Instances of ideology

In a recent post I criticized an assertion made by Claus Westermann in his justly-famous commentary on the Book of Genesis. In that work he insists that fallibility is anthropologically basic. While I do in fact agree with this claim for what are ultimately phenomenological reasons—something I obviously can’t justify here1—I took umbrage with the way he framed it. He attempted to safeguard the notion of fallibility by placing it beyond the reach of ideology, presumably hiding it somewhere in the murky mists of immutability. In contrast, I drew upon Aristotle and Hegel and Clifford Geertz to offer a brief rebuttal, one which eschews the assumption that we can ever fully leave our political-cultural concepts behind. I also highlighted the inadequacy of Westermann’s claim by placing it in the light of a different philosophical anthropology, i.e. one which does not share his existential version of original sin. There I chose Jean-Jacques Rousseau, but I could have just as easily added an even more radical challenge in the form of Nietzsche’s Genealogy of Morals. In addition to these points, I defined ideology as the historical construal of our lived categories, a web of values, ideals, beliefs, and practices, rooted in the social and cultural forms to which all humans belong. To me the advantage of such a capacious conception is that it conveys the sense in which each of us envisions and embodies our being-in-the-world as a lived orientation.

I’m rehearsing all of this because in the past couple of months I have seen, heard, or read multiple instances in which the word ideology has been used in a simplistically pejorative fashion. Given the settings in which it was uttered, I find this rather telling and not a little disconcerting. In the first instance I was watching a panel discussion hosted by Patrice Roy on Radio-Canada Télé, when Christian Dufour spoke worryingly of l’idéologie sanitaire. As he is want to do during these panel sessions, Dufour expressed agitated concern over a bureaucratic, institutional, and governmental ideology which prioritizes fears about Covid-19 over the mental health of la société québécoise. In the second instance I was watching L’Invité, a program on TV5 in France. Presenting her new book, Sonia Mabrouk employed l’idéologie to characterize certain anti-racists, feminists, and environmentalists as extremists hostile to France and the values of regular French people. The third instance, and the one I am going to focus on here, comes from the public statement that was front and centre on the website for GraceLife Church during the pandemic lock-down in Alberta (it has now shifted from the front page). I was reminded of this last example during church a couple of weeks ago. A member of our congregation sought to find a non-ideological place in which to stand, between what he saw as the partiality of political and cultural extremes (his examples being social justice on the one end and patriarchy on the other).

In their statement GraceLife Church employs the word ideology in an entirely predictable fashion:

The media should be made up of the most thorough, discerning, and investigative people in our society. Instead, many of them seem to be serving an ideological agenda. Now more than ever, it is vital that Albertans exercise discernment when listening to the mainstream media.

In each of the instances I have cited above ideology is something which skews one’s ability to see what is good, true, and real. It is worth underlining how often ideology is projected onto one’s opponents, apparently without a moment’s self-reflection. Simply put, deploying the word in this way misleads its users into thinking their situation is other than it is. We may wish to believe that there is some place within our world, some type of critical or even “evidence-based” practice whereby we are granted access to an unbiased, non-partisan, disinterested perspective. There isn’t. The attainment of this purported neutrality has been a longstanding aspiration of modern liberalism, nourished by conservatives and liberals alike since the early nineteenth century. Denouncing ideology serves an ideological purpose. It would be foolhardy to think the refrain is going anywhere any time soon.

Considering the pride of place given to the word “discernment” among evangelical Protestants, a code-word vouchsafing their purportedly orthodox reading of the Bible, GraceLife is evidently engaging in an ideologically-saturated rhetorical strategy. They try to discredit their perceived adversary as biased and untruthful in the attempt to close the gap between their claims and the views of the general public. Wouldn’t it be revealing to know which media outlets they have in mind? Is the Edmonton Journal biased? The CBC? Should we all be listening to red-faced screeds of Rebel Media instead? No specific examples are given. Just the ever-present bogeyman of “mainstream media bias.”

Now consider what I take to be the ideological heart of GraceLife’s statement:

[A] Having engaged in an immense amount of research, interacting with both doctors and frontline healthcare workers, it is apparent that the negative effects of the government lockdown measures on society far surpass the effects of COVID-19. The science being used to justify lockdown measures is both suspect and selective. In fact, there is no empirical evidence that lockdowns are effective in mitigating the spread of the virus. [B] We are gravely concerned that COVID-19 is being used to fundamentally alter society and strip us all of our civil liberties. By the time the so-called “pandemic” is over, if it is ever permitted to be over, [C] Albertans will be utterly reliant on government, instead of free, prosperous, and independent.

I have inserted the letters A, B, and C, in order to highlight the fact that the logical chain of the argument moves in one direction (A→B→C) while the motivational force comes from the other (C→B→A). The statement begins by trying to convince us that the science behind the government’s action is wrong (it is “suspect and selective”), and it is wrong because it is motivated by an agenda whose goal is to “fundamentally alter society” by limiting or eliminating Albertans’ civil liberties. I am willing to wager that GraceLife Church never made public statements about epidemiology prior to the present pandemic. I am also willing to bet that their concerns about media bias and stealth agendas to “fundamentally alter society” are bedrock convictions that long predate 2020. The real issue here is patently political and inescapably ideological, whatever their overweening claims to the contrary.

