The Myth of Ideological Consistency

By Joshua Bardwell, originally posted in June 2010 at Jack-Booted Liberal.

In a previous post, I gave a particular definition of “culture,” described the expansionist drive that is one of our cultural myths, and concluded that:

The correct place to direct your outrage, therefore, is not just at the individual actors who created this particular situation, but at your culture, itself, for lying to you and everyone else about the value and necessity of expansion. Without a cultural shift away from this message, we will continue to manufacture these disasters until we have done so much damage to our landbase and extracted so many resources that continued expansion is simply impossible. And, as horrific as these disasters are, you should save your outrage for truly aberrant situations. In this culture, horrific environmental damage is an accepted and inevitable outcome of extracting resources from the earth so as to sustain “progress,” growth, and expansion.

If culture is, “The things we tell ourselves about ourselves,” then when I talk about a cultural shift, what I mean is that we change the things we tell ourselves about ourselves. For example, we could replace the cultural myth of, “growth is progress; stasis or contraction is death,” with, “living in balance with one’s environment is life; over- or under-consuming and over- or under-populating is death.”

This is not an easy task. Our culture is incredibly resistant to fundamental changes. Your first thought may be to disagree with that claim. After all, the world has been through some drastic changes in just the last few hundred years. Surely some of them count as a fundamental cultural shift? No. I’m talking about really fundamental cultural myths: the ones that are buried so deep that you usually can’t even see them.

By way of example, the expansionist drive seems like one of these fundamental myths to me. For as long as our culture has existed, we have striven for: growth of our population; increased land-base under our control; increased consumption of resources; and increased technological complexity. No matter what other cultural changes you can point to over the 10,000 years or so that the dominant culture of the world has been developing, this one has remained steadfast. At different times and in different locations, the expression of the expansionist drive has waxed and waned, but it has never wavered.

I think of the ways that culture resists the changing of its myths as cultural defense mechanisms. One of those is the myth of ideological consistency. It goes like this: “Total ideological consistency is morally superior to ideological inconsistency. People whose ideals are in any way inconsistent are at best hypocrites, and at worst liars. Either way, their ideas are dismissable.”

Let’s say that I believe that the petroleum economy is fundamentally immoral and that the world would be better off if petroleum use was dramatically curtailed or even eliminated. But I also drive a car. “A ha!” the myth of ideological consistency shouts at me. “You don’t really believe that crap! If you really believed that crap, you wouldn’t drive your car! You’re a hypocrite! You’re a fake!” Now I’m faced with three choices:

  1. Stop driving my car.
  2. Maintain my belief and keep driving my car. Live in a state of constant cognitive dissonance.
  3. Ignore or abandon my belief about petroleum being immoral.

Option one amounts to martyrdom. Remember that culture defines how we meet our basic human needs. If “driving a car” is a fundamental aspect of my culture, and “not driving a car” represents a meaningful challenge to that culture, then “not driving a car” means threatening my access to food, shelter, sex, social interaction, and so forth. Even if I take the step of not driving a car, my ideas are still open to challenge under the myth of ideological consistency. Do I have electricity at my house? Does it come from petroleum in some way? Do I eat food that was harvested and transported using tractors and trucks? If I have a belief that is inconsistent with my culture’s myths, I have to totally excise myself from my own culture in order for my actions to be totally consistent with that belief.

Option two is very difficult for most people. Not only is cognitive dissonance psychologically painful, but others may quickly dismiss your ideas due to your “hypocrisy.” Additionally, because you have been programmed with the myth of ideological consistency, you view yourself as morally inferior to those whose actions appear to be consistent with their beliefs (cultural myths).

Option three, of course, is the easiest out. Forget the challenging belief and go with the flow. Who can blame a person for doing the only thing they know how to do in order to get access to food, shelter, sex, social interaction, and so forth? And this is how the myth of ideological consistency helps to preserve the existing cultural myths.

As long as you buy into the myth of ideological consistency, you cannot fully participate in changing cultural myths that you disagree with. The cultural myths that you wish to promote do not yet exist within your society, so you cannot practice them within your society. If you choose to act in a way that is totally consistent with your beliefs, you must excise yourself from your own culture. I think that there is a very valid question as to whether this is even possible. First, to do so would very likely deprive you of all of the mechanisms that allow you to meet your basic survival needs. Second, the pervasiveness of our culture means that there may, literally, not be anywhere on earth you could go to escape it.

There is a fourth option: abandon the myth of ideological consistency. This doesn’t mean that you stop evaluating whether a person’s (or your own) actions are consistent with their stated values, just that you understand that people (and yourself) can be in a position where they (you) hold values that are in conflict with each other and where they (you) care about all of the values too much to abandon any of them.

Derrick Jensen laments the salmon populations that have been destroyed by dams that block access to their spawning grounds. He knows where the dams are, and he hasn’t blown any of them up. Does that make him a hypocrite? Or does it just mean that he values not-being-in-prison and not-being-dead as much or more than he values removing the dams? Who can blame him? Prison has been constructed to be as awful as possible specifically for that reason!

Would I like to live in a world where I could eat food that was raised totally without chemical pesticides and fertilizers? Absolutely. Am I willing to stop eating anything except that food, today? No. Does that make me a hypocrite? Or does it just mean that I value access to food as highly or more highly than I value pesticide- and fertilizer-free food. Read that sentence again: “I value access to food.” Well, shit. Who doesn’t, when you put it that way?

The myth of ideological consistency is a sham, and you should work to excise it from your reasoning as thoroughly as possible.