Why Every Ideology You’re Familiar with is Wrong.

Wil Cunningham
8 min readJul 19, 2018


Is it overboard to say that? Maybe. What you’ll notice though is that here, in the age of ideology, we are becoming more and more fragmented and lost. Our ideologies, those myths that promise community and prosperity, are not coming through with their promises.

First, some background information. Sometimes, I really wish there was a group that was ‘the right group’. When I saw scenes of French revellers, in the timeless town, in the wake of their recent World Cup win, I was a little bit jealous. I spent twenty years in the good ol’ U.S. of A. The first 18 in the South, then two in the North. The last twenty years I’ve spent in Australia. I’ve loved (almost) every country I’ve been to; I think the number is around 15, across the six continents. I’m a man without a country. I would love to be able to point to one country and say, ‘Yes, this is my place! This is my people!’ When I see the Hasidim on their way to synagogue on Saturday, or the Catholics with the cross on their forehead after Ash Wednesday, I feel the void, the need to belong. I could join a group, of course, but there is something more important to me than that. I’ll come back to this later.

A bit more background: I’m not really ‘into’ politics. I don’t have a party. I don’t keep track of the goings-on very well. BUT… I was one of about 30 cousins (I’m not exactly sure what the final number was). I have a few friends — mostly friends I’ve met through Brazilian Jiu Jitsu — which incidentally also doesn’t have a political party. The benefit of my thirty cousins and my BJJ family is that I’m connected to hundreds of people from ten or more countries. The upshot of all this is that I see posts on social media from a very wide array of people, with a very wide array of religious and political views. This is what they have in common: Everyone speaks, or posts, as if their position was obviously the right one. EVERY time I check a social media feed, I see someone promoting their position, or more likely, criticising the opposite position. AND, doing it as though anyone with any sense would obviously agree with them.

Here’s a few things to think about:

1) There are seven and a half billion people in the world. You probably disagree with all of them about at least one thing. Wouldn’t it be naïve to assume that you are the one person in the world who is right about everything? You are almost definitely wrong about a few things. You are probably wrong about some fairly important things. There is at least some likelihood that you are wrong about the things that matter most.

2) Try this: Choose an issue that matters to you. Chances are, you can find someone smarter than you that holds the opposite position. That doesn’t necessarily mean you’re wrong, because you can find people smarter than you that hold the same position. But, it does mean that you should be humble in your assertions and gentle in your criticisms.

3) If there are people smarter than you that hold opposing positions, you can’t really be genuine in your belief until you know the best arguments against your position!

4) Imagine that the people you most disagree with suddenly changed their minds and took up some other position. What difference would it make? Would the world become a utopia? Would the most pressing issues we face evaporate? Probably not. If history is any guide, we would probably just move on to the next ideological conflict.

5) Think of the absurdity of someone saying, “I didn’t really know who I was or what I was meant to be, but then I joined this group of other people who think just like I do and I found my unique, authentic self.” There’s a fairly good chance that your beliefs are keeping you from yourself, rather than revealing you to yourself.

Why are we members of groups at all? Because the world is a complex and confusing place. In order to try to feel comfortable in it, we simplify issues. We focus on one point, or one part of the issue and overemphasise it. This makes it easier for us to cope with the complexity. Take the abortion debate as an example. Instead of recognising that abortion practices and decisions are complex realities that include webs of relationships and ongoing cultural and social shortcomings, we simplify. Or, more accurately, we oversimplify. We act like it’s a rights issue. The mother has rights, OR the child has rights. It’s simple. It’s clear… BUT, it’s also shallow, oppressive and inadequate to the complexity of human life.

What is ideology? We might use the word to refer to two things: first, a systematic attempt to make sense of the human situation, second, an overemphasis of some good at the expense of others. Let’s talk about overemphasis first. Take gun control, for example. It’s an issue that polarises people around the world, but particularly in the U.S. On one side, people overemphasise the importance of community oversight. We can’t trust individuals to make good decisions for themselves, so we need rules. The other side overemphasises the need for individuals to be free to protect themselves when the community can’t. So, one side says there should be no public ownership of guns. The other side says everyone should be free to own a gun. The one side ignores the fact that guns have been used to protect innocents. The other side ignores the fact that guns have been used to kill innocents. The real solution to the problem is not one of rights, or of government oversight. We will find it by asking why it is that mass killing has become a fashionable choice, and whether we can just proceed as we did before. The answer to that question is going to be an uncomfortable one, an answer that will ask us to rethink things that we believe to be true.

