Tuesday, 16 August 2016

Is it just ideology all the way down?

A while back, an astute Twitter friend raised a good question. I had criticised a successful campaign by some faculty and students at Cambridge to have Dr David Starkey removed from a publicity campaign for the university. They found some of Dr Starkey’s views about criminal justice and the 2011 riots uncongenial and so believed that the university should not be publicly associated with him, despite his longstanding links with the place – he won a scholarship to Fitzwilliam, took a PhD there, and remains a Fellow, albeit an honorary one who has not taught full-time at England's second-best university since the 1970s. I objected to this as an example of politicisation and characterised the attacks on Starkey as ideological: the friend countered that supporting Starkey and giving him prominence was equally ideological, that what looks like an absence of ideology is often nothing of the sort, and that conservatives tend to ignore the ideologies embedded in established or existing practices and norms.

This is an obvious rejoinder to my criticism, and it is worth thinking about, not least because it partially echoes an astute observation of GK Chesterton's of which I am rather fond, that

"there are only two kinds of people; those who accept dogmas and know it, and those who accept dogmas and don't know it". (from The Mercy Of Mr Arnold Bennett)

It is also worth considering because opposition to what I perceive as ideological intrusion is an important part of my worldview. One of my main reasons for supporting the monarchy, for example, is that it keeps the role of Head of State out of the hands of political partisans, thus maintaining the role as a focus for national unity, continuity and affection. Is this perhaps smuggling in a political view of the role of the Head of State? I suppose it is. A preference for continuity in national institutions and a dislike of radical change is a political position. But I don’t think it is a strongly political position. It does not involve any commitment to which party should be in government, how high taxes should be, how the NHS and schools should be organised, and so on. It is much closer to what you might call a meta-political position, a belief about how we should do politics rather than what we should do.

Obviously the distinction between politics and meta-politics is not crystal clear. But this does not render it non-existent (let us not indulge in the continuum fallacy: no-one can say exactly when a short man becomes a tall man, but short men and tall men exist).

Consider the courts. The job of the courts is to interpret and apply the law, not to make it. This is in a sense a “political” arrangement; the courts do not take sides in the ideological matters that inevitably arise in the course of their deliberations, and powers are separated between executive, legislature and judiciary. Nevertheless, it is a stretch to describe this as an intrusion of ideology. Similarly the bulwarks of a free and open society – an impartial civil service, free expression, security of contract, equality before the law, restrictions on the powers of the police – are all in some sense ideological, but they are very minimally so. The very purpose of them is to limit the potential for private prejudices or bigotry, or the ambitions and desires of the powerful, from interfering with the lives of others.  

To take a more everyday example, we have in the UK a social convention/rule that on public transport people do not play music, shout or otherwise act as they might if they were in their own private space. Is this a political rule, “imposing” a particular vision of public space? Well, yes it is. But only minimally – so minimally, in fact, that to describe it as an imposition is almost to abuse language. The imposition here is really an anti-imposition, the preservation of everyone’s freedom from imposition of other people’s tastes or behaviour.

So I do want to defend the idea of a distinction between the ideological and non-ideological spheres, even if by non-ideological what we really mean is “minimally ideological”. To take a political or ideological view of an event, utterance or argument is to view it through the lens of an organising principle, to consider it primarily as an instance of a general rule and to allow our conclusions to be dominated by already existing prescriptive commitments. The non-ideological approach, by contrast, approaches each case on its own merits. It considers, as Marcus Aurelius said, “the thing itself”. It is humanist, seeing people and their situations as standing alone rather being slotted into a neat pre-existing box. It also recognises the existence and importance of customs, traditions, institutions and ways of living that are beyond the reach of politics and organised compulsion. It is the basis of authentic pluralism, because it enables us to carve out room for minorities and dissenters. It also underlies the English common law tradition, in a way that has been well described by Roger Scruton

