Updated: Nov 26, 2020
We often hear of many threats to our survival as a species: climate change, nuclear war, and totalitarianism are often thrown around, but I’d venture to say that none is more dangerous than dogmatic thinking. Dogmatic thought blinds us from dangers we would’ve otherwise perceived and locks off solutions to problems behind the wall of blasphemy. It allows people to take terrible decisions without much opposition and keeps us from recognizing where we’ve gone wrong.
The word “dogma” brings to mind, for most people, religious doctrine. The unquestionable “truths” that have been laid out in sacred books and holy writings by high priests in times gone by. It must be said that “doctrine” doesn’t mean “dogma”, according to Oxford Languages, the word dogma refers to “a principle or set of principles laid down by an authority as incontrovertibly true”, while doctrine is “a set of beliefs held and taught by a Church, political party, or other group.” This “other group” isn’t only a reference to cults or revolutionary movements, entire disciplines of study have doctrines: economics, psychology, marketing, law, film analysis, you name it. Having said they don’t mean the same thing, it’s worth keeping in mind that we often see them together given that doctrinal learning or teaching can lead to dogmatic thinking. When an institution or a group thinks dogmatically they’re effectively limiting the scope of their reasoning. Keeping it within the bounds of what is accepted or taken as “truth”, blocking off a whole host of opinions or thoughts that are determined to be unutterable.
The existence of incontrovertible truths presents us with yet another traditionally religious concept, that of “blasphemy”. Anything that goes against the officially accepted truth will now be taken as sin. There’s a popular phrase that goes “hate the sin, not the sinner”, but not many people can actually follow it to the foot of the letter. We find it almost impossible not to feel some contempt for those who act wrongly. We just have to remind ourselves of how we feel when we hear that a child has been murdered, we hate the sin, and we hate the sinner. But not all sin is a heinous as the killing of a child, beliefs and opinions can be perceived to be just as criminal and can sometimes be responded to with equal force.
Blasphemy is of course punished in religious doctrine, and many dogmatic institutions behave identically. Totalitarian regimes often center on a cult to some great leader or their ideas, Mao Zedong, Joseph Stalin and Adolf Hitler come to mind. They can switch out the great leader for a political party, a Church or some other institution that has been deemed to always be right or know what’s best for everyone. Enemies are often made up and the typically fascistic “Us vs. Them” narratives begin.
The reader may be thinking of totalitarian regimes imposing these “truths” on the people, state-sponsored pogroms and “reeducation” camps for those who commit wrong-think. Here lies the importance of a value like free speech. Free speech means people can say whatever they want regardless of how complicated, ugly or unfunny it may be. To safeguard free speech we must make sure we don’t sanctify opinions or completely tear apart other people for saying something we may not agree with. If no idea is sacred, if no belief is unquestionable, then opinions can’t be criminalized and we can stay alert for propaganda or the rewriting of history.
In his 1859 essay On Liberty, John Stuart Mill explained why he believes free speech to be critical in free societies. One of Mill’s reasons is that we may be wrong, or at least partly wrong, so it’s important to question what we believe is true, and that, even if the proposed claim is wrong then it serves to remind us of what’s true. This free discourse, the challenge of thought through free opinion, is vital to keeping society free, and to keep us from committing atrocities. The importance of challenging belief cannot be understated, as Matt Dillahunty often states, belief informs action and actions have consequences. The 20th century is a fresh reminder of how horrible we can be to each other when we believe terrible things about people.
However, not all dogmas are imposed in such a top-down fashion by agents of the State forcing you to accept that 2+2=5. Sometimes it happens horizontally, forged within an ideological echo-chamber, regurgitated over and over until it becomes truth.
In 1971, psychologist Irving James published a paper titled “Groupthink” in Psychology Today Magazine. In it, James describes a phenomenon which occurs when members of an in-group prioritize keeping the group’s harmony above critical thinking, thus creating a type of conformity whereby members keep any criticism of the group that they may hold to themselves out of fear of “rocking the boat”.
When this type of conformity takes hold of a group, members abstain from questioning or criticizing the leader, other members of the group or the group’s beliefs, out of fear that such actions will lead to them being ostracized by the group. This is how many projects can get off on the right foot and end up failing, or how initially peaceful or moderate political movements can become corrupted. This is also how extremist thought becomes adopted as standard.
