Ideology Sounds Like Idiocy

Trump is not a white supremacist.

It’s not a political tweet. It’s just my read of a guy who lacks ideology and principles. If I lost some of you with that, here’s where I lose the rest of you  — his lack of ideology and principles is only half bad.

Lacking principles is self-indicting. It’s metaphorically not having a backbone. Literal invertebrates. A super-category of such special distinction it had its own unit in 7th grade life science. What about the importance of ideology? In the Big Lebowski, the first time we sense fear in war vet Walter Sobchak is when he learns his pursuers are nihilists. His sighs a sullen acceptance of the nature of the enemy: “Say what you want about the tenets of national socialism — at least it’s an ethos”.

But should we really prefer bad beliefs to no beliefs?

When Ideology Equals Idiocy

This week has been a supermoon high tide for opinions in the Twitter ocean. With so many takes tossed around, you will inevitably wonder “how does such a smart person have such a bad take?” One of the reasons is ideology. Ideology is a powerful force. If you needed to gain control of a smarter adversary, the Lex Luthor move would be to inoculate them with a worldview that was so coherent it could not withstand logical collisions. A view so monolithic that its preservation becomes the ends in itself. A wholesale substitution of a tidy narrative for the messiness of reality.

You’re a step ahead of me I can tell. “If these ideologues so smart, how would you inoculate them in the first place?” My guess is you ensnare them at their most impressionable ages. High school or college. But this is just a guess. There is actually a more critical dimension than the initial inoculation. It’s the ultimate judo — the person’s own intellect will internalize the ideology, cementing it with the mortar of superior rationalization skills.

In Poor Charlie’s Almanac, Munger gives a concrete example of how ideology can skew your conclusions. Here’s an excerpt via Allen Cheng’s notes:

[Munger talking about how Noam Chomsky can’t admit that language is built into our genome]

”Stephen Pinker can’t understand why Chomsky—who, again, is such a genius—takes the position that the jury’s still out about why this ability is in the human genome. Pinker, in effect, says: “Like hell, the jury is still out! The language instinct got into humans in exactly the same way that everything else got there—through Darwinian natural selection.” Well, the junior professor is clearly right—and Chomsky’s hesitation is a little daft. But if the junior professor and I are right, how has a genius like Chomsky made an obvious misjudgment? The answer’s quite clear to me—Chomsky is passionately ideological. He is an extreme egalitarian leftist who happens to be a genius. And he’s so smart that he realized that if he concedes this particular Darwinian point, the implications threaten his leftist ideology. So he naturally has his conclusion affected by his ideological bias.”

“Ideology does some strange things and distorts cognition terribly. If you get a lot of heavy ideology young—and then you start expressing it—you are really locking your brain into a very unfortunate pattern. And you are going to distort your general cognition. You can have heavy ideology in favor of accuracy, diligence, and objectivity. But a heavy ideology that makes you absolutely sure that the minimum wage should be raised or that it shouldn’t—and it’s kind of a holy construct where you know you’re right—makes you a bit nuts.” 


There’s a battle playing out in real-time over the role of ideology in the first place. Consider the contention that “silence is complicity”. These days it is best associated with BLM, and forcefully pushed by Ibram X. Kendi who sorts people into 2 categories: racist and anti-racist. You are either for or against us. I have not read his books but even the most charitable version of the sentiment threatens to re-frame every issue into a race one. And if my hesitation to accept such an ideology is cast as evidence of my “white privilege” (although I’m told I’m brown) then I’m feeling a bit cornered. So in a twist of irony, a movement fueled by injustice is now backing me into a corner. But I prefer a more forgiving interpretation. I think this is well-founded activism that is too high on ideological blue meth. If the right is having magical thoughts, the left is addicted to ideological overreach.

Andrew Sullivan captures the idea in Is There Still Room For Debate?:

Liberalism is not just a set of rules. There’s a spirit to it. A spirit that believes that there are whole spheres of human life that lie beyond ideology — friendship, art, love, sex, scholarship, family. A spirit that seeks not to impose orthodoxy but to open up the possibilities of the human mind and soul. A spirit that seeks moral clarity but understands that this is very hard, that life and history are complex, and it is this complexity that a truly liberal society seeks to understand if it wants to advance. It is a spirit that deals with an argument — and not a person — and that counters that argument with logic, not abuse. It’s a spirit that allows for various ideas to clash and evolve, and treats citizens as equal, regardless of their race, rather than insisting on equity for designated racial groups. It’s a spirit that delights sometimes in being wrong because it offers an opportunity to figure out what’s right. And it’s generous, humorous, and graceful in its love of argument and debate. It gives you space to think and reflect and deliberate.

