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Ideology and innocence
The evolution of belief from early childhood to adolescence may offer insights into what makes people vulnerable to extremism
Ideology is one of the bugbears of studying extremism. It’s a term that is often imprecise, described by feeling out its parameters. As with the parable of the blind man attempting to describe an elephant by touch, there are many ways to get it wrong.
In Extremism, I defined extremist ideology as a text or collection of texts that describes an in-group, an out-group, and how the in-group should treat the out-group. I think that’s a good functional definition for the focused study of extremism, but it’s also worth considering what we mean by the term ideology in a wider context.
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Too often, “ideology” is used as a catch-all term to describe the beliefs of out-groups and their insidious but ill-defined power to turn normal people into extremists. In the wake of September 11, it became fashionable to describe jihadist ideology as the “true” enemy of freedom, and administrations starting with George W. Bush continuing through Barack Obama sought to “defeat the ideology” by “winning the war of ideas.” As I wrote in 2017, these efforts largely failed because they treated ideology as “a magical, formless, mostly-Islamic force that bends vulnerable minds toward violence.” I’ve tried to push back on this by breaking ideology down into discrete comprehensible elements and combinations of elements.
Despite all this, we’re still relatively limited in our efforts to classify and understand ideologies as they are adopted by adherents, especially those on the lower decks. My analysis, for instance, targets what I sometimes call ideologues but who are better described as ideologists—people who author ideologies and evolve them by adding new elements. Ideologists obviously think deeply about ideology, but they think about it differently from adherents. In this sense, ideology exists in multiple, simultaneous, seemingly contradictory modes—fluid and fixed, theoretical and practical, comprehensive and casual.
Each of these modes is contested by one person or another in the field. Some define extremism as the triumph of the rigid mindset, fixity over fluidity. But this view fails to capture how extremist ideologies evolve—and how quickly and dramatically it can happen when they do. Others argue that extremist ideologies are by definition comprehensive and all-consuming rather than casual. But casual extremism is all around us. The racist uncle at Thanksgiving who wants to ban immigration if asked about it, but would otherwise prefer to talk about football; German families living under Nazi rule, who didn’t go to party rallies but also didn’t spare much thought for what was happening to their Jewish neighbors.
We study ideology through ideologues and ideologists. We study the minds of enthusiastic practitioners far more than accommodationists. We dissect QAnon but neglect the meaningful percentage of Americans who vote for Trump without letting him subsume their whole identities. We need to use a wider aperture.
I recently came across a 1973 article by psychologist Richard Barnett on the subject of ideology and ideologues. On Ideology and the Psychodynamics of the Ideologue ranges across many dimensions of ideological definition and affect, including a lot of interesting observations that many of you will find familiar.
Barnett sees ideology as a means of confining thought, a concept that modern students of extremism would refer to as “cognitive closure.” Per Barnett:
An ideology is a relatively closed system of cognition whose limits are defined by its structure. Ideology defines the limits of knowing by prescription and proscription, structuring both future organization of experience and the nature of behavior.
I think this is a useful observation if limited to the expected thought of the adherent, rather than the ideologists, who are constantly expanding their thoughts in ways that might seem antithetical or heretical to other adherents.
Barnett, a developmental psychologist, also sees the emergence of ideology from a family context, a question I am very interested in, although I am not yet versed enough to offer my own comments in any detail. I do think there’s something to this:
Concepts of good and bad, right and wrong are defined by the implicit premises of the system and become the nucleus for the formation of the self-system. Childhood’s innocence is the uncritical acceptance and involvement in the family ideology. … This state of innocence is challenged with the advent of adolescence.
This falls generally in line with the argument I have been building in my dissertation, which holds that the social construction of reality is derived from in-group consensus. For most of us, the first in-group we encounter is familial. As a child gets older and becomes more socialized, they discover that other in-groups (families, then neighborhoods, then towns) have their own consensuses about how to act and what to believe, some of which conflict with the family consensus.
For some people, the lessons learned during this phase of life profoundly shape their ability to manage conflicting consensus later in life. If you learn, or are taught, healthy ways of negotiating these conflicts, you will probably be less prone to extremism as an adult. Obviously, my interest lies with those who manage conflicting consensuses poorly—by attempting to nihilate (negate) or annihilate (destroy) the group that holds a conflicting consensus.
I’ll close with one additional concept that Barnett discusses, which is food for thought in a context somewhat adjacent to his use—innocence. Ideologies are, in Barnett’s words, “systems of knowing and of innocence.” In developmental terms, Barnett uses “innocence” to describe the development of “concepts of good and bad, right and wrong,” and childhood innocence as the “uncritical acceptance [of] and involvement in the family ideology.” The loss of childhood innocence during adolescence leads to “disillusionment,” as the adolescent discovers that the family is not always right.
One motivation for extremism, then, can be read as a desire to recapture that innocence in the face of doubt and uncertainty, to return to a state in which an ideology (family or otherwise) can be uncritically accepted and the sense of security that goes with it.
Many adherents and prospective adherents of extremism frame their beliefs as reactive to challenges to the in-group consensus—for instance, the current right-wing “war on woke,” with “woke” often explicitly described as views that might cause White people to feel bad or anxious about Whiteness.
Faced with the prospect of confronting their in-group’s historical bad behavior, such as the legacy of racial slavery, some extremist adherents think they can somehow return to a state of childhood innocence by negating the out-group consensus that holds their in-group accountable. Futilely, they long for that unrecoverable innocence, the uncritical acceptance of an ideology that purely validates the rightness and goodness of their in-group, and thus of themselves.