Just to be clear, I am not saying that GraceLife Church has an “ideological agenda” but the mainstream media or the Kenney government does not. I am saying that all political views are necessarily ideological, including mine. The issue is not whether or not someone’s perspective is ideological, but whether or not that ideology helps or hinders us from seeing a given social, cultural, and political situation for what it is. Only then can one strive to make it better, fairer, freer, etc. This jejune tactic of identifying the other side as ideological, agenda-driven, biased, or partisan, is, to put it mildly, rather grating. Can you find a form of self-delusion more cunningly pernicious than the one which soothes you with ironclad assurances of your truthfulness and the errors of everyone else?

With all the misplaced confidence of knowing that theirs is the gospel truth, GraceLife’s leadership seems to think that their conclusions about the science of public health stand on the same level as the work of actual epidemiologists. They start by contesting the definition of the word pandemic. No link, no reference, and no evidence is provided for this claim. Even if it were true, they provide no context for determining whether or not that change in definition was justified. They then have the unbridled audacity to complain about the “suspect” and “selective” evidence used by others. Furthermore, claiming that you have done an “immense amount of research,” with all the earnestness of a QAnon adept, is meaningless unless you are willing to subject your very substantial declarations to informed, democratic debate in the public sphere, not to mention expert peer review. GraceLife is clearly not interested in either. Their statement is a pathetic pastiche of bald assertion and partial analysis, all on the basis of a thin slice of data. They say, for instance, that there has been no statistically significant increase in deaths in 2020 compared with previous years, implying that there is no greater risk of dying as a result of Covid-19. But this plainly contradicts the publicly available statistical information (see this graph). In keeping with the wack-a-mole logic of anti-vaxxers, presumably GraceLife will dismiss both the source of the data (because our governments are part of an agenda to limit our civil liberties) and the data itself (because the scientists who analyze and publish their research are also part of that same sneaky agenda). This is to say nothing of their deeply mistaken belief that GraceLife’s own anecdotal experience with the virus (retold with unselfconscious naivete in the statement) has any scientific validity whatsoever as an argument about lock-down effectiveness. It has the hallmark hollowness of a suspect sermon illustration. Your adherents may nod their heads in agreement, but alas, that has nothing at all to do with reasoning about about how viruses and pandemics and quarantines actually work.

It’s fairly easy to see that GraceLife’s leadership isn’t interested in playing by the democratic rules of public political debate about the social impact of scientific conclusions. They want their dubious determinations to be regarded as plausible while simultaneously rejecting the standards by which such claims are rationally and collectively scrutinized. Claiming a civil right to make a decision about their community, they drastically downplay the potentially harmful impact which would go far beyond it. The implication is that their actions are not legitimately subject to democratic oversight or judicial review. Consider the following analogy. You may want to play the game of hockey as part of a self-governed league, and you may also legitimately desire to change the spirit in which the game is played, some of its rules, and even how it is governed. There is nothing inherently wrong or unreasonable about that. However, you’re either deeply deluded or you’re being disingenuous if you do so while pretending that yours is the only way of playing the game, that your unverified claims in support of your view should be given due consideration, that you should have the right to play the game your way in spite of the league’s shared governing structure, and that anyone who disagrees with you has been duped by a nefarious agenda to destroy the league.

On the political and social level, GraceLife’s statement takes for granted that there is an antagonistic opposition between the institution of government and civil society. It therefore assumes that government should be as limited as possible and dedicated primarily to safeguarding that most bourgeois of all values, economic prosperity. Rather than seeing representative democracy as the means by which citizens participate equally and critically in their self-governance, which is arguably the political form best suited to creatures whose life-task is to develop through communally interdependent self-realization2, it characterizes government as something alien and suspect. Obviously GraceLife’s paranoid political outlook is a possible position to take, combining middlebrow prairie evangelicalism with a negative conception of liberty central to much conservative Anglophone political thought. But by stigmatizing the media’s reporting and government policy as ideological it attempts to normalize a narrow, sectarian perspective that is itself highly contestable. GraceLife is also being wilfully ignorant of the extent to which rival political visions have always been a part of Canadian and Albertan history. If it takes a year like 2020 to wake you up to the extent of the growth of the state in modern society, its increased role in all of our individual and collective lives, a development which has been occurring for hundreds of years and which was massively accelerated across the world after the Second World War, then your case of historical and political myopia is severe.

  1. But see, for instance, Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s comment at p. 63 of La phénoménologie de la perception, Gallimard, 1945: « Aucune philosophie ne peut ignorer le problème de la finitude sous peine de s’ignorer elle-même comme philosophie, aucune analyse de la perception ne peut ignorer la perception comme phénomène original sous peine de s’ignorer elle-même comme analyse, et la pensée infinie que l’on découvrirait immanente à la perception ne serait pas le plus haut point de conscience, mais au contraire une forme d’inconscience. » ↩︎
  2. For an elaboration of this notion see my summation of Charles Taylor’s New Left politics in “The passion and the prose.” ↩︎
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