Reflecting on the years he spent in conflict zones all over the globe, John F. Burns declared, “What those years bred in me, more than anything else, was an abiding revulsion for ideology, in all its guises. From Soviet Russia to Mao’s China, from the Afghanistan ruled by the Taliban to the repression of apartheid-era South Africa, I learned that there is no limit to the lunacy, malice and suffering that can plague any society with a ruling ideology, and no perfidy that cannot be justified by manipulating the precepts of a Mao or a Marx, a Prophet Muhammad or a Kim Il-sung.” Many of us who have studied ethnic/religious conflict have come to the same conclusion.
But the lesson goes beyond the violent and oppressive regimes encountered by Burns. As Walter G. Moss notes in his article on this topic (“Why Learning from History Means Saying No to Rigid Ideologies” HNN), “the growth of a rigid U.S. political conservativism” has been harmful as well, even if less deadly.
If ideologies are so destructive, can we eradicate them? Moss believes that we don’t need to completely reject “all isms or embracing an unprincipled opportunism. We can, for example, prefer conservatism or liberalism in our approach to politics, as long as we let our individual values and judgments and not some party platform (see, e.g., here for that of the tea party) determine our political decisions.” I agree, but this still leaves the problem of persuading individuals to let go of their cherished world views.
Ideologies are so pervasive because they are comforting and often intoxicating. They give us meaning, certainties, identities, and a sense of self-worth. The best weapon against ideological thinking is education with a healthy dose of the humanities. The study of history in particular could potentially inculcate students against the temptations of ideologies. If students learn how to critically evaluate evidence, make analytic comparisons, and learn to appreciate complexities and ambiguities they will be less likely to fall for the distorted views of ideologies. And any exposure to the long train of human misery caused by ideological rigidity might make them think twice before they fall under the spell of any ideology. I don’t believe that we’ll ever completely eradicate ideological thinking, but we must try to at least limit its appeal.
For now, we as individuals must take responsibility for our own beliefs, and the behaviors that flow from those beliefs. And here Moss’s advice is apt: “Political wisdom requires a proper mix of idealism and realism and other virtues or values such as the love, kindness, and humility mentioned by Pope Francis, as well as compassion, empathy, tolerance, a sense of humor, creativity, temperance, self-discipline, passion, courage, and prudence. The trick is finding the proper combination of such values to apply to any concrete, unique political situation in order to further the common good.”