From Facebook to the Debt Ceiling to Norway – Ideologues Kill

As I write this, I find myself staring into the eyes (Are they green?) of a young man. He is blond with a cute little dimple on his chin, the sort of look that most young American women would be proud to take home to their parents. He reminds me of a friend I had when I was that age. I’ll call him ‘Jonathan.’ My mother loved Jonathan. He was handsome. He was smart. His look had a certain innocence that led her to believe he couldn’t hurt a soul.

Yet, late last week, the man who looks far too eerily like my gentle friend Jonathan, hurt many souls. At last count, his gun/bomb combination killed 76 people, wounding countless others.

The story of the shootings in Norway have captivated America, I think in part because Anders Behring Breivik does look like the boy next door, but also because he is an ideologue, much like an increasing number of Americans. An ideologue is defined in Webster’s Dictionary as an “impractical idealist.” When we think of ideologues, we think of the 9/11 hijackers. We think of Timothy McVeigh and the growing number of American born terrorists. To many conservatives, like Glenn Beck, all progressives are ideologues. To progressives, Glenn Beck and his followers are ideologues. Very few would argue that ideology drives many in the Middle East and increasingly many in the US. Since the defeat of the Third Reich, world famous ideologues have been relatively rare in Europe. I suspect there are more waiting in the wings.

Is ideology growing? First off, I think it’s important to differentiate from ideals and ideologies. Everyone has ideals. Most people understand that the road to their goals is long, windy and bumpy. They understand the need to sometimes compromise their ideals for the greater good. Ideologues have tunnel vision. They refuse to compromise. Their ideals are the only permissible goal and they will do almost anything to see that they are achieved. For most non-ideologues, their ideals are tempered with intellect and common sense. For ideologues, their ideals come from a purely visceral place, from rage or passion.

It goes without saying that we live in tough times. The world is suffering from an insecurity that hasn’t been seen since the Great Depression. When people are under great financial distress, they look for someone to blame. When looking to blame, people naturally look outside themselves. Religious people look to sinners. Non-religious people look to religious people. People look to people who look different from them, or to people who are sexually wired differently from them. White people look to our black President. Conservatives look to progressives and progressives look to conservatives.

The next thing distressed people look for is someone to trust. The most trustworthy person will confirm a person’s world view. They will confirm that the problem is not with you, it is with the “other”. They will educate by expanding the definition of “other.” They might say you are in your financial mess because of high taxes caused by people on welfare, despite the fact that only about 14% of tax dollars goes to all social safety net programs combined. They might tell you that you fight with your spouse, not because you are overworked/overstressed and having trouble paying the bills, but because gay marriage is a threat to all marriage. They might fill you with hatred toward women who choose abortions because you realize that raising kids is hard, one of the hardest things you’ll ever do and they’ll tell you that unlike you, these women are taking the easy way out, despite the fact that choosing to end a pregnancy is typically one of the most difficult decisions in a woman’s life.

The search for trustworthy people can lead people to the least trustworthy people. Hucksters and conmen are experts in the game of trust. Like any marketing person or salesperson, they learn early on that the key to brand loyalty is to appeal to the part of the brain called the amygdala, which controls arousal, fear and emotional responses. A car salesperson might make you feel inferior for not driving their car. If it’s a hybrid, they might make you feel guilty for not doing your part to help the environment. Then, they’ll offer you a quick and easy solution for your negative feelings. In their case it’s the car. In some, it might be to buy gold. In others, it might be to kill abortion doctors or even innocent children.

Salespeople and marketers also know the importance of knowing your customer. If the same car salesperson tried to play to the environmental guilt of someone who doesn’t care about the environment, the tactic would backfire (hence the visceral hatred by some of Al Gore). The customer would almost assuredly leave the lot, badmouthing the place along the way. Even if the salesperson was honest and well-intentioned, to that customer, he would be a conman. On the other hand, even the most disreputable salesperson can win over his customer by appealing to the customer’s own emotional triggers…their amygdala. Is it a coincidence that multinational corporations, who have access to the best marketing teams on the planet, convince ideologues to do their bidding?

You can always tell when you are dealing with an ideologue. They will attach words like ‘good’ or ‘evil’ to immortal entities like the government or the church. They see things in black and white. That is why arguing with an ideologue is impossible. When their opinions are being formed by their amygdala, facts will simply not register. In fact, when presented with logic that goes against their emotionally formed opinions, they feel like a cornered animal. Their instinct is to stop listening and to look at the other person as the enemy. If you defend the President, even while admitting that he isn’t perfect, you are labeled an “Obamabot.” If you defend Fox News, even with a skeptical eye, you are called a “wingnut.” Slapping labels on opposing views is the trademark of an ideologue.

