Ideology and the Corruption of Language
by Randall Smith
In a remarkable 1978 essay entitled “Power of the Powerless,” Vaclav Havel—poet, philosopher, and future president of the Czech Republic—wrote:
In an era when metaphysical and existential certainties are in a state of crisis, when people are being uprooted and alienated and are losing their sense of what this world means . . . ideology inevitably has a certain hypnotic charm. To wandering humankind it offers an immediately available home: all one has to do is accept it, and suddenly everything becomes clear once more, life takes on new meaning, and all mysteries, unanswered questions, anxiety, and loneliness vanish. Of course, one pays dearly for this low-rent home: the price is abdication of one’s own reason, conscience, and responsibility, for an essential aspect of this ideology is the consignment of reason and conscience to a higher authority. The principle involved here is that the center of power is identical with the center of truth.
Havel’s most famous example from that essay is of a greengrocer required by the communist authorities to put in his shop window a sign with the slogan: “Workers of the world, unite!” “Is he genuinely enthusiastic about the idea of unity among the workers of the world?” asks Havel. “Is his enthusiasm so great that he feels an irrepressible impulse to acquaint the public with his ideals? Has he really given more than a moment’s thought to how such a unification might occur and what it would mean?” No, answers Havel. It is not the content of the word or gesture itself that is ultimately significant; it’s what the word or gestureimplies (or might be interpreted as implying) about the person and about the person’s loyalty (or secret disloyalty) to the “correct” ideology. The discourse ofideology, argues Havel, gradually turns into “a world of appearances, a mere ritual, a formalized language deprived of semantic contact with reality and transformed into a system of ritual signs that replace reality with pseudo-reality.”
We might ask ourselves, with some embarrassment, whether, after decades of enforcing politically correct speech codes, the plight of black people (or any of the other disadvantaged groups we say we want to help in American society) is any better than it was before we developed our current hypersensitivity to people’s every word and gesture.
As we find ourselves in a world more and more like Havel’s, it might be worth trying to distinguish the characteristic marks of an “ideology” versus a “principled position.” Not every person arguing vigorously for a position is putting forth an “ideology” in the sense Havel describes. Havel himself set forth a position and argued for it vigorously. If we assume that all arguments are merely “masks” for a person’s will to power, then it is likely that we ourselves will come to view our own words that way. And if we assume people are merely hiding behind words and not honestly expressing what they take to be a serious position, then we will insulate ourselves from every true and open dialogue we might have had with people who could help us correct our errors. Everyone talks about “dialogue,” but very few of us have the patience or are willing to do the hard work to engage in it.
Ideology Eschews Argument and Feeds on the Corruption of Language
So how do we recognize the language of “ideology” and distinguish it from a “principled position”? One common clue is that those who hold a principled position welcome arguments; they welcome having their position tested and possibly corrected. A principled position always has room for increased subtlety and greater complexity. Holders of an “ideology,” on the other hand, will tend to eschew argument or any examination of the ideology’s underlying presuppositions or premises, often refusing to concede that greater subtlety may be required to apply the principles to real-life situations. Ideology disdains argument; people with principled positions embrace it warmly and engage in it gladly.
Note, however, that “engaging in argument” is not the same as a dual monologue or sharing complaints about opponents. If you’re unsure what a dialogue is supposed to sound like, read one of Plato’s. Socrates is as good a teacher of dialogue as anyone who ever lived. Personally, I suggest beginning with the Gorgias.
In the Gorgias, Socrates defends “dialectic” (the question-and-answer method he engages in with interlocutors) and distinguishes it from “sophistry.” What Plato especially disliked about sophistry was its corruption of language: the belief that language was not primarily for the expression of truth but for the acquisition of power. Sophists bragged that they could convince the ignorant masses of anything, even better than people who were experts on a subject. How did they do this? By twisting words and using language to inflame the passions rather than to engage the logic of the mind. Appeal to fear and play on people’s anxiety, never asking them to think about the evidence for your claims or reflect on the possible unintended consequences of a course of action.
This corruption of language is a characteristic sign of ideology. Throughout the Platonic dialogues, Socrates spends a great deal of time trying to clarify words, attempting to get clear on what people mean when they use terms such as “good” or “just” or “great.” Ideologies want to skip over all that hard work. Asking what someone means by “good” or “just” or “fair” is, to the devoted ideologue, like the greengrocer refusing to put the sign in his window. It suggests you’re not a party member.
Watch out for this. Refusing to discuss one’s terms because the point is “obvious,” insisting on using euphemisms rather than plain speech, relying on a very specialized vocabulary and being unable to express one’s thoughts without it, using speech to vilify persons rather than to clarify positions: these are all clues that you’re dealing with ideology, not principle.
Ideology Makes Blanket Claims and Makes Ad Hominem Attacks
When people make blanket claims about a group (“white people are like X;” “black people never do Y”), they are expressing an ideology, not using words tailored to fit reality. Human beings are simply too diverse and complicated to fit into such universal categories. If you hear someone summing up the “state of the Russian mind” or “what the American people want” or claiming that politician X shows sure signs of a social pathology, but there is no evidence of research nor of any time spent personally examining the psychology of the individual, then you’re dealing with quackery; the person is a fake. Such people will check their scientific methodology at the door in order to gain a place in the arena of modern media’s ideological shouting match. They are welcomed by groups that want a certain sort of “voice”—not a quiet, calm, thoughtful voice, but one that will provide pseudo-intellectual “cover” for all the prejudices that group already possesses.
If, rather than trying to glean evidence from observable reality, a person seems more intent on forcing reality into the categories of his or her system, then you’re dealing with an ideologue. If evidence supporting a theory is trumpeted loudly and repeatedly, and evidence that may refute it is ignored repeatedly, then it’s an ideology, not a principled position. If every bit of data, no matter how contrary, is taken as evidence of the truth of the theory, then it’s ideology, not science.
If media conversations are staked two-to-one against a position, then the organizers are ideologues, not holders of a principled position. If organizers clearly set out to disadvantage one side rather than the other, they are ideologues. If interlocutors spend most of their time engaging in ad hominemattacks rather than examining terms, premises, or arguments, then they’re ideologues, not holders of a principled position. If an interlocutor seems more concerned with “looking smart” than with coming to some common understanding of the truth, then he or she is probably an ideologue. If the most pressing argument is the prestige and ostensible expertise of the speaker, or the supposed lack of these on the part of the interlocutor, then you’re probably dealing with an ideology.
Having principles doesn’t mean never making exceptions or ignoring the need for principled compromise with others. But a complete lack of consistency—especially of the sort that repeatedly makes exceptions for people on “our” side but never for those on “their” side”—is a sure sign that what’s driving the engine is an ideology, not a set of morally defensible and intellectually sound principles.
Randall B. Smith is the Scanlan Professor of Theology at the University of St. Thomas in Houston, Texas. He is author of the new book, Reading the Sermons of Thomas Aquinas: A Beginner’s Guide.
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