Alienation, Feminism, Fundamentalism, Ideologies, People

Why Ideologies are Poisonous Snakes

(About an 8 minute read)

One evening when I was fresh back from university for the summer, I heard someone shout my name. A car sped away up a hill, and I was left wonder who had been driving it.

The phone was ringing the moment I got home.  “Hi, Paul! This is Terri.  I just now saw you’re in town.  Let’s hang out together tonight.”

That night, Terri and I lay next to each other on the steep hillside behind her house, watching the stars, and speaking with each other in soft whispers so as not to wake up her mother.  “I’ve had a crush on you ever since I moved to town in fourth grade.  You made me laugh!”

“I got a crush on you the same year.  The day you first showed up, in fact.  And the moment I noticed you were laughing at one of my finer jokes that no one in our class seemed to get except you and me.”

“Do you still have a crush on me, Paul?”

“Yes, what about you”

“Yes.”

“Want me to rub your back?”

Terri and I began hanging out almost every night after that, despite that she had a boyfriend.  “We’re in an open relationship though.”

Of course we had sex.  How could we not, given our history?  But we didn’t make love every night we hung out.  Often, we just drove out of town, parked and enjoyed our talks with each other.  Terri and I were mostly interested in the same topics, except she’d obviously studied most of them more than I had.

I don’t know if she and I were equals.  Back in those days, I was dumb enough to judge whether or not someone was my peer solely by his or her brains.  Ironic, right?  I judged Terri to be a bit inferior to me, albeit more knowledgeable.  Today, I doubt that she actually was inferior.

She had but one flaw that actually concerned me.  Early in our high school years, she had dated my then best friend, Mark.  Mark and Terri had an almost asexual relationship that could be characterized as a protracted battle to top each other by seeing who was the cool one among them.  I recalled that now and so I was anxious and careful not to get into status wars that summer with Terri.

As it turned out, the risk was that she might outdo me in devotion to a political or social view, or to a cause. So I avoided coming across as more devoted than she herself was to something.

Beyond that, it was mostly a smooth summer for us.  We joined up with our two best friends, Dennis for me, Cathy for Terri.  The four of us took a few road trips together, but — again — spent most of our time talking with each other.  On one of the nights when it was just Terri and I, I got to meet her boyfriend.

I’d never met him before, but I knew who he was.  You know who everyone is in a small town.  Jeff was a couple years older than me, and he was perhaps a genius.  He was also a musician who had produced his own record.  The song sounded to my ears almost identical to a Beatles tune.

Jeff warmly welcomed me when Terri and I showed up as his place one night.  We got into a discussion about some scientific subject and I mentioned a certain minor, but controversial theory.  Jeff asked me where I’d come across it.

“In a Time-Life book. The book seemed to think it was true.”

“Do you believe the book, or your own analysis?”, Jeff asked.

I was stumped.  Up until that moment, it had never occurred to me to question the authority of scientists.  It’s not that I thought they were always right. I wasn’t that naive, but I had been taught that science was too esoteric for a layman to question.

Later that night, after we’d left Jeff, Terri and I drove into the countryside and had sex.  I enjoyed sex with Terri, in part because she was beautiful, and in part because she freely gave and received oral.  This was back in the 70s, in a small Midwestern town.  Oral sex was still controversial and daring.  Half the women our age were against either giving it or — especially — receiving it.  And the men were even worse.  They selfishly were only for receiving it.

Despite that I liked having sex with Terri, I thought of it as average.  Terri, on the other hand, praised me for it.  “You’re great!” She’d sometimes say, and now and then she’d add, “You’re way better than the guys here who everyone thinks are studs.”  Those were the first compliments I’d ever received, for until Terri, I had been a clumsy lover.

She and I clicked, though, and I especially enjoyed our post-coital talks in the back seat of my car.  They tended to be quite honest and intimate both.

But I wasn’t quite past the notion it was natural to have only one partner.  There had been a night when Terri and Dennis had both gone home early, leaving Cathy and I to take a country drive because the full moon seemed especially beautiful that night.

Cathy and I ended up parking the car and then kissing.  It was the most passionate kiss I’d had up until then, and it was almost uncomfortably long. During the kiss, I reached up intending to lightly lay my open hand on Cathy’s cheek.  But — and I don’t really know how this happened — I somehow missed and ended up very gently laying it on her breast instead.

Fortunately, I had the wits to keep it there, barely touching her.  Cathy made no protest, but shortly after our kiss, she had to go home due to fatigue.

For me, that considerably complicated things.  I felt divided between having sex with Terri and pursuing it with Cathy.  The notion I could do both failed to cross my mind. I was too much into the conventional view that one should only have a single lover at a time. In the end, I wound up denying Cathy’s repeated hints she would enjoy more of our romance.

Both Terri and Cathy considered themselves feminists, and Terri at least, was actively on the look out for new and even more radical notions than the ones she already knew of.  But what did feminism mean to her?

