A Refresher Course in Ideology

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The function of ideology is to separate our perception and collective representation of social reality from the facts of that reality. In other words, ideology is a way to apprehend all of social reality within a single cohesive framework by implicitly or subconsciously making certain assumptions. These assumptions are usually false, and when questioned on them directly, we acknowledge them to be false. And yet we cling to ideology anyway.

Philosopher Peter Sloterdijk describes it this way: “they know very well what they are doing, but still, they are doing it.”

Ideology is not the things we do, it is the rationalization put forward to explain or jsutify why we are doing it.

Yesterday, we talked about Der Tzitung, the newspaper that vanished Hillary Clinton from the iconic photo of the administration watching the bin Laden operation.

This is their explanation. It is a excellent case study in the operation of ideology.

Our photo editor realized the significance of this historic moment, and published the picture, but in his haste he did not read the “fine print” that accompanied the picture, forbidding any changes. We should not have published the altered picture, and we have conveyed our regrets and apologies to the White House and to the State Department.

The allegations that religious Jews denigrate women or do not respect women in public office, is a malicious slander and libel. The current Secretary of State, the Honorable Hillary R. Clinton, was a Senator representing New York State with great distinction 8 years. She won overwhelming majorities in the Orthodox Jewish communities in her initial campaign in ’00, and when she was re-elected in ’06, because the religious community appreciated her unique capabilities and compassion to all communities. The Jewish religion does not allow for discrimination based on gender, race, etc. We respect all government officials. We even have special prayers for the welfare of our Government and the government leaders, and there is no mention of gender in such prayers.

In accord with our religious beliefs, we do not publish photos of women, which in no way relegates them to a lower status. Publishing a newspaper is a big responsibility, and our policies are guided by a Rabbinical Board. Because of laws of modesty, we are not allowed to publish pictures of women, and we regret if this gives an impression of disparaging to women, which is certainly never our intention. We apologize if this was seen as offensive.

Ideology preserves itself by (a) setting the limits and rules for what is possible in social reality, (b) itself doing something that follows some of the rules but breaks others, implicitly revealing ideology’s internal inconsistency, and (c) casting every attempt to point out flaws in the rules as an attack on the ideology itself.

Note that the statement does not leave open the possibility that the editors of the papers themselves interpreted the rules of their religion incorrectly. Instead, the paper shields itself behind its particular interpretation of Judaism–its ideology. The ideology functions as a bubble, a filter between the ideological community in question and the rest of society. Anything controversial within the bubble amounts to an argument over interpretation of the rules and people’s actions in relation to those rules. But anything passing through that bubble is an action taking by the ideology itself or an attack on that ideology.

Look at the press release, and note the declaration of ideology: “The Jewish religion does not allow for discrimination based on gender, race, etc.” This is not a statement of defense of “the Jewish religion”, because it would not defend against the possibility that the people at the paper may have discriminated in violation of their religion’s rules. So that statement is not a defense. Instead, the statement is put forth as a statement of a fundamental principle of the author’s reality: discrimination based on gender is not possible. It is impossible. Therefore, if you think something done in the name of that religion looks like discrimination, you are wrong. Because it can’t be.

Then, ideology proceeds to do the very thing it said was impossible. “In accord with our religious beliefs, we do not publish photos of women, which in no way relegates them to a lower status.” So discrimination based on gender is not possible under their religion, but that same religion prohibits them from publishing photos based on the gender of the photo’s subject. But that is not discrimination. And calling it discrimination or otherwise making “allegations that religious Jews denigrate women or do not respect women in public office, is a malicious slander and libel.”

So not only do the ideological do what is impermissible under their ideology, they attack you for pointing it out. “They know very well what they are doing, but still, they are doing it.”

There is in fact, no way to argue the point. Any attempt at argument will simple devolve into arguments over definition (“What do you mean by discrimination? What do you mean by modesty?”). But the ideology is impenetrable from the outside. It has to be altered from within, or evacuated.

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  5. Lady Gaga’s “Judas”: Scandalizing Catholic Schoolgirls Everywhere

11 Responses to A Refresher Course in Ideology

  1. JohnJ says:

    A big part of it seems to me to be the use of value-laden words. “We do not discriminate” in the sense of bad discrimination. Photoshopping women out of pictures isn’t bad discrimination, they tell themselves. A burkha isn’t mistreatment. Women are glad that the catholic church doesn’t ordain them. Why, just ask them!

    An ideology built on mistreating a class of people must convince them that such mistreatment isn’t, in fact, mistreatment at all. Otherwise, that class of people would abandon the ideology.

    • jw says:

      But the whole point is that “they know very well what they are doing, but still, they are doing it.” So what Sloterdijk/Zizek is saying is that they *wouldn’t* abandon the ideological practices even if they realized the ideology was false. That’s the whole problem of the Marixan idea of ideology as “false consciousness.” In postmodernism, Sloterdijk claims, we all go about our business even though we know our rationalizations are bogus.