I strongly recommend the whole article (Link) (With my highlights)

Ideology In The Workplace

The role of corporations and their duty to stakeholders and society is an enormous topic replete with scholarly nuance. Notions of corporate responsibility span a wide gamut, but it’s only a matter of size before a company is caught up in politics. Michael Jordan was contrasted to Muhammad Ali for abstaining from politics and social commentary. He didn’t want to alienate customers — everybody wears sneakers and drinks Gatorade. This stance is criticized today where celebs are looked upon as role models more than ever. Corporations face the same questions. Nike, Chik-Fil-A, Twitter can all be oriented on liberal/conservative poles. But political fatigue has opened the door for recruiters to target talent who specifically seek to maintain separation of work and state.

Byrne Hobart discusses this in his paid letter:

Brian Armstrong of Coinbase has issued his apolitical manifesto. The gist: Coinbase is a company with a specific, limited mission. At most companies, in most parts of the world, in most recent years, the only thing strange about this post would be the need to say it, but Silicon Valley has converged on a different set of corporate culture norms, in which national politics plays a role in who companies work with, what they launch, and what they say publicly.

It’s the nature of politics that being openly apolitical is itself a political statement; to someone who has taken a side, vocal neutrality means taking the other side. But the post illustrates something about the Silicon Valley job market. Most people are not especially political, in the sense that they have beliefs but don’t structure their lives around those beliefs. These people are a big percentage of the electorate but a tiny percentage of public discussion, so it’s easy to round their presence down to zero. Coinbase’s executives could hold their no-politics-at-the-office conviction quietly, but there’s a business case for advertising it: they want to recruit from the set of tech company employees who are uncomfortable with how much politics has become a part of the culture at these companies. It’s not a coincidence that this piece ends with a link to Coinbase’s careers page.

Byrne makes an astute observation on what it can mean for organizations who define their objectives within a wider social/political context:

A common dynamic in companies and communities is the “social evaporative cooling” effect, where anyone uncomfortable with the range of the Overton Window is more likely to leave, which shifts the Overton Window away from what those departing people believed.

The “evaporative cooling” idea is trippy. Employees matching with employers based on political beliefs. As if job-hunting wasn’t hard enough, it’s possible some places will expect you to have an opinion on everything (straight talk here — the thought of people having opinions on everything makes me cringe).

No Ideology As A Principle

My layperson distinction between principles and ideology is that principles are irreducible. Honesty is a principle. Ideology is something you build with it. Principles can be used as a guide to build many things. Capitalism and socialism can both be the result of honest inquiry. Interpretation and sense-making are not objective processes so there is no 1-to-1 mapping of principles to ideology. That’s why scientists who all subscribe to the same methods can disagree. Uranium is a basic element, like analogous to a basic principle. Uranium can used for nuclear energy. Or to enrich to bomb-grade material.

Principles are pure, while ideologies are the sum of complex logic chains. Each link multiplies the chance that the entirety of the chain is faulty. Unlike a principle, these are not hills to die on. There’s too many ways to be wrong. The problem really comes when the ideology takes on a life of its own. Religious adherence removes the space for nuance. What if I agree with the spirit or basis of a movement but not the methods. Am I expected to have an opinion without putting in the work? If so, who decides what topics this is true for?

When you accept an ideology you are selling puts on future hypocrisy. Ideology is a bad deal not because changing your mind is bad, but for the opposite reason — being able to change your mind is good. And ideology will make it that much harder. It’s a strait jacket. Eschewing ideology admits that the devil is always in the details.

Ideological Tribes

Anyone passing judgement on your moral standing on such a low resolution rule as “if you’re not with us you’re against us” has undermined the binding of that judgement in the first place. “You are either for or against” is an express train to dehumanization. Look up Godwin’s law to see where the last stop on that train is.

I’ll leave with an excerpt from Sullivan who wraps with a quote from JFK:

“We are not afraid to entrust the American people with unpleasant facts, foreign ideas, alien philosophies, and competitive values. For a nation that is afraid to let its people judge the truth and falsehood in an open market is a nation that is afraid of its people.”

Let’s keep that market open. Let’s not be intimidated by those who want it closed.

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