Personal · Social Contract

Love in the Time of Ideology

I never gave much thought to the character of Captain America until Chris Evans brought him to life in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. As the character unfolded across several films I found myself drawn more and more to him.

He was a scrawny kid from Brooklyn concerned only with doing what was right. He did everything with respect but stood his ground when the other party continued to push back against him. When it came to the quintessential bullies of the time, the Nazis, Steve Rogers remained compassionate about life: “I don’t want to kill anyone. I don’t like bullies.” All he wanted was for the violence, aggression, and bullying to stop.

What made Cap compelling was that the character takes an immediate turn into the grey areas of life. His initial journey against the Nazis ends with a cryogenic nap and he awakens in 21st century Manhattan preparing to face new threats. It doesn’t take long for Rogers to question the secrecy and agenda of his own side.

Those concerns deepen in Winter Soldier. Sure, the villain is still HYDRA, but they’ve infiltrated SHIELD and the US government is playing along with the HYDRA plans. Rogers does not approve of blindly following orders if they contradict what is right. By Civil War he’s in conflict with allies insisting they need to bend the knee to government oversight (which I still find odd because the Sokovia deal is a response to mistakes others made that Steve helped to correct).

By the time we reach Infinity War, we find a disavowed Captain America standing before a holographic Secretary Ross: resolved, angry, and I feel a touch heartbroken. “We’re here to fight. If you wanna stand in our way, we’ll fight you, too.”

Not a Fighter

I have never been a fighter. On more than one occasion, mostly while playing ice hockey, I have taken a punch trying to restrain upset parties. “Got that out of your system now?” Getting punched and not punching back was a painful but effective way to diffuse situations. It sends the clear message that one is not there to fight and the aggressive party (usually) takes that pause to breathe and reassess.

It was similar with verbal altercations or simple disagreements. Consider this exchange between John Cleese and Malcolm Muggeridge regarding “Life of Brian”:

John: It’s also about closed systems of thought, whether political, theological, religious or whatever. Systems by which whatever evidence is given to the person, he merely adapts it, fits it into his ideology. You show the same event to a Marxist and a Catholic, for example, they both of them fine, they both have explanations of it when it’s to be pompous Poppers on about falsifiability of theories. I mean, once you’ve actually got an idea that is whirring round so fast that no other light or contrary evidence can come in, then I think it’s very dangerous. So I think not dangerous to someone like Malcolm, because he is very nice, but he is the sort of guy that this film is actually having a go at, because I don’t think any evidence will come now that is going to make him rethink, “Am I right? Am I making a mistake?”

Malcolm: Well, um, you can leave that out. I think I can say with utter sincerity that there is nothing in this particular film that would lead me to want to change conclusions that I’ve reached after living for 76 years in this world.

John: Is there anything? That’s the point I’m making.

Malcolm: Well, in this film, there is nothing that could possibly, because the film itself bore so little to…

John: The point I was making was not the film.

Malcolm: Yes.

John: Forget the film. You’d said it’s rubbish, okay. Is there anything that can happen to you change your mind?

Then, a short while later, Malcolm self-owns in the most spectacular way:

Malcolm: Why do you think, in all these centuries of Christendom, that the greatest minds, the most creative minds, the greatest artists were believers in this thing that you airily dismiss and say that you, making this little film, have managed to see deeply into it?

John: How say to you… What about Freddie … What about Bertrand Russell? You dismiss them, of course. You don’t care.

Malcolm: I said the centuries of Christendom. I didn’t say in our time. I said if you were to make a list of all the people who have contributed most…

John: Most of them would have been Muslims – if they’d been living in Arab countries, or Buddhists who have been living in …

Malcolm: What’s that got to do with it?

There comes a time when disagreeing with someone that it becomes apparent nothing, nothing will reform their position in the slightest. Reformation is not the point of a disagreement of course as both parties should be open and critical, but that is the point. What is the point of pursuing this conversation, this disagreement, if the only outcome is the worsening of that relationship?

If the discussion allows us to learn something about one another or the world, or we can progress through the disagreement to some sort of resolution, then we should have the discussion. If the point is only to state our position as a sort of military uniform and then seek to eradicate any opposition, then I have no interest.

Wholesomeness – The Foundation of a Personality Disorder (OCPD)

I am quite sure people have all manner of words to describe me (though I hope most would be positive). Kindness is a word that I often propose when others ask which I would most like associated with me. I think perhaps that wholesome is the best word because it encapsulates the greater moral health of character.