We seldom discussed it because I was worried she’d pick a fight with me over who had the cooler views.  However, both Terri and Cathy had a peculiar notion that feminism meant they ought to feel comfortable putting their legs up even when wearing skirts, and even when putting their legs up meant their panties were revealed.

Of course, that suited me just fine.  I was all for that sort of feminism and decided I would even march on Washington that summer should anyone deny their right to show me their panties.  Apart from that, I considered myself more of a sympathetic ally than an actual feminist.

I had only read one book — Gloria Steinem’s, The Feminine Mystique — and I had been sold on nearly everything it said, albeit I did not back then entirely get it’s message.  Mostly though, my feminism consisted in the simple acknowledgement that men and women ought to be treated as equals.

Finally though, Terri and I got into a deeper discussion.  Unfortunately, during our talk, I made the mistake of questioning some relatively minor point Terri was making about patriarchy.

That ignited her.  She didn’t go ballistic on me, but she was passionate in her defense of the point she was making.  I quickly apologized and told her she was right.

That wasn’t enough.  She turned cold, and by the time I dropped her off at her home, I could feel her alienation from me.

The next afternoon Dennis and I showed up at Terri’s.  Cathy was there too.  We sat in the living room and talked for over an hour, but a few minutes after Dennis and I left, he said to me, “I think we were getting the cold shoulder back there, buddy.”  And he was right.

The next time I dropped by, Terri simply told me it was not a good time for her to have visitors.  After that it was never again a “good time”.

We’d had mutual crushes on each other the entire time we’d known each other.  We’d had great conversations together.  We’d taken fun road trips with each other.  We’d shared our bodies with each other.  We’d shared the same sense of humor, and most of the same views with each other.  We’d only had one serious disagreement, and it was over an inessential point of feminist doctrine.

But that was enough.  That was too much.  That single disagreement broke all the bonds between us.

An ideology is different from a view or a philosophy.  It is an attempt to reach a conclusive, systemic worldview about something.  To be sure, it involves analysis and evidence for its take on things. But it tries to provide a coherent system for understanding something, and that is bound to fail.  You simply cannot create a system of thought that logically holds together to explain everything.  It’s even theoretically impossible.

Beyond that, ideologies always call upon us for action. You do not create an ideology of sex, or a religion without demanding that people do something.  And that’s the real rub here.

If ideologies were to express themselves tentatively then they’d be much more realistic.  But they don’t.  They don’t say X might be the  fundamental nature of sex.   Instead, they claim X must be the fundamental nature. If they did not, then they would lose impact as calls to action.

But calls to action are almost necessarily divisive by their nature.  You must respond either by acting or not acting.  There is no middle ground.  And so, people are divided between those who act, and those who do not.

I believe that’s why Terri dumped me over a minor point of doctrine.  It was not as if the point was expressed tentatively as X might be the case.  The point was expressed decisively as X must be the case.   And that minor point takes on a huge significance when it becomes necessary that it be adopted in order for action to be taken.

So that’s one reason ideologies — all ideologies, even religious ones — are snakes in the grass.  They are inherently divisive, and can even split apart lovers and friends, parents and children, and siblings too.  In fact they can split apart nations — and they routinely do.

But beyond that they are lies.  They profess to tell you everything you need to know to act wisely, but they cannot possibly take into account every possible consideration that could go into appraising a course of action.

Of course, ideologies are necessary too.  There are times when we must act, and not only act, but know his or her reasons for action.  But one must learn to dance lightly with them.  One must learn to question them closely and to think beyond them.  Not to do that is a sickness, not a virtue.

To sum, ideologies are inherently divisive lies, albeit sometimes useful lies.

Questions?  Comments?

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8 thoughts on “Why Ideologies are Poisonous Snakes”

  1. Paul, your story with Terri wonderfully accentuates the divisive quality of ideology. The story alone could serve as a fine chapter in your autobiography (which if I remember correctly, you are in the process of writing?) and the postscript about ideology does a good job of pointing out, making us think in a specific way, about the moral of the story. I wouldn’t change a thing. Thanks for sharing!

    1. Thank you for such fine compliments, Tylor. As you most likely recall, my autobiography is entirely private and will never be distributed by me. However, you’re right. This post could be a chapter in it.

  2. At what point did I realize that the one thing you can count on is that when you count on one thing, you’re bound to be disappointed? That includes people too. I dunno. I’m a bit of an absurdist in that — because of the absurdity that is life, I still try and find a way to find meaning in it, even if that meaning may be absurd. A sense of humor helps, I think. 😉
    Mona

  3. By the way, I enjoyed this post! You have a distinct way of looking at life. I’m sorry you lost your friend over something that may have been trivial in the long run. That is the real loss.
    Mona

  4. Well written, and illustrated a fine point! An ideology is a little like a cane: if used correctly it can help a person overcome something and stimulate growth, but you really shouldn’t lean your whole weight on something so narrow.

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