A few days ago, at a small, boutique grocery store just north of Toronto, I found myself discovering a very practical meaning to the word “ideology” at the check-out counter.
Not unlike any usual grocery-shopping experience, I began removing items from my basket to load them onto the check-out counter conveyor belt. Most grocery stores these days have conveyor belts, you know; so, there really wasn’t anything that unusual going on. But as I continued, I realized that there wasn’t much room between the rear of the conveyor belt and the point at which the food items of the person ahead of me began. I found myself, as I stacked my items very neatly, forced to encroach upon that inviolate, consumer acreage then occupied by the food items of the person ahead of me in line. Heaven forbid, if I wasn’t careful, my items could’ve been confused as theirs, not mine; so, the associate handed me a so-called “divider” to clearly demarcate the staunch division between this abstract theirs and mine. It seemed to help. Our foods didn’t touch.
Historically, we’ve relied on expert thinkers like Karl Marx or Louis Althusser to define complicated words like “ideology” for us. And if you don’t know them or aren’t aware of their intellectual contributions, just think about any media or political personality that has shaped your (likely flawed) understanding of the word. For me, in that moment at the check-out counter—a kind of usual, mundane moment where deep meanings of life most commonly escape us—the theatrics of academic discipline and political theory transformed into real life and made it possible for me to easily understand the barriers we all face daily in navigating our highly politicized world.
You see, ideology operates just like that “divider” on the grocery store conveyor belt. In real life, we determine that which is ours, which might include things such as beliefs, values, or physical belongings, and we almost immediately (even unconsciously) acknowledge a fundamental barrier between those things and the things of someone else. But that separating mechanism, on its own, doesn’t quite fully explain the word “ideology” or how it works.
What does explain the word, though, can be found in looking at the bigger picture of that grocery-store phenomenon: there’s always those little “separators” available to keep people’s things contained, isolated, and sacred. Much like our quazi-democratic and overwhelmingly bureaucratized political system in America, the grocery store system, if you’ll let me call it a system, provides those “dividers” to serve as a mechanism of, among many other things: justice, fairness, equality, and safety. They keep us in order, and they reduce social struggle, angst, and anxiety. After all, nobody likes fighting over whose food made it into the wrong bag. So, to make it easy, the system created a mechanism that would perpetually call-out a positive thing called “difference,” thereby supporting the ideals of equality and justice. Sounds like a good thing, right?
But, hold on. It’s actually rather dubious. I couldn’t help myself but stand there astonished, holding up that line of folks anxious to get out of the store and on with their lives. It was a thinking moment. I thought to myself, “Where’s the trust? Where’s the empathy? Where’s the compassion? And why do we need a ‘divider’ to get along?”
And then it hit me: ideology propagates a latent barrier between ourselves and people who are different from us, and it rarely originates in ourselves.
What this means is that, as both Marx himself and neo-Marxist theoreticians would agree, ideology is reproduced. But how? Well, I saw how standing in line at that store. Just as the grocery store system supports the theoretical barrier between the abstract ideas of mine and yours through those little “dividers,” so too does our system(s) of government fortify the varying, often antagonistic, assumptions that underlie our complicated ways of being and the value systems that undergird them. And sometimes, many times, the passing down of those assumptions lead us to failure.
Assumptions about political difference can cause unbridgeable divide because they’re often reproduced, handed-down from powerful systems of control. The fact is, those little grocery store “dividers” operate as mechanisms of trust-breaking, and the point is we live in a world replete with these kinds of things.
Our government often creates trenches of separation between itself and its citizens by propping up legal and economic policies that act like grocery store “dividers.” It perpetuates things like inequality and class struggle, things most of us can agree we despise, through political antagonisms over things like hyper-regulation and unwise public spending. Perhaps, as it has occurred to me, since the government can’t seem to decide what legislative things produce the greatest value, you’d agree that we’ve got ourselves into the business of making band aids.
Despite all its successes, America has undoubtedly failed to develop a sustainable definition for the term “public responsibility” and has created band aid fix after band aid fix to cover up our deeply invasive and pandemic political illnesses.
We let students get shot, we let poor people go unfed, we let unsupported mothers fail at supporting their children, and so much more. And even where programs exist to positively address these shortcomings, they produce even more barriers to entry that they get unused by the folks who need them most. Meanwhile, many of us stockpile our wealth out of some generically selfish ambition, without any apparent hope of it being used in ways that sustainably support the people who have no access, no ability, or no practical right to a higher quality of life. How irresponsible! Even though we are most certainly to blame for this evil in a very personal way, perhaps even more blame is rightly due the system we’ve established. It can be so much better.
Recently, I watched a video, more the continuation of a non-establishmentarian discourse than an interview, featuring Dave Rubin and Ben Shapiro. During their hour-long discussion, they cover a wide range of political topics highlighting differences between “Right” and “Left.” They balance the rules of logic with pragmatics about controversial things, but ultimately miss the boat on a concept severely absent from our public discourse on political philosophy: compassion.
In their banter, Shapiro says that he simply does not agree in a progressive tax system. He, I think rightly, asks, “Why should I pay more in taxes simply because I earn more money than others?” A staggering, generally over-looked question. In truth, morally authoritative answers to this question are very hard, nearly impossible, to adjudicate.
Hard Left-wingers would argue that economic inequality produces nothing but a bunch of haves and have nots, a neo-Marxian perspective that aims at reducing the disparity between those with greater access to mechanisms fostering wealth accumulation and eliminating the incongruent opportunities that members of certain social strata have at their fingertips to manipulate and take advantage of capital. In short, the Leftist argument goes: some people have more barriers than others, so we should help them out.
And in their response, conservatives today really don’t get their fair share of respect—evidenced by the fact that the Leftist logic train fails to really answer the question (again, “why should I pay more in taxes simply because I earn more money?”). The Leftist logic certainly provides one potential answer, but it is not the only answer. In fact, it is subject to producing the same kind of social and economic hegemony as does the conservative right to hoard money earned for oneself. Both are value propositions. Both are ideas steeped in moral, cultural arguments. Both are even highly principled, but truly neither can be adjudicated as “gospel.”
And that’s where the rubber meets the road. I think most of us know this, and I think we also know that the media seems to avoid letting us rest in this in-between space where neither moral vision seems to be met with real, sustainable, and actionable support. Instead, politicians and the media exacerbate the problem and lead it down a road of perpetuation. Nothing gets done.
In fact, this is the point where most of us give up. We often respond, “Ugh, I just wish we’d stop bickering and actually do something good that everyone agrees on. In a big way. Not just another tax break or public expenditure.” This visceral response, invoking the deep and non-politically correct pains that we humans feel in our American space, indicates a collective sentiment that “good” may yet be around the corner. It’s a sign of both an unpalliated public malady and an unfulfilled optimism. We’ve not entirely given up on the idea that social values can’t be negotiated, and so we continue looking for answers.
But even our smartest thinkers, no matter how intellectually robust and sound their arguments may be, have missed the mark entirely. They allowed the system to get the better of them. They stood at the counter and waited for the associate to put the “divider” up for them, per usual. They’ve mistakenly put philosophy above the need for what I’ll call: compassionate politics. That’s the kind of politics that thinks about how to care for people, not just how to help a few people turn profits.