The wholesomeness of Captain America is why that character appeals to me. In terms of celebrities (on the grounds that they are identifiable to a large number of people and therefore more suited to these conversations than personal connections), I respect and admire people like Emma Watson and Saoirse Ronan because of a perceived wholesomeness.

I get upset by assaults on wholesomeness. Current example: in the game Animal Crossing there is a timed-event for “Bunny Day” featuring the character Zipper, someone in a bunny costume who is attempting to create a festive atmosphere by hiding eggs and encouraging season-themed projects. It seems that several players find this annoying, especially because it interferes with the acquisition of other resources. In turn they have taken to mocking and abusing the Zipper character.

It’s not that people should feel all happiness and sunshine about the event. The idea that some would find this annoying for various reasons is obvious. However, empathy establishes this fictional character as a fellow being trying to do something nice for others. Those people offered a disproportionate response attacking the character. Apparently it is not the thought that counts.

One does not lose sleep over the criticisms people have for a fictional character. My objection is the greater idea that someone could do something benign and with the best intentions only to receive that kind of response. Not a measured, respectful response that “his energy is too much” or “the impact on the resources in-game is unbalanced” – no, cartoonish threats of death and violence against Zipper.

When we transfer these attitudes from Zipper to something significant, an unsettling shift occurs.

At my core, I identify with the Steve Rogers we see in quiet moments. The guy who wants to go to the occasional ballgame and, more than anything, wants that dance with Peggy. Beyond that, he just wants people not to be terrible. He hates bullies.

But the world won’t let him be that guy. The world forces him into the situation where he’s staring at Ross’ projection prepared to fight him as well as Thanos. Rogers does not want to kill anyone. He doesn’t like bullies. The world keeps putting bullies in front of him.

The Real Problem

My biggest struggle remains internal, despite the description that will follow. My stress comes almost entirely from a desire for wholesomeness conflicting with a sense that I am not or, perhaps more accurately, that I cannot be if I want to “succeed” in this world. It comes from a sense that the person I am or have to be is not a person that wholesome people or characters would like. It’s a frustration with myself for failing to navigate life in a wholesome way.

Part of the pressure comes from the external though – from the constant presence of people and situations that apply pressure to bend.

The most recent challenge is, of course, COVID-19 – a highly contagious respiratory virus that dramatically changed the way we go about our daily lives. As aspects of society shut down or change to “flatten the curve”, we face undeniable challenges like the economy. Millions have lost jobs and struggle to satisfy financial obligations.

Meanwhile, we have large segments of the population calling for the re-opening of the country to fix those issues – calling for it despite the advice of global health experts who warn that failing to distance properly will lead to more death and put an even greater strain on the economy. People who study viruses and economics for a living collectively push for these measures to achieve a better outcome faster. Other people with opinions disagree.

Could the other people be correct? Could the experts be wrong about these measures? Yes. I would not disagree with that. There’s a chance. I have no reason to believe they are wrong though because they have made understanding these situations their job. These other people just have anecdotal perspectives.

The “arguments” I have seen range from “only the old and those with pre-existing conditions die from the disease” (which appears mostly correct, but younger, healthier people would still spread the disease) to “this thing (such as road accidents or suicide) claims more lives every year” (which ignores that this is a new threat in addition to those, that this threat is contagious, and that this threat has no cure or treatment currently) to Tucker Carlson’s broader “why do we have to listen to health experts about this?”

Donald Trump repeatedly promoted the use of drugs as a treatment for COVID. Do they work? Maybe is the answer. We don’t have proof that they do not work. Just as important, Donald, we have no reason to believe they do work. Even the doctors who administered studies examining their effectiveness have said the studies were not robust enough. Another consideration is that the drugs include serious risks. All drugs contain a risk, some more severe than others. Physicians weigh that risk against the benefit the drug provides. That’s the difference between a physician saying, “We’re going to try this drug” and Donny telling Americans they should pursue it as treatment.

This is the sort of thing to which a lot of this boils down. Ideology. People who have an opinion about how things should go pushing the ideology based on nothing except that opinion. Then people find things to confirm that opinion or support that opinion – which is often just other people with the same opinion. Not facts, not research, not evidence – more people with more opinions.

I’ve had this discussion too many times. I write about it with respect to religion on a somewhat regular basis because the ideologies organise neatly.

“You believe such and such, right? Okay, all I am saying is that literally anyone who is not also a ________ does not believe that. Why should they have to do things based on this belief?”

It’s not a condemnation of spirituality or faith. I admire people with strong personal faith. My objections do not arise until that faith begins to dictate policy. If we are going to subject all of the people to a policy, then that policy ought to have a solid backing like data, facts, and evidence that are reproducible and verifiable.

