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In Defense of Heterodoxy

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Andrew Sullivan has a post today about the resurgence of ideological purism, quoting a reader who describes being ostracized from a left-wing group for believing that the U.S. did not deserve the 9/11 attacks.

I agree that such purism is nefarious and prevalent, but I'm not sure it's on the rise. Weblogistan certainly gives it a new and powerful platform, and so many of the top sites seem to be specifically catered to readers who know what opinions they want to read and know where they can consistently find them. In my experience, however, ideological purism has been both a constant threat and a consistent temptation, and it is by no means limited to politics.

When I was in my late teens and early 20s, I was a full-on music snob. I would express shock when a like-minded connoisseur would express an appreciation for, say, Pearl Jam, and I would feel pangs of shame if I caught myself singing along to Madonna or some other cantor non grata in the hipster universe (nowadays it is perfectly OK for a hipster to like Madonna; extra points if it's an ironic appreciation). Worst of all, I would pass judgment on others for their music taste, attributing their penchant for Squeeze or the J. Geils Band to ignorance or some sort of brain defect.

I have since learned a powerful lesson: I was being an asshole.

Around the height of my music snobbery, I was also an insufferable, puritanical scold when it came to politics and a host of other things as well. I think this is normal for college-aged people who are just coming into adult political and cultural consciousness. Orthodoxy and identification with a group or "type" provide a powerful mooring for the tenderfoot. The problem comes when people can't leave the vestiges of adolescence behind.

In real life, identifying yourself wholeheartedly with a "kind of people" is the most insidious form of groupthink and it strips away at the core of your individuality. Any political movement that demands absolute homogeneity from its adherents is suspect, if not downright dangerous. The core responsibility of adherents to Nazism or communism—or any cult-like group for that matter—is fealty to the infallible leadership and the ideals which they jealously guard. Individuality and free-thinking are anathema in an organization where any one member can be expected, as Georg Lukács wrote, to sacrifice his inferior self on the altar of the higher idea.

Ideological purism leads to reflexive thinking (if you can call it thinking). It's not whether you like something or agree with something, it's whether you should, and each new choice and new experience sends you racing for the handbook. Ideological maturity, on the other hand, requires an open mind and admits the possibility that you still may have something to learn. A mind that can under no circumstances be changed isn't much of a mind at all.

I treasure writers like Andrew Sullivan and Christopher Hitchens precisely because I so often disagree with them. They are practitioners of political heterodoxy, and it's readily apparent that the positions they take are based upon personally-held values that are the result of years of intellectual soul-searching rather than adherence to a party line. They may be wrong on occasion—sometimes wildly—but they're writers from whom the discerning reader might hope to actually learn something. That's more than can be said for most of the ink-spillers out there.

Ideological purism provides a kind of closed-minded comfort. It encourages engagement only with like-minded partisans and it disdains not only those diametrically opposed, but potential allies who fail to pass the purity test as well. It is, simply put, a way to be politically engaged without all the bother of thinking. Ideological heterodoxy, on the other hand, requires intellectual courage and invites attack from the groupthinkers poised on either horizon. It's also the only way to go to sleep at night burdened only by a shame that is yours and yours alone.

Now I think I'm going to go listen to that one Kelly Clarkson song I like. Yeah? Screw you, too!

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  • Mark Saleski

    this is exactly why i can go from listening to Anthony Braxton to Madonna without one little bit ‘o guilt.

  • Pete Blackwell

    What terrible music taste you have [emoticon goes here]

  • Mark Saleski

    i used to hate people who used emoticons. then i figured out that i was being an asshole.


  • Pete Blackwell


  • Phillip Winn

    Get a room! ;-P

  • Christopher Rose

    Thanks for writing this, Peter, good work.

  • Howard Dratch

    This was so good that, if I still lived in the US, I would find out what Provel cheese is and tastes like.

    Ideological purism, sadly, lives; but there are still stalwart souls like you to give it a good prick in the ideas.

  • Pete Blackwell
  • Bliffle

    I was curious about your leadin paragraph, so I tracked down the Sullivan article. Here’s what the unnamed respondent said about the unnamed group:

    ” Hardcore leftists – like, for instance, most current leaders of GLBT-rights organizations – apply ideological “purity tests” to their members. When I was a committed leftist, I failed one of these purity tests (I didn’t think America deserved the 9/11 attacks) and suffered the wrath of my comrades for such heterodox thinking.

    The problem with today’s conservatives is that in their desire to present a united front at all costs, they’ve begun to act just like the leftists they claim to despise. I don’t have a solution for this quandary, and I suspect there may not be one. Perhaps the allure of political influence makes true freedom of thought impossible.”

  • Pete Blackwell

    Yes, you see it on the left and on the right. Look what happens to Republicans in Congress who don’t happen to be evangelicals. It’s getting harder and harder to be your own (wo)man in Washington.

  • Scott Butki

    This is a great piece, Pete.