Extremists are loud. Radicalism tends to be that way, people believe that they can only be heard if they shout. If extremist ideas within a group aren’t countered out of fear of antagonizing a group member or fear of being ostracized then these ideas will keep circulating. As time goes on, they’ll become more and more common in the group, more members will continue to recite them, and slowly the group will become radicalized.
It would seem that many of today’s political groups or organizations would do well to remember this.
Black & White
The advent of social media has allowed for more voices to be heard, and has given extremists a platform from which to yell their beliefs at others. As already said, free speech is vital for any free society and I would regard that the fast-paced dissemination of information is overall a good thing for us. Nonetheless, it would be foolish to pretend there are no problems.
With so many voices out there shouting over one another, it has become harder and harder to stand out. On top of all this, our attention spans seem to be getting shorter. This is something that has already had marketing departments worried the world over for a few years at least. A study carried out by Microsoft in 2018 found that we have an attention span of around 8 seconds. 8 seconds is very little time for nuance so it’s been thrown out the window. Evermore we see complex questions narrowed down to false or narrow dichotomies, sometimes called the black & white fallacy. A speaker will claim there are only two directly opposed solutions to a problem, or only two opposed ways of thinking about an issue. Of course this is rarely the case, it could be any number of different options that the speaker either can’t see themselves or doesn’t want you to see.
This is also where the fascistic “Us vs. Them” comes in: “you’re either with us or against us”. Issues (social issues in particular) are weaponized in this manner: someone will claim to be the good guys and you must accept and do exactly what they want, if not, well then you must be the bad guy. You're either pro-BLM or a racist, you're either with Q Anon or you traffic children. This terrible manner of thinking completely destroys critical thought and forces people to take up simplistic positions that allow for the creation of dishonest narratives.
These narrow dichotomies and preset narratives are leading to people being antagonized for challenging anything that groupthink has deemed is infallible. Just asking questions is seen as an inherently evil position. Similar to what American philosopher Peter Boghossian has written, people are now equating the questioning of ideas with the questioning of people themselves. If someone asks about the objectives of the group Black Lives Matter or doesn’t do exactly what modern “anti-racists” like Robin DiAngelo want then they are tagged as racists or bigots. We could say that those who tag BLM critics as racists are just extremists, and don’t represent the majority of the group’s supporters, but even if this is the case then the extremists are still stadiums louder than the moderates.
It has to be said that the creators of terms like these are very intelligent, after all, how could you oppose a group called “Black Lives Matter”? Are you saying they don’t? Or the term “anti-racist”, if you don’t agree with those that call themselves “anti-racists” where does that leave you? Of course, things aren’t that simple, but many people are pretending that they are. Questions are taken as attacks and fact-finding is equated to justification.
Racism is just one example of an issue being reduced into a black & white fallacy, something the result of groupthink. It has become quite difficult to talk about race without getting caught up in reductionist arguments. It should be obvious that people can fight for equality without having to support any particular group, and it should be clear that being against racism doesn’t mean that you follow all the guidelines posed by people like DiAngelo.
Disagreement is becoming dangerous, and that is terrifying. We must be able to disagree with each other, and we must be able to do so publicly. We have to be willing to listen to criticisms for we know the dangers of not listening. Thanks to the writings of Ernesto Laclau and Chantel Mouffe we are more than aware that there are people out there trying to co-opt legitimate movements and ideas for their own nefarious purposes. If a group suppresses criticism, then that group will be manipulated, their goals twisted and their causes shattered.
What can we do?
Well, we need to learn how to talk to each other. Through conversation and debate we challenge our ideas and beliefs, it is the only way to make true progress in a free society. No idea or belief should ever be sanctified, we must question everything, all the time. But we can’t leave this responsibility up to our politicians. We can’t make this the press’ problem. We have to make it our problem, each and every one of us individually. Coleman Hughes has recently said on UnHerd’s Lockdown TV that in order to change society you don’t need to have 40% of society on your side, you just need 5% and to hope that the rest don’t do anything about it. He’s right.
We have to make it our job to stand up to bad ideas, and we have to remember that biases can blind us very easily. Finally, we can’t lose our humility and our willingness to recognize that we can be wrong, even about the things we’re convinced we’re right on.
Luis Gonzalez is a lawyer from Caracas, Venezuela currently working in private practice and is founder and co-editor of The Explorer. You can find him on Twitter at @lagm96.
Cover image: Arnold Gold/New Haven Register/AP. From the Nov. 9, 2015 Yale University rally.