But that is not what one finds. One finds a sense of entitlement that “because I believe this it should receive accommodation”. One sees this on our “news” media all the time now. “Here is an expert on the subject to describe the data behind the phenomenon. Also we have with us a contrarian moron whose poor methodology and echo chamber brought him to the dichotomous conclusion. Fairness requires we give them the same podium.”

It’s become an extension of the Because piece that I wrote about why I’ve been reluctant to have a child. Over the last four years (and no, I’m not blaming Trump – I’m blaming the America that allowed a Trump election to happen, a culmination of the years before Trump’s election) things have worsened. What began as reasons for why having a child felt wrong have become things challenging daily life: money before people, a lack of respect/understanding/appreciation for science, general empathy.

A Response

What do I do? People say, “call out problematic behaviour” but, and this is the part that silences me the most, it’s most people. This is not a conservative thing or a Republican thing or a liberal thing or a Democrat thing. It’s a people thing.

Sometimes I see an “opponent” who makes a valid point or an ally simply makes a bad faith reading of what was actually written, but one cannot be seen to support the other side. Other members of the Us side will pounce all over them as betrayers of the cause.

Ideological thinking rather than critical thinking.

And it’s not about being a “free-thinker” – sorry if you’re a member of that crowd. The phrase free-thinker seems to by synonymous with poor-thinker. They seem to identify as free-thinkers because their whole shtick is contrarianism. An idea is not wrong because the majority believe it or because it’s a belief identified with a particular ideology. Critical thinking means taking the individual idea and evaluating its merits.

I don’t presume to be the arbiter of perfect thought, but I can identify poor thinking when I see it and the inability to explain to people why their thinking about a particular subject is incorrect, or simply incomplete, is a big part of the problem. It immediately sets the stage for conflict with zero chance of resolution and that is too often the reality: everything is a fight.

Life was a challenge enough when everything was a negotiation, often with oneself.

I became unemployed shortly before the COVID outbreak. What few things I had in the works fell apart when the economy took a hit because of the restrictions and companies began laying off more workers. Fewer opportunities and more people competing for them. That’s not the problem. That’s the maths of the situation and, difficult as that is to manage, I accept the reality of that situation.

But then I have people explaining to me that I should consider changing fields. When I explain that I do not have the requisite training for that career, the answer is to get it. But getting the training requires money, funds that we do not have because we’re operating on one limited income while still paying rent and student loans (the debt we incurred pursuing our initial career training).

Even then, I do not argue with the reality of the situation. It’s the ideological nonsense from the other people about the issue. “Well just…” Well nothing. I have no money to pursue that training right now. I have to find something in my lane or find a more cost effective way to change lanes. I cannot pursue the exact course you are prescribing to me. The fact that I have to listen to “this is the problem with Millennials/liberals/Democrats/urbanites/brunets or any other weird grouping” is the problem.

People have not been part of the solution. People have been part of the problem and, in the process, created this entire new world of problem. Now I have to navigate an ideological minefield when dealing with other people just to resolve a problem that is, unremarkably, common to most of us.

So much energy gets lost to bad faith “debates” with people entrenched in an ideology they have zero interest in examining, broadening, or changing. Rather than working on the problem, now it’s an interpersonal fight about how each ideology is inferior.

The worst part is that I’m often not even a direct part of this process. I keep my head down. I want a job that does not offend my sensibilities and allows me to earn enough to live comfortably – go to the occasional ballgame and dance with my Peggy.

I’m watching it unfold all around me with other people, starting to interject before realising that no one cares and all it will do is paint a target on my back. I feel it start to challenge me to become someone…worse, to become apathetic, to manipulate and coerce people as a way of climbing over them to ensure that make it out of the situation okay because clearly they have zero interest in making sure everyone (or at least most) make out okay.

Then I berate myself even for having the thought. It’s a betrayal of my values, a betrayal of character that would offend the people I admire most in the troubled world. And then I get quiet again because telling anyone any of this would only serve to poke the ideological beast.

One thought on “Love in the Time of Ideology

  1. Hi, James. Your points on confirmation bias are spot on and all too familiar. I feel much the same way as you do on this. The frustration at being unable to have constructive conversations about it is probably universal to critical thinkers who do not have the drive to fight over their values (what indeed is the point, where there is nothing to gain and so very much more time and energy to lose?), and I have been frequently disappointed in this area for years, too. Reading such as this post, and hearing how you articulate the same issues… well, I am aware that an outsider might see THAT as confirmation bias, but I know that you understand we share the same underlying values in some ways, and not an ill-conceived ideology. Thank you for sharing this.

    Liked by 1 person

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