Ideologues come from all corners of the universe. In our country, there are progressive ideologues as well as conservative. Progressive ideologues might follow people like Ralph Nader and Noam Chomsky. Nearly all progressives believe in the ideals of Nader and Chomsky. For most, they represent the world as it should be, a world run by people instead of corporate interests. But for some, including Nader and Chomsky themselves, their ideals have morphed into a religion of sorts. For many of their followers, their opinions reside in the amygdala instead of the neocortex, which is responsible for logic and critical thinking. They have turned their ideals into the “You’re either with me or against me” dynamic common to all ideologues. It drives them crazy that President Obama will even speak to Boehner and the Republicans, let alone strike deals with him. For them, there is no difference between our moderate President and his ultra-conservative counterparts because neither is giving them what they want. The amygdala recognizes no middle ground. So far, there have been no known cases of recent progressive terrorism, but the more frightened and frustrated progressive ideologues become, the more likely they are to succumb to violence. Progressive ideologies can become fatal when progressive rigidness prevents action from being taken, allowing conservative ideologues to win. Progressive ideologies can become fatal when progressives refuse to participate because the candidate closest to their ideals isn’t close enough. One day, when progressive ideologues are no longer able to temper their anger and frustration, violence will ensue.

The amygdala is not a bad thing. People with larger amygdalas are more socially adept. They recognize social cues more quickly and more easily. They have more friends. They even have more Facebook friends.

Which brings me back to the question, is ideology growing? I would have to say, absolutely yes. The terrible worldwide economy is a big factor. It was the number one factor leading to the rise of fascism during the 30s. However now we have something that the 30s didn’t have…the internet. Social networking groups like Facebook can give people access to hundreds or even thousands of likeminded people, reinforcing their ideologies and even theoretically expanding their amygdala. When likeminded people share opinions and information, emotions get stirred and consensuses are formed that they should expect nothing but the ideal and that the end is much more important than the means. For conservatives who believe that government is evil, it’s okay to bankrupt the government. In fact, in 2010, several members of the tea party were elected to office to destroy the government from the inside. Their weapons of choice? Defunding and privatization. These ideologues have gained a stronghold on the entire Republican Party, leaving us with about half the government who are under orders to destroy the government. The only surprise is that anyone is surprised they are refusing to raise the debt ceiling. What better way to drive the government into bankruptcy than by refusing to pay the bills?

For many ideologues, destroying the government takes too long and is too inefficient. Fueled by fear from their extended amygdala, some see an armed revolution as the only option. Facebook and other social networking sites are the perfect place to organize troops and to create blindly aligned followers. Men like Anders Behring Breivik, who might have been neutered social outcasts in generations past, can create alliances and become empowered by throngs of cheering fans.

Short of shutting down social networking sites and medicating the amygdala, can deadly ideologies be tempered? Can human beings, who are hardwired to make snap judgments and emotionally based decisions be taught to trust facts and reason? It would certainly help if news sources presented facts instead of trying to stir reactions in the amygdala. As long as the news is held slave to ratings, we are stuck with them being long on sensationalism and short on facts.

Emotions are contagious. Try to not smile when everyone else is smiling. We might not have much influence over those who are diametrically opposed to our views, but we undoubtedly do have influence over those with whom we share some common ground. It might not be true that the emotionally charged rhetoric of Sarah Palin, Glenn Beck and Michele Bachmann are directly responsible for terrorists or attempted terrorists, but it is clear that their rhetoric can excite an already extended amygdala. On the flip side, an avoidance of emotionally charged terminology can theoretically help calm those that are still open to reason.

It’s unlikely that the Palins/Becks/Bachmanns of the world will calm their rhetoric anytime soon. In the simplest of terms, it works. It gives them notoriety and a relatively small but passionate following. Like it or not, they are protected by the First Amendment. It’s also unlikely the economy will get significantly better in the near future. In the meantime, echo chambers like social networking sites and ideological talk radio/TV will fuel the fire of the increasing numbers of people are feeling frustrated, victimized and are being driven toward extreme but simplistic solutions to complex problems. If things continue as they are, our next terrorist could be our cute boy or girl next door.


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