Another example: Socialism and capitalism. Socialists overemphasise the responsibility of the community to care for its citizens, capitalists overemphasise the right of the individual to use his resources as he sees fit. We make the government a tool to decide our obligations or to protect our freedoms, as though either obligations or freedoms could be enough to make sense of justice. An adequate approach to economic justice would be one that recognises our need for both freedom and responsibility. It would also be an approach that is well-informed. (I wonder how many capitalists have actually read Marx. How many socialists have read Smith, or Solzhenitsyn?)

We don’t want adequate approaches to social and political issues. We are afraid of adequate approaches because they require that we take a risk, that we gamble our lives on our own commitments. It’s safer, we think, to trust someone else. Martin Buber sums it up by saying that ‘people… do not yet realise that their blind devotion to the collective, e.g. to a party, was not a genuine act of their personal life; they do not realise that it sprang, rather, from the fear of being left, in this age of confusion, to rely on themselves… Thus they do not yet realise that their devotion was fed on the unconscious desire to have responsibility removed from them by an authority in which they believe or want to believe… But they are beginning to notice that he who no longer, with his whole being, decides what he does or does not, and assumes responsibility for it, becomes sterile in soul. And a sterile soul ceases to be a soul’ (Buber, 1964, PP144–5). We trust in the collective because it is easier than taking responsibility. But by giving over our responsibility to the group we are sacrificing the very essence of our humanity. The only way we can decide and act with our whole being is if we step outside of inherited frameworks and learn how to construct our belief systems for ourselves — carefully, humbly, slowly.

Ideology may refer to an oversimplification. It could also refer to a systematic attempt to make sense of the human situation. This is very different from the first way of speaking of ideology. The simplistic positions are leftist, right-winger, liberal, anarchist, socialist, capitalist, rationalist, atheist, empiricist, libertarian, conservative, materialist, progressivist, nationalist, etc. I recommend being very wary of -ists and -isms. Systematic attempts to make sense of the human situation cannot be summed up with an -ist or an -ism. The Judeo-Christian tradition, for example, is far too complex to be summed up in simple formulae. To deal with its complexity people join groups that oversimplify it, so as to make it easier to deal with. The Western Philosophical Tradition contains the seeds of our most significant beliefs, but it also contains the seeds of our debates and disagreements. These aren’t -ists or -isms. They are selections of human history. They are resources. They are mines from which we can dig our own wealth. The problem is, we are either afraid of what digging might uncover, or we want someone else to do the digging for us.

If you ask a room full of fifteen-year-olds a social or political question, you will probably find that they give only two answers. Ask them about abortion, taxation, healthcare, the death penalty, gun control. The room will be split neatly into two groups. Find a group of fifty-year-olds who are well-educated, responsible, experienced, critical thinkers. Ask them the same set of questions. You are likely to get more answers. The group will not be split as neatly. Ask a room full of sixty-year-olds who are good people and who have a broad exposure to the liberal arts. You will get as many answers as you have people. The answers are likely to be longer, more subtle, less assertive, more open to debate. Personal growth, experience, and education lead to less agreement, but also to less bias and self-righteousness.

If what I have said is true, there are two different ways of thinking and speaking about social and political realities: Ideology and Wisdom. Ideology is unreflective, simplistic, immature. We find it appealing because it removes responsibility from us. Ideology unites people because it paints the world in such broad strokes that it becomes easy to navigate. Ideology inevitably leads to conflict. Ideology inhibits personal and social growth. As long as you are defined by membership in a group, you are not the author of your own life. You limit your own potential to the potential of your group, you fail to become yourself. Wisdom is reflective, patient and born of hard work and life experience. It takes time to achieve, and is less likely to lead to conflict. Wisdom will manifest itself differently in different people, no two paths to it are the same. When wisdom is used to answer a question it will take longer, it will require more of us, but it will be adequate. It will be up to the job of guiding us through the maze of life.

Sometimes, I would really like to point to a group and say “Yes, this is my group. These are my people!” But, I can’t. I can’t because I believe love is more important than power. I can’t because it would be dishonest of me to act as though one group had gotten it all right. It would be dishonest of me to overlook the virtues of my enemies, and the vices of my friends. Most of all, it would be irresponsible of me to act like we couldn’t do better than the polarised choices that our ideologies have offered us. We could do better, and I hope we do… soon.