident. From this perspective, ideology is a tool of the powerful that obscures the truth of social relations, and the assumption is that ideology should be critiqued to help people better understand their real place in society and resist injustice.

Many people identify this view of ideology with critiques of capitalism, the view that a ruling class uses its control over the ideological institutions (schools, universities, churches, mass media) to maintain this dominance and allow it to govern without the need for excessive coercion and violence. A similar argument is made by feminists analyzing male dominance, or critical race scholars and activists analyzing white supremacy. In most cases, these critics don’t suggest the dominant group’s ability to control ideas can’t be resisted, but simply that those in charge have more powerful tools.

All three definitions are helpful. All of us, on any side of an issue, can sometimes fail to see how we can get trapped by our assumptions, limiting our ability to recognize evidence and analysis that challenge our views. We can counter that self-indulgence by acknowledging that we all have an ideology, or ideologies. And we can at the same time realize that all ideologies do not come with the same force behind them, and that people in power often use their resources to eliminate competing frameworks.

Rather than denying the role of ideology out of fear that it will poison political discourse, we should move ideology front and center, to encourage a substantive discussion of those underlying values, attitudes, outlooks, and beliefs. As we face unprecedented challenges economically and ecologically – as the stakes for our policy decisions get higher – we stand a better chance of finding meaningful solutions if all of us have the resolve to challenge our own ideologies.

Robert Jensen is a professor in the School of Journalism at the University of Texas and author of Arguing for Our Lives: A User’s Guide to Constructive Dialog, from which this essay is taken.

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