      Ideology continues to stick even if we don’t actually believe in it.

      • JohnJ says:

        It’s only a bias, not an absolute. I think we’re wired to only confront beliefs we see as most costly. Costliness can be measured in terms of the social disapproval of the belief or evidence that another belief produces better results. We simply can’t challenge all the beliefs we hold at once. It would be overwhelming. So it seems like we’re wired for efficiency. We tend to abandon beliefs when the cost becomes clear enough. Beliefs that don’t seem to bear a cost are beliefs that we just don’t worry too much about.

  2. jw says:

    Just a little quibble. As far as I know Sloterdijk never said that – I think what you quote is Zizek’s version of Sloterdijk’s “enlightened false consciousness.” And for Zizek, ideology is very much about “the things we do” – much moreso than our “rationalizations” of it. His point is that what keeps us doing these practices (whether photoshopping photos, killing terrorists, trading credit swaps, or whatever else) is not our “rationalizations” or beliefs, but rather the irrational pleasure we take in obeying these ideological commands. Zizek’s prime example of this is the Nazi that kills Jews not because he actually believes all the silly things that Nazi ideology says about Jews (maybe he does or maybe he doesn’t – it doesn’t matter); instead, he does it because on some level he “gets off” on it and Nazism knows how to effectively harness that drive, giving him permission for this transgressive enjoyment. It’s similar to the way you might take pleasure in driving an SUV – not *despite* the fact that it’s bad for the environment, but on some deep level *because* of that fact, because you know it pisses off liberals. There’s a kind of excessive indulgence involved. That’s why we continue the same practices even when we know our justifications of them are bogus (justifications like: Jews are the source of society’s problems, global warming isn’t settled science, I need a big car for my family’s safety, high frequency trading provides much-needed liquidity to the market, and so on).

    And ideology’s not just on the political right, with fascists, free-market capitalists, and climate-change deniers. Pluralist multiculturalism has its own ideological kernel of enjoyment, as illustrated by the newspaper’s response. The paper’s accusation of its critics’ “malicious slander and libel” is not an actual expression of outrage, but rather a chance to punish others for not respecting the newspaper’s expression of special religious culture. It’s not that he actually believes all cultures are equally worthy of respect and so on; rather, he takes a kind of sado/masochistic pleasure by on the one hand berating others for not being sufficiently respectful, and on the other hand by playing the role of marginalized, disrespected victim.

    And isn’t this exactly the reason we pretend to be outraged at the altered photo in the first place? Does anyone really feel disrespected by the photo? Of course not. The reason we like to point it out is that we take that same kind of sado/masochistic pleasure in it – we like making fun of those silly backward cultures and their silly rules, while simultaneously pretending we are deeply wounded, traumatized, and offended by their lack of respect for women. Our righteous indignation is a pose we inhabit so that we can get off. It’s this pleasure that comes with the transgression of ideological norms that actually holds those ideological norms together.

    • fraula says:

      Does anyone really feel disrespected by the photo? Of course not.

      Uhhhh. Ahem. As a woman, I feel disrespected by the photo, the newspaper’s blatant hypocrisy that tries to justify vanishing women, and now by someone asking a rhetorical question that denies a plausible human reaction.

      There is a middle ground between feeling nothing and feeling “righteous indignation”. It’s feeling reasonably disrepected by Yet Another Example of institutionalized voicelessness of women (and it is a method used to render other groups voiceless as well), and calling it out to say, “that’s not okay, and here’s why.”

      • mwigdahl says:

        Don’t worry, Fraula. His stance that no one feels disrespected by the photo is simply a pose he’s inhabiting for the pleasure of transgressing the norm of femininity. Nothing to see here… :)

    • Pastabagel says:

      Great points. You’re right about the quote, but I didn’t want to bring Zizek into it precisely because as you note his view is laden with too many assumptions that can lead astray the application of the idea. Zizek’s Nazi example works only because it’s an extreme case, but it falls apart with the SUV example. People do not drive SUV’s in that transgressive way (or we can’t assume that they do). The danger with Zizek is examples that presume the conclusion – SUV’s are perceived as excessive, so the desire to drive them must be related to excess. But are pick-up trucks? How about sports cars? What if we simply acknowledge that SUV’s are large, and that people drive them to feel strong, safe, etc.?

      In other words, it’s impossible to say that people experience enjoyment in breaking the rules as a blanket statement, and even if they did, it’s impossible to demonstrate that the enjoyment would exist absent the ideology. In other words, what if the ideology itself creates the trangressive drives?

  3. bearpelt says:

    The best way to effectively maintain an unwavering, black and white idiologies without being backed into a corner is to control the definitions of the words underlying that both describe the issue at hand and the context. By changing the meaning of the words, the speaker is both able to be a moving target while claiming that they are ideolgically consistant.

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