“I suggest that this is a fundamental principle of common law systems: not that the courts make the law, nor even that they discover it, but that they provide a remedy to the person with a just grievance. The law is a kind of ongoing reflection on this process, and an attempt to translate specific decisions into universal rules. But it is the remedy that comes first, not the principle that may be derived from it.” (my bold)

To return once again to practical examples; there is an argument that we should ban mental health professionals from offering any kind of therapy that resembles a “cure” for people who are sexually attracted to their own sex. Various US jurisdictions have done so. This seems to me to be a good example of letting an ideological conviction about gay rights and the equal dignity of gay and straight relationships dictate a simplistic response to thousands of complex individual situations. If a consenting adult in his right mind approaches a willing and qualified mental health professional because he wants help in attempting to control or redirect his sexual desires and responses, it’s hard to see what business it is of anyone else’s, let alone of the law.


Obviously everyone has a worldview, some general moral and epistemic framework that enables them to process and organise experiences, impressions and information. The question is about the extent to which any of us let that worldview dominate our approach to life. To return to academia, where we began, you obviously cannot study Shakespeare or the Reformation or Victorian poetry with a sort of blank slate, completely dissociated from any of your own views and beliefs. But it does not follow that those who bring a highly ideological approach to those topics are therefore insulated from any criticism. The scholar who is primarily interested in Shakespeare’s writing for its beauty, its inventiveness, its unmatched insight into the human condition, is objectively approaching the subject in a less ideological manner than the man who analyses the Bard’s dramas through a Marxist or feminist or queer lens, because an interest in beauty and literary insight is much more akin to meta-politics than the more narrow approaches to social and political questions contained within Marxist and feminist and queer thought (which is not to say that such approaches are of no value). Academic disciplines and methods which start from a particular set of political answers and read those answers backwards into texts, artworks and events arguably have only a dubious claim to be called academic disciplines at all.

The “everything is ideology” approach arguably has its roots in the various branches of critical theory, and the belief (perpetuated by Foucault and others) that arguments, social customs and cultural artefacts should be understood primarily in terms of the power relations supposedly embedded in them, rather than as claims to reflect objective truth or reality. Recently we have seen this manifested in the debate over free speech. Defenders of free speech think that they are standing up for an important principle of an open society, a meta-principle, devoid of specific political content; their opponents insist that the norms and assumptions embedded in the idea of unregulated speech simply perpetuate and rationalise the power of those straight white men who have traditionally been at the top of the tree of privilege within British society.

In my view it is not merely wrong but actively dangerous to adopt this cynical attitude and regard the high value placed on civil and respectful debate in our society as a cloak for the exercise and retention of naked power. Even leaving to one side the advances in science made possible by robust fearless examination of evidence and of cherished but wrong beliefs, the distinction between violence and words and the existence of meta-political convictions about law and pluralism and civil liberties are absolutely crucial to the civilised way of life. We are constantly struggling to contain and manage the inevitable conflicts that will occur in any group of humans, to defuse tensions and disagreements through compromise and co-operation, to develop peaceful ways of living together, to discover truth through experiment and discussion not assertion and physical compulsion.

If this is all based on a lie, if genuine meta-principles are impossible and words and ideas are simply another form of violence, and argument the mere assertion of power, there is nothing left but force and will, and that way madness lies. In the absence of a genuinely non-ideological sphere, there is no solid ground from which to resist the encroachments of total politicisation, and the only question remaining is Lenin’s terrifying “Who? Whom?” 


  1. Hi Niall, I enjoy reading your posts, I wonder if you'd like to come on my lefty leaning podcast sometime to stand up for those on the right of the political spectrum? http://midatlanticshow.com/category/podcasts/

    1. Hi Roifield, I'd be delighted to, various commitments allowing. DM me on Twitter and we can sort it out there.

  2. I enjoyed reading this. I suppose my main line of reply would be that there can be debate over the correct meta-ideologies / minimal ideologies, and that they can also be fairly judged in terms of fairness, justice or absurdity. Being minimal doesn't automatically imply being either correct or good.

    1. Yes, that's fair, I think I'd like to work through a bit more what exactly I mean by "ideological" and "non-ideological".